Pedagogy as Art Practice: Towards a Critical Multiplicity

Practices around land, location and collectivism in Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan

1. Different images of Vriksharopan (Tree Planting Festival) in Santiniketan initiated by Rabindranath Tagore since 1925 together with the faculty and students of Visva Bharati. It is still continued until today and plays an important role that created the green enviromnment of the campus. Today it is also an important cultural event of Bengali calender celebrated in different parts of Bengal. Image courtesy: Rabindra Bhavana, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan.

2. Lower group of images are from 2007 Gobbet Day Activity of searching all the trees planted in the last 80 years by Mono Gobbet Society, Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan on 1 August 2007 in the campus of Visva Bharati. Image courtesy: Sanchayan Ghosh.

To initiate a pedagogic model at a new art institute is often an easier task than engaging with the legacy of an institute that is a hundred years old. To start something new always provides the opportunity to oppose or adapt existing models, make selective decisions about whether to include or exclude certain methods of working, and project an institutional ideology that positions itself either on the periphery or at the center, or even revert to older notions of center and periphery. But to engage with a legacy which is, in essence, the outcome of accumulated layers of individual and collective pedagogic models, to identify multiplicity as a further possibility of academism, and position it in between the formal and the informal … this is a far more complex process.

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.

Excerpts from Nandalal Bose: “Art in Education,” in: Nandalal Bose: Vision & Creation. K.G. Subramanyan, trans. Visva-Bharati Publishing Department, 1999 (originally published in Bengali in 1944).

Landscape Study: A site-specific engagement of individual and the collective practices

Engagement with landscape has been historically one of the principle means of teaching and practicing art at Kala Bhavana. As an institution that envisioned itself as a place for taking art study beyond the imperialist framework of colonialism, Kala Bhavana reengaged with prior models of landscape representation and reflected upon the local landscape. In order to liberate it from the romantic values of locale it engaged in broader discourses connected to representation and materiality. In one sense, Kala Bhavana liberated art study from the parochiality of nationalism and engaged with the structural multiplicity of representational modalities. All the artist pedagogues of Kala Bhavana practiced a process of representing the local through an array of representational models. Nandalal Bose, for instance, approached landscape from a lyrical point of view, intimately detailing observed experience by combining methods derived from classical and local traditions. Binode Behari Mukherjee, on the other hand, introduced an element of concreteness through his use of a certain calligraphic heaviness and a layered process of construction, creating multiple perspectival points of view that merged the representational devices of both East and West into an integrated whole. His Hindi Bhavana mural, located inside the Hindi department of Visva Bharati University, reflects a multifaceted approach to landscape and lifestyle integrated through a complex interlacing of faiths and practices. Ramkinkar Baij’s landscapes incorporated a constructional dynamism employing heavy brush strokes of pure color and spontaneous calligraphy. Under Binode Behari and Ramkinkar Baij landscape representation became a dialogue between space and reconstruction, aiming towards a metaphorical bodily engagement of pigment and process grounded in locational identity.

Engagement with landscape has moved beyond the terrain of a style of representation derived from colonial hegemony, to a process of direct engagement with the specificity of location and site. Today, the practice of landscape study has emerged as an integrated field of study, opening up possibilities of engaging with the everyday life practices that contribute to how the land has developed. Landscape is a complex network of practices and geopolitics, which in these neoliberal times can only be mapped through interdisciplinary cross-sectional dialogue involving multiple practices.

In this respect, my own engagement with process as a shared experience of making and exploring in relation to a specific site or location led me to look at pedagogy as an interface of social and public engagement, envisaged from an institutional point of view. It is important, I have found, to engage with the institute from inside, exploring new relationships of making and learning from both individual and collective points of view. Reorienting different academic models of practice, turning them into an interface spanning the individual and collective, expanding them according to different types of relating, these activities can create new possibilities for engaging with process and practice. In what follows I will share some of my own engagements with certain basic academic models of practice, and revisit study as a critical interface of collective reciprocity—both from the inside of studio-based practice and the outside of site-based practice, and social/community engagement.

Reversed Perspective: Three Conjunctures
An architectural conversation around landscape study of Birbhum in Experimenter, Kolkata

Reverse perspective can be used as a tool to accommodate an expanded experience of space beyond the limitations of optical information emanating from a one-point view of landscape. Reversed perspective is not about reversing a process or about reviving a pre-Enlightenment tool of representation or rejecting the rules of linear perspective. Reverse perspective can be reengaged as an inclusive tool to map an overall viewpoint, including the social and cultural experience of landscape in particular, and land as a physical entity in general. In the process, it becomes possible to depart from a specific narrative, entering into an open-ended multifocal dialogue about place, in a displaced relationship with an architectural plan.

