Our guest today is Renuka Taneja, founder of Windows: The Art and Craft Corner. Windows is a unique Art school based in New Delhi, that nurtures creativity in children. Renuka has also been able to extend the concept of using art as a medium of creative expression to school teachers and administrators, NGOs and corporates, besides school children. Windows was established in January 2000 with a vision to help rediscover the child hidden within each one of us. In this podcast, Renuka talks about her journey through her career and what led to the birth and creation of Windows.
Nitesh Batra: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Mindful Initiative podcast. Today we are very fortunate to have amongst us Renuka Taneja. She is a graphic and textile designer. Welcome. Before I get started or when I get started, I always like to ask the person that we’re interviewing, our guests, to tell us a little bit about their background, a little bit about their family, where they grew up, and how they came to the place they are at, right now.
Renuka Taneja: So, I got into this field, when I was quite young– in school. And, I always wanted to. I can go back to my childhood when I was quite young. I used to stand in front of paintings in school and wonder, “will I be able to do this?” But I never had the courage to try because my sister was also in the same school and always there was that (feeling) that she was very intelligent, doing very well. And I always felt that I was not good enough. And, my parents, when they changed my school, the teacher over there, she called me and she said, “I want you to go for these exams”. And I said, “No, I can’t do that”. She said, “I don’t want you to go and achieve. I only want you to go and experience.” And that’s something which I’ve never forgotten. And the fact that I wasn’t going to be judged.
Renuka Taneja: And even though there was this so called exam, she just wanted me to go and experience that for myself. And then we came back to Delhi when my father was posted here. And, in this school also, there was Mr Bhowmick and he encouraged me a lot. One year he called me and he said, “I’m giving you the Marker Cup. And I said, “What? How come?” Because I never thought that I was capable of that. But that helped me to understand that yes, I can do it. And then Mrs Chona was also there and she had just joined. She was our literature teacher and she said, “You should either do art or literature.” But literature, I thought I will have to study a lot!
Renuka Taneja: Somehow my father was convinced and I applied for College of Art, Delhi and once I cleared that, then, he couldn’t say no. Because I had cleared it. And my uncle who was very influential for my father– he was out of town. So my father couldn’t say no and I joined College of Art. Then I went to NID. And even though I cleared NID, my father thought I ought to get married since I had finished College of Art. So I said no, I want to study further. Without telling him I applied to NID and when I cleared the exam, only four were selected, all India. And, I remember him saying, “You wanted to try, now you’ve got in. So now, that’s it.” And it’s my mother who at that stage said, “No. All India only four have been selected. You can’t stop her.” So he said, “Okay, I’ll allow you. But if you find a good boy then you’ll get married.” At that stage, I said because I really wanted to go. So that’s how I joined NID. And, after NID then, I got into this field, I came back.
Nitesh Batra: Talking about your NID experience, school experience and college experience. How did your art evolve over the years? Starting from school? Starting from your first teacher in Mumbai and then Delhi? What changed or did anything change?
Renuka Taneja: Yes, definitely. Because, like in College of Art it was very structured and NID was where the difference was there. The whole methodology was different. You were allowed to reflect, explore, experiment. You had your own time. Of course you had deadlines, but at the same time you were given that space. And then later on my daughter joined the school called Mirambika where there is a lot of experiential learning. So we had a lot of unlearning to do. And that’s where I learned a lot too. Because Sri Aurobindo and Mother’s philosophy is very different. And that’s how when “Windows” was born. Before, Windows was born, over here, we handle the children very differently.
Nitesh Batra: What is Windows?
Renuka Taneja: Our studio is called Windows-The art and craft corner. Delhi and Gurgaon-both.
Renuka Taneja: And Windows was born because of my daughter, Sadhvi. She was very small and I did not want to leave her with maids and you know, go out and work. And at that time I was teaching full time at NIFT. And I did not want to leave her and I did not know how to leave NIFT because it was a very prestigious job. And I think it was all divine intervention! “HE” fractured my foot and that was the turning point of my life.
Nitesh Batra: And that’s how the studio was born!
