Integrating Arts: Building Education towards Freedom

Ashok Da Ranade Memorial Trust

Aneesh Pradhan ji, Anjum Rajabali ji, trustees of the Dr Ashok Da Ranade trust, and friends, thank you very must for inviting me to deliver this year’s lecture in memory of the revered scholar musician Dr Ashok Damodar Ranade. When Aneesh ji asked me to deliver this lecture, I had great trepidation and reluctance as I am neither a musician nor an artist of any sort and I also come from the bad world of management that most scholarly artists look down up! I am an educationist and an academic – someone who tries to understand and think differently on how imagine new ideas and to do things better. And here I am before you, a bit fearful whether I will rise to your expectations. So, it is freedom from fear, that I must talk about today, amongst other things. In this talk, I will try to build a case of a new purpose for education, make a case for learning from the arts, and argue for building an integrative world view within the arts. I will also talk about a new experiment that we, at Ahmedabad University, are undertaking in that direction.

When I read about Dr Ranade, there was one sentence on your website that stood out for me and I connected with it instantly. It said, and I quote: “He was a composer constantly experimenting with new uncharted vistas.” I kept asking myself, what keeps us away from experimenting with new uncharted vistas? What is the preparation for such a mindset? Where does one get the courage and the ability to walk one’s own path? And, what is this world that our education is preparing us for? When we look around us, there are some challenges that are a copy of the past – for example, the destructive wars that surround us now. But there are many new challenges that are appearing amidst us and they look daunting – climate change and its impact on the planet and hence our well-being; AI and the new technology and how it will disrupt our lives and how will it affect our security; urbanisation and its 2 impact on neighbourhoods and consequently, fraternity; and the diminishing natural resources like water that define life on this planet. How must education evolve in such a context? Are the arts removed from the impact of these massive changes? Can the arts provide us with a direction to think about such challenges?

Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps most controversially, and also in a most visionary and a pragmatic way talked about the power of “doing” or “learning to do” in his “naitaleem.” In a highly publicised debate between Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar on Caste, Ambedkar seemed to have won the battle with his brilliant reasoning and his sociological and historical articulation of the detriments of caste. But if you think deeply about his stance, it appears that Gandhi may have been building his own arguments for basic education that had Ambedkar’s arguments embedded in them, front and centre. It is as if Ambedkar was helping him sharpen his perspectives or in changing them. Anil Sadgopal, in his article titled, “Nai Taleem: Gandhi’s Challenge to Hegemony” that came out in the Social Scientist writes: QUOTE: “The Gandhian programme of Basic Education for post-independence India proposed to place these occupations of the lowest social order at the centre of the school curriculum and pedagogically link them with knowledge, values and skills. The political message is inescapable: accord these occupations and the communities engaged in them a place of dignity that was never their destiny in Indian history. Gandhi had invariably recognised that all such productive tasks had a strong knowledge-cum-skill content, including scientific, along with their context of socio-cultural history.” UNQUOTE Interestingly, these included spinning & weaving, leather curing, dying, metal work, carpentry, tool making, printing, pottery etc. – all art forms that made vocations possible. Of course, the anti-caste implications of this Gandhian pedagogy was meant to create “uncharted vistas” to resist discrimination rooted in caste and patriarchy that have been practised by the Indian society and institutionalised by our educational system. Gandhi must have been smiling when Ambedkar’s was offering critical arguments against caste. Tagore, was not too far away from this Gandhian sensibility of putting “doing and work” at the centre of his arts. He too envisaged Santiniketan as a place that unites the mind, heart, and the body of Gandhian effort. In fact he went further. He wanted arts to inform education and human development. Jiddu Krishnamurthy, took a bigger leap. He called for addressing fear in the world of learning and education and emphasised “doing” as central to understanding of 3 oneself. Is it not understanding of oneself that all our endeavours must drive towards? Is it not walking on “uncharted vistas” that drives away our fear and vice-versa? It is this fear, Krishnamurthy points out, that stands in the way of self-awareness in education.

