Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Role of Traditional Architecture and Craft in Education

Architectural Craft in Education

Text of the paper delivered in the Seminar at the India International Centre on 19th June 2009
By Anisha Shekhar Mukherji

       1.                                 My understanding of the role that traditional craft and architecture can play in education, is based on my exposure to professional architectural study and practice, and my perspective of studying in almost ten schools all over India. My work as a conservation architect and an author of architectural history has reinforced my view that our diverse and exquisite indigenous architecture and craft, can be utilized as hugely important tools to make many aspects of basic education come alive, especially to school students.1 However, our attitudes and abilities as parents, teachers, policy makers, and politicians are generally so restricted by our own school education that instead of recognizing this, we relegate our craftspeople and their skills, as well as our vast resource of traditional architecture to something unimportant and unnecessary, even regressive and backward. Instead, we orient our children to an unquestioning faith in ‘modern industrial’ technology. This coupled with the excessive specialization that we endorse today in education and careers, is an incomplete and unsatisfactory way of looking at the world and dealing with it. Even ostensibly more creative professions today such as art or design, follow standard methods that are almost exclusively centred on a western modernist orientation, with a guiding principle that deems the application of history as superfluous. This fosters mindsets that reject everything that is unfamiliar, as false, unworthy or untrue.

This is evident in the way we plan our cities today, paying no heed to the wisdom and beauty encapsulated in traditional settlements, whether it is the Mughal imperial garden-city of Shahjahanabad, or the urban villages that punctuate our expanding megalopolis of New Delhi, or indeed any traditional town or village. Town-planning schemes literally turn a blind eye to such settlements. Rather than trying to understand the way in which indigenous settlements dealt with space, society, transport or climate; new or proposed towns are banal copies of inappropriate past and current western superficial trends. Rather than understanding how traditional craft optimizes resources and skill, most of us endorse environmental and health disasters in the form of plastic products that often parody these same craft-forms.

Indeed, the effort seems to be to ensure that traditional crafts and their practitioners do not exist. When not actively demolished in ostensible ‘improvement schemes’, our old cities are left to decay or degenerate into slums with even basic infrastructure not being upgraded for decades. Craftspeople are even more vulnerable, not being made of stone or brick. When not displaced by ‘large developmental projects’ or wiped out by large industrial competitors, they and their works are relegated to niche decorative objects with an ever-shrinking consumer base. And when we do recognize some isolated examples of our vast and varied heritage as worthy of being conserved, we choose to freeze them in time, erecting fences or walls around them, anointing them with plaques celebrating their national or world heritage status, yet doing very little to integrate them in contemporary life or to ensure that people associate with them in any meaningful way.

2.                                            I believe that exposure to our architectural heritage may be particularly useful to help us as a nation, a society and a culture to come to terms with many things, including our past and our future. Not only is traditional architecture a microcosm of different fields that involves practically all the different ‘subjects’ that we study in school, but it also embraces every aspect of life that we need to know in order to live sensibly. A historic building is an illustration of an integrated understanding of various disciplines―it cannot be constructed, and cannot last for centuries otherwise. Unfortunately, in formal architectural training today, the way of learning is fragmented, linear and compartmentalized that prevents such an overall comprehension. As undergraduate students at the well-known School of Planning and Architecture, neither did our varied curriculum of art, science, and humanities ever tie up to a whole, nor did we question their relevance or look at their application in issues of poverty, humanity, environment or culture.

3. Ideally, our school education itself should equip us with a holistic understanding of the world. This, as we all know does not happen. At present, in our education system we either learn in great detail about only one subject, or learn about a great many subjects as separate systems of knowledge. School education today, particularly the CBSE stresses isolationistic book-learning with an inordinate emphasis on abstract theories to the exclusion of application. Despite the experiments in playway education in some mainstream ‘progressive’ schools, children are inundated with theoretical information from the earliest years of school or at the latest by class four or five. Even in Environmental Science - a compulsory subject of late - the method of assessment is to test theoretical knowledge about organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, rather than on helping students to understand the implications of everyday actions on the environment. The overriding emphasis today on computer-assignments as an educational tool, is a part of the same isolationist view which cannot apply the lessons of environmental science to other subjects and certainly not to daily life!

