Whatever happened to JJ school?

Once a grooming ground for eminent artists, the premier school now faces flak for being outdated, reports Aastha Atray Banan

A model’s pose in the anatomy class has not changed for the past 25 years, says Sandra Khare, an alumnus of the JJ School of Art
A model’s pose in the anatomy class has not changed for the past 25 years, says Sandra Khare, an alumnus of the JJ School of Art

BLACK, WHITE and brown. If you thought these were the only possible complexions humans could have, then it’s time to enter the world of 24-year-old artist Sakshi Sathe. If a model is sleepy, she would rather use red, when sad navy blue and when sporting a smile silver is her best bet. But she never did get a chance to test her wild fantasies at her art school, the JJ Institute of Applied Art in Mumbai. “If I am told I can only work with peach, pink, beige or brown, how will my interpretation of the model be different from the rest? Everything is according to the syllabus. Art is treated like math,” says the artist who passed out of JJ School two months ago.
With its celebrated campus and famous alumni, who include the likes of Tyeb Mehta and Atul Dodiya, the historic institution is just not “with it” any more, students moan. “Installation, video art, performance art — nothing is mentioned at JJ,” says Sakshi. Others complain that the focus is on complying with the syllabus. Some rue that none of the teachers practise art.
Manisha Patil, the dean of JJ, agrees that the art school is lagging behind and needs to reinvent itself. “A committee met over proposed changes in the syllabus earlier this year, but nothing happened. It is a great institution but needs a little help to woo students. Despite being located at the heart of Mumbai, it’s not as cosmopolitan as it should be,” she says. Sandra Khare, director of the Chemould Prescott Road, a contemporary art gallery and an ex-student of JJ is vociferous in her critique of the famed college. “Take the case of the anatomy class where the models and their poses have not changed in 25 years. Composition is a repetition of a so-called creative idea and form that negates the definition of what an ‘idea’ is. Students cannot even choose their colour palette.” Painter Justin Ponmany who also studied at JJ, says, “The students can be the change they want to see. They can organise workshops and meet artists.”
MAYBE IT is high time the board of education took a look at the way art is taught. Suresh Jayaram, former principal of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, says, “Art education should focus on creativity and must centre on experimentation. Most teachers don’t talk about contemporary art at all; they don’t even know what’s happening in the art world,” he says.
The students of Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru tell a different story. The school has introduced a course on gaming art, refreshes its course every year and has a faculty of professional artists. Ampat Varghese Varghese, academic dean (professional diploma programmes), feels that the job of an art school is to enable the student to look into the future. But could it be compromising on the basics? “Art history is just touched upon,” admits Pia Alize Hazarika, an alumnus.
But schools like Srishti are out of reach for an artist from a small village. A fee of Rs.2 lakh per year for a course does not sound as good as JJ’s modest Rs.3,000 a year. Government colleges are cheaper and often the only choice available to aspiring artists. Till the government takes art seriously, all that these students can do is “suck it up”. One hopes that these art schools see the light that Michelangelo tried to spread when he said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands.”
Illustration: Samia Singh