The elder patrons of our Sunnyside Center celebrated the end of their Drawing Workshop with an exhibition of their paintings at Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens. For eight weeks they had learned what Ebenezer Singh, the teaching artist leading the classes, called, “Pen and Ink Wash, Dry Pastel and Water Color techniques.”
Black and white ink wash drawings created by India Home’s elders
Dr. Kalasapudi (Executive Director, India Home) and Kamala Motihar (Board Member), and Ebenezer Singh (teaching artist) admire the art being exhibited
Our elder participants each received a certificate
Classes taught by a professional artist
Run by Ebenezer Singh, a highly-acclaimed professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, the classes introduced our elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also included conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduced famous Indian artists, thus adding cultural sensitivity to the mix. While some of the participants were unsure of their artistic skills in the beginning, their confidence grew day by day as they practiced the different techniques. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”
“I had to wait 68 years to discover I could draw.”
At the exhibition, we created a gallery of their art, and celebrated their achievements with certificates, chai and pakoras! It was wonderful to have so many of their family and friends join the celebration and stroll along enjoying the art on the walls. Some of the elders spoke about their experiences: “We looked forward to the class every week,” Prabha Basin, one of the participants said.
“I had to wait 68 years to discover I could draw. Now I want to keep doing it.” Bharat Shah said. His wife, Usha Shah, marveled at how she went from being ” zero in drawing,” to creating the beautiful work on the walls. These words from our elders were exactly what we hoped to hear when we started this experiment in creative aging!
India Home’s Desi Senior Center held a public reading at the center in Jamaica on December 11th, 2017 to celebrate the culmination of a writing workshop funded by Poets and Writers. Each member of the writing workshop read aloud from a piece written in the class. The classes were led by Sabbin Akhter, a teaching artist, originally from Bangladesh and a writer herself, who taught the class in Bengali. Our elders were very happy to share their work and thrilled to perform for an avid audience of their friends. Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Kalasapudi, India Home’s Executive Director, who is also a geriatric psychiatrist, talked about the positive psychological effects of recalling memories. At the end of the reading, every one of our readers were given a certificate acknowledging their achievements and there was a special cake for the occasion.
Sabbin Akhter, the teaching artist who led the writing workshops, wrote this reflection on her experiences with our elders in the workshop.
India Home held a reading to celebrate the culmination of a writing workshop at Desi Senior Center in Jamaica
A reflection on the Writing Workshop
by Sabbin Akhter, Teaching Artist
When I received the call to lead a writing workshop for desi seniors at India Home’s Desi Senior Center, I was thrilled. I have always been concerned with the lives of the seniors who migrated to the United States, because they are often heavy hearted with the memories they’ve left behind. I also appreciated India Home’s approach to using art to helping seniors lead healthier lives
To be honest, I first thought it would be a challenge to make them write. But to my surprise, I found they expressed themselves with spontaenity. Even though the program lasted only six weeks, I felt like the seniors had a passionate longing to do more.
Every senior received a certificate. Seen here with the elder is Sabbin Akhter, teaching artist, Dr. Kalasapudi, Executive Director, India Home (in purple) and at the mike, Nargis Ahmed, Center Director for India Home’s Desi Senior Center
I tried to design each workshop ssession with a different task. In one workshop they talked and wrote about the natural phenomena and beauty of the villages they had left behind; in another I asked them to write about their loved ones. They told me they loved the exercise where they were asked to compose small stories or personal experiences based on Bangla proverbs and folklore. One time I said, “Write a letter to a long lost friend,” — a prompt I personally loved.
Some of the seniors had doubts if they would succeed at this lost art. “ This is a hard-task,” one senior told me. But the next week I was amazed when they read aloud their imaginary letters to their long lost friends. The sparkle in their eyes and their glowing faces conveyed a lot more than their words. I felt their memories of warm sun playing on the pale grasses, brought them back to life. Our “faded corners were illuminated while walking through the golden lanes of memory, “ one said poetically to me.
