TM Krishna: Why is art in our classrooms caste-driven?

File photo of the author of the book ‘Reshaping Art’, TM Krishna

In this extract from Reshaping Art, TM Krishna asks why folk music is given the step-motherly treatment in schools, but classical music isn’t

When debating art and its role in society, we have to probe its presence in our schools. Today, all educators expound the need for the arts in school education, and scientists are convinced that exposure and hands-on art work dramatically transforms learning. I am glad that after so many decades of compelled rote learning, schools (public and private) are finally changing tack.

As always, I am going to interject a ‘but’ into the equation. Schools use the presence of art in their curriculum to benchmark themselves as places of unrestricted learning. Many demand that music be included in the curriculum. But we never discuss what kind of art or music we want our children to learn. We need to question the kind of art that schools propose to teach. It is understood that when we refer to music which helps children, it is the classical and its first cousins that matter. The rest are mere entertainers, though there are gradations even there. Undoubtedly the irrelevant belongs to—and is created by— people we consider irrelevant. All those who remain hidden to society (such as manual scavengers) and have had no exposure to the classical or semi-classical are lesser human beings. Do we ever consider the possibility that music from a social address that is far removed from the classical can be as helpful to learning? Even if the so-called folk music is brought into school, it is an out-of-classroom activity, whereas the classical is always a sitdown disciplined training. This step-motherly treatment is a constant.

Not too long ago, we wanted to conduct Paraiattam (in which the performers dance as they perform on the parai, a large, single-sided tambourine) classes at a liberal private school. We were told that no student chose this form and hence they would not be able to accommodate our suggestion. The premise that children from upper-class or caste backgrounds would voluntarily choose Paraiattam is laughable. They might not even be aware of its existence and, even if they are, it is unlikely that they would consider it worth their time. Like with all the mediations I have proposed, at times we have to just drop people into uncomfortable situations. They will struggle but emerge with altered self-knowledge…

It is understood that when we refer to music which helps children, it is the classical and its first cousins that matter. The rest are mere entertainers, though there are gradations even there. Undoubtedly the irrelevant belongs to—and is created by— people we consider irrelevant. All those who remain hidden to society (such as manual scavengers) and have had no exposure to the classical or semi-classical are lesser human beings. Do we ever consider the possibility that music from a social address that is far removed from the classical can be as helpful to learning?

But I wish to ask one question. Does a child really carry with her the spirit of art into the learning of quadratic equations, human anatomy or the Indian Constitution? More importantly, does the art teacher? I have in my question qualified art with the word spirit. What does this mean and how does it change our perception of art itself? By using the word ‘spirit’ in this context I am trying to move past art making, and explore what art means in its more abstract, non-empirical sense. What is it that art nourishes within our essence that we can hold and treasure? Can we carry this idea into the classroom?

As teachers, can we enter the classroom with the intensity of immersing ourselves within the core of ‘x’ in math or Keynes’s economic theory or Macbeth? Does the teacher ‘lose herself’ within a word, idea or problem? Does the atmosphere in the classroom become charged by this emotional intensity? I am not asking for this to happen every time and it will not. In fact, it may happen only for a few minutes in a class. But this is impossible unless the teacher looks within herself and sees an artist.

We need the seeker within the teacher. This will transform both the teacher and the student. Imagine a classroom where every student imbibes this spirit from the teacher without consciously realising it. Minds will be alive with learning. The child will then allow herself to be one with a word, a problem, the mountains or a political thought, at least for a passing moment.

The artistic attitude of the teacher will transform the method of learning. This will happen not because the teacher seeks to make learning more fun, interesting or engaging. This will come from the teacher’s own discovery of beauty within learning that she shares.

What about artistic abstraction? How can that happen in a classroom? We may not be creating art, but we can in the learning of anything create a link with life experience.

Can the teacher create an atmosphere where the Pythagoras theorem evokes within every individual the real feeling of life? Does the sheer elegance of the Pythagoras theorem evoke a deep feeling from within, almost as if we touched a moist leaf in a forest?

Art experience does something else—it brings a pause to our lives. Though art is about something happening, all the moving parts of art are grounded in a pause. The moment the pause disappears, reflection disintegrates. This pause is not a vacuity but a ripe void. In music, this manifests as aural silence; in dance, it is silence of movement; and in visual art, it is spatial silence. This is the reason why time stands still in art. If we are to reflect upon this idea within the classroom context, can we see the possibility of creating this pause in learning?

This is not to be interpreted as creating an actual pause between concepts. Can this nothingness, silence, stillness be created by the way teachers engage with an idea? Can an idea simmer in the class, even hang in balance, allowing for its viewing and imbibing by everyone present? Can there be a pause from rushing for solutions, answers or resolution?

Today there are two kinds of issues in classrooms. In the mainstream schools, the examination is a single-point agenda and hence a pause is a liability. In the alternative schools, making learning engaging, fun and interesting is so much at the top of their minds that multiple tools and techniques are constantly used. Here too, the pause is the scapegoat.

Everything I have said can be extrapolated into any sphere of living but, even as an artist, I struggle with living life while keeping intact this ‘spirit of art’. But as educators, if we can engage with ourselves as artists, we can perhaps transform the classroom. Art skills have their space in a school and I am not undervaluing their necessity. But art experientially gifts us a window into something special that exists within us. If we can draw into that ‘spirit’, education can become an artistic experience. When this happens, the art-social conversation that we have been engaging in becomes obvious to the students.

This excerpt has been taken with permission from Aleph Book Company; Pages: 107; Price: ₹399

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