Thursday, December 17, 2009







1.   The term “art” has changed over the centuries. The Greeks referred to art as Techne, from which we get technology or technique. But later Art came to mean much more than just technical know-how. The idea of Aesthetics, or the capacity of the human senses to “make sense” of the world in which we live, meant that art was also viewed as a way of knowing. More recently the concept of Design has become very important, and many industrial products as well as communication systems are “designed”. The relation of art to design is not always understood clearly, or at least understood in different ways. There are art institutions like SRISHTI which try to bridge the various fields of Art, Design and Technology. There is a Foundation course which introduces the students to various aspects that could be related to Fine Arts, Product Design, Graphic Design, and Technologies which in earlier times might be called Crafts. Here again there has been a long debate as to how Art relates to Craft. In the Arts and Crafts movement, it was proposed that one cannot really make a clear distinction between Art and Craft. Every Art has a craft aspect, and every Craft, if it is to be creative, must draw from aesthetic values which are the concern of Art. An institution like the Bauhaus in Weimer, arose out of these concerns,  relating Art to Craft. There a course was taught known as “Basic Materials” which influenced art teaching everywhere. In fact the notion of “Connective Aesthetics” that bring together different arts, like performing arts, graphic  arts, sculpture and architecture, painting and music, and so forth, helped to show that no art exists in isolation. Every form of art has links with other forms of art.

2.    In India we have also had a long tradition of art criticism, or philosophy of aesthetics. The Alamkara approach to art, developed into the Rasa theory, which was refined by great philosophers like Anananda Vardhana in the 9th cent, to include the concept of Dhvani, or resonance. What is important is to see how the Indian notion of Kala, was very much what some are terming “connective aesthetics”. There are supposed to be no less that 64 types of Kala. Cooking, for example, is a Kala, as are also many crafts like weaving, and building. Dancing is also a Kala. This has meant that the notion of art is very wide. Rukmani Devi set up what she called the Kala-kshetra, or field of art. Dance has always been thought to be the mother of the arts. So we see that the visual arts, as also crafts, ultimately draw many of their significant forms from the kinetic, or performing arts such as dance. But from early times Bharata discusses the link between Nrtya(dance movement) and Natya (drama). So the narrative element of the theatre came to also play a very important part in an understanding of all forms of art. Art is about story telling, and it is also a language. The language of art is Poetic. Hence when Ananda Vardhana was elaborating on his understanding of Dhvani, he used many examples from the poetic narrative that we find in the dramas of Kalidas. Dhvani, he said is implied meaning, as distinct from the literal meaning of a statement. This brings us into the field of creative language, and Semiotics.

3.    One of the problems we face in the teaching of art, is that the popular notion of art or craft is that it is quite different from science.  In India, with the dependence of our education system on models prevalent in educational practices of the last century, art and craft was thought of as practical, or at best emotive, speaking to the heart, but not rational. To the despair of rationalists, the very category of Beauty or Wonder, seemed to be often very irrational, depending on very subjective categories, determined by taste, memory or association, and the imagination. Science on the other hand was projected as being very rational, objective, and concerned with “reality” understood as Fact as opposed to Fiction. Those who were not good at science, seemed to gravitate in the direction of the arts.  But the fact is that in the Renaissance, when departments of academia were invented for the organization of Schools and Universities, the division of the Arts and the Sciences was not as rigid as one might suppose. Medicine for example was an art, as also was Architecture. Many artists like Leonardo da Vinci, on Michaelangelo, were interested in problems of Physics, or Technology. Michaelangelo was not only a sculptor and painter, but also an architect. An architect who I worked with, Laurie Baker, said that when he studied architecture in Birmingham before the Second World War, the field of architecture was considered to be very close to the fine arts, and not at all equated with engineering. Nowadays many architects seem to be more interested in engineering than in aesthetic form. There was a theory that Form follows Function, and functional necessity was thought to determine the real criterion for aesthetic form. However, the discipline of Design would certainly question the insistence on function alone.

