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We Art United: Direct Democracy Through Creative Collaboration

There is creativity in all of us, and everywhere, says Loreen Regnander, an intern at PRIA. As practitioners of participatory methodologies, how can we incorporate art and other creative forms of expression into understanding social change? 

During a table conversation at a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) dinner with government officials, NGO leaders and bureaucrats, a Dean of a university in Haryana, in between discussing his views on policy and legal frameworks, suddenly reveals, “You know, I wanted to make a children’s show. Like Sesame Street? We don’t have such programs in India. I tried really hard for a few years to make that happen, but the funding just wasn’t there. No one supported it. They thought I was crazy.”

You hear these stories all the time, stories of once creators, now mere components in the big wheel of politics, power and profit. Where does this go? This creative light that we are all born with? In today’s world of fast paced, compartmentalized lifestyles, the compartment of creativity seems to be the first to get boarded up.

As someone who has always loved everything and anything creative, I cannot help but ensure there is always a place for creativity in my research and work, whether it be drawing, painting, filmmaking or music. So during my internship with PRIA, I began thinking of how we, as practitioners of participatory methodologies, could incorporate art into understanding social change. In diversity there is unity and using art to bring people and communities together, to share visions, goals and strategies can not only be applied to research, but in many facets of social impact assessments as well in communities all over the world. Using art to understand values and interests, to eventually help influence overall decision-making beginning at local community levels, reduces conflict and distance amongst different groups. People of all ages and groups come together through diverse, collaborative artistic processes and begin to better understand complex social and societal norms that affect communities differently, understanding values and behaviours in a way that most research methods do not allow for. This ultimately provides a level of understanding that would ensure better ways of addressing social, environmental and political issues.

Early in my stay in Chhattisgarh, the questions I asked and the answers I documented lacked engagement, especially considering the short periods of time I was spending in these communities. So, during my later visits, I brought along some paint and canvas with me, to encourage the communities to participate in creating a collaborative painting. I chose to not have a theme, as I did not want there to be any limitations (but one could have themes). I simply wanted everyone who I met with or who wanted to join, to paint something important to them on the same canvas.

Such a creative exercise could be anything, from painting a collaborative painting (like I did), to collective writing and shooting films, making music, or simply people coming together to be able to learn by engaging in activities that are open and free from typical hierarchical rules and restraints. I chose to engage the communities through art, a kind of social experiment, a collaborative engagement activity that was inclusive. This included a blank 20 x 14-inch canvas, some acrylic paints and a whole lot of creative optimism!


Upon my arrival in Tendua, a rural village of approximately 4000 population in Chhattisgarh, I began my usual interviews discussing the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with community leaders, frontline workers, panchayat members, etc. After our conversations I encouraged them to draw something on the canvas that represented the values they or their community attach importance to. I use “value” in terms of importance, something taking priority over the other, but also as a process of continuous learning, growing and adapting to these values.

At first, there was a bit of hesitation, as if I had some kind of expectation, and it was a bit chaotic trying to set up a painting area while also conducting interviews, but as soon as people started to paint, it all seemed to come together. Amongst the adults, the women appeared more hesitant, but once engaged, their fingers seemed to flow over the canvas. Women and men painted together, putting common values on one canvas. Just the willingness for a community to engage in such a practice speaks volumes to their willingness to collaborate together. Such ease and willingness to work together may not be the case in all communities or villages.

After meeting with the adults of the village, I brought the half-finished painting to the Tendua primary school. My message to the students in the school stayed the same, but the outcomes varied. Asking adults and children to paint the things they attach value to on the same canvas allows cohesion between different age groups and amongst individuals. The process also helps children to feel empowered, to think for themselves and openly share, while adults learn how to listen, understand and collaborate with each other.

The children initially showed signs of hesitation too; some almost feared the ability to be given complete freedom to do something. Some adult spectators (who were not teachers) tried to dictate and guide the children as they hesitated, as if they were wasting time or needed to act quickly. I felt the need to intervene multiple times to tell everyone that it was okay if the children needed some time, or perhaps didn’t want to participate at all. I noticed, engaging in this activity gave children agency to think and make decisions on their own, which was a pleasant, though unexpected, outcome of this creative exercise.

By giving everyone the freedom to express, the entire process is directly democratic by nature.


This activity taught me (besides the creative ability in everyone) that when we can find ways to come together, to play and have fun, without judgement, beautiful possibilities and solutions occur. When I look at this painting made by the community of Tendua, I can see the importance of leech-pit toilets, down to the measurements “4x4 and 3x3” (the standard dimensions when constructing a leech pit toilet). I can see the importance of water, access to water and protecting their local environment. In the centre of the painting is a large water pump structure. Additionally, there is an image of rivers and trees with the phrase “save them”. The artistic designs of mehendi (henna) painted by some of the women represents their culture. A painting of a temple shows me the importance of worship within the community. Powerful phrases like “free girl child” show me a deeper level of awareness and attitudes towards gender equality. I can also see where this community is geographically located -- the words “Tendua” and “India” are proudly painted in bold colours.

If this painting is presented to a community across the world, these same messages would be communicated. The painting begins to tell a story, and one would get connected to the sense of place, the people and the community who created this painting. The values painted through the creativity of communities help build a bigger picture of engaged communities.

If such creative collaborative activities were held as a way to inform government decision making and influence policy and program development (before projects are even designed), the success of projects would be far greater and issues far better understood. PRIA can play an important role in the development and facilitation of similar creative activities.

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