The art of the matter
The way art is taught in Indian schools is below satisfactory. We must engage with the subject in a meaningful way. Katherine Rose writes.india Updated: Jan 30, 2012 00:03 IST
The India Art Fair, which will be held between January 26-29, is unlikely to see the kind of mad rush we saw during the Auto Expo earlier this month. But be sure that a horde from around the country, and indeed the world, will see it. Many people saw it when it was earlier called the Art Summit too. Not all of them are collectors, dealers, critics or artists. Increasingly, 'regular people' want a piece of the arty action. I, too, will be going to the fair - not to buy, but to look at art and hear some of the most interesting artists, curators and other cultural facilitators say thoughtful and clever things. The fair is a brilliant - and all too rare - opportunity to see an array of contemporary art in India.
More than the quality of the experience, I'll be looking forward to the sheer number and range of artworks on show. But just looking at art or experiencing it isn't enough. Sometimes I need more than just me and the artwork in order to get the most out of viewing art. And that's with two art history degrees behind me.
I value the time and space to look closely and the opportunity to engage with 'extra information' about the artwork. I want to be absorbed, delighted and moved. But I also want contexts to get a better understanding. I want my brain as well as my heart to get involved. What's it about? How and why was it made? What artistic traditions is it referencing or rejecting? In other words, what's going on here? With any art that's good - the kind that stands the test of time - there is always a huge amount 'going on'.
With these questions in mind, I think of Arpita Singh's disarmingly dreamy and colourful canvases that belie a darker view of our contemporary world, expressed through her repeated motifs of haunted figures. Or Jitish Kallat's brilliance at being able to work in almost any medium and create installations that are comfortably familiar and yet make us question everything we thought we knew. Anyone looking at his 'Autosaurus Tripous', an auto made of plastic bones, would first be struck by its everyday references. Take a step back and you can also see Kallat making a nuanced point about our middle-class urban cultures, about us being mere pinpricks in the march of time.
I'm heartened that the Art Fair's organisers are promoting the educational potential of engaging with art. I have asked several 'non-arty' people around India to imagine a world without Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa', Michelangelo's 'David' and Picasso's 'Guernica' - they couldn't.
The sheer impact of those works on humanity and the need to value them was apparent to those people even if they don't read books or magazines about art. The reason they possibly cannot say a similar thing about a handful of Indian works of art is because the worth of these works has not been presented to them in a digestible manner. This does not mean that such works don't exist. It indicates that most people in India do not have easy access to artistic value - except what the media tells us about auction prices.
My experience of working with families and school children around India tells me that when art is explained in an appropriate language and via engaging in activities, even 10-year-old boys can forget their football games and plead with their mothers to go back to 'the class about art'.
For children, using art as a starting point to explore the world taps right into the heart of their innate talent for learning. Children are often the most dazzling interpreters of art, much more open to a combination of the intellectual, sensory, physical and emotional experiences that art offers. The purpose of exposing children to art, however, is not to drill them with names and dates, but to teach them how to think critically, question and analyse. These are skills that policy-makers and top school leaders in India, understanding the future we face, are now prioritising.
Then there are language and social skills, as well as a whole host of subjects, from history to science, which can be taught through art. Seen this way, art becomes a resource that we cannot afford to ignore.
India's art market is thriving; its museums are not. Nor is the way art is taught in most schools. We need a more democratic view of the value of art and not keep it as something esoteric. We need more opportunities - for all of us, not just our children - to engage with art in a meaningful way. Many may argue that India faces a bigger challenge of improving the lives of hundreds of millions. But to leave art out of the picture not only leaves us with a grey, expressionless world, but it also deprives our future generations of a vital opportunity. Art, after all, is not just for art's sake.
Katherine Rose is founding director of Flow India, which runs innovative art appreciation programmes
The views expressed by the author are personal