Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Message of the East

The Past and the Future SRI AUROBINDO
OUR CONTEMPORARY, the Statesman, notices in an unusually self-restrained article the recent brochure republished by Dr. A. K. Coomaraswamy from the Modern Review under the title, "The Message of the East". We have not the work before us but, from our memory of the articles and our knowledge of our distinguished countryman's views, we do not think the Statesman has quite caught the spirit of the writer. Dr. Coomaraswamy is above all a lover of art and beauty and the ancient thought and greatness of India, but he is also, and as a result of this deep love and appreciation, an ardent Nationalist. Writing as an artist, he calls attention to the debased aesthetic ideas and tastes which the ugly and sordid commercialism of the West has introduced into the mind of a nation once distinguished for its superior beauty and grandeur of conception and for the extent to which it suffused the whole of life with the forces of the intellect and the spirit. He laments the persistence of a servile imitation of English ideas, English methods, English machinery and production even in the new Nationalism. And he reminds his readers that nations cannot be made by politics and economics alone, but that art also has a great and still unrecognised claim. The main drift of his writing is to censure the low imitative un-Indian and bourgeois ideals of our national activity in the nineteenth century and to recall our minds to the cardinal fact that, if India is to arise and be great as a nation, it is not by imitating the methods and institutions of English politics and commerce, but by carrying her own civilisation, purified of the weaknesses that have overtaken it, to a much higher and mightier fulfilment than any that it has reached in the past. Our mission is to outdistance, lead and instruct Europe, not merely to imitate and learn from her.
Dr. Coomaraswamy speaks of art, but it is certain that a man of his wide culture would not exclude, and we know he does not exclude, thought, literature and religion from the forces that must uplift our nation and are necessary to its future. To recover Indian thought, Indian character, Indian perceptions, Indian energy, Indian greatness, and to solve the problems that perplex the world in an Indian spirit and from the Indian standpoint, this, in our view, is the mission of Nationalism. We agree with Dr. Coomaraswamy that an exclusive preoccupation with politics and economics is likely to dwarf our growth and prevent the flowering of originality and energy. We have to return to the fountainheads of our ancient religion, philosophy, art and literature and pour the revivifying influences of our immemorial Aryan spirit and ideals into our political and economic development. This is the ideal the Karmayogin holds before it, and our outlook and Dr. Coomaraswamy's do not substantially differ. But in judging our present activities we cannot look, as he does, from a purely artistic and idealistic standpoint, but must act and write in the spirit of a practical idealism.
The debasement of our mind, character and tastes by a grossly commercial, materialistic and insufficient European education is a fact on which the young Nationalism has always insisted. The practical destruction of our artistic perceptions and the plastic skill and fineness of eye and hand which once gave our productions pre-eminence, distinction and mastery of the European markets, is also a thing accomplished. Most vital of all, the spiritual and intellectual divorce from the past which the present schools and universities have effected, has beggared the nation of the originality, high aspiration and forceful energy which can alone make a nation free and great. To reverse the process and recover what we have lost, is undoubtedly the first object to which we ought to devote ourselves. And as the loss of originality, aspiration and energy was the most vital of all these losses, so their recovery should be our first and most important objective. The primary aim of the prophets of Nationalism was to rid the nation of the idea that the future was limited by the circumstances of the present, that because temporary causes had brought us low and made us weak, low therefore must be our aims and weak our methods. They pointed the mind of the people to a great and splendid destiny, not in some distant millennium but in the comparatively near future, and fired the hearts of the young men with a burning desire to realise the apocalyptic vision. As a justification of what might otherwise have seemed a dream and as an inexhaustible source of energy and inspiration, they pointed persistently to the great achievements and grandiose civilisation of our forefathers and called on the rising generation to recover their lost spiritual and intellectual heritage.
It cannot be denied that this double effort to realise the past and the future has been the distinguishing temperament and the chief uplifting force in the movement, and it cannot be denied that it is bringing back to our young men originality, aspiration and energy. By this force the character, temper and action of the Bengali has been altered beyond recognition in a few years. To raise the mind, character and tastes of the people, to recover the ancient nobility of temper, the strong Aryan character and the high Aryan outlook, the perceptions which made earthly life beautiful and wonderful, and the magnificent spiritual experiences, realisations and aspirations which made us the deepest-hearted, deepest-thoughted and most delicately profound in life of all the peoples of the earth, is the task next in importance and urgency. We had hoped by means of National Education to effect this great object as well as to restore to our youth the intellectual heritage of the nation and build up on that basis a yet greater culture in the future. We must admit that the instrument which we cherished and for which such sacrifices were made, has proved insufficient and threatens, in unfit hands, to lose its promise of fulfilment and be diverted to lower ends. But the movement is greater than its instruments. We must strive to prevent the destruction of that which we have created and, in the meanwhile, build up a centre of culture, freer and more perfect, which will either permeate the other with itself or replace it if destroyed. Finally, the artistic awakening has been commenced by that young, living and energetic school which has gathered round the Master and originator, Sj. Abanindranath Tagore. The impulse which this school is giving, its inspired artistic recovery of the past, its intuitive anticipations of the future, have to be popularised and made a national possession.
Dr. Coomaraswamy complains of the survivals of the past in the preparations for the future. But no movement, however vigorous, can throw off in a few years the effects of a whole century. We must remember also why the degradation and denationalisation, "the mighty evil in our souls" of which the writer complains, came into being. A painful but necessary work had to be done, and because the English nation were the fittest instrument for His purpose, God led them all over those thousands of miles of alien Ocean, gave strength to their hearts and subtlety to their brains, and set them up in India to do His work, which they have been doing faithfully, if blindly, ever since and are doing at the present moment. The spirit and ideals of India had come to be confined in a mould which, however beautiful, was too narrow and slender to bear the mighty burden of our future. When that happens, the mould has to be broken and even the ideal lost for a while, in order to be recovered free of constraint and limitation. We have to recover the Aryan spirit and ideal and keep it intact but enshrined in new forms and more expansive institutions. We have to treasure jealously everything in our social structure, manners, institutions, which is of permanent value, essential to our spirit or helpful to the future; but we must not cabin the expanding and aggressive spirit of India in temporary forms which are the creation of the last few hundred years. That would be a vain and disastrous endeavour. The mould is broken; we must remould in larger outlines and with a richer content. For the work of destruction England was best fitted by her stubborn individuality and by that very commercialism and materialism which made her the antitype in temper and culture of the race she governed. She was chosen too for the unrivalled efficiency and skill with which she has organised an individualistic and materialistic democracy. We had to come to close quarters with that democratic organisation, draw it into ourselves and absorb the democratic spirit and methods so that we might rise beyond them. Our half-aristocratic half-theocratic feudalism had to be broken, in order that the democratic spirit of the Vedanta might be released and, by absorbing all that is needed of the aristocratic and theocratic culture, create for the Indian race a new and powerful political and social organisation. We have to learn and use the democratic principle and methods of Europe, in order that hereafter we may build up something more suited to our past and to the future of humanity.
We have to throw away the individualism and materialism and keep the democracy. We have to solve for the human race the problem of harmonising and spiritualising its impulses towards liberty, equality and fraternity. In order that we may fulfil our mission we must be masters in our own home. It is out of no hostility to the English people, no race hatred that we seek absolute autonomy, but because it is the first condition of our developing our national self and realising our destiny. It is for this reason that the engrossing political preoccupation came upon us; and we cannot give up or tone down our political movement until the lesson of democratic self-government is learned and the first condition of national self-fulfilment realised. For another reason also England was chosen, because she had organised the competitive system of commerce, with its bitter and murderous struggle for existence, in the most skilful, discreet and successful fashion. We had to feel the full weight of that system and learn the literal meaning of this industrial realisation of Darwinism. It has been written large for us in ghastly letters of famine, chronic starvation and misery and a decreasing population. We have risen at last, entered into the battle and with the Boycott for a weapon, are striking at the throat of British commerce even as it struck at ours, first by protection and then by free trade. Again it is not out of hatred that we strike, but out of self-preservation. We must conquer in that battle if we are to live. We cannot arrest our development of industry and commerce while waiting for a new commercial system to develop or for beauty and art to reconquer the world. As in politics so in commerce, we must learn and master the European methods in order that we may eventually rise above them.
The crude commercial Swadeshi, which Dr. Coomaraswamy finds so distasteful and disappointing, is as integral a part of the national awakening as the movement towards Swaraj or as the new School of Art. If this crude Swadeshi were to collapse and the national movement towards autonomy come to nothing, the artistic renascence he has praised so highly, would wither and sink with the drying up of the soil in which it was planted. A nation need not be luxuriously wealthy in order to be profoundly artistic, but it must have a certain amount of well-being, a national culture and, above all, hope and ardour, if it is to maintain a national art based on a widespread development of artistic perception and faculty. Moreover, aesthetic arts and crafts cannot live against the onrush of cheap and vulgar manufactures under the conditions of the modern social structure. Industry can only become again beautiful if poverty and the struggle for life are eliminated from society and the co-operative State and commune organised as the fruit of a great moral and spiritual uplifting of humanity.
We hold such an uplifting and reorganisation as part of India's mission. But to do her work she must live. Therefore the economical preoccupation has been added to the political. We perceive the salvation of the country not in parting with either of these, but in adding to them a religious and moral preoccupation. On the basis of that religious and moral awakening the preoccupation of art and fine culture will be added and firmly based. There are many who perceive the necessity of the religious and moral regeneration, who are inclined to turn from the prosaic details of politics and commerce and regret that any guide and teacher of the nation should stoop to mingle in them. That is a grievous error. The men who would lead India must be catholic and many-sided. When the Avatar comes, we like to believe that he will be not only the religious guide, but the political leader, the great educationist, the regenerator of society, the captain of cooperative industry, with the soul of the poet, scholar and artist. He will be in short the summary and grand type of the future Indian nation which is rising to reshape and lead the world.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Nature is not always tranquil, it is violent too

