Letter to H.B.N. Shetty

On May 5, 2011 by admin

5, Residency Bungalow Camp


Date: 7 July 1972

Shri H. B. N. Shetty

Director of Industries and Commerce



Dear Shri Shetty

I have Mr. G. N. Raghavan’s letter No. 162821/HCA3/69 dated 20 February 1972 referring to a proposal to upgrade the sculpture-training centre at Mahabalipuram into a College of Traditional Arts, Sculpture and Architecture. I am sorry I have taken a long time to give you my opinion and that you had to send me a reminder. I have, unfortunately, been either heavily preoccupied or indisposed, by turns, in the last few months and so could not give the proposal the attention it deserved.

To have an institution to teach traditional arts inclusive of sculpture and architecture is a commendable idea. When the traditional social and economic structure that sustained these arts is breaking down and is unable to support the old craft-apprentice system, this is the only alternative to extend their life. But the structure of such an institution needs mature consideration; to give new life to these arts as I shall explain later, we need a special kind of institution.

We are not the first to discover the present plight of traditional arts. More than a century ago, when Jamshedji Jeejibhoy visualized an art school in Bombay (and made a handsome endowment towards its institution) or Mr. Hunter thought of an art institution in Madras, they were acutely aware of this predicament and the institutions they planned had the sustenance and strengthening of the traditional arts as their avowed objective. But it is common knowledge today that these institutions did not shape up as they wanted; in the way they grew, they kept only the most cursory contact with the traditional arts, and more often than not, worked counter-purpose to them.

This was certainly not due to lack of wisdom or goodwill on the part of the early planners nor due to their ignorance of the problem, but, rather, due to the special characteristics of the new society and the institutions it threw up. The new educational institutions (for us, those teaching art) catered, on the one hand, to the needs and tastes of the new society (in art, the demand for engravers, photographers, portraitists, monumental sculptors, graphic artists and the like) and, on the other, evolved a discipline that would equip a practitioner to meet the growing needs of a growing society, broad and general, with an elastic standard of excellence, not pointed and definite as in the traditional arts, whose purposes and methods were more specific. (For instance, it would be easier for one to assess the performance of a traditional art trainee—his terms being small and specific—than that of his modern counterpart in an art school.) But no modern academic institution can escape this tendency towards generalization if only for the fact that its graduates are unsure of the employment situation they are finally going into. So, though I deplore the fact that our present colleges of art do not have a living contact with traditional arts (much to the detriment of both), I am afraid the setting up of ‘colleges’ of traditional arts will not save the situation either.

It could be argued that the employment situation that these craft trainees are going into is not so indefinite as I think, the threads of traditional culture still persist in our changing society, that people are still god-fearing and pious and need temples, viharas, ritual chariots and like, if only on a smaller scale. It could also be said, with great justification, that the artists and architects of new schools are unable to meet this need (and, if we can judge by the renovations of the gopurams of the Kapaliswara temple in Mylapore and the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, are incompetent and tasteless besides.)  But to think of a ‘college’ and destroy its special character—it will turn out graduates like the other colleges do, 30 to 40 every year, who may not find enough work of the kind they are trained for and perhaps end up as petty modellers in museum workshops or in workshops of curio-fakers—a most unattractive prospect. And if, eventually, more of its graduates go into these latter employments, it will adjust its teaching programme to meet this end. It will, in short, share the fate of the Ayurvedic colleges; intended though it may be to sustain and preserve the purity of the traditional arts, it will only result in hybridizing them and watering them down.

This is not to be construed as my being against the setting up of an institution to teach traditional arts and professional status similar to that of a college. Far from it. My opinion is: an independent institution to teach traditional arts, if it is to be effective, has to be visualized on different lines from a normal college. To outline it briefly:

—it should start as a master-craftsmen’s guild, preferably state-supported with enough professional work on hand;

—its educational functions should be related to productive functions;

—it should be restrictive in its student intake;

—it should keep the master craftsman-apprentice relationship intact in its teaching system;

—it should implement a course of the ‘conservatorial’ type (not the time-bound college type), sending out a practitioner with a professional certificate only when he has a high degree of competence and independence, in both theory and practice;

—it should be centred around a research department that probes into the rationale of the traditional arts, comparing their various iconographical divisions (as the present day stapathis, for all the hoary texts they hold on to, will be practitioners in the Nayak or the Vijaynagar manners, and the education of the apprentices should cover a larger spectrum of the traditional arts and present each form in its contextual propriety);

—it should have an area of environmental study (for a piece of sculpture or architecture does not become great by its iconographical precision but by its subtle responsiveness to the environment, both in design and visual content).

Then alone can such an institution play a creative role. Alternatively, such institutions can grow as post-graduate workshops around the new art institutions, provided these art institutions take to such a link-up with favour. This would minimize their professional responsibility (since a student is going to specialize in these arts only after a basic art course, which will give him greater professional resilience). This will also be more realistic in the long run because it is inconceivable that a society can sustain two unrelated streams of art activity, one traditional and the other modern, for a long time without both growing impoverished and trite. But I agree that, at a present stage in our history, when there is a considerable wealth of traditional craftsmanship and related know-how in our country to which our modern art schools turn their backs to a greater or lesser degree, an independent institution to foster them can be thought of. But, as I have already mentioned, it should be carefully planned; not put together scrappily as is being attempted.

The present proposal seems to me to be impelled by a motion (all too common in our country) that academic (or professional) improvement can only be achieved in certain routine ways, by upgrading a pathasala into a school, a school into a college, a college into a super-institute, with separate hierarchies of staff. I admit that our administrative bureaucracy can only understand such terms; for them, the money-value and professional status of a craftsman is less than that of a lecturer, or a lecturer less than that of a professional, whether or not this nomenclature denotes a functional difference. So, every person or institution seeking improvement in status seeks to adjust himself or itself to these role-stereotypes, irrespective of their suitability. I have seen only too often the unfortunate consequences of such a masquerade; a master-craftsman abandons his craft environment and becomes an academic and, in course of this, frustrated and lethargic; an artist becomes an administrator, a craft apprentice a prospective graduate with his eye more on the certificate than on the craft. This will be most unfortunate. I am of the opinion that a master-craftsman or a sthapathi, if he is learned and adept, and is able to turn out professionals of competence, should be given the status of a professor without forcing him to change his work habits and sit on a professional chair. Similarly, a competent apprentice he trains should be accorded the status of a graduate without his having to waddle through a normal college-type curriculum. If this were accepted, I should presume those who drew up the scheme would have drawn it up differently, (not worked under the notion that to improve the functions of an institute is to upgrade it into a college) and deliberated more seriously about the basic problems related to such education.

I am

Yours sincerely,

K.G. Subramanyan

K.G. Subramanyan is an artist, satirist, art-historian and poet. He has been part of the art faculty at M.S. University, Baroda and is Professor Emeritus at Kala Bhavan, Santiniketan. This letter is part of a series published by Seagull Books, India in 2008. Subramanyan calls his letters “ small footnotes to a process of self discovery…”

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