How art education in India is witnessing a remarkable shift

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Updated: March 17, 2019 7:26:51 AM

Organised under the Expanded Education Programme (EEP), a key initiative of the ongoing Students’ Biennale in Kochi, the aim was to engage with students and teachers to identify existing frameworks of learning in art schools in India and imagine new directions in pedagogical practices.

Swiss art historian and curator Federica Martini conducting a workshop at Jamia Millia Islamia's fine arts facultySwiss art historian and curator Federica Martini conducting a workshop at Jamia Millia Islamia’s fine arts faculty

Last October, a group of art students from Jamia Millia Islamia central university went about collecting objects just like the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk did while writing his book Museum of Innocence (2008), a love story set in Istanbul. They, however, didn’t collect women’s pictures from newspapers, lottery tickets or cigarette butts, objects that were central to the novel. “Each of us was asked to bring an object close to us,” explains Jasmine Khan, a first-year art history and art appreciation master’s student, about the workshop, which was organised at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Khan brought a stretched canvas, while others got things like a memory card, personal diary, old telephone, mirror, empty bottles and even a copy of someone’s Aadhaar card. “We displayed the objects and kept changing the display,” says Khan.

Adds Saba Tarannum, a first-year master of fine arts student at Jamia Millia: “It was a new way of seeing something you have always seen.” For both Khan, a resident of Zakir Nagar in south Delhi, and Tarannum, who is from Guwahati in Assam, it was a completely different learning experience.

Charting new direction

A month before the Jamia Millia workshop, some 35 students of the prestigious JJ School of Arts in Mumbai participated in a similar project. This time, instead of collecting personal objects, the students went around the school’s neighbourhood, mapping the city. During the six-day workshop, the students left their paint and brushes behind to study the city, its architecture and the relationship between its people and places. One of their destinations was Bhuleshwar, an old market near Fort, famous for its synthetic jewellery shops. Another was Crawford Market, one of Mumbai’s oldest markets near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. The result: an exhibition at their school, where an installation showed the Crawford Market waking up, and a canopy made of junk, which looked like jewellery hanging in the shops of Bhuleshwar.

The workshops at Jamia Millia and JJ School were part of a larger initiative, wherein artists and art educators conducted workshops in art schools in eight cities across the country between August and November last year. Organised under the Expanded Education Programme (EEP), a key initiative of the ongoing Students’ Biennale in Kochi, the aim was to engage with students and teachers to identify existing frameworks of learning in art schools in India and imagine new directions in pedagogical practices. EEP workshops focused on art history, intermedia, technology, critical theory, public art, architecture and the city, and curation. The workshops relied on the expertise of educators who have spent many years developing teaching strategies, and who engaged students in process-intensive and practice-based learning. “The workshops were focused on understanding the needs of the students and to help them reorient the way they think,” explains Vidya Shivadas, who heads the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), which put together the workshops.

Sri Lankan artist Sanathanan Thamotharampillai conducting a workshop in Chennai

Opened in December last year, the Students’ Biennale is an educational initiative by the Kochi Biennale Foundation, which runs the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, ongoing till March 29 this year. Developed in partnership with FICA and the Foundation for Indian Art and Education (FIAE), the Student’s Biennale runs side by side with the much-loved Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which has been curated this year by artist Anita Dube. “The curriculum in art schools, by and large, remains based on the colonial-era structure,” says Kochi Biennale Foundation president and artist Bose Krishnamachari. “Education is one of the largest foundations of the biennale. Over 600 students from 60 art schools participated in the Students’ Biennale in its last two editions. The aim is to create a platform where a ‘critically-thinking’ practice can emerge,” adds Krishnamachari.

Crying for change

Art education in India, dependent on British-era curriculum and practice, has been badly in need of change for a long time now. Institutions like the much vaunted JJ School of Arts, which was founded in 1857, continue to heavily depend on portrait painting and face drawing. “The syllabus hasn’t changed for over a century,” rues artist Kausik Mukhopadhyay, who led the workshop at JJ School. “It is necessary to think of new material, see our own city as an inspiration,” adds Mukhopadhyay, who is well known for his kinetic sculptures relating to life in a city. “But there is an intent to change, which is encouraging,” he says, referring to the wholehearted support he received from the JJ School administration for the workshop that challenged the old style of learning art. Mukhopadhyay’s workshop taught students to think about their city as an extended studio.

(From far left) Terracotta sculptures by bachelor of fine arts fourth-year student Abhijith EA of Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts in Mavelikkara, Kerala, focuses on an individual’s relationship with society.
Common people carrying the burden of social conflicts in society is the focus of an installation by three art students of SNDT Women’s University, Pune.
Hyderabad University’s SN School of Art and Communication final-year master of fine art student Umesh Singh’s work showing blunt farm tools at the Kochi Students’ Biennale reflects on the poor plight of farmers in the country

It’s a fact, though, that art schools in the country remain afflicted with woes like poor infrastructure, outdated curriculum and insufficient faculty strength, shutting out any chances of change. But instead of being weighed down by the worries, change agents like FICA director Shivadas believe in mobilising thinking around contemporary realities around art schools. “We don’t necessarily see them as part of the education. The aim is how to shift the lens,” she adds. The workshops work towards understanding the conditions on campus, while introducing students to new ideas around technology, the layered ways of a city, curation and community engagement. “The idea of critical apparatus for art-making has to be deepened,” says Shivadas. “Also, (we need to) reorient the idea of making itself.”

