Donning the Green Hat - Aishwarya Manivannan
Andrei Tarkovsky once said ‘a book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books’. People might have similar experiences, but the way they perceive the things that happen to them would vastly differ. More often than not an artist sees the world differently, leading them to depict what they see into a medium of their choosing.
Such a wondrous ability however has to be honed otherwise like any other skill it can be forgotten over the course of time. In the end it falls to the people who educate them to assist them in honing their way of thinking. However this is where the system falters, for the education system is built on equality rather than equity. So at the end of the day, one style of teaching is applied to a class of two score students, each of whom might learn things differently; which in turn leads to a knowledge gap. Aishwarya Manivannan, an educator and founder of Maisha Studio, works to bridge this gap in learning.
Starting out as an interior designer, Aishwarya has donned a variety of hats ranging from photographer, public speaker and even martial artist. Over the last nine yearsshe has donned the hat of the educator and is changing the way our young minds think through her studio for art and design thinking called Maisha studio, which she started in 2012. She informs me that Maisha means life and she believes that anyone can be creative, as creativity is not only a way of thinking, but also a way of life. Through her academy she tries to kindle the spirit of lateral thinking to mold her students into individuals who can think for themselves.
Institutions have people who are in the same age group, attempting to understand something taught by the teacher. Aishwarya believes that this kind of an approach to teaching is rather one dimensional, “Teaching should depend on how the students learn and not the other way around.” She believes in a learner centric approach that caters to each individual, “People are multi-dimensional, and they will have diverse interests, teaching all of them in the same way will only limit their creativity.”
She also adds that schools orient students to interact only with people in their own age group. This is not the case in a real-world scenario where one rarely finds oneself among peers in the same age bracket. Besides most institutions in India do little to develop their student’s creative prowess, opting to focus more on making them cram fact after fact. She tries to rectify this by creating a very inclusive learning environment at her studio, where a high school student will find themselves sitting with someone pursuing a master’s degree in design and this way both of them will learn from each other.
Learners realize and acknowledge each other’s interests and lift each other up as they are constantly gaining knowledge and experience. “Education is common to all of us. The key idea is to not limit potential as the future lies in the way we think.”She believes that art, design and technology, have a lot of common ground and when people from these disciplines come together to create something, the lines demarcating these disciplines become blurred. “Does it matter what is art and what is design? What matters is what you create with it. We have to focus on how we can create more, and not where what fits.”
Through her efforts a lot of her students have gained admission to study in esteemed institutions across the world. She also mentors and curates an annual exhibition called “Outside the Lines”, which showcases art and design projects created by her students. She tells me that it is the biggest student showcase in the state, where the participants produce content of such quality that it can give professional artists a run for their money. “Many think that a student’s work is rather amateur, but when they seen the things on display here, they change their minds and learn to respect and acknowledge the skill and immense capability held by students.” However it is not only art that’s on display, there are collaborations and a coming together of diverse media and forms. In 2019 there were parkour performances, shows by movement artists and even people collaborating with musicians. She adds that around ten thousand people visited the exhibition in 2019.
When she is not changing the way students think, she practices Silambam, an ancient Tamil martial art. She practices the art regularly and has represented India in various tournaments, within and outside the country. She is also the subject of a documentary on the martial art, directed by the acclaimed director Bharat Bala for his Virtual Bharat project. She has a fascination for the art form, and says that it doesn’t matter if she is performing for an audience of five thousand or a panel of judges, “When I’m performing nothing is on my mind. It is just the artist and their space. Sometimes when I’m performing I get influenced by the music being played, and I feel the energy of the music feeding into me.”
While a lot of people associate martial arts with violence, Aishwarya tells me that it is an incorrect supposition, “I find it to be quite meditative as I don’t think about anything while I practice. It gives me a sense of peace and balance.” She also feels that practicing martial arts makes a person more sensitive and empathetic towards their surroundings. Through her efforts, a lot of people are interested in the art form and Aishwarya tells me that they are fascinated by the idea of such a cosmopolitan packaging for a primeval art form. This has led her to conduct workshops, where she introduces the people to Silambam, teaching them a few rudimentary moves and educating them on the art form’s history.
Apart from this she also volunteers whenever she can and she tells me that she was actively involved in the relief measures during the floods and cyclone that laid waste to many parts of the city. Sometimes she also involves students from her studio in these projects. “All of us can help in some way and it doesn’t necessarily have to be on a large scale. By helping people out, we learn from them and the more we learn, we come to realize that all things are connected.”Every year, the students of Maisha Studio work towards various social causes by using art as an agent of change. Over the years, Aishwarya has organized projects where her students have taught art to HIV affected children and tribal children. Through the sale of these paintings, she has been able to set up learning centers for underprivileged children and even distributed relief aid during the COVID lockdown. She believes that students should realize that money is not the only way an individual can help others. “I want my students to know that they can empower and create a change by sharing their skill and knowledge. There is a responsibility that comes along with learning and I want my students to understand the power they hold within themselves irrespective of age.”