I made workbooks for the Yamuna kids so they could color, draw, and practice their abc’s. I have noticed that the community doesn’t really believe in them because they dont take school seriously. When I was purchasing the notebooks, the shopkeeper was incredulous when I told him who they were for. ‘Those kids will never—‘ he didn’t even finish his sentence because maybe in his heart he knew he was wrong. All children want to learn and blossom. They all have their own brightness. Perhaps it is all about how we engage them. – Genevieve Ruddock
Vrindavan, 2017.02.22 (Vishakha Dasi for VT): Have you ever gone to Keshi Ghat and had children approach you, trying to sell you flowers for pooja?
My friend from the United States, Genevieve “Geneve” Ruddock has been teaching art to those children for the past few years. I wanted to know more about her project, so last week I visited her in Vrindavan to have a chat.
When I found Geneve, she and the kids were in the midst of a sea of sparkly sand where the Yamuna river once flowed not long ago. The divine river was diverted away from the ghat where she is worshipped, for some mysterious construction plan that has since been stayed by the courts.
The children had been painting on a free-standing wall of concrete in the middle of the sand sea, next to a giant lake of what appeared to be sewage. It was a beautiful yet surreal scene.
Two little ones stopped us to exclaim how much they liked art class as we walked together up to the shore.
V: So Geneve, what exactly are you doing down by the Yamuna River?
G: There is a free-standing wall from the construction that started back in August, but since it was stopped, we have started to paint the wall and create a giant paper collage/mural/painting.
V: But when they move the river back, won’t your painting be under water? Does that disturb you?
G: It doesn’t disturb me because my artwork is about redemption. It’s about redeeming things that would have normally been thrown away, like odd bits of paper, and making them beautiful. So, I see Yamuna coming and washing it away as another redemptive factor.
V: That’s lovely. Tell me more about the children you’re working with.
G: Well, the Yamuna ladkis, they sell flowers for worship at Keshi Ghat. I met them about three years ago and we became friends, so I’ve started teaching them art. We’ve done tie-dye, coloring, crochet lessons, and now we’re painting. Mural painting.
V: Why did you choose these particular children? I mean, they seem a little wild. Were you not deterred by that?
G: I see a bit of myself in them… I was (and still am) that kind of kid – wild and unattended but eager to learn from the world around me. We have a symbiotic relationship… I teach them art, they teach me life.
V: That’s awesome. Do you have any particular effect in mind for the kids or is it kind of spontaneous?
G: It’s a little bit of both. Part of it is that I’m just like a big sister to them and big sisters tend to engage their siblings in activities like this. On the other hand, I would assert that these kids don’t take school very seriously; some of the parents aren’t very involved in their education, so I just thought that I could give them more opportunity to develop their creative intelligence and their skills, because they’re already young entrepreneurs and business men and women. So, to build upon those skills that they already have, that other kids might not have, and sort of set them free into a world of… you know… the world of chaos. [laughter]
V: What is your favorite memory from this experience so far?
G: My favorite memory is from my first trip. I decided to throw them a party and I surprised them with a 5kg cake – a heart-shaped cake – and that was like the most amazing thing ever, and at that moment my whole life seemed to make sense. I was like ‘oh… everything in my life happened so that I could bring a 5kg heart-shaped cake to a bunch of little kids in Vrindavan.’ So now I feel good about my life.
V: What brought you to India in the first place by the way?
G: I graduated from college – I went to a Christian school [Pepperdine], and though I felt spiritually connected I was looking for more. I was looking for more depth and more answers, and for healing also because I was physically sick. And my mom had been coming to Vrindavan for ten years.
V: Ten years is a long time!
G: It’s a long time, and now she’s a disciple of Shri Radharamanji. And she introduced me to the Brijwasis and the town of Vrindavan. And here I have learned so much about Ayurvedic healing, about the Hindu religion, and about Indian culture that I find very beneficial for a Western person like me.
V: By the way, what was your degree at Pepperdine?
V: Bachelor’s of Fine Arts?
G: Yes, painting.
