Educational curricula have different theoretical underpinnings, and different resources are used to support the perspectives and pedagogies espoused through these underpinnings. Kumar (2014), in discussing the history of fine arts pedagogy in India, observes that pedagogical approaches by Indian institutions are based on three aspects: colonial perspectives, indigenous trends, and radical perspectives. He notes that art schools in India offering undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral programs in fine art all work on the same pedagogical structures in use since before India’s independence. Singanapalli (2005) in the context of design education in India claims that the pedagogy of India’s pioneering design institute, the National Design Institute (NID), was not influenced by any one particular school of thinking, but from the influence of many schools of thought, including modernist approaches located in Bauhaus pedagogy. 

Educational approaches, whether modernist, indigenous, colonial, or other, hold assumptions about learning and inculcate specific ways of seeing and framing the world that inform the design of curricula. Corresponding canons of knowledge and pedagogical resources supporting them are subsequently chosen to inform curricular content. These resources can take various forms such as scholarly literature, artefacts, books and articles, or online digital material. Through my doctoral work, I have been researching pedagogical resources for the study of plants within the Indian educational context and that draw from Indian street art and design practices.

Plant study can be approached through various genres within art and design. Contemporary engagements with the botanical include ecological art, land art, and sustainable art and design, for example. However, these genres are not specifically limited to plants. Botanical art, however, specifically attends to the study of plants through art practices. It was established as a field during colonial expansion when plant illustrations were needed to assist with botanical identification and with the documentation of diverse plant species, where botanists had to collaborate with artists in order to accurately represent plants. As a result, anatomical precision became a characteristic feature of this genre and representational accuracy became the dominant visual convention associated with the expression of plants through botanical art (Rix 2013; Saunders 1995).

In India, plant representations are widely used as art and design elements across a range of publicly encountered surfaces and structures within the visual culture of city streets – on vehicles, walls, architectural elements such as gates and grills, and in signage material across shop fronts and on streets. The treatment of these floral and vegetal motifs is often decorative and gestural, painted in bold and bright colours, sometimes using dense layers of paint or drawn with chalk powder. These representational techniques are far removed from the scientifically precise drawing techniques associated with the conventional definitions of botanical art. Since 2008, I have been photographing these kinds of botanical motifs, encountered while travelling for work and leisure through various Indian cities.

The images below, starting top left with the white lotus, are representative of a range of art and design practices: sculptures of lotus-shaped tulsi plant holders outside homes in Goa, hand-painted lotus motifs on water tankers in Bangalore, stencilled taxi cab signs in Kolkata, moulding designs on cement street signs near Pondicherry, hand-painted border designs on the bodies of mini-trucks in Chennai, and circular National Permit stencils on trucks near Mumbai. Over the past few years, through my practice as an art and design teacher at a higher education institution in Bangalore, I have been exploring pedagogies that are relevant to these kinds of cultural expressions of plants (Sachdev 2019). Having had a long-standing fascination for botanical motifs, and upon noticing their repeated presence in street art and design artefacts within my and my student’s surrounding visual culture, I saw in them an opportunity as a readily and publicly available teaching resource for plants. Over the past decade, plants have become critical as subject matter due to the worldwide environmental crises, and educational initiatives across global cultures are being compelled to respond by bringing students’ attention to plants through curricula.

Culture and Plant Perception

Cultural attitudes influence perceptions of flora. In India, many plants are considered sacred and thus are often revered and worshipped. They are associated with various religious traditions, myths, and agricultural rituals and are deeply interwoven into various cultural practices (Gupta 2001; Herbert 2011; Jaitley 2007; Patnaik 1999). In contrast, since nature was not considered sacred by the British, this led to stricter boundaries and differences in the way they regarded nature (Herbert 2011). 

Cultural conventions also influence the way plants are represented. Art and design educator and critical pedagogue Atkinson (2011) discusses how, when his own assessment of his Indian student’s representation of flowers was radically different from that of his English students, he was prompted to reflect upon and reconsider his pedagogical approaches in the context of different cultural ways of seeing. Much earlier, Havell (1920) observed that Western methods of art-teaching in India were based on the assumption that Indian artists were ignorant of anatomy and perspective. Western academic prejudices saw Indian art as ‘detestable’ (xviii) and overlooked the fact that in portraying simple and obvious symbolic forms, the primary intent of Indian artists was the visualization of religious and philosophical ideals. Hindu art (referring to the art of India in general as Hindus historically were, and are currently, the country’s dominant religious community and majority population) was not created for pleasure or distraction – the purpose of art according to Indian cultural traditions was spiritual satisfaction.


Culture and Pedagogy

Jerome Bruner (1996) emphasised the importance of making connections between students’ culture and their learning. He believed that our minds are shaped by our culture and that we inherit the ways in which it frames phenomena – the constructs it uses for perceiving, thinking, feeling, and carrying out discourse. Culture provides the conceptual tools by which we build our identities and comprehend our world, and our minds can achieve their full potential only by participating in culture. 

Rabindranath Tagore’s famous historical pedagogical experiment in Santiniketan, Bengal, beginning as early as the 1920s, also emphasised the role of culture. Santiniketan’s teaching and learning processes connected the youth to their cultural antecedents and heritage, and their natural environment. According to Tagore, effective teaching in art connects learners to their culture (2009). The art school Tagore built, Kala Bhavan, as part of the Viswa Bharati University that still exists today, incorporated pedagogy planned around India’s seasonal calendar and involved subject matter that drew from cultural practices. These included clay surfacing and relief techniques used in villages and for building structures in the surrounding areas; embroidery, mat weaving, and quilting practised by rural households; and terracotta pottery, weaving, and basketry traditions from different areas across the country. Tagore along with his friend and colleague Nandalal Bose believed it was necessary to inculcate aesthetic expression towards one’s surroundings. During Bose’s leadership tenure at Kala Bhavan, the alpana, an ancient floor art ritual, was incorporated as part of the school’s formal curricular teaching and learning activities. This pedagogical approach upheld Bose and Tagore’s vision that learning environments should always be aesthetic, and that the ideals, techniques, and visual grammar rooted in cultural and living heritage were inherited by students (Ghosh 2019).