The present project which was an architectural installation in Experimenter Gallery in 2013–14 was part of an ongoing research-based art project together with research scholar students from the Department of Painting, whose final aims was to engage with both the social and material phenomenon of landscape, with specific reference to Birbhum, a fringe landscape situated between a plateau and a riverine landscape. As a landscape, Birbhum is a unique location. Geographically, it is a fringe location, at the transition of the volcanic accumulation of the Chotonagpur plateau of Jharkhand and the foothills of the Gangetic plains of Murshidabad. Given its transitional location, it is fertile in some areas and rugged and dry in others. Part of it is suitable for farming, while the remaining area consists either of forest area or dry laterite soil of a plateau otherwise called the Khoai.

The installation was meant to transform the experience of landscape study and representation into an encounter with different practices and multiple disciplines. It explored landscape engagement from broadly three different perspectives:

Reversed Perspective: 3 Conjunctions
An interdisciplinary architectural intervention on landscape study of Birbhum, West Bengal, 2014.
Sanchayan Ghosh together with Hara Kumar Gupta and residents of Dwaranda Village, Birbhum, research scholars and students of Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati.
Image courtesy: Sanchayan Ghosh.

  • From the point of view of physical engagement with land: Inhabitant as an absence, landscape as a verb…

The memory of landscape was explored through a workshop-based collaboration with the local inhabitants of Dwaranda, one of the villages in Birbhum. Memories were explored through theater games—a collective recollection of body and sound. People from different backgrounds, including local poets, farmers, traditional musicians, daily laborers, and tribal community members all joined in the workshop.

Participant’s gestural memories were then exposed on a screen coated with a light-sensitive emulsion mixed with the red soil of Birbhum. These bodily gestures were shadows cast on the screen, surviving as an absence of presence.

  • From the point of view of material and the history of excavation: Landscape study through material study, soil testing and excavation…

A material engagement with the soil of Birbhum was initiated through soil sampling and soil testing, in consultation with the members of the Soil Testing Laboratory of the Institute of Agriculture (Palli Siksha Bhavana). Ten soil samples were collected from a one square km area of land with different geographical conditions and mouzas (a type of administrative district, corresponding to a specific land area within which there may be one or more settlements). These ten samples were then mixed together to create a composite sample of the region. The composite soil was treated with barium chloride in order to test whether it was alkaline, acidic, or neutral. Soil samples were also collected for testing from areas which can be considered politically and culturally disturbed, in order to explore the interrelationship of science and cultural memory: to see, in other words, whether an acidic soil has an acidic political history or whether a neutral soil possesses a neutral cultural history.

  • From the point of view of land as body itself: Landscape study as a site-specific architectural installation in Experimenter gallery, Kolkata

The U-shaped gallery space was reconstructed through three reverse perspective drawings framed with wooden frames lit with red LED strip lights. These interspersed the physical space of the gallery, a network of lines expanding in space. The network was divided into three zones. On one segment the shadow casting of the local people of Dwaranda were hung from the wooden network construction.

The second zone shared the material evidence and results of the soil testing and cultural history research undertaken in different segments of Birbhum, known as the land of the red laterite soil. A proper soil-testing lab was set up in this section, including all the samples of soil from different parts of Birbhum, from the ten specific mouzas tested. A hand-written wall text recounted the procedures for soil testing maintained by Dr. Ghosh (a pseudo intellectual) and his colleagues so that exhibition visitors could experiment themselves in their homes. A detailed description of the character of soil configuration and its layers were drawn.

Finally, in the last of the three section was displayed an exaggerated perspective situation created by transforming the physical space of the gallery into a simulation. An illusion of three-dimensional perspectives was created atop of which were projected different animated images of objects. The projected images followed the artificial perspective, exploring land as metaphor for the body. The three sections delineating the three spaces of the gallery were illuminated with red light. The other walls of the gallery carried wall texts regarding the socio-political history of Birbhum. These referenced different political uprising, such as the Santali Revolution and reports of radical political movements. The texts also featured land distribution chart and census reports.

