Connecting the dots from what you enjoy doing to discovering your true calling is a journey that is not as easy as it is fulfilling. It requires you to be patient, flexible and evaluate the opportunities that come your way with an open mind!
Sruthi Sriram, our next pathbreaker, Resident Art Therapist at PCVC in Chennai, works with women and child survivors of domestic violence and burns, LGBTQ individuals who face discrimination and offers support sessions for staff.
Sruthi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her growing interest in Arts that led to a stint in Electronic Media and then taking up Art Therapy after discovering the power of Arts to bring about Social Good.
For students, there are several careers that are unknown or new in India. Take the lead in changing perceptions and creating your own niche !
Sruthi, tell us about your background
Being born in Chennai, South India, I was raised in a joint family until 3 years old, after which my parents moved to Saudi briefly, and back again to Chennai when I was 5. Growing up in a city drenched with tradition provided opportunities and exposure to culture, arts, movement, dance, and music. A large part of my childhood was spent outdoors, playing with children or cycling around, besides time at home with grandparents and extended family. This gave me the chance to interact with and relate to people from various age groups and interests. My parents were hardworking professionals in their respective fields, who gave me independence and freedom to explore my interests. Fond memories include time spent listening to stories from the Ramayana, Mahabaratha and numerous folk tales.
I also loved watching Disney movies, was glued to cartoon network whenever I got the chance, attended art classes in summer camps, dance classes and read a lot of books, for both my parents are avid readers. I was a grade A student until high school after which my interest shifted to the arts.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
An interest in the growing field of media and communication enabled me to pursue Electronic Media from M.O.P. Vaishnav College in Chennai. I chose to specialise in film for the final semester and was keen on production and/or advertising as a career. After a stint as a copywriter in the field of Advertising and Media, I left to study in Singapore for a Masters in Art Therapy at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
Key drivers that set me on my path began as early as primary school, when i was attending dance and summer art classes at school. My mother ensured I was occupied all the time and placed me in Bharatanatyam classes when I was 5 years old. Engaging with arts all the time was something I deeply enjoyed. For the next ten years of my school life, I spent most of my time with my teacher dancing and performing.
My interpretation of art developed and I was able to explore nuances of creative expression through story telling, drawings, and play (games). I was grateful to receive immense support from my family and this safe space contributed to the growth of creative exploration and empathetic exchanges very early on in life.
I also came to understand culture and traditions from a global perspective during my masters. My programme leader as well as the rest of the faculty were steeped in ethics and imparted conducive ways of practicing the profession which left a strong impression on me and my peers. This further developed during my work experience that allowed for interaction with cohorts of various ages from all over the world and honed my sensitivity towards multicultural settings and about arts in various traditions.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
Like any commerce student would, I considered CA as a career path but knew for certain that my interest was in arts. Initially I tried to secure a spot in Visual Communication, but was rejected and offered Electronic Media instead. Surprisingly, this turned out to be a much better choice. Electronic Media provided a hands-on experience that helped learn about what goes on behind the stage and how things are brought to life. This dealt with film, sound, production, editing, animation and involved independent and group projects. My first internship was at a radio station that taught me work is best done with joy and play and that it was important to nurture and create a space conducive for creativity to emerge.
After my undergrad, I landed my first job as a copywriter in a start up company, focused on providing branding solutions. This also deepened my interest in arts and its application in advertising. After 2 years as a copywriter, I felt the need for a shift and wanted to pursue something more meaningful. I definitely wanted to study/learn a skill and the choice I gave myself was between Film Production – a subject I liked but did not really have the passion for (to pursue a career in the film industry), and Art Therapy – something that looked new and promising. The Dean in my university was a key influencer in my decision. She encouraged me to tap into my inherent empathetic skills and interests in creative expression.
Throughout the Masters program, the university offered opportunities to learn about a variety of audience from practitioners across the world, who utilised modes of arts therapies for mental well-being. For my placement, I worked with children and adults diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and teenagers at risk of self-harm, in Singapore.
