The students of the college are striking for the most basic of amenities, but what they also need is an open culture that allows for the exchange of ideas
To begin at the beginning, why does art even matter? What made me, at 15, get into a face-off with the art teacher at my school, to insist that I would hold my own exhibition outside the girls dormitory in response to the school’s more formal one, to convince my friends to help me cut and carry the six-foot-tall sheet of ply up from the quarter masters; what made it so evident to me that the complex and unfathomable interiority of the seated thinking man I had made (some kind of mash-up of Rodin and Giacometti) would be best represented with a zero for a head – well, OK, the tangled scrawl of a few zeroes, egg-shaped zeroes to be precise? The art teacher immediately banned this inchoate experimentation; in my own view, he was needlessly bent upon realism.
Some years later, I ended up at the Delhi College of Art. Two- thirds of the entrance exam involved drawing – still life and portrait. I looked around me. Having come out of English-speaking schools, I was used to engaging with a slightly different cohort, more homogenous perhaps, at least in the narrowness of our shared references. Here I saw an expanded set of people, and what mattered on that day was only how well you could draw – what you were able to imagine, and whether you could manifest that reality on paper. Art college included people I couldn’t have anticipated. Although artists might form their own minority, like musicians or athletes, art comes from another place of ability, one you cannot easily inherit, and is therefore a sort of strange equaliser. I was introduced to a new community, one unbound by class or language, yet speaking familiar tongues.
And yet. The college, as it stands today, is clearly a missed possibility. This was brought home to me these last few days, when I heard about the current ongoing strike and met with protesting students. Roughly half the student body stopped attending classes on August 31, 2015 to lodge their protest at the utter lack of transparency, endemic corruption and visible decay of an institution that they have lost faith in. The immediate trigger was the refusal of the painting department to give them access to materials, which lay right there in the cupboards, in front of their eyes. Some students filmed this, and things started to snowball quickly. Within the past fortnight, protestors have submitted memorandums, and marched to the Delhi Secretariat and the Chief Minister’s home. In their despair – and the sheer absence of anyone listening or caring thus far – they are looking to new and ingenious forms for their learning. They have decided to conduct their own open-air footpath classes, to which they will invite local Delhi artists to contribute, to workshop, to teach. This seems like a novel plan, given that it might introduce contemporary artists to the students, as well as lead to some kind of free exchange of ideas.
When I led a workshop at Ambedkar University earlier this year, a great volley of straight questions and robust critique came right at me from students. It made me sit upright, and led to a broad and searching conversation that I believe benefited us all, not the least, me. In India today, many contemporary artists are somehow apart from pedagogy. Although it is true that the best artists might not make for the best teachers, or vice versa, but surely there is an occasional overlap. In Pakistan, one of the leading art schools is Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, and well-known artists such as Rashid Rana are full time teachers within it. Many of their finest artists have taught there in recent years. In Europe and America, practicing artists often teach in order to support their practice.
In our own country, the University of Baroda has a legendary past in this regard, featuring greats such as Bhupen Khakhar and Ghulam Sheikh; as of course does Shantiniketan. There existed an organic and symbiotic relationship between practicing artists and teachers. Today Ambedkar University, Shiv Nadar and NID are those who try and bridge the gap. It strikes me as a real waste, especially in big cities like Delhi, where so many artists live and practice – and where the College of Art is so conveniently located – that the worlds stay entirely separate. An awareness and debate with current art practice while being well acquainted with the past, necessary ancestors and the historical canon, is surely germane to keeping any young person’s interest alive.
In my time at the College of Art, we were fortunate to have had an active principal, and some fine teachers. Yes, there was an influential clique. There was academic politics. The best teachers stood apart from the clique and did their own thing, were often the oddballs and the outliers, and were well loved by us. They managed to circumvent a clearly stultified curriculum. The conventionalists were more suspicious of new ideas – especially ideas from elsewhere and dismissed as inauthentic or un-Indian, culturally polluting we might even say. They put their faith in such ritualistic practices as ensuring that there was no variation in the colour as we laid it flat upon the hard board manually over and over again to get it just so – something easily achievable with an airbrush, and even more easily off a computer today. Conceptual thinking was under-valued to the benefit of unnecessary rigour for rigour’s sake. Surely the skills and craft students should learn to communicate their ideas must also be fused with their thought – and both honed simultaneously? What did the flat painting teach me? To bend myself to do things I hated and that went against the grain, I guess.
But today, those seem like halcyon days. The college is currently missing 70% of its teaching staff. The principal is only an officiating one, and therefore lacks the ability to take critical decisions. There have been no new teachers in a long, long while. There are no visiting professors from the world at large. The curriculum and infrastructure have fallen further behind – for instance students in the Department of Applied Art are still expected to do everything manually, as in our time, or to use CorelDraw. They have no access to Photoshop or Illustrator which even laypersons know are basic tools today; they are to designers as oil and acrylic to painters. There has been stagnation instead of evolution; in the time that we have become middle- aged, the college is now a defunct dinosaur.
Belying this abysmal state of decay, the student body is up from 300 to around 1200. Where there is space for 40 students, the school admits 52. There are three new departments in existence without enough teachers or any of the requisite infrastructure necessary to back them up – for instance, the printmaking department needs printing press machines and rollers; the technical labs need non-obsolete computers; there is no Wi-Fi on campus; visual communications surely needs digital cameras, and not only the old analog cameras for which film is no longer available; classrooms needs better furniture including enough desks and easels for each student, and better lighting; and the campus as whole needs a few workhorse photocopy machines, laser printers, quality scanners and projectors. The building needs repair. The toilets – never a strong feature – are now apparently unusable; the gallery where the critical final year shows are held is permanently locked; and there are no basic safety measures in place, such as a first-aid centre.
More worryingly, students from one department are apparently forbidden from walking into others. Inter-disciplinary engagement is discouraged. There is ‘isolation and alienation’ between students and teachers – and students and students – general distrust and the infantilising of under-graduate and graduate level students. The library does not allow students to carry notebooks inside; they can carry in one loose leaf of paper at a time, or use the lone photocopy machine on campus, which costs Rs 2 a page. The library is open 9 – 5 pm.
Without an honest and transparent conversation between adults, without a free flow of dissenting ideas and critique, without old and new books, reading and access to the Internet, without cross-pollination of thought both within the college and with fellow practitioners across India and the world, there can be no genuine enquiry or deepening of practice. One cannot exist and create in a vacuum.
I left India to get another BFA in photography, and later an MFA – since none existed here then and a BFA still doesn’t. Apparently, in our country the debate is still wide open as to whether photography is a legitimate art form of its own. We remain the accompanist tabla players and are not quite sitar players yet. In America, I would think of my supremely talented friends and peers from the College of Art – so many of whom bore full grown responsibilities at 22 that wouldn’t allow them to pursue individualistic dreams and scholarships; and so many of whom were simply failed by our system.
The writer is a photographer and an alumnus of the Delhi College of Art