Art Practice as a Performative Pedagogy
Rabindranath Tagore, initiator of Santiniketan and Visva Bharati always imagined the position of the guru (the quintessential teacher) as an integral part of the circle, not only imparting knowledge from outside but actively participating in the process of learning and making together. In this situation the border between the formal and informal space of practice merge, generating the possibility of creating through pedagogy a public sphere that is both inclusive and collective. The very act of working and making together, where teacher and disciple are equally in a state of failing and learning, can transform pedagogy into an integrated practice of making and sharing together, on the level of both individual and collective experience.
In this context, my workshop experiences with Badal Sircar, the dramatist, theatre director, and exponent of Third theater,1 as a student of Fine Arts in the early 1990s at Kala Bhavana (Institute of Fine Arts, Visva Bharati, Santniketan) are worth noting. Badalda, as he was popularly referred to, always emphasized the rejection of the viewer or the observer within the workshop process. He always prohibited idle observers from sitting outside the workshop process, merely watching. Badalda believed that it was only the active participant who would learn and contribute. This very notion of eliminating the divide between maker and viewer, performer and audience, transforms any process-based activity into a pedagogical engagement where the very practice of pedagogy becomes itself the practice.
In recent times, the temporal organization of a university education in India has been continuously fragmented into clusters and zones on account of the implementation of the semester system. Consequently, the sustained continuity that is the essence of a process-based education is disrupted. Pedagogy as the integrated union of formal and informal dialogue has been increasingly limited to the time-based imparting of technical knowledge.
Moreover, the beginning of the new millennium saw the advent of mobile and internet access on university campus across India, which fragmented inter-community conversation. What earlier was a natural process of community dialogue now remains a forced process restricted to the program’s curriculum. The ubiquity of communication technologies has increasingly transformed campus life into discreet, private zones of exploration within the world of hyper-reality, with a concomitant diminution of engagement with the physical space of the university, or the outside world for that matter.
Given these constraints, different time-based exercise models need to be imagined to engage with the student community, using multiple notions of time and space, of making and sharing. So, while some activities might be short-term hands-on exercises, others might consist of prolonged, continuous processes where the exercise itself is a sustained engagement enduring across a changing group of student participants. There is a general saying that pedagogy is a static and fixed entity, while students are the changing space. I feel pedagogy today is the most dynamic space of social engagement, being that it has to constantly reframe its models, reimagining and reengaging an exercise over and over again, with a level of variation totally dependent on the changing character of individual groups of students and their level of participation in academic affairs. My engagement with the academic life of Kala Bhavana operates within this framework of the formal and the informal, and tends towards engaging with pedagogy as a community-based art practice.
The Reconciliation of Multiple Models of Art Pedagogy in Kala Bhavana
Founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1919, Kala Bhavana Institute of Fine Arts under Visva Bharati University in Santiniketan was based on multiple models of art education. Kala Bhavana proposed an art practice beyond the colonial model introduced by the British Raj in Kolkata and other metropolitan areas of colonized India. Kala Bhavana, rejected the academic model of study and engaged instead with other multiple traditions, that were both indigenous and international. It explored both local traditions like Pata painting (or Pata Chitra: a form of figurative painting done on clay pots or paper roles in Bengal and Orissa state) and at the same time different formal calligraphic and representational traditions from China and Japan. While rejecting the Victorian model introduced by British colonists, Kala Bhavana did not reject Western approaches outright; it engaged with other European traditions like the Italian structure-based approach and other forms of modernist practices then emerging in Europe, generating an eclectic model of art practice which the artist pedagogue K.G. Subramanyan would refer to as “the interaction, and may be the reconciliation, of different cultural forms.”2 Based on this broader, more inclusive perspective on different art practices and pedagogical models, Kala Bhavana went on to propose an individualistic model of art practice that would include a spectrum of practitioners, formulating a pedagogy based on the “creative individual.”3
Another significant way of thinking about artistic practice that came up in Kala Bhavana’s curriculum was the inclusion of ritualistic tools as a mainstream art practice. The school transformed traditional Alpana practice (a floor drawing technique with rice paste and executed directly with the fingers), changing it from a type of sacred art used mostly in the Indian calendar of seasonal rituals and apply it to semiotic traditions of framing. The conversation with Alpana designs carried out at Kala Bhavana used the modality to perform a spontaneous exploration of spatiality, explored both in community festivals and components of image-making in murals and paintings.
Moreover, engagement with the murals painted in the Ajanta Caves—a series of Buddhist shrines cut into rock cliffs in Maharashtra state, dating from the second century BCE and fourth to sixth century CE—in the process bridging the gap between local indigenous design practice (that included both process and motifs), and formally sophisticated modern art traditions from Europe, contributed to the emerging discourse of modernity in Santiniketan. This unfolded into numerous workshop-based mural activity in the campus reflecting a rejuvenated spirit of individual and the collective as an integrated practice in Kala Bhavana pedagogy.
These models projected a holistic lifestyle where a community-based approach of co-working with nature, coexisted both on the individual and collective level. In this respect Tagore’s initiation of secular, seasonal ritualistic events of celebrating seasons and Vriksharopan (tree planting festival) and Halakarshan (harvesting festival) provided another model of collectivism enacted as a critical interface to the ritualistic and religious practices observed by the local community. Often these practices made their own impact on the minds and thinking processes of students outside of the formal teaching on offer. Art activity in Kala Bhavana was not only a response to individualistic models, it also sought ways to participate in the local way of life. Deriving inspiration from local practices like the Baul tradition (a mystic musical tradition of Birbhum) and the lifestyle of the Santali communities in the School’s vicinity, the school developed an alternative approach to design grounded within local experience, proposing a new form of indigenous urbanity.
Nandalal Bose, who became head of the school in 1922 and is widely considered responsible for shaping the institute, reiterated these principles in a structured way, elaborating a holistic approach towards the practice and teaching of art that was necessary for a healthy society, and endeavoring to continue Tagore’s efforts to bridge the gap between the fine arts and living traditions. Conceiving of the disciplinary practice of art in general as a process of reengaging in an integrated way with some of its basic tools, Nandalal Bose explored and ultimately formalized a model of study foregrounding an interdisciplinary practice of engagement that is process based, performative, social and collective in nature with a deep sense of individual identity.
Many of the innovations Bose initiated are still practiced at present day Kala Bhavana, such as field study trips to museums and temple sites, or engaging, as a process of study, with natural forms and the rural landscape. The different traditional seasonal festivals also play a part in introducing students to the changing seasons and their particular qualities: Varsha Mongal (the celebration of rain), Sarodotsav (The celebration of autumn), Basant Utsav (the celebration of spring) followed by Vriksharopan and Halakarshan—the tree planting and harvest festival respectively. A compelling need was felt for these collective, community-based activities to be sustained into the Kala Bhavana art curriculum as models of engagement rather than being left as university festivals.