Let me delve further into this understanding of learning and more fundamentally, into the purposes of education. Education is both a public and a private good. Society wants us to get an education because if one is educated properly, and I emphasise properly, then all in the society benefit out of it – if one earns then one will give taxes, one will not throw stuff or spit on the road, one will not misuse common resources like water etc. etc. – that is the public good story. We also benefit individually from education – one will become more responsible, will become independent minded, one will pick up skills, one will live a better life – that is the private good part of the story. So, if done properly, it makes education a very powerful vehicle to uplift society.

I believe there are three main purposes of education:

  1. Learning to become a better citizen of any nation where one will live – learn to question, learn to follow a constitution, learn to contribute to the welfare of a nation, and more importantly its people;
  2. Learning to build a livelihood – find a job, start an enterprise – do things that will help live a better material and social life;
  3. Learning to develop a love for life-long learning – pick up a passion, develop an interest so that one engages with learning of new ideas and new perspectives throughout one’s life;

This is what liberal education is about – to discover the purpose of education, to discover one’s passion in life, and to build ideas by integrating knowledge from all directions or pariprkshnen samruddhi!

Today, when vocation and livelihood appear to have become the sole purpose of going to school and college, it is critical to talk about the first purpose of education that makes it a public good – citizenship or possessing of civic values that uplift all boats in a society. When Gandhi came to the foundation ceremony of Banaras Hindu University on Feb 4, 1916, he, much to the chagrin of all present including the 4 various Maharajas, Annie Besant, and the Viceroy who finally walked out, talked about the building of trust in governance and in defining the role of students as the vanguard of any big movement. He did not want students to get distracted by the display of riches by the leaders present there. His was a call without fear that critiqued the elite on the dais at that ocassion, for not thinking about the poor labourers of the country. He called for their rights. He called for equality. He called out the lack of sanitation and planning in the city of Banaras including at it most famous temple, as an example of lack of care for others. He talked about the language of education for the masses. He was talking about citizenship – what should be the characteristics of a nation and the people who inhabit it? How do they conduct themselves so that their history and their language come together in defining the course of their journey on this planet and those of others. And remember, he was talking at the foundation stone laying of a new University. He was talking about creating a new path for a nation that was going to get formed. He was trying to shape the mind of the youth.

A highly educated society shows high respect for laws of the land, high regards for freedoms of others, high tolerance for diversity and differences, high desire for peace, more giving towards those who are less endowed, and a protection of the minority voice. The need is to create individuals who imbibe the best of scientific thinking and humanistic traditions to create an amalgam of these metals, slightly more than CP Snow’s plea for understanding between the “Two Cultures 1 .” Courage, compassion, and fairness are what any education is supposed to emphasize along with scientific temper and aesthetics. The better one gets at them, the more nuanced and civil becomes dialogue in the society.

How must, then, one be educated to become a citizen on these lines – one who matters? Tagore said, QUOUTE, “that the principal aim of education should be the development of moral and spiritual aspects of the child’s personality. He emphasized upon inner development, attainment of inner freedom, inner power and enlightenment.“UNQUOTE.  What a wonderful articulation from the founder of an institution that believed in arts as a powerful way of human transformation. This makes me turn my attention toward the question of freedom and the making of a citizen which is a critical purpose of education.

What is the real meaning of freedom in ones’s own life? We seek freedom to decide our political leaders, seek freedom to decide our religious affiliation, seek freedom to decide how we think and what we want to do, we seek freedom to break out from a structure of a society. But rarely do we seek, as Krishnmurthy talked about,  the inward freedom to not having to choose – when we are clear, there is no issue of choice – if freedom begins inside oneself, it intelligently expresses itself outwardly too. According to him, freedom is a state of mind which is so intense, active, alive and vigorous and it throws away every form of slavery, dependency, conformity and acceptance. Barriers to Freedom include anticipating a possible loss and thereby building fear. One overcomes fear by understanding oneself where one observes without being the observer – that is the true act of learning. How does one train to achieve such a state of freedom? What is the underlying education?

