Posts Tagged ‘Chennai’

Cultural experiences

FlowersAs I come regularly to India, I realize that I have become accustomed to the sights, smells and tastes that are all about India. Below are a few pictures about my current trip. I arrived earlier today, and have been settling into my flat, which will also double as one of the  training spaces for the work I am doing with the East/West Center for Counseling. In this day, I have already seen cows meandering the street, heard honking as if honking was going to change any of the traffic, and experienced what I most miss when at home- A sense of vibrant engaged people in the streets.

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Since I last wrote, we have been traveling and working in chennai, India and Hong Kong. I taught 4 workshops or trainings in India, while Michael taught 2 and presented two other shorter presentations at the Aparreo Galleries in Chennai. Its been amazing, often intense, complex and very often very rewarding. Michael has been great about writing regularly- I not so much, as at the end of the day, I am tired enough that my brain can not organize thoughts to write. To see Michael’s blogs go to Dreaming the world  to see about our trip from his perspective.


We are taking a much needed few days off to rest up for our long trip and intense time change back home. While we are doing that, we are processing all from the trainings ( 2 3 half day trainings with college students at Ethiraj College and Madras School of Social Work) a 5 day core training in Playback Theatre and a 5 day Introduction to Art therapy as part of the Expressive therapies certificate program – a collaboration between the East West Center for Counseling and Women’s Christian College. Then in Hong Kong, a 5 day workshop on using the Expressive arts with people with Disabilities.DSCF4856



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Well, once again, there has been a long time between blogs. Daily life, work, family and projects take up the psychic space that I need to think about writing a blog. Some of what I have been doing, I have done with my partner in life and career Michael Watson, who has been writing voraciously and beautifully. To read about his work I invite you to go to his blog here.

P1030643It is cold here. It is supposed to be about 5 degrees tonight. Fahrenheit.   I wrap myself in my Indian scarves and shawls to remind myself of the warmth of South Asia.

I keep myself busy! Besides my clinical work,  and my work  with the Centre for Playback Theatre (which has been ubber busy this past fall!!! We are gearing up for our winter session trainings- check them out at: http://www.playbackcentre.org/training-program), I have been teaching.  This past semester I taught various classes on Transpersonal Psychology and  expressive therapies. We dove in deep, and as is the case for many of my courses, bridged between the personal worlds that we exist in and the academics of understanding the theories behind why we would use the arts as a tool for healing. And as always, I experienced the deep richness and satisfaction of a co-creative and collaborative process – I as teacher being student at times, and my students teaching me so much that often isn’t written in textbooks. (more…)

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Here are a few pictures from the trip, more on the way next week.

The fish man on his way to sell fish in the neighborhoods

A shopkeeper watching the world from in from of his store



rangolli and Kolams are frequent during festival time. Rangolli at a mall during Pongal


Artisan crafts



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This is my last week, not only of class (we end Friday), but of my time here in India for this trip. I have been watching  my process: arriving and getting used to being In India; working and being with students,(and all) that means; getting to know more of where I am, and processing all the new things; visiting hospitals, and schools, and seeing the amazing work that is

I taught 4-5 year olds for an hour. Lots of fun!

being done here for those in need. Now, the letting go has begun. Letting go is being felt keenly in the classroom, where, as a group, the class has been watching the developmental aspects of our group, and witnessing each milestone.

Students created Mandalas as part of the course.

In class, hearts are connecting, and I am reminded that people are people no matter what our cultures are. We work for justice, raise our children, and connect. We  fall down, to pick ourselves up again and walk forward. Hopefully we open more doors than we close, and try to bear witness. With this group, it is clear that these are the goals. It is heartwarming to watch, experience, and be a part of.

Today, I took a walk behind where I am staying, on a calmer road, with nice homes. I was aware of trying to imprint my impressions. As I walked, I smelled the Jasmine in the air. Although it is winter,  there are may flowers out. I tried to breathe it in in such a way that I could  take the aromas home. How does one take impressions home? So many impressions: cows wandering in the midst of traffic, seemingly unconcerned and owner less; the smells (some very unpleasant and others not); the crazy traffic; the interactions that I’ve had in every day; women in saris;  fruit and vegetable vendors singing out what they are selling; the Kolam, freshly done each morning on door stoops; the genuine belief that what will be is meant to be; and hearing the ringing of bells through every neighborhood, as people pay homage to Shiva, Vishnu,and Gonesa in their homes, and in the many shrines throughout the city.

I use my camera to try to grab these impressions, but photos do not impart the smells of Indian spices, the sounds of all the horns, or the goats bleating, the roosters, and Muslims and Hindus all praying at the same time at 5 in the morning. The camera cannot capture the haggling and bartering, and genuine interest in people you may not know so well. And the crows.

Coming home is a mixed blessing. I’m coming home to family, and life as I am used to it.  Only, now I am seeing it through a different lens, one in which my two months in India (October and now) blend in with my life at home. I return home committed to learning how to cook Dosa and Roti, and to simplifying, letting go of what keeps me from being present and connected.

