I like school. I’ve spent several years in it and I’m soon to complete yet another, which will make the figure an even sixteen. The mention of school usually draws two reactions from most folks my age – one of fond nostalgia for a bygone era or one of bitter loathing for a rather torturous period. Thankfully, I belong to the former category. The romantic image of a schoolboy in khakis and a tie, walking early morning to school, Bible and hymn book in hand, has never quite faded from its sepia-tinted glory in my head. When I think of school, I fondly recall the formative years in my life — ones that not only gave me an education, but lifelong friends and memories to cherish. But fond as I am of school, I’m not a fan of the system. I recognize that education, for all its merits, has its limitations. And one of the pitfalls being a part of this system can bring with it is leaving it with an entirely wrong notion of who you are.
My artistic ability (or apparent lack of it) was something I’d always been mildly embarrassed about. It’s not that I drew badly – I simply couldn’t draw. A month-long arts and craft class during summer didn’t remedy it either – I was hopeless in comparison with the other kids. At school, S.U.P.W. (Socially Useful Productive Work – a total misnomer) in my opinion was a sheer waste of time. It didn’t help that I had a grumpy old frump as a teacher who grudgingly doled out pea-sized quantities of Fevicol either. It helped though, that I was a bit of a nerd – I had recourse. I edited the school student newspaper, was a regular debater, played an instrument and got good grades. But my failure to produce any satisfactory artwork by my or anyone’s standards nagged. The only ‘paintings’ I’d manage were juvenile renditions of mountain sceneries, repeated over and over. I eventually came to accept my apparent inability. Rationalization set in. I left school with this mindset and whenever the opportunity arose, I’d proudly announce my artistic incompetence and make it the subject of self-deprecating humour.
It’s no surprise then, that I entered the art course at the Young India Fellowship with trepidation. We were going to paint, I’d heard. Here, I’d be exposed. Here, I’d look incompetent. Here, I’d relive the pain of trying to produce any visual coherence on paper. Except that it wasn’t paper. It was canvas. And this was a course on art appreciation. What briefly assuaged my helplessness at the first class was our instructor, Anunaya Chaubey’s introductory assertion – ‘This is not really a course on art. It’s a course on critical thinking.’
And so it began.
Producing a painted canvas within a one-hour time frame. Reflecting on the experience, and the set of ‘problems’ it presented, creative and logistical. Critically analysing the same work through guided discussion and an exploration of art theory, which cultivated in me a descriptive conversancy, enabling me to engage meaningfully with any visual rendering. Looking at painting for the first time through the geometric lens of linear perspective, a simple but powerful exercise that emphasized the role of lines in directing the viewer’s eyes. Sketching-shading sessions with simple instructions – to simply see and reproduce what we saw using a minimal set of strokes. Producing two more canvases, interspersed with lectures that traced art all the way from its documented cave origins to performance art in the present. My notion of being an art dunce was slowly hacked at and eventually shattered by these activities, all reinforced by Prof. Chaubey’s encouraging refrain to “Trust yourself.” I’m sure as hell no Michelangelo, but for the first time in my life, I came to hold a brush confidently and produce something coherent and meaningful. Coherent and meaningful enough to score over a 100 likes on Facebook anyway. I joyously discovered another source of the flow-state as described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Up until now, the only activity in which I’d experienced anything that resembled ‘flow’ was writing. Painting recreated the flow experience for me, the canvas providing an instant feedback mechanism as it reacted to the application of the paint. As I progressed from one canvas to the next, every successive brush stroke seemed to convey a lesson on its own, each lesson finding a cumulative manifestation in my work.
This class was a quake moment. It completely destroyed a wrong notion and crystallized a new one in its wake. The new one being that with the right mental nudges, the right guidance, and the right environment, you can overcome any problem and learn something new. That your identity and understanding of who you are is carved out largely by an already skewed perception — one that can, and should be constantly revised. This is not just an epiphany — it’s a lesson that can be applied in multiple areas and has very tangible ramifications for one’s life. It’s a revelation that alters your view of seemingly insurmountable challenges, reducing them to soluble problems.
I’ve decided that a corner in my future study will be reserved for an easel. More importantly, I’ve decided to trust myself.