At the Faculty of Arts in Jamia Millia, associate professor (painting) Moeen Fatma believes that the future of art education lies in embracing different mediums. “A student needs to work not only on canvas, but also with performance, video, installation, photography and craft,” says Fatma, whose works have handled representation of women in society. At the Jamia workshop—conducted by Swiss art historian and curator Federica Martini, dean of Visual Arts at the School of Design and High School of Art of Valais—collecting objects by students meant creating stories and relationships between objects. This opened a new way of thinking for students about their neighbourhood and environment.

Engaging with environment

Engaging students with questions of gender, caste, history and memory was the focus of the FICA workshop in Chennai, which was attended by students from the city’s Government College of Arts and Crafts, Bharathiyaar Palkalai Koodam College in Puducherry and Government College of Arts, Kumbakkonam. Conducted by Sri Lankan artist Sanathanan Thamotharampillai, the workshop took students out of the campus and to the streets for meetings with local scholars, artists and activists. Viewing the city as an archive of contested history allowed the students to engage in an informed and critical art practice that grows beyond the act of making art.

At Delhi’s School of Cultures and Critical Expressions at Ambedkar University, South African cultural worker and educator Rangoato Hlasane Ra asked students to draw up their family trees and turn them into “praise poems”, an African cultural expression for self-affirmation and awareness. “It seems to me that how we teach (methods) is linked to what we teach (content),” says Ra. “The combination (pedagogy) is implicated in the role and place of what most understand as education in society. Who we are (even when this may seem superficial or over-emphasised) is, therefore, implicated in our teaching and learning environments,” he adds, terming the EEP as “one of the richest encounters in teaching and learning”.

At another workshop, held at SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad, educators—led by art historian Santhosh Sadanand—unpacked technology as an aid and extension to artistic creativity. And in Bhubaneswar, art historian Sarada Natarajan—who led the workshop for students at BK College of Arts and Crafts and Government College of Arts and Crafts, Khallkote, Odisha—included reading of a historical text related to the building of Konark’s famous Sun Temple and site visits to Udayagiri caves and Konark Sun Temple, underlining the understanding of processes and making of art.

Exhibiting students’ works

The Kochi Students’ Biennale, which was included in the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s programming in 2014, also includes an exhibition platform for art school students, as well as a research component on the status of art education in the country. This year, the exhibition venues, mainly former spice warehouses, house 113 projects from 36 art schools across the country. And for the first time, art schools from SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) member countries are also participating this year.

“Institutions teach skills, but the philosophy of arts is taught by very few,” says Shukla Sawant, one of the six curators of this year’s Students’ Biennale. “We are not attempting to be fairy queens, but the Students’ Biennale is one step to sustain change in art education,” adds Sawant, who is a visual artist and professor of Visual Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The six curators—Sawant; artist Sanchayan Ghosh (who teaches at Kala Bhavan, Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan); visual artist Krishnapriya CP; independent curator Shruti Ramalingaiah; and Malayali artists KP Reji and MP Nishad—chose works from 36 art schools from 1,700 entries, choosing the final projects after interacting with students in their art schools.

And these final projects have been winning great praise from the artist community, as well as the public. “These are great promising works,” says artist Sudharshan Shetty, who curated the third edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016. “There is a crisis in art education and we have to come together to find solutions,” adds Shetty, emphasising the role of the Students’ Biennale and EEP. “We must create a curriculum open to evolution. Also, it is important to understand what we should be trained in because there are many ways to look at the world,” he adds.

One of the student projects that catches the attention of visitors is an installation by eight students of Aligarh Muslim University’s fine arts faculty. A response to the rape and murder of eight-year-old Asifa Bano in Kathua, Jammu, early last year, the installation is made of wooden logs, creating a massive skull and skeleton. “The local vendors donated four tonnes of wood for the work,” reveals Faiza Hasan, a Hyderabad-based artist and coordinator of the Students’ Biennale, adding, “Since its inception, the Students’ Biennale has resulted in building numerous networks between students, institutions, practitioners and other stakeholders. Although no formal structure is in place to trace the paths of these students after the programme concludes, often many of them come back for our Master Practice Studio and residencies, while others migrate to different institutions, which only results in expanding the existing networks,” she adds.

Researchers from the Students’ Biennale have also been documenting their findings from the workshops and art projects over the past several months. A forthcoming conference, titled Pedagogical In-Flux and the Art of Education, in Kochi on March 21-22 will see them unveiling their findings. The study is expected to explain the systemic shifts within the larger frameworks of art education in a global context that is redefining the roles and significance of art schools as one of the primary spaces of learning and knowledge production. The conference with Indian and international speakers will extend key questions that have emerged from the Expanded Education Programme, focusing on learner-centric and artist/educator-led pedagogy, technologies of teaching, new materialism and processes of making, and the significance of locations/sites in artistic practices.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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