On our planet, there are infinitesimal changes happening every millisecond around us which impact us – the smell, the colour, the sounds, lights, visual images, movements, emotions etc. – all are changing as if according to some planned pattern that we are unable to comprehend. Coming from the world of teaching and learning, let me say that anyone who desires to be aware of such changes around them and makes oneself as the object of enquiry is a student. Some of us will imitate what a teacher or another students does to excel. Some others will use critique of what is taught and how it is being taught to explore the depth of what is being discussed and therefore become intellectually richer. The key point is that all these ways help one to think differently from others and thereby learn from others and their work. The key is ‘differently and thinking.’ It becomes the process that one deploys to engage with the changes happening around and within oneself – sometimes in appreciation, sometimes in rebellion, and sometimes in bewilderment. But whenever this happens in concert with others, we become a student and the process is education. Michael S. Roth, President of Wesleyan University, in his NY Times essay, ‘The Value of Education that Never Ends’ writes interestingly, QUOTE  “Ultimately, the true student learns freedom by developing curiosity, judgment and creativity in the service of one’s own good and the good of their communities. This flourishing is different from being trained by an instructor to do a task or earn a badge, and it is different from the satisfaction one gets through acquiring objects or experiences in the marketplace. ….. On campus, students do learn specific tasks and they do enjoy experiences, of course, but as students they are doing something more fundamental and more open-ended. They are learning freedom by learning who they are and what they can do (including how they might think). This almost always happens in concert with others. Students flourish in discovering and developing their capacities together.” UNQUOTE.  What an amazing aspirational articulation of studentship.

In a nutshell, with citizenship as one of the key purposes of education, education provides the vehicle for building freedom to think and how to think, judge, create, express, reflect in a just and compassionate manner. In essence, freedom is about building an independent mind. It is also about building a comprehensive mind –  like a mind that can look beyond and complete a picture.

From Raag Malkauns to Picasso’s Guernica, from Ray’s Pather Panchali to Rivera’s El Cargador de Flores or the Flower Carrier, from Taj Mahal to Widener’s Tank Man – art and artists have found their own language and a process to explore freedom or its absence in very poignant ways reflecting absurdity and courage, prosaic and yet protesting, beautiful yet painful – all from within and all for the other. Art tells the amazing story of our times and the conflict within and the virtue of seeking peace. In these times when wars in Ukraine and in Gaza and in many other parts of the world seek destruction of humanity as if bringing down of buildings and killing of life are not mutually exclusive, one wonders where do education and  the society go to seek answers and solace. I argue that arts play a significant role in education and in the shaping of the mind, heart, and the body. Because, it is through arts, if done with honesty, one can seek freedom from within. And here I am not being spiritual or being facetiously gracious to the arts. 

Gandhi realised the power that music carried to rally people around and he knew he had to use it for his political cause of getting independence for India. Music was being commissioned to play a big role. Singing of patriotic songs during protest marches and ‘prabhat pheris’ where  groups of people would roam around the city, at dawn, singing prayers and patriotic songs became a key strategy to rouse the spirit of citizens. British bought the political bait by regarding them seditious. One wonders, where are the artists today when men, women, and children are being devoured by these wars? Has education and especially of the arts lost its ability to make us think critically?  When political regimes become oppressive, when economic purposes go beyond the reasonable, when human endeavour is to dominate, when social traditions become stifling, when relationships are premised on the fear of loss, what can make us look beyond the mountain top into the valley of one’s own conscience? 

Art and artists must show multiple commitments in the society because they are a significant contributor to its health and show mirror to the way society is developing. They nudge communities to think and to learn about themselves, their behaviour, and that of others. They are harbingers of social progress. They educate. As they learn to free themselves, so do they lead others to free themselves too. Nine artists, around the world, when recently asked about their role in society, said the following : They believe

Artists are a vehicle for expressing universal emotion.

