Jalwat Huma, dressed in white, with a white chadar on her head, sits surrounded by children ranging from 12-18 years. Most of the children have on unclean and torn clothes, their hands stained with blue, black, red and white paint. With a canvas placed in front of her on the floor and a brush in her right hand, Huma is teaching brushstrokes to her young students. The children follow her step by step as she instructs.
Huma teaches the art of painting and drawing to the street children and scavengers of Hayatabad, a suburb on the western outskirts of Peshawar, bordering the erstwhile Fata district of Khyber Agency.
Huma set up her institute, named Rang-Geet Art Gallery, in August 2021, by allocating a three-room-basement of her house for it. It is where scavengers, street children and uneducated women from the tribal districts of Khyber and Peshawar come to learn painting and sketching. The Rang-Geet Art Gallery opens at 11am and remains open till 8pm. The students come in groups at their convenience. The female students appear in the mornings because they are not allowed to go out in the late hours of the day, whereas the boys normally stroll in after 3pm, after their day’s labour.
“No one has thought about these children, they are the ignored ones,” says the art teacher, looking at the children around her with love. “They are left behind in the run of life. Society has pushed them into the dungeons of darkness. I dreamt of a place where such children could express themselves. I desired to empower them to express themselves through the brush. I knew that painting has that power of expression.
A woman in Peshawar’s Hayatabad area runs a volunteer training centre for street children, teaching them the power of expression through painting and drawing
“Art requires no formal education. Just the colours and the brush can do the job. Therefore, I chose the motto: ‘Likh nahi saktay, bana tau saktay ho’ [If you can’t write, you can paint].”
Suddenly, a child bursts out of a room, brush in hand, shouting, “Baji, what do I do with the colours that are mixed up in my canvas? It has destroyed everything. It is bothering me!” She replies with a grin, “We will see to it later. Just continue your work in the lower portion of the frame.”
Huma admits she did not have the same patience with the children’s behaviour when she first started teaching them. With a smile on her face, she says, “Having grown up on the streets and roads, they have never seen the inside of a school. You could expect anything from them.”
In the beginning, the number of students coming to Huma had quickly climbed to 80, but now there are a more manageable 52, of which 35 are street children and scavengers, while the others are school-going. More and more students want to join the Rang-Geet Art Gallery, but taking on a large number of students is difficult for Huma.
The financial strain is a huge factor for her. Over the last year, Huma has invested about 80,000 rupees on paints, canvases and other equipment, which is an extra burden on her shoulders after her family’s household expenses.
In fact, at first, family, friends and acquaintances alike discouraged her — the idea of opening up a voluntary art school seemed ridiculous to every one of them. She was told that she would be wasting her time with such children. They did not expect art from scavengers or street children. They laughed at her and deemed her idea to be a failure. However, Huma says her students proved all her critics wrong.
“I can proudly show the work of these children to the world,” she says. “Their art is loud evidence itself and those who demotivated me are now silent. Before, when people demotivated me, I would think before going to bed, ‘what if I fail?’ Now, I am satisfied with what I have done for these children.”
A boy working near us was busy painting something quietly for an hour. He now requests her for some help. Huma introduces him as Numan Khan from Bara, Khyber district.
Fourteen-year-old Numan joined Rang-Geet Art Gallery nine months ago. He worked in a house nearby for three years. In the evening, when he had some free time, he used to go out to meet his friends in the nearby Nawab Market. His friends had joined Rang-Geet Art Gallery and would talk about it all the time, which created an interest in him to see the place for himself.
One day, he went to knock on Huma’s door. Having no confidence, he left without meeting her. On his second try the following day, however, Huma came out to greet him and took him inside to show him the studio.
Upon discovering that Numan was going to Rang-Geet, his father punished him. One day, he showed up at Huma’s door, in search of his son and intending to punish him again. Fearful, Numan took refuge from his angry father and requested Huma to meet his father outside. She had a talk with the man and convinced him to let his son continue his art lessons. A month later, his father sent another 11-year-old, Numan’s brother, to join Rang-Geet. The two brothers are now among Huma’s top five students.
Numan is concerned for the future of street children and scavengers. “I see children like me on the street and feel sorry for them. They need opportunities. When I learn and become an expert, I will teach the art of painting to those on the streets like me.”
Huma shares her hopes of setting an example for others by converting Rang-Geet Art Gallery into an institute for scavengers, street children and the illiterate. “I want to do something that the world will follow, and I am adamant to do this for the sake of these children,” she says. “I believe the world will be astonished to see their work.”
Initially, Huma focused on teaching only painting, sketching and drawing but, over time, she has also started teaching music, English, Urdu and computer skills. Some children have improved beyond expectation.
Huma plans to hold an exhibition to display the work of her students and share their successful journey as well as the fruits of her effort.
“We will display the art of these children and put it up for sale at a very small price. This will be a motivation for them and encourage them to use art in their future. Secondly, society will come to know of the brilliant work of these children,” she tells Eos.
The children have been taught to work using diverse mediums such as pencil colour, acrylic, watercolour and oil painting. However, currently they are preparing oil paintings which will be presented in the exhibition.
Huma is optimistic that such children can play a vital role in society, yet she laments that they have been ignored by both the government and society. “Secluding such creative minds is an injustice,” she says, “they are not children of a lesser god.”
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist.
He tweets @Wasim_Chashmato
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 12th, 2022