Way off the mark
All that children seem to be doing is studying, the result of being repeatedly told that their future depends on their marks. To SHAKTI MAIRA, in such an environment unlike in the West there's an unhappy, but likely, prospect that the emerging generation will become `artless', with the seeds of appreciation of beauty and its expression remaining barren in their lives.
IT has been said that the vitality of the arts is the truest measure of a society and country's health and development. What I see today are parents and schools driving children into a singular focus on achieving high marks in examinations that leaves little, if any, place for the arts and aesthetic development. As a result, we are making the emerging generation artless.
All our children seem to be doing is studying school followed by many hours of homework and tuition. It seems inevitable that the seeds of appreciation of beauty and its expression in their lives that are within them, will remain barren. In future, we may find their aesthetic handicap resulting in a country that reflects this lack of development in the arts and aesthetics.
It's an unhappy, but likely, prospect. The surge in the arts we have witnessed post-independence might be a short-lived renaissance. We may be heading towards a society whose health is failing and that will, in retrospect, be seen by historians as undeveloped. Parents, who drive their children with singular focus to succeed in examinations so that they enter "prestigious" colleges and thereafter high-paying jobs, seem to be to blame. Children are repeatedly told that their future depends on their marks. They see their parents fighting with their teachers over half a mark and buying examination papers for as much as Rs. 10 lakhs. It's only marks, marks and marks. The general argument is that parents are only doing this to help their children succeed in life. As a parent, I understand this concern. We want our children to be happy and fulfilled. We think that this will happen if they get a good job, earn lots of money and drive a Mercedes Benz. But let me share something that all parents must know but behave as if they don't. A good well-paying job and a Mercedes Benz don't do it. I know because I got admission to Delhi's St Stephen's College, where I studied Economics. I went on to graduate from IIM Ahmedabad and held several well-paying jobs in multinational companies. I had the opportunity to travel and work overseas and lived in a spacious apartment in Mumbai's Malabar Hill. At age 32, I bought a custom-made Mercedes Benz that was shipped to me at the World Bank assignment I had taken up. The money, travel and personal consumption were great, but not enough to make me fulfilled.
What was missing was the balance between material satisfaction and the deep need for creativity, exploration and beauty, what is usually called the spiritual.
As parents we need to help our children meet the full-range of their needs, and the arts are actually one of them. There has been, in most cultures, a worry about a child becoming too interested in the arts because artists (painters, musicians or writers) have a seeming tendency towards vairagya, a psychological state of detachment from worldly concerns. They become somewhat distant from the norms that order society. Such people are perceived as threatening middle-class values that tend to emphasise the material concerns. As Raghav Menon writes in his biography of the famous Hindustani classical musician, Kumar Gandharva: "A person who is largely indifferent to the preoccupations of the social order to which he belongs is a predicament. You cannot reorder this man, or give him another set of priorities. He is beyond the reach of society". Imagine being a child who is interested and good in art. Parents may initially be delighted, but as time goes on, tend to make sure the child doesn't get sidetracked from the all-important business of getting high marks. At home and school, the children who are valued, lauded and celebrated are those that get the marks. Those that may be less inclined towards competitive achievement in examinations grow up feeling out-of-place and devalued. I think we should do something for them. For they may be the flag bearers of the arts our society needs.
In New Hampshire, the U.S. state I lived in, there was a programme called "Arts in Education" sponsored by the state government. It invited proposals from schools for artist residencies and gave funding. It invited painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, storytellers and dancers to schools to conduct workshops and engage in the development of murals, plays, music performances or week-long workshops where children could interact with artists and learn about the values, perspectives and skills they bring to society. Parents raised the money for these events through their PTAs. Of course it was always a small handful of parents who were motivated to do this, but they were important and I am sure they exist here too. One of the programmes in "Arts in Education" was a state art festival. It invited high school students to submit art portfolios to a jury. A hundred were selected from among them and were brought to the city where a three-day art making festival would be held.
Groups of 15 students were given a room with two artists and a small budget for materials. Over the next three days, these students had the chance to meet others like themselves and make art together.
These artistic children who felt marginalised in their schools found that there were others like them who were more interested in art-making than football or physics or computers. The young people also had the chance to meet professional artists and hear about their work, how difficult it can be to make a living as an artist, how they did it and what kept them going and gave them deep fulfilment. The three days ended with an exhibition of the work produced and parents and school teachers came to see the work and have the equivalent of chai and samosas. It was always so moving to see these children, excited, happy and fulfilled. Some of them will become artists. Others will become bankers and bureaucrats, but with sprouted seeds in the arts.
Why cannot something like this be done in India, between the state governments, schools and the National Gallery of Modern Art? Let's try and nourish the aesthetic needs of our children and prevent this emergent barrenness.
Shakti Maira is a noted contemporary artist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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