Karuna Mahindra’s Landscapes at LTG Gallery
Review by Alokparna Das
The Observer of Business and Politics June 15, 1996
Beautiful but too sweet!!! What about the bitter taste? The paintings are pleasant, but unfortunately do not justify the title. A concern for environment cannot be depicted by painting the beautiful natural scenery alone, it has to include the environmental abuse and degradation. In reality, man is very much part of the landscape. Also, nature is not always tranquil, it is violent too. Perhaps, had there been no label of environment attached to the exhibition, the paintings could have been termed perfect in depicting the harmonious element of nature. As of now, the paintings can be best described as a utopian view from a distance.

Friday, December 16, 2005

What is Art?

Silika Mohapatra VISTA
Leo Tolstoy in his essay ‘What is Art’ discards all aesthetic theories that identify art with the ideas of good, truth and beauty. For him art is solely a condition of human life and a means of experiencing the emotion that led the artist to produce his work. To him good art is what infects the viewer, and the more it does so the better. What Tolstoy seems to be emphasizing is the perceiver’s outlook in art, but he appears to be failing in looking at it from the point of view of the artist herself. He talks of art as a relationship but does not realize that art may also be seen as an individual’s enterprise. For the artist, art is an expression of freedom. An artist’s canvas is a place that gives her unbounded liberty to play with myriad colours and forms.
Art may be seen as so personal and unique a venture that the emotion that led the artist to produce his work may be completely different from the one that the perceiver receives. So what do we call such an art? Is it to be categorized as bad art? Art might infect the viewer with some feeling, but it is not at all necessary that it is the same as the one that the artist felt while producing it. Michael Reddy’s speaks of the conduit metaphor as involving a model of communication in which the first person puts his ideas into symbols/words, sends those symbols/words to the second person, who then extracts the ideas out of these symbols/words, as though describing a successful transmission of thoughts, ideas or emotions through a conduit or pipe. Tolstoy seems to be working in this sort of framework in relating art, artist and the observer.
Rather than seeing art as the successful transmission of the artist’s emotion to the perceiver, as Tolstoy did, it may be regarded as either the perceiver’s interpretation, or the artist’s construal, in which case there will be no single defined sentiment that is conveyed. The question of where art resides, whether in the artist’s creativity or the perceiver’s imagination, is a difficult one to answer. Oscar Wilde remarks in his essay, “The Decay of Lying” that the beauty of the sunset is a product of a painter’s imagination. For him art was a beautiful lie. The work of art is thus not merely to emulate an object, as it was perhaps for Plato, but also to enhance and alter it.
While a painting may depict, for instance, the pain of hunger and lead the viewer to feel a similar pain, there is firstly, the possibility of a qualitative difference in the sentiment from that of the artist and secondly, there is a beauty inextricably linked to it, the beautiful depiction of such an emotion. Even if art is to be viewed as a social interaction of sentiments, the idea of beauty cannot be detached from it completely. Beauty might not necessarily be seen as some mysterious idea of metaphysicians. If Tolstoy’s aim is to demolish a notion of absolute beauty in art, that may still be acceptable, for what may appear beautiful to me, might not appear so to somebody else. Aesthetic values may not reside in objects as properties independent of the observer. This is because art is an extremely subjective phenomenon. But to say that it is absolutely detached from beauty appears a little exaggerated and undesirable.
To connect art with delight is not a shallow attempt either. The Indian concept of Ä€nanda, which is the notion of joy or bliss, emphasizes this very character of art and art forms. In trying to answer the question, “What is Art”, what are we seeking? Is it a definition that we want? But no one perspective will be sufficient enough to elucidate the extensive nature of art, art by its very nature being beyond all confines, all limits.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why the arts matter

John Tusa The Hindu Wednesday, Dec 14, 2005
Six years ago, I published a volume of essays about my first five years in the arts world, Art Matters. So much has changed in the past six years that it is time to take a fresh look at the assumptions that prevailed then. Six years ago, the theoretical questions circling the arts were much as they are today. I described them as amounting to a "great existential doubt" as to whether anyone at all cared about the arts. I tried to express that existential doubt in some detail: "The arts stand naked and without defence in a world where what cannot be measured is not valued; where what cannot be predicted will not be risked; ... where whatever cannot deliver a forecast outcome is not undertaken."
Given such doubts — and they can be voiced in identical terms today — it seemed only right to attempt a positive statement of why art was worth fighting for. "The arts matter," I wrote then, "because they are universal; because they are non-material; because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world ... A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future."
Six years on, I stand by all of that. Soon after, I tried a further definition of the special nature of arts activity. It was slightly different and went like this: "Art is about searching and sometimes finding; it defines pain and sorrow and sometimes softens them; it is about exploring confusion and defining disorder; ... it is universal though it may be attacked as exclusive; it is diverse and not homogenised; it resists categories and makes connections across them." Well, that was then and now is now. Different times, different needs, different assumptions, different prescriptions.
Here is my new, revised version of Why Art Matters, couched more in terms that I hope the local politician can relate to. The arts matter because they are local and relevant to the needs and wishes of local people. They help citizens to express their needs and to clothe them in memorable forms. They offer a way of expressing ideas and wishes that ordinary politics do not allow. The arts regenerate the rundown and rehabilitate the neglected. Arts buildings lift the spirits, create symbols that people identify with, and give identity to places that may not have one. Where the arts start, jobs follow. Anywhere that neglects the arts shortchanges its people.
Now all of that is true. The arts have acted as a pole of economic and social regeneration in many places. At the same time, it is worth insisting that while the arts may be a necessary condition of post-industrial regeneration, they are not a sufficient condition. The so-called Bilbao effect was not achieved primarily by building Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum. That building followed a period of sustained local-government investment in infrastructure, including a new underground system.
The arts do stimulate the growth of a creative sector in the economy. They do play a part in the vigour of the ideas economy. Yet, true as this is, it still seems to me to miss the point. The value of the arts is not to be defined as if they were just another economic lever to be pulled. That would place them on a level of activity where measurement of results, predictability of outcome and direction of activity are rated as conditions of success and therefore as grounds for investment in the first place. It puts us back in the bind of instrumentality.
The real question, then, is this: if art cannot repay the public subsidy; if it represents an investment on which there is no return; if it cannot guarantee audiences; if it cannot demonstrate immediate social relevance — if all of this is the case, why does art matter? Real art can fail every measurable objective set by economists and politicians. Yet it will still be art, sometimes great art. So is it possible to produce a newer definition of why art matters, one combining the fundamental importance of values while acknowledging that instrumental considerations do form part of the case for arts funding?
This is the definition I would suggest: the final value of the arts cannot be predicted or quantified; to curtail them on these grounds is to deny the possibility of an unpredictable benefit. The risk of funding the arts offers benefits far greater than the immediate gains of not funding them. The arts link society to its past, a people to its inherited store of ideas, images and words; yet the arts challenge those links in order to find ways of exploring new paths and ventures.
The arts are evolutionary and revolutionary; they listen, recall and lead. They resist the homogeneous, strengthen the individual and are independent in the face of the pressures of the mass, the bland, the undifferentiated. In a post-modern world, in which individual creativity has never mattered more, the arts provide the opportunity for developing this characteristic. The investment in the arts is so small, the actual return so large, that it represents value as research into ideas.
Is there a conclusive argument? Unfortunately, there isn't. What matters far more is that the arts world in all its forms presents the arguments for the arts on any and every occasion; that it insists on the acknowledgment of arguments about the intrinsic importance of values as the key justification for the arts. © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004