Artists are responsible for unearthing the truth.

Artists work to illuminate the margins and make societal changes.

They tell stories and pass on traditions

Artists connect with and inspire people globally

Artists record and preserve our human history

Artists offer messages of hope They are ambassadors of the natural world.

Artists create a sense of community.

When the students of art schools in Kolkata painted the streets leading to the durga puja pandals and the rickety yet reliable trams with multitude of colours, they were engaging in the process of learning – learning and teaching multiple lessons – some are very technical for art students on what chemicals will stay on concrete and wood and metal and which ones will get absorbed and why, but some are lessons of engaging with the social – valuing what others value, thinking about others, making others feel good about their surroundings and consequently themselves. To feel good is human as it is to feel miserable. Their act of painting the streets and the trams teach another valuable lesson – it is in making others feel good that you can feel good about yourself. Should this be an object of art education as it is to make people realise when they don’t do something good? I argue that it should be as this is what constitutes the character of a citizen of a society. 
When art provides a mechanism to express our emotions and thoughts and allows us to connect with the larger social environment in which it is embedded then it leads to self-awareness. When art allows us to discover mysteries of the society as well as of  nature and their representation in a multitude of ways, then it is teaching us about introspection and wonderment. When art allows our sensibilities to be offended then it is teaching us to question. In a more utilitarian way, art teaches us about the precision of our representation. It is also about labour, its manifestations, its toil, and its achievements.

But when art education is removed from a liberal arts framework, it loses its most potent weapon – intellectual enquiry that informs self-awareness and which in return, is informed upon. Critical thinking, analytical abilities, and independent mindedness are the hallmark of any liberal education which has an ability to turn debutantes into citizens with an affinity to seek truth. Reading Natyashastra or Mahabharat critically in a history class, analysing Sita as the voice of independent woman in a philosophy course, building expertise in chemistry for understanding colours, engaging with the physics of sound in discovering new timbre, understanding the sociological constructs within a community to speak creatively around their practices and form new art  is as much about creating an intellectual mind as it is about making the artist more informed. Would a photographer who has engaged with the history of a conflict and the region be able to tell a better story through her photos? I argue that presenting art education within such a learning environment allows the building of a unique mind of those for whom art has a purpose. Of course, I also believe that art for art’s sake is also a very valid pursuit and must be endured to capture pure emotions and feelings. 
This leads to many questions: what place does art education have for students who are studying disciplines other than arts? How does this capacity to creatively think lead to problem solving? And most important, what do arts majors do and what do they need, to complete their education such that they can understand the creative industries landscape, the social context and the new requirements of the context to build both their livelihood and their love for learning in the arts? 

As I mentioned earlier, the true spirit of liberal education is to learn to practice freedom – to become free of thoughts of others and develop one’s own thinking. There are three kinds of  studentship: 

  1. at one end it is following a path of a master – learning from a master through what the master says;  the hope here is that the master will lead you to understand yourself and lead you towards freedom;
  2. at the other end is imitation of a master’s work or words or style – copying to perfection; here the expectation is that you will become like the master one day;
  3. and somewhere in the middle, trying to pop up above the others,  is critical thinking and independent mindedness – where through questioning of what the teacher says and through a debate you learn to think, you become your own, and you practice becoming free of others and their ideas; you are influenced by others but you have your own world view. 

It is this middle view when combined with dedication to learn deeply and that too in the company of others, can one practice seeking freedom. It may be emphasised that it is the collaborative nature of learning  that creates the vibrancy and the confidence to address big challenges. Because, it is in engaging with different views of others that we become clear in our own mind. 

