‘The arts use a lot of psychology in designing the artistic experience’

Sangeetha Rajan on her journey and her work with The Arts Quotient.

I have always enjoyed observing people, thinking about why they do certain things or about how they will behave. But my interest crystallised as an undergraduate. I studied at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, which had a world-class psychology department. My teachers were inspiring and I did a lot of extra reading as part of an honours programme. I particularly enjoyed rounding up unwilling ‘subjects’ (mostly my friends) for experiments that we ran in our lab where they taught us about research methods. We watched as magical things like the Stroop effect unfolded and we learnt to do ANOVA calculations manually (this was the ’90s). It was like having a little secret window into people’s heads… who wouldn’t want to have a closer look!

So I enrolled in a master’s programme. Eventually I decided to move towards occupational psychology, by studying personnel management at XLRI – one of India’s best business schools.

In my early career I worked in the manufacturing industry (Maruti Udyog) and then shifted to banking (ICICI Bank) in the learning and development function. It was a great experience for a young professional. Long hours, lots of freedom to experiment, supportive bosses and an extremely meritocratic culture. I learnt about instructional design and the basics of facilitating learning, among other things.

During all of this, and in fact for as long as I can remember, I also had a life in the arts. I had been on stage as a dancer since the age of four. My family is full of artists and teachers. My mother is a theatre person with her childhood spent as a dancer as part of a professional theatre group. My brother is a percussionist; my cousins are all variously involved in the arts. My grandfather on my father’s side was a headmaster of a school, and many aunts and cousins are teachers and educationists even today.

Coming from such a family, the world of dance, music, theatre and visual arts was just as real for me as the one I had chosen to explore as an adult. Along with my job, I continued to perform on stage. Naturally, I started wondering about how I could bridge the two worlds. The arts use a lot of psychology in designing the artistic experience, even if the principles are not articulated. My quest was about how these principles could be articulated, and how they could be of use to people who have not had the benefit of training in the arts.

Through my doctorate, I kept thinking about how this might work and was lucky to find a collaborator – my business partner Swati Apte, who had just returned to India. She had her own journey through business school at Harvard, working with McKinsey as a strategy consultant in New York, and through it all, also being a dancer.

We started running these workshops about six years back, and it was really like an experiment for us: to see how best we could craft the experience to ensure transfer of learning. There were many groups that ran theatre workshops as a way to raise money. Likewise, consultants used theatre and other arts as ways to make training experience more fun. But having worked in the learning space for over a decade and a half, I knew that the real challenge was transfer of learning to the real-life context. We didn’t just want people to see the point; we wanted them motivated to change their behavioural habits.

At the time we started both of us were doing other things – I was studying law, and Swati was working in the microfinance domain. It was only when a client asked us what name to put on the contract, because they wanted to give us ongoing work, that we got our act together and registered our company – The Arts Quotient Learning Experience Pvt Ltd.

At The Arts Quotient, we use the performing arts (theatre, puppetry, music, dance, etc.) as a source of content and method to create learning for business leaders. One of the themes we often address is enabling our participants to use non-verbal behaviour in a way that helps them influence conversational outcomes. We do this by using techniques from theatre and the movement arts, creating a lot of practice opportunity during the sessions.

One of the practice scenarios we had given the participants in such a workshop was that of engaging with a young child (played by an actor). As the child’s tantrums grew, the group struggled with taking non-confrontational postures. So we talked about how body language and proxemics can be used to diffuse the tense energy in confrontational situations. The next day, one of our participants reported how she tried the suggested strategies with her toddler daughter, and how it made for a much more positive interaction! Other participants of similar workshops have reported successfully using these strategies in negotiations with government officials, in performance review conversations with their supervisors, and other difficult situations.

Over the years, we have gathered a lot of anecdotal evidence for the transfer of learning from our workshops. Psychologically, what makes this possible, I believe, is the way we design the experience. The focus is at least as much on the learning process as on content. By thinking about the meta-learning aspects, we are able to help people access the behavioural skills when they need it. Making learning fun increases retention, no doubt, but enabling people to be observers of their own behaviour helps them course correct while performing. So we teach skills (all drawn from the arts), work with the participants to create markers so they know how they are doing on those skills, and share tools that they can use to apply these in everyday life.

Our challenge is building more awareness around the work that we do. In the early days, people would ask, ‘Are you going to make our managers dance in the workshop?’, ‘Are they going to have to act?’, and so on. Many have told us point blank that they don’t really see a link between the arts and leadership, and it has sometimes been an uphill task explaining our work to people. I’m glad to say we have not had many such conversations lately. Now the questions are around transfer of learning, what the process will involve, how much time the learning process will take, can it be done individually or in groups – all very welcome questions for us!

I think there could be more research on the psychology of the arts. I know psychology has been applied to artists to help them overcome stage fear, for example, or be better performers. There has also been a lot of research on the instrumental benefits of the arts – music leading to better reasoning, dance to confidence, and drama to interpersonal skills. But I am talking about the psychology woven into the arts and the artistic experience itself. Research in this vein could beautifully inform our work and enrich it. For instance, what ingredients of the artistic experience are called upon to get the audience to feel wonderment (adhbuta; one of the nine rasas or experiential states per Indian performing arts theory)? Does training in emotional expression also help in emotional awareness and regulation? How does ‘self-role distance’ manifest for actors, and where does authenticity come into it? By what mechanisms can dance lead to increased confidence?

Where next? Well, a few months back, a colleague of mine recommended our work to a potential client with the caveat ‘They are a little bit out there, but they are very good!’. After a lot of cross-examination by this client, we finally landed a short engagement. My dream is to establish our methodology so very prominently that nobody feels the need to say we are ‘out there’ or ‘different’ or ‘alternative’. A multidisciplinary approach to creating learning needs to become the way people do things.

Picture: Ganesh Iyer

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