Language Beyond Words and History Beyond Text | Anagha Bhat

After completing my graduation in sculpture, when I joined the Masters course in archaeology, everyone asked me two seemingly simple questions:  “Why archaeology after sculpture? What is the connection between the two?” When I thought about it then I really had no answer. Today, when I look back at the same question after spending almost eight years in the field of archaeology, I have an answer. These two subjects are nothing but two sides of the same coin called ‘culture’.

Archaeology, in particular, is a discipline that studies culture through its material manifestations. It provides tools to understand the past through various objects left behind by ancient people.Although these objects are often called ‘art’ by modern people because of their decorative motifs, their original purpose was to be used as ornaments or toys, as modes of transaction or for rituals and so on. These objects tell us about the thought processes that went into creating them and also how the ancient people interacted with their environments. 

For example, what we consider as rock ‘art’ today, tells us much more than the artistic skills utilized to make the art. It tells us about the surrounding environment, tools they used, trees, animals, the gods they worshiped and their emotions towards these and many other things.

As a sculptor I always feel that form plays a vital role in our lives.  It is not merely a shape but the expression and interaction with the environment. Archaeology allows me to go deeper into this interaction with the help of the forms depicted in the art. Not only does this approach give me a chance to reconstruct the mundane environment but also the emotional experiences as well.

Awareness about this process appears to be missing in art education or education in general in India. Learning art today, students are restricted only to forms and shapes. Nobody bothers to look at the thought processes behind the creation and evolution of these forms and shapes.  We seem to have forgotten this very bond between human past and modern art forms and this has led to fragmentation of these subjects in the educational system. Socio-cultural context to learning art is conditioned and is too often a mere mechanical form of ritualistic repetition. This is dumping of information into fresh young minds to repeat and follow. It has little to do with its proclaimed aims of art education, far from bringing in the quality of life which allows for the capacity of thinking and creating.

Keeping this in mind, I designed an experiment for age twelve students in order to test whether they, when told about this link, could look at pictorial forms with a deeper perspective. One school, Aksharnandan (Abode of Letters) in Pune (Maharashtra State, India) gave me an opportunity to run this experiment with their students; it was really a fabulous experience for me as a teacher.

The experiment was called Language beyond Words and History beyond Text. I used primitive art forms as a tool to show the students how ancient man began conveying his thoughts through drawings when verbal language was probably not there.  Also I wanted my students to learn to read the thoughts of ancient people and interpret what they were trying to say through their art work. 

The experiment was divided in two sections: an interactive lecture by me and an activity for students.

While delivering the lecture I told the cultural process of human kind. I explained to the students that primitive art, tribal art and modern art are nothing but links of the same chain and these paintings talk to us in the language which is beyond words, and is universal. After this lecture I distributed 60 paintings among the students. These paintings were the random collection of prehistoric rock art forms from different regions: African rock paintings, Egyptian rock paintings, Spanish rock paintings and so on. Each student got two paintings; they were asked to look closely at their paintings and then to write a story about what they thought the artist was trying to say. I was curious to see whether they would be able to ‘hear’ the narrative of the picture and then express that story in words. 

Here are a few examples of the students’ stories.  They are written in Devnagari script, which is used to write Marathi language. Marathi is the state language of Maharashtra state in India. It belongs to Indo-Aryan group of languages.

Vidyadhish came up with this story on his picture:

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“There was a man. Whose name was Lingo. He was wandering in the jungle one day. Suddenly he felt very hungry. He went back in his cave, and asked his wife to give something to eat. But as there was no flesh stored in the cave, he went back in the jungle for hunt. He took his boomerang and sphere along. While wandering in the jungle he saw two deers.  He threw boomerang on one deer, killed one deer and another ran away. He went back to the cave happily with the hunt.”

Mukta got this picture. She had two ways of interpretation for the same picture.
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First interpretation: “These people are going to attend some event. That is why they have decorated themselves with tree leaves. The person is standing in the left has some musical instrument in his hands. It is looking like a drum.”

Second interpretation: “These two people are going for the hunt. They have bows and arrows. They are wearing leaves on their head to hide in the bushes. And because of tree leaves they are easily camouflaged.”

Second Picture:image

“These are ‘dancing people’ in the picture. All of them are facing in one direction, so I think they are looking at the singer who is not in the picture. All the three figures don’t have left legs, so I think all of them have lifted their left feet to dance.”

This is Neeraja’s story:
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“These might be their gods or could be ghosts also. It is also possible that these are changing and overlapping images of gods, turned into a collage.”

Kalyani says,

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“There are two animal carts. Two people are sitting on each cart. One man is standing on the ground. And he is saying ‘start’. I think it is a race between two groups.”

Rohit thinks,

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“There are two different groups in the picture. One of them has hunted an animal. And another one is fighting to get it. There seems to be almost a battle between these two groups. The group on the right side wants to steal the hunt.”

Mihir writes,

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“There are sheep grazing in the field. They are running hither and thither. There is a fox in the middle of the flock. He has turned his tail upwards, so he is looking like he is ready in the position to attack on sheep.”

There are 60 more pictures and 60 more stories and interpretations. It is not possible to mention all of them here. It was really heartening and satisfying to see these children, unhindered by the regimental and restricted ways of art learning, really going beyond the shapes. It often happens that the spoken words or the drawn shapes come with their own baggage of prejudice. In this case, however, the students understood the connection between art and past and could hear’ the pictures and feel the history! This experiment led me to newer insights of the methods of teaching. I want to use art as an effective tool to teach the cultural processes of human life where the students can see their own reflections and find out their own place in the history of humans.

imageAfter completing graduation in sculpture from Sir.J.J.School of Art, Mumbai (India), Anagha Bhat did masters in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology and now is perusing her doctoral research at the Department of Archaeology, Deccan College PGRI, Pune (India). Through her research, she is trying to combine art and archaeology together for teaching students about cultural processes. She believes this will lead to formation of a bond between the students and their environment and further to the sustainable preservation of heritage. She has been awarded ‘Jawaharlal Nehru Scholarship’ for the same. She works as a freelance educator, conducts various lectures and workshops at schools and art colleges. Contact Anagha at anagha.bh@gmail.com or visit www.anagha2102.blogspot.in

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