Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kiran Nadar Museum to Sevagram’s Nayee Talim: What’s Up Child Art Missionaries?

On 29th April this year, I was invited to deliver a memorial lecture on Raja Ravi Varma on his 169th Birth Day at his native place Kilimanoor in Kerala. I was too happy to receive this invitation from the Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy and I readily agreed to do it. When I reached the auditorium I found very few people as audience. Any public speaker would know the effect of such sparse audience. One of the organizers told me that in the same village there was another program celebrating the birthday of Ravi Varma organized by a local club and most of the people had gone there as they had managed to stage some interesting entertainment programs. As I was walking towards the car after my lecture, suddenly a young man appeared from nowhere and told one of the office bearers who was accompanying me, ‘Sir, when you organize something, do try to involve children from the locality, arrange some competition for them and give them some prizes liberally. The whole village would turn out for the public meeting. We conducted a children’s painting competition yesterday and today just before the public meeting, we announced the prizes. All the men and women were there thinking that their children would get some awards. We gave many first prizes, second prizes, many third prizes and a few encouragement awards for different age categories. And the prize distribution was kept just before the vote of thanks. So we had an auditorium full of people, many of them standing and sitting in the aisle.”

Of late I have been looking at the promotional programs of many galleries and museums where find they are all suddenly woken up to the fact that children are also artist. There are very integrated and concerted efforts to get the children to the galleries and museums. They are invited there not really as viewers of the works of art displayed there but as ‘artists’ who could do some works in the relaxed but sensitized atmosphere of the galleries and museums. I was astonished to see the number of viewers for one of the video promotions done by the Kiran Nadar Museums during the summer this year (during the school vacations, to be precise). It was around 20000 views. I found it very amusing because the major ‘actors’ in the promotional video were children (obviously from the middle and upper middle class) and they were very enthusiastically telling us/the camera that it was a wonderful thing to make art. Then I remembered that all of sudden there is a heightened interest for the children and their art in the galleries and museums. The first one that I noticed was done by the FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art), a subsidiary of the Vadehra Gallery and it had organized well scheduled workshops for children, definitely for a price. Then I found the NGMA, Delhi conducting workshops for the children. Today I found yet another invitation by a private gallery doing workshops on child art or children’s art.

Why this interest in children’s art all of a sudden? Is it because that all these managements have realized that only through catching the children young, they could not only bring their parents to the galleries and museums and turn them slowly into potential buyers and art collectors but also train these youngsters from the very beginning as art aspirants so that they would either become artists in future or loyal art collectors? Catch them young is not just a phrase but it is a very ideological method used by the political and religious organisations in order to indoctrinate the fresh minds of the children with ideas, notions and ideologies therefore a designed sort of world view so that they would grow up as citizens believing completely into what they have been taught from the very beginning. If religion, politics, sports, circus and anything that needs training could be taught to kids from the very beginning why couldn’t they train children to become potential artists or art collectors or even artistically inclined loyal groups? It is possible. That’s why the western museums insist on programs for children and the schools there make museum and gallery visit mandatory in the syllabus. If you remember how a major chunk of the viewers for the Kochi Muziris Biennale is created out of the uniformed school children, you would understand that these children would grow up into adults who believe in the kind of art shown by the Biennales.

There is a sense of pedagogy, identification, informing and a mild sense of indoctrination in all these activities. But my point is not that. I would not unilaterally say that these galleries and museums are attracting children for the vested interests. While I acknowledge the fact that there is a vested interest to create interest groups in the society, I would also say that it is a part of joining the egalitarian bandwagon of the international museum and gallery practices. While the international museums and galleries are expected to perform their corporate commitment and socio-cultural responsibilities, Indian museums and galleries had not woken up to that cosmopolitan outlook. But better late than never as I think about their gradual opening up to generate an inclusive strategy for the children (of the better of families, I should say, that could pay for it or have the time and leisure for taking their children to the venues). In the international scene, I have observed that it is not necessary for the children to really ‘draw and paint’ when they are there. They could even just spend their time happily, looking at the works, shying away from the nudes, giggle and ogle at each other before the nude sculptures and touch and feel the interactive works specially designed for the children. But I am sure whatever may be the strategies nothing would assure loyalty from these kids. You would be remembering those teenage children sitting in front of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ and very keenly looking into their smart phone screens. Those white kids must have been trained in visiting museums at an early age; but in the picture they are absolutely defiant and disloyal to what they had been taught or made to experience from the very beginning. In Indian galleries, my observation goes, it is still about ‘DIY’ philosophy; children are asked to make, draw, paint, play with clay and so on.