It was necessary for viewers to carry a torch in order to explore these different notional landscapes, crossing the different linear perspective constructions and discovering the different sections of this interdisciplinary encounter with landscape, conceived as an architectural entity. As the viewers walked around, they also heard a soundscape comprised of the sounds of instruments, human voices recorded during the workshop game, and different religious prayers.

During the exhibition, two separate events were held. Farmers who participated in the shadow casting, a geographer, a developmental economist, a sociologist, and Santali community members were invited to share their various experiences of the landscape of Birbhum and to discuss its marginality with respect to topography, economics, and social and political history.

“MUKHOMUKHI ...” A research based collective recollection of practices around the landscape of Birbhum, West Bengal

Continuing with the concept of landscape representation as an integrated process involving multiple disciplinary methods, “Mukhomukhi ...” explored research as a process of collective community-based dialogue. It explored informal community meeting as a process of collective reflection, in a situation of mutual sharing and learning, with the intention of bringing together local practices as an integrated living tradition and memory of the landscape, lifestyle, and cultural habits of Birbhum; a meeting of different academic methods with hands-on daily practices connected to land, from the perspective of daily survival and existence.

With support from the Indian Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore( IFA), six cultural meetings were organized in six different seasons, in six different landscape situations in six different locations around Birbhum: Dwaranda (winter session); Ghosaldanga (spring session); Parota and Kirnahar (summer session); Ratanpur and Kopai Village (rainy season session); Kharia and Mohammadbazar (autumn session); and Sishutirtha and Santiniketan (Hemanta session).

Some Notes on Birbhum:

Traditionally, Birbhum has been occupied by tribal communities, but has also been settled by a host of other communities, including members of scheduled castes (the official name given in India to the lowest caste, considered ‘untouchable’ in orthodox Hindu scriptures and practice). With respect to the overall percentage of schedule caste and tribe in West Bengal, the concentration of communities such as the Hadi, Bagdi, Dom, Bayens (drummers) are the highest. Most do not have their own lands but work as a daily laborer on a contractual basis on land belonging to the upper castes, like the Brahmins and Kayasthas, who still occupy a majority of the arable land. Birbhum has a host of land-related rituals and local music and performance traditions (Gajan, Manasa mangal, Kirtan, and Baul, to name a few) particular to both upper castes, schedule castes, and tribes. The recent shift in the rural economy from an agrarian to a more service-oriented work culture has brought about changes and shifts in the practice of these rituals and folk traditions. The influence of mass media such as television and film have also had an impact. Many of these traditions are losing their past relevance as an organic practice within everyday life, instead becoming staged performances complete with all the accessories of modern communication technology. There are traditions like the drummers (Bayen), the Leto (local satirical songs and plays), and Bhadu (singers) who are in the last generation after their masters and will cease to exist after these gurus die. Fragmentation and loss is already happening in these practices.

Research Based Collective Recollection of Practice

Local traditional practitioners (folk performers, musicians, poets) and local historians, poets, writers, farmers, social activists, visual artists, geographers, sociologists, and theater practitioners following the social life and landscape of Birbhum were invited to meet for a day and share with other institutional practitioners from the Agro-Economic Research Center, Rural Extension Center, and other department professors from Visva-Bharati (geography, Bengali English, economics, as well as faculty from local schools and colleges in Birbhum). The invited performers discussed how their practices referenced particular seasons and its impact on the landscape, as reflected in their individual practices of living traditions. This process generated a dialogue between pedagogues and local experts, exploring landscape study as collective memory of use and lifestyle.

“MUKHOMUKHI ...”: A collective recollection of landscape dialogues around six locations in Birbhum district, West Bengal, Sanchayan Ghosh in collaboration with Sahityika (Theater Group, Santiniketan) and Hara Kumar Gupta (a Leto performer form Kharia, Mohammad Bazar) and students of Kala Bhavan, 2015–16.

Although documentation is the end result, one main intention was to use the tools of research and documentation as a process of social and community engagement, bringing practitioners together from multiple disciplines, thus generating a critical collective. The other intention was to disperse the monolithic tradition of landscape representation, transforming it into a multi-ethnic, multilingual practice of representation going beyond the contemporary ownership of land, a site of political and economic war, of takeover and dominance.

All through the six sessions, a critical research was conducted regarding the transformation of land in relation to food, agriculture, labor, as well as its usage for forestry, agriculture, and other aspects of the communal distribution of resources—in the context of caste and the economic status of different sectors of local society. Multiple preparatory meetings were held where local practitioner discussed on their intent and a schedule of conversation was generated through the contribution of the participants.