Nitesh Batra: So, we are here, sitting in the studio, the one in Delhi in Panchsheel Park and it’s a beautiful place. We’re surrounded by these drawings where, I believe kids are mostly taught? Can you talk more about who comes here, how are they associated with you?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah. So now we go down to the age of — this year we have taken 2.9 years. Otherwise when we started we were taking about 5 years. And, kids come here, they enjoy themselves, they explore, experiment and express with no boundaries. I don’t give them too many guidelines. We are facilitators over here. We give them the material, we allow them to– like someday, we might plan something, but the children don’t want to do it. I say, okay. We then flow with it, whatever the children want. Because we have all the material. So we flow with that and they do that. You’ll never find two pieces identical because each child has their own thought. And that is what we encourage each child’s thought because my belief is that every child is on a different ladder. And, so what if one child is on the first ladder and the other child is on the 10th ladder. But they all have their own ideas, their own thoughts.
Renuka Taneja: And that is what we hone. Allow them to be. And we, get children from the age of 2.9 to 18. Now, a lot of them grow up here. They come very young. Some of them started at the age of 3 and today they’re 18 and joining college. It’s a second home for them and as they grow up here, it’s like, you know, I can ask them for anything. They in fact, like Chandini is one of them, she just got into NIFT and she is handling my computer, my presentation. She comes here and parents also feel very safe. She’s here till 9:00/10:00 at night. If I have a presentation, say with a corporate at some point, she used to come and do all my presentations. And tell me, “Ma’am, this has to be done this, that way.” Because, I didn’t know too much about computers.
Renuka Taneja: So they handle it and I allow them to be the leaders. Rather than me being in the forefront, they are in the forefront. We do a lot of workshops in schools and colleges and corporate also where I take the senior children with me. So it’s an experience for them. And even at Windows, like say the Friday children or the Saturday children, they come and they work with the Wednesday children – which is the youngest group of children. So it’s a very big learning and it’s a child to child learning which happens. And a child learns much better from a child and it’s amazing to see the older kids talk to the younger kids and they talk your language and you say, “good, very good!”
Nitesh Batra: That’s beautiful. I think this extended family of yours, these kids. It must be surreal sometimes when you look at them when they have graduated from where they have started. And the studio is 18 years old? I think that judgment or being non-judgmental of whatever anyone does. Unfortunately our schooling system is not like that and I think that’s what you struggled with when you were growing up. And when you made a decision to go or at least speak to your father because, it depends upon the family you are in, depends upon who your parents are and what the situation is. There is something from inside that is saying that this is something that I would like to do. Can you recall that moment? What was that inside? What was that push? I’m sure you were scared. You were fearful because you don’t know what would happen, whether you would go into it or not go into it. Can you think of that moment, how that would be and maybe relate that to your life at a later point where you did something completely opposite, let the other person be, do whatever you would like. Whatever your inner calling is. Does that make sense?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah. So, when I was in the 10th — I think that’s when you choose your subjects. And my father wanted me to choose Science and I qualified for it, but I didn’t want to do Science. I said, no, I’d want to do Humanities. And he said, no, you have to do Science. I said, no, but I know I will not be able to do it. And the parents had to sign a letter and send. So he signed the letter thinking I will never go and give it in school. And there are very few times when the took the decisions because I was always very scared. So I went to school and Mr. Lugani was our principal. So I gave the letter to him. My father couldn’t believe that I did that. I got Humanities and even Mr. Lugani, he said, “You’re getting science and why you’re not taking it? I said, “No, no, I don’t want to do Science.”
Nitesh Batra: The second part of the question was, at a later point in your life, can you relate to a moment where you were in a similar situation and you didn’t make that judgment? You let the other person make that decision?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah. So like for example, I’ll tell you, we had — I don’t know whether it makes sense to this, but we had gone for a corporate workshop and the workshop was on “Reusing Waste”. Like in Windows, we’ve been using waste material for the last 18 years and our children have made products out of it, which today is the in thing. But this, we’ve been doing for 18 years. So we had gone to take a workshop there. I took my kids with me over there. So they were the leaders and I was at the back. I and my other team at the back. So the manager came and he says, “Ma’am, please, announce the 1st, 2nd & 3rd.” And that’s something that I totally don’t believe in. I believe in, there should be no 1st/2nd/3rd. Everyone is good and everyone is good and acknowledge what is good in whom.
