Friday, December 4, 2015

The Art of Looking at Art

(Writer in front of a Subodh Gupta work at the NGMA Delhi- pic by KMJ)

For the last two days I have been writing about the uses of art and culture in resisting intolerance not only in our country but also in any other part of the world. The ability to appreciate art, often qualified as ‘taste’, is more or less inherent in all the human beings but the degree and level of which could vary depending on the socio-economic and politico-cultural backdrops against which the human beings are brought up. Having a ‘taste’ for things is taken as a person’s inclination towards beautiful objects, ideas and works of art, towards soothing as well as exciting music, towards nature, towards good food, towards comfortable and interesting architecture, towards clothing that helps people look good not only in the eyes of other people but also in their own eyes. There is a feel good factor about this. A tasteful person is a refined person, as the maxims go. A tasteful person cannot be coarse in his public and private behaviour and appearance. Tastefulness gets attached to one’s personality in visible and subtle ways only when he or she has made taste a part of their blood stream. It is not always necessary that tastefulness is genetically inculcated though heredity and genetics could be passive beds where tastefulness could find a chance to grow. Tastefulness could be cultivated by education and by experience. One of the influential ways of the proliferation of taste is by imitation. People imitate influential people and their mannerisms and lifestyles, living environments and fashion preferences and in the process get cultivated. What I mean to say is that taste could be democratic provide a little of exposure is allowed to every human being to the tasteful things in the world.

People are not generally coarse and uncouth. There is always a sense of order and a need for natural rhythm and aesthetical finesse are seen amongst people who even live in the direst of situations. To understand this one should visit shanty towns, slum clusters, rural housings, tribal settlements, rehabilitation camps, war torn areas and all those places where general infrastructure and natural hygiene are seen lacking. People, despite the grim materialistic situations, organize their lives around or within the ruins and formulate a sense of order and rhythm within their dwelling spaces. One cursory look at the living spaces of the shanty dwellers would prove that how meticulous they are in stacking up their daily utensils, clothes, kitchen utensils and so on. Through indigenous and pragmatic innovations they make the spaces habitable by brining order and rhythm. On the walls one could find the pictures of popular actors and actresses, religious and secular icons, calendars and so on. Life of today, irrespective of social and economic differences, has been organized around a common factor which is a television. In the spaces where apparent political and social chaos is seen pronounced, one could see how life is being cultivated around the rickety television sets. In the tribal settings one could see how they make their habitats aesthetically rich by patterns, pictures and magical diagrams. Even the vulgar middle class beautify their houses and surroundings with those objects and things that are generally considered to be aesthetical and cultural by the ‘tasteful’ ones in the society. Imitation here plays a large role.

(the National Museum, Delhi)

Hence, my fundamental argument is that everyone has an aesthetical inclination and only a bit of pruning, grooming and cultivating is needed to make it more manifested. What could be done in this case? The Nobel laureate economist Prof. Amartya Sen emphasises the need for education and healthcare for general development and financial growth of a country. I would say education and health should involve aesthetical education and cultural health. Imparting the lessons of these should start from the primary level itself. Most of the parents in a globalised world know a particular cartoon character named Bob, the builder. Bob is a mason, an engineer, an architect, a plumber and a good Samaritan with a yard full of tools and machines for building or repairing anything. Bob must be a character developed for inculcating constructive thoughts in the minds of the kids in the western world, where self help is the mantra since the post-colonial days. With no domestic helps or cheap labour available in general, introduction of a character like Bob must have been necessary for the western society so that the children who grows up with the stories of Bob would think that it was necessary to learn to do things with hands. Bob has a slogan, ‘Can we do it? Yes, we can’. With this exhortation he makes everyone join him to construct or repair things. He is a Napoleon of the kid’s world; nothing is impossible for him. If Bob could make everything possible, I am sure children could appreciate the good things, even if it is modern music, dance or art (which are generally passed off as incomprehensible things which could be understood only by the elite and cultivated) from the very early age itself.