In every session of six season dialogue a shamiyana (a canopy) was designed based on the compiled data of three years of census report of Birbhum. The shamiyana initially appeared as an abstract design using multiple colors of textile (taking reference of the surface design of the excel sheet where the data was compiled). After every lunch session in the six locations, Debanshu Majumdar, one of the collaborators from the agro-economics department (who also lead the theater group Sahityika), would explain in detail the meaning of the different color bands and their specific associations with reference to data from the excel sheets. All the six session became a meeting point of academicians and land-based practitioners who learned from each other. The whole research process was supported by IFA (Indian Foundation for Arts, Bangalore) for a period of one and a half years in 2015-16.

Academic Space as a Pedagogic Model of Sustenance: Revisiting and reframing.

In May 1951, an act of parliament transformed Visva Bharati from a private university to a public university of national repute, transforming also the relationship and relevance of the community life of the campus. The community seasonal festivals that were an active element of the pedagogy was converted into a cultural festival to cater the emerging image of Santiniketan as an epitome of Bengali culture in post independent India. This changed the utility of these collective practices as a pedagogic model. The potential for informal learning through these collective festivals got reduced to an official university activity.

Institutionally, Kala Bhavana stands today at the crossroads of a material-based practice, where an overt focus on making, created a loss of contact with the social and cultural transformations that has occurred outside the institution. The voice of resistance that was the main inspiration for reengaging with indigenous traditions survive mostly as a formal exercise of personalized interpretation of the earlier models of practice and traditions.

In this respect a shift could be observed since late 1980s, in the student community’s approach to art practice at Kala Bhavana. The impact of the Realist group formed in 1984 comprised mostly of ex-students of Kala Bhavana, some of whom also joined as faculties in the institute could be felt among the student community.

“The Realist group was formed in 1984 through a process of workshops, camps, intense discussions among artists, friends basically trained at kala bhavan, santiniketan. This was in response to the moribund art educataion system prevailing in indian art institutions which offered to creative thinking and practice. We were also dissatisfied with the artistic practice of the time which was marked as high modernism and new ways were nowhere in sight. we used to meet at santiniketan during summer holidays and work together to create an IDEA of A GROUP. We had disagreements, fights, disillusionment initially and it took a few years before we decided to form the group in 1990.”4

Students began to question and challenge the curriculum as it was practiced then. As a response to the changing social and political environment of the country, students became increasingly engaged in social issues and the politics of representation. This engagement generated a very active environment in the early 1990s, with group workshops on installation art and interdisciplinary student exchanges forcing studio practice to become part of an interdepartmental movement. The visit of Badal Sircar, the renowned “Third Theatre” practitioner, during the 1993–94 school year also created a new energy on campus. Experiments around performance-based installation art became a regular feature of the student’s activity outside the curriculum. This led to students’ regularly engaging with performance, organizing experimental play productions and other performances around the campus.

Different images of Nandan Mela in Kala Bhavana when students and faculties work in an informal space outside the academic curriculum to generate fund for needy students.

Presently in Kala Bhavana different collective working models are in practice:

  1. Of the more regular, established activities is Nandan Mela, the annual students’ art fair, initiated in 1973 on 1 and 2 December (to celebrate Nanadalal Bose’s birthday on 1 December) has transformed into a major event, with many opportunities to engage in cross-disciplinary conversations outside the departmental curriculum. Besides the collective projects the Department specific artworks that are made are also sold to the visitors at an affordable price to generate fund for the student’s aid fund meant to provide economic support to students in need.
  2. Regular curated workshop activities take place, where not only inter department activities happen but also students from other art colleges, design and architecture institutes, and experts are invited to work collectively in campus. Often these lead to collective exploration of the study of space, site, and working with different materials and process and generate an interdisciplinary environment of practice.
  3. The introduction of a Center for Interdisciplinary Arts in the last six years has paved the way for visiting experts to come and stay for a month as resident artists researchers, sharing diverse methods of practices that are not practices in the Departments. A group of like-minded faculty members from different departments have come together to activate this platform as a space for initiating diverse dialogues around different expanded practices, including science-as-art, sound-as-art, social engagement as art practice and other interdisciplinary forms of interaction and performance.

