Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Art of the Matter

The importance of art in helping young brains develop to the fullest potential cannot be understated.
SHAKTI MAIRA examines how a journey through Indian art forms will help our children.

Every parent hopes their children will develop to their fullest potential. To achieve this, parents work hard to get their children into the best schools, and push them into focusing on getting high marks in examinations. In the process they discourage children from activities like art, music and sports. Despite good intentions, they may actually be limiting their children's brain development in areas crucial to their eventual success, even in fields like engineering, medicine and science.

New research on the human brain shows that many of the brain's uniquely human skills were developed for and through the use of hands. Evolutionary biologists now tell us that it was the use of hands — to grasp a stick, to throw a stone or spear, to shape a pot on the wheel — which caused the brain to develop its amazing abilities of specialised processing. The brain did not come ready made with these skills. So the continued use of hands is critically important to the stimulation and childhood development of the human brain.

Frank Wilson's recent book, The Hand, describes studies that reveal this co-dependant development of the brain and the hands, particularly in brain capabilities like spatial thinking that are key to advanced fields like engineering, surgery or reading MRIs, space science, mathematics, computer programming and chip designing. Wilson tells of the experience at CALTECH, the eminent engineering school in California. Performance scores of its engineering students were rising in every important area except spatial thinking, where they were falling. As spatial thinking is vital to problem solving, particularly in emerging technologies, this was worrying. Eventually they realised this was caused by limited physical spatial hand activity.
Their solution was to require all students to spend a semester in an automobile repair shop, so that they learnt to use their hands in diverse ways. Perhaps if these students had used their hands in school or home, they would have arrived at CALTECH with excellent spatial thinking skills. Young children's interest in using their hands to draw and paint, to build with blocks, to play ball are signs of this natural process of brain development. They are not just playing but also exercising and developing innate brain potential. As children grow older, we tend to lead them away from these activities and have them concentrate on reading, writing and, sadly, memorising. This is to their detriment, since it is important for their brain development to keep using their hands and imagination.

Arts and crafts are, perhaps, one of the best ways to do this. Your future engineer or doctor should be spending much more time in hand-oriented activities — sculpture, painting, pottery, knitting, weaving, chopping vegetables and making chapattis. Reviving arts programmes in schools might be a good way to get our children to use their hands in ways that will develop vital brain skills. This must be accompanied with a concerted attempt to have children spend less time watching TV or a computer screen and more doing hand-based creative tasks. So if you are concerned parents, ask your children's schools to ensure time for creative art every school day, every year, right up to the final board exams!

We all sense that the arts are dying in schools. We are aware of problems of funding and the low priority given to arts education. This is partly because we want to make our children competent for the job market. In the ensuing drive to train children in maths, sciences and languages, we do not want to spend time and resources on what we perceive as marginally useful subjects like music and art. Teachers, parents and governing bodies — all want children to score high marks so they can get into the best colleges. I don't know how to fight this tide but I do think we need to be concerned that our children's brain and mental development is not unnecessarily stunted. If we could see that the arts will help them be better at engineering, science and medicine, then perhaps we will find ways to have them continue art.

The main reason we are so confused about the value of art is because the arts have become disassociated with everyday life. We are unable to see that the skills that develop in doing art are interrelated with our general abilities and evolutionary development. Spatial thinking, creativity, heightened concentration and perception and fine motor skills that develop in the arts are also the very mental skills needed in today's advanced professions. If we want the arts to be meaningful, we have to find a way to reintegrate art into our lives. I am reminded of Nelson Goodman's rejection of the classical question, "What is art?" and preference for, "When is art?" School art programmes need to reconnect art with the broad spectrum of human needs it has traditionally served. It must be a redesign that does not start with the Western notion of studio arts but with the more integrated Indian traditions of art making. I have been thinking about a new approach to arts education, and call it "Art from Indian Hands".

In India, one cannot but help notice the range and depth of art. It is everywhere: in the saris, shawls, kitchen utensils, household tools, festive decorations, floor and wall paintings, road shrines, toys... Perhaps the reason for this richness of visual languages is the evolution of India's cultures. Great epics and systems of philosophy, religion, medicine and law were transmitted orally. Words were largely heard and not seen. During these centuries, there developed parallel visual languages to express many of these ideas (in form, colour, geometry and symbols). This rich visual inheritance has survived and informs the making of everyday things and in meeting physical, social and psychological needs.

In Indian villages, art making is still integrated with everyday needs. Weavers, potters, storytellers, jewellery-makers, woodworkers and ironsmiths are still part of the village community. They may not necessarily make art but meet everyday needs in artful ways. They tell stories and transmit traditions and values. They are aesthetically rich. Even in urban India, hand making of art continues like the toys made on the streets of Delhi with recycled materials. Each region has developed its own visual forms and languages that reflect its history, geography and social context. Climate and availability of materials is reflected in their artwork. This depth and variety of art/craft affords a rich palette to choose from for this programme.

In the "Art from Indian Hands" programmes, children will be taken on a journey through Indian art forms that will show the integration of art with daily life in our diverse regional cultures. These will provide springboards for making art that will be relevant to contemporary children in both primary and secondary schools. The programme is not trying to get children to imitate traditional arts and crafts. That happens now and then in schools. This aims to do something much deeper — to get them to understand the languages of art and to use them afresh in their own contexts.

The schematic structure of "Art from Indian Hands" starts around a cluster of human needs and art forms that help meet them. It will look at art that meets needs for celebration (seasons, harvests, marriages, festivals, rites of passage); beauty (make-up, jewellery, clothes, body painting/mehndi); utility (cooking, storage, travel); psychological reasons (protection, identity, friendship, spirituality) and entertainment (performances, story-telling, toys, games).
As these needs are universal, the programme will encourage children to look at their own needs and to use traditional examples as springboards to create their own responses to their needs, adapting the form, language and materials to their local environment. Some examples:
In Gujarat, the need to carry money securely is met by making nolos (pouches). The story of the nolo in words and pictures will show how they were made and adorned. Then a demonstration of how a modern nolo can be made, using commonly available materials so that children end up with money belts that work, and also tell their story. In Bihar, travelling storytellers carry picture scrolls that meet the needs of a compelling presentation. We will show examples of these and how they were made. The children will be encouraged to write (or find) a story, which they will illustrate in a picture scroll and then tell aloud about issues of concern for them, like HIV/AIDS prevention, environmental protection... whatever. In Bengal, the need to make a passage or entrance special is met by making floor and wall paintings called alpanas. Children will be encouraged to use this language with classroom materials — clay, poster paint to celebrate a rite of passage such as school graduation.

Along with brain development, hand activities also foster concentration, increase attention spans and induce calmness. Jasleen Dhamija, a well-known Indian crafts historian, found that the repetitious hand movements in several Indian crafts induce a meditative quality that is linked to the body's biorhythms. Repetitious and soothing hand activities may also help children with ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

The aim of "Art from Indian Hands" is to provide art teachers, parents and children an approach and tools that will help them understand the process of making art, and that will help young brains develop to their full potential. The impact of this programme may not be immediately visible in better marks in board subjects, though that is also possible, but will be more apparent in the long-term when they go to college and eventually practise their professions.

Am I overstating the value of art making? As an artist from India who has been engaged in education, I have come to believe that the purpose of art is much larger than what is commonly understood. Art making is a fundamental human response to life and is deeply connected with brain and mind development. It is also an endeavour that helps deepen our understanding of cultures and can lead to the unifying discovery that most human needs transcend cultural differences. I wonder if schools, parent bodies or art institutions would be interested in developing such a programme?

Shakti Maira is an artist and educator. Reach him at

1 comment:

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