Divya Ramachandran is a missionary with a paintbrush, determined not just to make public spaces livelier but also impact the lives of young people through art.
Chennai is the perfect city for lovers of art and craft, known as it is for its mellifluous classical music and colourful Kanjivaram sarees. The city has also been developing a taste for modern art, with several artists covering public spaces with beautiful designs and bold graffiti. Divya Ramachandran, a Chennai-based artist, is one of the youngsters at the forefront of this brigade.
Divya completed her Master’s in Design from Milan’s Domus Academy in 2012 and began her teaching career at Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology on returning to Bengaluru.
Teaching got into me like a tornado; it was a whirlwind of ideas, energy, and inspiration and I loved it. I have gravitated more towards the education field ever since.
Beyond art for art’s sake
As a product design teacher, Divya encouraged her students to create tangible prototypes of their ideas. She would tell them, “What’s in the mind space has to take form in the physical space we are in right here, right now.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Divya also wanted to inculcate in her students an empathetic nature that allowed them to design better and give back to society, but realised she needed to take the first step. She asked herself the questions
Am I contributing to solving a problem that is persistent around me?
Am I doing something to give back to society?
Are my designs doing more than just making people happy?
The answers were ‘no’, ‘no’, and ‘not really’.
So, she took a trip around the country to figure out what she could do to bring about a change.
After having a chat with a few of her mentors, she zeroed in on a few educational institutions across the country where she could get a better perspective about how art is imparted to children. Divya visited, taught, and learnt from students at Prayas Residential School in Raipur, Samvedana Charitable Trust in Gothan, Gujarat, Gram Vikas Residential School in Odisha’s Kankia village, Kalkeri Sangeeth Vidyala in Karnataka, and Paathashaala in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district.
These schools had a good amount of space and facilities, but most importantly the children there were curious to learn. Most of the children at these schools were from an underprivileged background and they looked at education as a boon. Divya realised she had struck gold as this situation was completely different from the ones in cities, where students take what they have for granted.
Divya says, “I did a crash course in ‘creative thinking’ for them and was blown away even more. I never make any judgements before teaching a class as I never know how creative a child can get or how much of a different perspective a child can portray in his or her work but it was inspiring to see such incredible strands of thought from these kids even though they had never moved out of their village.”
You cannot give without taking
Divya went back to Gram Vikas six months after her trip to make a mural along with the children. It hit her then that while schools for the underprivileged had a reasonable set space for art, and some even had great incubation units started by designers from NID, Srishti, etc., many of the CBSE and ICSE schools in the cities were more focused on academics and didn’t have art or design consistently in their curriculum, especially in the lower classes even though that age is where creativity and the freedom to think freely are at their peak.
So Divya set out to take what she had learnt from the rural schools and percolate it into the city system while continuing to work with incubation units in villages and encouraging and mentoring the underprivileged students there.
Divya also started carrying out collaborative art projects with children back in Bengaluru, with learning and fun going hand in hand. She also took up several projects like co-working spaces and cafes where she was requested to put her art on the walls. The word-of-mouth feedback on her work led to more people reaching out to her to transform their residential and work spaces.
The 100-wall project
In 2015, Divya took up the 100-wall project, during which she did a makeover of over 100 walls in Bengaluru and Chennai over a period of seven months. Beaches are her favourite place to work on murals since the combination of the ocean and art is especially invigorating. Many a time, Divya does her work without remuneration. She says, “I often tell people if you’re welcoming me into your home, café, or space, let’s have an inspiring conversation over a cup of tea and paint your wall together.”
After Divya moved to Chennai last year, Teach For India fellows reached out to her to spruce up their schools in the city. She says with a smile,
Across Chennai I went; like a cowgirl, but with paint guns in my pockets!
Divya worked at eight schools and it also gave her a chance to conduct art and design workshops for the children, the response to which was pretty enthusiastic. Divya recently collaborated with art cafés Ashvita and Amethyst, where she conducted all-day art workshops. The Paint Box Collective and Thuvakkam are art collectives she has worked with like-minded people to paint public spaces like railway stations, bridges, and metros.
Recently, Divya started working with Rainbow Fish Studio to create the art syllabus for institutions like Sishya School, Lady Andal, and Sri Mutha, and continues to take up art projects. She is on the board of the Becoming I Foundation which works towards the education of underprivileged children. She also plans to take out a month a year to connect with incubation centres in remote areas across India.