Fusing Arts, Culture and Education: High Impact Strategies for Social Change

Jamsheena’s Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

Every day morning when I wake up and sit in the balcony with a cup of coffee, I can see children wandering around the campus. Some are engaged in farming, some are busy practicing music and ‘Kuttu Adavukal’. Parithi, a ninth-standard student, is busy searching for new feathers and insects. Like a butterfly, another boy is running around all the flowers and carefully tasting the honey. He reminds me of my childhood days. I call him and ask, “Why you taste all the flowers?” He said, “I want to know the different tastes of honey”. And: “Teacher… will honey taste different in different flowers? What about flowers in America!!?? How honey gets dark-brown colour?” Questions follow one after the other. Parithi says he wants to be a zoologist and an artistic performer in the future. As I expected in Kattaikkuttu Gurukulam (KKG), children know Totto-chan, which made me even happier. In a small village like Punjarasanthangal, kilometers away from Chennai, children are receiving quality artistic education.

Kattaikkuttu Sangam is a residential school for Performing Arts. As part of this fellowship, I am here in this small village to learn and explore the challenges in the education sector. Kattai means ‘wood’ and kuttu means ‘theatre’. The name reveals the art – their ornaments are made up of wood. Kattaikkuttu is a living folk theatre tradition in the northern parts of Tamil Nadu in South India. Dr. Hanne de Bruin in her book says that ‘”folk’ refers to kattaikkuttu’s ‘ways of operating’ which, lacking a formal institutionalization and a formal codification in the form of explicit rules and criteria governing the transmission of the theatre and its actual performances, are opaque and often defy analytic verbalization. They perform within the fluid boundaries of the texts in performance, and the restrictions arising from their social and economic position in the rural Tamil society” (p. 5). When I entered KKG for the first time, I saw children sitting on a bullock cart and enjoying their holiday evening with workers. Music, performance, farming, cooking… I realized how KKG is dynamic and kaleidoscopic in its environment. Whenever there are midnight performances in villages, I go with them and wonder how artistic, brave and independent these children are when they perform in front of the communities. They teach me how to be tolerant enough in a crowd. When they perform and if something goes wrong, they also teach me how to be optimistic and manage the situation.

In the era of modernity, it is essential to discuss about art integrated curricula in the present education system. I don’t understand how we can ask children to read and think about ‘daffodils’ and ‘snow balls’, which is culturally alien for a South Indian village. If I ask them to write a poem about ‘jasmine’ and ‘monsoon rain’, they will write it creatively. They will express their emotions artistically and aesthetically by painting words.

In a postcolonial context, Gayatri Spivak in her book Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, discusses about how to read a ‘culturally different text’ (p. 73). India being a postcolonial country and hailed for its cultural diversity, I believe we need to think seriously on how to read/teach a text which is largely unfamiliar to the reader, especially students. I think this is a relevant issue in modern pedagogy. During this fellowship period, I feel this is the biggest challenge I am facing in the host organization by developing, modifying and implementing a new English curriculum along with other faculties on the campus. Being a school for performing arts, it’s challenging how to bridge the gap between academic theories in art and education. KKG and the host community I am working with, in some ways is a culturally unique ‘text’ which I have started reading, and ultimately asking questions.

Spivak in her book talks about the need for training minds to ‘imagine’ (p. 73). When I asked an eighth-standard student to write about his five strengths, he wrote ‘Imagination’. He believes the only thing that makes him alive after overcoming various traumas in his life is his ability to ‘imagine’ and hope for it. Art and performance strengthens their self-confidence and self-esteem. They are physically flexible and confident about their body. They have healthy, competitive mind and good team spirit.

“Tell me I will forget. Show me and I will remember. Involve me and I will understand. Step back and I will act.” – Chinese proverb

One thing I noticed among KKG children is that they have their own perceptions and criticisms regarding art, performance and literature at this age itself. I remember one instance when a student was giving the following opinion at her tender age: “Teacher, Ramayana is actually the story of Sita and Rama. Then how can they give a title like this to our epic? Can we change that title?!” They are aware about the power and gender dynamics in the society. When girls perform kuttu during midnights in the villages, spectators in the community realize how far things changed. Girls in a theatre company raising their voices and establishing their own social and political space, is something powerful. It’s all about children learning through experiences. They learn time management and creative problem solving skills. Coming out of the most vulnerable social spaces and often poor economic conditions, children are finding their individual personal and professional space at KKG. When art and education come together, it will be the strongest tool to change the world against all violence in our society. It helps to blur the boundaries of caste, gender and geography. It transforms the artist into a person who holds humanity and empathy towards all living beings.

For a world with better perception and humanity to be merely memorising trigonometric equations and organic chemistry, poems, learning parts of human and animal body is not enough. For a better world, children should be aware about the social and political challenges in the country. They should build a team spirit and have the braveness to address and question the issues in the society, especially now when human privacy is under surveillance. Being artists, they should be able to hold and rise together in future against all censorships, against silencing writer and against all injustices. I can see that evolving potential among these children. Especially girls in KKG are creating a ‘counter-history’. Earlier days women were were not allowed to perform kuttu. Now when they perform – girls are bridging the gap between those lost aspirations of their past and opportunities of the present.

In brief, I can say that from my experience in KKG, education in performing arts, music and theatre creates social, political, humanistic and empathetic impact upon each individual and the community at large. I conclude my article with this most ‘disturbing’ thought: it is proven that arts integrated curricula significantly helps children to evolve holistically (cf. The National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, 2012). In light of this, how would our present standardized tests, curricula and exam patterns in India be able to evaluate them in a justifiable manner especially when it comes to students who are arts oriented?


Learning together: children practicing mridangam. (Photo courtesy: kattaikkuttu official page)
Karnamoksham: girl performing the character of Arjuna. (photo courtesy: kattaikkuttu official page)



De Bruin, Hanne M. (1999). Kattaikkuttu: The Flexibility of a South Indian Tradition. J. Gonda Foundation, Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Kuroyanagi, Tetsuko (1982). Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. Transl. Dorothy Britton. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Olson, Dain (2012). “The Inclusion of Media Arts in Next Generation Arts Standards.” National Coalition for Core Arts Standards, 28 Jul 2012. Report. Retrieved from: http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/sites/default/files/Media%20arts_resources/NCCAS_%26_Media_Arts_7-28-12%20FINAL.pdf

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (2013). An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization. Harvard University Press.


Jamsheena was born and brought up in India at the outskirts of Kerala. She completed her Masters in English Language and Literature from the University of Kerala. Her academic experience has refined her skills in culture and gender studies and English language teaching. Jamsheena’s areas of interest are education, women empowerment and gender issues.

Jamsheena's Fellowship is made possible by the Rural India Supporting Trust.

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