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Education Through Art

Nita Mathur

As empiricism, experimentation and demonstrability reign over the world order, there is a deepening silent crisis in education marked by eroding wisdom, depleting values and denuding self-knowledge. This crisis cannot be resolved by improving literacy rate figures, nor by making policy interventions, much less by creating data banks and building up information storehouses.

The word ‘education’ is often employed synonymously with literacy, particularly in bureaucratic and political parlance, as a kind of divine weapon — the brahmastra to combat all human problems. Material and human resources are hence directed towards positing and achieving formidable targets of total literacy. Education programmes lay emphasis on learning to read and write as also on specialising in various academic disciplines.

The processes of education place certainty and method before ingenuity and spontaneity; abstraction and categorisation before imagination and classification; information before knowledge; and intellect before wisdom. While this is conducive to the promotion of universalised information modules, it simultaneously relegates the cultural and local knowledge, skills and wisdom to the background. The ‘educated’ people learn to appreciate not so much the colours of the rainbow, the fragrance of a flower, nor the song of an illiterate woman, as the underlying scientific theories of reflection and refraction of light, liquidity, hydration and acoustics.

In the present social system marked by increasing fragmentation and divisiveness, the narrowed vision of education as literacy only reinforces centrifugal forces. Unlettered has come to be understood as being coterminous with uncivilised. A large section of people such as those engaged in weaving and sculpting, equipped with traditional knowledge and wisdom, are branded as ‘uneducated’, being given to oral rather than the textual tradition for transmission of skills and cultural heritage. The situation gets worsened when literacy is used as an indicator of development. Education in the limited sense of literacy per se is certainly not the means to realise cultural development which, in itself, according to Vatsyayan (1991), is the capacity of the individual to be in harmony within, and to create harmony and peace without. There is an urgent need to take cognizance of the situation and to evaluate and re-evaluate the pervading concept of education.

In its original sense, education is constituted of, among others, (i) shiksha, which means art; (ii) adhyayana, which means to turn the mind towards, to observe, to understand; and (iii) vinaya, which means to lead out in a particular way. The three components together make for acquiring knowledge, inculcating a sense of social responsibility and, quite importantly, strengthening character. Students in the traditional milieu led a life of discipline and austerity, upholding ideals and virtues. They derived inspiration from the life-style of their teachers, the processes of nature and implicit cosmological ordering.

The process of education began at the embryonic stage when hymns were recited, sacred verses were chanted and rituals were performed as part of pregnancy rites to instill morality, religiosity and spirituality. Das (1986) writes, the children were taken into the open to admire the gay flowers and green leaves. They breathed the pollen driven by wanton winds, witnessed the bright plumage of the dancing peacock and were treated to the music of the gurgling brook and the sweet songs of birds. Some of the centres of learning at later stages were the hermitages of rishis and other learned men. The children who lived with them shared the toils, studied under their tutelage and served them with much sincerity.

Knowledge was not a matter of mere memorisation and intellection. It was to be experienced, realised and lived. In the words of Annie Besant (Das, 1986:61-62):

Not from them [the modern ‘Civic Universities’] will come sublime philosophies or artistic masterpieces, but they will doubtless produce men of inventive genius, miracles of machinery, new ways of annihilating space. But in a country in which a man is valued for what he is, not for what he has, in which a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things he possesseth, the Indian ideal is the most suitable. The essence of that ideal is not the forest as such but the being in close touch with Nature; to let her harmonies permeate the consciousness and her calm soothe the restlessness of the mind. Hence it was the forest which best suited the type and the object of the instruction in the days which evolved rsis; instruction which aimed at profound rather than at swift and alert thought; which cared not for lucid exposition by the teacher, but presented to the pupil, a kernel of truth in a hard shell, which he must crack unassisted with his own strong teeth if he would enjoy the kernel . . . instruction which thought less of an accumulation of facts poured into the pupil’s memory than of drawing out in him the faculty which could discover the truth, hidden beneath a mass of irrelevancies; of much fruitful study the Hindu Ashrama in the forest is the symbol.

This prepared them for earning a livelihood and largely for social and spiritual existence not only in the present but also in future births. Education thus has to be distinguished from literacy in being holistic in approach, enfolding the multiple dimensions of human living and their relations and interrelation with nature, environment and cosmology. Systems of traditional knowledge are broadly characterised by a distinct sense of oneness of human beings and the world around. The earth, water, fire, birds and animals are all suffused with consciousness which unites them with one another and with human beings.

