Floral artistry of the highest quality

DSC00742

 

Until this morning I was totally in ignorance of the Bengaluru Karaga festival that takes place here in Bangalore. Yet another indication of how little I really understand about this city, but also another one of those delightful discoveries that seem so frequently to occur during these visits.

Early morning is most certainly the only time to walk the streets of Jayanagar during this period of excessive and oppressive heat. As has often been the way during my stay in fourth block, this morning I crossed the road and made my way through the lanes that form the hinterland around the hotel where I am staying. These have become familiar over the years, and I now recognise the faces of regular walkers and inhabitants of these streets, yet they can still serve up an occasional surprise.

Walking along a familiar lane, which I know to lead past an often colourful temple, I could see, well before reaching this shrine, that the road appeared much narrower and even more colourful than usual. The closer I got to the temple, the more apparent it became that something extraordinary was under way. To my delight, on arrival I found a collection of the most beautifully adorned trailers with floral displays and decorated idols all being prepared for a parade around the district.

DSC00749

I have written before on this blog about the craftsmanship that is evident in the use of flowers in this city, but today’s exhibition truly excelled. Floral sculptures of this quality are not easily achieved, and one can only wonder at the dedication of those who have created these amazing labours of love. Sadly, I will not be able to see the kaleidoscopic parading of these floats. I can well imagine the accompanying music and the flash of fireworks that will be an essential part of this traditional and long standing celebration. Rather than expect you to imagine the beauty and creativity that I enjoyed this morning, I will let you judge for yourself the quality and skill of the craftsmen who created these wonderful artefacts.

CLICK ON ANY OF THE IMAGES TO ENLARGE

Never underestimate the power of dance

Marking MA dissertations is both an interesting experience and a challenge. Many students conduct interesting small scale research studies and write fascinating dissertations that educate their tutors as much as themselves. The challenge often comes with getting them all marked in a limited time span ready for examination boards.

Along with colleagues who teach on the MA in Special and Inclusive Education course in Bangalore, I recently finished marking our latest batch of final studies from a cohort of excellent students. As is often the case there was a significant amount of highly original and innovative work within these dissertations, and the time spent reading and marking was informative and interesting. Most of the students complete research focused upon their own work and schools, and provide insights into the daily challenges that they face and the ways in which they endeavour to overcome these. Often they investigate their own teaching approaches with considerable enthusiasm and critique these in a most honest and reflective manner.

A recent video posted on the BBC news website (see below) encouraged me to return to a number of recordings made by Maitreyee one of our Bangalore students whose excellent dissertation I marked a few weeks ago. Maitreyee works in a special school with many children who present with complex learning needs and in some instances additional physical disabilities. She is an enthusiastic dancer who performs with a local group in Bangalore and had utilised her knowledge of dance to inform her teaching in school.

Maitreyee in her research considered how the use of dance impacts upon both the learning and well-being of the students she teaches. Through a series of interviews and video recorded observations she involved her students at the heart of her project,and was able to demonstrate the many benefits of the work that she has undertaken over several years . Watching the video recordings it was soon evident that many of the young people in her classes use dance as an effective means of communication whilst also gaining a great deal of pleasure from their movement and performance. This is a unique study and one that I hope may find a broader audience though publication.

It was with Maitreyee’s work in mind that I returned to the BBC video posted on this blog which I feel demonstrates a number of things with which I am sure she would agree. Not least that dance can be a tremendous vehicle for learning and that for some students it inspires self-confidence, a means of expression and enthusiasm. Equally important is the message that we should never underestimate an individual who is labelled as having a specific “condition” or described as having a disability.

I have watched this video several times now and each time new thoughts come to mind. Firstly, that I personally lack the co-ordination that is evident in the accomplished young lady featured in the film. Secondly, that she exudes an amazing confidence and authority in her demonstration of technique and her teaching. Thirdly, that she expresses a realistic ambition and dedication for what she might achieve in the future, and finally, that this is a young lady who has great confidence in her own abilities, and that others must also have shared this confidence, though I suspect some may have underestimated  her capabilities.

I don’t really want to say anything more about this video recording, but rather leave it for you to watch and then hopefully to hear about the reaction it might promote in you. If you have comments I would be delighted to hear what they are. I hope you enjoy the short presentation.

Now I’d better get back to some marking I suppose.

 

 

A learning bridge between Europe and Asia that needs to be maintained.