At the end of six weeks, we had a reading as the culminating event. The seniors themselves selected a favorite piece to read aloud. They had bonded over sharing their skills in workshop, and on stage they showered each other with love, care and appreciation. As I watched them read, my heart was content looking at their confident and happy faces.
Dancing the garba – great for physical and mental fitness
It’s India Independence Day, 2017, and at the celebration being held at Queens Borough Hall in Queens, NY, the young announcer invites the next act to come up on stage. Ten women from India Home file in and start dancing, their bright white, orange and red saris billowing, their feet making dexterous patterns to the insistently upbeat music. The scene is remarkable not for the fact that there are Indian dancers in Queens, but because the women swaying on stage are all between 65 and 85 years old.
It is no coincidence that these women are so fit and vigorous. They have been dancing for years and are living proof of a growing body of research that links participatory arts activities to an increase in the health, well being, and quality of life in aging adults. One study of adults aged 60 and over suggested “health benefits of dance for older adults such as improved cognition and attention, posture and balance, and hand/motor skills in comparison to the control group. ” And it’s not just dance. Createequity, a think tank and online publication “investigating the most important issues in the arts” has analyzed extensive research that shows that taking part in arts related activity benefits older adults in myriad ways.
- Singing improves mental health and subjective wellbeing (i.e., perceived quality of life)
- Playing a musical instrument has myriad positive effects, including dementia risk reduction
- Visual arts practice generates increases in social engagement, psychological health and self-esteem
In 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts published the results of a landmark multisite (Washington DC metro area, Brooklyn and San Francisco) national study undertaken with the aim of “measuring the impact of professionally conducted community based cultural programs on the general health, mental health, and social activities of older persons, age 65 and older.” Referred to as the Creativity and Aging Study, it was the first effort in this area to use an experimental design and a control group to study 300 participants in the 65-103 age range.
The results were striking. The 150 older adults who were involved in weekly participatory art programs reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities. The results pointed to the powerful positive effects of community-based programs run by professional artists, now known as Creative Aging Programs.
What in the world is Creative Aging?
Lifetime Arts, a nonprofit organization is very clear on what Creative Aging is not: “it’s not about making macaroni necklaces.” Creative Aging then according to Lifetime Arts is ” the practice of engaging older adults in participatory, professionally run arts programs with a focus on social engagement and skills mastery.” These are programs based in the belief that individuals do not stop growing or learning at any age. They are interventions, and disruptions that help older adults free themselves from traditional and limiting preconceptions about aging and decline and help them discover new possibilities, and new skills.
Learning New Ways of Creative Expression
Drawing with pastels in a class made possible by a grant from Lifetime Arts.
At our Sunnyside Center, Creative Aging classes include photography and drawing workshops, recreational dance, as well as poetry and memoir classes.
At India Home drawing classes are taught by professional artists
Starting in November, a 9-week long drawing workshop, run by Ebenezer Singh, a professional artist and funded through a grant from Lifetime Arts, is introducing elders to advanced drawing using a wide range of materials such as India Ink, carbon pencil, watercolors. The classes also include conversations about historical and contemporary art, and introduces famous Indian artists, thus adding cultural sensitivity to the mix. While some of the participants were unsure of their artistic skills in the beginning, their confidence grows day by day. “I didn’t know I could draw like this,” Shobana Shah said in a recent class. “I’m enjoying learning this very much.”
In a paper published in the journal Arts and Health in 2012, lead researcher Nikky Greer documented improvements in both mental health and social wellbeing, “through increased social engagement, self-awareness, empowerment, and a sense of calm and relaxation.”
Our Sunnyside participants are so enthusiastic about the classes, they take photos of their work with their cell phones, so they can go home and practice before the next week rolls around.
