Rina Mitra on “A daughter reminiscences – art, teaching, and school as the crucible of aesthetics”

In a candid and pleasant exchange with Kartik Isvarmurti and Kaustav Bhattacharyya; Rina Mitra, daughter of the eminent artist Shri Rathin Mitra, legendary Arts teacher of Doon School, reminiscences the fond memories of growing up as his daughter and charts her own life’s journey with the influences drawn from that inheritance. Rina Mitra, an educationist in her own right, an art teacher, art director, and currently the Head of The NSHM, Center for Creative and Performing Arts in Kolkata.  Rina followed in her father’s footsteps to study Fine Arts at the prestigious Shantiniketan securing a First class Bachelor’s Degree and then followed by her higher studies in the UK at the Kent Institute of Art and Design.  Over the course of a quarter of a century, Rina taught at various institutions such as Kinder garden Starters and ECMIT, Dubai, Trivandrum International School, Calcutta International school.

What were your experiences of growing up as a daughter of an eminent artist like Shri Rathin Mitra?

Memories of my father always have pipe smoke and turpentine. We weren’t allowed to touch the things he used. But, he would make an Art setup for us. We had our own boards, brushes which were very similar to his. So, we always felt that we were also artists. Back then, I didn’t know that I would grow up learning art or design; it was a very organic process for me.

The biggest learning I have got from my father is aesthetics. I have grown with a certain sense of Beauty and Design, which my father had around himself. It was not a contrived sense of aesthetics. My father was very organic by nature. I remember going around collecting driftwood and he would do driftwood sculptures. He would show us how it could be assembled to look like figurines of birds etc.

We used to go on picnics in Mussorie etc., by brooksides. He used to pick pebbles and show us the colors of stones underwater and how it changes outside after it dries up. Things like these.

We have had a fabulous collection of fruit trees in our garden. Most of the fruits I have eaten have were off the tree. We had lots of flowers in Dehradun that adds a lot of color to all my memories. Those colors, fragrances, tastes, and voices of nature are my memories. So, for me, art is not just on a piece of canvas; it is an experience.

My father was an extreme hard-core disciplinarian. The fruit of his works shows his dedication and discipline. He has created nearly 10,000 sketches recording Heritage buildings all over India. Before coming to Kolkata, he was a highly prolific oil painter and water colorist, he would paint and just give those works away. I have seen him producing art without effort.

Today being a teacher, I take away from my father that you have to practice restraint from imposing your sense of aesthetics onto your students. You have to allow the students to seek and evolve their own sense of aesthetics. That is the challenge an artist who is also a teacher faces.

What are your memories of life as being a student at the Shantiniketan?

I had acquired a very distinct insight with my experience because I came to Shantiniketan from a girls’ boarding school at Dehradun. I was very new to Bengal. I came to Kolkata with my parents, who shifted here in 1980. I came here after my Class X. Hence Bengal and being amidst Bengalis were very new to me, at the time. Within a couple of years, I was admitted at Shantiniketan. I wanted to go to NID – I studied Arts in Class X and XII, and I always wanted to study design. Unfortunately, our PM, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated at the time whilst I was in Class XII, and Gujrat was a big no-no, and so I wound up in Shantiniketan. My father had always harbored a desire that I study there. He had wanted to study there but couldn’t. When he met my mother, she was a practicing nurse; however, she was also an artist, and she is an ex-student of Shantiniketan. Hence, my going to Shantiniketan has many currents to it, I guess. After her stint at Shantiniketan, my mother was the arts and craft teacher at Doon School for about 16 years, along with my father who was the HOD.

My experience in Santiniketan was very different from my mother’s. I must admit, it took me a while to get used to the place. It is a true blue Bengali space. Being within the space, I have seen a side to it that is not the Viswa Bharati that is well-heard of. Outsiders were most often a separate group, and Bengalis held up their traditions. I grew outside Bengal. So, fitting in was quite a challenge for the first couple of years. But with time, things shaped up. I had many interactions with both the seniors and juniors. We had a lot of outdoor work, specially sketching and studying from nature. We rode cycles in saris balancing our sketching book and boards etc.; my memories are of this small little town cut off from the rest of the world. I am talking of those days when there were no magazine stalls or movie halls.

