Mumbai schools try to combine art with travel for their field trips

Oct 28, 2018, 08:33 IST | Ekta Mohta

Spurred on by in-house culture experts, Mumbai schools are increasingly trying to combine art with travel and imbue wandering minds with wanderlust

Mumbai schools try to combine art with travel for their field trips
A student enjoys a participatory workshop at the Berlinische Galerie. This trip was planned by Culture Fox

Michelangelo's David isn't as impressive in photographs as in person. At 17 feet, he stands head and shoulders above all at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence. In front of him, we're midgets, and he's the giant. There's a lesson here that good teachers have known for long: life is a better teacher than they can ever be. Most schools take their students on field trips and outstation tours, but in the last few years, a few enterprising art teachers from Mumbai have chosen to immerse their students in art, and then leave them out to dry: by taking them outside the classroom and using geography to teach them about art history.

Outside and within
For the last three years, Nanda Das, HOD for art at Cathedral & John Connon School, in Fort, has been ferrying his students to Arts University Bournemouth in Southampton, UK, for a 12-day programme. "I want to give them exposure to college-level art," he says. "We do 2D drawing, silk-screen printing, lino, etchings; in 3D, we do model-making for architecture; film-making, photography, prosthetics. The course is divided into nearly nine branches." With a batch of about 20, students from the ninth to the 12th grades are trained under drawing masters from different art colleges, such as Slade School of Fine Art and Royal College of Art. "The majority of the students who go are very interested in art. It's not that they go just to have a vacation. Obviously, there's a conceptual change in their thought process afterwards."

Students from Cathedral & John Connon School have been visiting Arts University Bournemouth in the UK for the last three years
Students from Cathedral & John Connon School have been visiting Arts University Bournemouth in the UK for the last three years

Similarly, in December 2016, Saumya Krishna, an art teacher at Ascend International, BKC, had taken 17 students on a five-day trip to Ajrakhpur in Kutch. "Our school has an enquiry-based approach, so students take a lot of agency over their learning," she says. "They wanted to dive deeper and understand relief printing. And, ajrakh block printing is a very old tradition and technique. I wanted to bring to attention to my students that ajrakh is not just any block-printing process. It takes 14 days [to print one piece of fabric from scratch]. There are multiple steps in creating a cloth. This was an art that was used on garments by locals, but because of the price, it is no longer practised, and has become something you buy at high-end stores."

Two years later, her students continue to refer to the experience. "Even something small that the artisans shared with them [stayed with them]. For example, how black is made. They take pieces of iron, leave it to rust for several days, then mix it with the powder of tamarind seeds, which oxidises it. First it turns brown and then black. We didn't talk much about it on the trip, but just the other day, a student came up to me and said, 'I saw this block-printing process and they were using synthetic black, while we saw the natural process.'"

Students from Ascend International try their hand at Ajrakh block printing
Students from Ascend International try their hand at Ajrakh block printing

Turning the lens
For Amaro Gómez-Pablos, Spanish and film teacher at École Française, in Worli, who is also in charge of their outbound trips, the cultural calendar determines their travel plans. Since he joined two years ago, he has taken his students to Jodhpur for World Sacred Spirit, a Sufi festival; this year, they're heading to Kochi for the biennale. Since all his secondary-school students are children of expats from France, Spain, Hungary, Russia, Lebanon, Canada and Belgium, this is a way to teach them more about India.

"We want them to immerse themselves in Indian culture," he says. "[After the festival], they can tell what instruments are being played, whether the artiste is using sarod, sitar or sarangi. They can tell the origin of these instruments. The older ones can even identify a couple of ragas, because we had different workshops at the festival. It's a great accomplishment to have students from such diverse backgrounds being able to understand elements of Indian history and culture. I can see a massive change [in them]." When we meet Gómez-Pablos, he is just back from a recce in Kochi. "It's very rare that we work with agencies," he says. "Because we want to make sure that the experience our kids have on the locations has a lot of meaning. The agency are not teachers; they're not part of our community. So, they rarely know what it is that we're looking for in this journey."

Amaro Gomez-Pablos. Pic by Ashish Raje
Amaro Gomez-Pablos. Pic by Ashish Raje

Taking professional help
Nikhil Jain and Carmen Pohl, co-founders of Culture Fox, might disagree. Culture Fox is a Delhi-based agency that specialises in participatory art experiences. They've arranged 14 tours to Europe, with schools such as Shiv Nadar School and The British School in Delhi and Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls School in Jaipur. About their workshops, Jain says, "The American Embassy School in Delhi has a pretty strong western classical music programme as part of their school curriculum. We've done five programmes with these guys in cities like Vienna, Salzburg and Munich, because these are pretty much the hub of classical music composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert. So, our programmes focus on workshops with well-known choirs and orchestras. Students arrive here and participate in workshops with Vienna Boys' Choir, or the Bach Choir, or the Camerata Orchestra. We work with the teacher to understand what kind of pieces or repertoire they want to focus on, so that it connects with the learning of the student in the classroom, and is not completely alien for them."

Culture Fox has recently launched its Mumbai chapter, and is set to engage with schools in the coming months. Another thing that differentiates them from regular tour operators is the expertise they bring to the table. "All our European programmes are curated and executed by Europeans, because no one knows local art and artists better than the locals," he says.

Nanda Das, Cathedral & John Connon School
Nanda Das, Cathedral & John Connon School

The overheads of travel
Of course, international trips cost a pretty penny. Culture Fox estimates the expense is between €180 and €220 [`15,000-`18,000] a day in Europe. But, you don't have to cross the seven seas to engage with art. Krishna, whose father worked in the foreign service and has lived in Chile, the US, Tanzania, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Germany, says, "I grew up outside all my life. I came here to do only college [the MS University of Baroda]. When I moved here, I realised that India in itself has so much to look at and discover, and it's so valuable. I would love to take the kids to see kalamkari in Andhra Pradesh, or to see the ikat printing process."

While an India-focussed art programme has about 5,000 years of craftsmanship to offer, the Renaissance can only be learnt in the art capitals of the world. Das, who graduated from JJ School of Art, says, "I had a dream to study at École des Beaux-Arts, which never happened. I want to fulfil that dream through my students. It is my personal initiative to take them to Florence. Of course, no institution can make a genius, that also I believe. But, it's healthy for them to go there, to experience the atmosphere, to see their light treatment. We are [talking to the] Florence Academy of Art, for a short 14-day bespoke programme." Hopefully, a few Mumbai students will get to see David in the flesh real soon.

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