The Necessity of Art
Sometime back I was interviewed for a programme in a British website called People's Archive. At the end of the interview the interlocutor (who preferred to be called a 'listener'), a well known British artist, art critic and author, asked me to name two persons I admired most in my life. Having grown up at a crucial time in history when the power-picture of the world changed conclusively and with it the face of this subcontinent, I said without any hesitation, Gandhi and Rabindranath. For me they are two persons who still stand high on the world scene unruffled by the nefarious goings on at the ground level and who always had their eyes focused on the refinement of the human being and the betterment of the living environment. I presume their importance is being recognized more and more in the present-day world, beset as it is with confrontations and conflicts of various kinds, that constrict the horizons of the individual human being and disorient his outlook.
You may ask me what has Gandhi to do with the topic in question as his prime interest was the empowerment of the people of this subcontinent to liberate themselves from colonial rule and be masters of their own destiny? And he himself insisted over and over that this was his main preoccupation? It is reported that once when he was going to the temple town of Belur in Karnataka to collect a small donation from someone and somebody asked him whether he would also not go and visit, on the side, its gorgeous temple with remarkable sculpture famous all over the world, he replied that a man who sought to serve the country's poor cannot find time for such luxuries. But apparently he did manage to see the temple, and even notice certain details of its sculpture and iconography some time or the other. For, some years later when he was asked to open (I presume in Ahmedabad) an art exhibition on the occasion of a literary conference he is supposed to have remarked that though the works he saw there were fine in their own way, none of them carried the kind of liveliness he had seen in a piece of sculpture in the Belur temple, depicting a lovelorn maiden bitten crazy by the scorpion of sensual desire. It is also on record that on the way back from the Round Table Conference in London he stopped by in Rome. And sought to see the Pope. But as the Pope was too busy to see him, spent two to three hours in the Vatican Museum seeing with great care its fabulous art collections and murals. The journalists who were dogging his steps were surprised that a man like him, reputedly disinterested in arts, spent so much time in a museum. They questioned him about this and asked his reaction. He replied that he was deeply
impressed by the collection, especially a painting of the 'crucifixion'; and that three hours was too small a time to see such a collection; unless he spent there at least three months he wouldn't be able to collect his thoughts and give his reaction. He also told them that he responded to works of art but as a political activist he did not find the time for it. And if by some fortunate circumstance he was not obliged to be one, he would have liked to be a musician.
Gandhi came into the political scene of the sub-continent in 1917 and transformed it thoroughly in the next seventeen years. He roused its somnolent population to life, and made them recognize their rights and fight for them. In those active years he figured prominently in the Congress Party. But in 1934 (or thereabout) he withdrew from the Party and chose to be a distant mentor. Surprisingly this decision brought him to work towards introducing a new feature in the Congress sessions. He initiated the organisation of cultural exhibitions along with political powwows. He had perhaps realized that it was not enough to make people conscious about their rights and the means with which to secure them; it was also necessary to lay the foundation of a cultural resurgence by demonstrating to them the various facets of their inherent creative potential. This started with the Congress session in Indore in 1934. In 1936 he became more ambitious; with the help of Nandalal Bose he organized an impressive cultural exposition that focused on the various facets of the arts and crafts of the country at the Congress session in Lucknow. Gandhi gave special publicity to this effort in all his speeches. Reversing his stand that the eradication of poverty from the backward regions of the country, like certain arid areas of Orissa, should have precedence over other interests, he talked of the great variety and finesse of the handcrafted products that came from three pockets of penury; and how human creativity survived and flourished even in the midst of hunger and want. In the following Congress session in Faizpur which came in less than a year he persuaded Nandalal to create a whole township with the humble materials available in its rural environs like clay, bamboo, and hay. Nandalal apparently shied off the assignment in the beginning saying that he did not have the necessary expertise. But Gandhi would not let go. He sent him a card with a cryptic message, 'I am not looking for an expert pianist but a fiddler,' and promised him whatever technical help was needed. Nandalal was forced to accede. The results were reportedly spectacular, proving that with the proper use of even the lowliest of materials one can create beauty. The results earned high praise from Gandhi who was impressed by the felicitous co-existence of beauty and simplicity in each feature of the improvised township. The purpose of the story is to demonstrate that Gandhi, the political activist, a confirmed moralist who gave special value to austerity and celibacy, who advocated paucity of possessions and abstemious living, still recognized 'the necessity of art' if only to emphasize that all human beings whether affluent or indigent have in them the potential to bring order and beauty into things, that if you have to better the world you will have to bring this into play and build little models of what you want it to be, with ample space to express and embody your creative impulses.