Renuka Taneja: So I was in a fix and I said, “No, but, I don’t announce 1st, 2nd & 3rd.” He said, “But this team has been working so hard for it. And you’re saying that you can’t announce 1st, 2nd, 3rd?” So, I was in a fix, not knowing what to do. And that time, one of my students – Sajuni, she’s today in DJ Institute in Coimbatore. So she told me in front of everybody, “Ma’am you can’t go back on what you have taught us. You’ve always told us that there is no 1st/2nd/3rd, there is no nothing and today when you have a point to choose, you can’t go back on that.” And that gave me the strength. And then I said, “I’m sorry that I can’t do that. Each piece is beautiful. I would like you to acknowledge and award every team.” And then they did agree on that.
Nitesh Batra: Absolutely does. And absolutely makes sense. And the values that you are inculcating in your children, the kids who study here, I think they are making you re-learn it, reinforcing that what you’re teaching them is the right way forward.
Nitesh Batra: The other thing that you do is go to corporates like you were saying and teaching some of the adults. How are they different from children?
Renuka Taneja: It takes a little time to break the ice with them. And their first reaction is that we’ve not touched art for so many years. We used to do it as a child and we’re not good at it. So that reminds me of my days and I say, you know, everybody can do it. Everybody is capable. It’s our own fears and our own judgment about ourselves that we say no, we are not capable. Like even yesterday’s workshop, there were some people who said we can’t do it. We’ve never done art. And I said, don’t worry, there’s no time for it. My mother started painting at the age of 75. She’s now 88 and she’s still painting. So there is no age actually. And so that is the first thing I need to do when I go to the corporate. And it helps them de-stress a lot and at the end of it they feel very happy.
Renuka Taneja: Initially, the fear is there. And they say, “we can’t, we haven’t touched a brush” and they’re surprised and amazed at their own results. Like, there was one Mr. Wagley, and he attended one of Nityashanti’s workshops–sometimes, I do art with them. And he was, just retiring from a very senior job and that workshop changed his life. And today he is painting every night and he had never touched a brush in his life. So retirement age is 68/65? So that’s when he started painting and today he keeps painting and he calls me up and asks, “What do I do next?” And he’s also attended classes with the children over here. So we also have seniors, parents joining in. It’s nice. It’s a good feeling. The mental level is different. Like when I teach in colleges, the level is different. When I teach here the level is different.
Nitesh Batra: You become one of them because you just blend in. With all this art around, what does art mean to you?
Renuka Taneja: It’s just your creative expression. Just letting what is within, come out. Connecting to your inner self and no judgment. There is no good and bad and each one is good at something. Someone might be good at conceptualizing, someone might be good at color, someone might be good at skill and it’s not that the focus is skill. Skill I believe, comes on its own, gradually, as your observation increases and as you grow older, the skill comes in. But otherwise it’s just touching your inner self and expressing what your inner self tells you to do.
Nitesh Batra: And is it a meditative process for you? In what ways?
Renuka Taneja: Absolutely. You are in a different zone. And I remember, when I used to design at one point and after I got married I was designing for Sitananda. And when I used to design, I used to sit late at night and I would not realize the time. And I would just go on and my mother in law used to tell me, “How long can you keep doing it”? But, I guess it’s not easy for everyone to understand that. But it is totally meditative. You are in a different world. It’s de-stressing. And so many times– there are times when I don’t want to come up and I say, “no, not today.” But then, the moment I step in here and the kids are there, it’s different. It’s totally different. And you get de-stressed, you go out happier and you don’t need to meditate. It just happens.
Nitesh Batra: It is meditative in very many ways and like you mentioned. But have you noticed that people are afraid to be happy?
Renuka Taneja: Yes.
Nitesh Batra: Why is that?
Renuka Taneja: hmm, that’s a question…why are they afraid to be happy? I think, maybe they are scared to experience it because they’re so used to being in the zone that they’re in.
Nitesh Batra: Maybe they are afraid of being judged?
Renuka Taneja: Yes, very true.
Nitesh Batra: And trying something new because the way they have been brought up, the entire education system has just been whether they are the top rankers or someone in the below. Is that one of the reasons?
