Part 1: Utopia and the Politics of Creative Justice - 1

Note and Acknowledgement

The conversation on the painting “Coucal and Dancing frog at Chingara Waterfalls” was specific to my current second year Masters students who are doing their capstone project. However I also shared parts of the conversations with other friends, colleagues and five other batches of masters’ students, some of them merely highlights. All of them have contributed immensely in participating, being inspired and painting with me, sharing their memories of time in nature and just encouraging me to share and not feel shy or that I might be disturbing them, celebrating both my creative spirit and my relationship with nature and art along with me.


While the ten students who are an active part of this discussion are acknowledged here, others, I thank deeply for their time, space and affection. Additionally I would like to thank two young people I mentored, Sreelekha between 2009 and 14, Ramnath between 2012 and 2016, both of them now, accomplished creative practitioners in their own right. I have taken these conversations back to them as well, as our early explorations and forays into birding, environmental issues, creative practice, teaching and learning happened together. It has been wonderful tracing back our memories, while building new conversations together. I appreciate their time and engaged discussions with me.


Many thanks to my students - Ashwin Suresh, Hia Banerjee, Kaushik Kannan, Monica M Chandak, Mridul Verma, Nupur Agrawal, Pranav Sharma, Samridhi Pandey, Sonal Choudhury, Surabhi Singhai, for this participatory conversation and the contributions of their reflections in part 3.


The politics of creative justice lies at the heart of our conversations –my graduate students and me. And layered under this term “Creative Justice” are social design, thought and action, relationships with the natural world, the culture(s) of our classrooms, be they in real or virtual spaces, in open gardens or wilderness, and our relationships with each other and our own inner selves. 


Most of my students come from engineering, technology and other backgrounds except two of them who have backgrounds in applied arts and design. They have taken on an immense challenge of shifting careers and struggle with gaps in their skills and abilities for art and design. And to me as a mentor, it is a critical question, I have been pondering about for the last seven years of my teaching in this institution. In our meeting together in person last month (January 2021) as a collective in an actual classroom when COVID -19 restrictions had relaxed, they despaired and questioned on how they would ever arrive at being an artist/ designer and how they could find their own process and creative potential as they are getting ready to finish their final capstone project and will soon graduate in a few months. And my response to them was, it isn’t about what you have to learn but the bigger question is:

What to let go? – And it is from this memory that my pedagogy re-emerged in a different light in these two months. I decided to research the politics of the creative block through unfolding a creative process with them and cultivating a culture of conversations, metacognition and perception of their own creativity in response to mine.

At Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, (now Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology), where I have worked since 2014, I have set up programs in Information Arts and Information Design Practices, Earth Education and Communication and Reimagining Transitions. My work lies at the intersection of art, design, education, social interventions, politics of living, self-reflection and environment.  The most fundamental question I ask both as a curriculum designer and as a mentor is  - What does it take to be human? This very question in today’s world seems a utopian starting point. We have stunted our own growth and evolution as humans it seems like. We rush through life, we run after a rat race that we don’t comprehend, we are led by forces of greed and power that we are not even aware of and we destroy people and nature, our own beings and those of other species mindlessly and sometimes with willful blindness. 

At the college I teach in, where reimagining education lies at the heart of our everyday pursuits, I have been inquiring and pondering with my students for the last seven years, both undergrad and postgrad as also with my colleagues. In particular from the graduating batch of 2017 to my current students in their first and second years of Masters, our questions to each other have been pertinent, as we seek to challenge ourselves, all our preconceptions and biases and fashion ourselves anew each year. This is a hard job, because it destroys us in many ways, as we carefully nurture each other as well. It is scary, wonderful and exhilarating; it is also exhausting, tiring and devastating sometimes.

Why Creative Justice?

In India, we deal with cultural diversity and immense plurality of languages, economic backgrounds, belief systems, religious notions in the same classroom. We deal with the loss of cultural memories, intuitions, languages, personal voice and knowledge systems as an impact of colonization. With rapid development and globalization, we also struggle with an immense loss of the environment at an unsustainable pace. And the most delicate and fragile loss is the loss of our creativity; Creativity, as a way of life, as a natural instinct, as a way of being that was such an important part of this culture in its ancient and pre-colonial, early modern times.  This is the heart of our classroom – a remarkable rich, fertile group of young people with incredible plurality and a devastating loss of their own creative intuitions due to years of programmed mass education, impact of colonization, and a belief that one must become part of the rat race to survive, repeated by families generation after generation and their own private traumas and anxieties. And in this classroom, our politics lies in having all these conversations out - cathartic sometimes, in rage sometimes, in lack of confidence and courage oftentimes, with a feeble and undeveloped vocabulary to speak of these many injustices that have shaped our lives, so that we can let go and create. Artistic research in this context is really centered around asking – What do we need to let go to be able to create? And we begin in this mess. We must each year build trust among our small groups and be able to relax in each other’s presence to be able to speak of these things, find our lost languages and embark on our creative journeys.

It has taken me seven years with different students in this institution, and another ten years of working with students from across the country and elsewhere in the world to map some of these issues, to understand what stops them, blocks them from: creating, engaging with communities, walking in wilderness, embracing life in all its fullness. This is my utopia; I want them to live full rich creative lives that are compassionate, joyous and cognizant and loving of all life around them as they make art, design for themselves or for the wellbeing of the society at large. Over time, they too have come to buy into this dream, as we laugh and joke about it together. We know it is idealistic as we give ourselves a healthy dose of everyday reality, job scenarios, market requirements, work related issues, health crisis that emerges from living this fast mindless life and financial needs.  


Every year, as a mentor, I despair over the blockages that stop my students from seeing their own creative spirit and splendor. I want to show them that creativity is generative, like the spider who weaves from within herself, the baya weaver who builds his nests, rivers that flow shaping rocky mountains and crafting valleys. Creativity is simple, natural and the very essence of life. It is also meditative, contemplative and reflective. It is silent and still, not loud, noise or egoistic. I want them to connect back to the heart of their own creativity, redefining and reimagining their own identities, personhood and agency.