I studied in Kala Bhavan for five years. I did my BFA there. Then, I was in England studying in the Kent Institute of Arts and Design.

Tell us about your student life in England.

England was one of the best years of my life. That was the one year when I crossed the borders of India, and that was the farthest I had gone on my own. I didn’t know, at the time, what to expect. I had heard stories from both my parents, who had both lived in England.

My mother studied nursing at Hammersmith Hospital for four years and worked there for a year and a half before getting back to India. My father had gone on a Teachers’ Exchange Program to Bryanston Public School to teach for a year.

Kent is one of the most beautiful parts of England, and I have been an avid reader ever since I was a child, and Enid Blyton was one of my favorites. In Kent, I met this family, who were very happy to be my local guardians there. They invited me to their countryside home on Sundays etc. The Kent countryside is such a picturesque place which brought to life my Enid Blyton memories.

I did Design Foundation in England. I received the Charles Wallace Fellowship for this course after somehow convincing the British Council that this is what I wanted to do.

Did you always plan on returning to India from England?
Always! I have travelled through India, by road, with my father. He was fond of travelling by road. He had rode down Dehradun to Kanyakumari on his scooter. We have travelled through India in our Fiat. We had gone from Dehradun to Kashmir, Dehradun to Goa, Dehradun – Rajasthan , Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Maharastra, Bihar etc.

I just love my country. I have seen parts of it which I think many people haven’t. We have picnicked on the roadside and I have eaten at the most basic of hotels. Our road trips were never about stopping and staying only at 5 star hotels or crashing at friends’ place. We were more like nomads on the road. My country has grown on me.

I am the kind who came back from Dubai just to make sure my son grew up in India.

How has your experience been of teaching art in schools in today’s age?

Most schools consider art to be just something that needs to be check marked because they have no choice. ICSE offers art in Class X. So, students who take it up from Class 9 have to study it in a disciplined manner.  There are two other curriculums offered in our country as well – the IGCSE and IB. In India, thankfully, I have not taught art just as an art teacher in a school.

At Doon School, students could explore art like artists would. They are given enough paint and canvasses, papers and other materials etc. They would do large works like sculptures, pottery, etc. It was like a treasure trove.

At most other schools, art is not considered to be something important and usually parents do not wish to invest in resources for students of different streams etc. I have been extremely lucky and privileged to teach IBDP curriculum for the last 7 years. The IB curriculum is highly rigorous. Art under IB is everything that can be classified under art. It is not just painting, sculpture, photography, etc. It is everything and all of it! The fact that such a board is gradually becoming popular is a good thing as it encourages research and critical thinking. It is very tough unless a student is highly driven. There is a lot of self reflection involved in this syllabus. With my experience, it was a very easy fit to be able to guide in this manner. I wouldn’t teach art in any school where we are just teaching a craft and then its side tracked. It is not something I enjoy. IB is very challenging and rewarding at the same time and to teach it you have to undergo IB training.

Many of my ex-students revert later in life telling me how they recognize certain things we had discussed in class a long time ago. How things get clearer in life etc. Art and aesthetics are life lessons.

Are you teaching currently at any institution?

I am currently heading a center for Creative and Performing arts at NSHM, a college based in Kolkata and Durgapur. We provide students choice-based extended learning where a student can choose to enhance or learn certain new skills. I take the art appreciation class and introduce them to spaces they may not be familiar with because they may not have had art in their growing up years. I introduce them to artists, different mediums, art styles etc.

What have you taken away about the art of teaching from your father who also happened to be a legendary teacher apart from being a distinguished artist?

Doon School is a campus with separate buildings for the academics, dormatories   and masters’ houses. They are all in close proximity to each other. My father was the HOD for the Doon School’s Art Section for 25 years. It was a building by itself situated very near our house. It was something I could walk in and out of when I was little. That was the atmosphere. I think subconsciously all the observations that came my way, showed me how he always let the students do their work without assisting  them in what to do. It is very easy for an art teacher to finish a students work or improve it. If a student is struggling, some teachers feel that completing it for them gives them a sense of relief. Or if the teacher gives it a touch, the student would feel better. But that is not necessarily the best way to teach. I have learnt not to do that and keep a restraint which I follow having watched my father. I never work on  or improve my students’ work, for whatever reason.

