Every narrative on society categorizes people. It even segments thoughts and actions. It sees life as a set of predefined options. Based on which one we choose, we are either co-opted into a definite identity, or we inherit one. We have to belong to a category or a type. Even if we, defiantly, choose not to belong to any, we find that we have been allotted to the category of ‘no category’. We have to either choose, or be chosen.

The discourses on education are no different: teachers, students and parents are classified according to the school they are associated with. What we stand for or how we see the world gets fundamentally conditioned. Every word is understood within this slotting paradigm, and the very same ‘selfhood’ that the ‘liberal’ seeks to disengage is only re-engaged.

Mainstream and alternative: a polar divide

We routinely hear of schools being classified into two types, which are, in effect, stereotypes: ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’. These are interesting and complex expressions. Their meaning and implications operate at many levels, and depending on where we see ourselves positioned, we place a heavier weight on one side of the weighing scale.

What are mainstream schools? Within the Indian context, they refer quite pointedly to private schools where most of the upwardly mobile middle classes send their children. These schools enroll a large number of students focused on achieving progressively higher grades. Expressions such as ‘having drive’, ‘ambitious’, ‘target-oriented’, ‘creating leaders’ are spouted forth when describing these spaces of education. Two particularly prominent phrases heard to describe this orientation are ‘high achievers’ and ‘aiming at excellence’.

The alternative schools naturally place themselves at the opposite end of the pole. These schools are, by definition, smaller schools that concentrate on the individual development of the child, interested in nurturing children as being part of humanity and, in fact, of the earth. These schools have devised other self-defining words and phrases. For instance, they embrace education beyond books and exams, learning experientially and creating complete individuals.

Naturally insinuations, even accusations, fly thick and fast between the two! To the alternative, the mainstream schools are mass factories where children are being churned out as mindless machines who deliver for the marketplace. To the mainstream, the alternatives are utopian, making students incapable of dealing with the real world, protective, elitist in spirit, self-absorbed and exclusive.

These perceptions of two presumed opposites are fascinating, for they only further establish that both positions are just that: positions, as neither one of them investigates the actualities of the other. Moreover, a mainstream school may have alternatives within, and a so-called alternative may turn out to be mainstream. But these important nuances get obscured in such dualistic narratives.

Within these synthetic bubbles are stored ideas of art and its role in a school environment. These too do not escape those dichotomous perceptions.

Art teaching as a vehicle for reiteration or competition

In the mainstream schools, by and large, music and dance are seen as vehicles for providing cultural, religious and national reiterations. They are about pride and the celebration of our national identity. The school establishment curates this identity, imposing a belief system. Teachers, students and parents either buy into this or accept the art and music module as a harmless side diversion in the single-minded drive to embrace academic achievement. Mainstream schools exploit a child’s talent in order to further the ‘achiever’ principle even here and to demonstrate their dominance even in art! Here, the art class with lessons in painting or clay-sculpting becomes another battle ground for the competitive out-achieving of one by the other. The mainstream school’s competitive educational environment does not spare its ‘art’.

In the alternative schools as well, art becomes a tool, a tool of identity creation, with only the identities having changed. Here they help in creating ideational identities such as secular beliefs, environmental sensitivity, gender sensitivity and the transcending of linguistic or nationalistic dogmas. The art class usually is a strong educational supplement and is used as a vehicle of self-expression and exploration. Art is also used as an actual tool for teaching curricular subjects. School Projects, which are common to both alternative and mainstream schools, are examples of taking art beyond being desirable add-ons. They try, quite wonderfully, to integrate actual art in academic learning.

Capturing the form and letting the spirit go

If I keep aside my own personal bias that pushes me towards the alternative, I encounter an artistic problem. These various ideas of art are still within the confines of the literal. By literal I mean that they are seen as forms: painting, sculpture, dance and music. These forms in their temporal structure provide a service to the education system. The idea seems to be that art can open new pathways to thinking, imagining and connecting that in turn seeps into the other facets of a child’s education. Neurologists, child specialists, philosophers of education will all talk about how art does advance pedagogy. But I wish to ask one question. Does a child really carry with her the spirit of art into the learning of quadratic equations, human anatomy, or the Indian constitution? More importantly, does the art teacher? I have in my question qualified art with the word spirit. What does this mean and how does it change our perception of art itself? By using the word spirit in this context, I am trying to remove the literal idea of art and explore what art means in its more abstract, non-empirical sense. What is it that art nourishes within our essence that we can hold and treasure?

In this exploration, I hope we can perceive art as a companion and not as a device. Is this even possible? If it is, then what have we missed in the way we understand art? To investigate this possibility we need to relive within ourselves our own artistic experiences and see, in some wonderment, what those were. In this inquiry let us not get entangled in aesthetic debates on various forms of art and how each inhabits the socio-emotional space. What we are interested in is what we experience in art when it engulfs us.

The art moment

A music concert, a dance presentation, an hour at a painting gallery sometimes turns out to be among the most cherished moments in our life. We continue to recall those days from our memory. But what does our memory say? The recall does not say much. We feel a catch in our throat or our eyes sometimes well up with tears, but we cannot articulate that experience, and maybe we need not. There is one other place where we come into contact with this self, and that is when we are with nature. This happens in the hills, walking by the sea or inside a forest when speech does not force us back to self-knowledge. But there is a difference between the way nature gives us this treasure and art does. Nature always exists, and when we allow ourselves to become part of her we are gifted those moments. Art unlike nature is a conscious human creation. Art uses various physical forms deliberately to transcend the physical self, whereas nature is what it is.

When art happens, it erases from our mind the physicality of our own existence. I don’t sense my feet on the floor, my skin tingling, or the lack of ventilation in the auditorium. In fact I am oblivious of the ‘I’. For that period of time I do not feel the physical body. Events are part of a continuous, unsegmented moment. The sense of space too is magically absent. Our seat in the audience is not separate from the position of the musician or the dancer. We don’t see this spatial distance. The stage itself is only an extension of my own space. The demarcations are gone. If I am absorbing a painting, I am within the painting or, more significantly, the painting is within me.

But then what am I experiencing, why and how?

Life is a word we often use to describe that which is within and surrounds us. We know of this life only because we can experience it, and this experience is the result of our ability to feel. Feeling is not just touching, hearing or seeing. Feeling is about connecting this physical ability to the mind, and in that interaction we ‘realize’ feeling. When these connections are effected, life means a wholly different thing. Another word we immediately associate with feeling is emotion. We must be very careful here as emotions are interpreted as specific resultant states born from feeling. Sadness, anger, fear, happiness are all classified states which emotion seems to signify. But if we were to view emotion as the human ecology of experience where the stimuli, the physical and the mind intersect, we can perceive emotions without conditioning them into literal states. To understand the art experience we need to look at emotions in this way.

When we are within the art experience, we come into contact with an unfathomable element within. Art by its sheer presence removes the barriers within our mind. We allow ourselves to be submerged in the experience. I am the art and the art is I.

The art ‘moment’ lives not just in art alone

Even when we are watching the dance presentation of a tale or listening to a song immersed in religion, an art experience dissolves all these literal aspects into abstraction. The literal meaning of the words, story line or social context are not separate, but together become the whole experience. Within a painting too, we perceive beauty as a whole as we transcend colour, stroke, form, composition and structure. This beauty is a reflection of ourselves, and this ‘we’ is not the collective of the ‘I’, but that which resides beyond our own individual or group identity. This is probably why we can never articulate the artistic experience.

Art allows for the abstraction of life into aesthetic forms. It is a profound discourse that does not categorize or limit experience. It also allows you to feel deeply, become inward and absorb with great intensity without having to negotiate conditioning. Within the artistic moment the human being is unshackled from the limitations of the temporal and literal. Art is the bridge between the external world and the inner self.

The true spirit of art therefore exists in what it does to us as human beings and how it transforms our way of seeing.

Grasping the art moment in a classroom

Can we carry this idea into the classroom? The classroom, both for the teacher and the student, is a conditioned space. This is true even of a Krishnamurti school. The nature of the conditioning varies, but the reality of its presence is undeniable. Therefore it is essential to ask whether the teacher and the student share complete freedom. What does this mean? When we look at sharing as giving or receiving, we place upon them many conditions. The giver automatically sits on a pedestal and the receiver lower in the hierarchy, creating a power equation. Now, can we bring into the classroom the spirit of sharing which transcends the literal limitations that our social constructs carry?