It is also pertinent to say that only a country or nation which is nose deep in materialism, which celebrates barbeques and eating in the backyard under the sun as something phenomenally important and wonderful (of course they rarely get sunny skies) could go for ‘DIY’ stuff. ‘Do It Yourself’, which Bob, the builder also upholds, is a principle that emerges from social insecurity. In a society which is driven by selfish motives, people find it difficult to get enough support from the neighbours or local boys (which is possible in a country like India), it becomes so pertinent that everyone should know how to do things with their own hands. It is a good and bad thing at once. While we depreciate people doing things by their hands here in our hurried attempts to imitate the west, the west looks at our ancient ways and learns to do things for themselves. And doing things for themselves with their hands also involves a lot of aesthetical finesse. It is not about doing things but doing it with panache and finesse. This needs aesthetical understanding. Hence, they teach their children to listen to music, read books, and they take their kids to museums and galleries. At the very tender age itself children of the west are introduced to theatre and cinema. Though compulsory military service is there in many western countries, all of them do not become killers, while without such compulsion most of us remain coarse and aesthetically blunt in our country. The western kids, after their military training and service, come back to colleges, become scientists, engineers, artists, singers, actors, businessmen, innovators and what not. Why, because in their minds they are refined; they were given the lessons of beauty and tenderness at a very early age itself.

(Children watching video art in a museum)

In his visionary book, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, speaks about a way of teaching that is called hypnopaedia. In that world children are made in hatcheries and they are put to bed with speakers fitted inside their pillows. From a very early age itself they have been given nightly doses of learning of ideology through these speakers. The constant murmuring throughout the night helps the kids register information about the state, kind of life that they are supposed to lead, their allegiance to the tribe and its ideology and so on in their subconscious passively and they grown up as confirming citizens who live in absolute harmony with the state because there are no conflicting ideas in order compare their own learning or world views. Such sanitation and growing up could be horribly monotonous and inhuman by own parameters of being human, however, my contention here is that anywhere in the world (including in India) children are given a lot of passive lessons so that they would grow up into confirming citizens. We have, fortunately so many parameters and benchmarks to compare our lives with hence dissent is always a possibility which makes life more interesting and even worth living. Yet, it is important to teach children the uses of aesthetics to grow up as tolerant human beings and it should be conscious started by the schools, parents and all those players in the field of aesthetics.

While studying in London, I had seen parents bringing children to the museums on Sundays and letting them participate in drawing sessions and conducted lecture tours. Museums there organize a lot of such programs and they let (unlike in India) children to touch and feel the works of art. They do not cringe away from the nude paintings or sculptures though they giggle like any other kids all over the world. Their giggling is not curbed by taunting or their embarrassment is not let unattended. Everything is talked, the finer reasons are explained and children are made peace with such ‘offensive’ works of art. Children, very little ones including, are given a lavish supply of crayons and papers so that they could draw and create a lot sitting in front of those masterpieces. Such an education which is not threatened and burdened by the need to compete or to excel would remain with the children for the rest of their lives. Both in the public and private galleries and museums in the European countries I have seen children becoming an integral part of the viewing communities. Interestingly, most of the museums have family memberships that allow the member families to enjoy discount prices, preferential treatment, free access to literature around art and many more things. Imagine, the children who grow up in such beautiful atmosphere ever could think of being intolerant to the other. One may ask what could the reason for bigots and despots coming out of such societies despite all these early education in aesthetics and beauty. The answer could be sought in the general aberrations in the thought process which is directly related to possessing power through coercion or by political aggression or by religious fundamentalism. When beauty is the prime mover of a person’s life, the importance of power goes down considerably in the scale of life. It is an attitude that gives absolute happiness to one’s existence.

(School kids with Subodh Gupta's work at the NGMA, Delhi)

Now the question is why it is not happening in our country? Many would say that they themselves do not understand art (of modern and ancient varieties) and how could they initiate their kids to it. Most of them do not find time to take their children to the galleries, theatres, museums, concert halls and so on. Interestingly, they find time, energy and money to visit malls and do all kinds of shopping. Finding no time to go museums is a sort of escapism. In India, the museums are now slowly developing the idea of getting more and more people into it. However, we can see that most of the art galleries, museums, concert halls and theatres are not children friendly. Concert halls and theatres restrict children of certain age because the ‘live’ nature of the program could be hampered by the howling or pranks of the children. Such restrictions sound logical. But what about the museums and galleries? Of late I have seen museums in Delhi and Mumbai organising programs for children. But a very few children attend these programs. Mostly, children from the privileged backgrounds and schools come to attend such programs. Even private galleries have started craft and appreciation programs for children. But there is something that is not making these programs a habit or hallmark or an attractive feature of these institutions. Why?