Let's not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

Let’s not turn our backs on the opportunities we have to learn from other cultures at a time when they need us most.

I have just returned from a week’s holiday in Istanbul. I had been looking forward to this trip for some time, having wanted to visit this ancient city that straddles Europe and Asia for many years. The history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, renowned for its architecture, philosophy and art has fascinated me for years, and I can now say that having visited, it more than satisfied my curiosity and expectations.

Whilst Istanbul is now a busy cosmopolitan city like many others in Europe, it succeeds in presenting in a most accessible manner the history of the past millennium and longer. From the Egyptian obelisk of 1500 BCE and the Theodosian Walls of the fifth century, through to the conquest of Mehmet II in 1453 and the architectural wonders created by Mimar Sinan during the mid 16th century, there is so much here to learn and to try to understand. In addition to the artefacts which are excellently presented in the several museums and the Topkapi Palace, the very streets of Istanbul present a historical face to the interested visitor. Views across the Bosphorous, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are dominated by a skyline of the domes and minarets of countless mosques and the crumbling relics of ancient fortifications. I have to confess that despite my earlier reading about the city, whilst walking the hilly streets, I found myself often contemplating the significant ignorance that I still have in respect of much that I was seeing.

From this short visit to Istanbul I will retain many happy memories and will long remember many of the fascinating sights and sites of the city. However, my visit was also tinged with an element of sadness which came from talking to kindly people who currently fear for their livelihoods and face an uncertain future. Without exception the people who we met during this brief visit were friendly and welcoming, and it was evident that they wanted to make us feel comfortable within their great historic city. Yet it was particularly disturbing to hear them talking of the falling numbers of visitors and the financial difficulties caused as a result of groups and individuals who are choosing to no longer visit the region.

The cause of this calamity is obvious. The close proximity of Turkey to a war ravaged Syria and the crisis of refugees on the country’s border has brought little by the way of positive publicity to the country. Furthermore, a number of terrorist attacks in both the capital city Ankara, and recently in Istanbul have dominated news reports and leave many would be tourists contemplating whether it is safe to travel. Indeed, during the time of our visit two terrorist incidents in and near Ankara claimed a number of lives.

The fear of terrorism is likely to impact upon many parts of the world in this way. This weekend on my return to England I read in the Guardian newspaper of the efforts being made by the people of Paris, to attract visitors back to that beautiful city following the recent terrorist incidents that devastated the French nation. It is however, important to remember that the vast majority of days in Paris, as in Istanbul pass quietly and without incident. It is even more important to recognise that the people who inhabit these cities, as elsewhere in the world are good, honest and hospitable. There is nothing that the narrow minded terrorists would like more than to stifle the economies of our major cities by driving people away; a situation which we must never allow to happen.

In Istanbul, probably more than anywhere I have previously visited, the close relationship between two of the world’s major religions is in evidence. Mosques created from churches following the 1453 conquest have in many instances retained and respected earlier Christian features. Nowhere is this more in evidence than at the Hagia Sophia where magnificent tesserae depict features from the life of Christ in the form of mosaics. The population of Istanbul is almost exclusively Muslim, and within the traditions of that faith are making every effort to ensure that all visitors to the city feel comfortable and safe. If as tourists we choose now to turn away from this city and many others like it around the world, we will be deserting kind and decent people and handing a tacit victory to those who would deny opportunities to all who wish to learn from other cultures and beliefs. Istanbul, just like Paris, Berlin, London and many other of the world’s great cities has faced threats and violence on many occasions throughout history, but the spirit and determination of good people has always prevailed. An all too brief series of encounters with friendly people in Istanbul over the past week has reassured me that this city and its population will undoubtedly defeat those who would wish them harm.

If the chance arises for you to visit the magnificent city of Istanbul do grasp the opportunity. You will be rewarded by a wonderful encounter with history and culture and through the warmth of the friendly people who inhabit the city.

The bazaar's of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

The bazaar’s of Istanbul have been a feature on the major trading routes between Europe and Asia for thousands of years. They remain dependent upon visitors to the city in order to ply their trade.

 

What can we learn in one minute fifty seven seconds?

 

arrival

One minute and fifty seven seconds – not much out of a busy day, and certainly very little time to do justice to the experiences of a seven year old child.