Renuka Taneja: Absolutely. Because they’re afraid to fall, afraid to fail and that’s why they are afraid to even try anything new. And a lot of them come and say, “I can’t do it.” Then the parents come and they say, “this one is capable and this one is not capable”–even when they have two kids and I tell them, please don’t judge your children. Just let them come and let them feel the place. And if they like it, let them be. Otherwise, you take them away. And I think it is very true that because of that fear and that fear of being judged a lot of people don’t attempt. And the world–so called art, I feel, is realistic art. They feel, “if it is realistic, it is very beautiful but otherwise, we don’t understand.” And I feel it’s the children who are actually connected to the divine and we are the ones who cut that chord and we tell them, “no, this is the right way and that way you think is not the right way.”
Renuka Taneja: Like for example, I’ll tell you a little poem which I give to all my parents. It’s about this little boy and at a really young age, he paints his paper all white or all yellow and white and he sleeps with it. And it goes around showing everybody that see, this is my masterpiece. And then, everybody says, but what is it? It doesn’t mean anything. So he says, no, but look at it. It’s so, is my art. It is my piece. And then he goes to school and he’s told to sit in the same bench as everybody else, but he doesn’t like to do that. He has to carry a bag like everybody else. And he doesn’t want to do that. And slowly, slowly what happens? That child becomes like everybody else because you’ve cut that chord and you’ve told him that no, you have to be like the others. So my belief is allow them to be different. Allow each soul to evolve because every soul has something special in it.
Nitesh Batra: Yes, every soul has something special in him or her in every way. And unfortunately, a lot of us have grown up thinking otherwise. An art is a form of expression. Whether it’s art or something else, whatever you love. I think if you’re able to commit to it, where you find joy, where you find happiness, I think that is where the connection with yourself and or whatever the higher being that you believe in, comes in. What is the favorite form of art for you?
Nitesh Batra: What is it that you like to do within the art arena? Because you’ve been doing it for x number of years now and sometimes you also need to de-stress, probably. Sometimes you like to go back and maybe draw or do some textile designing. What is it that you enjoy and cherish?
Renuka Taneja: I, actually, every form of it (art) I love and not only art, I also love dancing, which I used to do as a young child. I want to get back to it. I don’t know whether I will. You know, any expressive field and I don’t get so much of time to do for myself. I get others to do it. I really enjoy holding the brush and experimenting of course, little bit with textiles, before the children come in and then be with the kids, discover along with them because there’s so many things one has discovered which one did not know while you are with the children. So it’s not one particular form. But, just anything.
Nitesh Batra: I think one of the other things about art that I have realized that it’s used a lot in therapy. And we’re in an information age where we are overloaded with information and as you mentioned that it is a tool to de-stress. But if you don’t think of it as a tool but just think as a form of expression as you said it, how can it help in therapeutic ways?
Renuka Taneja: So it is very, very therapeutic. Because, I have a number of kids who come here, who have been to depression. And today they are all termed that “he’s dyslexic or he’s a slow learner” and I feel that no, it’s not like that. Just every child– give them that space, allow them and they find themselves. Why do we term them like that? Why do we label them? And definitely people who have been under depression, they come out of it because it kid of touches them somewhere inside. And I think just being with color, being with a different material and making something using your hands, using–without thinking– I tell them, “don’t think, just do”. Without thinking too much, allowing the hands to move, their souls to move, their heart, what their heart is speaking to them. It de-stresses them. And, a number of people who get out of their depression also, because they see something. They spend that time with themselves. And slowly, slowly it heals them. That’s my belief. That it actually heals.
Nitesh Batra: And in terms of their self esteem?
Renuka Taneja: Definitely. Because, in schools — when they’re in school there is a lot of comparison and there’s lot of putting down of each other and whereas this space is a very safe space for them. And, I remember, when we put up– we exhibit the children’s work- earlier, we used to do every year. Now we do once in two years or depending on the situation. But we exhibit every child’s work. There is no child whose work is not exhibited. And I’ve heard my children, “Oh, we also will have an exhibition? Ours will also be put up on a wall?” And you know, we have a little thing where we invite all the parents and we made it into a traveling exhibition where we traveled from school to school, trying to tell the people and the teachers that, you know, just allow them to be. And see the creations that come out. And why should everyone sit and draw the same thing? Why should the house be the way the house is–(the way) you and I have done it? Why should the tree be green? It’s you and I who have given the name Green. But it could be pink, it could be purple, why do we do that? So that is what it is. Allow them to be and that helps their self-esteem because they are acknowledged here. They appreciated and nothing is wrong.