Knowledge such as this is experiential. It develops from and survives on the cultural substratum of the people who create and use it. Thus education consists of beholding, receiving, embellishing and handing down traditional wisdom. A piece of Rabari embroidery, for instance, is also a kind of text, a visual text quite different from written text. The Madhubanis aspire to depict their legends, re-create their own lives and transcend worldly existence through their paintings. A painting is subtle and replete with meaning and message, carrying substance beyond the contours of figures and spread of colours. The patterns and motifs of trees, birds, fish and others, singular and in association, portray the gamut of beliefs, concepts and understandings, in essence, the life-style and world-view of the Madhubani people. Elders sit in the midst of children who assist them at various stages. The technique and the conceptual context gets passed on from one generation to the next through verbal articulations and depictions as part of collective social memory.

Conveyed by oratory, preserved by memory and transmitted by legacy, this system of education is related with the everyday life of a people, which makes it meaningful and fulfilling. It becomes a pathway to self-knowledge and truth. The many branches of knowledge and the arts share the cosmogonic base. As Saraswati (1994) has pointed out, the Rathvas and Saoras regard god as the first painter and, interestingly, the painting itself as god. The act of painting thus gets interpreted as ‘reading’ the god. The people receive inspiration for painting in dreams and in altered states of consciousness. While the content of Rathva paintings derives from the pictorial history of the universe — the work of the first painter — the subject-matter of Saora pictographs is life in the underworld as revealed to the priest in dreams and in a state of trance. The paintings, songs, dance, theatre — all employ the human body, sensibility and sensitivity to transcend its own limitations to achieve confluence with the Impersonal Principle. The artists, then, are yogis or sadhakas engaged in spiritual pursuits. The inner silence, contemplation and refinement transmute the outer chaos and noise into creative works. This makes for rhythm, harmony and orderliness in the world around.

The concept of art here is not confined to exotica. The artist is not just one of a select few constituting the elite. Each person, being equipped with faculties of expression and appreciation in one or other medium, is an artist. The free lines drawn in leisure by a child are as much a product of art as a portrait drawn by a serious painter; the nautanki of Uttar Pradesh and the rhythmic, co-ordinated patterned movements of village women are as much dance as a Bharatanatyam sequence performed by a celebrated dancer. The experience and participation herein are more important than the stylisation and perfection of the finished product. The issue is one of realising one’s potential and developing it as an integrated aspect of growing up.

An essential requisite is the incorporation of the aesthetic dimension into education not as training in skills but as an agency for developing a synchronous, holistic life-style and perspective. The position of dance in this context is extremely important, both as a component of education and as a receptacle of the elements of education. The dance movements characterised by rhythm and symmetry are known to stimulate the various bodily systems, enhancing their power and efficiency. This is closely followed by the development of balance and proportion in the body. To children, dance unveils the many channels through which emotions and states of mind may be expressed. There are distinct gestures, postures and facial expressions that communicate the shades and intensities of rasas or inner states and aesthetic experience.

Dance performs the cathartic function of releasing pent-up emotions and drives. The control and discipline of the body so arduously acquired by children in dance is inseparable from that of the mind. In identifying with the enacted character and the situation of dance, children are lifted out of the disturbing unconscious realms of the mind. They employ various defence mechanisms — compensation, atonement, self-actualisation — in the dance situation as means to surmount worrying thoughts and muddled instincts. This prepares the mind for comprehending and retaining instruction in schools.

In addition to the impact on the bodies and minds of children, dance leads to the cultivation of perseverance, reverence and tolerance as cherished traits. Children dancing together are engaged in a group activity and begin to respect the diversity among them and distinctiveness of people. They get committed to social responsibility and obligation. They learn to organise the social space — merging with others in a uniform group while yet maintaining individual, personal niches. The habits, coping styles and behaviour developed in the early years largely last into adulthood.

More specifically, the earliest introduction of dance into the lives of Tamil brahmans is at the pre-natal stage, when pregnant women watch sequences of Bharatanatyam dance. Some of them told me that the song and rhythm in the dance delights not only them but also their forming babies. Indian mythology abounds in instances of learning in the womb. Some women carry children only few months old to dance performances. One of the chief reasons for exposing children to dance from the very beginning is to ensure in them the inculcation of interest in and appreciation of the art.

Children seek admission to dance schools on the festival of Vijayadashami — the fruition of the preceding nine-day rigorous worship of devis or feminine deities and the day commemorating the victory of Lord Rama (righteousness) over the demon Ravana (unrighteousness). They make offerings of coconut, betel leaves and nuts, bananas, lime and sweets to the teacher. After worshipping the teacher and the gods, they are initiated into the tradition of dance. Girls always pay homage to the earth before beginning to beat their feet on it and on withdrawing from it. The song and thematic content of the dance centre around episodes from mythology that establish the universality of divine consciousness in all objects and beings. Consequently, the earth, sky, water, stars, trees — everything that exists — throbs with sacred life. The entire cosmos is venerated.