We cannot get away from this educational cul-de-sac unless we redefine the concept of conventional formal education. This form of education is a distorted version of the segregation and fragmentation, specialization and confrontation that are inherent parts of the methods of inquiry followed in Western tradition. Such a form of education, as our colonial experience, as well as our own society today frighteningly demonstrates, does not make us ‘willing to respect and accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own’3 or to be ‘progressive, tolerant, unbiased, enlightened, or impartial’. It does not foster a discernment of fundamental principles and an engagement with ethics. Today, the common feature at present is the attempt at standardization which promotes ‘indoctrination’―a dangerous synonym of education. We teach students using a standardized syllabus that keeps out non-conventional world views, particularly ‘pre-industrial’ social, spatial, scientific or artistic systems. We enroll students from a ‘standard’ economic and social stratum and we employ teachers of a ‘standard’ profile, keeping out non-conventional educators or practitioners.

4.   It appears that the first step is to reform this ‘standardization’, which at best insulates, and at worst divorces us from our local contexts. It neither fosters respect for others nor for the natural environment, and not even the knowledge of our own strengths and weaknesses, which is the real basis for self-respect. It is in this context, that including exposure to craftspeople and their skills as a way of teaching, becomes so important, even imperative. I could cite many reasons, but I will confine myself to a few main ones. One, that without these skills, our wealth of historic buildings and crafts that give us identity and pride as a culture, that we treasure as heirlooms, would never have been created. Two, unlike much of the world, and despite active discouragement―even oppression―there is still a sizable community of crafts practitioners of remarkable skill and creativity in our country today, who are able to produce with just their hands and their minds, objects of great beauty and utility. They produce something real and useful, unlike the virtual goods that most of us, the conventionally educated do. Three, these craftspeople provide employment for themselves with a minimum drain on national resources. Even when they practice highly specialized skills, such as that of Benarasi weavers, they do not do so in isolation, but in ways thoughtful of resources and the environment. Much of traditional knowledge, whether expressed as the living skills of craftspeople or encapsulated in the architecture or design of our historic buildings or cities, is a distillation of specific community and individual knowledge honed over years, sometimes even centuries. Four, if we do not do so, very soon, these skills may disappear completely. In our society today and the values it promotes through its education, shamefully, we no longer have place for the centuries old skills of our craftspeople, which traditionally operate within a societal framework. Benarasi weavers today are instead forced to pull rickshaws while traditional goldsmiths in Tamil Nadu, some of whom are offered re-employment as liquor-salesman in government shops, are consuming cyanide as machines take over their work.

To my mind, there are two basic stimuli to learning, and when we look at very young children these stimuli can be seen most clearly. One is, to actively ‘do’―to make something, not just sit passively. The other is the love for stories, which are invaluable in explaining even complex notions of philosophy, conduct, etc. as the Mahabharata and much of our traditional literature demonstrates. Both these basic attributes of learning can be especially stimulated when we use traditional craft and built heritage as learning tools. Theoretical instruction instead of remaining abstract, can be linked to real life, illustrated through stories and examples. Students can physically touch and see, stand within and walk around; and listen to stories about people who lived in them, about events that happened because of these buildings or in them, about objects, about the people who made them or still make them. This does not mean that we add another subject titled, heritage and culture to our students’ curriculum, but that we teach existing subjects through this medium and link it to present events too. The primary goal of education, should be to open a method of enquiry for its students to judge situations, to formulate their actions, to evolve into good human beings, not to produce individuals whose sole aim is to earn more.

5. Let me give an example, through the Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience, just one part of the historical Red Fort in Delhi, the imperial palace built for the Emperor Shah Jahan more than three hundred and fifty years ago. One can explain social structure through the form and use of this building―the Mughal emperors in their role of a strict and watchful though caring father-figure gave audience on their throne in this Hall, for two hours every single morning, and dealt with administrative matters with the direct representatives and ‘employees’ of the Empire―soldiers, noblemen, princes, ambassadors, envoys, ministers―who could not absent themselves from this morning audience either. And so the court-records write of the time when Emperor Aurangzeb insisted on being carried to the Diwan-i-Am in a palanquin even when he was unwell, rather than miss this daily audience. In the same Hall and its courtyard, every Wednesday, the Emperor directly dispensed justice specially to the poor and oppressed, who could enter without fear of being stopped. Compare this with the current inaccessibility of most of our politicians and bureaucrats in high posts.