4.    The function of Play is very important.  The distinction between Reality and what we call virtual reality, is as difficult to define as the line between History and Myth. For Rabindranath Tagore, who started an experimental school based on the ancient Gurukula System at the Ashram started by his Father, called Shantiniketan, play and joy were thought to be the basis of education. In that sense he was rather different from Gandhi, who created his notion of Basic Education around the link between knowledge and ethical norms, taking Craft as central to the application of knowledge to the needs of ordinary people. Gandhi was famous for proposing that when considering the value of any social institution, we should ask whether it would benefit the poorest, least privileged of society. This was his understanding of Sarvodaya, which was a term he derived from his source of inspiration, which he found reading the essay of Ruskin entitled “Unto this Last”. But whether we take play or craft as the basis for education, we are stressing on  a holistic form of wisdom, which concerns not only the head, but also the heart and the hands. A child learns from doing, or making something. Knowledge cannot be imparted just through book learning, or the parrot memorizing of a text. Knowledge if it is to be both creative and practical, begins in working with things, or materials. This activity is often referred to as playful. The concept of play is well known in Indian thought as Leela. In fact the whole universe is depicted in myth and art as the Leela of the Divine. God is playful, and a dancer. So it is through playing with colours, and natural elements like earth, water, air, fire and space, that a child learns to work with nature and to understand the underlying principles of Creation. The Indian term for Nature is Prakriti, which is related to the word Creation. The purpose of education is to impart a spirit of creativity in the learning process. By creativity I understand  a way of knowing through a relationship with nature, with materials or with others. This is a very different form of schooling from  conventional teaching where learning is  disconnected,  fragmented and often disembodied.

5.    My own interest over the last forty five years has been very much in the link between art and craft, and how we can understand in the Indian context, what Herbert Read called the education through art. In this process I have been particularly concerned with what we might call Patterns. Patterns in art have been viewed at times as only “decorative”. A distinction has often been drawn between the Fine Arts and the Decorative arts. By “decorative” is meant applied arts, which finally means crafts. The Indian philosopher and historian of Art, Ananda K.Coomaraswamy, discusses this term “Decoration”. He points out that originally the term did not just mean something  superficial, like clothing, jewellery, or fashion ; but rather the act of giving honour or meaning to an object or person. Thus we speak of decorating a brave warrior. To decorate, is to make something significant. A decorative motif is a sign. The knowledge field that is called Semiotics, these patterns of visual thought are analysed as providing us with the basis for the development of cultures. Symbols are also taken by some as signs. We cannot here enter into this complicated discussion as to what these different terms might mean, and how they are used in visual language. But certainly modern approaches to patterns both in nature, and in art, make us realize that we cannot dismiss pattern-making as just decorative in the pejorative sense of being only about making an object attractive. Patterns have profound significance for thought, and the way we approach reality as a web of meanings. To teach through pattern making, helps children understand not only concepts of order in nature, but also the importance of number, symmetry, repetition, and all that we introduce to children as Maths.  Further, pattern is very cultural. Different cultures have evolved a language of pattern making, which is part of a Tradition of Pattern making. Patterns are related to marks of identity, symbols, and meaning systems. In fact some have shown how patterns evolve into pictographs, and early forms of writing.

6.    I have been personally very interested in folk art, and also over the last twenty years, I have been looking at the rich traditions of Tribal or Adivasi art forms in India.  There has been much discussion on the relation of Folk, Tribal, and Child art.  Of course, so called “Primitive” art has sometimes been dismissed as merely childish.  We certainly now realize much better that what we are calling “Primitive” is very complex, and subtle. Anthropologists going back to Franz Boas, and structuralists like Levi Straus, have studied Primitive art forms as knowledge systems.  In that sense child art is very different from the art of ancient pre-literate peoples, who used visual images to convey their thought patterns.  These visual forms of language, were a system of indices, codes, and symbols, that had a specific cultural context. They were certainly not childish, in the sense of innocent or unconscious. The fact that they used simple forms like triangles, squares, circles and other patterns, does not mean that these art forms did not have a complex logic and meaning of their own.  Here again, I cannot enter into the whole discussion of visual language as used by primal peoples. But I would also like to point out that many modern artists coming from highly developed, and literate societies, have gone back to these primal forms of expression, to re-discover the kind of vitality that we find in folk and tribal art forms. That is to say, these forms are not only significant to those who have developed them as a cultural system of communication, but they have a universal and aesthetic appeal. The psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “archetypal” for certain visual forms that we find going back to the earliest expressions that we can see in the cave art of pre-historic peoples.