1. The moving surface.
What does the future hold for architecture when any of its buildings can be animated and
transformed by projections and electronic displays? What is left of architecture if our architectural
‘sign’ language is no longer etched in stone? Facades and walls could be brought
to life by designers and provided with a new, dynamic iconography. When stationary objects
are visually animated they lose their ‘objectness’, their fixity. However sturdy their construction
may be, they appear to be moving. That really is ‘lite’ architecture. In addition to
striving after ever-lighter structures, transparent and translucent walls, and gravity defying
curvilinear forms, architecture can now, via film, become truly immaterial. Contours fade,
forms become fluid. The relationship between human beings and architecture is no longer
polar or dialectical, but ‘immersive’. You can quite literally be swallowed up in it... Who will
be the first architect to win the Oscar for best director?
2. The interactive surface.
How to overcome the passivity of the viewer? If the building is going to become a kind of
terminal anyway, you might as well go ahead and make it an interactive medium. The introduction
of sensor technology heralds a new age in which architecture can be programmed
to respond to highly specific actions. Connected by an efficient interface to the display
possibilities I just described, recording cameras, scanners, electronic eyes, sound and heat
detectors, infrared systems and the like, architecture can generate a dynamism that finally
eclipses the significance of the static object altogether. The architectural design encompasses
not just the object, but also the reaction of that object to the subject. Architecture
becomes intimately involved with experience. The building or urban environment does not
move because it has been turned into an animation but because you, the actor, animate it.
3. Architecture online.
Once the building is interactive, the next step is to connect the architecture to digital networks
and make it ‘online’. What possibilities would be opened up if not only people but
whole environments could be linked together in networks? Architecture online! Now that
digitisation processes are making headway in both the creation and experiencing of environments,
it is possible to link physically separate environments to one another. Once architecture
has been redefined as ‘information’ this can be rendered compatible by means of a
protocol-juggling interface. This in turn can be linked to other environments, analogue as
well as digital. The first variant of this approach is to link up with other physical environments.
A building is crossed with another location. Interestingly, the aesthetic experience
can be collective as well as individual. By adopting a multimedia approach – which involves
linking digital recording equipment such as video cameras, webcams, microphones, scanners
and sensors, to reproduction media such as displays, loudspeakers, or ‘invisible’ integrated
architecture electronics – and designing an interesting interface that makes the
option of exchange worthwhile and selective, it is possible to devise a new type of spatial
extensibility. Places and people in those places communicate with one another. Architecture
becomes a matter of moving situations.
This way, architecture travels, multiplies, becomes a migrant. Rather than creating a
place, designers stage-manage moving situations. The relation between individual and
object becomes the relation between dynamic places and (sometimes manipulated) states
of mind. This architecture belongs to neither the physical nor the virtual domain; it is a
hybrid. Space becomes genuinely fluid; it forms the link by which the digital space can flow
into the real space of daily life. And vice versa...
4. And, finally, full-blown Internetted architecture
This brings us to the second option for online architecture. In addition to virtually connecting
two or more physically remote environments, it is also possible, to link these physical
environments to virtual environments of online networks. This application will only really
become interesting when the design itself utilises the information from the Net as a fundamental
component of form: animation as creation. Should an architect or an artist devise a
special interface between physical environment and the Net, this application could become
an essential element of the architecture. Linked to networks, the meaning of architecture
actually becomes reprogrammable. Reprogrammability means that a building can fulfill an
important cultural role for a much greater part of its life. Updatability is no longer a question
of adaptation to new functions but has become an essential component of the architectonic
character of a static, constructed object.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom

DINANATH PATHY, a practising painter and pioneer of the Orissan Contemporary Art Movement, art historian and creative writer. Studied in Orissa and Santiniketan. Several books on classical murals and paintings of Orissa (1994/96). Presently Director, Alice Boner Institute, Varanasi. Collection Home Music New Arrivals
  • The Temple of Jagannatha - Architecture, Sculpture, Painting and Ritual This publication for the first time focuses on a local art tradition in Orissa, vividly documented and substantiated with visuals.
  • Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom : Contemporary Art of Orissan traces the evolution of art from the nineteenth century up to the last decade of the twentieth century. It focuses on a continuing tradition and its gradual transformation into an international art mode reflecting in it the cotemporary nuances and aspirations.
  • Murals for Goddesses and Gods This monograph Murals for Goddesses and Gods is a magnificent document of India’s ritual painting, based on systematic study of the osakothi (osa penance, kothi sacred space) murals of Orissa

