Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Disposable School of Training

Talk on the vanishing performative circumstances in an art institutional space

This article was published in Art & Deal magazine, Issue No. 42/Vol. 7 No. 12/October 15, 2011
a panorama view of the campus 

"...You only told to move out the post-graduate hostel from the Black House and to make it a museum.  What the use of it? Instead of lying as a dead museum, the stream of life is flowing there. That's good. After all life is important."


Black House

chatim tola, the most vital place for student's congregation that remains empty now a day

One can observe some similar autonomous signs in all the institutional spaces governed by the students’ activities. But in art institutions these autonomous signs preserve different values, since the learning and the practice of art is much associated with the individual and collective memories and also the spatial circumstances remain inevitable for an art practitioner. An art institute denotes something more as a space than the academia.

We have several queries regarding the homogenized academic calendar of all the educational streams. Why does an art practitioner young require going through bachelor’s degree, masters and then UGC NET, M Phil and PhD to compete with the same structure made for other educational streams of humanities, science and commerce? How much of the areas of the UGC NET examination covers help a student of art in art teaching? Why does a young painter try to put his/her head into theoretical streams for the sake of doing a PhD or research in which neither s/he had any past or future? What the value a three-hour-examination carries for a painter, sculptor or graphic artist?

An institution of art, as a space, plays a role of a context provider to a trainee, to an art enthusiast and also to the consumers or connoisseurs through its syllabus, classroom teachings and all the archival projects. The visual arts need to develop an understanding or a mode of appreciation along with the practice of making or doing it. The subjective reception process of a spectator is very complicated in arts. A spectator as an individual always looks for a 'clue' to enter in an art object. The process of observing, understanding and appreciating art thus appears almost a process of detective investigation. One might utter very naively, "I don't understand cubist art", but after entering an art institution he or she cannot do the same. Because now s/he has many 'clues', many contextual resources and thus many personal memories to associate with the art object. This is the prime role that an institution operates through its all functional apparatuses. Now beyond the class rooms or the syllabus there are many circumstances that helps providing the contexts to an individual receptive mind. These outside classroom circumstances are equally functional or performative in developing the individual and collective memories for the sake of further artistic engagements.

The circumstances in Kalabhavan, Santiniketan are much prominent evidences to exemplify the above proposition. The spatial arrangement and the interplay among the departmental buildings, the murals and the environmental sculptures encountering an individual’s everyday with their vivid happenings in the campus, likewise the very instantaneous nonsense activities also making an encounter, the sitting arrangements under the trees, the interrelationship among the departments, the seasonal festivals, the regular interference of the outside visitors to the campus, the neighboring villages and the landscapes, the subversive gossips- posters- scribbling, the cups and plates lying on the grass, all has equal importance in making the contextual performative circumstance. Numerous anecdotes are in the environment and a continuum of practice is in progress.

Ramkinkar's sculpture inside the campus
Ramkinkar's sculpture inside the campus
Mural by Benode Behari Mukherjee


As I was student of two major Indian art institutions, in Santiniketan and Baroda, mostly young students ask me whether to go for Santiniketan or Baroda for studies in Fine Arts. This is the most difficult question to answer I ever face regarding art and education. I guess most of the people of our fraternity do so. I usually do not make any argument when people say Santiniketan a conservative space or blame it for not ‘up to date’ in current scenario.

Though I was a student of History of Art in Kalabhavan, I my experiences are not alien to those of the ‘practical’ students. Very less things I learnt in Santiniketan class rooms, very little things I can remember of the teachings in my tranquility. But thousands of memories around the performative aspects I do remember and can observe the process of learning in them.

Rabindranath Tagore was an absconder of school in his childhood and had disagreement with the classroom teachings. The process of making Santiniketan thus remains improvisational and the allowance of other elements from a communitarian circumstance remains the most vital aspect of the school. While saying about the art education of Santiniketan these are the aspects one cannot avoid: 1. The environmental sculptures, 2. The murals of the masters, 3. The seasonal ashramic festivals, 4. The visitors from the neighboring villages and outside, 5. The integral participation of the baul-fakir singers and the pata painters in the ordinary everyday, 6. The ‘subversive’ activities of the artist students. I have been focusing in the last aspect in many places. One may notice that one aspect is missing in this list, that is, the visitor buyers and connoisseurs, however, perhaps in today’s times this missing aspect is most important than all since that is the aspect to establish the highness of the ‘high’ art.

activities happening at Chatal
students working at Chatal


In many argumentative forums for the modernist strategies, the nationalist approach, the communitarian orientation and the blend for the traditional values the school of Santiniketan is being criticized. Again not as a mere institution, but as a space, Santiniketan conceives some subversive attempts within its womb which could be seen not in the grand festivities but in very ordinary every-day.

When the orientalism was on high notes, Ramkinkar was in force with oil paintings and his experiments with the occidental isms. It a particular judgment Ramkinkar may not represent what Santiniketan as a school was at his times, but, he definitely represents what Santiniketan as space was. Along with the designed ashramic festivals and campus activities students come to hear many anecdotes about experiences of the masters, which play a role formulating the total practice. Ramkinkar made an outdoor sculpture, a tall vertical figure of a girl named Jaya. Nandalal Bose suggested putting a pot on her head, and as she was facing towards a giant sculpture of Buddha, the figure named as Sujata.  When Rabindranath Tagore encountered the sculpture all were ambiguous to know his reaction. He called the sculptor and Ramkinkar faced Tagore with fear and doubts. Tagore was not angry, but happy, asked Ramkinkar to fill the ambience with such environmental sculptures. Rabindranath understood the spirit of Ramkinkar who always tried making art in an open environment outside the closed studios. This anecdote was the history of environmental sculpture in India.

When the Black House was being planned to make a museum Ramkinkar refused and insisted to keep it as a hostel where students will stay and live a life. For him the museum was a "dead" space. Again in the same line, in the foreword of the book "The Santiniketan Murals" K G Subramanyan states about 'a young British art critic' who visited Santiniketan, "He found it a rewarding visit, not because everything in Santiniketan pleased him or conformed to his mental picture of the place, but because he found there what he called a living gallery of the early stages of modern Indian art. This living gallery consists, as we know, of the mural paintings and reliefs on its buildings, the open air sculpture around, and some paintings in its collection.[2]" Now, does Ramkinkar's notion of the museum a dead space refer a different space that is living? Does the attribution of a "living gallery" in the next anecdote connote a different gallery which is dead?  

moments from collective experience in the campus

moments from collective experience in the campus

moments from collective experience: moving out of the campus

It is interesting to observe throughout the history that subversion does not come from outside but generates within the structure; and in due course the subversive, the minor, the rejecter, turns a guiding force for the mainstream. Being a voyeur spectator amongst the singing crowd of the Daul Poornima evening of full moon, or being a bystander of the cultural procession of Vriksha Ropan festival, we could see some ‘other’ performative urge within the festivity. A very ordinary day turns to a very performative nuance in the space. Here is a very little instance: on the next morning of 11th September 2004 we came out of the hostel and saw some objects installed on the common ground (Chatal), as a quick reaction to the 9/11 event. This is a very ordinary happening among many other happenings inside the campus. No it was not a part of the curriculum, it was never there in the syllabus, no marking system was there behind the event. It was not a performance art or ‘public art’, not a ‘political protest’, not an art installation. But it was something that just took place. It was something that could not be preserved in an art gallery, could not be signatured or thus could not be sold. Sometimes such happenings are mere nonsense and in other times they contain intense involvement of art practitioners. Such circumstances made us thinking there is a method of practice that can be an "other", a parallel, a subversive, an alternative. More than a method it is a circumstance, a performative aspect. The performative circumstance that I am saying about, which could make a hand on hand journey with the pedagogy, is but gradually fading away in contemporary art-education-territories.