Following my graduation I worked with a Singapore/Geneva based NGO (The Red Pencil), initially as a researcher-practitioner and later as an International Missions Coordinator. Here there was industry collaboration with NGOs that leveraged academic knowledge put into real practice. I was responsible for coordinating and developing humanitarian programs in the Middle East and APAC region, that utilised arts as a response tool in areas affected by war, natural disasters and trauma.
Much like Electronic Media, this job taught me the importance of planning, organising and thinking ahead. I gained an in- depth view on what it took to implement a program and understood challenges therein. It was humbling too, seeing all the humanitarian work that was being done. During this time I had the opportunity to meet and work with other expressive therapists, dance & movement therapists as well as drama therapists that really opened up the horizon. I was discovering the power of arts and it was not just exciting, but endless.
I was both present on the field in certain missions and coordinated with therapists on the ground at other times to help build an evidence base that proved the efficacy of arts. This meant writing reports, developing proposals and brainstorming goal oriented approaches and activities. A key motivator at this juncture was my supervisor who was a brilliant practitioner herself, generous with her conversations and inputs, which guided me along the way. Following nearly 4 years at this organisation, I decided it was time to work in India, with a culture that was familiar to me and yet new to therapy.
Personally, it was important for me to have flexibility and to listen where my art and expertise took me. This was about understanding where I could contribute to the best of my ability and which populations I could work with. My work has always been designed in collaboration with NGOs and institutions with a focus on integrating arts-based approaches within organisational frameworks. I began freelance work as an art therapist and worked on community welfare initiatives. Beneficiaries included domestic violence and burn survivors, children of migrant workers, children who witnessed domestic violence and support sessions for staff. I also offered training and introductory modules on Art Therapy for psychology graduates.
Overtime, I came to realise there was little awareness on Art Therapy and reached out to peers in India, which paved the way and recognised a need for regulation of ethical practices and led to the formation of a formal body “The Art Therapy Association of India (TATAI)” as a counterpart to other international associations of Art Therapy.
Another aspect that continues to motivate me, is the Continued Professional Development (CPD) that every practitioner engages with, to ensure they are well-versed with emerging research and trends. For this reason, I also take time out to attend/participate in conferences and creative workshops.
A big part of my experience as an artist and as a practitioner who uses art, is to also constantly engage in creative endeavours that expand my world view. I went back to being a performer and worked under an Indian choreographer in a contemporary piece called “Conditions of Carriage” that highlighted the performers body using a sequence of jumps. For this I worked alongside dancers, parkour artists, and theatre artists. My second stint as a performer was after a disability workshop with a French Choreographer from the Reunion Island. This piece was called “Weight of Joy” which explored and reflected on the notion of joy. For this, I worked with dancers from Reunion Island, a Kalari artist from Chennai and two students with hearing and speech impairments who taught us sign language.
All these experiences have culminated in the individual that I am today and also helps inform my practice. Today I use movement and dance along with arts which helps access deeper levels of expression as people learn to connect with their own body and minds.
How did you get your first break?
It is a generally shared notion by instructors that the first year as a therapist is by far the hardest and when skills are probably at their weakest. For me this meant acquiring guidance and supervision in my work and I looked at opportunities that allowed working in a team. I came across a disaster relief mission in the Philippines after super typhoon Yolanda when I was introduced to The Red Pencil, where I spent the next four years.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
● Challenge 1: Lack of awareness of Art Therapy in India – When I returned to work in India, I spent a great deal of time answering questions about the validity of Art Therapy as a profession. It was not widely known and either misunderstood or compared to methods that discounted the power and value of arts in treatment. However the integrity of the job, the feeling of giving back to the community and meeting people across the world who affirmed and believed in the practice was empowering.
