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Seeking refuge in art

Children from Sri Lankan refugee camps come up with stark visuals of life as perceived by them

Full of angst A child’s take on the violence

The impossibly bright triangular mountains are in place. So is the sun, looking like a cheerful fried egg. And the sea, virulently blue and spilling over with squiggly ripples. Children's drawings, as a genre, are predictable that way - delightfully strident colours, thoughtlessly confident lines and unabashed emotions on paper.

Which is precisely why the art on display at the OfERR exhibition at Madras Terrace House is so disturbingly different. Created by about 500 children of Sri Lankan refugees, it manages to powerfully convey trauma, angst and an insatiable yearning for home in its very artlessness.

Because, between the flamboyant rainbows, oversized palm trees and fat fluffy clouds, there are mothers bleeding on the streets in bright red crayon, oversized green guns blazing and deeply pencilled buses and cycles thrown into the air from a bomb blast.

Curated by Poongkothai Chandrahasan, filmmaker and resource person for OfERR, a Chennai-based NGO working in the Tamil Nadu Government-run refugee camps, this exhibition isn't incredibly slick or flamboyant. It's just rows of children's drawings, all done in chart paper with pencils or crayons, pinned up, stuck or hung all across the walls of the Terrace House. But the collection's power is really in its simplicity.

The exhibition was sparked off in an appropriately spontaneous way. S. C. Chandrahasan, founder of OfERR, says they were asked to send 20 drawings for a show in the U.S.

So, they held a drawing competition for the children from the refugee camps in OfERR's four regional centres. (Tamil Nadu has 117 refugee camps, housing about 75,000 refugees. One third of these are children.) The children's unexpected enthusiasm resulted in 500 remarkable drawings.

Talking of how their art clearly provided an essential emotional outlet, Chandrahasan says, "They came with so much feeling, and they were relieved that they could portray what they were thinking." He adds thoughtfully, "If you talk, you can get into trouble, but if you draw, it's a release."

Hence, there's wide-eyed M. Christy, a six year old, who has carefully coloured little blue-faced stick figures on a boat rowing towards Sri Lanka, and written "We are struggling/ In the middle of the sea/ When will we return back to Sri Lanka." And a heartbreaking picture by a 15-year-old depicting his "life so far" with a person in a grim black and white cage, accompanied by his statement, "Up to now I have had no life of which I can speak of." Then, there are the many violent drawings, like 10-year-old Mariya Selvi's depiction of people shooting at villagers, and bodies on the road beneath bullock carts.

Putting faces to art

Every piece of art is accompanied by a few lines written by each child. However, what makes the exhibition really hit home is the fact that the team behind it doesn't let us get away with imagining a hoard of faceless children. Poongkothai and Chennai photographer Sundar went into the refugee camps to meet and photograph the creators of some of the most interesting drawings. Hence, these pieces are accompanied by glossy, sensitive and sometimes uncomfortably haunting photographs.

Yet, they called the project `Sunshine In A Teardrop' because they were determined not to make it a sniff-and-pity fest.

And how can it be, with artists such as feisty John, who's crayoned his future as a funky footballer, complete with audaciously blue spiked shoes, inexplicably pink socks and a rather trendy watch.

Or, everyone's favourite young executive- to-be, 11-year-old Kumar who's drawn himself as a grown-up, in the plushly oversized chair of a successful computer engineer. Beside him, there's an astonishingly orange young man holding out a file. "We met him and asked, `who's that," says Poongkothai, adding with a laugh: "And he said, `My PA, of course"

`Sunshine In A Teardrop' is on at the Madras Terrace House, 15, Sri Puram, II Street, Royapettah, till January 18, 2009.


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