Art: the basis of

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Knowing Nature

True art education not only makes the physical surroundings beautiful, its more important objective is to reach the deeper layers of the human heart. The artist studies nature to understand its spirit and its rhythm and to feel a oneness with it, so much so that gradually everything develops into a relationship of friendship. Once, when I was sketching a tree in my nature study class, Acharya Nandalal Bose said that the artist must like a thing that he or she wants to draw. "If this tree, which you are studying and making sketches of (of which you are doing aaraadhana8), if you really like it, it will become a treasure for all your life. If any time you experience extreme pain, feel lonely, feel that the world is all empty, this tree, on the side of the road, will welcome you saying: 'Here I am'. You will find solace under it. It will remain an endless treasure for you."9
On another occasion the Acharya said: "...The essentiality of it all is that you have to like the thing you are drawing the picture of. It should win you over. If that happens it will descend on to the tip of your brush without your making much effort. Only then it will be real art. This is the greatest skill behind artistic creation"10 What my teacher was trying to tell me was: one of the essential purposes of artistic creativity is to establish sympathetic links between human beings and nature. And he was probably pointing out to me, rather sadly, that in the contemporary society the human heart is becoming more and more insensitive to nature's gestures of friendship.
According to Indian as well as Chinese aesthetics, it is of supreme importance that the maker should identify with the object that he or she makes. As an art student I was told a story of a Chinese Master and a disciple of his. A young man, eager to learn the art of painting from a great Master, went to him to find out if the Master would accept him as his disciple. He sat on one side of the Master, who was preoccupied working on a painting. After a while the Master turned towards him and without looking at his face asked: "What do you want?" "Master, I want to learn painting. Would you be kind enough to accept me as a disciple?" Without giving much thought to the matter, the Master looking at a cat sitting not too far away, told the young man: "Alright! Go and study the cat."
Next day the young aspirant went to the Master and put the sketches near him, saying that he had done the study. The Master shoved the sketches aside and said, "Go and do more." This exercise went on for a long time. The time gaps between the young man's visits to the Master became longer and longer, so much so that at one stage he stopped going there. After many years, perhaps after he reached middle age, he went to see the Master and sat near him until the Master turned to him and asked whether he wanted anything. The Master had forgotten the young man. But when he was reminded of the earlier visits, he asked the disciple if he had finished the study of the cat!
The disciple replied: "Master, I do not know whether I have finished the study or not, but I have myself become a cat." The Master was pleased to hear the disciple say such a thing. He looked at the disciple with approval and affection: "My dear disciple, I certify that your training has now been completed."
It needs to be emphasized that to inculcate and develop such a capacity in the artist to be able to identify with the object to be painted or sculpted is the task of education the artists receives from their gurus. However, I also wish to point out here that there is something inherent in art that makes one who engages in an artistic pursuit imbibe the spirit of friendship with nature, a sympathetic relationship. But, of course, much of it depends on the kind of civilization we live in. The so-called modern civilization is becoming more and more materialistic in its relationships, between human beings and between humans and nature. Very soon, it seems, a stage may come when human kind may become totally devoid of the sensitivity we are talking about.
Leave aside the question of human responses to nature, today the spirit of friendship and a sympathetic attitude, even within human societies has reached an alarmingly low ebb. In large towns and cities, most next-door neighbours do not know each other well enough to be able to develop mutual trust and amity. The degree of destruction of the natural environment by human activities is an indication of the desensitization of individuals as well as of societies. Commercialism and greed are destroying the spirit of unity with nature, and competition is replacing cooperation among human beings.

