Updated: Sep 19
In the concluding week of July 2022, the Delhi Art Gallery opened an extensive exhibition at the Indian Museum (Kolkata) commemorating 75 years of Indian independence from British colonial rule, titled ‘March to Freedom’. History for Peace was invited to conduct a workshop for adolescents focussed on becoming guides to the exhibition, particularly for their peers.
After a few hiccups and rescheduling, we met our 25 prospective peer-guides on 6 September at the Museum. The students were from classes 9 to 12 of Akshar, Calcutta International School and Modern High School, with a lone, class 8 History enthusiast from St. Xavier’s Collegiate School. Out of the eight thematic areas that the narrative of the March to Freedom exhibition is divided into, we chose to focus on two given the limited time of the workshops: 'Battles for Freedom' and 'Shaping the Nation'.
The plan on Day 1 was to allow students maximum time to engage with the artworks in the exhibition in their own ways before focussing on the first of the two thematics we had picked. We began with a free-flowing viewing of the show for the students that was aimed towards getting them to take a closer look at the works without our intervention at first, and getting their instinctive responses to them. They were then taking us all around to show and discuss the work that they were most drawn to out of the entire exhibition. This turned out to be an exciting exercise that brought out some rather interesting and sometimes even unusual observations about some of the works. There was one such instance of particular interest among the entire group with the work, Merry Go Round, by Stella Brown: While this work was placed under the section on independence, students pointed out how the expression on the face of the child was that of extreme fear. This, they read as fear and anxiety for what is to come with the future of the country in shambles and the looming horror of Partition. Further, they read the artist’s depiction of the merry-go-round as symbolic of the inescapable rut that the colonizers had left the country in which would make any progress redundant. Another student added that the expression on the child's face also seemed to indicate that the child, unlike the others on the merry-go-round, did not experience the jubilation they did with independence, since the memory of colonial oppression was far stronger among the older people. Quite a few students discussed how they were most drawn to the Chittaprasad works, given both the visual familiarity of the form and the students' being conversant with many of the specific historical references he includes in his political cartoons.
The next segment of the workshop was dedicated to an art hunt where we divided the students into groups of five, with each group being given a set of clues about 5 works that we were most drawn to. This brought much enthusiasm among the students. It turned out to be a significant exercise in getting them to spend some time on viewing works because they were reading into the works without direct descriptions of them. This was followed by a brief break.
Upon coming back from the break, we went into the first section that we were going to work on with them, that is the section titled ‘Battles for Freedom’. We began with the students viewing the works closely minus the text descriptions which we had covered except for the technical details of the artworks (name of artwork, artist, dimensions, medium), so that they would respond to the artwork itself instead of being carried away into the text, which tends to happen often given our limited spaces of engagement with art—an observation shared by the students too. Thereafter, we went into questioning why the section was called as such—the nature of the plurality of the struggles in this moment and the need to look beyond the meta narratives of the 1857 Uprising and the larger freedom struggle. There, we introduced them to several other movements that preceded 1857, for instance the Paika Rebellion, Vellore Mutiny, Santal Hul, thus trying to understand why these narratives get left out from our collective imagination of this period. This led to them working on the interactive table in that section which is directed at questioning the kinds of nomenclature that are used in referring to these events in our historical imagination—movements, resistance, conflict, battle, war of independence among others. Following in that vein, we discussed the contestation in the nomenclature of the 1857 uprising, and how much it is in retrospect that we are able to make these differences because history is as much about the past as about our place and positionality in society at present.
We then moved to some specific works including that by Henry Singleton, The Last Effort and Fall of Tippoo Sultaun, wherein the students pointed out how stark the racial hierarchies were. We then drew them back to understanding that the work has been defined as a ‘history painting’ and what that genre of artwork entails beyond the strict confines of the colonized versus colonizer narrative. The next set of works we explored were the landscape paintings in that section, leading them to think about the rationale of placing landscape paintings within a section titled ‘Battles for freedom’. Finally, we concluded with reading the M.S. Morgan work, Storming of Delhi, where the students almost unanimously felt that the particular work depicted the most number of people and a vivid sense of destruction. We then got to exploring why they felt this way, encouraging them to think about the use of the background and foreground by the artist in a way that makes the visual strike them the way it does. The session concluded with discussing how the physical landscape of cities changes with the experience of war and its aftermath taking off from the description of the work where it says that ‘much of Delhi was destroyed in 1857’.
Since some of the students had been quite exhausted by the end of Day 1, we decided to open the second day helping them refresh their memories by inviting their impressions from their viewing experience the previous day. Initially reluctant, the responses started trickling into what turned into a broad conversation discussing the difference medium and style can play in how the same object is portrayed or even perceived, and some of the artworks from the art hunt to re-look at them closely and question our initial immediate interpretations. From here, we moved to the focus for the day with a brief question: What is a ‘nation’ to you? This evolved into an animated discussion that veered from Gandhi to the nineteenth century socio-religious reforms movements, to distinctions between revivalism and reformism, to name a few.
