Into the Future: Arts Education in India

Art historian, Sonali Dhingra on the current state of visual arts education in India 

New Delhi: A profession in the arts means entering a niche, specialized and emerging field in India today. Arts education is a distinct academic stream, with newer choices for specialized training in arts run by governmental and private institutions. Those gearing to become arts professionals have a wide variety of choice when it comes to courses, both short-term and long-term.

Two-year masters programs are run at several prestigious and well-known institutions – for example, the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, the College of Arts at Baroda and New Delhi, and the National Museum Institute in New Delhi. At the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, students are offered an integrated program covering Visual Studies including pre-modern, modern and contemporary art, theatre and performance studies and cinema studies.

Recently, there have been new university-level initiatives that have enlarged training opportunities for those aspiring to a career in the arts. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) now offers Certificate programs in Visual Arts for painting, applied art and sculpture. These programs are designed to develop basic applied and design skills with a basic understanding of Indian art.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Mumbai, has recently launched a short-term post-graduate diploma course in contemporary art under a specialized faculty including art historians such as Partha Mitter, Parul Dave and Kavita Singh, and artists and curators such as Abhay Sardesai, Girish Shahane and Tasneem Mehta. The course is specifically designed to foster an understanding of contemporary Indian art from the 1850s onwards. The aim of the course is also to situate Indian art within the broader context of history, sociology, politics and cultural studies. Such initiatives point to the popularity and importance of contemporary art today.

Another initiative in the making is the Coimbatore College of Contemporary Arts (CoCCA) the brainchild of businesswoman Rajshree Pathy, who also founded the India Design Forum (IDF). This educational institution would be set up with an aim to develop an interest, suitable infrastructure and opportunity for people in smaller towns to study art.

Apart from institutional training, there are several independent initiatives that aim at updating knowledge and skills in contemporary Indian art and the cultural sector. The ARThink South Asia Fellowship is one such initiative, now in its fourth year. Initiated and sponsored by the South Asian Network of Goethe Institutes, the fellowship is designed to help develop skills, knowledge, networks and experience of potential leaders in cultural fields in South Asia, which include museums, the visual and performing arts, and digital media.

Similarly, the Curatorial Intensive is Independent Curators International’s short-term, low-cost training program that offers curators a chance to work on exhibition ideas and exposes them to international leaders and networks in the field. The Mumbai based Curatorial Intensive has been developed and implemented by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York, will be offered in collaboration with the Mohile Parikh Center, Mumbai.

With the increase in the number of private initiatives, the government too recognizes the need for professionals in cultural institutions to keep up with latest practices in the field. There is a move towards greater cultural collaborations between India and other nations with an aim to strengthen resources in the culture sector. The Indian government’s Ministry of Culture recently concluded a Leadership Training Program for Indian Museum professionals run by the British Museum. This training program was aimed at in-service museum professionals who would be future cultural leaders in India. Next in line is a similar professional exchange with the Art Institute of Chicago.

Many stress that art education should begin at the school level so that children are made aware of their cultural heritage from a young age. A recent article in the Indian Express explores the benefits of one such enterprise. In the last few years, Crafts and Intangible Heritage of India has been introduced as an optional new subject for high school students. Organizations such as INTACH run heritage awareness programs through their Heritage Education and Communication Service that engage young audiences and train teachers in art education all over India. The Centre for Cultural Resources and Training has also developed extensive cultural resources for children. It is commonplace that academic curricula in India are weighted heavily towards the sciences and math. Learning about the arts would enhance the all-round development of a child’s intellect.

Sonali Dhingra has an M.A. in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University (2007), M.Phil. in History from Delhi University (2010) and is joining a doctoral program in Art History and Cultural Heritage and Preservation at Rutgers University, USA (Fall 2012). Having worked with the National Culture Fund, Government of India, and INTACH, her interests include South Asian art and architecture, religion, museums and issues in cultural heritage conservation. 


Damien Hirst on Burger King’s Menu

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart on Burger King’s latest marketing attraction in London

Damien Hirst, Flame Grilled

Flame Grilled: Damien Hirst work is on show at Burger King in Leicester Square.
Image Credit:

London: TheLeicester Square “Flameship” branch of Burger King announced recently that it will display a work by Damien Hirst until the end of the year. Titled ‘Beautiful Psychedelic Gherkin Exploding Tomato Sauce All Over Your Face, Flame Grilled Painting, 2003’, it is part of the artist’s well know series of ‘spin paintings’. The second part of the title perfectly fits with Burger King’s style since the company often highlights their flame-grilled items in many of their ads.

The painting has been installed in the upper floor of the fast-food franchise, and will be protected by reinforced glass to avoid splashes of ketchup and stains from chips.

The decision to hang this painting by Damien Hirst was taken, predicting the advent of hordes of tourists that would visit Burger King given that the Olympic Games are being held in London this summer. The company also thought it would be a good marketing move, attracting more people to its outlets, especially since one of its competitors, McDonalds, is sponsoring the Olympic Games.

Django Fung, the Leicester Square franchisee, commented on the issue, saying, “I love the novelty of Damien’s artwork being in such an unexpected place. Art should be accessible to everyone, especially in such a busy summer, and putting this painting in our new look Burger King restaurant in such a high-profile location does just that.” Fung, according to the company, is also a personal friend of Hirst’s.

The artist has already donated an artwork to another restaurant in London, Tramshed. This time the donation, titled ‘Cock and Bull’, consisted of a Hereford cow and cockerel preserved in a steel glass tank of formaldehyde.

While, the Tramshed Hirst may either inspire or discourage its customers to eat at the restaurant (it would definitely discourage me), at least Burger King chose a more subtle work, not as provocative but still showcasing Hirst’s characteristic style.