● Challenge 2: Western and Eastern approaches to mental well- being -Having trained in Western approaches to therapy, it was challenging to adapt these learnings for the Indian mindset. We value different things, most of which are intricately woven in our culture. Therapy took on a different meaning. Moreover India is so rich in its tradition and arts, that art materials needed to be revisited and reinvented. Rangoli or culture specific approaches to art making posed a delightful challenge. Women would often break into song and dance and the learning unraveled on its own. Supervision also helped tackle these challenges. Using the local language was interesting too. Acknowledging this and learning with the clients has eased the process.
● Challenge 3: Earnings/Pay Scale – Therapy is not widely accepted or actively pursued. It is also not very often that the beneficiaries who need support can afford to pay a suitable fee. This meant finding avenues for funding that could support my practice.
Where do you work now?
I am a resident art therapist at PCVC in Chennai. I work with women and child survivors of domestic violence and burns, LGBTQ individuals who face discrimination and offer support sessions for staff.
My work is also involved in currently establishing governance through TATAI ( The Art Therapy Association of India ) and ensuring that the profession in India is well regulated and respected. I am supported by two colleagues with whom I founded this. We are part of the handful of art therapists in the country and look forward to inviting more graduates back home.
I’ve also recently assumed a part time role of a thesis- supervisor at my university for the 2nd year Masters of Art Therapy students.
Helping people cope and reintegrate with society through building self efficacy is what i do. I study the correlation between social support and arts in promoting well- being for individuals in the aftermath of trauma.
What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?
The Arts Therapy education provides the tools the practitioner needs. My biggest tool and skill is my awareness and empathy. It is about being present in the moment and utilising psychological frameworks and approaches to human development, inclusive of multiple modalities like art, movement and expression. It is important to be a blank screen who can create a conducive, safe environment for a person to make art. An art therapy practitioner is one with a masters degree who is qualified and trained for the job.
What is a typical day like?
Art Therapy sessions invite clients to create art either for relaxation or to tackle a particular challenge. A day begins with checking in with the multidisciplinary team for updates and reviewing approaches to care and learning about needs/requirements for therapy. Currently (during the pandemic) I offer virtual art therapy sessions for beneficiaries. The day ends with art making in response to the sessions and notes for the team which helps us set goals. That being said, however, there is nothing typical about any day. Each session brings new challenges and learnings and each day is different. The client is never in the same mindset or using the same material, nor is it the same client every day.
What is it you love about this job?
Arts for healing. It is about giving the art materials, holding the space, creating a sense of safety where an individual feels free to explore themselves using play and creative expression. There is no focus or emphasis on verbal expression and more importance on the artwork that comes to life. There is no good or bad, ugly or beautiful. It is a powerful space where everything is accepted, acknowledged and reflected on. My work is all about play.
How does your work benefit society?
Art Therapy and my approaches to the practice is trauma centred and designed to assist people displaced by trauma to cope through self efficacy and build society integration skills. I study the correlation between arts, social support and its impact on self-efficacy. It is about empowering individuals and helping them articulate experiences that cannot be put into words. It is about rehabilitating individuals and helping them begin life anew.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The nature of my work is such that every engagement is both meaningful and confidential. Every project that I’ve done is close to my heart and each endeavour in Art Therapy has given me something. All the people I’ve met have also shaped the way I work today and the most memorable part of the work is how humbling it is, till date.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Besides the mainstream career paths, a lot of opportunities are out there for students to pursue, from space travel to tech to music to sports and the arts. Don’t let reasons hold you back. Take risks, and try something new. I did not have a background in psychology but that didn’t mean I couldn’t be a therapist. It’s about how you learn to value your time and where your heart leads you.
Future Plans ?
The focus for now is to establish a presence for TATAI and bring awareness about Art Therapy in India. We hope to offer training for interested candidates and represent the country on an international front.
Personally, I am embarking on a journey to learn about art forms and traditions in our country to make my practice more relevant and meaningful.