According to me there is a double apathy: one, the parents believe that they do not understand art therefore their kids too do not understand. Two, the museums and galleries do not market their programs the way it should be marketed. When an interesting show comes in a major museum or gallery, there are no such enticing reports or circulation of information in the public domain by the organizers so that they citizens become aware of such and get their children to attend them. We have this problem of making everything education or community reach out (a leftover of the western museum practices); it is not necessary to make everything educational and reach out programs. Let the programs be interesting, playful, joyful and enlightening than educational. Let the programs be naturally proliferating than making it community reach out. To reach out to the communities, there should be such programs that would attract the local communities or the visiting communities. The most ironic scene in Delhi is the thronging crowds in front the India Gate and the absolutely abandoned look of the National Gallery of Modern Art premises and halls. Nobody visits the NGMA because the whole building has a look of a penitentiary. There is nothing that could attract people to its premises. When parents bring their kids to a place like the NGMA there should a cafe that sells some good snacks for the kids. There should be an open access to information and there should be a friendly set of staff manning the halls. Having uniformed security guards who come to breath down on your neck obviously will repulse people and they would never return to the museums.

(the NGMA, New Delhi)

Look at the private enterprises like Oxford book stall and all. Most of such places have a kids area where kids could select their books, read and even play. The floors are cushioned to avoid injuries and there is free access to a lot of reading materials. There are cafes attached to these book stores. One could go there, browse the books, pick up one, get a cup of coffee and read or relax. But as you know, these places are often used for intellectual dating than creating a serious and interesting atmosphere for intellectual being. Middle class parents dread to go to such places for two reasons that such book stores do not give discounts and the cafes are over charged. What could be a solution to this? The museums and national galleries, both in the public and private sectors should have such friendly environs where both the rich, middle and the poor class could come, enjoy art, read, let their kids to do some drawing and play. Why can’t we make it? The NGMA in Delhi has ample space but no decent cafe or a friendly atmosphere. The administration is so full of administrative thoughts that no innovative or creative thoughts get implemented there. When did the cafes become a thing of shame in our culture? In the national museum the cafe is inside the basement and hardly people go there. In the NGMA Delhi the cafe is not a cafe at all. Exceptions are the cafes in CSMVS in Mumbai and the NGMA in Bengaluru both have wonderful cafes and very refreshing atmosphere. The NGMA in Bengaluru has a moderate library but the reading space is very inviting and soothing.

Our country will progress only through proliferating the idea of art and aesthetics (not of the JNU kind) amongst the people and the children. I take many children to the museums. They are not academically interested in art but they are interested in a general way. They laugh, they find identical works of art, identical sculptures, slowly it becomes a game for them. They start digging from their little memories and bring forth examples and anecdotes related art and sculpture. Such expeditions to the museums and galleries with children are quite invigorating, rejuvenating and transcending. Do not try to teach children the history of art and do not force aesthetics on them. They are like sponges and they will imbibe everything that they see. They will slowly develop the faculties to discern. The best way to know the cultural consciousness of a city is to ask its auto-drivers or rickshaw pullers about the museums and galleries. Let me tell you most of the auto rickshaw people in Delhi do not know where the National Museum is or where the NGMA is located. It is a shame. I conclude this essay by recounting a very intriguing phenomenon seen in our National Museum. An Indian citizen should pay Rupees Twenty (Rs.20) for entry. School Children and kids are exempted from paying an entry fee. But the foreign nationals are charged Rs.625/- per person. Perhaps, conversion rate would make it ten dollars. But don’t you think that it is quite discriminating? In my opinion, the foreign nationals should not be charged more than Rs.100/- if the Indian’s charge is Rs.20/-.  You can charge the foreign nationals five times than the Indian charge but it should not be almost fifty times for in western museums there are no such discriminatory charges. In India it looks almost like looting. Or is it the Empire striking back with vengeance for all kinds of pilfering they had done during the colonial days? Anyway, it is a very bad practice.

No comments: