In the last few posts we have discussed the contributions of some important pedagogues towards Indian art education. As we know many of them did not limit their engagement only to the sphere of arts and culture, they were significant political figures of modern India. For example Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, etc., have written a great deal on Indian education. They have also laid the foundations of many initiatives which has been the backbone of modern Indian society. Most of these endeavours centred around on reviving the Indian education system and its modernisation. These approaches to reform Indian education system were not uniform. These stalwarts offered unique models and solutions for these. For example Tagore’s cosmopolitanism was different from Gandhi’s emphasis on rootedness in tradition and Indian ethos. Nehru was a modern secular leader and his outlook towards India education and culture reflected that attitude too. There were many followers of these systems of thoughts. They were influenced by these ideas and used them in their practice and established institutions across India to spread these innovative visions to teach and influence young minds. Devi Prasad was one such figure who was influenced by Gandhian ideals and devoted his life to spread Mahatma’s thoughts in Indian education through pedagogic interventions. Despite being trained in Santiniketan, he wanted to identify himself as a potter and not as an artist to blur the binaries of arts and craft. In this issue of Art1st’s “The Visionaries” we look at the life and contributions of Devi Prasad who is known to many as Devibhai.
Devi Prasad was born in 1921 at Dehra Dun, and joined Kala Bhavana as a student in 1938. Santiniketan at that was the perfect place to be in as it had the best art teachers of the country. Teachers like Nandalal Bose, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij, etc., had already influenced the students there through their own ways of teaching and individual art practice. This institution was at the forefront of the cultural resistance against the western hegemony and also collaborated closely with the Swadesi movement. Art historian and Curator, Naman P. Ahuja who had written a biographical sketch on the life and art of Devi Prasad titled The Making of a Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman: Devi Prasad writes, “Almost at once he [Devi Prasad] encountered the compassion and wisdom of the great artist and teacher and this instant demolition of conventional hierarchical assumptions is one of a number of formative encounters that Devi had with some towering figures of twentieth century Indian art and politics whose influence he consistently acknowledges. Tagore and Gandhi above all, but also Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij”.
During his student years Devi Prasad was involved in the nationalist movement and joined the Quit India movement in 1942. He went to Sevagram and gained first hand experience in the vision for a self-sufficient, experimental educational community. He joined Sevagram as an art teacher in 1944. But he also exapnded the horizon of his activities by developing new models for child education and art education. He also became the editor of Nai Talim, a journal discussing Gandhi’s ideas of basic education.
Gandhi believed that “The principal idea is to impart the whole education of the body, mind and soul through the handicraft that is taught to the children.” Nai Talim which means a new way of education which distanced itself from the European model of teaching. He found it as alienating the child from his or her ground realities. He also identified many negative outcomes of this system: that the young students will despise manual labour, and become elitist in their outlook. The three pillars of Gandhi’s pedagogy were its focus on the lifelong character of education, its social character and its form as a holistic process. At the centre of Gandhi’s education system was the practice of handicrafts. As you know handicrafts is different from arts as the former produces works which has a functional nature. His aim was to bring about a “radical restructuring of the sociology of school knowledge in India” in which the ‘literacies’ of the lower castes–“such as spinning, weaving, leatherwork, pottery, metal-work, basket-making and book-binding”—would be foregrounded. In the journal published by him titled Harijan, Gandhi laid out the objectives of this new pedagogy, “By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man-body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. Literacy in itself is no education. I would therefore begin the child’s education by teaching it a useful handicraft and enabling it to produce from the moment it begins its training. Thus every school can be made self-supporting.”
By 1962 he decided to move out of Sevagram and started touring across India giving lectures on Indian art and architecture. Later he went to London to become the Secretary General of War Resisters’ International. In the early 1980s he returned to India and started writing extensively on art education and on studio pottery. Through these writings he challenged the hierarchy created between arts and crafts. In an essay titled Gandhi on Education for Truthful Living he writes in detail about Gandhi’s vision for a new education. He notes that, “The point that Gandhi makes is that real education should draw out the best from the child. It cannot be done “by packing ill-assorted and unwanted information into the heads of the pupils. It becomes a dead weight crushing all originality in them and turning them into mere automata.” And significantly, Gandhi states that if Indians had not been the victims of the British Indian education system, “we would long ago have realized the mischief wrought by the modern method of giving mass education, especially in the case like India’s.”
This is an important article which gives a chronological overview of the ways in which Gandhi approached Nai Talim. It can be accessed here http://www.satyagrahafoundation.org/gandhi-on-education-for-truthful-living/
He was strongly against the intellectualisation of art making which would disrupt the joy achieved by an artist while engaging in the creative pursuits. His experience was shaped by Santiniketan and Sevagram and through his life he remained a pacifist and humanitarian. He was also a prolific potter and a photographer who has documented the Congress sessions, monuments such as Ellora, and artworks of artists such as Ramkinkar Baij. Naman P. Ahuja had curated an exhibition based on his documentation of Baij’s works titled Ramkinkar Through the Eyes of Devi Prasad in School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU in 2007. The catalog of the exhibition can be read and downloaded from here https://www.academia.edu/7369380/Ram_Kinkar_Exhibition_Catalogue
Professor Ahuja had also curated an exhibition on Devi Prasad’s collection of pots and ceramic works at Lalit Kala Akademi. His essay on the exhibition can be accessed here https://www.academia.edu/11919556/On_Curating_the_Devi_Prasad_Exhibition
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- Premjish, Director-Outreach, Art1st.