7.    The relation of Primitive art to a modern or contemporary understanding of art forms, is important for our approach to the way that children learn through art. What is important here, I feel, is a way of learning which is a dialogue between cultures, but also with the environment, and natural materials. We are now living very much in a global culture. The issues that we face are local, and cultural, but also have a global, cross-cultural span.  When a child begins to find self expression through play, the influence of mass media, of a whole cultural inter-play of tradition and modernity, is as much a part of the young person’s world, as it is of the adult.  It is in this context also that we have to take into account that educational methods, or strategies, have also changed with the impact of new fields of knowledge, and cross-cultural symbols, profoundly influencing what we might call the learning field. When we speak of education through art, we are not just understanding art in a very narrow sense, as culture-specific, or only craft oriented. Art here spans the whole domain of social sciences, maths, language studies, environmental studies, life skills and so forth. Art itself is about the inter-relatedness of all forms of knowing. It is not just a subject confined to the school art room. That is why it is so important to come back to the idea that underlying all forms of art, even modern art, we are concerned with pattern making, in the sense that was understood by artists who turned to an abstract, non-representational art that crosses cultural boundaries leaving space for dialogue, and re-interpretation. It has been noted that any form of language can at times be limiting, by providing a cultural syntax that is untranslatable. What is important about our modern understanding of art, is that it tries to reach beyond the local, to discover a language that is common to all cultures, and all fields of enquiry into reality.

I would like to conclude these brief reflections with a passage from a lecture that the artist Paul  Klee gave when he was teaching at the Bauhaus. It is important perhaps to know that before Klee came to teach adult students of design, he also taught children at the primary school level. He uses a metaphor:

May I use a simile, the simile of the tree ? The artist has studied this world of variety and has, we may suppose, unobtrusively found his way in it. His sense of  direction has brought order into the passing stream of image and experience. This sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array, I shall compare with the root of the tree.

From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eye.

Thus he stands as the trunk of the tree.

Battered and stirred by the strength of the flow, he moulds his vision into his work.

As, in full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work,

Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its root. Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection. It is obvious that different functions expanding in different elements must produce vital divergencies.

But it is just the artist who at times is denied those departures from nature which his art demands. He has even been charged with incompetence and deliberate distortion

And yet, standing at his appointed place, the trunk of the tree, he does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules—he transmits.

His position is humble. And the beauty at the crown is not his own. He is merely a channel.


Paul Klee and his colleagues at the Bauhaus introduced a teaching module which they called “Basic Materials”. Here students were given various materials, both natural, and artificial, and asked to play with them creatively, and make something new out of what they had at hand. This approach of encouraging a dialogue with materials, and allowing materials to influence the way a cultural object is made, for use, has profoundly not only influenced modern design techniques, but also the way art is taught. Art is not about imposing a pre-conceived system of representation on what is a passive world of natural materials. Rather, art is about co-operation, or co-creation, where the integrity of materials, and what can be made out of them, is respected. This itself has given rise to an aesthetic which is sometimes called an eco-art.

In fact a number of artists have been at the fore in trying to relate our modern culture to the natural environment. Too often culture has  been understood as fighting against nature, and trying to dominate over the resources which we have in the world. That has resulted in environmental degradation, and the very future of our planet earth is at risk today. Artists have felt that it is their responsibility to find a new working relationship between culture and nature. This I feel is an important aspect of our learning process. Children in our schools need to imbibe this kind of sensitivity to the environment, and the use of materials, that art practices seek to establish. So art is not just about teaching a craft, or the way that art forms can be used in making the learning process more active and fun. There is an important place for understanding all teaching strategies as forms of art. Art is essential not only for what we teach, but how we teach.

One does find the tendency of teachers who dismiss this way of teaching, and this understanding of art as merely foreign or European. It is important to recognized that this understanding of art as a process (or Sadhana) and not just a product is essential to an Oriental, and Indian way of teaching. Often what modern Eco artists are attempting to do in the West, in the way of “Installations” and “art events”, has been naturally done in Indian villages during festivals. Art as understand in ancient societies, was part of a living ritual, a celebration of that “ritu” which is the basic flow that governs the changing, but also ever recurring patterns of nature. We are not just going back to the past, when we seek to find new inspiration from folk forms of expression through seasonal rituals and festivals. We are seeing the importance of these ancient traditions in the light of our present ecological crisis, and loss of connectedness with the natural environment. We are re-interpreting the past, which includes the myths and spiritual practices that sustained our ancient cultures, but re-interpreting these in the light of our present concerns. Jane Sahi in her book “Education and Peace” writes:

Many of the values we have discussed such as co-operation, sharing, diversity, self reliance and consciousness of our interdependence with the whole of existence could be described as traditional values and our common heritage of human wisdom. However, while it is not longer feasible to imitate traditional patterns, for the context has changed, it is our present challenge to ‘arrange what was always there in a different way”      p. 115