Art as a Tool for Cultural Rejuvenation

Dinanath Pathy
© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi
Culture and education are complementary, inclusive of each other’s essential ingredients. Culture paves the way for education and education is responsible for the flowering of cultural values in life. Life only survives in a balanced ecological condition. This interlinkage between culture, education and ecology is the very essence of life, its existence and continuity. The interdependence which binds education, culture and ecology in an unending invisible thread is seen and experienced in human endeavour. Beneath this visible world is the inner perception of the universal life system, which is fundamental to all cultures across the globe. The physical beauty, material culture, the abundance of variegated life manifestations, the visible cosmic order and chaos, all stem from the inner force which holds and sustains. Efforts to perceive are not instantaneous but a continuous process of unfolding and arriving at fundamental principles.
This journey could be termed the process of education, and the realisations gained from it are the spectrum of culture. The journey is performed in a visual world of sensory experiences. A successful journey endows a person with refined sensibility and enhances quality of life. The journey is of an exploratory nature, making one understand forms, shapes, colours, musical sounds, rhythms and the inner harmony — not only of outer nature but of one’s own physical and mental bodies. The journey begins in the womb and ends with death. It links a person with family, society, country, and the world at large, in an established cultural context.
I like to bring in ‘art’ as a tool to experience the aesthetics of this long journey. ‘Art’ not only as a skill as the ‘art of living’ in the present-day context, but as an ‘act of transforming’, where culture and ecology are relevant. I introduce ‘art’ not merely as a tool giving rise to consumer products but one which opens up the gates of a wider vision, a supramental consciousness of beauty and inner perception of a world order.
Art which breeds in creative and contemplative vision is a reality when translated into properties of culture and education. The cultural translatability of ‘art’ should form a component of our educational system and this should have meaning in the context of education, culture and ecology. The cultural translatability needs a language to transform a multilingual and multi-peopled phenomenon into a global cultural ethic. The present educational system should be able to provide this ‘tool’, the language of ‘art’. This may be experimented with using a scientific temper as an alternative mode. I illustrate below three experiments I had the occasion to carry out here and in Switzerland.
  • First Experiment: I was teaching drawing and painting to children in the Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bhubaneswar. The school had no fixed syllabus to teach art. I did not want to provide model drawings on the blackboard to students for skill-oriented exercises. This I considered quite detrimental to the growth of creativity in children. On my initiative, the school provided sketch books to children and I inspired them to draw whenever and whatever they felt like recording from life experiences. At regular intervals I glanced through their sketch books and picked up sketches which attracted me from the point of view of innovative approach, creative excellence and pedagogic linkages. The subject-matter children drew in their sketch books was quite varied, with motifs from daily life and school books. They were attracted equally by a bicycle rider and the Prime Minister flying in a helicopter, the village goddess with protruding tongue, as well as their favourite film stars. The renderings of children varied a great deal depending on their faculties. These sketches also reflected their social consciousness and their interaction with their environment.
    My intention in teaching visual art in school was to integrate it with the other subject areas a child is expected to learn, and not as an independent compartmentalised subject. This method yielded a lot of benefits. While making a picture a student used to learn not only about the picture he was drawing but several other facts and incidents connected with that picture and the entire cultural context. ‘Art’ in school therefore was a part of the total learning system meant to provide an aesthetic orientation to the child, whether it was in mathematics or in science, geography or literature. The Kendriya Vidyalayas project multilingual and multicultural content, since their students are drawn from all over the country.
    Once while discussing with students the composition of a winter night, a number of possibilities came up. Since the students had come from various socio-economic backgrounds, they had different notions of a winter night. Some suggested a winter night in a sleepy tiny village around an open fire. Others imagined the winter night inside a house near the fireplace in the company of family members. A group of other students went for a more sophisticated environment and visualised the winter night warmed by an electric heater. When the pictures were drawn there were a number of innovative depictions drawn from different socio-cultural settings.
  • Second Experiment: In the early 1970s I had the occasion to teach visual art in a Swiss school. The idea of teaching no doubt was exciting, but I was not conversant with the language. I thought about the problem of communication and rediscovered that the visual language needed to teach art is universal and can overcome barriers of language. At the end of the day I had a sense of achievement. I could make the class lively virtually without uttering a word. The visual symbols were enough to transmit the ideas of a multicultural set-up.
    Let me elaborate on the symbols I used. At the outset I drew a conceptual world map to locate India and Switzerland and gave the children an idea of distance and direction. Within India, I focused on Orissa. The Indian and Swiss national flags gave the required identities to the geographical locations. I then drew a schematic map of an Orissan village, with the main street running east to west and other streets branching off like veins and veinlets in a human body. The temple, pond, well, school, the river, the distant hills, the mango grove, the coconut trees, the cows, goats, and chickens added to the beauty of the village.
    Pointing to the typical house plan, with the cowshed at the front followed by the sitting room, verandah, open yard, sleeping room, store and kitchen, I explained the concept of the house and the joint family. The entire family sleeps in one room — something of a dream for Swiss children. Water is drawn from a well, filled in brass pots and carried home balanced on head or hips. Their eyes glowed with amazement. They rushed to me with their sketch books for a ‘Frau’. The cultural symbols which I could construct helped in communication. The idea of a ‘Frau’ balancing a pitcher filled with water on her head, the other one on the hip supported by the right hand, and in the left hand a bucket, was most striking.
    The other symbol was of a family with portraits, of father, mother, brothers, sisters, in their typical dress, ornaments and hairstyles. The Indian features came out sharply. I had a fruitful day in the school, visiting classes to give them the idea of an Indian village, family, specially the ‘Frau’. The teaching was made exhilarating with singing, dancing and sharing one another’s jokes and experiences. During lunch break the students invited me to share their food. Some of them went home and brought for me a large cake with tiny Swiss and Indian national flags. This was a moment of great pride and excitement for all of us.
    After this successful experiment I felt quite confident to provide the Swiss children an alternative to make them not only aware of but interested in India’s socio-cultural traditions through visual symbols. Later, I illustrated a children’s book, Gita and Her Village in India. The story of this book was provided by Eberhard Fischer and his wife Barbara. This book was basically meant for Swiss and European children to understand Indian village life through visual symbols. I illustrated how a small girl, Gita, spends a day in her village. The visuals spanned a wide range of incidents and situations from house interiors to fields, river fronts, the well, school, market and temple complex. It tried to provide a visual journey through an Indian village.
  • Third Experiment: In collaboration with my colleagues Eberhard and Barbara Fischer, I was associated with another interesting educational programme — popularising Odissi dance through visual symbols. This is yet another experiment with far-reaching significance. This project was sponsored by Unicef, Switzerland. The project consisted of an illustrated book entitled Gita will become a dancer and a kit with ghoongur bells and a few ornaments to put on while dancing. The background story on which the book was based was the life of a small girl who was inspired to become a dancer after watching the eminent Odissi dancer, Sanjukta Panigrahy, performing in her village. The story projected the determination of the girl and how she achieved her objective through sheer perseverance. The visuals of the book as well as its story content are interesting enough and informative enough to teach a child how to dance at least for five minutes.

These experiments had wonderful results. The challenges that face our educational system are stupendous. Ways and means must be devised to tackle them. I have designed two modules which could be tried out in Indian schools. The implementation does not call for extra cost. It only needs a reoriented approach for re-structuring our conceptual framework. Module 1: Art at the centre . . . . contextual linkages in which art/art educator plays a vital role. Module 2: Child at the centre — cultural dimensions of learning, challenges of explorations, changes and socio-cultural identity.

A separate syllabus is not required to teach art. Art cannot and should not be taught in classroom situations. Art should be a binding medium holding together the total teaching curriculum, reinforcing, permeating and enriching the educational structure both at home and in schools. Art has refreshing and innovation-inducing qualities and it can bring about a total change at the perceptual and working levels. To conclude, I may again emphasise that art is the reflection of the universal order. It is the visual manifestation of the invisible spirit. Art is not the negation of science, technology, and modern living. It is a rejuvenating tool. [ Previous Page Contents of the Book Next Page ]

Monday, December 05, 2005

The other worlds

Sri Aurobindo passed away 55 years back, on December 5, 1950. He is perceived as a great soul but his writings have yet to earn the reception they deserve. The vast body of his work and the difficult diction he employs, may be the reason to deter the common reader; but even the scholar is not enamoured enough of them. The most plausible factor that seems to be responsible is Sri Aurobindo’s insistence on spirituality while discussing secular themes such as politics, poetry, the arts, or education.

The convenient demarcation between secular and the sacred suits the academic approach. But for Sri Aurobindo this is a faulty notion because the causal aspect is eclipsed. The linkage between the two is less of the manner of an umbilical chord and more in the nature of interpenetrating imbrications. If our sensory and scientific construct of the world fails to accommodate such a picture, it must be understood as a lack.

Astronomy as an ancient passion has helped us to know about the outer universe. Astrology, too, by talking of stars and planets attunes us to their subtle influences. The different abodes of gods as described by various mythologies, also, permit us certain familiarity of the other worlds. But we rarely take their effect on our lives any seriously. And the task of Sri Aurobindo is to hammer the modern mind so as to rid it from secular superstitions.

The inner and the other worlds are a consistent theme in his poem, Savitri. Composed through the years from Quantum mechanics to nuclear holocaust, this modern epic puts a stamp of authority on the unseen fecund worlds and their inhabitants who are inextricably linked to our motions and emotions. To recognize this reality seriously, is what Savitri demands from its readers.

The different parts of our being and consciousness, as delineated by Sri Aurobindo in his Integral Yoga system, are nothing but the other worlds. We can well imagine our plights as puppets when disparate worlds are very much in the play to pull the strings. Somewhat similar to the insight offered by Baudrillard that it is the object which uses and employs us and not the other way round that we ordinarily perceive. But then, how do we benefit by this concept in our practical life?

That there runs a perpetual consonance between the seen and the unseen, might seem, at times, hard to digest, but a poetic impression can be allowed to swim aloft. The process should further deepen in the realm of creative imagination leading to a faint intellectual recognition. Since the notion runs counter to our egoistic autonomy, it is bound to take a long time to percolate down to the distant and defiant impulses. And regular recitation of Savitri helps here; its mantric effect casting its reach down to our body cells.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Real wealth of our poor

Positioning cultural industries with creative intervention
Rajeev Sethi The Hindu Thursday, Dec 01, 2005
India may be considered a poor country in conventional economic indices, but it can be a forerunner in articulating a contemporary paradigm of wealth creation with its heritage of knowledge and culture. Yet its capacity to renew and advantageously position its past in the context of a competitive and fast-changing global scenario will require vigorous support and imagination. Looking at the vast purview of `creativity' and its applicability to almost every human venture or initiative, whether or not in economic pursuit, it is imperative that the very first step the Government needs to undertake is this. It must reposition the largely unorganised micro industry and arts sector as the internationally recognised creative and cultural industries portfolio. This will entail the formulation of a pro-active national policy on cultural and creative industries to leverage the attention they deserve.