So, where did education in India and especially arts education break down? Where did we falter? In this day in age of technology, the big question that one grapples with is whether education is making you think. We either became followers of a path or we imitated. We rarely practiced to become free. Did our tools and methods take over our individual enquiry? Did the proven  take over the experimenting? They had to be used to build a higher level thinking that would allow one to find, what Krishnamurthy called, inward freedom. Did we create critical connections across boundaries of disciplines? After all, free mind is also a flexible mind. Its practice helps it to cross porous boundaries of disciplines where it connects ideas from different disciplines or art forms and makes enquiry deeper – or in other words, it makes your deep deeper. Climate change and urbanisation, for example, cannot be fully understood unless seen as both distinct and connected at the same time. So, how does one solve the complex problems that the society faces? Does art not think about problem solving? I argue that it must and it does.
We believe that by integrating arts, one is able to view the world more comprehensively, bring extended emotion into education, and build skills that are more diverse to address complex questions – i.e., arts within other disciplines and integrating different forms of art within each other as a practice of freedom. In 1926, in one of his public addresses in Ahmedabad, Mahatma Gandhi said, QUOTE “To know music is to transfer it to life. The prevalent discord of today is an indication of our sad plight. There can be no swaraj where there is no harmony, no music”. UNQUOTE. Where was this social activist who was a trained lawyer and an astute politician getting his inspiration to establish the tradition of a multi-religious prayer service? Starting at Tolstoy Farm in   South African, he perfected it at the Sabarmati Ashram, and later it became an integral part of the in the entire freedom movement. The Ashram Bhajnavali, comprising a couple of hundred pieces included shlokas and bhajans like 15th-century bhakti poet Narsinh Mehta’s “Vaishnava jana toh, taine kahiye, peed parayi jaane hai and Tulsidas’s famed Ramdhun – “Ishwar allah tero naam, sabko sanmati de bhagwaan– which was composed by noted musician and founder of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Pt Vishnu Digambar Paluskar. Was this simply a political act or an education towards freeing one of one’s biases and divisive minds? The Ashram Bhajnavali, is itself, a course in humanities! One of the most vividly discussed pictures of Tagore in the context of the pedagogy of his liberal arts university, Viswa Bharti, was him sitting in large hall on an arm chair writing while there are musicians practicing music and painters painting, and sculptors sculpting in the same space. I do not wish to undermine the quiet reflection of any art but the point being made was how does one art inform the other? If art education is going to be part of a social problem-solving and part of  a pragmatic contract of livelihood-provisioning then it has to understand the realm of other domains – within arts and non-arts and their impact on its own. It is not coincidental that great artists have always trained themselves to think through multiple disciplines and the arts. Satyajit Ray’s penchant eye for simplicity in hardship came through his writings and his drawings, and through his camera. How did his three years at Santinketan where he learnt outdoor sketching from Nandalal Bose, where he sharpened his western music sensibilities by interacting with the German professor Alex Aronson, where learnt about the work of several European art historians, and also saw the Chinese painter Xu Beihong  do ink and water colour sketches influence his own future work?  Or did a liberal arts education at Columbia and a degree in Anthropology at Harvard impact the way the cellist Yo Yo Ma graduated from being a child prodigy to building a diverse repertoire that ranged from  Boroque to American Bluegrass to traditional Chinese to minimalist music with Philip Glass?  Is it merely a coincidence or is it a repose of the special few to see their world through a training in multiple arts? And is it possible to curate such a practice of freedom through liberal education? Why is it not a norm to be trained to play music and paint and sculpt and understand light and do all of it at a high level of effectiveness that has view to solve a problem? 

Let me a take the side road for a moment and also talk about the role  of science in the arts. At a philosophical level, science is also in search of truth through evidence and reflection. An understanding of science helps to make the invisible, visible. It makes the instrument of art richer. It makes the understanding of arts and consequently its reflection deeper. Imagine an artist wanting to capture the journey to Antarctica and explore its possibilities in the future including the race to colonise it. Can we avoid dealing with the toil of labour and technology when the first icebreaker ships open the pathways of Southern Seas and understand it changing routes due to climate change? Can this experience and the consequent creative reflection not be enriched by an understanding of the evidence that science provides both of its beauty and its horrors? However, there is hardly a murmur on the absence of science based learning in non-science oriented disciplines and especially the Arts. And liberal arts does include the sciences.

