Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Mural Room

As the coordinator of the infamous mural, many of my interactions with the students and teachers at the Gandhi Ashram took place in this mural room, as I like to call it. Even though the mural was intended to be a way in which students would remember their times and experiences with Colby students, the exercise of sketching and trying to express what the Gandhi Ashram and Kalimpong meant to them gave insight into what makes India distinct and separate from the Europeanism that has greatly influenced its history.

The vision for this mural was for the wall to be split up into boxes and for each class to have the ability to paint any images that relate to their school, their experiences at the winter camp, or their surroundings. The first two students, one boy and one girl, from class four were able to sketch and to paint a scene of Kalimpong together that developed into this playful mingling of color and shape that still is one of my favorite boxes of the mural. This box set the tone for the rest of the creation: the boarders developed a bold graphic image of integrating colors and textures, class seven students created their own unique symbols and imagery, and Jerome, the art teacher at the school, produced a wonderfully detailed collection of Buddhist symbols that brought all of the colors of the mural together in a simple yet sophisticated grid pattern.

Looking back at the final creation, there is something unique and almost indescribable among all of the different boxes and ages of Gandhi Ashram students and teachers that I was not expecting. This “thing” is not a result of Europeanism or westernization, but is the distinct identity of the Indians of this hill region. Even though there was an attempt to paint a symbol of Nirvana (the band), which consisted of a yellow smiley face with a bullet hole in the center of his forehead, the imagery of the mural is derived from the students and teachers’ private lives, a term that Chakrabarty coined to describe the part of the Indian self that has not been expressed in literature or corrupted by British colonial rule.

The current historical narrative places Indians in a subaltern position in which their history and identity has been dominated and overrun by westernization, but the expression captured in this mural project illustrates the existence and the depth of a distinct Indian identity; this observation suggests that a larger, independent narrative exists outside of the structure that Europeanism has created. An Indian history can exist outside of the western narrative; when given the opportunity to express themselves and their thoughts without any restrictions, students and teachers produced a magnificent work of art in which they were the creator and the subject of their own box and their own identity.

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