Dr Sajida Vandal has been a prominent figure in the practice and education of arts in Pakistan. Now, with a new art school set up in the cultural capital of the country, Dr Vandal and her team look to redefine the way arts education is approached. Sehrish Khan finds out how the seasoned professor plans to do it.
You have been associated with teaching for most of your work life. Was the decision to become a teacher planned or a mere coincidence?
I think it was largely a coincidence. During 1970s, teachers led the progressive thought in Lahore or in fact in Pakistan. Those were the times when Zulfiqar Bhutto was introducing ideology of socialism and preparing for the first democratic elections in the country, the intellectuals many of whom were university teachers, were deliberating on the pros and cons of the many solutions which were being presented for Pakistan’s problems. In these deliberations, students too were participants. When I graduated in 1970, I was offered my first job by Shakir Sahib, then Principal of the National College of Arts. At that time, I could not see myself as a teacher because I felt ill equipped to start teaching, making a leap from the student’s desk to the teacher’s rostrum was daunting. It was only after seven years of working in the private and public sector amassing as much experience as possible that I joined the NCA as Assistant Professor in 1977. I have never regretted being an architect educator and working design architect and of course continuing with the research work which is an integral part of a teacher’s life.
Being a consultant for World Bank and UNESCO you have worked on some key Heritage Projects for the country. Can you tell us a bit about that heritage work?
I initially started contributing for the conservation and preservation of the built heritage, the tangible heritage, but over the years, I developed an expertise in understanding the importance of the intangible cultural heritage as an important marker of the identity of a people and the critical role it can thus play in the safeguarding of cultural heritage, both the tangible and the intangible. I was fortunate to have been given an opportunity to work on important heritage projects. I was involved with developing the Management Plan and Conservation of some structures at the World Heritage Site of Lahore (Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Garden) through the first 10 years of the 21st century. This was preceded and followed by several assignments of conservation of heritage buildings. Later, I was invited to be a part of the group of expert facilitators to help with capacity building in ICH, facilitating in preparing safeguarding plans and such other actions suggested under UNESCO Convention 2003 for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Unfortunately, the university environment in Pakistan has been unable to promote a spirit of research and scholarship and appears to be focused only on what they can get out of books
The high point was that this came about when Pakistan’s nomination for “Suri Jagek (observing the sun), traditional meteorological and astronomical practice based on the observation of the sun, moon and stars in reference to the local topography” was inscribed on the Urgent Safeguarding List of UNESCO Convention 2003 in their meeting of 2018. This was a major step for Pakistan because it was the first time that Pakistan was successful in getting a cultural element inscribed on its own. I am really very happy that the IAC faculty was responsible for working with the Kalasha community in Bumbret, Bririr and Rambor to prepare the inventory, the nominations. It was really excellent work and brought great laurels to Pakistan and the Kalasha community. You can visit the UNESCO ICH website and read the inscription and see the nomination papers and the documentary that was part of the submission.
You happen to be a professional architect also and have had a hand in some great creations. What should aspiring architect aim at to stand out from the crowd?
I think every architect should work truthfully in the best interest of the environment and keeping in view the limitations of the client as well. By environment I mean the natural, historical, socio-cultural, the way of life of people, their value system. In fact every dimension of the external and internal environment is of consequence if truly inspired architecture is the aim.
Tell us about THAAP (Trust for History and Art Pakistan) and its efforts to promote arts and culture in the education sector?
THAAP was established in 2006 as the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan and registered as a charitable organization. Later in 2011, its name became just THAAP when it was registered as a Not-for-Profit Company under Section 42 with the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan. This was done primarily to create transparency and accountably in THAAP. Working within the domain of culture, the purpose was to reexamine and revisit the colonial construct of the Pakistani people’s culture and develop scholarship and knowledge based on original research. It was meant as a forum for the teachers because we felt that there was a dire need for creating an independent space where ideas could be explored and new pathways shaped for a deeper understanding of our past, the present and chart the future directions. A space where teachers from all institutions, scholars and anyone interested could meet and deliberate. Unfortunately, the university environment in Pakistan has been unable to promote a spirit of research and scholarship and appears to be focused only on what they can get out of books, majority of which are written for situations alien to Pakistan.
Inculcating that spirit of curiosity and inquisitiveness which is the hallmark of education has vanished from our lives. We have forgotten how to question or sometimes we are too scared lest we go against the given order. We have largely forgotten how to look at ourselves and how to continuously explore new ideas and directions and alternate perspectives. THAAP tries to fill in this gap in many ways. Firstly, it is an open forum, everybody with the same quest is welcome. THAAP belongs to all of us. There are many faculty members, heads of departments, deans who have sustained THAAP over the years that it has been in existence. The THAAP Annual conference is a regular feature since the last 10 years and there are regular talks held since its inception where many have come to share ideas and tease our imagination. Then we have also made a great effort to ensure that a publication follows each conference. We take a year to prepare the publication because it is not merely a record of the proceedings of the conference but after the conference the presenters are encouraged to revisit and add on any further aspects that the conference highlighted. Professor Pervaiz Vandal is the editor of the THAAP journal where these papers are published.
The other program that THAAP has set up is in “Culture and Development”. This is rooted in THAAP’s mission of promoting cultural diversity and the inalienable right of the people to their own culture. We are working at the grassroots level with communities in many parts of Pakistan, developing mechanisms and methodologies to not only explore cultural diversity, but also intervene in ways that will benefit the communities. This could be by enhancing identity and pride in one’s own culture, creating livelihood opportunities, sharing and disseminating knowledge etc.