Elders from India Home’s Desi Senior read from their memoirs
Meanwhile, our Desi Senior Center, India Home’s largest center in Jamaica, Queens, offers writing workshops to older Muslim men and women from Bangladesh thanks to a grant from Poets and Writers.
In Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life Story Writing, author Ruth E Ray explains why writing and sharing life stories in groups is valuable from a developmental perspective for older adults. Writing and sharing life stories allows them to not only make public the methods by which they make meaning of their own lives, but also “seeing and hearing others” helps them to understand that they are not alone in that meaning-making process.
At our Desi Senior Center, the ten week memoir course meets for an hour and a half every week, and families and friends are invited to attend the final reading. One recent Thursday, participants were encouraged by their instructor, Sabbin Akhter, a published writer herself, to read aloud from short memoir pieces that the elders had written to illustrate commonly used proverbs in Bangladesh. The readings were lively, full of dialogue and imagery. Lyrical descriptions of trees, cows, fields and the seasons evoked the villages from which the elders had migrated. As each writer in the circle finished reading their piece, the others applauded, shouting encouragement. “You get the first and second prize,” one grandmother told another, clapping her hands in delight. The sense of camaraderie and friendliness between the budding writers is palpable.
Our Approach to Creative Aging is Evolving
India Home is committed to intentionally engaging Creative Aging as a targeted program and our approach continues to evolve. Our aim, as it is with most of our programming, is to focus on creative activities that are culturally appropriate. While it is sometimes challenging to find artists who speak South Asian languages or can offer culturally appropriate art activities, we persist because culturally relevant programming is the most effective way to reach the seniors in our communities.
Still, watching our older adults laugh over a wonderful memory in their notebook, or admire a still life of colorful fruit that they created in an afternoon, or dance on a stage at the Rubin Museum, are reasons enough for us to constantly innovate and continue to offer these programs.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York City is the largest and most influential museum of modern art in the world. As part of a creative aging initiative, our seniors got to engage with the art of photography in the MoMA. The program featured a guided tour of exhibits, and two photography classes at our center conducted by Jano Cortijo, an artist-educator from the museum.
“Looking” at photos at MoMA:
Jano Cortijo, an artist educator from the MoMA asks our what they notice in Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits
Our seniors study Robert Rauschenberg’s photographs at the MoMA
Henri Carter-Bresson, considered one of the world’s greatest photographers, said, “In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject.” Our seniors were encouraged to look for the smallest thing in a photo and asked to wonder why it had been included and what effect it had on the photograph. We looked at light falling through a sheet, the lines on a tower, various graphic shapes in Robert Rauschenberg’s work — with Cortijo asking guiding questions that made our seniors understand the many choices that go into making a photograph. We talked about Samuel Fasso’s self-portraits which have him taking on roles of his heroes like Nelson Mandela and Angela Davis, and his attempt to take on a larger political and activist role as an artist.
Seniors workshop their own photographs
Photography class, homework and all:
Taking photos outdoors and in the street
A lesson about backgrounds
After looking at photos by famous artists, our seniors got a lesson in taking better photographs using a smartphone. They learned about backgrounds, about lighting, angles, position of the photographer, focus on the subject and rudimentary editing. They also learned about the difference in portrait photography versus landscapes, tricks to modulate the brightness in iPhones and so on.
Cortijo, the artist-educator, also assigned our seniors “homework.” They were asked to take photos at home using their new found skills. When their homework assignments were displayed on the TV, the class enthusiastically critiqued the results – generously pointing out what worked in the photos as well as the flaws.
Our seniors listened avidly and responded with enthusiasm to this foray into photography as art. While it is true that modern technology has made taking a photograph easy, it was fascinating for seniors to see it as an art form, one that required more than just a point and click. We could see that the lessons had made a difference–many of the photos taken after the class showed that they were paying attention and practicing their skills!
Our seniors loved the tight focus on the little boy, the symmetry of the trees, the repetition of ochre color in this photograph. (c) Jayesh Patel.