This expectation of an outcome could be dangerous in the long run because once out of the museums and galleries the children are thrown into a big bad world where their peer group people are playing war games and other illusionary games in the smart phones. Hence, keeping the children away from their unwanted, uncalled, unexpected, unobserved experience by barricading them with the art experience is a futile exercise. It is high time to approach the issue of children and their practising of art more scientifically and methodically. Though there have been a lot of studies so far about children doing art, art done by children, art done by autistic children, art done by prolific children, art done by mentally challenged children, art done by the children of artisans, art done by the children in exile camps, children from the economically deprived classes and areas, art done by children who are terminally ill, art done by children living in high rises, art done by children in slums, art done by children who are born to mixed parentages and so on, in India we have not yet started looking at children doing art or children in the gallery and museum situations in a scientific, psychological and cultural ways. Either we are imparting them skills or we are making them experience high art. In both the cases what we miss is the genuine thinking and execution of art by children.

I am not an expert of child art or art done by children. However, my experience in the art scene as a critic and curator, my experience as a father of two children, my experience as an observer of art done by children and my experience as a reader of art theories, I could come up with certain observations regarding the children doing art and child art. Before that let me recount two incidents from the art history. Let the first one be from near to home: When Ravi Varma was a small child, it is said that he used to draw pictures on the lime coated walls of his palace. Seeing those pictures, his uncle Rajaraja Varma was very impressed and said to have exclaimed on the ‘illusionism/realism’ that he had achieved. Second episode is from Spain. When Pablo Picasso was a child, his father had left an unfinished painting on the easel and it is said that the young Picasso saw it and completed it with such verve and realistic precision that his father decided never to touch paint again. Both these stories seem to have a bit of exaggeration in them. But what we need to see in these stories is the stress given to the amount of ‘realism’ that those children had achieved. This realism is not only about the soundness of form, rhythmic nature of the lines and the rotundity given by shading and so on but also about the child’s grip on the visual language which is to be gained by consistent and prolonged training by a young boy till he reaches adulthood and a proper grip on form and perspective.

What Ravi Varma and Picasso had was this ability to draw the very similitude of the object, thing or person that the children had modelled their drawing upon. But according to the stalwarts who had closely studied the art created by children, this ability could be exceptional and commendable but cannot and should not expect from all the children. It was Frank Zizek, a Viennese artist who was known more as a pedagogue than artist, who had formulated the term ‘Child Art’. In the early years of the 20th century he established an art school for the young children in Vienna and considered children not as miniature version of adult men and women but as independent beings with an absolutely different kind of outlook on world, life and art. These formulations of Zizek were further taken up by theoreticians and educators like Herbert Read and used effectively in the educational policies of Britain and later on elsewhere in Europe and America. At the same time we have Sigmund Freud in Vienna itself experimenting with the drawings done by masters like Da Vinci as well as mental patients. We all know that Freud’s conclusion about Da Vinci’s possible homoeroticism was based on an experience of a dove pushing its feathers into the infant Da Vinci’s mouth, which in many surrogate drawings he had expressed later.

Devi Prasad, known for his pottery works as well as his work in the cottage industry sector was a devoted follower of Frank Zizek and was one of the early teachers who had worked with Mahatama Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram school where Gandhiji was formulating the ideas of Nayee Talim, New Education Method. Devi Prasad was a student of Nandlal Bose in Santiniketan and as staunch follower of the Santiniketan philosophy Devi Prasad thought that children were given a chance to develop naturally in Tagore’s dream school and it should be an ideal model to be practised at Sevagram school in Wardha. In due course of time Devi Prasad developed his own ideas about child art through various experimentations and practices with the children and confirmed that children were not miniature versions of adults but independent beings with a mind. His findings could be found in a well written book titled ‘Art: The Basis of Education’. This book is very modestly priced at Rs.75/- and is published by the National Book Trust of India.

