Sunday, February 22, 2009

Madhava College, Ujjain

Ujjain, the city of famous Mahakaleswara Temple. We reach here during the Mahasivaratri days. The festival is just a couple of days away and the town is already full with visitors. Besides, it is marriage season. Brass bands play in the streets. Horse driven carriages and the ‘suar’ autos take people around. There is bustling business going on in the shops.

Signs of modern life are everywhere. However, Ujjain drags you to the past. It evokes a sense of mythology in you. In the old part of the city, there are crumbling buildings. The new architectures try to imitate the old glory of buildings. You feel a certain amount of stillness everywhere. Within this stillness this hybrid city grows like an amoebic organism.

Madhva College, one of the oldest colleges affiliated to the Vikram University is our destination. There is a fine arts section in this college. In Madhya Pradesh undergraduate colleges have fine arts as one of the papers. Even if you are a commerce or history student, and if you are interested in art, you can opt for the fine arts paper. Many students study fine arts because it is easy to get ‘passing’ marks.

But there are two colleges here in Ujjain that offer full fledged post graduation in Fine Arts. When I say fine arts, you don’t think that these MA courses offer everything that comes under the term fine arts. They call it MA in Fine Arts though they are offered a course in painting. Madhava College and Government Girls College have these post graduation course.

There are ten students in each year. The admission starts in July and the course finish by February. Practical exams are done during January and February. Theory examinations are conducted during March-April.

The first year MA has History of European Painting, Portraits, Landscape and Composition as its subjects. Final year has Mural, life study, history of world art, history of eastern art and criticism of art.

“How many teachers do you have in this department?” I ask Alok Bhavsar, Professor in Government College, Ratlam, which also has a similar course in fine arts. He is in Madhava College as an external examiner. When we reach there, practical examination is on. Those people who look responsible are reluctant to talk to us.

Like the officials in any other institution with defined hierarchies, these teachers do not want to make any comment on their institute. “The principal is in a seminar. And our head of the department is on leave. Please come another day, we will talk then,” says one lady. I ask for her name and designation. She does not want to reveal it.

I have faced such situations before also. You need to gain the confidence of the interviewee. You need to make him or her feel that you don’t mean any harm to their person or profession. You should offer them anonymity. You need to extract information using soft persuasive techniques. They should not feel that they are imparting vital information. A mutual warming up is needed to continue the conversation.

I explain our mission to them. We want to do a survey on small town art colleges. We need to know, how these institutions are functioning. We are going to come out with a report that would ultimately help the small town colleges to improve their conditions. We are sincere in our mission. But we don’t know what would happen to our report.

Now Alok Bhavsar takes up the responsibility to talk to us. In Madhya Pradesh, the condition of the fine arts colleges is more or less the same. There are no competent teachers and facilities. However, all of them try to keep their neck out. Students come from middle class and lower middle class families. They don’t have higher ambitions or aspirations. Many of the boys who come from remote areas of the state study art to earn some money by working as poster and banner painters. Some of them join in small advertisement firms. Those students who come from middle class families aspire to become art teachers in schools. Some of them, when they are in college, desire to become full time artists and they do some exhibitions in Ujjain.

“She is Dr.Neeta Thomar and is a guest faculty here. She recently did an exhibition at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur. But she does not have the ‘himmat’ to do a show in Delhi or Mumbai,” says the lady who seems to have the charge of the ongoing examination.

I look at Dr.Neeta Thomar. She smiles. She approves of her lack of ‘himmat’ which could be translated as the lack of ‘courage.’

So nobody becomes a full time artist here. Even if they want to, circumstances are not conducive. They don’t have exhibition halls. They don’t have the names of successful Ujjain artists so that they can look up to their reputation and desire for the same success.

However, R.P.Sharma, the exhibition co-ordinator of the famous Kalidasa Akademy has a different opinion about that. “We have a decent enough exhibition hall here. Artists can rent out this space to do shows. We do annual shows of traditional art. But we are open to the modern contemporary young artists. But nobody takes interest in doing shows. When we invite these boys and girls to participate in our shows here, they do not even respond to our call,” Sharma says.

Sharma, though he handles a lot of traditional art and crafts in Kalidasa Akademy, a beautiful building designed by the Mumbai based architect, Hema Sankalia in 1979-80, is not happy with the situation of the modern art scene in Ujjain. “Nobody understands modern art here,” he says pensively. To escape from the trap of lethargy, he and his five friends have formed a group of ‘Six’ and do shows every year.

