Saturday, 20 October 2012

Subversive scribblings

I’m not a fan of theatre as such, let alone experimental theatre. But I do have an undisciplined interest in art – be it performative, written or the so-called fine-arts. Particularly so because I believe in the expressive and political nature of art; not as a wilful act of resistance, but as, Oscar Wilde would have it, a nuanced system of expressions that teases out complexities, and leaves the reader thinking, questioning and critical. So, when I read about a Chinese theatre group, Grass Stage Theatre, performing a “subversive theatre” production called Unsettling Stones (directed by Zhao Chuan) at Bombay’s National Gallery of Modern Art, my curiosity was piqued. In the light of China’s political culture of suppressing dissent, subversion, or free speech in the broadest sense, what I find worrisome – and here I’m echoing philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Zizek’s concerns - is the fact that we're looking to them for development paradigms (something I have satirically referred to in the essay, Shanghai-ed). Coming back to China, Zizek argues that in the west, traditionally, the rise of capitalism coincided with the demand for democracy; a system which was mutually beneficial for both. True, grave issues have plagued this alliance – colonialism for one; global capitalist hegemony, another – but with China, what we’re seeing is the existence of capitalism without the conditions of, or the need for, democracy.
When it comes to art, specifically, this phenomenon is compounded. Liu Xiaobo, the “dissident” writer, and human rights activist is currently incarceratedMr Mo Yan(literally: “don’t speak”), on the other hand, happens to be a party member,and widely respected across the country. His is the image of art that China wants to project. The political appropriation of art (be in for suppression or activism) is always a danger to the integrity and very operational matrix of a dynamic system of thought. The fact that Grass Stage Theatre is coming to India to perform, is itself a critique of the state and culture industry-appropriated art forms – not just in China, but, I believe, everywhere.

Needless to say, watching Unsettling Stones was an enlightening experience. As an art form – and that too, in a foreign language – it was evocative, lucid, and it pushed the mind to think, to feel; to transcend the negative space between the stage and the seats. I’m still struggling with ideas as I write this review: which theme to focus on? should I rely on description? or should I focus merely on reflections? But the fact that I am thinking and grappling with these ideas, I think, says a lot about the nature and the depth of the performance. For the sake of semblance of coherence, however, I shall divide my review into two broad sections: first, the physicality and aesthetics of the performance; and second, the philosophical and reflexive elements I read in the performance.

Aesthetically speaking, Unsettling Stones adhered to minimalism as a performative style. The stage was stark; the actors wore no elaborate costumes; the lighting, subdued and sharp; there was no music or a background score. On the other hand, the diegetic noise of their footsteps, their breathing, of the irreverent songs over the radio – were elements that came together to form a discontinuous narrative, punctuated by emotive dialogues and pauses pregnant with tension and unpredictability.
The bodies of the actors were as much props as they were instruments of expression. As they stripped under the gaze of the authority – here, the gaze of the audience; their bodies were subjected to the discourse of surveillance, masquerading as safety. The stark nakedness, the subservience, the docility – bodies policed, forever subject of the panopticon, quite literally in the Foucauldian sense.
Even as they paced across the stage, seemingly erratic and random, it resembled our everyday pace; as we settle into routinized behaviour of the office, or the commute; they grooved to the rhythms played on the headphones, oblivious to the others; breaking into dances, or bouts of masturbatory pleasures, or retreating into a shell filled with simple ones:  endlessly repetitive, uncritical, un-reflexive – relishing the products of the culture industries.
As the performance progressed from one segment to the other, the actors’ relationship with the stage changed: from “acting” they went on to creating. Arranging props became a part of the performance; elaborate patterns drawn on the floor with chalk-dust, an act of creation, destroyed in the very next moment – the very act of destruction (or, deconstruction?) becoming a liberating process. Their emphatic grunts, as they hurled stones into the emptiness, resounding in the darkness of the stage; then they lay, face down, enemies of the state. Subversion trampled. Dissent crushed. Status quo, preserved. Is this how it all ends?

