Peach coloured skies with purple clouds. Crimson grass. Orange elephants and magenta seals. Nikki goes through a sheaf of A4 size sheets of paper, filling them up with a plethora of vibrant colours. We are at an art workshop for kids and I’m accompanying Nikki as she experiments with finger paint (so squishy!) and painting on different mediums (can I start painting your bed after we go home?). There’s another little boy seated next to us who seems concerned about Nikki’s artwork.
“The sky is not that colour” he whispers to his mother in obvious anguish. “The grass is not red.”
The mother hisses something back at him and he subsides temporarily.
The workshop facilitator hands out fresh sheets of paper; this time with line drawings on them, and jars filled with fat crayons which Nikki grabs with glee. It’s a picture of a house with a fence and a garden. Nikki deliberates between the finger paint and the crayons, makes up her paint and smears paint liberally across the picture. Strokes of paint fill up the house and the garden; an indigo roof, green walls, yellow grass. The little boy cannot contain himself anymore. He abandons his own drawing and is at our side in a trice.
“No, not like that!" he chides Nikki “You have to draw inside the lines! You will get a red mark. Sky is blue, grass is green!”
His mother pulls him away before I can reply and rebukes him thoroughly for not concentrating on his work.
She turns to me with a tight smile “She cannot colour inside the lines?” pointing at Nikki.
“I’ve never asked her to” I smile back.
I did give Nikki a colouring book once; she had been gifted a Winnie the Pooh one for her birthday and given that Pooh threatened to overtake our theme for home décor during those days I thought she might like it. She didn’t. She never actually took to colouring within the lines, preferring instead to fill up reams of blank paper with her artwork instead. And fill them up she did, astonishing me sometimes with the creativity and imagination only children possess.
She draws the rain and butterflies, families of fish and music. One side of our fridge is filled with renditions of tea parties in the clouds and the moon taking care of her baby. We don’t really miss colouring within the lines much.
I know that Nikki is asked to colour within the lines sometimes at the preschool she goes to, and from the activity sheets I am taken through at PTMs I know she can do it perfectly well if she wants to. But I also know that she does not enjoy it, preferring the freedom a blank sheet of paper offers instead.
We are lucky to have found a preschool that encourages creativity among its children. There are no red marks for drawing. Purple skies are encouraged, as are pink elephants and geese with polka dots. But I know there are a lot of parents who don’t like this approach, preferring instead the more traditional one of teaching kids that the grass can only be green and colour is best used within boundaries and not splayed all over the paper. Just last week I overheard a mother complaining about how sand play needs to be structured with kids being given specific instructions on what to do with their spades and buckets rather than just being left loose in the sand pit; and another parent of a boy in the nursery class lamenting how his child is not being taught how to write yet. I listened to them talk and felt a little worried. And then I read the morning papers, all about artist Aseem Trivedi being arrested for displaying ‘too much creativity’ and felt positively scared. Aside from the misuse of a colonial era law or the growing intolerance in the political and social environment, what is equally alarming is the judgement that is so carelessly thrown on an individual’s creative expression. Who decides what is too creative? Or too little? Are there measures defined to judge how much is 'too creative' or lines and boxes that it can be fitted into? Are we looking at a future where our preschoolers go for sandpit class, learning precise co-ordination of spade with bucket and move on to postgraduate in fine arts which clearly specifies what is too creative and what is not? The curbs on our creativity grow deep roots. Our educational system has traditionally been one based on rote and memorization rather than independent thought or creativity. There are firm boundaries that are drawn when we are very young and we grow up learning to live within them. And when some of us think or speak differently, it can create a lot of discomfort.
Nikki in the meantime has moved on to caricatures and is busy sketching portraits. A gargoyle-ish figure with pointy hair is me, I am told. One vaguely resembling Suppandi is our cook. Her father is a dignified looking turnip.
“We will put these up on the fridge” I tell her.
“Okay but not this one. This one is too nice and this one is horrible. Put this, it is just right.”
Creativity really is that simple, and it doesn’t take a three year to show us that. Let the artists define their own boundaries.