Earlier in a feature in this same magazine we tried to articulate some nonsense activities that take place 'just like that' in Kalabhavan (Santiniketan) campus, and tried to see them as attempts of privileging the 'everyday' against the grandiosity of the cultural and artistic practices[3]. Though very much close to our everyday, the performative aspects of kalabhavana Campus are outside of all the norms that could make them worth-studying. Even if sometime they are a part of the Santiniketanian customs, there is an inherent denial to the tradition, as we observed. Only for the ephemeral (and disposable or much of a rejecter) nature of those activities, the lack of authoritarian value and for the tangibility they could sustain the subversive essence even being inside an institution; what the Aashramic Festivals (traditional activities maintained by the Vishwabharati) could not do. While focusing on those minor performative circumstances, we were also aware of the gradually declining features. Perhaps this is a right time to express the observations on and around the declination.    

Speaking again, however the establishment of Santiniketan as an educational space itself was an alternative attempt. Getting recognition as a university, the establishment of Visvabharati in 1951 was a landmark event to denote the shift of the alternativity. The alternative school became a role model for many art institutions in the post independence phase. As the time is rapidly changing, the centralized monolithic structure of the nationalist education system overpowers the space. Here grows a conflict: the systematized education is based on credentials or certifications. The activities that do not count within the curriculum, are also to be come under a category, though loosely coined, the extra-curriculum-activities. For the sake of developing a professional environment for the upcoming students, the first and foremost task was to have control over the activities outside curricula. 

As a result, in last one decade time span we have witnessed major shifts in the spatial experiences in Santiniketan and the declining features of these aspects are happening for some strategic attempts. In Santiniketan, the bachelor's degree program became of four years instead of five years. It is a most visible instance of the attempt of equalizing the art-education system with other streams. It is a very valid point, where a graduate degree requires only three years why should a student of art spoil two more years? In this competitive world one cannot just pass by one or two years for the bachelor’s degree. Perhaps at one level it is necessary to systematize the entire system of education and pedagogy into a similar plane. A homogenized education system might help to set a parameter and to control the entire structure from one centre. When we were students of the five years degree course we were told by many people that we were "wasting" one year in comparison to other educational institutes.

But in case of art, a student needs more time in the preparatory level: to be compatible with the tools and mediums, to test own skill-set with a particular stream of practice, and even if one is already trained enough to start up his/her specialization, time is still required to get attuned with a particular environment and schooling. A student of English literature, chemistry or physics does not have these sorts of problems.

However this was just an example, disagreements would be there at many levels. But what prominent aspect is a process of idealizing the entire system along the other disciplines of science, commerce and humanities. In the process, the degree is increasingly becoming important, the money making strategies are on high notes, and the leisure activities full of nonsense fun are disappearing in rapid manner. Today, without having a grant nobody is willing to produce art in public sphere. If there is no examination marking system, nobody is willing to do an environmental sculpture or temporal performance. People are losing their leisure times, so nobody is singing under the trees neither willing to listen to a Baul or a Fakir in a very ordinary day. It is a very good sign for the individual professional growth that the subversive nonsense elements are vanishing from the ambiences of an art institution and a student is getting much time to devote inside the four walls of the studio. All are very comfortably getting prepared for a 'dead museum' or a 'dead gallery' space.

The centralized national education system does not count everyday ordinariness. Neither nationalism nor the patriotism ever counted the “everyday”. We found immense scope of the everyday in Santiniketan for a futurist inclination, which was actually a threat for the systematized phenomenal education.

an installation at Chatal

Samudra Kajal Saikia
Creative Director, Kathputlee Animation Studios
A 26, (new B 239) West Vinod Nagar
(Opp. Saraswati Kunj Appt.)
Patparganj, I P Extns. New Delhi 92

(m): 09811375594

[1] Mahashay Ami Chakkhik Rupokar Matro, collection of Ramkinkar Baij's writings and interviews, edited by Sandipan Bhattacharya, Published by Manchasha, 2002, page 59

[2] "...it is now widely agreed that the murals and sculpture are quite unique and many of them are distinguished enough to be considred major landmarks of modern indian art. ", foreword, K G Subramanyan, "The Santiniketan Murals, page. ix
[3] Just Like That: Performative circumstances in Kalabhavana, Samudra Kajal Saikia, Published in Art & Deal, Issue No. 31 - Radical: Possibilities / Ruptures, April 2010

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