Damien Hirst, Cock and Bull

Damien Hirst, Cock and Bull
Image credit:


Mulk Raj Anand in the Indian National Archives

Sneha Sikand of Saffronart on the Indian National Archives’ latest acquisition

Mulk Raj Anand (1905 – 2004)
Image Credit:

New Delhi: Eight years after celebrated novelist Mulk Raj Anand’s demise, the National Archives has been able to acquire a collection of his belongings – 88 sealed boxes that contain documents spanning articles and jottings by Anand on the political shape of India, particularly his papers on the Asian-African Conference of 1955. Other items include his personal letters, notes, books and other jottings.

As part of the archival process, the boxes need to be air-cleaned, fumigated, and finally get classified. The idea is to have an entire room dedicated to the writer. The Mulk Raj Anand Room will be a space for all the invaluable material  which could serve as a well documented history of the world during his time.

Known widely for his novels Untouchable, The Village, and Coolie among others, he was one of the first Indian novelists to write in English. Despite some amount of resistance from Anand’s family members, his trust was finally handed over to the archives.  Known as the “founding father” of the Indo-English novel, social awareness was the core of most of his writings. Despite his serious writings, one gets a very good picture of his humorous and self-mocking side while reading his Self Obituary written in 1999, five years before his death.

Read more about his collection at the National Archives.

Whose Art is it Anyway?

Anika Havaldar of Saffronart responds to a recent article by Naman Ahuja on the ‘smuggling’ of India’s heritage

Two antique sculptures of Nataraja recently recovered in Jaipur

Two antique sculptures of Nataraja recently recovered in Jaipur
Image Credit: The Hindu

From rag-pickers and farmers, village-level entrepreneurs and small town middlemen to sophisticated art-dealers and connoisseurs, the network of people involved with ‘smuggling’ Indian antiquities out of the country is vast and largely unaccounted for.  Currently, the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, established in 1972, states that antiquities may only be traded by licensed vendors and owned by those registered with the Architectural Survey of India (ASI). Under this act, any trading of Indian artefacts abroad is illegal. Hence, non-resident Indians wishing to own pieces of their heritage would have to ‘smuggle’ the works abroad.

In a recently published article,  Naman P. Ahuja, associate professor of Ancient Indian Art at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, points out that the increased instances of this ‘smuggling’ has got policy-makers asking all the wrong questions. Efforts are currently focused on policing these ‘smugglers’ rather than identifying why so many Indian treasures continue to leave the country. Why are there no domestic takers for them? Ahuja argues that there is an urgent need to encourage the collection, and hence, retention of antiquities in India.

Incentivizing art fairs, auctions, and dealings of antiquities will encourage domestic markets, curtailing illegal markets abroad. Increased transparency in the market for contemporary art has shown an unprecedented rise in the number of buyers, sellers, and artists. A strongly regulated, transparent market is required for antiquities as well. Additionally, Ahuja advocates the need for a strong base of knowledge and an improved network of art historians, conservators, and archaeologists to maintain our public collections and museums – instilling the importance of heritage property across the nation. The cumbersome registration process is just one of the strong disincentives to building collections of antiquities in India.

While the legal system strives to keep Indian treasures within India’s borders, it seems to be stifling domestic markets.  Given the large amounts of artefacts leaving the country without a trace, the system has proven inadequate in the face of both modern-day art-collecting and cultural preservation. The threat of our heritage being exported away is eminent; and Ahuja holds both policy-makers and private collectors to the task of safeguarding it.

Read Ahuja’s full article. 

Read another post on collecting antiquities today. 

Katho Upanishad – A Film at Chatterjee & Lal

Saffronart’s Sanjana Gupta responds to a screening of Ashish Avikunthak’s latest film

Katho Upanishad, stills from the three channel video

Mumbai: Chatterjee & Lal Gallery in Mumbai is currently showing Ashish Avikunthak’s film Katho Upanishad.

Avikunthak is an experimental filmmaker who loves to challenge his viewers. He has a PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University, and when he is not making films, Avikunthak teaches anthropology and film at the University of Rhode Island.

His latest film, Katho Upanishad, is screened in the form of a triptych, with the screen divided into three parts. The screen in the middle offers a philosophical conversation between Nachiketa, a young Brahmin boy, and Yama, the God of Death, in a forest. Nachiketa asks Yama to tell him about the ‘path beyond death’. The screen on its left shows Nachiketa dressed in a white dhoti walking deeper and deeper into the forest, and for most of the time the viewers can only see his back. As if in counterpoint, the screen on its right shows Nachiketa dressed in jeans and a t-shirt walking on a median between two roads, this time approaching the viewer. The cars on both sides of the road are moving backwards. This 82 minute film has been shot in a single take, with no editing at all.

Avikunthak is aware that this is an extremely difficult work. He notes, “…if anybody claims to have understood it fully after the first viewing, I won’t believe him”. Having seen the film once, I am still trying to completely understand Avikunthak’s message. At the beginning of the film, I found myself constantly looking at all the three screens trying to figure out why Nachiketa was only shown walking in the first and third screens, and if that image was ever going to change. But after a while, I became so engrossed with the conversation that was taking place on the centre screen that I forgot about the other two.

Avikunthak will be talking about this work at Chatterjee & Lal during the course of the screening, and will be responding to questions about the film and his oeuvre as well. This is a rare opportunity, as viewers will have a chance to listen to Avikunthak’s perspective on a first hand basis, and leave with a better understanding of the piece and its message.

For more information on the artist and the film, see the Chatterjee & Lal website.

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