One can explain spatial rules, sensible ways of living and sustainable architecture through this same space: thus, the paved courtyard in front of the Diwan-i-Am acted as a gathering space for hundreds of people, horses, elephants that thronged the court; while the colonnades around the courtyard offered shaded areas to move in or to await the Emperor’s arrival; and the qanats or awnings were tied to the overhanging eaves of the Diwan-i-Am to increase the available shaded area in the hot Delhi climate―a more refined version of the canvas or plastic sheets stretched out by many roadside shops even today. Contrast these with our current norms of building, where in our bid to maximize covered space, we do not provide sunshades or colonnades and instead allow buildings to be clad almost entirely in glass and thereby create environmental and climatic disasters. One can explain environment science, how thoughtful responses to the climate can alter our ways of living for the better: thus, the Mughal rulers abandoned the narrow channels of water and straight trees common in their gardens in the mountains and instead used wide tanks and larger-canopied trees. Again compare this with the officially preferred mode of landscape today, the water-guzzling vast stretches of lawn and completely inappropriate imported ornamental palm-trees which give no shade at all, propagated by everyone from the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh to the streets and highways of Delhi, to any of the city Hotels―instead of planting indigenous plants or shady trees.

One can explain concepts of physics through the different structures; how force is transmitted through the domes or arches of the different buildings; or chemistry through properties of building materials―how lime mortar and plaster is made by slaking anhydrous lime, how it reacts with the air and the other additives of gur, gum, dal to set into a durable and beautiful plaster. One can explain geometry and its application in the stable circular or oval forms of the domes generated from square or rectangular rooms, in the beautiful patterns made by interlocking hexagons or octagons in the amazingly intricate jalis, columns, carvings. The list is endless. Similarly, an exposure and training to craft techniques, would not only explain how utilitarian objects and buildings can be made beautiful through the interlinking of craft and building, but also demonstrate how we can create something tangible with just our hands and brains and basic tools, without the intercession of any complicated machinery. Such education can give a deep sense of fulfillment and self reliance, and nurture a balanced society that is made up of people who are content and who know their own strengths.

Thus, a single historic building can communicate many aspects of basic and advanced education, and explain how what we study has a direct use in life. The exposure to built and living heritage can easily convey the importance of practical instruction and encourage working with ones hands, to learn by ‘doing’ so that satisfaction and a sense of achievement are the incentives to learn, not marks. The dissemination and discussion on traditional and indigenous knowledge, through an active involvement of non-mainstream disciplines or cultures - such as folk artists, craftspeople, poets- rather than just conventional academics and theoreticians, can help to create a more inclusive and balanced society.

However, this sort of education does not fit the official notion of education or development, which is still the Nehruvian one, which in turn is heavily influenced by western industrialized systems of living and learning. The western model, as we have learnt to our cost, is incapable of accepting any other path to an alternative development option. The only way for a change to happen, is for the Government, as the overall authority responsible for running the country, to realize that the present notion of development, and therefore education is flawed. It must, as must we all, recognise the necessity of holistic teaching and evaluation methods. We can take cues from indigenous methods of inquiry which before the advent of western education were4 far more holistic, conducted in natural and cheerful physical environments, and with methods of effectual and economical teaching. An engagement with the natural world and exposure to thoughtful human interventions in the form of traditional heritage, would help students obtain a more complete understanding of the world and an enjoyment of the process of learning. Primacy to indigenous traditions in formative years, would help enquiry and experimentation in other systems–whether non-indigenous, non-mainstream, or unconventional.

1.       Architecture gives an insight into the living conditions, methods and materials of construction, concepts of time and culture of previous generations. In fact, some countries in the world are already experimenting with using architecture as a tool for teaching school children.
2.       Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree, Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, First Published by Impex India 1971, Republished 2000 by Other India Press, Goa, in association with SIDH Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas, Mussoorie
3.       The Mahabharata An Inquiry Into the Human Condition, Chaturvedi Badrinath, Orient Longman 2006, p.10-11.
The Hindu Tuesday, April 7 2009, ‘The hands that craft and create’, Priscilla Jebaraj.
4.       Educational experiments, such as the one where a flower-seller and her five year old daughter, were instructors to Class Six students in the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhawan in T. Nagar in Chennai for three days, as reported in The Hindu. The report also mentions that CBSE has already worked out a syllabus in handicrafts for an elective course in Classes 11 and 12.

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