V: So as a BFA painting student at Pepperdine University did you ever think that you
would be doing something like this?
G: Well, my school was very good at steering us in a direction of service… being of service and making the world a better place. That was something my school was kind of known for. And I had a professor who really opened my mind up to going out into the world in my own canoe, per se, and finding my tribe. I didn’t know that my tribe would be a bunch of little hooligans, but it is! So I guess, yes and no. The seed was planted but it had not yet blossomed.
V: What’s your favorite thing about Vrindavan?
G: My favorite thing about Vrindavan is the way that life seems to intensify so much that it’s like coal being crushed into a diamond, so that after all the pain and anguish comes a beautiful jewel of light and rainbow colors. [laughter]
V: What pain and anguish are you referring to?
G: I don’t know, I think being in a different culture – the setting of a different culture that is so extremely different – just pushes your comfort zone and boundaries in ways that you wouldn’t expect, and forces you to grow in ways that you wouldn’t expect. As an artist I kind of like to put myself in those situations. There’s a lot of growth. Emotionally, physically… no not physically… unless we’re talking about my worms! [laughter]
V: [laughing] Can I please include that in the interview?
G: [laughing] Emotionally, spiritually… so yeah. With growth comes growing pains.
V: You are so eloquent! So, to get back to the Yamuna kids… Keshi Ghat is a beautiful area but there’s so much upheaval going on over there, and I also noticed that sometimes people hang out there… I mean, there have been a lot of crime stories around there too, like, I don’t even want to talk about them. And so I was wondering, what’s the weirdest thing that ever happened to you at Keshi Ghat? Like, hanging out there with kids every day pretty much.
G: I don’t know if I can really disclose the weirdest thing.
V: Well, the weirdest thing you can disclose then? Did somebody expose themselves or something? [laughter]
G: Yes. [laughter]
V: Really! I hope there was no contact!
G: No, no, no contact!!
V: Thank God!
G: But I was proposed to once.
V: Proposed to for marriage, or?
G: Yes, by someone I had never seen before in my life.
V: Okay! That’s kind of not too bad.
G: Yeah, it was not too bad, but I ended up throwing a shoe at him.
V: Fair enough!
V: So, what are your plans going forward?
G: So, I had this idea… There’s a lot of crazy stuff happening in America.
V: There is!
G: So I thought that since I’m not there protesting with my fellow Americans, I thought I could get involved here where I am. So, I had this brilliant idea after lots of coffee and Bob Marley that me and the kids could do a unifying uh, what is that called… unifying performance art piece where we crochet a rakhi bracelet that will extend from one side of Yamuna to the other – someone will hold one end, and then we’ll go on a boat and cross Yamuna and we’ll tie the bracelet on the other end. It will be to show that together we can do something great. People still have the power to make the world a better place.
V: What happens to the art when they’re done with it? Other than what gets washed away by Yamuna.
G: They take it home for the most part.
V: Have you ever thought of having an exhibition?
G: Yeah, if I were able to get canvasses and have more paint and supplies that they could create little art pieces with, I think that I could do something like that in the future.
V: That’s really cool.
G: But right now it’s kind of like, I don’t have much money. There have been a few people who have donated art supplies, and that’s been really helpful for our mural project. I hope to gather more support from the community for future projects.
V: That’s amazing!
G: Yes… I’m building a company called ‘Lavender Jaq’ as a way of raising funds. The website will showcase the Yamuna art school and feature fashion and art products for sale. I’m looking to launch in a couple of weeks! Lavender Jaq is named after my grandmother, Jacqueline, whose favorite color was lavender. I used to call her from India and tell her all about my pastimes with the Yamuna kids. She always asked when I was coming home, but I think she was proud.
After talking with Geneve, I felt that her project helped me realize how much a seemingly little thing – like spending time with children and sharing one’s talents with them – can make such a meaningful impact.
To keep up with Geneve and the Yamuna Kids you can follow LavenderJaq on social media sites and sign up for the website launch at www.lavenderjaq.com
Instagram: @yamunakids, @lavenderjaq FB + Twitter: @lavenderjaq