PeaceWorks – A shining example of hope and perseverance

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Art and peace are both located in the tension between emotions and intellect. Life unites what concepts and dualisms keep apart. And art, like peace, has to overcome such false dichotomies by speaking both to the heart and to the brain, to the compassion of the heart and the constructions of the brain. ~ Johan Galtung

As a student of peace and conflict studies, I often wonder if there is a definite answer to the questions about war and peace. The discipline lays great emphasis on various methods and techniques in conflict resolution. However, there has been a growing realization over the years that in addition to the conventional political, economic and security approaches, alternative methods need to be explored to create sustainable peace. I decided to study and explore such an alternative – the arts and its power in transforming conflicts in my M.A.Thesis.

Art and culture in India play a very important role in shaping up people’s ideas, views and opinions. Arts can deeply affect individuals and groups, impelling people to rethink and develop a considerate outlook. However, there isn’t enough research done on documenting the work of artists in India, especially with respect to those who utilize arts in peacebuilding. A section of my thesis is based on studying such work in India. By blending theatre, drama, music, visual and literary arts with traditional peace-building tools, PeaceWorks is catalyzing dialogue between different groups, transforming relationships and building peace. I came across the work of PeaceWorks in Cynthia Cohen’s book ‘Performance and creative transformation of conflict’. I contacted PeaceWorks immediately with a request to explore their programs that contribute to the larger framework of arts based peacebuilding in the Indian context. I am grateful to PeaceWorks for permitting me to undertake a field trip to Kolkata and explore their work. The trip and interactions with people involved in the programs of PeaceWorks made me realize that life is a work of art created by our minds.

PeaceWorks and its initiatives represent a powerful example of how arts can help in the process of rising from the shadows of silence, oppression and conflict. The task for peacebuilding practitioners is to find ways of incorporating the arts into the work of peacebuilding and to create a space where people in conflict can express themselves, heal and reconcile themselves through the arts. PeaceWorks through the thoughtful integration of the arts into peacebuilding work, fostering creativity by artistic process is bringing about effective social change. “There is no one formula to deal with trauma, each individual’s suffering is different and their response to the violence or conflict is different. They need engagement to overcome the trauma they have been through and engagement with the arts can become a very powerful tool because of its ability to reach deep. It touches the core of your being and breaks inhibitions”, said Meena Megha Malhotra to me.

Programs such as ‘Dialogue for Peace – The Kashmir Project’ and ‘Exchange for Change’ are examples of how creative therapies can help individuals face the reality, be at peace with themselves and their own histories. Through my interactions with two school teachers, Mr. Kanak Shankar Mukherjee and Mrs. Sunita Biswas (who are involved in these programs), I realized that such exchanges help the youth who have experienced trauma in their lives overcome the sense of pain and build trust among each other in the hope of a better future. The workshops enable youngsters channelize their thoughts in a constructive manner and express their concerns. “It’s a long drawn process, doesn’t happen with one workshop. It is a very difficult process but a lasting process indeed” said Meena Megha Malhotra to me. I learnt that these exchanges are an enriching way of explaining youth and children that accepting difference of opinion is essential to live in a peaceful society. There will always be challenges but the first step to overcoming a challenge is to accept it and do something about it.

Identities are always suggested to you, more so when you are a child. What we think and how we behave is a result of what we have been taught by adults, those who claim to know better than us. In such circumstances, arts can be used as an innovative and exciting medium to educate children about issues of social relevance. Thus, PeaceWorks carries out most of its projects with school children with the motto of ‘Learning to live with a difference’. I was amazed to see the details and intricacies with which it uses arts to educate children about issues of conflict and peace. The objective of all their programs is to work towards learning to live with differences and promoting a harmonious co-existence. “You don’t teach children about peace after a conflict or war has broken out, you teach them irrespective of it” said Meena Megha Malhotra to me.

My experience of visiting one of the Nabadisha centres in Jorasanko and Orient Girls Shiksha Kendra, Park Circus was deeply enriching. Arpita Barman conducts theatre sessions and drama classes in these schools. She told me “Theatre has the power to bring you very close to people. In the process, emotions get exchanged. I can say a lot through this beautiful medium’. She further explained the use of interactive games and theatre has brought in a sense of discipline and self confidence in the lives of these children. This made me wonder why such mediums are not used more often to address structural violence such as poverty and gender discrimination. Arts can prove to be the most non-threatening tool to bring latent issues to the fore.

Tanaji Dasgupta, an actor who has been involved in PeaceWorks initiatives since its inception shared how participating in theatre workshops helped him transform and find direction in life. “It is difficult to separate arts out of anything, arts is inherently within everyone. All art forms have the power to affect people, to make people think and make people feel. It is not important to always reach a definite answer, but it is important to discuss, debate and think” he said to me.

In times of conflict and crisis, not acknowledging is a problem. It is important to face the reality. PeaceWorks through its various arts based initiatives is trying to do exactly that. I learnt that arts can help people affected in conflicts open up and gives expression to their deepest fears, thoughts and aspirations. Through the arts, people transform, discover things about themselves and create a new story. PeaceWorks is truly an example of how hope and perseverance can make the impossible possible. As PeaceWorks creates stories of change, my deep desire and wish is that more and more of us join them in their journey to build peace.

-Angana Das

M.A, Peace and Conflict Studies, Jamia Milia Islamia University