Celebrating a sharing of cultural influences

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

Adivasi artists have adorned some of the walls of the Valley school with their paintings.

When visiting the Valley School as a guest of my good friend Satish, trading a little teaching for the quiet and comfort of a forest life, I am always pleased to find myself amongst creative people. The Valley acts as a magnet to artists, musicians, dancers and poets and my stay this time coincided with that of a Dutch musician and sculptor who was giving some remediation to a work he installed in the grounds a few years ago. Also in attendance were an English story teller, who entertained a willing audience beneath the stars late into an evening, and two classical Indian percussionist who were working with groups of enthusiastic children.

The Valley school staff are committed to celebrating and disseminating the art and culture of India as well as exposing their pupils and the adult community to that from elsewhere in the world. Whenever I walk through the extensive arboreal grounds of the Valley there is evidence of the work of local and tribal artists, potters and sculptors. This sits comfortably alongside the work of children and staff from the school community and that produced by visiting artisans.

The regional variations of tribal art, examples of which can be found on the walls of this environment are a fascination that I have acquired in recent years. At home, a beautiful black and white depiction of birds in a forest, skillfully produced by a Madhubani artist from Bihar hangs in our lounge. My interest in these works meant that I was particularly delighted following my session at the CISCE conference for  school principals, to be presented with a Pithora painting by a tribal artist Rathya Najroo Shekla Bhai from Gujarat.

There is a childlike quality to this work which may understandably be categorised as naive. Yet the picture tells a clear and moving story, depicting life in a tribal community entered through the gateway at the foot of the picture. Here are portrayals of people, animals, birds and activities that typify and shape the culture of these distinctive and dignified people. All of this is surrounded by an intricate border formed by a filigree of patterns and shapes.

A Gujerati tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

A Gujarati Pithora tribal painting on canvas portrays the bustle of village life

In enjoying this work and others like it I am aware of how this, and similar tribal art from around the world has influenced that of European artists. The Russian painter Marc Chagall projects a similar naivety in his depiction of animals such as the donkey in his painting “L’Ane Vert” (the Green Donkey) as is achieved in the creation of camels and horses in the Gujarati picture. The tiger in Rousseau’s famous “Tiger in a Tropical Storm” is not so far removed in his simplicity from those magnificent felines at the gates of this work.  Other artists, including Picasso and Matisse were openly influenced by tribal patterns and motifs and could see the underlying spirit of their apparent simplicity and the importance of the stories that they tell.

Just in case you should believe that artistic influences have travelled in only one direction, it is evident in the works of many of today’s Indian painters that they have drawn inspiration from the west. Jaii Deolalkar a talented artist who also works at the Valley spoke to me of her association with the works of Paul Klee, which is evident in a series of her paintings produced in recent years. Her works are untitled, enabling the viewer to see what they may in her art. Her work below with its furious reds and ochres and a depth of field created by brush strokes and shadows, demonstrates how the work of modern Europeans has shaped the thinking of an artist here in Bangalore.

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

Bangalore artist Jaii Deolalkar draws inspiration from, amongst others, Paul Klee

This sharing of artistic styles and traditions must surely play a part in helping those of us who are devoid of creative talent, to understand the cultural influences and interpretations of those who have such gifts. The children who learn in this environment are certainly placed in a position of advantage.


Travelling hopefully

Prepare for a life of English luxury in Bangalore!

Prepare for a life of English luxury in Bangalore!

If riding a bicycle, moving relatively slowly through the countryside under one’s own power, with an opportunity to appreciate the landscape and enjoy the air, is one of the most civilized forms of transport, then flying long haul economy class must be one of the least.

The cabin crew on board the flight work hard to satisfy their customers, answering the sound of bells, often summoning them to petulant and unfriendly passengers, who believe that it is their right to command attention and make demands. Ever smiling and willing these overworked individuals tread the gangways, pushing trollies with hardly an inch to spare or carrying various items to impatient travellers who appear to see them as their own individual galley slaves. By the end of yesterday’s flight they looked like exhausted teachers who had finally lost control of a class who refused to do up seat belts, remain in their seats or put armrests down. Why are so many passengers intent on making life difficult for these hard working cabin crews?

The long flights from Birmingham to Dubai and thence on to Bangalore are a tiring, but necessary part of teaching on the MA programme. Personally, I find the balancing act that has to be delicately managed with an over packaged meal on a flimsy tray, a particularly irksome feature of this kind of travel. Alongside this, and in stark contrast with riding a bicycle, the view is often restricted to the passenger in the next seat or a small screen on the back of the seat eighteen inches in front of my face. However, I am not complaining, because the opportunity to visit India in order to work with colleagues and students is an immensely rewarding one.

Arriving in Bangalore, even when exhausted after a long journey and the negotiation of the paperwork and customs requirements for entering the country; this time an ebola screening form and heat detecting cameras was added to procedures; it appears that my senses are heightened and my powers of observation raised. I am used to the garish and often obtuse advertising ever present on hoardings in the city, and last night, even whilst watching the motions of a carousel in hopeful anticipation of the arrival of my luggage; my eye was drawn to one such electronic advertising feature. Here in the arrivals hall, clearly located to attract the attention of passengers who may be anticipating a more permanent stay in the city, was the display placed at the head of this blog posting.

I must admit that this bright red advert brought a smile to my face for several reasons. Firstly, the bold assertion that “Charm is a Statement Made in Silence,” does not resonate easily with my impression of a city where the hustle and perpetual motion of traffic with constantly blaring horns is the norm. Who, I wondered, would enforce the silence that is so confidently acclaimed? Far more than this, however, my amusement was intensified by the planning of “Villas with an English Accent”. This Englishness was, of course further heightened by the image of Charlie Chaplin, great comedic star of the silent movie era; a form of cinema which operated on a level considerably different from that promoted through Bollywood.

Reading the words on this board, I found myself thinking of the supreme irony of advertising English style homes here in India. How fascinating I thought, in 1947, after a long struggle the Indian people were (quite rightly) glad to see the back of the British. Now it would appear that they want to emulate our life style by living in mock English homes! Incidentally, I am not aware of anyone who has lived in an English villa since the Romans left Britain, but that is a mere aside. What, I wondered is the attraction of this type of housing development? I find it hard to believe that a bill board at Heathrow airport would carry an advert in an attempt to sell Indian style homes. Even if they were portrayed as the Palaces of the Maharajas I doubt that anyone would believe the hype!

Here then is yet another Indian conundrum, one of the many that I will encounter over the next fortnight for sure. In a country where we are told the economy is booming and India is asserting its identity, why is there a lack of confidence in designing, building and advertising housing which might proudly announce an Indian national identity?

Leaving the airport and heading into the Bangalore city night I felt very privileged to be returning here to work. I know that over the coming two weeks myself, my colleagues and our students will be working hard together. Great learning opportunities will present themselves to all of us. I also know that I will continue in my optimistic, though ultimately hapless venture, to solve the many puzzles that India continues to present. Such joy!