Saturday, December 10, 2005

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 ]

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