Stemming from this discussion, we next asked the peer-guides to take ten minutes to browse the ‘Shaping the Nation’ segment of the exhibition and identify any object/element in the artworks that to them represents ‘nation’. The varied responses lent themselves to an interesting discussion on the choices they made. After this, we delved deeper into this section of the exhibition giving students a worksheet and 15 minutes to re-look at the works, picking any one they are drawn to before taking on the questions in the worksheet. The questions required them to look for any symbols or markers they could identify in the image; to try to identify what historical events or moments may be referenced in the artwork and finally, what other names come to their minds when looking at the work.
Fifteen busy minutes later we moved into a discussion based on the responses we received. Interestingly, most of the students had focused their attention on the Gandhi posters and the Chittaprosad cartoons, the latter of which some students told us they found most relatable as a form, with painting feeling less ‘accessible’. For a student who had picked a photograph of Dr. Zakir Husain, an interesting conundrum arose when answering the worksheet: she did not know how to apply the first question to her chosen work. While we asked her to leave out the question then if she wasn’t sure how to answer it, another student’s having no trouble with the question for her chosen work—a sketch of Subhash Chandra Bose—allowed for a conversation on how some figures dominate our visual imagination to the extent of feeling familiar, over others. A print in the same segment, titled ‘Hamare Veer’, rather in the illustration style of the freedom fighter charts that we so widely used in schools, took this conversation further. When asked to identify the figures in the print (without access to the descriptive text), the students were successfully able to identify all of them—Bhagat Singh by jauntily tilted hat, Maharana Pratap Singh and Shivaji by their respective headgears, Chandrashekhar Azad by his twirling moustache and Rani Laxmibai simply by virtue of being the only woman from the subcontinent in that period who finds visual representation in the mainstream. We spent some time thinking and discussing how this easy visual familiarity had developed for people they had never even seen photographs of. The students had many questions over the details in the Chittaprosad cartoons, not all of which we or the guides at the museum could respond to with absolute certainty. However, this lent us the opportunity to talk a little about the artist, his politics as well as the CPI magazine (People’s Age) his cartoons were largely published in.
One of the things we overall tried to emphasize here was for the peer guides to think about why each of the artworks in any of the sections was included in that section—for instance, what does the inclusion of the Chittaprosad political cartoons or even the portraits such as of the industrialist David Sassoon or The Gaekwar in a section titled ‘Shaping the Nation’ say? What does it reveal of the curatorial narrative or logic?
With the snack break done, we returned straight to the point, giving students a few minutes to come back with what they think a peer guide should keep in mind, based on the time they had spent in this exhibition as well as their previous experiences. To be well informed about the art and its context(s), to be concise and interesting, to keep the guiding relatable, interactive and engaging, to make the format closer to ‘storytelling’ rather than overcrowding viewers with information were the points the peer guides came up with. From here, we divided students into four groups, each comprising a mix of participating schools. Two groups were assigned the Battles for Freedom segment and two Shaping the Nation and given 30 minutes to work as groups and work out a strategy for how they would like to guide their peers through the exhibition. Adding to the points they had already come up with, we asked them to focus on those works they felt drawn to and wanted to draw viewers’ attention to, rather than trying to unrealistically focus on all of them and overwhelm the viewer’s experience. A busy thirty minutes later, it was time to demonstrate! Keeping limited time in mind, we picked one group from each segment to demo to the rest of us. The students who were in the role of viewer asked the demonstrating peer guides questions and drew their attention to things they may be interested in knowing about as viewers. Students shared with us their curiosities about certain works—we helped out wherever we could, once or twice drawing the exhibition’s appointed guides in for their support. The two demonstrations were more rushed than we had anticipated since the first part of the workshop took up a little longer than scheduled. However, this process seemed to really give the students a more concrete idea of what the role of a peer guide is. We concluded the day with a final discussion on what worked and what didn’t, thereafter sharing with the peer guides a brief ‘handbook for peer guides’ we put together based on our collective observations.
[Image courtesy: Srijaa Kundu, DAG]
Upon having completed the workshop, the students gave a guided walkthrough of these 2 segments of the show to museum visitors and other school students visiting from the city on 9 and 16 September. This turned out to be a valuable experience for them since they were engaging with the artworks and the historical narrative therein across multiple layers. Further, the sheer range of visitors that the Indian Museum sees allowed space for their interactions to be led into many different directions. They were asked a diverse range of questions and offered interpretations which took them by surprise, and got them to think and articulate their thoughts further in that process. They were particularly excited on guiding a group of artists and academics who were visiting the exhibition which led to a meaningful conversation, opening up many avenues for the students in reading artworks closely.
[Image courtesy: Srijaa Kundu, DAG]