‘Kabir and a Child’s Universe’: Talk by Jyoti Sahi

Personally I am interested
in the origins of art. Where does art come from?
Where does the imagination come from? And in that the person who first
inspired me, I thought a lot about him… .. is a poet and painter
called William Blake. And you know he distinguished his first
series of… two famous series of poems… ..were poems about innocence,
and poems about experience. And he had a lot to say about the
relationship of innocence to experience. A child is innocent. But he felt that a child doesn’t
come as a kind of a tabula rassa. A kind of a clean piece of
slate, doesn’t come like that. A child comes with a whole
tradition of wisdom. A child is wise. And an adult needs, in order to be
creative, to discover the child within. So it’s not as though here you have
a child, here you have an adult. Here is somebody who is learning,
here is somebody who is teaching. But you have this process which is
going on in the child and also… ..in me as an adult, of trying to
understand, first of all, a wisdom… ..which is something which I
didn’t actually get in school. I got knowledge in school but
not wisdom, wisdom came separately. That wisdom is something which
comes from you could say… ..the whole history of mankind. So a child has this wisdom,
the wisdom of being a human being. And we quite often, mainly because of
our education, we forget this wisdom… ..and we have to rediscover it,
by rediscovering our childhood. And that is the playfulness. At a certain period, you could say end
of 19th century, beginning of 20th… ..there was a realisation… ..that inspiration would come from
returning to the origins of art. The discovery of primal roots of art… ..was paralleled by
a discovery of child art. Even people like Klee at the Bauhaus. He was a teacher of small children
before he discovered himself as an artist. And he found that in the
painting of small children… ..there was a vitality which
he wanted to rediscover. So here you get a valuing of a kind of
art which in many schools, you know… ..the teacher begins by the idea:
“These children don’t know how to draw.” “They don’t know how to paint.
I have to teach them.” Teach them what? Put on the board. “This is a flower pot,
this is a flower coming out of it.” And so in the process,
completely kill off… ..that wellspring of inspiration
which is part of their wisdom. Now I think that what I felt about the
kind of vision of Kabir was that… ..it somehow went back
to something primordial. Kabir himself may have
said that he was illiterate. So he is supposed to be illiterate,
he is supposed to be a dalit. A person who only
works with his hands. In the social system, considered to be
not one of the intellectuals… ..not one the people who have
inherited the great culture. And yet he can draw on a kind of wisdom
which is present in the roots… ..in the folk tradition,
in the working tradition. Our classroom, as we understand it,
the way in which teach… ..goes back in a sense to Descartes. It goes back to an
understanding that a child… ..has got a mind… we have
discussed this already… and a body. And the purpose of education… ..is to somehow get the child to leave
their bodies and develop their minds. So this is the wound. This is the
wound of the Cartesian classroom. An educationist has said… “In western education
the highest status… ..is reserved for the most
abstract and immaterial learning… ..irrespective of its utility.
And the lowest status… ..is accorded to concrete
materialistic learning… ..much of which we learn
in daily embodied action. Entering the classroom
determined to erase the body… ..and give ourselves
more fully to the mind… ..we show by our being, how deeply
we have accepted the assumption… ..that passion has
no place in the classroom.” So this idea that you get them all
to sit on chairs rooted, you know… ..not to move about.
Ruler in hand! You have to sit still, you have to
learn things only with the mind. And that is the wound. I think what we are trying to find,
in working with children… ..is a kind of, what maybe
Aurobindo called an ‘integral yoga’. Integral yoga in which these
two elements the body and the mind… ..are not seen as
fighting each other… ..but in a sense working
together to create a wholeness. A person who I have gained
a lot from is… ..a philosopher, a phenomenologist
called Gaston Bachelard. And he said that actually
what a poet is looking at… ..he called it the
material imagination. Material imagination is
that a poet is experiencing… ..phenomena in the same way
that a scientist is. In the Cartesian classroom, or
the Cartesian university… ..we have the arts on one side
and the sciences on the other. But knowledge is not really like that.
Knowledge is something in which… ..the way in which we are looking
at things as a scientist… ..or a mathematician
is looking, is not different… ..from the way in which
a poet looks at it. So this was the argument, that
our concepts of space and time… ..actually are both objective,
but they include the subject. This comes back to modern science
which, you could say, says that… ..our subjective way
of seeing determines… ..our objective, what we see.
David Bohm and people like that. That is to say that [in] science
we can’t just be objective. In the same way as we can’t just
experience, we can’t just have… ..experience without the baggage
which I spoke of earlier. The same is true of science.
Science carries a baggage also. And so every scientist is actually
looking at the external world… ..from a cultural poetic background. And that is the origin of language… ..the way in which
we describe something… ..even if we were describing
an external phenomena. That language is not something
which human beings have made… ..but which has made human beings. We are determined by the
language which we use. That gives the kind of
symbols which we use. It’s not that the poet sits down
and invents symbols. No! The symbols are something
which possess the poet. So I have tried to relate this
to some of the ideas… ..which I have found inspiring
in the poetic tradition of Kabir. Here is a form
done by a very small child. The child has said,
this is a house. It’s not a house as you would look at it
objectively like a camera. But it is a space, which is a home.
A place to inhabit. Going backwards. When children paint a house… ..whether they are in a village in India
or whether they are in Europe… ..or wherever they are,
they make a house like that. So some people will say
it is archetypical. Archetypical means this house
is not just the external house… ..it doesn’t look like the house
where they were brought up. But it’s an inner house.
A house of the heart. And it looks like a face.
The two windows are eyes… ..and they often have stars in them.
And the door is the mouth. And here again you get this house.
But it is a cosmic house. The child is inhabiting a space… ..which is not only related to the
factual house from which they come. Whether it’s a rich child or whether
it is a poor child. A child coming… ..from a very simple home or a child
coming from a block of flats in Bangalore… ..they make such a picture. So it is that inside us,
there is a cosmic home. And this home is, you could say,
‘Shoonya Shikhar’ (‘peak of emptiness’,
an image in Kabir). These are the sun and
the moon and the stars. This is as it were the universe.
The universe which is our home. We can’t force this. So it is something… this
imagination comes from within. It’s not something you can teach. We can teach other subjects,
we can teach calculus… ..but we cannot
teach imagination. So here again, what is being
spoken of here is that inner home… ..that inner sense of belonging… ..which is linked also to what
was discussed at the first day. A sense of identity. A sense of having
a name, a sense of belonging somewhere. And that all comes at the same time. Even this thing of very small children
refer to themselves in the abstract. But a point comes when they say ‘I’. At that point when the child says I,
is also a point when symbolism starts. Language takes over. So the home is a space which is…
There are related areas, related rooms. They are seen almost from above. Look at even in folk art.
In Warli painting… ..or even in Egyptian painting.
The image of the house is seen above… ..as a plan not in elevation. So here are the people, the family.
Mother and father and children. And these are the rooms of the house.
Even the windows open out. Next one. And so, here is a bus. It’s… these people who
have entered the bus. The wheels. Can you see
the wheels on this side? So it is a concept of the bus… ..but it’s a different
understanding of a vehicle… ..from the one which has been
introduced by the Cartesian classroom. What we are calling
self-discovery… ..is actually something poetic.
It’s part of poetry. And it’s part of this sense of
belonging to the cosmos. Belonging to trees, belonging to… It is not the kind of ‘I’ which is
alienated from the rest of creation. So that is an intuition which is… We think that it’s very abstract idea.
Nirguna! Idea of mystics and so on. But it is the original
vision of the child. That a child in that sense has the
same view of reality as the mystic. The mystic is only
returning to the child. So it is important that we don’t think
that when teaching Kabir or something… ..we have to simplify it. “Oh this person is a very advanced mind!
Children won’t understand it.” “They won’t be able
to think like that.” The problem is not children,
the problem is adults! So there is no need to
simplify Kabir. What we have to do – to understand
Kabir, we have to become like children. The next picture. So here again you get this
person who is already… ..in a certain sense
a cosmic person. A person who is not just the ‘individual’
as we understand it in a consumer society. But this is a person who discovers the
whole in themselves. Universe within. That is the intuition. I and my wife and also my son worked on
a book called ‘Education Through Art’. The real problem was not with
the children. We documented that. But with the teachers. They said:
“How can you say that this is good art?” We have to try and educate
the children not to paint like this. And yet this in itself is art. That is a kind of understanding which is
often difficult to communicate to teachers. Next picture. So there is a bird. The bird is
already present in this space. The egg is enclosing space. This is
present in many cosmologies. And the bird breaks from this space
and comes out and is able to fly. This is like a child in the womb
which has to come out. And that is the first wound.
