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Tryst with an Art Expert – Alok (Dada) Tirth Bhowmick

Artwork by Alok Tirtha bhowmick

Eccentric and loud, when you meet art educationist, Alok Tirtha Bhowmick, for the first time, he would come across as a very stern individual. But, it only takes a few minutes of conversation to bring out his friendly side. Always full of ideas and concepts, my fond memories of meeting and working with Bhowmick Sir dates back to my school days at The Doon School. Walking around with his hand-painted umbrella or driving around in his car that had been converted to a colorful canvas, he was always light-hearted and full of thought provoking ideas. His philosophy was, “Do what comes naturally to you. Do not suppress the creative explosion happening inside your mind.” Here is our interview with an unconventional art visionary who goes by the name Dada (elder brother in Bengali). Starting of at Shantiniketan: Born in a small town in North Bengal, he was curious just like every other kid on the block. One of the biggest attractions in town was an area popular for its artisans making sculptures of goddess Durga and Saraswati (Indian Goddess of Power and Education). Dada, who happened to be just 4 years old at that time, was so fascinated by their magical talent that he collected some clay and sat down to make his own sculpture. His need to create and experiment grew exponentially with age.  “On Diwali, I wanted to convert the whole house into a temple, collecting all sort of recyclable material, I created things to decorate my entire house.” One of his cousin brother, who happened to be a professor in Shantiniketan (known as the center for art and culture in India) saw his artistic talent. Shocked by his family’s inability to see his raw talent and passion for art, his brother took him along to Shantiniketan. Enrolling at a school in Shantiniketan, at the young age of 9 yr, his true art training started under a proper ‘guru’ (teacher). Physics is not meant for everyone: At Shantiniketan, art was a compulsory subject in high school. Every student had to take classes in art, music and dance. While his parents were not happy with his growing interest in art, their concerns were put at bay as Dada was doing quite well academically. Following his parents advise he went in for a graduation in Physics. Realization happened soon enough. After one of his physics paper in college, he stood outside the examination hall, looking back at his life. He visualized his future; he did not see himself as a physician. He wanted something else from life and surprisingly he could see it clearly; he wanted to dedicate his life to art. He quit physics and got admission at Kala Bhavan (renowned art institution in Shantiniketan). There he studied under some of the most well known artist of India such as Ram Kinker Baij, Tyeb Mehta, to name a few.   Working in the Education Sector: “When I passed out in 1991, India was under license raj. Very few people bought artwork. There was no art market. There were no private art galleries in Kolkata. Being an artist in those days was impossible.” Trained as a fine-artist, Dada knew that survival as a freelance artist was a difficult proposition. Earning your bread ‘n’ butter by just selling artwork was difficult, and you had to get a full-time job to ensure a roof over your head. He was passionate about teaching and working with young minds, so he decided to work as an art teacher at a residential school. In the 1990’s, the school system in India was very dull and no emphasis was given to the creative fields. Hoping to bring about monumental change, he started working at Krishnamurthy Group of Schools. Make a Difference, One Child at a Time: Finally, after 1991, the art market started opening up; there were galleries, sponsorships and the much-needed buzz. But, what was missing was general understanding and awareness about art amongst people in India. He realized that the problem was deep rooted; in order to increase art appreciation, the work had to start with teaching kids about art and becoming more receptive to art. Educational boards were not open to any major changes. They just did not see the importance of art in a child’s curriculum. He was offered by NCRT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) to design the curriculum for art, but his proposals were considered too ambitious and forward-looking. Not surprisingly, most of his recommendations were not implemented by NCRT. However, he was determined in his mission and has been working tirelessly for last 20 years with students from different school like Lawrence School, Lovedale and The Doon School, Dehradun. Trying to make a difference one child at a time. Teaching Art at the School Level: “A very small percent of people in India understand art, it is because of lack of exposure.” When students take art at the school level, they grow to be more aware of art and have a sense of art appreciation. Dada believes that people can make a lot of money, but money does not always bring taste. Taste requires the ability to perceive things with an artistic vision. And, that’s something you learn as a child. You train your eyes to understand aesthetics and mind to be more open to creativity. Joining The Doon School in 2000, he gave a proposal for “Art Classes in 2025”. His ideas were forward looking and ambitious. Surprisingly, the board approved his proposal and set a task to raise money for a new art school.   He believes that “True India Shining” could only happen when we truly start appreciating art and teach kids to be more art aware. We hope his vision for the “Art Classes in 2025” could be something the government of India would undertake at a national level. Eye for Aesthetics and an Aptitude for Experimentation: “Students are a pool of unlimited ideas. There thoughts are not caged; you just need to encourage them to express themself.” Having been in the art education field for the last 20 years, what keeps Dada joining everyday is the highly charged interaction with the young mind. “Youth is the raw material for creative thinking; when you become adults, your thinking becomes restrictive. Its when they are young, they need to learn to experiment and build an eye for aesthetics and an aptitude for experimentation.” In order to encourage kids to experiment, art has to be made part of their curriculum. Some of the new things he has introduced at The Doon School include a compulsory visit for all D-formers (new students in 7th grade) to the National Gallery of Modern Art. He also started an idea of Art Midterm, where “students go for a mid-term break, either in the mountains or a historical location and for 5 days they sit outdoors and paint.” Students love such opportunities and it allows them to be more aware of art from a young age. What needs to be done: “One of the biggest problems is the lack of discussion about art and culture in media. They would rather talk about IPL, rape and murder, than our culture and art trends. They are not influencing the society positively.” Besides media’s indifference, few schools in India have art teachers or facilities to teach art. There is no public art display and the government is doing little to make a change. Dada is really disappointed with the recent trends he is seeing in the economy. He says, “People in India over the last couple of decades have made money, but not built any taste. This taste has to be developed and created from a young age and we are not doing enough.” He believes that art is not new in India. We have a very great history and tradition, we need to save this and showcase our rich past. “Art from young age helps create a beautiful mind. If there was more art, there would be less murder and rapes. We in India are training machines for creating money, not human beings with appreciation for life. If this trend continuous, the future is bleak. Even after becoming a rich country, we might remain a third-world country.” “The time to make a difference is now; the time to increase art awareness is now!” Alok Tirtha Bhowmick has influenced hundreds of young minds and helped them look at the world differently. We hope to see him play a bigger role in increasing art appreciation and awareness in India.  

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