Pedagogy as a Collective community engagement with the Local Environment

As part of the quest towards a collective community practice inside the institutional space I often work with the student community in different informal expeditions and group actions. In 2006, a hypothetical society called Mono Gobbet society was formed whose main objective was to create serious fool’s actions on campus. The Society declared the first of August as “Gobbet Day,” celebrating the first Gobbet Day as a performance event of community choice of “Idol of Santiniketan” where a performer had to non-verbally prove love for Santniketan. The next year in 2007, the second Gobbet Day was a landscape expedition to locate the 80 years of Vriksharopan, the tree-planting Festival of Santiniketan initiated by Tagore in 1925, which still continues as a collective community festival where a sapling will be planted by the community of students and faculties of Visva Bharati. Vriksharopan is the process through which the barren landscape of Santiniketan was transformed into its present greenery. Gobbet Society members researched all the names of the trees planted as recorded and published in the Visva Bharati Quarterly every year. A map of Santiniketan was generated and the position of the trees were located. On 1 August 2007, a rainy day, some 60 to 70 students marched along the campus with placards carrying the whereabouts of the trees and searched for their present status of existence. Those trees that could be located placards with their details were placed next to them. Those where locations could be found but trees were not found carry the placard with the details but with the tag MISSING written in it. This process brought in many faculties and also elderly alumni who has personal memories of some of the plantings gathered together to explore the campus. Lt. Shyamali Khastagir, a Kala Bhavana alumni and environmentalist, joined to locate the spot where her father Sudhir Khastagir planted one of the trees in the 1950s. The process went on for three days and made us experience how the free open campus of Santiniketan campus has slowly been compartmentalized into departmental zones with fences and walls difficult to move around freely.

Aakil Aarsi: Mirror of the Mind
A collaborative pedagogic engagement with the local Santali community, undertaken with Baidyanath Murmu (former student of Kala Bhavana).

As a community with no racial hierarchy, exposure to institutional knowledge has changed the social life of the Santali community. Further, the impact of globalization has created a rift between the traditional Santali way of life and that of the new generation of Santali who have been exposed to digital entertainment and communication.

Whether the villages around the University campus pre-existed Tagore’s father Debendranth Tagore (who bought much of the land) or whether the Santali were invited by Tagore to settle around the campus remains a subject of debate. It is a fact, however, that Santali villagers have historically played an active role in developing the University campus—especially in the gardening and maintenance of the campus environment. Santali villages around Santiniketan are an active element of the campus life of the School. All of the major masters who practiced in Santiniketan ended up exploring village life and made efforts to represent the Santali in their work. Ramkinkar Baij mostly spent his life in the Santali villages and most of his works had Santali men and women as protagonists. Santali communities have served the University since its inception, and many have worked as staff there.

Kala Bhavana has engaged with the Santali villages, most often by incorporating village study into the academic curriculum. Visva Bharati University and the Santali villages coexisted as a porous landscape where both Santali community members and University students and faculties had easy access. More recently, Visva Bharati was forced to construct walls around its campus due to the imposition of a central government rule to define the University campus area, thus the permeable demarcation between the university and the Santali village was blocked, including an end to the free access to university fields to graze their cattle and other uses Santali villagers once enjoyed. Some villages, such as Pearson Palli and Bali Para are even trapped within the university campus.

Being a student earlier and later joining as a faculty member in Kala Bhavana, I wanted to engage with the transformed relationship of these neighboring Santali villages and University. Separating the University campus and the Santali villages from one another with walls was against the philosophy of the institute. As urgent as I felt this task to be, it took a good deal of time to transform my former identity as a student into that of a faculty member, one capable of representing the University in this changed situation. It was only through interaction with one of my students at Kala Bhavana, Baidyanth Murmu, a resident of the Santali village of Fuldanga, that I could begin to engage with community members from two adjacent Santali village, Fuldanga and Pearson Palli. I was accepted as the teacher from the University, and community members willingly participated in the process of the paper-making.

Aakil Aarsi: Mirror of the Mind: A community based collaborative dialogue on landscape with the Santali community members of Pearson Palli and Fuldanga in the neighborhood of Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, together with Baidyanath Murmu (former student of Kala Bhavana), 2011. Image courtesy: Sanchayan Ghosh.

Before beginning the paper-making process, it was important to engage with community members through regular discussions and interactions concerning the role of bamboo leaves for Santali life, as well as the relevance of creating a workshop for the community. Once it was agreed that community members wanted to proceed with the workshop, I decided to activate the process with a mural painting workshop for the young children of Pearson Palli Village led by Baidyanath, and a second workshop for children in Fuldanga village where we mapped the indoor environment of the villagers’ homes and the kinds of trees and plants growing nearby. This became a fantastic journey for all of us, experiencing the present state of village life through the eyes of children from these two villages; to engage with their interpretations of everyday life.