Although the performance was in Mandarin, it articulated what it set out to, loud and clear – to challenge the status quo; to partake in dissent. There were no romantic overtures. This was no revolution. There would be no change. An Orwellian pessimism was ingrained in the script – which is why the language didn’t matter. It spoke volumes, be it in its moments of silence, or in the loud joyfulness brought about by the culture industries, which sought to gratify and stupefy. Unsettling Stones is a philosophically rich performance; I’ve already mentioned Foucault's panopticon and Adorno’s culture industry, elements pertinent to the inquiry in the social sciences. It uses stark elements, a language of metaphors, to paint a vivid picture – both polemical and pessimistic. Of these, the “stone”, I believe was the most powerful. In the last two years, we’ve seen people’s outrage transform into action; stones becoming the weapons of the disenfranchised, of the marginalised. But do they really bring about change? Or are they doomed to resound in the empty darkness, as it did on stage? Can it be an instrument of freedom? Or is it just another weapon of the weak? Another brick in the wall?
At the heart of it lies a question we all continue to grapple with, a question about the fundamental nature of freedom: can there be freedom – of expression? of voicing dissent? of formulating a discourse of resistance? One answer points towards the fact that this very performance is one, and that there still might be hope. But structures aren’t always oppressive. They could be Orwellian. Or, they could also be Huxleyan: providing us with an endless source of self-gratification and pleasure; replacing criticality with complacency, and then with comfort and desire. And this is not just China we're talking about; in India, we're heading towards a similar fate, maybe.  Perhaps not as bad, or perhaps, worse. But we're heading there. Not totalitarianism. But a crass form of governance marked by corruption, decadence and ever in paranoia over the preservation of power. That said, I think it’s important to observe that as strong and rigid and iron-caged as structures can be, there is always space for dissent and subversion; they are, if I may say so, structural; or perhaps, inevitable. Structures are defined by their temporariness. They don’t last forever. In a way, Unsettling Stones left us with yet another question – a question that I don’t think I can articulate, but one which would ask us the possibility, nature and direction of change. Is there a chance, as The Who put it, for us to not be fooled again?

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Education is sinking India: Some reflections on the state of education in India

Bloomberg TV’s The Outsider, featuring veteran journalist Tim Sebastian (of BBC’s HARDTalk fame), has undoubtedly been one of the more intellectually rigorous TV shows on Indian television in the last year. The episodes covered a wide variety of issues—dynastic politics, women’s rights, education, corruption, and so forth. However, since it is nearly impossible to do justice to The Outsider’s oeuvre in one piece, I shall restrict the scope of this paper to one of their motions: ‘Education is Sinking India’.
Education has always been an area that has intrigued me, both personally as well as sociologically; and being a part of this ‘system’—and I still am—I believed that questioning it from time to time was imperative; not necessarily to formulate answers, but to figure out what’s wrong with it.
The debate on The Outsider brought out some interesting insights; but it was, I felt, also terribly blinkered. For one, Mohandas Pai, who spoke for the motion, kept throwing Chinese figures and statistics, and lamented India’s lost “potential”, blissfully side-stepping the cultural and social repression that the Chinese state forces on creativity and critical thought. The panellists speaking against the motion, on the other hand, just had optimism on their side—or as Pramath Raj Sinha put it, in very clich├ęd terms: looking at the glass half full.
Education, just like most of the topic covered in previous episodes of The Outsider, in an incredibly complex issue; it is a systemic problem—intersecting with politics, governance, public policy, and infrastructure (issues covered by the panellists). But, it is more than just that: it is also an equally social and cultural problematic, embedded in discourses of inequality, power and hegemony. My argument is that the formulation of the motion itself is erroneous; that, it is imperative we identify the deeper problems in education, and not merely address the symptoms. My focus, therefore, is on three specific areas: the structural problems of higher learning; hierarchy among the so-called “streams” and constructed aspirations; and, finally, the impediments posed by state and political ideologies.

Firstly, it is important to look at education in totality, i.e., inclusive of infrastructure, ideology, state policy and culture. For instance, in the debate, Mohandas Pai, in his rather verbose style, threw a lot of names and figures (quite a few of them Chinese statistics), and he did make a lot of sense—particularly his idea of “cramming schools”, like Kota, which train, coach, and brainwash kids in the name of IIT-JEE (Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Exams) preparations. While Pai’s analysis is incredibly insightful and pertinent, it also runs the risk of being symptomatic. We know that 500,000 students apply for 500 seats. But it is equally important to ask why. I think I may have a part of that answer.
It is important to underscore the fact that education is embedded in cultural and social discourses. As a culture, we tend to give more value to a means-end education, which is one of the reasons why engineering and medicine (and to an extent, commerce as a “stream”) are so popular among the India’s middle-class: it is presumed that these courses come with a built-in industry that can absorb students once they’re done with “education”. In my school batch, out of a hundred-and-thirty odd students, I was among the five who opted for the “arts”—and that too voluntarily. Thus, in the social and cultural discourse, there is a predisposition towards categorising education in these “streams”, each with a predetermined trajectory, and internalised by the student as he/she grows up. The fact that so many lakhs apply to engineering and vocational courses—and not a bachelor’s or master’s course—is indicative of an extremely warped mentality among the general Indian public. Add to this the abysmal condition and lack of institutions for higher education in the social sciences and humanities, and to an extent, the natural sciences—although we do have Indian Institute of Sciences—and, the answer grimly presents itself.
Before I discuss the structural problems in depth, I would like to complicate this argument a bit more. Look at the general attitude towards what can be called alternative educational models, like applied arts or sports. The wider cultural and social system is rigged to continually discourage the student who wishes to make a career in any of these two broad fields. I know people who are slugging away in third-class engineering colleges (if they ever attend college, that is) who did not—were not allowed to, more appropriately—pursue arts or sports despite having tremendous potential.  On a social level, excellence in arts and sports does enhance the cultural capital of the student; but most parents are not very keen that their children pursue these interests professionally—indicative of this nice, little beautiful idea we have of “cultured beings”, who, at the end of the day, would conform and have nine-to-five jobs. Yes, there is a larger systemic fault as well, but I am underscoring the importance of the cultural and social systems precisely because I maintain that subjective interest can be equally empowering for the child.