They danced on the stage, they danced in the street, they danced in front of our table. They were India Home’s wonderful senior ladies and nothing was going to stop them. Not the heat or the crowds or their sore feet. Our wonderful seniors had come prepared to be the life and soul of the Annual Rubin Block Party and they gave it their all.
Our seniors taught everyone, from the littlest guests to seniors like them, how to use the dandiya sticks. They demonstrated garba dance steps. They let people admire their beautiful chaniya choli (skirts and blouses) or saris. They also got the entire crowd to join in the dancing at one point.
We were thrilled to be one of the 6 community groups invited by the Rubin Museum’s Dawn Eshleman, Jane Hsu and Tashi Chodron to be part of the renowned Rubin Museum’s Annual Block Party that is held every summer. What we didn’t realize through all the planning and meetings was that it would offer so much fun for all concerned.
On a more serious note, our immigrant seniors who are also people of color, are sending a a very important message by participating in giant public events like the Rubin Block Party. Their very presence in these spaces demonstrates that older people of color are active and engaged in public life, that aging is what you make it to be. Their visibility helps to break down prejudices and benign ignorance around aging and seniors of color, and forces people to change their perspectives. Our mission is to challenge the stereotypes around aging, and we are grateful to the Rubin Museum for helping us realize it.
By Ashwak Fardoush
Ashwak Fardoush is a writer, writing coach and teaching artist, who recently facilitated the Writing Workshop for older adults at India Home’s Desi Senior Center.
The room buzzed with anticipation. The smell of cooked chickpeas and onion lentil fritters served to the guests still lingered in the air. Children’s cries rang out in the background. Amidst the noise, Salema Khatun took the stage. She recited her poem, “Shadhinota” (translated as “Independence”), alluding to the Liberation War of 1971 in Bangladesh. I felt proud as I watched her read her poem to the audience.
On the evening of May 19, 2017, we were at the Culminating Event for a Writing Workshop organized by India Home for its members at the Desi Senior Center. The event was also a Pre-Ramadan Celebration and a happy and proud occasion for our members. This was the open mic portion of the event
Members of the Writing Workshop at the Desi Senior Center
“I had put away my writing for twenty years. …. But I have written four poems in your class.”
Salema Khatun crafted that poem over the course of a few weeks. She had attended a writing workshop that I facilitated at the Desi Senior Center. Inspired by a prompt at a workshop session, she wrote a poem that she finished at home, writing a few lines at a time in between her household chores, showing me the progress along the way, and adding the final two lines because she wanted the poem to be a sonnet. Just the day before the event, Salema Khatun told me, “I had put away my writing for twenty years. After my husband’s death, I took on the full responsibility of my family. But I have written four poems in your class. Look what you have done for me.”
Seniors tell their stories through poems and memoir
Salema Khatun was one of the eight participants who were part of a bilingual memoir writing workshop* at the Desi Senior Center. This workshop was designed to help seniors tell their stories. This pilot program was a collaborative effort, making the phrase “it takes a village” truer than ever. The staff from India Home and the Desi Senior Center—especially Lakshman Kalasapudi, Nargis Ahmed and Meera Venugopal—worked tirelessly to make sure the seniors had a great writing experience.
As I heard Salema Khatun’s voice rise and fall, I remembered the first day of the writing workshop. It was a Thursday morning. I was setting up the classroom in one corner of the prayer room. Some were still praying on the other side of the room. I arranged the chairs in a circle and laid out the attendance sheet and the writing supplies on a chair. I had thought about the content and the structure of the workshop for the past two weeks. I even had a bare-boned lesson plan for the first session. Yet, I knew that I couldn’t plan out all the sessions. I was not teaching these participants. Instead, I was holding the space for the participants to tell their stories—stories that danced inside their bodies, that rested inside their eyes, that settled on their skin. I simply needed to let these stories surface on the page. While facilitating the workshop was not like any other teaching experience I had in the past—the participants were a few decades older than me, and the sessions were conducted entirely in Bengali—the advice I gave myself remained the same: I must keep my heart open, stay present and be curious.