Art is all about allowing the student to reflect, refine and develop confidence. If the foundation is good, the student is guided with a subconscious. You can’t learn everything only in your higher education years, especially things like art, music, dance etc. It should be a part of you when you are younger. Dance and music are disciplines which command a lot of practice whereas art doesn’t demand so much of practice – it is what you inculcate in your sensibility as you grow up. You project these learnings in your later life in any of the areas you are practicing in.

Honestly, I have never aspired to be a teacher,and although its been in my calling I have always shied away from being one. However, later in life I realized how gratifying a profession it is when students tell you how they have been inspired, etc. There is a longevity in your relationship with the young people you associate with. It goes a long way.

Have you gone back to Shantiniketan recently?

I went a couple of years ago with my students from The Calcutta International School to show them around. But, I didn’t get a chance to interact with anybody because we went during the holidays. So, I wouldn’t be able to comment on how things are now. But I do know that things have changed. I do get to hear that there is a lot of openness. There are many young people involved now. The older generation of teachers are not there any more and with younger minds there are bound to be a lot of changes.

Is Shantiniketan still a go-to prestigious institution in all respects even today?

I would definitely recommend Shantiniketan for art even today. But, every institution one goes to, one has to understand that you need great  teachers who teach there. Whom are you going to seek knowledge from? You need to have a thorough understanding of the teachers and the processes taught in any institution. The changes that have come about, not just in Shantiniketan, is the nature of freedom. The easy acess..There is a tendency to restrict to freedom these days. Being one with nature and living amidst nature is far fetched nowadays . Even at Doon School, there is a lot of documentation before one can enter the campus etc. These protocols invariably have a toll on freedom. My father never wanted to go back to Doon School. He couldn’t imagine going to the gate and giving his name, etc. for entering the premises where he once had tread freely.

Do people value art the way they did in the yester years?

IGCSE and IB certainly have a great view of art. To some degree, ICSE also has evolved. There are a lot of niche career options for students within the art framework. If students have a foundation in art and choose to specialize in, say, computer graphics, animations, etc., they do very well. I have students who are now in good colleges across the globe, and they are pursuing art and design in higher studies.

Our school, The Calcutta International School, where I taught once, was a small one and so we would have a lesser number of children in the art class. We could really devote our time to them. I know three students who had taken up fine arts just to shape up as artists and not be hired by a company etc. They are still children who come seeking knowledge in art. Yes, parents do not encourage much because money had become a very important commodity. Parents would not see a future in their children pursuing arts unless they are a prodigy of sorts.

What are your memories about being a public school girl?

Mine was an all-girls boarding school. I joined when I was in class 3. I was a boarder although my parents were in the same city. My parents would visit me on Sundays for half an hour or so. The rest of the time, I was just another boarder. Any boarding school, especially the kind like Doon and Welhams brings in a certain amount of discipline, which is expected to be followed. I got to know that it is good to be an early riser. I was encouraged for being in sports. I was an athlete. I played hockey etc. as well. We would climb trees in our compound – our uniforms complimented this activity. We were clad in salwars in summer, trousers in winter and shorts for sports. I have never felt that we were girls and hence were not allowed certain things. We were allowed to do anything that we could possibly do. We ate together and had bedtime prayers together. Prayers were universal. We had Kabir Doha on certain days, English hymns on others, and shlokas on some other days. Prayers had no language barrier. There were lesser filters and open mindsets. Although Doon School and Welham Girls are two of the most elite schools, we have had children from various backgrounds. I come from a middle-class background and have studied with the royalty of India. We have had children coming in with scholarships, and everybody was treated equally.

School food is something which, even today, my batchmates crave. Birthday parties are treasured memories. Being together in a dormitory is an experience unlike any other. I have had real fun memories of studying in a public school. We made friends for life and are part of a huge network of Alumni across generations!