The message of Rabindranath, in this direction, is easier to demonstrate. First of all he was a multi-faceted genius– a poet, novelist, thinker, dramatist, song-writer, artist, educationist and a visionary who dreamed of a conflict-free and creative world (and whose contribution to these fields you are even more familiar than I am). And he is one of the few who tried to see his ideas through in exemplary action, like in his educational cum cultural experiment in Santiniketan. I have the satisfaction of spending four of my formative years there between 1944-48. I have also had the disappointment of seeing it lose steam and direction later in the day. But that despite I came to this place in 1980 and spent more than two decades. And even now when I have moved across the continent to Baroda in western India I keep a close connection with it in the hope that it will rise again like a phoenix from its present predicament. Why do I still cherish this seemingly forlorn hope? Because, I cannot think of a better or more rounded educational concept which answer the needs of the present-day world beset as it is with what Rabindranath called (seventy years ago) a 'crisis in civilization'.
You may be wondering why I am talking about Rabindranath's educational experiment instead of going directly into his views on art. This is because, in the way I understand it, his notion of art was a pervasive one. It grows out of his picture of human personality and what he calls its creative surplus. In his view the personality of the human being is not entirely inborn; it grows, expands and diversifies on the basis of its interaction with the outside world, or the total environment. To be fruitful this interaction has to be affective and emotional, involving a kind of interrogation through which, in his words, 'the world becomes a part of our personality; it grows with our growth, it changes with our changes; we are great or small according to the magnitude or littleness of this assimilation.' This interaction exceeds man's practical needs and spills over into the field of his creative vision and self-expression. All human creativity is the outcome of this excess, or this 'creative surplus'.
For Rabindranath this affective interaction, this personalised conversation with the outside world is the object of real education. It should awaken the creativity of each person in the measure of his or her potential. And he believed that each person had a hidden potential, big or small; and this deserved to be awakened and cultivated. This was the main purpose of education, this preparation of each person to live up to his full creative potential.
Rabindranath felt this was possible. He could not have failed to observe the presence of a wide spectrum of art practice in our traditional society giving it a total aesthetic aura– art practiced in the households by self-trained man and women, arts in craft ateliers and workshops, art and architecture of professional guilds, a whole range from the simplest to the highly refined. And he was sensitive enough to see the specific virtues of different levels of hand skills. The low-level skills had certain specialities that high-level skills did not and vice versa. They were as it were various dialects of a visual language. Their networking and interaction built a rich web of culture that becomes the hallmark of flourishing traditions. We are told that quite early in the day, Rabindranath encouraged his friends and associates to collect and document root-level art forms in villages and towns, saying that they will have a salutary impact oil the sophisticated practices overburdened with technical virtuosity, like he pointed to fellow writers the advantages of an exposure to folk literary forms and lore. He himself had benefited from such exposure to the compositions of auls and bauls and possibly the craftsmen saints of medieval India. Rabindranth's early visits abroad had also brought to his notice a parallel interest in other countries, be it among certain groups encouraging the practice of hand skills in rapidly industrialising societies, particularly the Art and Craft movement in England and craft practice centered schooling system in Sweden.
I am inclined to speculate that Rabindranath's effort to give the practice of both visual and performing arts a central place in his educational institution had behind it the above vision. His many-sided genius provided the basic infrastructure. His poems and songs picturised and celebrated the landscape. They electrified the youth and inspired them to respond with empathy to the world around. He wrote plays that presented the conflicts between stagnation and growth, regimentation and freedom, in various hues, holding references to education, religious belief and pursuit of truth. They threw light on basic issues without being openly didactic; the medium of dance drama carried the massage to an enchanted public with subtlety and colour.