There is a challenge in our country, especially, where parents dither to send their children in the arts or the liberal arts as that is a world of eternal struggle and subsequently a wild world of uncertain livelihoods. I am generalising here simply to make a point, fully realising that it is not always true. So long as the world of arts education focuses on imitation or following a path, it will remain in the realm of bondage. While it could be precise, it will not be free. It may inspire but it may not be courageous. It may have a following but will it be fearless? It will rarely be able to stand up to authority. It will not be a practice towards freedom. 

Integrating arts within such a liberal education framework calls for three significant changes in our learning environment. First, moving away from the world of apprenticeship towards a learning with and from others. I realise that I may be touching on something traditionally sensitive here. Second, shifting the focus from a conservatory style learning of a single art to forming the foundation with multiple arts. And third, embedding art education  in the context of a liberal arts training, i.e., critical thinking, analytical formation, and independent mindedness. The challenge, however, lies in recasting the frame of learning to add global and local problem-solving along with perfection of a craft. As soon as we use a lens of problem solving to the education of arts, one starts to see new technologies like bioengineering and AI and new materials like composites and light generating cement become as much a part of the tool box of new art thinking as would be the understanding of the context of the art and its histography, its anthropological underpinnings, or it political philosophy.  All become as crucial to the design of the performance or the establishment of the art. Integrating arts makes us look beyond the obvious, makes us more imaginative, and renders our reflection a comprehensive property. The process and the preparation merge with the performance and the observer starts to become part of the art. What happens to the artist in this integrative formulation? We argue that the artist seeks truth within and becomes purposeful in the context of the 21st century dynamics. A new civic consciousness, a new economic citizen and a new cultural citizenship emerges through this integration. It also involves the others which become the community. And the community becomes the problem solver.

Is this the building of a new renaissance man who would be skilled like Michelangelo in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and will lead to doing of the magnificent work like the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Well, it is not unusual for someone to have deep understanding of as well as expertise in multiple domains or more than one art. Let me mention another such artist. Felix Mendelssohn,   the brilliant German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period was an enthusiastic visual artist who worked in pencil and watercolour, a skill which he enjoyed throughout his life. His correspondence indicates that he could write with considerable wit in German and English – his letters were sometimes accompanied by humorous sketches and cartoons. The question is how did his paintings like “A View of Lucerne” impact his compositions and vice-verse? Today, our hope is that the new artist will feel the multiple arts as closely as her own and feed that into their own better understanding of the larger society – the practice of their own freedom.

 At a more practical level, Ahmedabad University has recently designed a dual degree in Integrated arts –  a unique, multidisciplinary, practice-driven programme, dedicated to producing a new generation of arts practitioners, policymakers, art curators, managers, and academics. Its core is defined at the intersection of aesthetics with formal and technological innovation. Such an intersection brings together a broad spectrum of applications, knowledge, problem-solving techniques, research skills and imagination including management, science, technology, engineering and the social sciences. The first degree is in Integrated Arts that fuses the understanding of Arts and Culture practices in a globalising India, an understanding of materials and  Media,  Studio Art, Exploring of the Black Box, and the understanding Sound in the midst of broad liberal arts education. The second, seamlessly connected degree, trains a student in performing or visual arts by building a deep knowledge of a craft and its application. We hope that this enquiry will allow a young student to practice his or her freedom and build a platform for life long liberal education through their arts.

In conclusion, by integrating arts education within a liberal arts framework one is able to build an educational platform  that seeks to draw linkages from various disciplines and their distinctive ideas that inform problem solving through arts. Can the making of the Nathdwara pichwai go beyond bhakti and become a symbol of social change? And can the new Kajri draw its inspiration from the sociological understanding of the longing of today’s “internet couple” to make it everlasting? I believe that would make one say, What a Wonderful World?

Thank you.