Sir. J.J. School of Art: Unfolding a legacy

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Dr. Manisha Patil says it is time for India’s premier art institute, which produced some of the best talent in the field of art, to shed its colonial baggage and reinvent itself.

It was many years ago, on 2 March 1857, that the Jamshedjee Jeejibhoy School of Art and Industry, or J.J. School of Art, as it is widely known, was established in colonial India. The third of the art schools to be set up in the country, it was preceded by the ones in Madras and Kolkata, begun in 1850 and 1854 respectively. Inspired by the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, where Indian ware was greatly appreciated, Sir Jamshedjee Jeejibhoy, industrialist and first baronet of Bombay gave a generous endowment of a lakh of rupees to establish the school in the city. Jeejibhoy had no reason to doubt that ‘under proper tuition the people of India would attain a high degree of proficiency in painting and sculpture which would lead to an extended taste for such objects and pursuits throughout the country’. Making a modest beginning in the premises of Elphinstone College with 49 students on its roll and British instructors Mr. Payton, Mr. Crowe and Mr. Terry at the helm, it came to occupy its present building in 1878.

A glorious past

The early years of its existence saw the establishment of various departments such as Painting under John Griffiths, Sculpture under Lockwood Kipling and Metalwork under Michael Higgins. Many success stories were penned and many firsts effected in the formative years. Among them were the marathon project of copying of the Ajanta murals by students of the art school under Griffiths from 1872 to 1884 and the sculptural decorations for Bombay city including the Crawford Market supervised by Kipling. In 1890, Lord Reay’s workshop was established to facilitate instruction in Indian crafts such as pottery, textiles, metal work and wood engraving. In the ‘Indian Room’ showcased in Wembley in 1924, students from various departments put their best, with participation from artists such as Pestonji Bomanji, Pithawala, Dhurandhar, Abalal Rahiman among others.

The George Clarke’s workshop at J.J. became a hub for innovations in Pottery design. Efforts were made to improve production of different types of pottery using new types of clay, glazes and designs which were inspired by traditional Indian motifs, Ajanta and Art Nouveau.

Flourishing of various art disciplines

The curriculum of the art school was modelled after the South Kensington School of Design, with great emphasis on ‘naturalism’. Subjects that were taught included Nature, Drawing from Antique, Still Life, Portraiture, and Pictorial Compositions. In 1908, the art school’s curriculum was enlarged to encompass architecture and in the 30’s , to counter the threats of the school’s closure, commercial art courses were introduced. Both these courses eventually were segregated from the parent institute to form separate institutions. The Directorate of Art was constituted in 1965, and J.J. had company as government run art schools were established in Nagpur and Aurangabad, apart from a plethora of art institutions which mushroomed all over the newly formed Maharashtra state.

In the first decades of the 20th century, the school continued to be headed by several influential and perceptive British Directors. Cecil Burns was responsible for encouraging water color technique while Gladstone Solomon who followed Burns in 1919 was instrumental in founding the mural class as well as initiating a class on ‘Indian style’ painting under Jagannath Ahiwasi. Under Solomon’s guidance several promising students and teachers such as M.V. Dhurandhar worked on the mural decoration of the Imperial Secretariat in New Delhi. In 1937, Charles Gerard took charge and played a significant role in introducing the students to modernist trends in the West. He mentored many young artists such as K.K. Hebbar and encouraged the activities of artists’ collectives such as Young Turks.

JJ’s talented alumni

J.J. School of Art produced an impressive number of talent in various disciplines in its long, illustrious past. Many artists who had successful careers such as Pestonji Bomanji, M.F. Pithawala, Abalal Rahiman, S.L. Haldankar, M.R. Achrekar to name a few, while others like M.V. Durandhar, L.N. Taskar and A.X. Trindade, additionally were teachers at their alma mater. Their contemporaries in the discipline of sculpture who brought laurels to the art school and to their careers were G.K. Mhatre, P.V. Karmarkar, B.V. Talim, Sonavadekar and Goregaonkar. Mhatre’s famed ‘To the Temple’ won him a medal at the Bombay Art Society. Members of the seminal progressive artists group established in 1948, such as F.N. Souza and S.H. Raza were also alumni of J.J. School of Art, though the rebellious Souza had to drop out after a short stint at the art school. The late 1940’s and 50’s saw the rise of talented artists such as V.S. Gaitonde, K.K. Hebbar, Jehangir Sabavala, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee, Shankar Palshikar, Baburao Sadwelkar and later, names like Prabhakar Barve, Jatin Das, Manu Parekh and Laxman Shreshtha, Prabhakar Kolte among others. Portraiture continued to be the strength of J.J., with artists such as Gopal Deuskar, Sambhaji Kadam, Vasant Parab in the past and Vasudeo Kamat, Suhas Bahulkar and Anil Naik in the present making a strong presence. The art school also gave to the film industry luminaries like costume designer Bhanu Athiaya, awarded the Oscar for her brilliant work on film ‘Gandhi’ and acclaimed actor-film maker Amol Palekar.The 80’s and 90’s witnessed the emergence of new talent in the art school; Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, Krishnamachari Bose, Sudarshan Shetty, Jitish Kallat, Shilpa Gupta, Riyaz Komu, Tushar Joag being prominent among them. These artists made a mark on the contemporary Indian as also the global art scenario with works in various disciplines such as painting, sculpture, installation, video and photography, handling different materials and addressing diverse social, political, cultural and gender issues.

Sir. J.J. School of Art has several distinguishing features a sprawling tree lined campus in the heart of Mumbai, a Grade II heritage building with well lit spacious studios, superlative skills, perhaps some of the best in the country, and a strategic location with close proximity to museums and public/private galleries. The Dean’s charming old bungalow on the campus, where the renowned writer Rudyard Kipling, whose father Lockwood Kipling was a respected teacher at J.J., spent his childhood, has also attracted a fair amount of public attention. There have been in the recent past several interventions by art foundations and private galleries which have led to a fruitful give and take between students and senior professional artists.

Time to chart out a new path

However, for any educational institute to perform optimally needs a full-fledged administrative and academic outfit but the reality here is otherwise. The Directorate of Art designed to look into the welfare and smooth functioning of the art schools lacks a permanent Director since the last 10 years. Many of the senior faculty positions in J.J. lie vacant, teaching staff for many years have been working on temporary and contractual basis. J.J.’s library is short staffed. Post graduate programmes have been introduced since the last 15 years, but studio space for the outgrowing number of students is amiss. There is a chasm between the pedagogical discourses within the art school and the art happenings barely within a radius of two kilometers in the art galleries and museums in south Mumbai.

J.J.is too skill-centric to the point of ignoring or undermining conceptual inquiries. Certain measures such as specifically designed refresher course modules for the teaching faculty, designed by experts and inviting artists for workshops would prove to be immensely useful.

As eminent artist and pedagogue K.G. Subramanyan, who has taught at premier art schools such as Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda and Shantiniketan rightly observes, ‘Art schools should be thinking in terms of providing an atmosphere of interactive studies in order to be able to use various media in a creative way.’ An integrated approach to art education is essential, as also a need to strike a dialogue between the various disciplines. What better place than J.J. School of Art to shed some of its colonial baggage and initiate a positive change?


manisha-patil

Dr. Manisha Patil

The writer is an artist and art historian. She is also a professor of Art History at Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai.

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