“That gives me some kind of happiness. But I am sure the artists who work from Ujjain are destined live here and die here,” he sounds fatalistic.

We look around in Madhava College Fine Arts section. The works of MA students are displayed there. Most of them are landscape sketches and portraits. Some of them are ‘affected’ modern paintings. Mural is one of the strong fortes in this college. But they do experimental mural on ply boards pasted over with jute clothes. Teachers show us the mural works with great enthusiasm.

I am sorry to say that all those works, including the murals, portraits, still life, and sketches, do not rise above the class works of a second year BFA student. Do these students lack talent?

They do not lack in talent. They have good sense of drawings and colours. But they don’t have any clue to move forward. Are the teachers responsible for this situation?

“We are not responsible. Most of the teachers are guest faculties They don’t know whether they are invited in the next academic year or not. The department does not have any interest to make them permanent teachers. So nobody gives his/her hundred per cent to it,” opines a faculty who request anonymity.

Besides, the teachers as the government servants are having transferable jobs. If the government asks them to go to another college, there is no chance of objecting it. So no teacher belongs to any one particular institution. They are always under the threat of replacement and transfer. So what they do mostly is protecting their jobs.

Do the students get reference materials? The teachers claim that they have a full fledged library, which has ‘History of Art’ books. We visit the library. Two small shelves filled with old books are kept in a corner. None seems to touch the books. Though the teachers say that they get the art magazines like Art India and Kala Dhrigha regularly, the students do not seem to have any access to those journals.

Somu takes out the names of a few contemporary artists and asks the students whether they know the works of these artists. The students look at each other. “Subodh Gupta, we have heard his name somewhere,” one of the girls says, though she is not sure where she has heard his name.

“Do you access internet?” Feroze asks.

The students know about internet but none is ‘familiar’ with it. One of the students asks for our ‘passwords’ as we give them our email id. We are surprised. He thinks that to send an email one needs to know the password of the addressee also. The college does not have internet access.

Government funds all the activities in the college. The teachers say that many students come from very poor backgrounds and they don’t even have money to buy painting materials. So some kind of scholarships is given to the students. Teachers also do not have any clue about internet.

In short, these students and teaches do not have anything to motivate themselves. But the problem could be seen from a different perspective also. Why don’t these children take initiative to educate themselves in art? Most of the successful artists including Subodh Gupta come from rural backgrounds. But all of them have worked hard enough to become what they are today.

We tell the students about the success stories of the Indian contemporary artists and ask them how many of them have charted their future lives as artists. One girl comes forward to say that she wants to become an artist. But what to do, she asks. The usual explanation is given by the other girl students. They will get married and new responsibilities will come over them. Period stuff. Ujjain is a place where there are a lot of theatre activities and literary activities. But what about art?

There are couple of art discussion forums here. But the students do not go there. The teachers do not encourage them to speak about art. And they are reluctant speakers mainly because they find their language inadequate. As I mentioned in one of my articles last year, English is the problem. The experts should seriously attend this problem.

A few months back in Chandigarh there was a seminar on improving the syllabus of small town art colleges. Alok Bhavsar says that nothing has happened so far. The discussions are regular at the department level. But nobody addresses the real problems.

Looking around the city, Feroze registers his objection for the term, small town art college. “It is not a small town. A full scale city ambience is here. It is not different from Delhi or Bombay. I think, they are complacent people and they find happiness in being called small town people,” Feroze says.

That is true. If they want they can be competent like any thing. But for that they need to get sufficient direction from within the institution primarily. And they should be able to absorb the ambience of the contemporary life.

The students even today paint village scenes in the lines of Jamini Roy. They still paint the pictures of temples in Ujjain. They do model studies. They do the run of the mill still life. It is surprising to see that not a single student has painted a city scene or a street scene, which right there outside the college.

The problem is really serious. I am afraid that these art students would never make it. They want to go to Mumbai and Delhi. But that is just a romantic thought. For small town art colleges, the course is just a cosmetic addition. Not even cosmetic addition, may be a painful reminder of a cosmetic experiment, which has gone seriously wrong.

These colleges look nobody’s responsibility. Madhava College fine arts faculty started in 1960. It is there now because it was there. It is a maze constructed within two rooms.

At sharp one o clock, one guy comes in and nods his head at the students. The students pack their things up and walk out. It is lunch time.

That shows the attitude of the place. They go by rules.

Later, one of the students comes to us. He says he can do wonders if he gets support. I like his attitude. But Somu cuts in.

“Do wonders, support will come to you,” Somu tells him at his face.

I think there is a lot of sense in Somu’s comment.

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