Nitesh Batra: When they leave this safe space, when they leave the studio and they go in the outside world which is very competitive and in many ways cut throat as well. And also, schools are very similar. How do you manage the expectations? Because here they spend only a short period of time and when they’re outside they try to do the same thing and it may not flow as well as it would here. And then they come back. How do you manage those situations?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah, there have been situations like that. What I have started doing now is that when they reach the senior level, I keep giving them some time frames because earlier on, I never used to do that. So I found, when they go to college, especially they’re going to design colleges and they don’t have the sense of time frame. Then they get into trouble and they come back saying, Ma’am they don’t give me time.” So I have realized that and I tell them that, you know, you need to work, you need to have little boundaries, you need to work within those boundaries. So slowly, they understand that. But yes, sometimes there is a struggle but I think by then they’re old enough and they understand that and the design institutes also, today, their
Renuka Taneja: They’re already in schools where, in schools, this competition is happening and this is one place where there is no competition. So they feel very comfortable here and the unburdening happens here. But when they go out into the outside world, they are facing that all the time. So I think, they learn to manage that. That’s what I’ve understood from many of them that they’ve learned to manage that quite well and they learn to bring a balance into their lives. So, a lot of kids who’ve gone from here, that’s what the senior kids or ex students say. That, they are more balanced — I can’t say, but that’s what they say.
Nitesh Batra: I’m sure you have to believe them because they’re being authentic in whatever they are saying. But moving on from here, I think, even for you, when you got married, I think support of the spouse or support of the family family is one of the most important things. And these kids who are — not just graduating from here, while they’re here as well, I think, support of family again, is extremely important. Can you shed some light? What role did that play in your journey of being where you are today? Or maybe some of the other kids? If you just touch on yours, that’s fine as well.
Renuka Taneja: So, when I got married, my family I told you, my mother supported a lot and later on my father also. But initially he was very apprehensive about it. And once I got married, when I met Vineet, I told him that I want to work also. So he said, that’s okay. At that time I didn’t know where I will go, I didn’t know what I will do, but yes, I had come back from NID and then I’d gone to meet Mrs. Chona in DPS. And the moment I walked in, she said, “Come tomorrow and join.”
Nitesh Batra: This is DPS Mathura Road?
Renuka Taneja: DPS — East of Kailash. So I said, “But I don’t want to teach”. So she said, “you’re not doing anything now, so you come”. So I went to say no to her the next day, but I couldn’t say no to her. So I joined over there. And then of course, I had the support of my in-laws and Vineet. They allowed me to do that. And then, my journey continued. I did some freelancing, I did things like that. And the finally I landed up in NIFT. And NIFT was a full time (job). I was offered the job by Mr. Saptarishi at that time. And he called me one day. Earlier, I used to go part time. So he called me one day and he says, “Here’s your appointment letter.” So I said, “But Sir, I don’t want to join.” So he says, “People don’t get this job, you’re getting this job and you’re not joining?”
Renuka Taneja: So I said, “Sir, I have a very young daughter and I can’t leave her come.” So he said, “Okay, I’m giving you three days. You think about it and then you come back to me. And I’m telling you, what I’m offering you is, you can bring your daughter to college and she can sit through your classes. That is no problem.” So I came home and I wanted to join also. And at the same time I did not want to. So, I got the support from Vineet and the family. And they said, “Okay, it doesn’t matter, you try it. And try it for six months. Maximum, you leave it later on.” So I joined NIFT and of course there was a lot of this thing going on because I did not know Mr Saptarishi from anywhere. But how he saw my work, and what did he feel, I don’t know.
Renuka Taneja: But that’s what happened. And then I joined. And then I wanted to leave, because, I did not want like leaving Sadhvi, our daughter, with maids or anything. But at the same time, I couldn’t leave it. And that’s when I was telling you, how Windows was born. So, the Divine fractured my foot. So when he fractured my foot, it became a little complicated and I could not climb the stairs of NIFT. So, when I couldn’t climb the stairs of NIFT, I had to forcefully resign. So I resigned. And then I went into a depression.