Writing prompts and stories that unfolded against the backdrop of history
Quamrun Nahar reads her piece at the Culminating Event on May 19, 2017
There were eight participants who made up the core group: Md. Hoque, Md. Mokbul Hossain, Rafiqul Islam, Salema Khatun, Haque Mohammad, Quamrun Nahar, Md. Abu Sayeed, and Farida Talukdar. I did not know what to expect each session. By the second session, I stopped bringing a thorough plan. The participants were vivacious, creative, mischievous, intelligent, wise, and in awe of life. We would always begin with a writing prompt from my plan, but then the session would unfold in ways I could never predict. We would write spontaneously. Soon, I became adept at reading what the group wanted in that moment in order to serve them and their writing.
Each session the participants excavated memories from their long, rich, vibrant lives and shaped them into poems and personal essays. When I closed my eyes, I could see the writers leaning over their marble notebooks, and scribbling away. Sometimes we would travel to far-flung places or go deep within ourselves. Sometimes personal stories would unfold against the backdrop of history.
At times, the participants tried to write out a decade of their life during a session. Sometimes, I would ask the participants to scrawl a word on an index card, fold it and put it inside a mason jar. Then, I would ask a participant to pick a word out of the jar randomly and the group would write about that word. The first word picked out of the jar was “baba” (translated as “father”). Writers wrote about their love stories, their childhood friendships, and their son’s letters back home.
Participants eager to share their writing
Every session was memorable in some way. Once, I remembered seeing Md. Hoque writing in his notebook a few steps away from the class. Since the session was about to start, I gently asked him to come inside. He nodded, but his head was still buried in the notebook. A few minutes later, he entered the classroom and announced that he had just finished writing a poem. He not only addressed this poem to another participant, Md. Mokbul Hossain, but he also challenged his peer to respond back in the form of a poem. Md. Mukbul Hossain was deemed as the poet of the group. Even before the workshop, he had a moleskin notebook with poems written in his beautiful penmanship. He once showed me a poem he wrote in his notebook. The first line was a question a stranger posed him on his walk. He told me that he carried his notebook with him so that he could write down any detail, mundane or not, that can turn into a poem someday. Needless to say, Md. Mukbul Hossain managed to cobble together words to pen a poem to respond to Md. Hoque’s friendly challenge in class that day.
Md. Mokbul Hossain’s Poem, “Potichhobi”
Abu Sayeed was another participant in the workshop. He took two trains and a bus to travel from Brooklyn to the senior center in Queens. Before the first day of class, he told me of his interest in the writing workshop. He shared that his life was full of “korun” (tragic) stories and wondered if it was okay for him to write about those stories in the workshop. “Yes,” I said. “Life is full of joy and sorrow. Sounds like you have lived and have stories to tell! Please come and write with us.” So, he did. Md. Abu Sayeed would read his stories out loud in a voice that would tremble and crack at times. We would all listen, understanding the gravity of the moment and our role in it.
I was surprised by how eager everyone was to share their writing with each other. The ink would still be fresh on the page, our head would still reel from the memories we had dredged up on the page. Yet, the participants were ready to share their writing immediately. Quamrun Nahar read about scaling a tree as a child and falling down from it one day when she was stung by bees. She was carried to the kitchen where her grandmother rubbed garam masala paste all over her body. In a similar vein, Farida Talukdar often shared her anecdotes. We rarely made past the first writing prompt. The pieces people shared after the first prompt would inspire others to share their personal stories or debate passionately about a topic that surfaced in someone’s writing. We found ourselves discussing how in-laws’ relationship should be toward their children’s spouses, the struggles with upholding the Bengali language and culture in the United States, and the political climate in Bangladesh.
