15 February, 2009

Art solutions

Sushma Joshi Sunday February 15, 2009
A group of young schoolchildren sat on the floor and listened to their teacher, who stood in front of a painting by Gaugain, explaining the difference between the West and other cultures. I was in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid. I watched with amazement as the group of five year olds listened to their teacher with complete attention. The teacher, looking about, chose a child to ask a question, and the forest of eager hands said there was more than one child who wanted to answer. A day ago, I'd watched a similar group of children listen to their teacher tell them about a gigantic painting of a long-dead royal family at the Prado Museum. The reverence with which the children sat in front of the paintings was palpable.

For a Nepali visitor in Spain, the question inevitably rises -- how can the citizens of these countries imagine a world in which the traffic always flows smoothly, electricity and water is available to all, and education is plentiful, while ours struggles with dysfunctional systems which can't provide these basic necessities? To me, the answer is not just that we suffer from poverty (we don't, we have some of the most plentiful natural and human resources in the world) but because we suffer from a lack of creativity. And creativity, and the philosophical basis of humanism which sees basic necessities as rights of all citizens, of course, is a learnt concept. Unless we teach our children these concepts, they don't manifest in our daily lives.

Art of course is not just the frivolous creations to be bought by rich people. Art also reflects and shapes the nation. There is a famous series by Goya which depicts industry, commerce, agriculture and poetry -- the building blocks of a nation. In the three major museums of Madrid, the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Bornemisza, I saw lines of people lining up to see the works that lie there. And the Spanish leave nobody out --from major to minor artists, they are all there, waiting for people to see again and recapitulate hundreds of years of history.

I often hear the boast that Nepal has many “living museums.” Unfortunately, this doesn't mean we take our children there and explain to them the history and significance of these places, or teach them how to continue the crafts and arts which made these living museums possible in the first place. “We shouldn't be proud of ourselves because of what our ancestors did four hundred years ago,” an eminent artist said to me recently. Why not, I inquired. “Because we haven't anything to show for ourselves at the present,” he responded. And in truth, I have to say that the work that came out of this country a few hundred years ago far excels the work being produced in Nepal at the current time.

And for a country of twenty-six million people, we have yet to build ourselves a museum of contemporary art. Of course we have plenty of private citizens who own not just paintings, but also sculpture, pottery, negatives of photographs, old film and other works which would fill more than one museum. Even if the Chitrakars did a spring clean of their attics, no doubt Kathmandu would have a world class museum, I joked to a Chitrakar friend. And I have no doubt our most well-known artists, as well as emerging ones, would not hesitate to donate their works were such an institution to coalesce into existence.

Of course, donations of private collections must be done on a voluntary manner, but until Nepal starts to work on trust in institutions, we may not yet get our MOMA. A museum of modern art, which would teach students from all across Nepal about the country's many artistic heritages, would have to created by a team of impeccable character and trustworthy credentials, and in the current environment of insecurity and distrust, this appears to be a few years away.

But a museum of modern art wouldn't just be profitable to artists, art curators, and art management people alike. It would also, I firmly believe, create a generation of children who'd learn about how to think their way out of problems in innovative ways. Art education, which is mandatory in many countries, doesn't unfortunately exist in but a very few private schools in Nepal. And even that is piecemeal, and attached to the understanding that the arts are dispensable and secondary.

But all this may be changing. Last Tuesday, a friend of mine handed me a ticket to a school play staged by Alok Vidhyashram, a private school. The play was in the Nepal Academy Hall, and cost Rs.200 -- a rather excessive price for a school play, and wasn't the venue rather large, I thought. Imagine my surprise when I went there to find the hall fully packed. Not only was the crowd attentive, but the play was staged with professional costumes, sets and children who acted with cool self confidence and absolute command of their lines. I quickly revised my opinion of school plays -- indeed, the theatre director (who I heard later had been imported from India) had used his assets to the maximum, using the entire school as his cast, and filling up the stage with every theatre director's dream -- a stage full of adorable, natural actors. The play, a reenactment of the Ramayana, was in English, and the Nepali speaking parents had trouble following the script -- the only irony. But indeed, when the subcontinent stages the Ramayana in a babble of tongues, it didn't appear to be out of place to hear the children speak a thousand year old myth in a modern tongue. The school, with a maximum investment of Rs.800 per child, which the parents happily paid up, had managed to instill the best ethics of art -- creativity, discipline, teamwork, and self-confidence -- with a single play.

Theatres, art, film, literature -- all of these are integrally tied, and all of these should be taught in our schools not as something separate from the curriculum but as part of it. And this in-school education should be supplemented with visits to institutions like museums which give children not just a sense of their nation's history, but also pride in their own achievements and heritages, as well as a sense of possibility about their own abilities to create such works. Only then can a country like Nepal, whose most precious resource is its people, will be able to think its way out of its current mess.

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