According to Devi Prasad, art should be the basis of education of all kinds because only art could make a child sensitive to his living environment, people and anything that comes in touch with him. Devi Prasad, almost with a missionary zeal believes that children could develop a healthy personality only through art and he also underlines that the aim of the art is not about making a work of art for aesthetical enjoyment alone but to create a healthy personality. A child who practices making art or dealing with art objects and materials could handle anything in the world with a lot of sensitivity. The Do it Yourself idea comes from this Nayee Talim approach towards art and education. In the west during the first half of the 20th century there was a huge resistance from the pedagogues against the use of art as a method of education. They found that letting children do whatever they wanted was a waste of opportunity to mould them whereas Zizek believed that letting the children do whatever they want in the presence of a teacher who understand the child and the childhood, could lead the children to greater heights of understanding which could be translated into any kind of education. Devi Prasad also believed in the same theory and successfully practiced it. As Gandhiji’s idea was to spread this swadeshi Nayee Talim in all the seven lakh villages in India, he expected the education be parsimonious and austere. Therefore the art education also should be based not really on industrial colours and canvases and prepared clay, instead it should be based on the available materials, right from pigments to gunny bags to newsprint for like Gandhiji, Devi Prasad also knew that all the children in those village schools wouldn’t be able to afford industrial colours and drawing materials. Hence the stress was given on the ‘poverty’ of educational methods. Devi Prasad substantiates his ideas of poverty by recalling Tagore who also had propagated ‘poverty’ and defined it during the educational period as something that would maximize the potential of the children who functioned from within the limitations.

Right from the possible influences of displaying the so called masters’ works in the classrooms to the mutual appreciation of works by children themselves, every possible thing regarding children’s art education and general education come in this book for discussion. Devi Prasad says that while exposure to the masters’ art is good for the children to emulate certain qualities, he says it is not at all good for the children below 13 years mainly because they have the tendency to imitate the adult world which is detrimental to their normal growth. With no parameters to judge their works, children would find their works more interesting and liberating; when they listen opinion about their art and when they see their works displayed in the school and every one looking at them, they would feel elated and it would bring a sense of accomplishment, which would instil a personality in them which is out of any kind of greed or competition because of the sense of accomplishment. Devi Prasad discusses what to do when a child repeatedly draw the same thing due to the lack of new ideas and experiences. How do you give a new experience to such children is another important question that he discusses. Children from different environments could liberate themselves through drawing where drawing becomes therapeutic. Devi Prasad does anticipates the ‘Ram Shankar Nikumbh’, the art teacher in Tare Zameen Par, the Aamir Khan movie in 2007.

I am not going to talk about this book in detail because this article is not intended to be a book review. What I am trying to ask here is whether all these museums and galleries that have all of a sudden taken up the mission of making children into great artists, giving them art history lessons or art making workshops, consider all what have been discussed in this article. The question is this: What is behind this sudden interest? We need some explanation. What are their policies on child art? Do they consider it as merely hobby oriented? Do they consider it as therapeutic? Do they think it as a reach out program? Do they consider it as a relaxing for hyper active urban kids? Do they think about an alternative life style? If so, what is that alternative life style? What kind of art materials are given to them? What kind of art history or appreciation is taught to them if at all those are imparted to them? We need some explanations of these questions and more. It is not a critical question put by one feverish cultural critic or art critic. These are very important questions for everyone in the society because the answers to which would make them more informed and tolerant people, as Devi Prasad would put it, it would help them to develop healthy personalities. If not, like many I also would doubt that there must be some huge funding or international hype for those who promote child art in their respective countries. I searched for such funding windows but could not find; maybe I am not looking in the right direction. Whatever may be the case, we need to engage ourselves intellectually on the case of child art, children doing art and art for children.

( Images for representational purposes only sourced from Facebook)

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