Currently, India has no single body that can be called upon to represent creative and cultural industries as a distinct entity. A focal point needs to be established to engage various stakeholders in a productive dialogue, so as to achieve consensus over strategy. We can choose not to address the need at our own peril in a world where more and more governments are setting the required infrastructure. There are unprecedented opportunities for those members of the community who possess the skills and knowledge, the creativity and enterprise and have the spirit to empower themselves. They can deploy their expertise and talents in new ventures to create wealth. Their success, in turn, will further the growth of our society. As industrial production relocates itself in our part of the world, our own corporations and industries will slim down to achieve greater cost effectiveness.

We are poorer if we do not recognise the real wealth of our poor. Their time-honoured and tested skills are our tangible strength. "Hunarmand ka ek din, Behunar ka ek saal." Tradition tells us that a day in the life of a skilled is the same as a year in the life of the unskilled. Most contingent large scale employment schemes devalue inherent skills. A dynamic tradition never stops or slackens. The creative moves, nourishes, transforms, shapes, and furthers. For a while, we may be overtaken by the strident intimidation of powerful western media and homogenous corporate glamour. But we will soon indigenise whatever is thrust on us. We will improvise our own jugaad to be and to feel as international as we want to. Our infectious diversity will proliferate in a thousand creative ways. India's capacity to imagine and its never-say-die dream will enable our spirit to create an anthem from what we are only humming at the moment.
(The author, a well-known designer, is Vice-Chairperson of the Taskforce on Culture and Creative Industries in the Planning Commission, Government of India, and Honorary Advisor on Legacy Industries at the Ministry of Panchayati Raj.)

The Hindu Temple

Kramrisch, Stella (1896- 1993) Placeborn: Nikolsburg (now Mikulov), Czech Republic; Placedied: Philadelphia, PA
Art historian of South Asian art. Studied under Joseph Strzygowski (q.v.) at University of Vienna. Dissertation on early Buddhist sculpture (1919). 1921-50 taught at University of Calcutta. During those years she edited Journal of the Indian Society of Oriental Art and published numerous works including magnum opus, The Hindu Temple (1946). She traveled to the U.S. as early as 1922, but after the assassination of her husband in Pakistan (1950), she moved there permanently to the United States where she taught at the Institute of Fine Art, New York University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Methodologically, Kramrisch remained close to her mentor, Strzygowski, studying the object using a metaphysical approach and employing distinctly non-western concepts in her history writing. While a student, she was influenced by Kandinsky's art theory and the theosophy of Rudolf Steiner (whom she knew personally). In India, she converted to Hinduism and amassed a significant collection of South Asian art objects which she ultimately sold or willed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The major exhibition she mounted at the museum in 1968, "Unknown India" perhaps best demonstrates her belief that the understanding of both aristocratic and common art objects were necessary to appreciate a culture's artistic accomplishment.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Minimal art

Art? Exhibitionism? A joke? The old debate on what constitutes art has become relevant all over again. Amrita Shah THE INDIAN EXPRESS Thursday, December 20, 2001
LAST week I was invited to watch a little known local artist ‘‘paint while he danced’’. The event took place in a large room in South Mumbai with an approximately eight by eight foot canvas forming the stage. Pop songs spilled from a tape recorder while the artist, a slim young man in a white leotard suit, sprayed it with shades of acrylic paint from tin cans. Orange, yellow, green, pink. He flung the paint in graceful arcs and then rolled in it. The riot of colour turned black. He flung some more, rolled some more — a process that was to be repeated several times over the next 90 minutes or so. The ‘show’ ended with one messy canvas; one very messy artist and several amused faces. What was it? Art? Exhibitionism? Self indulgence? A joke?
I was intrigued to find similar things being said at a far, far more significant event taking place around the same time, many miles away. Last fortnight the Turner Prize for the year 2001 was given away in London by pop star Madonna, amidst the usual furore that has come to be associated with the prestigious British art award. At the time of the announcement of the shortlist itself, playwright Tom Stoppard had described the works as ‘‘artless, self indulgent and without spiritual meaning’’. This year’s prize winning entry however, seemed to stretch the limits of incredulity, consisting as it did simply of a room in which the lights went on and off.
Several visitors confessed to having passed through the room completely unaware of it being a work of ‘art’ and of eventually giving more attention to the plaque describing it than the room itself. Another shortlisted entry, grandiosely titled, ‘Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent’, evoked a similar response — visitors assumed it was a dusty storeroom left open by mistake. By now the Turner’s penchant for sensationalism has been well established (previous winners include a pickled sheep and a painting with elephant dung). This year was no different.
Observers found much to condemn in the current selection. Some criticised the absence of women on the shortlist, the role of self promotion and the influence of wealthy patrons. The idea of an award itself, with its pressure to nominate as many as four to five artists every year, came under attack as did the glaring lack of painters on the shortlist. With one filmmaker, two installation artists and a photographer vying for the award (one entry featured a home video in which the artist’s alcoholic father wakes up and receives a cup of tea from his wife) the old debate on what constitutes art became relevant all over again.
What is art? And what did the prize winning work signify? The communications curator of London’s Tate Gallery (where the show is held) claimed loftily that the winner, Martin Creed, had made ‘‘minimal art minimal by dematerialising it — removing it from the hectic, commercialised world of capitalist culture’’. The artist himself claimed his work was ‘‘emblematic of mortality’’. Another supporter found it unusually ‘‘ephemeral’’.
Ephemerality? Mortality? Haven’t these ideas been around for a while now? Isn’t there a faintly anachronistic air about the whole affair? Yes, but in a good way some claim, maintaining that what artists like Creed are doing is what the famous artist Marcel Duchamp was attempting to do when he exhibited a urinal in 1917. Not everybody agrees. Tom Stoppard, for instance, believes that what Duchamp did constituted a valid attack on the orthodoxies of the time while the current crop of conceptual artists, he believes, are themselves an orthodoxy ‘‘championed and supported by the establishment’’.
There is some truth in this view. For it is not just the artists but even the establishment that appears to be stressing irony over achievement. The Tate director, for example, was emphatic that the award was not designed for the ‘‘best’’ or the ‘‘greatest’’ but for the ‘‘extremely interesting’’. The choice of a pop star, not any pop star, but the image-hopping Madonna, to present the prize seems further evidence in the same direction.
And perhaps the aim is merely to popularise art. As many as 58 per cent of respondents in a pre-award poll maintained that none of the shortlisted artists deserved to get the award. At the same time, the event and the room with the lights going on and off generated an unprecedented amount of publicity. As David Lee art critic and self confessed opponent of the award’s philosophy admitted ‘‘it does get people talking about what is art’’.
In India where serious discussion on the arts rarely enters the mainstream, the Turner Prize debate may seem a remote thing. But as the dividing line between art, showmanship, life, etc., blur increasingly, these are issues affecting people everywhere.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Shan Bhatnagar

Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind borne out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality. Shan's work reflects an unconditional surrender to every mood, form and colour, revealing hidden depths of meaning behind each work of art. MITA KAPUR The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Aug 21, 2005