Teacher as Witness
Nancy Agabian, an author and founder of Heightening Stories, told me that the participants were “lucky to have [me] as their teacher and a witness.” That word, “witness” was the summation of my role. These participants contain a lifetime of memories and the workshop became a space where these writers got to share their testimonies—tales suffused with pain, joy, love, loss, dreams and despair—and were witnessed with respect and camaraderie. Md. Hoque wrote so poignantly on the last day of the workshop: “will we remember the stories of the three sisters and five brothers, a family meeting for a literature class lasting but for a short while?”
Council Member Daneek Miller and his wife, were among the guests of honor at the celebration. CM Miller handed out certificates to seniors who participated in the workshop
At the event, I looked to the stage once more. Salema Khatun had finished reading her poem. She paused for a moment and looked out at the audience. The crowd broke out into applause. Salema Khatun walked off stage. I smiled and then closed my eyes: I imagined the participants pulling out their marble notebooks and writing away with their ball point pens, putting one word after the next word after the next to tell all the stories they held inside of them until they were spent, until they were empty, until they were fully satisfied.
*This Writing Workshop was funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
You can read the full publication of the writings by clicking here.
On April 19, 2017, India Home invited its members as well as residents of the Jackson Heights neighborhood in Queens to a movie night at the PS 69Q auditorium. The film that was shown was Bollywood tear-jerker “Neerja,” an award-winning film about the bravery and sacrifice of a young air hostess on board a Pan-Am flight that was hijacked in 1984. Our members enjoyed free samosas and chai before settling in to watch the film. Later, there was avid discussion about the film and the heroism of the young air hostess.
A few early birds waiting for the movie to start
This initiative to extend our programming to the evening, is part of our on-going efforts to combat the social isolation that seniors often endure. This is also a first step in doing more activities in Jackson Heights, an area with a large South Asian community.
India Home’s program at the Rubin Museum was featured on the Museum’s blog.
India Home believes in providing creative aging programs that offer opportunities for our seniors to actively express themselves creatively, socialize with their peers while learning new skills, and engage in cultural performances.
…and a partnership with the Rubin Museum.
Sharan Bir Kaur led the crowd in a Kundalini chant
As part of this creative aging effort we have forged a partnership with the prestigious Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in Manhattan. In our role as Community Partner, we’ve presented programs related to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, and Mahavir Jayanthi.
This is our third event
On April 15, 2017, we presented our third program at the Museum: a celebration of the Sikh festival, Vaisakhi, traditionally a rite that marks the end of the harvest season in India. We hosted the event along the Sikh Cultural Center, one of the biggest Gurudwaras, or Sikh place of worship, in New York City.
This is how our program was described on the Rubin Museum’s blog.
Sikhs believe that every individual is filled with divine potential. At a time when racial and religious tension is high, New York Sikhs continue to celebrate their faith and values of equality, even when occasionally faced with senseless discrimination. At the Museum, Sikh and non-Sikh community members came together to celebrate Sikh culture and participate in the OM Lab.
Usha Mehta, a senior from India Home, enjoyed recording her voice in the OM Lab.
Twenty seniors from India Home attended and some of them enjoyed the opportunity to make use of the OM lab’s recording booth and “offer their OMs and join thousands of others in the chant that will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition.”
Our elders enthusiastically participated in a new experience, when Sharan Bir Kaur, a Kundalini yoga expert, led them and the rest of the audience in a short chanting meditation using the mantra “Wahe Guru” which is the Gurumantra or seed mantra in Sikhism.
Seniors from India Home enjoyed being part the sold out event
Jagir Singh Bains, an elder from the Sikh Cultural Center, further enlightened the audience with a short presentation about the basic tenets of Sikhism and the meaning behind the symbols of the faith, like the turban, the beard, and the kada (the steel bangle).
Manpreet Kaur taught the crowd to bhangra!
The night ended on a happy note with everyone dancing the bhangra! To read more click this link to go to the Rubin Muesum’s blog