No country for the arts?

"Perhaps, there is a need for art institutions to reinvent themselves." Photo: Mohammed Yousuf  

“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

In his inimitable style, American writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote these lines in A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays on various topics. He may have meant the words for the average American, but interestingly, he seems to have summarized something that needs to be said repeatedly in the context of arts education in India. Still embroiled in criteria of employability and quantifiable factors, fields like music, dance, theatre and fine arts continue to fight to be considered and evaluated differently. The debate, surrounding arts education, therefore, often tends to be about reminding one that we need to revise our own perceptions about the objectives of an education in the arts.

Take the case of fine arts institutions in India. The country has been the birth place of premier institutions like the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, set up in 1949, where the Baroda school of art blossomed. Then, we have Shantiniketan, whose Kala Bhavan has produced well-known artists from the Bengal school such as Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, K.G. Subramanyam and so on. And then there are other institutions in each metropolis such as the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai and the Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore that continue to generate a new crop of artists each year. Apart from these, most universities have a dedicated department for the fine arts as well.

If one were to walk into any of these institutions, especially Shantiniketan or Chitrakala Parishath, a whiff of difference surrounds one. Set foot in Chitrakala Parishath for instance and you will see that it is nothing like a regular college. Classrooms spill out into the gardens and canvases use the rocks outside as their tables. The sound of birds accompany the mind as it churns out forms that find meaning and significance on paper, clay and an unthinkable amount of materials. And yet, these institutions are governed by policies that work for fields like engineering and IT, say professors.

“One important concern are the standardised rules for the appointment of teachers. There is a criterion of a mandatory Ph.D. for a candidate to be eligible for the position of the teacher in a fine arts college. If I’m a practising artist, my art works are my doctorate degree. I may not have published articles or a dissertation but I will have years of art practice. But the University Grants Commission (UGC) does not consider practice-based work at par with its definition of a Ph.D. As a result, finding the right teachers has become a problem in colleges. In Baroda, we’ve had a post for the Professor of Painting vacant for almost 15 years!,” says Prof. Shashidharan Nair, Assistant Professor, Department of Painting, MSU, Baroda.

Nair continues that recently, a team from MSU, Baroda, has in fact sat down with the UGC and tried to explain this point. “Things might change if the UGC changes its guidelines. They have also asked us to devise a Ph.D. programme that fits the fine arts,” he says.

Other professors echo Nair’s concern about the mandatory doctorate degree, but add that even the existing teaching regimen needs to change.“At present, teachers, apart from the time spent in classrooms have to also do a lot of office work. So, practising artists do not apply. We mostly get mediocre candidates who look at teaching as a job. Ideally, what would stimulate artists to engage with pedagogy is if there is a balance between research work and contact hours with students. The students too can be involved in the research project that the teacher takes up,” says Prof. Sanchayan Ghosh, who teaches painting at Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan.

A lot of the problems that fine arts colleges face are couched in a general attitude of neglect that surrounds arts education. “Perhaps, the government thinks that we (artists) are not important enough for the society,” remarks Prathibha. T. S., Professor, M.A. Painting, Chitrakala Parishath. The reason for this assumption is also because the challenges are not just limited to the appointment of teachers but to other infrastructural issues such as a dedicated space for fine arts departments within universities, proper library facilities, funding to ensure the exchange of guest faculty and the purchase of expensive art books etc.

So, as Prathibha asks, are the arts not important enough to warrant more attention from the Government? Or do we lack the know-how to evaluate the role of an arts institution and hence do not know how to go about formulating policies? “For any society that wants to move ahead, it will have to have artists. Especially, in recent times, we are increasingly growing to become a very intolerant society. The role art can play in averting this is crucial” says R. Sivakumar, Professor,, Shantiniketan and adds that the value of art education cannot be measured in quantifiable terms. “Art is not about making a piece in seclusion. It is about generating an engagement with society,” adds Ghosh. Perhaps the blame lies not just with external agencies like the Government but also within the art circuit. Do the arts, artists and art institutions managed to strike a chord with their audience today? Not convincingly, says Ghosh. “Sadly, both art and artists are increasingly losing their relevance with society today. This trend of fading relevance began with the advent of globalisation, when the notions of community and viewership changed. Artists don’t know who their target audience is. With an open market, the need to survive takes over and you are not concerned about who you’re making art for,” he explains.

What can art institutions themselves do in this regard? Perhaps, there is a need for art institutions to reinvent themselves, say professors. In the wake of online education too, art colleges perhaps need to change their approach. “The challenge for art educators today is in responding adequately to the changing art scene. We have to have a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching art,” says Anil Kumar, Professor, CKP. “Also, today artists cannot exist without playing the role of activists too. Along with an aesthetic purpose, artists need to have a political purpose too and this should begin in an art college.”

Ghosh has a rather radical idea for the reinvention. “We should dismantle the idea of departments and move over to a concept-based study. Departments should only facilitate the way the mind is thinking,” he says.

Almost all practitioners argue, therefore, that an institution as an idea is crucial. “An institution’s purpose, especially an art institute’s is to provide an environment for creativity, get like minded people together and nurture a community,” says Sivakumar. Ghosh says: “Earlier, Shantiniketan used to visit villages and connect their art practices with the locals there. We need more of that to happen.”

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 6:53:56 AM |

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