We are born out of a wound. I sometimes feel that, you know,
watching say singers singing Kabir songs… ..the song is a kind of cry. I remember once somebody said to me,
“Must be nice to be an artist… ..because then you’ll see
everything as very beautiful.” “You are a very joyful person.” I said well actually, to be very honest,
quite often when I paint, I cry. Literally cry. So the painting, the image,
comes out of a kind of suffering. It’s not… and even a child when
it’s born, it’s slapped. It has to cry. Why? Because only from
crying will it breathe. So our cry, that primordial [cry], that is the
resounding ‘Shabd’ [Word] of the universe. That cry is the cry which
is related to breath… ..which is related to a
certain kind of suffering. Next one. So out of that, coming
birthing out of that house… ..this person is discovering:
Oh, this garden! It’s the visual. The image
gives rise to the story. In fact there is a phenomenologist
called Paul Ricoeur and he says… ..the image is not a result of thought,
but thought is the result of the image. Image gives rise to thought. So it’s not that the child
has thought I am going to do this. But having done this,
they discover a story. They discover. So the whole story comes
from these primordial images… ..which lie in the heart, and which
now become a thought process. And that thought process
is through the story. Here again, the relation of
the human to the tree. The human being has branches. And so this sense… “I am a tree!”,
“I am a house!”, “I am a garden!” All these are present in the
poetic tradition of Kabir… ..but they lie at the root of
the imagination in every child. They are not something
which is foreign to the children. So the child is dreaming. And I think what is interesting about
the poem is that it helps in dreaming. The poet is a dreamer…
Cultural dreamer. And it helps in a kind of reverie. And it’s important because
this kind of imagery… ..comes out of a
certain kind of loneliness. Unless the child is alone, unless the
child begins to dream and daydream alone… ..their mind will never develop. So the trouble with our Cartesian
home or Cartesian classroom… ..it doesn’t allow children to be alone.
Doesn’t allow them to dream. All the time busy, busy, busy.
And this affects the mind. Let’s go to this:
‘The Singing Parrot’. We tried to think of a
dance-drama from this. Trying to take the story
in its archetypal sense. Images of the fire and the forest.
Which are dream images. This was the stage in the garden. Using forms. The patters on the ground were also
supposed to relate to movement. Next. And so preparing masks
for the children. They are now… a child is going to
become a lion. It is a type of possession. Mask is central to ancient rituals,
shamanistic traditions. Because when a person wears a mask,
they enter into a new character. They are no longer this person
who is called so and so. They now become an animal, they become
a bird, they become something else. And that transformation is possible
through the story and through drama. So here the bird is flying and the
trees are… the person becomes the tree. So the animals feeling afraid,
running away from the fire. The birds wanting to fly. How do we experience in
ourselves a sense of flying? Much of dancing is about relating
to cosmos, relating to fire… ..relating to water, relating to
flying, relating to the earth. Dance is that. To discover in our
own body the elemental. Next. There is, you know in the
seasons, we have the idea of… ..the hot season which is relating
to fire, then the rainy season. And then the water falling, the tears,
and then new fruitfulness coming. This is an experience of
the cycle of the seasons. And finally this sense of love and
compassion between the bird and the tree. So that kind of sense… compassion.
What is compassion? Compassion is a sense of belonging to nature,
belonging to those who are suffering. Of identity. Identity not as
a separate thing… ..but in drama, in dance, of
identifying with the other. That is compassion. So we tend to think of identity
only as separate identity. But what the story, the dance
and movement does, it says that… ..we discover our identity
by becoming the other. One of the basic ideas from the jatakas
running through all of them… ..is the concept of
karuna, of compassion. So this goes in many of
the stories, basically… ..that the Buddha is one
who is compassionate… ..who feels for the suffering of others. And so that is then what is present in
this parrot story also. It is compassionate. There is a whole tradition
in India of the yogic body. Full art came out of it. It’s probably
considered to be originally tribal art. Tantric art, we call it.
Tantric art. We have done many of these images in
the 2nd day which I found very helpful… ..in understanding that the
body itself is the universe. The body is the whole world, body
is the sky. Everything is in the body. Now that is a yogic idea. Kabir obviously
drew many of his concepts from yoga. So in teaching the body, the
body is not just here inside… ..but it is also our relation
to the environment. Certain kind of
environmental ideas link… ..the body to the whole
world in which we live. Next picture. So these are traditional Jain,
Hindu, Buddhist ideas of… ..the body with different chakras.
The body understood as itself a mandala… ..in which there are these different…
It comes over and over again in Kabir. The different doors of the body, the
body is itself a temple. Carry on. So this whole tradition
of the yogic body… ..is something which is present
in the poetry of kabir… ..and could be expanded, could be
as it were introduced. Even in the school which
my wife is running… ..trying to get children to do
some yoga in the morning… ..and relating that… There is a nice
book written by somebody in Dehradun… ..’Yoga for Children’. And there
many of the asanas… ..are connected you might say with a
snake, with a tiger, with some animal. So through yoga you discover
that you are not only your body… ..but you are related to the animal world,
to nature, to the forms of trees, etc. So that’s something children like
to discuss, to experience. “I am a tree!”
“I am a snake!” So you can say that yoga is another
way, not only of doing exercises… ..but relating somehow
to the whole universe. It’s not just a matter of ecological
crisis we are going through. We are going through
an educational crisis. Behind the ecological crisis
is an educational crisis. It’s no point just telling people,
“Oh, don’t do this, don’t do that.” “Don’t cut trees, don’t
use energy in a bad way… ..try and be more
ecologically conscious.” This will not work unless
our education changes. So if we are imagining changing the
problems, the crisis which we are facing… ..it’s not anything else
than an educational problem.

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