The learning environment is one which is familiar to the children, one in which they feel rooted and responsive. Little dancers often address the male teachers as tattha and women teachers as akkal, which are also terms for father’s father and father’s sister respectively. They weave ties of kinship with other students and with their parents and relatives. The entire group, with the student and teacher at the core and others at the periphery, is knit together as a family in this way. Apart from throwing their bodies to rhythm and moving together, the children share the anxieties that fill their days and celebrate occasions of happiness. Inevitably, there are instances of rivalry and jealously. One of them may intentionally strike a hand against the arm of her neighbour, scorn a slow learner or hasten to point out the misstep of a partner. A teacher aspiring to build the character of children efficiently and effectively manages such situations, converting hostility into affection and competition into cooperation.

The teacher is not a distant figure. She disciplines the children, narrates stories to them and exhibits interest in all their activities including those in academic and familial dimensions. The children in turn confide in the teachers. A large number of them regard the teachers as role models. They observe the teachers closely and emulate their behaviour. Making the choice of a teacher — proficient and virtuous — is a difficult task for the parents, particularly because the dance curriculum consists of learning the repertoire of body movements, gestures, expressions and the assimilation of the underlying life philosophy in its entirety.

Children form ideas about the seen (pratyaksha) and the revealed (paroksha), about form (rupa) and the formless (arupa). This input makes for the percolation of spirituality, devotion and compassion. The reverberations of songs, music and rhythm of co-ordinated movements allay fears, insecurity and tensions. The emotional turmoil and conflict — the natural fall-out of growing up in an age of competition, strife and fragmentation — get aligned and appropriately channellised. The dispersion of mental preoccupations facilitates psychic integration, harmony and synchronisation.

Besides other things, song and dance lay out the course of ‘right’ behaviour. One of the songs that most children learn suggests that activities of art should be undertaken during morning and evening hours; blessings from gods and elders should be sought to achieve success in endeavours; honesty, compassion and courage should be foreseen and prepared for; and women should be simple, humble and modest. Another theme promoting higher ideals and values is one of Krishna and his poor friend and devotee, Sudama. The ragged and hungry Sudama goes to meet Krishna for assistance. Krishna rushes to embrace him at the door and helps him out of his problems. This impresses upon the minds of children the belief that God looks after those who are devoted to Him and never lets them down. The world and all that goes on in it is maya, illusion, and lila, or play of the gods.

The ultimate aim of a Bharatanatyam dancer is the realisation of the Universal Being. All Indian art, Vatsyayan (1974) explains, is sadhana as means of achieving a state of complete harmony; yoga as adeptness or efficiency in the activity undertaken; and yajna as offering of the best that one has.

The dance situation provides ample opportunity to introspect and reflect on oneself and those around. Away from the academic programme, crammed with classes and laden with the compulsion to memorise, retain and reproduce in examinations information which appears to be redundant and only of little use, if at all, dance provides an oasis. It fosters co-ordination of the body with the mind, enhancing both receptivity and sensitivity.

This is education for life. It pursues the ideals of an educational system enunciated by Coomaraswamy (1983): (i) universal philosophical attitude; (ii) sacredness of all things, the antithesis of the Western division of life into the sacred and the profane; (iii) religious toleration based on the awareness that all dogmas are formulae imposed upon the Infinite by limitations of the finite human intellect; (iv) etiquette — civilisation conceived of as the product of civil people; (v) relationship between teacher and pupil implied by the terms guru and chela, in memorizing great literature — the epics — as embodying ideals of character, learning as a privilege never to be used merely as a means to economic prosperity; (vi) altruism and recognition of the unity of all life; and (vii) control not merely of action but also of thought.

People will support the form and content of an educational system founded on their cultural conception, cultural understanding and cultural interpretation. In essence, the concept of education is to be reworked to enfold experience, personal development and self-enrichment as its essential components.


Coomaraswamy, A.K., 1983, Essays in National Idealism. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

Das, S. K., 1986, The Educational System of the Ancient Hindus. Delhi: Gian Publishing House.

Saraswati, B.N., 1994, ‘Approaching Aboriginal Art’, in The Literary Criterion, XXIX, 1.

Vatsyayan, K., 1974, Indian Classical Dance. New Delhi: Publications Division, Government of India.

———, 1991, ‘Literacy and Human Development’, in Human Development: An Indian Perspective, ed. by K.L. Dalal. New Delhi: Har Anand Publications for UNDP.

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