Arts At Work In Education
Imagine a world devoid of creativity, imagination and artistic expression! It alludes to a world without the arts. A cursory glance at the definitions of arts thrown up by google search provides n number of answers.
The most basic and simple one is provided by the Oxford dictionary -‘Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artefacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional powers.’ The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines art as ‘something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings’. Thus arts ‘are a physical manifestation of the internal creative impulse’. These definitions would suffice to realize why arts should be a part of every educational enterprise. Pablo Picasso once famously asserted ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up’. Thanks to the increased awareness and realization that a close encounter with the arts for school children to learn, explore and experiment in order to or as a means of creatively engaging with the world we live in, play a vital role in their development. Some educationists have woken up to the need for promoting a robust art curriculum alongside a rigorous academic discipline because an immersive engagement with the arts can be a transformational experience for young and impressionable minds. The arts include both performing arts – among them music, dance, and theatre, and visual arts – including drawing, painting and sculpting – things that are ‘taught’ in schools.
The arts show the way forward when schools struggle to impart to students appreciation of finer things in life, to instil in them a sense of responsibility and ownership towards everything they do and at the same time help them unravel the latent power within them and channelize it in a productive way.
In the words of Sanjana Kapoor, a renowned theatre personality, ‘The arts open windows of possibilities to engage with the world creatively’. In the process of acquiring a good education, it is imperative that one needs to identify one’s passion and indulge in it to have a sense of contentment that comes only when one follows ones heart. This passion or ‘fire in the belly’ is what prods an individual to live life to the fullest – something quintessential to living a meaningful life. Indulging in the arts can initiate students on a journey of creative self-expression where they get an opportunity to pursue their passion with abandon.
One of the most educative experiences that I had outside the academia, happened during a school programme while watching the Bharatnatyam exponent Vandana Alase Hazra ( fondly known as Vandana Di) talk about the scientific, spiritual and aesthetic aspect of the dance form. The very appearance of the artist raised some inquisitive glances from the students. Dressed in three piece traditional attire, Vandana Di was a picture of poise and grace. With a serene look on her face and a cherubic smile, she began her interaction with the students introducing herself very modestly and handing over an invitation to ask her anything. The ease with which the artist interacted with the children opened up a volley of questions from the students seeking to know her inspiration, education, training, hobbies and even her age! All of which were answered patiently and to the satisfaction of the questioner. Watching Vandana Di demonstrating some basic postures and movements was like seeing poetry in motion. Drawing attention to the subtle differences in posturing and moving the body to a rhythm, the artist explained how a classical dancer has a ‘heightened sense of space and time’ which gives the art form its uniqueness and lends it its beauty.
The session was insightful in more ways than one. The artist talking about how the art form helps the initiate and the practitioner shatter all kinds of self-inhibiting and limiting thoughts by embracing the fundamental truth that only form and movements determine/express the beauty of the dancer, was simply a moment of epiphany for many in the auditorium. What we educators try so hard to teach in life-skills programme, was so effortlessly and beautifully illustrated by the artist.
As she explained how it is very essential for an artist to put the ‘knowing’ into ‘doing’ which requires concerted effort and years of practice, I couldn’t help but apply this to the teaching – learning process. Here the artist wasn’t just talking about her art form alone. It is applicable to all spheres of learning. The demonstration of various dance postures was watching a geometry class in progress. Who knew math could be so much fun in its real life application! The interaction led to so many ‘aaha’ moments that it was with great reluctance that I had to peel myself away from the venue.
The interaction with the artist, the first of its kind I have ever witnessed helped me see the art form in a new light. The format of the interaction being designed in such a way to foster understanding of the art form through a no-holds-barred approach of the Q & A session, was truly an ennobling experience for me as well as numerous others partaking in the rich learning experience. Is this what is meant by the medium becoming the message?
Another equally poignant discovery about the power of the arts happened while watching a Kathakali performance. As the artists made their way to the stage one couldn’t help but think of what Po of the Kung Fu Panda fame meant when he said ‘never underestimate the impact of a dramatic entrance’. A riveting short performance on the popular fable of a pregnant deer about to give birth amidst a life threatening situation found a fitting narrative in the artist’s dramatic rendition. Having established the deer’s situation, the imminent danger enveloping the hapless creature was depicted beautifully. The audience could empathize with the deer as they learnt that dark clouds had been gathering around in the area and lightning started a forest fire. Turning left, she sees a hunter who is aiming an arrow from a distance. As she tries to move towards the right, she spots a hungry lion approaching her. By now the audience started getting restless to know what would happen to the deer. After having built up the suspense, the sequence of events that happens was very dramatically depicted in a series of powerful gesticulation and foot work. Unable to do anything, the deer just focuses on giving birth to a new life. In a spur of moment, lightning strikes and blinds the eyes of the hunter.
He releases the arrow which hits and injures the lion badly. At that very instant, it starts to rain heavily and puts out the forest fire.
Precisely then, the deer gives birth to a healthy fawn…! One had to simply watch the performance for the ‘purging effect’ the act had on the audience. Watching the live performance had a cathartic effect on the audience that sat spell-bound throughout the powerful performance. One could see how the audience winced at the pain of the deer, fretting for her safety and literally praying for her wellbeing! Observing these reactions I couldn’t help but wonder how the performance acted as a perfect medium to teach the highly neglected life skill empathy to a generation that goes by the dictum – I, me, myself.
Having witnessed the alluring charm and magic of the arts, I feel strongly about an integrated approach to teaching of the arts wherein we use the elements of the arts to make our classrooms come alive and create an environment for learning to be joyful and personal. By creating opportunities for our students to unleash their creativity and imagination that could act as a springboard to catapult them to where their creative imagination can actually take them, we can rest assured that we are indeed providing them a meaningful education.
All said and done, if at the end of the day, we educators go about our routine business of transacting the academic content without taking any initiative to promote arts or give it its rightful due in the larger scheme of education, not only will we be doing grave injustice to our students but to the notion of a ‘holistic education’ itself.
P Ajitha is a teaching practitioner who has been advocating for ‘liberating’ the education process to accommodate change and give true freedom that enables the teacher to create, innovate and experiment with notions of learning; a votary of teachers’ rights to empower them to become the catalysts of change in building a national force of informed men and women with sound value system and integrity of character; a staunch believer in the transformational nature of education imparted with true commitment to the larger objectives of this noble endeavour. The author presently teaches at Delhi Public School, Coimbatore and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org