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So, the reason I’m here, besides enjoying Pongal, or fighting traffic, is to teach India’s first academic course in art therapy. The Survey of Art Therapy was evolved by Sangeeta Prasad, and George Washington University in Washington DC,  in collaboration with the Fine Arts Department at Stella Maris College.  It is funded by the Prasad Family Foundation to help bring concrete art therapy tools to professionals here in Chennai. I created the syllabus based on my previous work, and collaborated with GWU on it’s development.

We have 20 students from a variety of backgrounds: artists, housewives, teachers, and therapists. The participants are all interested in art therapy for use with their students or families.

The energy has been tremendous. The use of the arts, in general, for healing is really taking off in India. There is a lot of attention being paid to these ideas now.  While I have 20 students in my class, I have 30  others signed up for a workshop that introduces people to what the class is about!

In the last two weeks, We have talked about many subjects, including: how art therapy can be used in different populations:  how it has evolved from cave drawings to now; looking at brain development; and using different materials. I am, of course, trying my best to ground the class in good counseling process and ethics.

Then, there is the important task of looking at all the learning within the viewpoint of the Indian mindset.

Three hours go by in a flash. The course is highly experiential, so there are a lot of teaching games, and activities to help ground the conversations, and the theories being presented. And of course, a lot of art. Because my background includes Sociometry and psychodrama, I have used some of those skills to teach about listening, observation, and counseling skills.

The students are engaged and have worked really hard. There is a lot of reading, and writing, questioning  and creating involved. Most importantly, we are trying to see how art therapy, which was created from a western perspective, will work effectively within the Indian culture and context. Ultimately, art therapy has to work here, and  there are many differences in how therapy is perceived here. This is a major conversation. The other, of course, is what students will do, and have the ability to do, after one 30 day course. Since completing one course is not the same as finishing a 2 year graduate program, this is a conversation that will take place in an ongoing way as GW and Stella Maris evolve the next steps for the program. But for ethical reasons, we do need to look at this now, as the last thing anyone wants is for people to go beyond what they really are capable of. This course is a wonderful beginning and, clearly, there is a desire for a full program. The question is when and how.

I am grateful to be a part of this pilot program, and to be connected with the journey of bringing these therapeutic tools to India. Nothing happens in isolation, and I have met many wonderful people along the way. I am a student as well.

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Oxen and cows are still used by the villagers to bring in materials and food from the country

For the last two weeks, I have been negotiating the (very) busy streets of Chennai, primarily on my own. Chennai is a huge city of winding and cluttered roadways that often have no street signs or proper signals. Traffic is almost always congested  and drivers often drive on the wrong side, or down a street the one wrong way to get to another corner. Crossing the street – well, I have learned that one is either going to make it or not, and as a general rule, the drivers miss you even if its by inches. One has to be alert and aware to walk or drive  here.

I am staying in the Ministers area (Raja Annamalai Purnam) where the Ministers (India has a Parliamentary system of government, thus Ministers) work and live, and it is a distance to get to …anywhere. I walk as much as I can, and take auto rickshaws to most of my appointments and classes.  Given Chennai has an erratic road system, with a variety of species(Oxen, Goats, chickens and dogs are the most common) that walk or run on it, at best, it has taken me most of the 2 weeks I’ve been here to develop any kind of internal map of the city, not helped in the least by the Rickshaw drivers who often do not know where they are going either. While I bought a map and I find it helpful, showing it to a driver or pointing out landmarks is often fairly useless, as most rickshaw drivers cannot read maps. So I have been trying to find the best ways to say the district I am in by using the shortened common name. (Raja Annamali Purnam is too long… So everyone says, “RA Purnam”.) People know my street, not by the name, but by the fact that the Ministers live on it. So, I say, “I live on the ministers road.” That took a few days to figure out.

I find that I often need to take a deep breath and keep going.

traffic is congested in all parts of the country.

I get excited when I meet a driver who quotes me the price I expect to pay- or even better- KNOWS WHERE HE IS GOING! I feel like Ive scored when that happens!

Whatever the reason, haggling with auto rickshaw drivers is a process that isn’t always how I want to start my day. Or end it. With traffic being what it is,(constant, weaving and cutting off, and smoke and fumes) I find that the need to negotiate a fee a tiring process. But once it is done, I can sit back and smell the diesel.

So I am learning, slowly, to get around and to recognize landmarks. I am learning to stand up for myself a little bit more, and to negotiate, even when I’m not sure what to negotiate for…  Getting around is certainly a process, but the challenges are not insurmountable.

One festival celebrates all machines. This rickshaw is decked out to honor it's hard work.

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I arrived in Chennai early this morning (3 a.m. early…) and am settling in. I am discovering that things feel familiar to me. It’s the first time I have not been met at the airport, so I hired a taxi to take me to a hotel (one I haven’t been in yet… Very nice). I also discovered that driving at 3 a.m. is a breeze compared to any other time of day. I actually saw the road, and flashing lights along the sides that I have never noticed.

