Perspectives of an Outsider
Some candid observations on the pedagogy of printmaking today
by Ravikumar Kashi
As far as printmaking is concerned I'm an "outsider". My brush with printmaking started at Ken School where I made lots of prints and then in Chitrakala Parishath where printmaking was an optional subject. Later I did my Master's in Printmaking at the FFA in Baroda. After that I set up a printmaking studio in Bangalore with etching machine and other facilities. I made prints there along with my friends. At some point the spell dropped and I also developed allergic health problems related to chemicals used in printmaking. I stopped doing prints; sold the machine and shut down the studio. In the last 15 years, I have not done any serious printmaking.
In the days I studied printmaking in Bangalore and Baroda a certain "unstructured method" was used by the teachers. Neither the students nor the teachers had a clue about where things were going. It was a "free for all" program, where students were "allowed" to work in whatever medium interested them (many would go on doing lithography, as it did not cost as much as etching or even woodcut) and whatever school of thought caught their fancy could also be followed. There was very little discussion in the department and whatever little discussion that did happen was almost always about the technicalities: things like evenness of pressure, fine spreading of aquatint, keeping the edges clean, heat given to the plate, etc. There was no sustained, serious discussion about the work in terms of the imagery being developed, visual language employed, or its relevance to the medium and scale of the work. Going through the history of printmaking was a ritual. While this "method" did have its advantages in terms of giving "freedom" to students it lacked academic rigour.
With this background I went to Glasgow School of Art, in 2001, to study handmade papermaking. At GSA the papermaking department was attached to the printmaking department; though I did not do printmaking there I had the opportunity to observe their methods closely. I had the shock of my life on the first day when my teacher, Jacki Parry, asked me “Why did you come here?” I told her that I had sent her a detailed, full page proposal and I was there to learn papermaking. She said that was fine, but she wanted a blueprint as to how I will go about doing that, for which I had no answer. She then told me to go back to the library, research books on paper for a week and come up with a program for the full semester with details about which aspects of papermaking I wanted to learn and my priorities. When I met her the next week I was ready with the frame work which we followed for the next four months. Each week she would spend some time with me and teach me certain new aspects of papermaking and review my progress on the previous week's teaching. I observed that even in the printmaking department similar "student-driven-programs" were used. Another practice followed in the printmaking department which caught my attention was that there were technicians who taught the student the technical part of the medium while teachers would involve themselves in periodic discussions about what was happening in students work and its progress.
This was something new to me because in Baroda and in Bangalore there was no structured program, student driven or otherwise. We would hang on to whatever odd, off-the-cuff remarks our teachers made now and then. There was no questioning, exchange or meaningful discussion. We were not given analytical skills. Then, you may be wondering, how I was able to survive at the GSA? If I had not worked with self-initiative and evolved I would not have been able to cope with their system.
The analysis which I am trying to do now is not to trace how my work/thinking has developed or what path it has taken, but to gain a perspective on teaching methods involved in most of our printmaking departments. I think it is very important to analyze what is happening in our graphic departments because there are hundreds of students studying each year in these printmaking departments all over the country. We should get a clear picture about what is being taught to them and how. Identify the problems they are facing and come up with solutions.
Teaching methods in Bangalore and Baroda printmaking departments lack debate about what is happening within the work and the image-making process. Most of the discussion is about technique and this overemphasis on technique creates a lot of problems for students at a later stage. Departments are conservative and are not ready to incorporate any new technology or ideas about printmaking into their curriculum; hence a host of new areas remain unexplored. Even when something "new" like computer technologies are introduced, it is done half-heartedly. Existing staff is not upgraded, or not interested, so it remains a non-starter. As recently as four months ago I met some students from Baroda (as I regularly meet students from Bangalore) and before you know it our discussions veered towards the "teaching" we got. Things have not changed. After two decades the same approach to teaching is followed. When questions are raised, the answer is "it is so", "that-is-the-way-it-is-done"; well, it's almost like an immutable tradition or a ritual.
I wish our printmaking departments were much more open and adventurous. If I was a student now I would say, "Sir, instead of making a linocut, can I cut the roller itself and take some prints?" (of course I would bring my own roller and not spoil the department roller). I would be able to relate to rotary printing and could have endless reams of print. And perhaps the buyer can buy one or two meters or more of the print according to his requirement. Or I would pierce a plastic tube at various points and let the ink flow out, like a plastic rangoli spreading apparatus that is sold at street corners, or incorporate textured rollers which are available in the market and generally used for making designs upon the wall. I can think of this because of changes in my thinking developed over a period of time. I am sure a number of existing students can dream up other such "devious" non-traditional methods of printing. Of course they will be discouraged immediately. I am also sure that if I say "sir, I will cut the roller" I will be thrown out of the department in the next ten minutes. Our graphic departments have created certain kinds of rigid boxes and students have to fall into one of those. They have to follow certain accepted methods of doing this or that, without much questioning. There are a few printmakers who are walking tall, like Jyoti Bhatt, Laxma Goud and a few others who have been able to overcome such hurdles. These people have straddled many worlds and have succeeded in overcoming the walls of separation, but I must say that even they have failed to inculcate the same spirit of exploration and adventure in their students.