Another important reason why I think education has hit abysmal levels in India is because of two reasons: one, the utter neglect of the teaching profession; and two, the increasing dissonance between schools and institutions of higher learning. One such glaring contradiction is that the term ‘education’, or ‘reforms in education’ fail to address teachers’ education, and the problems of the same. There are tremendous pitfalls and pressures on school-level teaching in the country, particularly the state of Maharashtra. In the course of the academic year, teachers are tasked with bureaucratic functions—within and outside formal academics—like census enumeration, election duty, an ever-changing syllabi and ridiculous pay packets. The majority of teachers, then, hardly have any incentive to engage in meaningful teaching activity (see my arguments in an earlier post).
Higher education, too, apart from a few select institutions and universities, does not attract talent; one reason is the relatively weak theoretical and research-based outlook in academia itself (or, an overemphasis on either); an excessively competitive model; and of course, red-tape, like UGC guidelines on appointing faculty staff—which is why many wealthy families find it more convenient to send their children to less competitive universities abroad, than have then study in, say, a place like Delhi. In order to address this problem, there needs to be an intervention at the schooling level itself; there is a need for flexibility in colleges and universities, which fosters critical thinking; an active pursuit of the re-integration of research and teaching activities. However, it is not merely structural problems that hinder the realisation of this vision for Indian education.

The largest and the most glaring failure, finally, is that we have allowed education to be subject to erratic control by political ideology. We are still entangled in the literacy-versus-education debate, failing to see what can be called alternative modes of education; we are also terribly enmeshed in these discourses and constraints: partly because it can be a very powerful tool of state propaganda, as we saw in Nazi Germany and still see in China; and mostly, as one of cultural and social orientation (read: training us as consumers in the capitalistic political-economy). That said, the arbitrariness of political control over education—like chief ministers and vice-chancellors banning specific theorists and authors from syllabi; or newspapers from libraries; or, of political parties “detoxifying” syllabi; or, in political families appointing heads of public institutions—is indicative of paranoia which seeks to affirm political hegemony by stifling the criticality of education (see Avalok Langer's brilliant critique of education in 21st century India; also, see the Delhi University’s latest move to reduce its ‘Indian History and Culture’ course to a “utility toolkit”, which [is] propaganda masquerading as history).
As cynical as we might be, the space of educational institutions still remains one where resistance to political ideology can be articulated. While criticality and creativity are very important points that education has managed to foster in individuals, there is also a need to contextualise “critical” thought, and dismantle its elitist connotations. The criticality of education should extend both outside, and within in. For example, a farmer in Vidarbha may have crucial and critical insights into the workings of state machinery and irrigation policies—better than most bureaucrats. But we do not see him on a show like The Outsider. Education must, therefore, alongside fostering criticality, also participate in an exercise of inclusion.

It goes without saying that there is a pressing need for education to diversify; that it traverses both theoretical and practical planes, and aids in what social sciences call knowledge production—this time, free of ridiculous regulation; because, even with ideological restraints, and “cramming schools”, education may still contribute to the GDP or GNP (as it does in China, we should inform Mr Pai). But I do not think that is a future most of us should envisage for India—a point I cannot seem to underscore enough. Paradoxically, we must work towards problematising education; dismantle the hegemony of elite institutions, and between the so-called “streams”; and address the cultural and social problems. Only then will we be able to make the necessary steps towards constructively helping education to first, aid itself, and then, the country.

Note: This post has been modified since it's first draft, last year, on the occasion of Teacher's Day. The core arguments, however, remain the same. And as I am currently working in a reading intervention in primary school, where most students are from lower SES families, I have realised the need for a sustained argument on education - as a discourse, a profession, and increasing attempts to make it into an industry.
I do think that the question of primary education is most crucial in a country like ours, where many simply do not have access to education, or even that space of learning. Many inequalities, like that of caste, class or social stratification can be addressed more meaningfully and effectively in the space of primary education.
Putting one over the other does not get us anywhere. The failures of higher education can be traced to the failures in basic, primary education; and, our institutions of higher education are also responsible for the multiple failures and shortcomings in the most basic institutions on learning.