In the art experience, you and the artist share and learn without being limited by the role played by each. This condition exists only while we are part of the artistic moment. Our identities do come back into the narrative immediately after the experience, but during the experience it is a deep emotional sharing, where learning is true, clear and honest. This is what the teacher in a classroom can become—a catalyst who allows every child to enter a pure sphere of learning. For this, the teacher needs to be in touch with her own learning where she is also discovering. The artist’s ability to create that moment lies in his marvelling at the art itself. Every note is an unravelling. The only conscious act by the artist is to allow himself to surrender to art as it reveals itself. Can we imagine a teacher with this emotional depth, where ‘that which she knows’ becomes perpetually ‘that which she hopes to touch?’ The teacher will discover at every moment something she has not seen before. It will not matter that she has taught the same topic to another class a few months before, because every time she enters that chapter, it will be new, fresh and as beautiful. This will transform the way children respond to learning. Like someone in a concert, they will now have an opportunity to share in the wonderment selflessly.

As teachers, can we enter the classroom with the intensity of immersing ourselves within the core of ‘x’ in maths or Keynes’s economic theory or Macbeth? Does the teacher ‘lose herself’ within a word, idea or problem? Does the atmosphere in the classroom become charged by this emotional intensity? I am not asking for this to happen every time, and it will not. In fact, it may happen only for a few minutes in a class. But this is impossible unless the teacher looks at herself as an artist travelling within.

The teacher as seeker

We need the seeker within the teacher. This will transform the teacher and the student. Imagine a classroom where every student imbibes this spirit from the teacher without conscious realization. Minds will be alive with learning. The child will then allow herself to be one with a word, a problem, the mountains or a political thought, at least for a passing moment.

The artistic attitude of the teacher will transform the method of learning. This will happen not because the teacher seeks to make learning more fun, interesting or engaging. This will come from the teacher’s own discovery of beauty within learning that she shares.

What about artistic abstraction? How can that happen in a classroom? We may not be creating art, but we can in the learning of anything create a link with life experience. Can the teacher create an atmosphere where the Pythagoras theorem evokes within every individual the real feeling of life? Does the sheer elegance of the Pythagoras theorem evoke a deep feeling from within, almost as if we touched a moist leaf in a forest?

Art as pause, pause as art

Art experience does something else: it brings a pause to our lives. Though art is about something happening, all the moving parts of art are grounded in a pause. The moment the pause disappears, reflection disintegrates. This pause is not a vacuity but a ripe void. In music this manifests as aural silence, in dance it is moving silence, and in visual art it is spatial silence. This is why time stands still in art. If we are to reflect upon this idea within the classroom context, can we see the possibility of creating this pause in learning?

This is not to be interpreted as creating an actual pause between concepts! Can this nothingness, silence, stillness be created by the way teachers engage with an idea? Can an idea simmer in the class, even hang in the balance, allowing for its viewing and imbibing by everyone present? Can there be a pause from rushing for solutions, answers or resolution?

Today, there are two kinds of issues in classrooms. In the ‘mainstream’ schools, the examination is a single point agenda, and so a pause is a liability. In the alternative schools, making learning engaging, fun and interesting is so much in the top of their minds that multiples tools and techniques are constantly used. Here too the pause is the scapegoat.

Not ‘teaching art’, but teaching as an art

I have not written this piece to provide techniques or art-based solutions; honestly, I am not capable of that. What I have tried to place before the reader is the spirit that drives my life beyond its artistic existence. Whatever I have said can be extrapolated into any sphere of living, but even as an artist I struggle with living life, keeping intact this ‘spirit of art’. But as educators if we can engage with ourselves as artists, we can perhaps transform the classroom.

Once we see art as more than just painting or sculpting, we become artists in life. Art skills have their space in a school, and I am not undervaluing their necessity. But art experientially gifts us a window into something special that exists within us. If we can draw into that ‘spirit’, education can become an artistic experience.