A student from sculpture is not allowed to engage with printmaking or a painting student is not encouraged in printmaking so on and so forth; if it is part of the optional subject one has opted for, there may be limited scope available. But it stops there. One can understand that in the bachelors program a certain amount of focus is needed; but at least at the master's level things can open up. What I am proposing is a kind of woven structure, where things mingle, fuse and cross pollinate. At least in the master degree level there can be fluidity. There can be various studios for painting, printmaking, sculpture, photography, computers/digital technology, special effects, video, and gaming. There can be technical experts in these studios who will help students in practical issues and their teachers can help them in overall conception, direction and outcome. Let the student make their own program. Somebody might make a print and then fuse animation with that, like Archana Hande. Or somebody might put ten sheets of paper together and burn a rope on that and then call them as an edition like Bala has done, or somebody may cut the roller itself instead of the linoleum; the system has to give students enough leeway to do this.
It feels like the problems one observes in printmaking departments have spilled over into the artworld. In India printmaking is treated to a large extent as a special area, somehow different and exclusive. It is like a ghetto. And if you scrutinize the prints being produced carefully, you will be able to identify the same overdependence on technique which started in the classroom. Not only is it limited in scope but also conservative in approach. Any non-conventional, "out of the way" approach is termed as not belonging in the arena of "proper" printmaking; it is eschewed so that "purity" of printmaking can be preserved. There are people who have gone beyond the strict definitions of printmaking and produced interesting works: these artists have tried to expand the vocabulary of printmaking, but a large section of printmakers don't accept this shifting of borders. It is perceived as transgression and its authenticity is questioned. The idea of maintaining "purity" in printmaking is something one has to really contest and debate about. What makes only a certain type of print a "proper print" or a "pure print"? Is the definition fixed forever or is it evolving? Many printmakers are not ready to accept anything more that the four mediums; relief, etching, lithography, serigraphy - nothing beyond that. Digital printing cannot enter; other kinds of mediums cannot enter either. Enormous possibilities are rejected in the name of convention. This kills fertile areas and stops cross-pollination of ideas. Will not bringing ideas from various other disciplines and mediums enrich the printmaking field itself?
I agree that there is a certain beauty in a hand drawn line etched with great care, or the kind of line qualities, tonalities that can be achieved in lithography, but there is a different kind of possibility that can be achieved in digital technology. I am not saying one has replaced the other, but the wider possibility of digital and other technologies can be incorporated in the printmaking departments with astonishing results. Even if one looks at the four accepted printmaking techniques they all started as commercial printing processes and were later absorbed by the printmakers. Screen printing came into the ambit in the middle of the last century and was called serigraphy. The other area of contestation between traditional printmaking and new developments is the definition of edition. Fast emerging digital printing technologies have changed the definition of edition. It has drastically challenged and altered the idea of what is an original print or what is a duplicate.
The idea of rigid division of departments and disciplines is so entrenched that it gets extended to the awards given by the Lalit Kala Akademi and scholarships granted by the Human Resource ministry. In their applications there are these little boxes which you have to belong to and tick. The work has to be a painting or a sculpture or a print. If you try to work in between then there is a huge problem. There is no space for video, installation or numerous other variations. If you don't fall into one of the existing categories your work or application may not even be accepted by the clerk. Even if it is accepted it will lead to huge debates in the jury panel as to under which category that unconventional work can be awarded. So maybe we should create a new category for "other" works. By doing that, will we be creating one more box? One has to be aware of this process also.
Of late, many printmakers have moved over to other mediums and modes expression. They have expanded their field of exploration. They have stopped bothering about the questions of purity. But, even this is seen as a problem. When a printmaker tries to do something else, he is questioned. He is always reminded that he is a printmaker who is painting now. Even in my case, for a decade reviewers were saying “basically a printmaker now painting or doing something else”. It's fine for others to do printmaking but a printmaker cannot abandon and escape, he has to retain his allegiance. Reasons for a printmaker migrating to painting or some other medium is not seen as a genuine need to explore but suspected to be a strategy for better economic prospectus. The explanation given is that there is no money in printmaking so printmakers are doing painting nowadays; so, it's seen as an act of deserting a sinking ship. Specializing in printmaking is like entering a sacred community; you can't get out without being marked. And you are always made to remember that you are a printmaker to begin with. It is heartening that we see less and less of this type of thinking and writing. Nowadays so many artists are dabbling in so many mediums perhaps critics have lost track!
Regarding the market and printmaking I have two observations that I want to record here. One is that the popularization of printmaking started with a very socialist kind of thinking; ideas of reaching out to more people with very inexpensive pricing and democratizing art. And now we are trying to fit it into a capitalist setup. The other thing I have observed is that, reproductions and prints of very established names sell much more than the fulltime printmakers. Recently there was a show of a senior artist which happened in many cities. What was being sold was actually colour reproductions of existing paintings that would be considered limited-edition reproductions at best. But it was promoted as an exhibition of "prints", and ill-informed buyers lapped it up. So, there are many problem areas that we have to address. This article is an effort to bring them to the fore.