March 2019 I had the opportunity to visit a college in rural Karnataka, India. I worked with students aged 16-21, teaching English as a foreign language, computer skills, ‘Soft Skills’ (equivalent to UK PSHE) and healthcare. I designed and delivered a programme on health-related topics, resourcing information from the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) and UN Women. I lived on-site and assisted the students in a variety of day-to-day activities. My work included pastoral and social care. I visited nearby villages at the invitation of students and teachers to spend time with their families, which was wonderful. Living conditions were tough (basic food and washing out of a bucket). However, the joy in relationships overcame the poverty in materiality.
The students who attend the college are mostly from economically poor backgrounds. They have never received any formal art training. Despite India's rich cultural history, astonishing arts and craftsmanship, these students were unfamiliar with using paint, pens and even pencils for art purposes. However, I witnessed that they are excellent at mehndi (henna) body art and their writing in Kannada is very visually beautiful. From our sari shopping, I knew they also had an excellent eye for colour, especially bright bold tones! It seemed that they would enjoy a creative group activity.
One afternoon, I decided to sit outside with a few of the girls. I had very few art materials with me, so I ripped up a colouring sheet prayer journal I had been given from a Christian friend back home. I gave each girl a page and encouraged them to pick up my pencils, watercolour pens and biros to get colouring and decorating. At first, only about five of us sat creating. After a short while, so many students had come over to watch and join in, that there was barely any room left to sit down and only a few materials available! The girls produced such beautiful work. During the activity, my phone happened to be playing the song “No Outsiders” by Rend Collective. As the students came to join in one by one, some shy and hesitant, the lyrics to the song rang so true, “There are no outsiders to Your love, We are all welcome, there’s grace enough, When I have wandered Lord, your cross is the open door, There are no outsiders, I’m not an outsider to your love.” These girls belong to many faiths and have had such varied lives, but the Holy Spirit was so present and Jesus diminished all their embarrassment and fear. They came to love art and were so excited to show me their finished pieces!