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ways of Seeing

The Indian Express Sunday, April 11, 2004
There is this fascinating book called My Name is Red by the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk. The book is poised in the midst of a changing world. The sacred state of being that created miniature, painted elaborate borders and gilded manuscripts is being threatened by revolutionary European methods and techniques of painting. A whole philosophy hovers behind what is happening in this confrontation of civilisations.
On the one hand is the devotion to established rules and norms of painting, a total obedience to what has been formulated that leaves no space or scope for the individual voice, no possibility for different strokes. This state of being also required an ethical and moral integrity to accept this system. The threat to this world comes from the European painting methods of the seventeenth century, of many voices and styles, of the artist as individual, of different strokes for different folks.
This is the argument I wish to use. Before the artist became an individual and found expression in his own imagination, or in a particular style and technique, things were very different for the one who created. The artist belonged to a larger system of visual codification, which was in keeping with norms that were already established. Since there was no personal style in the system there was therefore no signature, only the following of a convention which developed around faith and religion. A lot of activity was around the architectural grandeur of churches, mosques, stupas and temples, the carvings to be found therein or the paintings and mosaics that decorated them further.
The result everywhere was of great beauty brought about by faith, talent and virtuosity. And, of course, no identity. The implication was that the self was not as important as the gift to God and the joy to be evoked in the viewer. The notion of artist as individual, as a person to reckon with, as star and celebrity really began with the Renaissance. Some of the artists were renowned, knew the rich and powerful and accepted commissions based on their ability and artistic expression. They had their own style, their own way of seeing and of interpreting reality.
There are artists in India today who state that their art so strongly bears their style that they do not need to sign. They say their style is their signature. For buyers the signature is important. There are those who buy signatures, not paintings. And it goes without saying that a fake will definitely need a signature to establish credibility. There are artists who develop different styles during their artistic career. Each style implies the release of passion and intensity. Once that is spent, the style too, is exhausted and loses meaning. Then the artist moves on to another style. There is a need to establish ownership to each style, hence the signature. Certain young artists today declare that they are too busy experimenting with medium, method and material to pause and develop a style that they get identified with. But they require a signature to establish claim.
How confused everything is, as we go round and round. There are as many opinions as there are people and no way of knowing the right from the wrong.

All-beauty and All-bliss

Because thou art, men yield not to their doom,
But ask for happiness and strive with fate;
Because thou art, the wretched still can hope.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.507]

Because thou art in him, man hopes and dares
Because thou art, men’s soul can climb the heavens
And walk like gods in the presence of the Supreme.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.513]

Because thou art, the soul draws near to God:
Because thou art, love grows in spite of hate
And knowledge walks unslain in the pit of night.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.520]

Because Thou art All-beauty and All-bliss
My soul blind and enamoured yearns for Thee;
It bears Thy mystic touch in all that is
And thrills with the burden of that ecstasy….

Time voyages with Thee upon its prow –
And all the future’s passionate hope is Thou.
[Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems: 154]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Art is made to disturb

William Drenttel + Jessica Helfand, Culture Is Not Always Popular: AIGA National Design ConferenceConference Theme: The Power of DesignVancouver: 25 October 2003.
Jessica Helfand: At a faculty meeting not long ago, a colleague of mine suggested that smart designers need to resist the impulse to over-intellectualize things, as though such efforts are counterproductive — if not entirely paralyzing — for the designer seeking to make work. Upon hearing this, I was immediately catapulted back to an episode in high school — which, sadly, had been permanently etched on my memory — when a teacher suggested that in order to be more "popular," I might consider using fewer big words around my peers. Specifically, he noted, around boys.
  • Even for this talk, we were encouraged to be "engaging" and "visual." The implied caution? Don’t use big words, don’t be too intellectual. Remember, this is an audience of visual people.
  • Where does this come from — this notion that thinking and making are seperate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise? And why is being "popular," — and by extension, participating in "popular" culture — understood somehow as antithetical to an engagement with the larger world of ideas?

William Drenttel: Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. This is an age-old criticism of design, but it seems especially relevant this morning as we talk about the Culture of Design.

  • We believe the "Culture of Design" has become implicitly about branded culture: culture that we can see, that we can name, that we can buy and sell and package; culture that is synonymous with style; culture that resonates with novelty and which, by conjecture, dismisses history as mere nostalgia; culture that determines and drives our reactions to the constantly changing pulse of modern life.
  • But we do believe that we are fundamentally restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process. Not everyone in this room sees "generating value" as a rationale for what they do. By expanding the very definition of design, are we simultaneously narrowing the rich variety that makes design such an exciting profession?

JH: But it is sobering, nonetheless, to consider how culture awards real contributions. The French cubist painter, Georges Braque once said that art is made to disturb, while science reassures. Design, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle: it is both and it is neither, playing both ends against the middle: and it is this middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road intellectual apathy that diminishes the real power of design: its power as a humanist discipline. We believe that to engage that discipline — and the many cultures it serves — means simply being better educated. This has perhaps less to do with culture, and more to do with having a cultivated mind; less to do with technical virtuosity, and more to do with intellectual curiosity. Less to do with popular culture — and more to do with culture, period.

WD: Francis Bacon once said that knowledge and human power are synonymous, and it is in this spirit that true power is perhaps ideally achieved: it is power informed by learning, collaborating and considering how the ultimate quality of our lives is made, whether in reference to our health or our schools; our environment or our foreign policy; our aspirations in science or in space; or our humanitarian achievements, as people, in war and in peace.It's that simple. And it’s that complicated.

Art Attack


For years I used to be in awe of art. Not 'awe' as in respectful bewilderment, but deep dread at the thought of encountering, and having to comment on, mystifying masterpieces. In corporate foyers, my host would halt in front of an expensively mounted work and pause knowledgeably. In an upwardly mobile (if inwardly puerile) world, style can be bought from a designer and clipped accents picked up from the nearest call centre. Talking intelligently about art is the most difficult skill to acquire, and I had nearly given up being able to do so, until inspiration struck. The secret lay in approaching the problem the way a boy scout would, i.e. by being prepared.

I prepared myself by spending a sabbatical pouring over anthologies and memorising the artists' signatures. An assiduous fortnight later, I could tell the impressionist's squiggle from the post-modernist's flourish. When next I stood before an abstract outpouring of colour, I was ready. "Ah", I said, stooping low (in both physical and moral sense), and shooting a glance at the corner of the frame. It even seemed to wink at me conspiratorially. "Husain", I said, turning to my host, "has such candour. Even his hubris has a touch of innocence about it". As important as knowing whom one is talking about, is knowing what to say. Comments like 'how beautiful' and 'so pretty' have no place in the art con-noisseur's (hyphen intended) lexicon.

Ideally, your words should be as mystifying as the paintings themselves. With practice, I also learnt not to rush headlong into comments. Instead, I would murmur, "Subtle, very subtle", and pause reflectively before coming up with: "Hebbar seems to be in continuous dialogue with his own archetype". The admiration of my listeners was palpable and my culture quotient soared. When I had eloquently declared that Bhupen Khakkar 'connected to forbidden quarters of the soul', that Akbar Padamsee's 'world-view was the healing balm people needed', and that sculptor Adil Davierwalla's stark lines were 'fraught with myth overlayed with contemporary sensuality', the world hailed the arrival of a true aficionado.

Just when I thought I had mastered all the possible perils of art appreciation, a new one reared its head. I am actually beginning to like some of the stuff. THE TIMES OF INDIA : October 11, 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia

Jessica Helfand

Nostalgia has always been a bad word for designers. Like “retro” and “vintage” it smacks of a sort of been-there-done-that ennui — looking backward instead of forward, nostalgia presents as the very antithesis of the new. Even hard-core historians resist its emotional lure, which can, in an instant, dramatize the truth and distance it from fact. Nostalgia skews by privileging episodic time over chronological time: in this context, “memory” is cast as a curious, dangerous and rather unreliable lens. Or is it?
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was seen as a disease, an ailment to be cured. (One doctor described it as “hypochondria of the heart.”) Over time, it came to typify the porous romanticism of bygone eras — Victorianism, for example — conjuring visions both sentimental and ornamental. The streamlined reserve of the International Style obliterated such decorative excess, inaugurating an age of uncompromised neutrality: later, we called it modernism and applauded its appeal to functionality and its celebration of formal rigor.
But the notion of longing never really went away because at the end of the day, it remains an essential human condition. Equally human is our need to mark time: so we keep calendars and agendas and diaries and albums, all of them gestures of physicality and permanence, tangible, graphic reminders of our own evolution, participation and engagement with the world around us. (My current research has revealed, among other things, evidence of an astonishing range of visual imagination from civillian diarists proving, rather conclusively I think, that DIY began a long time ago.)
It is easy to classify such efforts as lacking in authority since they are, by their very nature, autobiographical: if they’re the micro, then the macro — the big world vision — would seem to require more public forms of expression. As designers, we tend to orient our thinking to the broader demographics, visualizing messages that are read and recorded by multiples. But multiples are made up of singulars: in other words, in order to truly understand how to reach people visually, why wouldn’t we start smaller? Why aren’t our efforts more centralized, more specific to one person at a time? And in the spirit of such inquiry, why wouldn’t we consider, as the grass-roots cultural anthropologists that we really are, what makes people feel and notice and care and think — and remember?
The short answer is that in principle, memory is a fairly unreliable search engine. And while it has received substantial mileage in televised courtroom dramas, where witnesses are asked, under oath, to recall events “to the best of their ability,” it is generally thought to be deeply personal and highly flawed. Yet it’s those personal flaws — the ones that our logic tells us should be overlooked — that sit right up there with nostalgia as qualities we typically resist, loosely on the assumption that our work needs to read to a wider audience rather than resonate with a smaller one.
Nostalgia is fuzzy and utopian, privileging an imagined past over a real one. And indeed, nostalgia can be kitsch — playing on the collective recollections of a generation and teasing the psyche through the occasional retro replay — but why can’t it be more than this? Big branding conceits — Old Navy bringing back '60s hip-huggers, for instance — is one way to mobilize nostalgia as a catalyst for sales, but it's a collective memory and besides, we’re all sort of “in” on the irony. Can’t the use of personal memory in the public realm be more transcendant, more emotionally raw than this?
A potentially controversial new report released this week claims that sleep, often maligned due to its its obvious link to idleness, might be another opportunity for understanding the role of memory: more sleep may actually bring about more clarity — not less. ‘In different stages of sleep,” writes Kate Ravilious in this morning’s Guardian,“our brains piece together thoughts and experiences, then file them in a structured way, giving us clearer memories and ultimately, better judgment.” File and structure might not be the first words to come to mind in this discussion, but to the degree that point-of-view remains a key ingredient in so much of what we produce visually, why would we disparage the role of memory in our work? Human memory is more than merely fallible — it’s intangible, difficult to pinpoint, virtually impossible to quantify. And yet, bearing witness lies at the core of a very particular kind of history: it is a history that, more often than not, depends on the collective stronghold of a series of highly individualized stories. (Consider the tradition of oral and visual histories — The Shoah Project, for example.)
I’ve had a growing concern over the past few years that designers in general — and design students in particular — seem predisposed toward a kind of virulent antihistoricism. It’s as if a bow to history precludes innovation, that looking back prevents you from looking forward. Such analytical disparity is perhaps deserving of its own post — but for now, I’d like to suggest that the tension between nostalgia (old) and novelty (new) is one of authenticity (personal) versus authority (public). The designer, as maverick, maker and visual missionary, is perhaps culturally predisposed toward The Next Big Thing. But it’s the last little thing — and maybe the thing before that — that really interests me. And which, for that matter, makes me rather nostalgic. Posted by Jessica Helfand on October 27, 2005 08:25 AM Jump to Most Recent Comment

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A pleasure for the soul

The Indian Express Home > Front Page Saturday, November 12, 2005
INDIA EMPOWERED TO ME IS When art, the custodian of a nation’s culture, gets its due
Our policy of public art spaces has done much to keep alive the spirit and creativity of a fledgling artist alive. Look how booked are some of the Capital’s galleries at the Lalit Kala Akademi, India Habitat Centre or India International Centre. This is a contrast to the West where several artists die unsung, sheerly for lack of places that encourage the art, regardless of whether it makes money or not. Certainly, much has gone right with the way art has been patronised and nurtured in our country. Some, like I, have reaped the benefits of it. But I can’t be oblivious to those who couldn’t and why it is so. As an artist, I feel those forces that go into the making of the cultural fabric of our country need to be strengthened. I will start with the museums. Because it is museums through which art reaches people. When India became free, this need was felt and it was proposed that apart from a national museum, there should be museums in our states.
The hurt of the hour is that most of the good art is being hoarded by NRIs (contrary to opinion, actual foreign buyers or international media glare is yet to arrive). And it has become a prey thing by galleries which, by rigging prices and creating hype around it, have made it a fashion to judge an artist’s value by the price he/she fetches. Mere merit seems to have taken a rest. Behind it goes much exploitation of the artists, whose work is hoarded by galleries at a pittance than than its authorised price. Artists get little out of it. If there had been acceptance of my proposal, we would have filled our museums and the artists would have got their rightful share of it.
All of this may sound like lamenting, especially when you read every morning about the astronomical prices artists are getting. Even if that were true, what I say means that the artist should also get a part of that high price. The UNESCO has laid down a law which stipulates that an artist should also enjoy his share of an increased price that a gallery gets. I am afraid this often doesn’t happen with private galleries. And artists would rather not complain for fear of losing favour with the gallery. More than just being a pleasure for the soul, art is a vital keeper of a nation’s culture. It is important we look into the issues I’ve raised. Wouldn’t it be truly wonderful when families, friends, students can include a tour of our museums as their weekend plan and come out of these refreshed and inspired?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Arts Infrastructure Initiative

Shakti Maira
The Hindu, Sunday, Nov 06, 2005
Most people equate the arts with art products or events — performances, exhibitions and institutions. Yet the exhibitions and performances are only the visible face of the arts, they are just the "means", not their "ends". The purpose of the arts is broader and deeper — they are the medium through which a society thinks, feels, remembers, imagines and communicates. The arts are a vital social software and intrinsic to the "infrastructure" of the nation. They are the means through which something very important occurs — the transmission and transformation of values and shared meaning across people.
Consider what being Indian would be without the telling and enactments of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? Without the cross-pollination of weaves and designs of sari weavers from Bengal, Banaras, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu? Without common ragas, taals and bhakti sangeet, and without the Taj Mahal, Khajuraho and Ajanta? Without the Chola and Bastar bronzes? Without Madhubani, Warli, Rajput and Pahari miniatures? Without lingams and shikhars? Without the Tagores and Mahashweta Devis? And without the Hussains, Anjolie Ela Menons, Pandit Jasrajs and Amjad Ali Khans, to name but a few?
The arts form the web of ideas and values that make us a people. They are the channels that sustain our histories, that shape our attitudes and sense of identity. The museums and auditoriums are just one part of a larger network of cultural communication that integrates us and makes us civilised. The arts are social infrastructures, no less important than the infrastructures of justice, trade and commerce, roads and railways. If there is a call for greater investment in infrastructures, the arts must be part of that demand.
To begin with, we need a different mind-set towards the arts. If we could view the arts as an important part of our common social infrastructure, then we can think of the kind of partnerships we could create between private and public capital, between industry and government. The answer is neither low-performing government arts institutions nor market-driven and commercially motivated arts institutions. It is something that I imagine we have the brains and hearts to do in India — a model of shared responsibility and co-operation between the players, and with the more dominant role for industry through recent economic liberalisation — it must step-up to bat for the arts.
To begin with, they will need to foster interest and conviction in their members for the value of the arts in long-term business success. They will need to encourage their members to deepen their engagement in the arts beyond the PR or vanity motivated sponsorships of art events. They need a broader and wiser perspective on the work that needs to be done in the arts infrastructure — including research and documentation through fellowships and teaching chairs in universities; the archiving and maintenance of arts heritage; art education in schools (that should interest industry as it is a powerful way to develop much needed skills of spatial and lateral thinking, creativity and problem-solving, communication and teamwork); specialised training (through support of gurukuls and art colleges); hosting of events in India and abroad of classical and contemporary arts.
Working in a co-operative model need not preclude those who have a special love for the arts to take their own initiatives, as a multinational company did many years ago in classical music. But the main thrust should be collective, well organised, and managed through a new initiative of enlightened industry associations. Few cultures have achieved the development in the arts that India has. We need to support, market, and celebrate them in India and beyond. The returns to the bottom-line are implicit and will undoubtedly follow. Shakti Maira is a contemporary artist and author. E-mail him at:

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Art Notes

Bronze Age 3600 years ago
This a very powerful and symbolic image. I am thinking about how I could incorporate it into a painting. Please do not tell me it look like a Smiley until you read up on it. posted by Bob Abrahams on 17 October 2005 at 10/17/2005 1 comments