Today I have gone shopping, and worked toward buying a phone, but got held up in the need for a real photo, so it will have to wait until tomorrow. Then I had my first auto rickshaw, bargaining, and getting lost experience. Chennai is big, and often the taxis drivers don’t know where things are. Getting a map is challenging too, although I intend to work on that.

I am here for a month. This time I am teaching a 3 credit survey course at Sella Maris College. I am working through George Washington University. While Magdalene Jerarathanam, of the East-West Counseling Center, in Chennai (centerforcounselling.org), and I are not planning any projects right now, I am hopeful that she will come and offer her expertise in a presentation about her work integrating arts based therapy in her clinical psychotherapy practice. I have a couple of other people who might present as well. One is Michael Watson,who will present from the States via Skype.(Topic to be announced…) You can see his blog at michaelwatsonvt.wordpress.com.

I am looking forward to this, and all the complexity of getting around. It is going to be a journey for sure. Stay tuned.

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As I enter the last week of my time in India, I want to take some time out to reflect and appreciate the incredibly hard work of my sponsor and main, very instrumental, collaborator for this trip, Magdalene Jeyarathnam. Magdalene is the Director of the Center for Counselling, (centerforcounselling.org)here in Chennai. She has worked as a social worker and counselor for the past 16 years and for the last 5 years, Magdalene and her counselors have been contracted to work in schools and NGOs to work with, and for, people and groups in deep distress. She works at the collegiate level, helping to plan and implementing counseling programs, and governmental level to implement policy to support people who have HIV/AIDS and also the GBLT population. She also just completed a 1 year  Expressive Arts Certificate program in Poona.

I couldn’t ask for a better person to work and collaborate with. Magdalene is a bridge.  Her deep understanding of the psychological needs of others, and profound empathy, coupled with her ability to bridge Eastern and Western ways of thinking, have deeply supported this process of bringing the use of Expressive Arts Therapy to India. Expressive Therapy  is clearly wanted and needed here, based on all the reactions from the trainees at each workshop. As well, Magdalene has an unbelievable ability to network! Needless to say, I am taking notes!!! Magdalene collaborates and works with her husband, Eric Miller, who is the Director of the World Storytelling Institute (storytellinginstitute.org). They frequently collaborate on projects around Chennai that range from fun and entertaining to deeply moving and with a focus on social Justice. It really has been enriching and special to work with both of them.

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World Vision Advance training WCC 006 I have just finished a 5 day training with World Vision, a Christian based organization that works with street children, abused children, and children who have HIV or AIDS or live with someone with HIV/AIDS)

One unique aspect of this training is that there were more men than women! There were 8 men and 3 women. ages were from 27-48 in the group. However, while the group was fairly mature in  chronological age, It felt at times that the training  was like “Herding goats”, due to a lot of male bonding behavior.Of course as this was an expressive arts course, I helped to open the energy up a bit. One person in the group has HIV and is an advocate with the organization. people came from many parts of India for this training. Some traveling more than a day to attend.puppets- A voice from within, becoming embodied.

With the background theme of working with Kids with HIV/AIDS or in families, we explored building trust, understanding materials, movement, song, metaphor and imagery,family work and looking at our social networks, Using puppets to embody parts of ourselves or to have conversations that are hard when we are ourselves, Playback Theatre and storytelling as  a way of helping children create a narrative that helps them make sense of their world and of their feelings in response. It was a very full week.World Vision workshop 039

This group, while people understood English needed translation from my English into Indian English. Magdalene and I had to reorganize a bit, and she became my interpreter. I found that although I spoke more slowly, many of my American phrases went right over their heads. I had a hard time getting concrete enough for them. Fortunately that got better as the week went on.  I am now in the groove of speaking pigeon English. Speaking Tamil is not something that I have been able to master. There is little to ground it for me- I find that I struggle to grasp the nuances. Many people here want to practice their English. And so I don’t try very hard.

This training was important for the group in the respect that they began to frame their work in a completely different way. There was a fair amount of judgment like comments at the beginning- In working with sociometry and the way I handle sharing- this level of commentary decreased noticeably after the first day. The judgments though comes not just within their group, but from a society that refuses to accept that HIV and AIDS are in fact real and need to be dealt with. What does one do when whole families refuse to be tested for fear of recrimination? Or disbelieve that having unprotected sex is not bad if you are carrying the virus? The reality of this level of understanding is frightening to those of us who understand the deep ramifications. Whether it is religion or politics, the result ends up being that there are unnecessary illnesses and deaths that are based in fear.Understanding different roles in our lives, taking them on... and off

An important day was when we did some work around taking on other roles- stepping into other peoples shoes.Roles included the government worker, the person with HIV, a parent, a child, a relative of someone with HIV. Many people remarked on the power of that and how little they have done so. Another exercise  reflected on how we felt physically- (mentioning that as we age we die a little more each minute) after which, participants then drew on a template of a human body. Sharing after an exercise

In all, I felt deeply enriched, each person affirmed their commitment to working using more arts based work. The person who has HIV told me that she felt like  pounds of weight had just dropped away with the process and that she was able to look at herself and her work in a different way. I too felt deeply moved by the sharings. We all felt like we had learned much.

World Vision workshop 016

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