And he secured the services of another versatile genius, Nandalal Bose to operate an art programme in the institution. Nandadal could understand Rabindranath's intentions; he himself wanted to operate a programme that covered various sectors of visual art and design, and to extend their presence in the society at large. Under his influence the Santiniketan campus bristled up with free standing sculptures, wall paintings and reliefs. Its festivals and special occasions came to life with floor and wall graphics. He motivated his colleagues to apply themselves to various fields like functional and interior design, graphic design and stagecraft. They set into motion a noticeably indigenous trend in all these fields, which had a wide impact. Nandalal and his group of artists also designed the wherewithal of various seasonal festivals Rabindranath initiated. The form and content of the festivals were Rabindranath's brilliant innovations, interweaving his songs poems and incantations, and processional dancing. They spotlighted the relationship of human beings with the facts of nature and their mutual dependence. And he liberated them from their earlier conventions of fetishistic ritual and mythical overlays. They tried to throw light on what we receive from Nature and owe to it by way of its protection and sustenance. At a time the whole world is seriously concerned with the deleterious effects of our over-exploitation of Nature this should be considered timely and appropriate, if it was backed by constructive action. Rabindranath thought about this more than a century ago. True these festivals still continue in the institution he activated them. But they have lost their sense of purpose. And become occasions of cultural entertainment of the suburban public around.
I have made here a resume of what I presume Rabindranath's intentions were. These are certainly known to all of you. Seen together they go much further than preparing the youth for the normal business of life. They envision the nurturing of a counter-culture that seeks to redraw man's relationship with Nature, with his fellow beings and his history and inheritance, strengthen his creative faculties and give his each action the status of art. Utopian certainly but in the circumstances of today, when a burgeoning human presence on the earth has led to endless conflicts of interest– a crying need.
What are the general features of what I mention as circumstances of today? It is the overgrowth of the 'man's world' within the world of nature to the extent that it loses contact with it. It is true what we call human culture is this man's world that grows out of his interactions with the outside worldhis efforts at representing it, understanding it, interpreting it, extending it, loving it, celebrating it. But its health consists in the openness and depth of these cross connections, where the two worlds are related as it were by a live umbilical cord. But in the last, let us say eight millennia of recorded and unrecorded human history, there has been a large accumulation of these representations; and on the top what has happened in the last one century has been phenomenal. A flourishing information industry has built around the city-bred human being a fortress of knowledge he can live within without going outside its portals to the natural world. This is now common knowledge. We know what is happening in the world through the news media, what is on the market from commercial advertisements. Books, magazines and television educate us on every aspect of our lives, our food, our health, our social and political responsibilities, even intimate matters like sex, then the lives and notions of other peoples who reside in different countries and climes, some near, some distant. They go further to channelize our thoughts and control our responses, entertain us and inflame our imagination.
This structural change in human civilization has accelerated with the onset of modernity. What do we mean here by modernity? The way I construe it, it means the attitudinal changes that have been brought in by what we may call 'cultural globalization'. This process started when, with improved ways of communication, one part of the world came into contact with another and as a consequence encountered different ways of life, institutions, languages and beliefs, and this encounter generated a rethinking of their established institutions and postulates. All features of the modern way of life and thought are the outcome of this rethinking and various intercultural, studies and speculations that this resulted in. In the course of time this led to the deduction or discovery of certain basic universals. Surely there were some misinterpretations and distortions. But all the same it led to a loose consensus on what we consider today human values and their evolution through time. Side by side these interactions gave a fillip to scientific and technological innovations. This was followed by the industrial revolution and the growth of global commerce and the various power games that came in its wake. And now the electronic revolution has facilitated global, even spatial, communication in a big way.
While the cultural globalization led to the rethinking of traditional postulates the industrial and electronic revolutions have led to 'economic globalization' and the growth of a consumer society on a big scale. This has broken up the old linkages between the producer and the consumer, displaced people from their traditional moorings and effected drastic changes in their life styles. The producer countries and their merchandizing subsidiaries try to encourage this change through various strategies of advertisement and indoctrination. All this demonstrates that the above-mentioned man's world has grown by leaps and bounds. A normal individual knows most of the real world through secondary means and his responses are shaped by their inner circuits. So there has been a conclusive change of scene. And this has affected the art scene as well.