I can remember a couple of occasions in my life when I thrilled to the experience of being on the sea in a relatively small boat. One of these trips, out of Brixham harbour in Devon, on flat calm waters was to catch blue and silver mackerel, which made a fine supper during a brief family holiday. Many years later, as an adult, a far more exciting journey was experienced from the Isle of May in the Scottish Firth of Forth returning to the mainland following a week living on that quiet and desolate nature reserve. On this particular journey huge waves crashed across the boat as it pitched and rolled through the white crested peaks and troughs of a savage sea. However, as the skipper of the vessel manoeuvred a familiar pathway with apparent nonchalance back to the safety of the tiny port of Anstruther, where we knew warmth and shelter awaited, I was neither fearful for my safety and that of my family, nor apprehensive of what lay ahead.

How different then were my experiences from those of seven year old Malak who features in the first of a series of “unfairy tales” recently launched by UNICEF. These short animations combine the power of art and music to convey a simple but harrowing message about the plight of children fleeing Syria in search of a safe haven where they will not be shot at, bombed, or forced from their homes. Sadly, this is a story with which we are all now so familiar. So, will a simple animated film make any difference?

This was a question I asked myself this morning having watched “Malak and the Boat”, and I am still unsure that I have an answer. The title “Unfairy Tale” applied to these short animations is a subtle play on words. As children many of us are brought up with fairy tales; fables that often become ingrained within our national and cultural identities. Those of the brothers Grimm, or Hans-Christian Anderson, or Perrault have become classics of literature, much loved stories with which we became familiar in our early years. The play on words in the title of these brief animations, with an emphasis upon how “unfair” life can be for so many children and their families is an apt juxtaposition for a series of short films that convey a desperate message. (As a matter of fact, many traditional fairy stories have sinister undertones which have in some instances terrified rather than entertained the children to whom they were read.)

UNICEF’s “unfairy tales” are beautifully made and compelling. They are also short enough to hold the attention of even those who live busy lives and claim to have little time to think. But I am still unsure whether they are likely to have the impact that their producers intend. I find myself asking, who will see these films? They came easily to my attention because I am well connected to media outlets and newsfeeds that consider children’s rights, but I am unaware of them having been placed in a position of prominence beyond these. Are UNICEF therefore releasing these films only in the direction of those individuals and organisations that have already demonstrated concern? If this is the case, can they possibly hope to have an impact?

Whilst conveying the brutality that is a part of the daily lives of so many children and expressing a message that we all need to hear, I wonder if these carefully crafted works of art can possibly change the attitudes and approaches of governments, organisations or individuals who for so long now have been confronted with the horrifying images of children in distress washed up, and not always alive, on the beaches of Europe? Many of these destitute children appear to have simply become a daily feature of our television news programmes and have often been relegated to the inside pages of our newspapers. Can the efforts of UNICEF in producing these films possibly have any effect?

We have already seen that attitudes towards the ever growing population of refugees fleeing war torn countries have been conveyed in words of sympathy, empathy, and sorrow, but of late these emotions have been more frequently transposed by fear, hatred and resentment. But as the images of suffering have become a nightly feature of our television screens I would suggest that the most common reaction has now become one of indifference. Will yet one more bold and impassioned approach to gaining understanding, such as this from UNICEF change any of this?

These are the imponderables that I found myself addressing this morning as I began my comfortable journey to work. I have no answer, and indeed I suspect there are no easy solutions. In the meantime, we must applaud those who are making bold efforts to keep the plight of desperate refugees to the forefront of our minds. The UNICEF films may, or may not make a difference, but at least as an organisation they are taking affirmative action, both through this media and their actions on the ground, to support those who are suffering as a result of the carnage inflicted upon Syria.

I post “Malak and the Boat” here for you to see for yourself. It will take a whole one minute and fifty seven seconds from your busy schedule today to watch this film, and even longer if you then decide to send it to a friend. Perhaps after watching you can help me to find answers to some of the troubling questions I have asked above. If so, I would like to hear what these are.

Click on the image below to watch “Malak and the Boat”

 

Streets enhanced by floral delights

Choose your colour or have a mixture of each. This lady will help you make your choice

Choose your colour or have a mixture of each. This lady will help you make your choice

It comes as no surprise in a land which presents a kaleidoscope of colours, that flowers play such an important role in the lives of people in India. Rainbow festooned stalls bearing flowers can be found on several of the back lanes of Jayanagar, as well as in the markets and outside many of the temples. On my early morning walks I sometimes pause and watch the stall holders arranging their multi-coloured blooms, which they invariably handle with pride and care, ensuring that they are displayed to great effect on their barrows.

Those without barrows squat on plastic sheeting on the ground, their humble posies displayed for every passer-by in hopes of attracting a few rupees from early commuters or those returning from the temples. I suspect that they have difficulties competing with those who appear to have a preferential position within yards of the temple doors, where I sometimes see both men and women purchasing offerings for a puja.

In some places magnificent garlands hang in splendour beneath makeshift awnings or from flimsy looking wires. Their heady scent fills the immediate vicinity and in the morning breeze drifts amongst the slowly waking streets. Once in Gandhi Bazaar, I watched two ladies seated on the pavement, threading flowers to make garlands such as these. I gave my full attention to these industrious craftswomen in the hope that I could gain some insights into the ways that they manipulated thread and flowers together, but the speed of their hands and the arachnid like dancing of their fingers meant that I was no wiser even after several minutes of observation. Furthermore throughout the whole of this dextrous performance these two skilled ladies were engrossed in conversation, barely watching the interaction between thread, flowers and fingers. This was motor learning of the highest quality. The dignity of such labour is easily overlooked, or worse than this, regarded as menial and of little worth. If you happen to think that this is the case, I challenge you to create such works of art as these two ladies managed from such simple materials.

Simple garlands, or works of art?

Simple garlands, or works of art?

On a few occasions when I have spoken at a conference or run a workshop in India, I have been presented with a small bouquet of flowers. This is a tradition much different from that in the UK where the giving of flowers to men is a rare event. Why this should be so, I have no idea. Surely men can appreciate flowers just as well as women, and I cannot imagine why such a simple and kindly gesture should be inhibited simply because of one’s sex.

Flowers adorn many vehicles in Bangalore. I have travelled in simple autorickshaws decorated with a pendulous garland strung across the windscreen. Cars often have small sprays hanging from their rear view mirrors, and I have even seen bicycles with floral decorations on their handlebars. Near the building where we teach the MA course there is a wedding hall, which when in use is adorned by an abundance of blooms, the hues of which would challenge even the most ambitious artist’s pallete.

Walking the streets I often note women with a small arrangement of jasmine worn neatly in their hair, the white and yellow petals dominant against black tresses, adding yet more colour to their traditional attire. Such seemingly small, but creative attention to detail is a feature of every use of flowers in this country.

Today I passed a jeweller’s shop where a team of men were arranging floral garlands around the window. On enquiring I was told that this was the first day of opening and that decoration of this grandeur was important to this significant event. Later, I was informed, a priest will arrive to perform a puja, on this auspicious day, and then the shop will be sure to trade successfully. I complimented the men on their work and wished them well for the remainder of the day, they appeared pleased that I had even noted their efforts, and even more so that I had offered my encouragement.

So many are the flowers around the streets of Jayanagar that it would be easy to ignore them as simply one more piece of street furniture along these crowded lanes. To do so would be to miss the creativity of those who lovingly arrange and sell them, and who most obviously take immense pride in their work.

No official event in India can be allowed to pass without flowers

No official event in India can be allowed to pass without flowers

Bringing colour to the lives of the people of Kabul

 

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Street art from the detritus of war. Surely a better use for a tank!

Until I read about her in the Guardian yesterday the name Neda Taiyebi was unknown to me, as I suspect it probably was (still is?) to most people here in the UK. I hope that it will soon be a name that is better known as this young lady is engaged in an activity that deserves wider attention.

Neda Taiyebi is an Iranian born artist who for the past year has been living in Afghanistan. At a time when many people have been fleeing from the war ravaged cities of that desperately poor country, Neda has chosen to travel in the opposite direction and believes that she has found a situation in which she is more able to express her artistic talents. Part of the motivation for her work is to be found in her commitment to enabling women to express themselves in an area that has been male dominated and asserts a bullish image to the world. She has commenced this task with enthusiasm and by taking advantage of the devastated landscape that surrounds her in the suburbs of Kabul.

Neda has noted the lack of public art within Kabul, and decries the fact that whilst efforts are being made to revive educational institutions within the city, these are seen as functional establishments with little consideration being given to the development of cultural or aesthetic well-being. Determined to begin to redress the balance, Neda Taiyebi has embarked upon a unique project to create areas of beauty amidst the rubble and chaos of the bomb torn streets of Kabul. A picture in yesterday’s Guardian shows a group of children playing on a piece of street art created by Neda Taiyebi, which is clearly bringing some joy into the lives of these youngsters.