Education to be Planned Properly

The only tool I can think of for reversing this trend is education. If it is planned properly it will bring back the sympathetic and friendly relationship between human beings and nature which we have lost on account of topsy-turvy values generated by the modern pattern of industrialization. It will have adequate emphasis on art education. Among other things, art education inculcates the kind of sensitivity needed to understand and enjoy nature, to be one with it. It should and does make the artist so sensitive that the destruction of a tree or even a flower hurts his or her feelings. It hurts because the artist is able to see and feel the beauty of the flower, which has become a-friend; and to see a friend being hurt is painful.
I remember having heard a short Santhal poem of which I cannot quote the words but I do remember the meaning. A Santhal woman says to her friend: "I went to fetch water from the river but came back very depressed. I did not know why! When I went again to fetch water, on my way back I saw a broken flower hanging on its branch. Then I realized why I was sad." The truth is that the life of the Santhals, not yet totally urbanized, is still much closer to nature. When Santhals pluck flowers it is mostly for decorating themselves, or for worship, which has been a tradition throughout in Indian culture. The purpose of plucking flowers has been either for worship or for offering to one who is loved and/or respected. Traditionally, it was either for the creation of beauty or for votive purposes. One offers only a dear object to the loved or the respected one.
Nandalal Bose wrote about the orientation inculcated by art education: "For an artist everything is a friend. He is never lonely. I like you. When you have gone away I like this tree. If there is no tree I like this door. It is difficult to say why it is so. If the liking is due to excitement or because the object is 'yours' there is very little depth in it. Liking generated by curiosity is short-lived. There is yet another kind of liking. It is: deep identification... 'Everyone' is reassuring, for they are all friends."11


Apart from friendship with nature there is another aspect of experiencing art, which is related to the physical aspect of nature. I shall divide it into two categories. One deals with the awareness of the existence of things around and the other relates to the eye—the visual faculty of the human eye.
Whether or not the eye sees the things that are around it is important that one is aware of their existence. It does not mean that one ought to know everything about everything—shape, colour, its purposes or what have you. It is important to one who is visually handicapped, as this aspect is not related to even memory images. This point can be better explained by an example from my personal experience. I had a friend during my student days who was born blind. Occasionally I used to go for a walk with him in the evenings. Often he would suddenly stop under a tree and ask, "Brother, is there something here?" Or he would ask; "Are we standing under a tree?" Or "Is there a house on our right?" This young man could not see; he did not even know what a tree or a house looked like to those with eyesight, however defective. He never had any visual experience. But he was aware of the existence of things around. It is this kind of awareness that helps us to be sensitive about things outside ourselves.
To clarify the point further, I shall give another example from my days as an art teacher in Sevagram. Art was one of the subjects in the teachers training course. The season was autumn, when harshringar12 trees blossom profusely. We were working on a small project for nature study. I asked the teacher-students if they knew of such a flower, and the time of the year it blossoms, and whether they had seen any on the campus. A few hands went up. I asked one of them if he could describe the flower and say something abut it. It was evident that he knew enough about the flower, but he thought that there were no harshringar trees in this part of the country. "How can you say that with such certainty when you have not been to any place other than Sevagram", I asked him. He was, however, certain that there was not a single harshringar tree, let alone flowers, in the training college campus. I asked him: "Don't you, nowadays, walk over a couple of harshringar carpets spread on the road by which you come to the classroom from your hostel?" But he was adamant.
Next morning I went to the spot and waited for this student. When he reached the point I shouted: "Stop! Where and what are you standing on? What are these flowers called?" He felt ashamed and uttered: " Oh! How blind I am!" No doubt, he knew about harshringar. If I had put a flower in his hand when we were discussing it the previous day he would have recognized it. But he did not have the awareness of its being there.
These are two entirely opposite kinds of examples. In the first one although the person could not see the world around him on account of blindness, he was sensitive and aware of its presence; in the second example the person had perfect eyesight and sufficient knowledge, but his sense of awareness about the presence of other things around him had remained grossly under developed. I believe that awareness has an intimate relationship with the capacity of identification with nature. To gain awareness of the presence of things other than "me and what is mine", in other words to develop sympathy for the outside world is a way to liberate oneself from egocentricity. To have such a character is the sign of good education.

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