The issues that exercise artists have undergone various changes in the last hundred years. At the time I was young (and had not yet made up my mind to be an artist) artists were taken up with the styles and manners or representing reality. One group of artists were taken up with academic realism of the Victorian kind; another group groped around for an indigenous alternative. Some were involved with representing the actual scene or people, with an eye on the picturesque; others were taken up with histories and mythologies. The next generation became aware of the rapid change of scene in the European art centres; the efforts of their artists at formal experimentation and conceptual somersaults. Our artists were influenced by these. Some visited Western art centres, even underwent studio exposures. But to a lot of them this came to mean only another manner of statement side by side with the previous ones. Art schools and exhibitions marked out these streams of practice Western, Eastern and Modern. But to a select few this offered an incentive for original thinking about the building blocks of various categories of art expression and their variable configuration.
Personal attitudes changed as well. For a long time artists worked in privacy; and considered such privacy an essential prerequisite for self-discovery. Although they desired public appreciation they did not go out to solicit it or try to adjust to public demand. One may attribute this to the paucity of public reaction or its confinement to small circles.
This was so till about twenty years back. The country's art scene had not yet caught the notice of the global art market. But it has in the last two decades. It started with art auctions inside and outside the country. Now art fairs have mushroomed in the Eastern and Western world. Art wares are advertised and sold around; there is money in art. This inflation is partly due to the fact that the newly affluent art buyer considers art purchase as a kind of investment comparable to the purchase of stocks and shares; and has his eyes on its possible resale value. Naturally there is also a rise in market consciousness among artists who want to make it big. Some try to stand out to attract, some try to conform. The running topic for discussion among art writers these days is the ground-shift between the local and the global like it was at one time the uneasy relationship between tradition and individuality.
Side by side with this field of visual communication has enlarged and increased in variety and artifice. It now commands a larger range of media and technology. Besides it has now become result oriented and takes serious notice of how visual statements carry and the nature of the targets they are aimed at. This has given a big boost to visual innovation. Commodity advertising which was crass and lowbrow at one time has become now more subtle, whimsical and imaginative. And they surround us on all sides through blow-ups and hoardings and television. This too has affected the present-day art scene. Artists use their methodsof display (in installations), visual anecdotage and animation (in videos), their manned shows (in body art and group theatricals). It may be they are not as adept as the communication professionals in every case: but they cannot resist the attraction.
Global art trade has made art a cultural commodity. Art's old status as a privileged communication within an intimate cultural circuit now seems passé. At one time art journals wrote about the individualities of artists, their works and the concepts behind. This is now confined to catalogues; art journals focus on market trends. They attract the attention of the aspiring youth in the art schools, like trade journals attract tradesmen and design journal designers. And the numerous websites on the internet spotlight images and issues that make the art commodity trade-worthy.
This is in a sense natural and inescapable. At all times there were artist professionals that served public demands (and our museums are full of their excellent works). But when public demand dwindled or went down in quality, artists sought privacy and the attention of a small group of responsive viewers. Today we have both categories on the scene, artists who answer public demands and flourish, artists who stand apart and plough their lonely furrows.
In the rough and tumble of today's society where the forces released by g1obalization boost each individuals ambition on one side and increase his frustrations on another no man is fully happy. And this feeling spreads out into towns and villages through the new communication channels. Besides for all the talk of increasing wealth and wellbeing the world has many dark patches of poverty inhumanity and suffering which again is brought home to everyone through the media. Artists, of both the categories, are affected by it. So their works carry a veneer of discontent and black humour and a focus on personal suffering. Each has his own style of satire or social comment. But most of these works are packaged in tantalising visuals or reduced to intriguing symbols and in the process, sanitised for general consumption.
I have no quarrel with these. I own that some of my works have a similar kind of payload. But I am quite aware that like words don't break bones, art cannot do what only insurrection can. Besides constant carping and cynicism and public breast-beating by artists who aspire to feature in the page three of the news media certainly carries a sense of unreality about it. But that despite it is a good thing that people deplore the deplorable and point to the need for redress.
But in most cases the real redress lies in the rebuilding of the world, in expanding, its horizons, and redrawing the picture of human fulfillment. This is what Rabindranath tried to do in planning way of life in which art had it central role where you did not bewail your lacks but celebrated your gains, where each person collaborated with the others to build a world which will be more orderly, peaceful, beautiful and creative thanit is.
This text formed a lecture delivered in the Senate Hall of the Dhaka University, Bangladesh, on January2, 2010.