Neda’s approach to creating public art is highly original, but has been achieved by seeking out some of the most potent symbols of violence and destruction to be found in the area. So far, she has created works of art by decorating the husks of three immobilised Russian tanks that have scarred the city streets for a number of years. These previously rusting shells of burned out vehicles have been assaulted with colour, patterns and images that could never have been imagined when these armoured beasts originally patrolled the streets of Kabul.

Taking inspiration from the domestic art that she had seen all around her in her home in Iran, including patterns from textiles and patchwork designs, Neda Taiyebi has demonstrated how symbols of death and ruin can be transformed into a colourful play station for local children. Drawing inspiration from such domestic items has asserted the contribution that women have made to creativity and design and has brought a more reasoned approach to interpreting the streets of the city. In so doing she has received some support from the Afghan government; though sadly, this has of necessity included the presence of an armed guard whilst she undertakes her work.

As we await the arrival of Christmas here in the UK, we have become familiar with the usual colourful lights and trappings that surround us on the streets of our towns, cities and villages. Whilst very little of this can truly be described as street art, it brightens our lives in the midst of winter, and brings pleasure to children and adults alike. Perhaps the work of Neda Taiyebi in Kabul will bring smiles to the faces of people of that once great city. Her assertion that more attention needs to be given to encouraging a cultural and aesthetic appreciation of the world undoubtedly challenges politicians and educators in a country which may see other priorities. However, the smiling faces of children playing on a decorated tank which in previous times would have probably terrorised them, is just one indication of the importance of her work.

Thank you and happy Christmas to Neda Taiyebi, may your work continue to bring joy to the streets of Kabul. And, of course happy Christmas and a peaceful new year to whoever may happen to read this blog.

Broadening our minds

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

School displays demonstrate how children are gaining knowledge of history, geography and so much more. Model of the ill-fated Titanic from a primary school

Whenever I visit schools I try to spend a little time looking at the colourful displays that usually adorn the walls and corridors. These often provide an opportunity to demonstrate the talents and learning of children, exhibiting works of art, writing or mathematical accomplishments and informing visitors about the learning and experiences of students. Teachers and other staff in schools invest time in ensuring that this work is carefully presented, and just like the students who have produced this work they take immense pride in the artefacts that decorate the school environment.

A couple of years ago I visited a primary school in Ireland and enjoyed a brief perusal of a colourful display depicting early Egyptian history. Carefully constructed collages of Egyptian murals with representations of the jackal-headed Anubis and bird headed Horus, and hand written hieroglyphs covered a wall, whilst models of the great pyramids and of the mummies of pharaohs were arranged and informatively labelled on a table. It was evident that the pupils who had constructed these offerings had been encouraged to use their imaginations whilst learning about a significant civilization through a study of history and geography. As is invariably the case, I found much to admire in the work of the children and the skills of those teachers and other school staff who had offered their support and guidance to these young learners. Similar displays depicting  history, geography, literature and much more from both near at home and distant lands is to be found in most schools.

When I was a child much of my learning about distant places and people was gained either through reading or television documentaries. I remember a phase of reading anything I could obtain that would inform me about the Romans and supplementing my understanding of their influence with visits to the city museum in Gloucester where there was a good collection of artefacts and information. My knowledge of ancient Egypt was largely garnered from similar sources, reinforced by television programmes that included an account of the life of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and an excellent series presented by the archaeologist John Romer. As a schoolboy  I could never have imagined that in the future I would visit countries other than my own, where I could stand within some of the finest examples of Roman architecture such as the Colosseum in Rome or the amphitheatre at Autun. International travel was, generally speaking not within the remit of school children from my area, and I believed, in common with most of my friends, that my knowledge and understanding of the wider world was always likely to be obtained through reading or the media.