Renuka Taneja: So when I went into a depression, that was a tough phase for everybody. And everybody supported me along — with VIneet, and his parents and everybody supported a lot. A friend of mine came –Madhu — we were together in college and she said, “Listen, let’s do something that our kids are involved.” And we brainstormed and we said, okay, let’s do art classes. So we started with this. This room was only half. And we said, we’ll take boards, we’ll go to the park and we get children and we’ll start sketching.
Nitesh Batra: And when we say this room, listeners don’t know what this room is.
Renuka Taneja: This is our studio in Panchsheel and it was half the size at that time. And so, my mother offered this place. She said, “this is lying empty, why don’t you use this?” And we had just joined Mirambika at that time. So it’s like, it’s amazing how the divine works. So we had some architect friends. We called them to figure out what we could do one by one, things just happened. And that’s how Windows was born. Even, I don’t know how it happened. But it happened. And we started with six kids and now it’s 18 years we’ve been here and that’s what we’re doing.
Nitesh Batra: How beautiful. This is an extremely beautiful space and it’s lovely to be a part of it. Just to know about your journey. I think before I end, I just want to touch upon a subject which you brushed over, which always sparks some interest in me. You said, “my in-laws allowed me” and I find that disturbing always, no matter what generation we’re talking about. What are your views about it now that you need someone’s permission, to do something. And, you’re sharing your life with them. Probably they never asked you if they wanted to do something or maybe your husband never asked you what? I’m sure there were some discussions about it. I don’t know about that situation, but I’m sure it is not vice versa. What are your thoughts about it? Because you just said it and moved on and it’s ingrained in our heads that we need these permissions and we are so and so. And that’s a gender issue that we deal with in most societies in India. We definitely deal with it. Do you have any thoughts about?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah, see what I meant was, I didn’t have to take permission from them because Vineet was always by my side and he said, just do what you want. And if it wasn’t for his support, I don’t think I would have reached where I am today. He’s always supported me, he has always backed me. And , my in laws never really said anything. But I think it is your upbringing, as you said. It’s your upbringing that you feel, “One must ask, one must inform them.” Otherwise there was no stopping. And Vineet always used to tell me earlier that, see I will earn the bread and butter, then you have to do the rest. And how this happened, how Windows happened — even I, when I look back, I’m surprised how it happened. But I guess and I never wanted to actually get into education or teaching because I used to say, “I’ve studied so much, I’ve done seven years and I’m not going to sit and teach, I’m not going to do this”– at that point. But I think it’s the best thing that happened to me in retrospect.
Nitesh Batra: And like you said, divine intervention. That’s what made it happen. But see, coming back to the point that you were mentioning that you never actually had to, which is very true. It’s only a matter of respect and it’s a two way respect. It should never be one way respect. And I think it’s being misconstrued in lot of ways that someone thinks that I’m in power, so I can do whatever. And I think just for that equanimity or something of the saneness of the household that is there. All right. Before we, end this interview — this conversation, is there something that you would like to say to people who are interested in art but are afraid? Or people who would like to just explore something about the field of art and what it can do for them?
Renuka Taneja: Yeah. My message to them is that just allow yourself to be. Don’t have this fear of being judged. There’s nothing right. There’s nothing wrong. And I feel that every error– what you think is an error, leads to a new creation which you never thought of. And don’t judge yourselves because judging is where we fail. And that’s what holds us back because we judge ourselves too much. And if you just say, “Alright, it doesn’t matter. I’m just doing it for myself and I’m not worried about what the world says, don’t worry about what the world says, just do it for yourself, for your soul. To help your growth, and just enjoy it because color, nature, all these things actually heal you and allow yourselves to be healed.
Nitesh Batra: That is such a beautiful way to end. Thank you so much for being a part of our podcast. We have come to the end of another episode of the mindful initiative. Thank you so much for joining us. Please share this podcast with your friends and family. If you like us, please rate us on iTunes podcasts or Google podcast. Thank you so much. Thank you.
Transcription by: Gita Venkat
Editing: Juan Pablo Velasquez Luna