A lesson or two

THIS wildly colourful collection of school charts, interpreted in a number of brief essays, has been selected for us to consider as art. Charts like these have been mass-produced since the 1950s to meet the need for inexpensive educational aids for government and other schools teaching less privileged children. Mainly printed either in Delhi or Madurai, they were and are designed by the same people who paint walls and billboards. The authors of this book call their works "naive art" and trace their antecedents back to the artists who enjoyed royal patronage, then to the company school of painting, then to the bazaar art which included that of Kalighat and later still to the enormously influential works of Ravi Varma.

Against this illustrious history, school charts seem on first impression to display a stunning decline in talent. The taste for bright and clashing colours is clear in the crude depiction of a selection of flowers, including marigolds and dahlias, which look precious little like the real thing. The authors are, though, correct when they say that the charts are pointers to the defects in an education system which is still far too close to the colonial original for comfort. The colonial system, as they point out, valued fact over context and instruction over comprehension. Much of the information force fed to children had no relevance to them. The flower chart is just one example of this legacy. What poor primary school child in Madurai would ever have the chance to see a bluebell?

These charts were, and probably still are, mainly produced in English, even when the school uses another language as its teaching medium. The good children portrayed in them are urban, middle class and rather pale of complexion, the descendants of the babus the colonial education system was designed to produce.

But, strangely enough, the chart designers have played an unexpectedly anarchic role in this examination-ridden, rote-learning system. Themselves perhaps uneducated, or at least not particularly literate in English, they cheerfully treat their subjects with such a lack of respect and cavalier disregard for correct labelling that, as the authors say, their work can be "read as a deconstruction of the knowledge business." A chart of tropical birds has the head of a Monezumor Penola next to the foot of a Purple Gallinule and the egg of a Bennett's Cassowary, like so many items drawn out of a magician's hat. A chart headed "Developmental Stages of Insects" includes the life cycle of a chicken. Another, entitled "Shadows", shows children standing in the morning, at midday, and in the evening. Uncannily, not one of them casts a shadow.

The naive art tag can be taken more seriously in the moral stories that are the subject of another class of charts. Here is the Mahabharata reduced to 18 cartoons in bright pink, blue, green and yellow. The Ramayana is similarly compressed, while moral tales from Aesop and the Panchatantra are fitted into one strip of four pictures. Morals and good habits were also an important subject for charts and an integral part of missionary education. The phrase "cleanliness is next to Godliness" springs to mind watching the Ideal Boy bathing and brushing his teeth before saluting his parents and lecturing a group of villagers as part of his "social activities".

Naturally, bad behaviour is more interesting than good, and the bad boys can be seen chucking down banana peels for ladies to slip on, smoking, playing cricket indoors, flying kites while standing on sloping roofs, coughing at the dining table and feeling the bum of a female classmate. The chart-makers of Delhi at least also include animal-teasing as very bad news, as well as smashing plate glass shop windows as an example of "taking the law into your own hands".

How seriously children relate to the moral messages they receive through charts is unclear. However the authors do point out that the amount of charts on safety and first aid would at first glance suggest a culture which puts great emphasis on civic alertness and safety, which they also remark is far from the truth. They relate these messages to the kind of slogans which governments are prone to writing on walls — Dowry — Bad to Receive, Bad to Give — or Live Decent Family Life — avoid AIDS. Found everywhere, they bear little relationship to policy or practice and come close to fantasy.

So as the bric-a-brac of an educational history of India, and as an indicator of how few facilities many schools still have, these charts do have value — but as art? A chart of the services offered by a Municipal Committee with everyone in clothes as elegant as Gandharan draperies catches my eye. Art can be found in the most unlikely places. Perhaps the authors of this book have truly beheld it.

An Ideal Boy: Charts from India, Sirish Rao, V. Geetha and Gita Wolf, Dewi Lewis Publishing in association with Tara Publishing, London, 2001, p.133, price not stated.


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