Art Glossary

Pertaining to that which arouses sensitivity to beauty and emotion, as opposed to the practical, intellectual, or scientific. An aesthetic response is an appreciation of such beauty, and an aesthete is a person who subscribes to this philosophy and regards themselves as having special sensitivity to beauty. The Aesthetic Movement began in the late 19th century in England with leaders being Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The slogan was "Art for Art's Sake" meaning being that conveying a sense of beauty superseded all social and moral considerations. The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek "aisthetika", meaning perceptibles. Credit: Kimberley Reynolds, "Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms" Credit: "Random House Dictionary" AskART

Friday, November 04, 2005

Art Renewal Center

June 7, 2001 -- Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center,
addressed a crowd of over 700
The art of painting, one of the greatest traditions in all of human history has been under a merciless and relentless assault for the last one hundred years. Every reasonable shred of order and any standards with which it was possible to identify, understand and to create great paintings and sculpture, was degraded ... detested ... desecrated and eviscerated. Modern artists are told that they must create something totally original. Nothing about what they do can ever have been done before in any way shape or form, otherwise they risk being called "derivative". How utterly absurd.These critics like to say Bouguereau's work is really only derivative, harking back to earlier artists. Only in the 20th century has such a thing ever been scorned. To this I have one thing to say: WHAT, dear friends, IS WRONG WITH BEING DERIVATIVE?
That's one of the core beliefs of modernism that must be soundly vanquished by common sense and logical analysis. Nobody can accomplish anything of merit if they are in fact not derivative. Only by mastering the accomplishments of the past and then adding to it can we go still further. Every other field of endeavor recognizes this truth. Without the knowledge of the past we are doomed to everlasting primitivism. And, as far as holding our works up to the old masters, that's what we want to have happen. If we are to accomplish things of true merit and excellence, we must germinate and nurture great masters in the next millennium, too. Bouguereau was quite aware that his work would be compared on the altar of past accomplishments, as did his contemporaries. It was precisely because they mastered the techniques of the past, built upon them and then opened them up to an avalanche of new subject matter and Enlightenment ideals, that they accomplished the greatest half-century of painting in art history.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Art and Neuroaesthetics

The best place to start when describing the goals of a research program is with the statements of the researchers themselves. V.S. Ramachndran, whose work on art and neuroscience has sparked a great deal of interest and controversy, put it this way1:
If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art—our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture—would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys — be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn’t follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism — a common denominator underlying all types of art. (p. 16)
The search for universals in art is by no means a new one, but Ramachandran and others (most notably Semi Zeki) have resolved to do so by understanding the neurological mechanisms that all (or most) art utilizes. Zeki writes2:
What is art? What constitutes great art? Why do we value art so much and why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all human societies? These questions have been discussed at length though without satisfactory resolution. This is not surprising. Such discussions are usually held without reference to the brain, through which all art is conceived, executed and appreciated. Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain. (p. 53)
If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others. In order to do this, Ramachandran, Zeki, and others have developed several hypotheses designed to produce testable predictions (often counterintuitive) about the role of the visual system in the production and appreciation of art.
This project differs, markedly, from traditional approaches to art, in which art is treated as amorphous, or ineffable; a product of irreducible subjective and cultural phenomena. Thus traditional aesthetic theories are untestable by their very nature. The hope of neuroscientists is not that art will be completely explainable from neurological principles alone. On the contrary, these neurological principles are meant to be foundations onto which the more subjective and culturally relative aspects of art are built. Even if the insights that we can gain from neuroscience constitute only a fraction of what art is (Ramachandran often uses 10% as a figure for the portion of art that he is attempting to explain0, then we will have accomplished something. We may then be better able to understand the development and utilization of subjective and cultural standards in art. posted by Chris @ Thursday, January 20, 2005

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Divine Carriers.

"Spirituality" may seem to some to be a nebulous term, providing a cover for a lack of serious engagement with existence. Indeed, expressions of spirituality in Indian art are varied and a few criteria may be helpful in distinguishing the features of its terrain. Based on the location of the artist relative to the spiritual life, we may have sacred art, mystic art, metaphysical art or yogic art. The sacred is characterized by the sense of worship. A gulf separates the human from the divine, and the sacred calls attention to the magnitude of this distance in existential terms. The mystic has an emotional relationship full of the sense of reciprocity. A closer approach than that of the sacred, human and divine mingle here in a transhuman adoration. In the metaphysical, an attempt is made to identify the elements of heightened experience and to question and articulate the relationships between these elements. In yogic art, the processes of spiritual experience become manifest, carrying the power to duplicate themselves in the viewer. In this respect, it is the last that is the most potent, and is the visual equivalent of the mantra. All these four features are to be found, in varying degrees in this exhibition.
Stylistically, I identify four major tendencies in the selections in this exhibition, and group them broadly according to these tendencies: Iconic, Romantic, Visionary, Abstract. There is often some overlap between these categories, but I stand on my understanding of primary tendency to dictate the grouping.
Romantic : These artists paint in idioms closest to the earlier Bengal School and are perhaps the closest in lineage as well. One is an eminent disciple of Nandalal Bose, a major master; another is the daughter of Sudhir Khastagir, another great master, and the third is a product of the Government Art College of Calcutta, where the influence of the Bengal School still runs deep. Their themes range from romantic treatments of Puranic subjects (gods and goddesses) through personal mythologies to "ideational portraiture" of spiritual personages. Mystical representation of nature and of classical literary episodes are also part of this tendency. Ramananda Bandyopadhyay Shyamali Khastagir Sandip Suman Bhattacharya
Iconic : The movement towards geometric abstraction in Western modernism has found a correspondence in the re-exploration of the Tantric meditational diagram, the yantra in Indian art. This has led to a new genre of contemporary representation, evidenced in the Neo-Tantra exhibition that traveled in Europe and the U.S. in 1985-6. Traditionally, the use of the word 'icon' has related to images of worship. In modern technological terminology, it has come to stand for diagrammatic signs that carry intuitive functional ideas. By iconism in art, I mean the minimized expression of a patterned interaction of signs with one another and with the viewer. Iconism thus covers formal abstraction and ranges from Neo-Tantra to structured symbols aiming at effecting transformational processes through perceptually initiated "magical engineering". To this end, the symbolism of Tantra is a powerful iconic device, incorporated to a different degree by all these artists. The visual metaphors of Tantra include the trikona, ascending and descending triangles, representing various levels of earthly aspiration and transcendental response respectively; the linga, phallic icon embodying the inexhaustible, infinite potentiality of spirit, the yoni or vagina, standing for the mystery of the birth in time of the timeless; the bindu or point representing the seed of the eternal and the infinite manifest through the impregnation of time and space, becoming immanent in every instant and every particle; and the kundalini or coiled serpent, consciousness latent at the base of the manifest, that 'uncoils' itself as evolution in time. Biswarup Dutta Amrita Banerji
Visionary : I have reserved the use of this term for those representations which, while maintaining a substantial relationship with the waking world of forms, yet arise from an immersion in "alternate reality" or trance-like experience. The nature of this experience is intended to draw us into contact with deeper psychological principles, revealing great intuitive and harmonizing ideas and vibrating at a level where opposites are resolved and united. Two of the artists in this category are inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Dhanavanti Priti Ghosh Anjan Chakravarty
Abstract : If the iconic (which deals with crystallization and the essence of form) may be called the "pole of magic", where a higher law enters matter; at its opposite end is the transcendental liberation from form, the "pole of spiritual ascension". Aiming at depicting pure movements of consciousness through flowing forms and colors, the capturing of textures that repeat in microcosm and macrocosm, or in analysing the event-field prior to manifestation, these artists affirm a subjectivism that abandons all pretence to naturalistic imitation. The viewer is drawn into spirit-space, where the secret forces of the universe align themselves in pre-natal patterns. In this category also, are two artists from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Champaklal Kiran Mehra Sridhar Iyer
Contemporary spiritual art in India is a diverse and exciting field, and Divine Carriers modestly attempts to introduce international viewers to it. All the work in this exhibition was created after 1965; all are informed with a concern for communicating visionary messages in the context of a national and global community of seekers for deeper living solutions in the contemporary world. Debashish Banerji, Curator, Divine Carriers.