Of pedagogical fault lines and recognition of the emergent 'new' art
Though proliferated as an unofficial dictum, the most problematic component in the teaching method once employed at Santiniketan (the Kala Bhabana of Visva Bharati) hinged on an essential frame of referentiality. Each learner was constantly reminded of a linear/direct relationship between the phenomenal world and his/her respective artistic vision/creation.
In the immaculate natural setting, where one would have assumed 'free spirit' gaining the upper-hand over structured learning methods, whenever the opportunity presented itself to enquire about the 'source' of a particular image or element in use in students' artworks the teachers assertively followed through with questions to elicit satisfactory answers. Even into the new millennium there was this unnatural focus on one's ability to refer to the physical reality and be faithful in rendering employing a method of art-making where the 'easily recognizable' takes the centre stage. It is interesting to note that many years before, Abanindranath Tagore once famously critiqued similar efforts by artists to emulate the observable world by simply issuing a caveat: to make art is not at all to draw what one observes.
All traditions, even those of the 'modern age', are liable to change; Santiniketan too had to open up in the face of the new tendencies in art. And among those there are some that go as far as short-circuiting the connection between so called 'reality' and art. New teachers have emerged who are accommodating of the changing tide towards an unshackling of the old unilinear approach to art.
Unfortunately, Dhaka's pedagogical realm as well as the cultural domain, where pseudo-left and petty bourgeois ideals co-mingle to extend an unhealthy influence on the body politic, seem to have been stationed in one place for too long a time. Art lesions have long been attached to a fixed set of principles through which artists should feel compelled to 'bring to salience their immediate reality.' What is also worrisome at present is that such 'evidence based' art practice is now raging in the Fine Arts Faculty of the University of Dhaka, where it enjoys a strong disciplinary emphasis on achieving verisimilitude, whereas in Santiniketan verisimilitude never enjoyed such pedagogical favour.
In Dhaka's myriad classrooms, even at the penultimate academic phase (during the Master's) when students are supposed to be free to embark on experimentations, paintings are not only being relegated to 'signs of recognition', but are also being churned out as obvious display of academic feats. To speak about the new media and the associated technological changes as well as the gaze-shift that attend to it, and even to identify and promote new art, in this climate of aesthetic obscurantism, is itself a paradoxical undertaking.
If art has to go beyond the retina, or the recognizable 'visual cues' one gathers through vision, it has to remain attentive to the imaginative/emotive/cognitive prowess of the being – one that helps translate, transform and even transfuse the empirical data into the artistic diction. It is conscious and unconscious imagination that lays the foundation for the link to explore between art and reality and historical context and also for their meaningful interactions and exchanges in the creation of art. The link thus can both be linear and non-linear. Therefore the location of art-making can never be confused with the location of the physical body – though there is no denying the fact they are overlapping domains. Art is the result of a dramatic reworking of our mental and physical spaces which lends the artistic operation/action its own moments of reality – a state of consciousness/being which inspires the body in the articulation of the social/political/cultural/spiritual in the form of art. Similar operational logic is discernible in the creation of new social order, which is never to be found in the safeguarding of the 'status quo'.
The (illusion of a) framework through which we were made to accept the bifurcation between 'figuration' and 'abstraction' was inaugurated in the colonial-era academia. The early intervention by the British ruling class seems to have set in motion a snowball effect. Interestingly, in Kolkata, there were art writers and teachers who took issue with the reduction of art into academic realism inserted by the British through the introduction of western academic practices in the then Calcutta (now, Kolkata) art school, and in turn, affecting the intellectual and artistic position of the multitude across time and generations.
Shyamacharan Srimani1, the first Bengali art historian, on whom Abul Mansur once dedicated a small tract, wrote way back in 1978, 'Recently, we have experienced that some [artists] are contemplating with seriousness English art schooling. In their practice what becomes noticeable is the value they attach to verisimilitude … For me verisimilitude is not as strong a virtue as it is a vice' (my translation).
Though one must go back to Shyamacharan with caution, motivated as he was by some misplaced notion of nationhood and tradition. His ideas/ideals were aligned with other exponents of Orientalist strain of art and thought, including Abanidranath Tagore, for whom 'the story of Indian art was self-evidently the story of only the ancient Buddhist and Hindu art of the land he invoked as “Aryavarta”'2.
However, their position vis-a-vis academic realism at the outset was of historical importance; it is due to their ‘nationist’ stance that the notion of art as close to observed reality faced opposition since the early twentieth century. Perhaps the art historical amnesia makes us blind to what transpired hundred years ago. Therefore, today, we are unable to speak about the 'fault line' that runs across the overlapping cultural and political domains.
The truism that artists from both camps – the ones who make art through the figural or the recognizable, and those who avoid direct referencing have been treading on unauthentic grounds, evidences art historical follies. The silver lining that one sees on the horizon appears in the form of new artistic fruitions, attesting to the advancement which continued both inside and outside the academia. Though the pedagogical limitations and the non-critical climate have impaired our stride towards a paradigmatic leap, art practice in Bangladesh is now seeing a surge towards the new.
One may draw a conclusion – if we consider the emerging art scene with seriousness, the new forms and ways of seeing, we have reached a stage where theories based on the duality of form and content seem no longer tenable. Therefore, one must rethink, reconfigure one's thoughts vis-a-vis the new experimentations. Instead of a false frame of relationship between content (reality) and form (idiom/language), one must come to appreciate the fact that language is no less real than reality. And it is through language – a given structure we manipulate to suit our respective purpose – that reality/experiential realm finds a voice to become variegated freights ready for human cognitive, emotional and other forms of response.
- Shyamacharan Srimani's Shuksha Shilper Utpatti o Arya Jatir Shilpa Chaturi (Origin of Fine Art and Artistic Acumen of the Aryans) was published from Calcutta (now, Kolkata) in 1874. It was the first work of art history 'which gave rise to a significant body of art criticism in Bengali connected to the anti-colonial independence movement,' according to Matthew Rampley, who wrote the preface to the book Art History and Visual Studies in Europe: Transnational Discourse and National Frameworks.
- Tapati Guha-Thakurata, 'Recovering the Nation's Art', in Text of Power: Emerging Disciplines Colonial Bengal, Partha Chatterjee (ed). pp 86-87, Regents of the University of Minnesota, USA, 1995.