It is partly through reflection upon my early second hand encounters with history and geography that I find myself thinking about how my life has changed, and the great privilege that I have experienced in being able to visit many countries around the world. Furthermore, often through my work, I have been able to meet people and make friends in these countries, and have worked closely with many valued colleagues whose cultural experiences of the world differ greatly from my own. A common factor in every country that I have visited is a patriotic pride that people have in their national heritage, landscape and history. They invariably take great pleasure in showing visitors the geographical, natural and architectural features of their localities, knowing that I am enthusiastic to learn about both the people of a country and the landscape and culture that has shaped their lives.  It is this enthusiasm and pride that has enabled me to wonder at sites such as the Qutb Minar in Delhi, the frozen landscapes of Lapland, the Caravaggio paintings in the cathedral at Valetta, the sulphur baths of Tbilisi and the botanical gardens of Singapore. It is also, in part, through these experiences that I have been eager to reciprocate this hospitality and ensure that visitors to England have similar experiences whilst they are here.

Whilst we can and must, continue to learn from reading and the use of various media, there is no substitute for first-hand experiences of places and people. Travel provides unique opportunities to engage with cultures, climate and religions that differ from our own. The traveller who is prepared to learn from such experiences has the chance to gain greater understanding of those conditions and beliefs that emphasise the ways in which we may differ from people elsewhere, but more especially those basic human characteristics that bind us together. There is a commonly held belief that travel broadens the mind. This is true only if we are prepared to open our minds and to travel respectfully and with a willingness to learn about the lives of those who live in the places we choose to visit.

As I write this today I am conscious of the fact that many of the opportunities for learning through travel that I had only ever dreamt of as a child, but which have at times become open to me, may now be closing for most people. Countries, including Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and Libya which are the cradle of many great civilizations, magnificent countryside and a rich cultural history are now seen as dangerous and off-limits to most travellers. As a result of this those people living in these countries who have become economically dependent upon tourism are suffering. Equally devastating is the fact that the inhabitants of those countries, and individuals from outside who would wish to visit, are deprived of an opportunity to learn from each other, to make friendships and to understand how much we all have in common.

It is, of course, in the interest of those who would wish to limit education, and to deny individuals the chance to engage in social, intellectual and cultural exchange of ideas, to create a situation where travel is restricted. I do believe, however, that such an attitude cannot prevail. It is too late for those who would wish to roll back the years. Friendships and professional associations have been made and are strong enough to endure. The desire to work and spend time together that has become a feature of internationalisation over the past half century has become embedded in the lives of many people. Artificial boundaries have been challenged, and I am sure that the desire to learn from others, to experience their cultures, to understand their beliefs and share their experiences will play an important role in the defeat of ignorance and insularity. I hope that it will not be too long before normal educational opportunities through travel and interaction are resumed.

 

 

Making a welcoming contribution

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

Kurdish art therapist Hassan Deveci, helping Syrian children feel at home in Germany

A former student emailed me today to ask if I had heard about the outstanding work being undertaken by a Kurdish art therapist named Hassan Deveci who is based in Cologne (Köln), Germany. I had to admit that I had never heard of Deveci or the work that he has conducted from his studio in that Germany city. Apparently Deveci having fled from Turkey, first applied for political asylum in Germany in 1994. Initially he lived in a basic camp as he waited three years for a decision to be made about his status. Having eventually been granted asylum in Cologne, he turned his attention and skills in the direction of helping others.

The German international news channel Deutsche Welle reports that in recent months much of Deveci’s attention has been focused upon helping traumatised children who have fled as refugees from the conflict in Syria. His own experiences at having to leave his native country and settle into a different culture, have clearly shaped his attitudes and strengthened the resolve that he has to help others. He reports how his own recollection of a traumatic time in his life has motivated him to make contact with Syrian families and offer his expertise to assist children in adjusting to a new life in Germany.

It is more than a year since Deveci opened his studio to a small group of Syrian children and encouraged them to express their feelings and experiences through art. It is hardly surprising that much of the work produced by the children with whom he works has a common theme related to war and death. Many of the parents of those with whom he works have expressed their own distress that the images produced by these children tell tales of horror and trauma. However, Deveci is sure that giving these refugee children an opportunity to express their feelings and emotions through art, will have therapeutic benefits.

The parents report that their children’s German language abilities are improving and that they are beginning to make new friends and adjust to their new and strange situation. Equally important is the statement made by a parent that her children are having fun and doing the normal things that others are doing.

Whilst this is certainly a heartening story, and an indication of the care and consideration given by this artist to a group of distressed children and their families, there are some serious questions surrounding the current situation. Deveci states that he is simply one of many volunteers who have come forward to assist children who have lost everything from their former lives in Syria. However, he is now struggling to maintain support at the level which he had hoped, simply because he is running out of materials and the ability to continue financing this initiative.

Reading about this extraordinary man who sees himself as only doing what any decent citizen would wish to do, a number of matters crossed my mind. Firstly, that this man, in taking an initiative has demonstrated a level of personal responsibility and care that is exemplary and provides an outstanding example of citizenship from which we can all learn. Secondly, that those in positions of power and leadership might well benefit by considering the example he has provided and ensuring him the necessary support and resources to continue this work. I also wonder if the personal contact that he is having with these children might be having a beneficial impact upon his own coming to terms with displacement.

Whilst some members of the public and a significant proportion of the media occupy themselves with inciting negative views of “migrants” and refugees, here is a fine example of a man who is more than repaying the hospitality of a country in which many continue to see him as an outsider. I would suggest that he is an excellent example of a good German citizen.

 

 

Food for the soul and the stomach

This young vocalist, accompanied by a tabla player had an amazing range and tone of voice. I could have happily  listened to him all day.

This young vocalist, accompanied by a tabla player had an amazing range and tone of voice. I could have happily listened to him all day.

 

Sunday – designated as a day of rest in many parts of the world. Here in Bangalore this means that the roads are slightly less chaotic, early in the morning more people appear to be taking a recreational stroll through the backlanes, and at various points of the city there are interesting cultural events scheduled.

Following my customary early morning constitutional yesterday, and an excellent breakfast, our good friend and colleague Jayashree collected us and whisked us away across the city to the Indian Institute of World Culture in Wadia Road. Situated opposite the Krishna Rao Park, this innovative centre organises a wide range of cultural events and discussions and appears to attract a diverse and enthusiastic audience. Yesterday morning, a programme of music, ranging from Karnatic and Hindustani classical pieces to more modern and world fusion compositions attracted a couple of hundred people to hear some superb and memorable peformances.

Having been brought up in the west, my ears are well attuned to a variety of western classical and popular music. Here in India, the rhythms and tones are significantly different from those with which we are familiar at home, though over a number of years I have attempted to gain insights and to understand more about what I am hearing when listening to Indian music. Listening to recordings at home provides some opportunity for familiarisation, but nothing can compare with the experience of attending a live performance. I have been fortunate in recent years to attend the Trivandrum Music Festival in Kerala, and to experience performances of both music and dance here in Bangalore. These are always exciting events and educative in terms of seeing different styles and experiencing unfamiliar instruments.

I am convinced that an appreciation of some features of Indian history and culture helps us to shape our approach as teachers here in Bangalore. If nothing else it enables us to demonstrate our respect for local heritage and art, and to gain some understanding of those influences that have shaped society in this part of the world. It is a privilege to attend such events with people who know the history and significance of the music and give the time to explain this to those of us who are new to these experiences.

Yesterday’s performances featured instruments with which I am now quite familiar, violin and tabla, but also long simple wooden flutes which provide a rich tone in the hands of an expert such as we experienced at this event. The improvisation and interchange of ideas between instrumentalists during some of the pieces was dazzling in its brilliance and the versatility and range of the vocalists was wonderful to experience. Performances of this quality are a pleasure and a privilege for the listeners, and the time passes quickly for an audience deeply moved by the music.

Violin, flute,keyboard and tabla expressed through both formal structures and improvisation a variety of ideas as identified in a lyrical raga

Violin, flute,keyboard and tabla expressed through both formal structures and improvisation a variety of ideas as identified in a lyrical raga

With appetites raised by the morning’s entertainment we made our way to Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan, for a traditional Thali, made with a wonderful range of fresh vegetables and spices and served on plantain leaves. An excellent way to conclude a morning during which we learned a little more about the culture of this fascinating city.

Jayashree and Johnson made short work of devouring an excellent Thali. An excellent way to conclude a morning following the concert.

Jayashree and Johnson made short work of devouring an excellent Thali. An excellent way to conclude a morning following the concert.

Art should encourage us to make our own interpretations of the world.

Bacon's Screaming Pope was inspired by Velázquez but is not an imitation of a great work, but rather a personal interpretation and an invitation for us to create our own ideas.

Bacon’s Screaming Pope was inspired by Velázquez but is not an imitation of a great work, but rather a personal interpretation and an invitation for us to create our own ideas.

