Sunday, February 25, 2007

School for Story telling and Seeing.


Indian Story Traditions Enabling Sense of Sight. (INSTRESS)

It was in 1983 that the idea of setting up an Indian School of Art for Peace (INSCAPE) was born. This initiative arose out of a concept of art as related to social and spiritual aspirations. When we started the Art Ashram, the question arose as to what would be the kind of activity that might characterize an Art Ashram. Sri Aurobindo had defined an Ashram as a place where a “Sadhana” or spiritual search is practiced. In Indian tradition different forms of art are recognized as Sadhanas. Ananda Coomaraswamy had visualized the different forms of “ plastic” arts (painting, sculpture, pottery etc) as providing practitioners with a spiritual path, or Sadhana.

In the Eighties I became particularly interested in narrative forms of art. Generally people only think of stories as oral, or written. But in fact if we observe the way children develop their story telling skills, we can see that narratives often emerge from powerful images. An image is created out of what we call “plastic” (malleable) forms, and these in turn enable the imagination to develop story narratives. Ask a child what an image represents, and more often than not the child will begin to tell a story.

Reversly, stories also enable new ways of seeing. In 1989 when I had just completed the first series of pictures that were on the “Lohar Kahani”, or story of the Iron Smelters, which is of central importance in the worldview of important tribes of Chotanagpur, I decided to experiment with using this story, and the images around it, as part of an “art retreat”. This took place as “Ashirvad”, a centre for spirituality and dialogue, in Bangalore, which was then directed by Fr. Tony Coelho sj, who had himself been a close associate of Fr. Tony D’Mello sj, the writer of a popular book on “Sadhana”. At that time Tony Coelho was directing people in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, and it was through him that I realized how much St. Ignatius of Loyola had used the imagination as a way into the inner spiritual world.

In fact it was in 1984 that we conducted our first workshop on “Art for Peace” at Ashirvad. In this workshop we had responded to various issues concerning the search for peace in our modern world, through art forms. Later, the Peace Centre in Nagpur commissioned us to prepare a small booklet to be used with young people on “Symbols of Peace”. In preparing this book Jane and I looked at the concept of the Nava Rasas, or nine moods, which are basic to all expressions of Indian aesthetics, giving a form to feelings expressed through the visual as well as the performing arts like dance and drama. I was much inspired at that time by the important book of Susanne Langer, on “Feeling and Form”. Actually, to begin with it was eight types of emotion which were analysed in Indian aesthetics, going back to the Rasa schools of thought, which followed on the early understanding of art as purely decorative (the Alamkara school of aesthetics). The term “Rasa” strictly means life essence—derived from the same root as “sap”, which is the life fluid that enables plants to grow. The eight Rasas that flow through works of art are divided into two apparently contradictory streams, one bringing about a spirit of attraction or desire for union, and the other tending towards repulsion, or separation. Looked at in another way, one is inward flowing, and the other outward going. In his understanding of the “Hidden order of Art” Anton Ehrenzweig (Paladin 1970) suggests the two principles of cohesion, or going back to the source, and dispersion, or bursting out, as constituting a hidden dynamism in art processes. Thus the Rasas are divided into two groups of four emotional states, which balance each other. In this way we discover expressed in art, erotic love, balanced by its opposite: a feeling of disgust. A sense of joy is balanced by meloncholy and sadness;, courage stands opposite to fear, and anger contrasts with compassion. Of course many other moods could be differentiated in this way, but eight is a perfect number, like the eight petals of the lotus flower. It was only later that a ninth mood was added, which was called Peace, or Shanta. Some even argued that Peace is not a mood at all, but is the resolution of opposing emotions. Thus by attaining a balance between erotic attraction, and disgusted separation, or Joy as opposed to pain and sadness, a state of balance or “Saumya” could be discovered which we experience as Peace. In Indian aesthetics Peace is a state of indifference, when the “oceanic” state associated with spiritual bliss is reached, beyond the temporal states of opposing feelings.

In the small hand book on the “symbols of Peace” which Jane and I published as a Teacher’s guide in 1991, we explored different aspects of peace: Peace within us, Peace with our neighbour, Peace with Nature, and Peace with God. In each face of peace, we can find the opposing emotions that characterize the polarities of nature.

Later, through the early nineties this approach to the feeling structure underlying all forms of art, was also related by me to various story forms. In 1997 I began to teach some courses at “Srishti” a newly established school of Art, Technology and Design, which came into being in Yehlanka, a developing township not far from the village of Silvepura. In these courses, I explored the relationship to art and story telling, Space and Form, Ways of Seeing, and so on.

Now we would like to conduct some short courses at the Art Ashram, for those who are interested in this approach to the visual arts, as a Summer School of Seeing. We are thinking that this summer school could be for anyone interested who is over the age of 14 years. It is important to stress that in these short courses, we will not be teaching art, but rather exploring creative expression in relation to themes like story telling, landscape and memory, ways of seeing, and the creative potential of playing with materials.
Those who might be interested in such an approach are invited to let us know, so that depending on the interest shown, we can plan some short courses of about 4 or 5 days each, during the summer holiday period; that is to say in May or early June.

Finally, for those who might be curious about the anagrams INSCAPE or INSTRESS, I would refer them to the poetic ideas of Gerard Manley Hopkins for whom these terms have a particular significance. Further, if those who read this blog want to know something more about the kind of work that I do, I would refer them to My e-mail address is: