Art Education

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Art Education (colonial period) in the field of 'arts' the impact of colonial rule was felt specifically through the organisation of art education. By 1876 the British Government had set up twenty-two schools of industrial art, including the three major art schools in Madras, Bombay (Modern Mumbai) and Calcutta. Around 1878 another school was opened at Lahore.

British governmental policy towards Indian art was characterised by contradictory attitudes apparent in their reports and executive measures. One policy was to deny the existence of Indian art altogether. A racist feeling of supremacy prevailing over general educational policy underlay the paternal approach explicit in Macaulay's statements. This partly hid the concerns of the British public (by the 1850s) at the decreasing production of Indian luxury crafts. The great London Exhibition of 1851 made it apparent that whatever are the views of orthodox British experts, European connoisseurs found a great deal that was admirable in Indian art. They drew the attention of European craftsmen to the excellence of the techniques and skills of Indian artisans.

The famous author of the 'History of British India', James Mill despite his low opinion of India's fine arts, praised the skills of Indian craftsmen, especially those in the field of weaving. His pronouncement that 'in comparison India's fine arts were generally unattractive being unnatural and offensive' had a definite influence in shaping governments art policies in India. His differentiation between 'art', which required 'the exercise of intellect', and 'craft', which only required 'skill'; along with the judgment that traditional artists in India 'had no scientific knowledge of the language of art' and were therefore 'unable to create an illusion of nature' were the two basic determinants in shaping the curriculum of art schools till the 1890s.

The second opinion developed in contradiction, and though not uniform, was still clear in its appraisal of Indian designs as superior to European ones. The preoccupation with Indian designs coincided with the use of a new aesthetic movement in England that led to the reformation of industrial designs.

It was a movement associated with men such as Owen Jones, Ruskin, and William Morris who admired Indian art and who came to influence the 'Indian nationalist art movement, which began when Abanindranath and his students walked out of the Government Art College in 1915.

Like English education in India, art education made its tentative beginning under semi-official British patronage and was, enthusiastically echoed by the local intelligentsia. The managing committee of the Mechanical Institute founded in 1839 was composed of Dr Frederick Cobbyn, Editor of Indian Review and tarachand chakrabarty of young bengal fame. In 1854 Colonel E Godwin founded the 'School of Industrial Art' under the direct influence of a lecture on the 'Union of Science, Industry and Arts' delivered. In his lecture, Godwin urged the necessity of 'teaching youth of all classes industrial art based on scientific methods'. The teaching began under the guidance of European teachers who taught modeling, painting, engraving, etching and lithography. Sir Lawrence Peel, the Chief Justice of Supreme Court, one of the greatest patrons of the Institute, urged the government to come to the financial aid of the Institution. A decisive breakthrough came with government take over in 1864 and the appointment of an English principal, HH Locke.

Certain measures were devised as necessary aids to the training of craftsmen. The first was setting up of an art gallery as an adjunct to the art school.

The main thrust was on teaching Indian youths to see what was 'beautiful' and 'worth admiring' through lessons on European art. However, this requirement, though sanctioned by colonial officials, was seen to be too expensive if original paintings had to be provided. So the colonial government appealed to the 'native zamindar' and 'resident Europeans' for loans of their collections on the logic that inexpensive copies of European masterpieces would serve well enough.

Having satisfied themselves on establishing control over popular taste, officials now turned their attention to the improvement of the skills of Indian art students. Hunter recommended an 'Indianisation' of the art lessons, which meant that copies should be made from casts of Indian tribal, and lessons from nature should include specimens of Indian flora and fauna.

It is quite clear that the British officials were unaware of the aesthetic basis of Indian designs so greatly applauded by Dyce, Jones and Morris. Unable to comprehend why ornamental designs required a special skill and a different perception scheme, they actually helped to destroy the skills of Indian craftsmen by forcing alien art norms on them.

By 1901 (the Simla Conference) the education officials had clearly formulated the main aims of art education in India: the training of professional artists, as well as artisans. Accordingly, the curriculum came to be structured along two lines. The first included lessons in drawing, painting, designing, modeling, woodwork engraving and photography, all with specific reference to Indian art designs. Dubbed in contemporary terminology as the 'professional art', it was meant for those who either intended to become drawing masters in schools, or who were to practice them professionally in certain limited spheres like commissioned portraiture, book illustrations, designing book covers etc. This was the beginning of indigenous endeavours in commercial art. The second course was for those workmen who were associated with the local art market.

The instruction in superior methods and designs was intended to equip them to meet the demands of the British consumer and the altered taste of the western educated Indian. The art school trained artisan had to be raised to a creative status much above that of the bazar craftsmen. This could only be done, advised Cecil Burns, if the Indian craftsmen could combine 'originality with traditional designs'.

Havell, the Principal of the Government College of art, to a certain extent subverted government policy. He first opened a section dedicated to the study of traditional Indian art and appointed Ishwari Prasad (an artist of the Patna school, whose grandfather was the court artist at Murshidabad) as an instructor. He then cleared the Art School collections of cheap reproductions of European masterpieces, and of the portraits and landscapes of mediocre European artists so zealously collected by his predecessors, on the plea that he needed space. He then began building a collection of Indian paintings. The list included well-known Mughal masters of Natural History drawings like Ustad Mansur. The liberal policy finally extended to include abanindranath tagore, whom Havell persuaded to become the Vice-Principal of the Government Art College in 1905.

The results of colonial art policy were felt in two ways. First, it succeeded in creating a petty bureaucracy of artists who now filled the survey offices and printing presses. Second the secularised education resulted in breaking caste regulations on artisans so that for the first time we find in Boubazar and Garanhata studios upper caste men like BP Bannerjee, who had accepted the arts as a profession. [Ratnabali Chattarjee]