Sara and I have just returned from a visit to the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a magnificent gallery designed by the architect Sir Norman Foster and located in the grounds of the University of East Anglia on the edge of Norwich. The fine city of Norwich, in the county of Norfolk is a little over a hundred miles from home, and although for five years we lived in the area we have rarely returned to what is a beautiful part of England. However, we were keen to make this trip, specifically to see a unique exhibition called “Francis Bacon and the Masters,” and having looked forward to the visit for the past couple of months we were not disappointed.

Francis Bacon was a Dublin born figurative painter who died in 1992. We were already familiar with many of his works, particularly those usually on show at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin and at the Tate in London, but this particular presentation of his work not only exhibited paintings that we had previously not seen, but managed to present his pictures in a highly informative and thought provoking manner.

The Bacon works were hung alongside those of other great painters who had influenced the artist, not only in his development of themes, but also in the way in which he interpreted the world. Pictures by Velázquez, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh and Titian were juxtaposed to provide the viewer with an understanding of their influence upon Bacon and the tremendous respect in which he clearly held these great masters. Several of the works of these fine artists had been brought to the Sainsbury Centre from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and were being exhibited in the UK for the first time. It was a privilege to be able to see these works and to gain some understanding of how they shaped the ideas of one of the more controversial painters of the twentieth century.

Prior to visiting the exhibition I had read a number of reviews, not all of which heaped praise upon Bacon’s contribution to this event. Several reviewers, including  Jonathan Jones in the Guardian had suggested that seeing Bacon’s works alongside  those of such great artists as Rodin and Velázquez somewhat diminished his art, and made the viewer question just how good he really was. One sentence from Jones’ review particularly stood out from the page:-

“Bacon’s paintings are mocked, his talents dwarfed. The jaw-dropping masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Titian and Rodin that so nearly make this show five-star unmissable also, to my dismay, to my shock, make Bacon seem a small, timebound, fading figure.”

Critics serve a very useful purpose, but personally I like to make up my own mind when I view an exhibition, visit the theatre or cinema, or read a book. Whilst I can appreciate Jonathan Jones’ point of view, and acknowledge that of the paintings on display Velázquez’s portrait of Innocent X is the one that I will probably remember most, I do feel that as a reviewer he has rather missed the point. One of the greatest qualities of art, is the ability to interpret the world in diverse ways. Whilst many of us can look at the same object or scene, we each relate to this in a different way and if we have the skills to reproduce the image, will do so through our own interpretation and appreciation of what we have seen. Surely one of the great virtues of art, is the ability of the artist to give us his unique perspective and then allow us to further interpret this according to our own understanding.

Within the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, possibly the most extreme example of this is Bacon’s interpretation of the crucifixion, a scene depicted by many great artists through the centuries. Many art lovers will be familiar with the crucifixion as portrayed by Giotto, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Stanley Spencer, or any of a dozen other well known painters,  each of whom gives an individual perspective of a scene, which of course none of them actually witnessed. I have no doubt that in their individuality each one of these depictions gives rise to a range of emotions and critical commentary from those who view them, as they pass through some of the world’s finest art galleries. What is certain is that these are pictures that hold our attention and if we choose, can encourage us to think and reflect on what it is that we see.

In the “Francis Bacon and the Masters” exhibition, the curator had chosen to hang Bacon’s slightly abstract crucifixion, one of his earlier works from 1933, alongside a very conventional seventeenth century picture by Alonso Cano. If each artist had simply been asked to create a realistic reproduction of how the crucifixion scene had presented itself, there can be little doubt that Cano’s dark and brooding image scores highly on this criteria. However, this was certainly not the task which Bacon set himself, and the resulting, superficially much simpler work that he created, presents a ghostly and very personal interpretation which whilst lacking realism, evokes a sombre and in many ways macabre atmosphere.

Is Bacon’s crucifixion scene as great as that of Cano’s? Does his study for a portrait of Van Gogh do justice to the memory of the Dutch master? Can his screaming popes be compared to the luscious image of Pope Innocent X? It certainly can, but is this really the purpose of art? If art has an educational function, it must surely be to encourage us to look more closely at the world and to understand that there can be many interpretations of an event. More importantly, if art has a value, which I most certainly believe it does, it is that of enabling us to think more critically about what we see and to develop our own skills of analysis. We may have our own favourites, our likes and dislikes, but hopefully we look at images with a discerning and searching eye.

This was an exhibition that challenged my own ideas and thinking, not about where Bacon stands in the great canon of artists, but much more about the ways in which I see the world.