Bamboo is an essential tree in Santali life, starting from the roofs of the houses. The Santal make yokes and other implements for carting with bamboo. Bamboo leaves, however, are only used for fire-making to cook. They are a very soft material. In the workshop we made bamboo paper, with different watermarks consisting of multiple written texts. Parallel to this, through the introduction of the process of watermarking, we documented designs, texts, and images addressing conflicts and contradictions inherent in contemporary Santali life, as well as archiving traditional designs and patterns of Santali cultural heritage.

After completing these workshops, the resulting watermarked paper was transformed into small models of houses, and these were then converted into night lamps. It was decided by the participants that the lantern-houses would be carried in a procession in the Hul Festival, celebrating the Santali fight against British colonial rulers, known as the Santal Bidroho or Santal revolution of 1875. It was also decided that two spaces should be created to demonstrate paper-making with bamboo leaves in order to share the process with other community members visiting the Hul Utsav (festival). Special stalls were made on the festival grounds of Balipara village, including one with a special bamboo paper wall as a screen to project documentation of the workshop activities. The stalls were constructed collaboratively with the participants and functioned as a meeting point for the different generations of the Santali community visiting the festival. University faculties and other local residents also joined in the final sharing in Hul festival.

Overall, these workshops investigated the participation of an outsider into the everyday life of two villages. Secondly, they allowed the possibilities of interaction within the community by making art as a user and not an aesthetic discourse alone. As part of the Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways project it received support from Khoj International Artist’s Association, New Delhi, for a three-month period in 2011.

Sustaining a Pedagogy of the Margin

Institutional spaces are the new spaces of vulnerability that can shape the future. It is the only free space that does not take freedom for granted. It constantly negotiates with the hegemony of the system, an insider to change, while also transforming change from inside. Of course, institutions use slow, time-bound processes. At best, institutions can employ a sustained process of constant improvisation that needs to be nurtured and preserved. The notion of margin can only survive in the institutional space as a naturalized phenomenon by constantly re-configuring the position of the margin. Indian institutional spaces are perhaps the most vulnerable and active space of cultural multiplicity of those that will determine the future of Indian democracy.

It is worth noting that until the 1970s the most radical engagement with art practice in India emerged from institutional spaces, whether in Santiniketan, Baroda, or later at the Kent School in Bangalore. In the late 1990s, there was a shift, with new initiatives emerging from artist-led collectives, who created different alternate models of art practice, generating critical modes of engagement with local environments while also creating new points of interaction with the international art world. But it has been proven that a continuous, sustained notion of critical practice cannot survive without such private ventures engaging with art institutes and academies. Conversely, art academies have also had to acknowledge the work of practitioners, curators, and collectives operating outside institutional space. To sustain a critical voice and usher new possibilities of co-creating the public sphere, collaborations between the public and private institutes together with self-organized initiatives has to develop co-working models that engage with both the artistic community and the general public, sustaining a spirit of free expression within a dynamic environment of social justice, equality, and cultural multiplicity.

  • 1 Third theater is an avant-garde theater form initiated by Badal Sircar in Kolkata in the seventies in opposition to the frontal unidirectional theater practice of proscenium theater.
  • 2 KG Subramanyan, Eclecticism I, Creative Circuit, published by Seagull Books Pvt. Ltd. 1992, p. 25.
  • 3 “In line with other modern artists in the rest of the world Abanindranth, Nandalal and Rabindranath stressed the importance of the creative individual. They also laid much stress on his interacting with the world, as this alone led to his self-discovery….Abanindranath, Nandalal and Rabindranath did not have identical views on this point. From what he had known about tradition from current practices Abanindranath considered them a distraction. Nandalal on the other hand, thought they had their own benefits. To Rabindranath they were a challenge and incentive; he would not shy away from an encounter even with alien and outlandish traditions….All three of them were critical of their immediate social environment and ran counter to many established notion of time, and were thus non-conformists of sorts….” KG Subramanyan, Models of Modern Art, Creative Circuit, published by Seagull Books Pvt. Ltd. 1992, p. 13.
  • 4 Introduction of the text “Realists (A Way of Seeing)” by Amit Mukhopadhyay, article published in 2016.
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