In your opinion, what are some essential ingredients of a good arts and culture institution?
I think I will walk you through our deliberations while planning the establishment of the IAC. Our first consideration was to imagine what an institution in the 21st century of a country and people who are free should be like? This question was important because if you look around the educational institutions in Pakistan, they model themselves on those in the “industrialized west” (that is HEC’s word!) completely forgetting that institutions in the west first and foremost gear themselves to their own needs and not those of some distant land, and secondly they focus on what is required by humans the world over and how they can remain relevant to the world at large. This thinking made us discard the existing models, those established in the colonial period when we were a subjected people and those that followed later and had by and large followed in the same footsteps.
In the coming years, there will be plentiful opportunities in areas like conservation of the built heritage, heritage promotion through tourism, documentary and film making and cultural industries
We spent hours and months deliberating as well as talking about important concepts of how the mind works. We were a group of about 30 people, both the very young and the very experienced. We were of course fortunate that we had Professor Pervaiz Vandal leading these deliberations because at the end of the day, we managed to be on the same page with the firm belief that the convergence of knowledge, an integrated pedagogy would be the guiding principle. I think the art and culture institutions will need to go through this exercise and at the end chalk out a pathway which best suits them. For us at the IAC, we wanted to change the narrative, focusing more on the local stories of the communities living within Pakistan, recognizing the cultural diversity and the richness that offered, acknowledging the regional and local identities which were truly the greatest asset that Pakistan has. It is pretty appalling that our mother languages, which are vehicles for our stories and our cultural expressions, are not taught in any institution, we decided to correct that situation and made the mother language, along with English and Urdu be mandatory for students to study. We have started with Punjabi (the mother language of the majority of students) and are now working towards bringing in other Pakistani mother languages as well.
IAC is setting up the Ma Boli Center which will provide the learning opportunity for larger mosaic of languages that exist in Pakistan
IAC is setting up the Ma Boli Center which will provide the learning opportunity for larger mosaic of languages that exist in Pakistan. Another important consideration came out of our acknowledgement that there are two streams of knowledge that exist in Pakistan, one that comes from our traditional sources, carried forward by the ustads and the other that comes from contemporary sources. IAC thus tries to create a nexus between the two streams to enrich our teaching and learning experience. Outstanding ustads are offered positions as professors of practice so that their knowledge accumulated through traditional means is not lost. All this can only happen if we adhere to the cardinal principle of freedom of thought and action as well as mutual respect for each other.
What makes IAC (Institute for Arts and Culture) a unique institution? Tell us about some of the ways IAC is redefining arts education?
IAC is unique in many ways. Some of these I have already spoken about. Let me just say that IAC would like to welcome anyone who is interested to find out more to visit us and speak to anyone of the faculty or the students the savor the uniqueness of IAC.
Taking cues from the society, “arts” subjects are only recommended for students who are perceived weak in studies. Why have things come to this?
Unfortunately, this is true. Should I say it is a conspiracy or merely a lack of understanding of the arts and culture? When you have leading authorities, who are continuously pushing for the sciences completely ignoring the social sciences and humanities and paying no heed to the arts then we will reach the conclusion that art is unimportant and requires no brains and talent! This is very unfortunate because many of the artistic fields are rooted in a scientific understanding for example our South Asian classical music rests in mathematics, many countries have recognized this and start teaching them music right from pre-school or even earlier. Calligraphy requires a deep understanding of geometry and so on and so forth. What would Pakistan be like if there were no poets and writers and dancers and musicians? These days when we are so keen to promote tourism what do you think people are being invited to see here? That which was produced by artists, the work of the great architects, the stories narrated by the story tellers of yesteryears and today and the rendition of the musicians of the great music tradition of years. These require much knowledge, skills and a deep understanding of the subject at hand. Not many can take this up as professions. I think it is about time that we learn to respect the arts.
Despite art being a distinct aspect of the history of our region, why do you think there is so few of it visible in the present times?
Art is intrinsic to the human condition so depends on where and what you are looking at. The problem is how we as a society have managed to relegate art as a free-time activity and pushed it in the surplus domain. There are many reasons for this, starting from our prejudices against certain art forms to the lack of acknowledgement that art and culture are the makers of our identity. We have through centuries tried to subsume our identity to either our colonizers, be it the Mughals or the British adopting what was given to us on a platter as the “high art” making us look at awe at what we were offered at the cost of looking at our artistic work as being of more relevance and importance. In recent years, under the guidance of a military dictator, we adopted a common identity with our Muslim brethren, once again forgetting that it was in fact the differences of cultural and artistic expressions which enriched us as a people spread over a large geographical range. We were happy to be ghettoized under the banner of “Islamic art, Islamic culture” feeling pride in this title whereas we did not pause for a moment to think that there is nothing called “Christian Art or any other religious identification”. Suffice to say that this found currency during the Afghan war of the 1980s onwards so should we not look at it as a political question?
Is architecture the only subject to study for someone trying to align creative passion with potential financial outcome?
Mercifully, that is not the case, otherwise the world would be rather boring. Artists are doing very well also. The Art fields have, by and large, created a lot of operational space by now, but more can be done which of course requires society at large, the artist community, the decision makers and the governments to work together. Look at film making, films have provided a very crucial economic space that has been embraced by the youth the world over. Creative Industries are certainly very important to watch. I am a great believer in the entrepreneurial spirit of the Pakistani people since they have to rely on themselves mainly in the absence of well-organized initiatives by the formal sector. The creative fields provide many opportunities to be self employed or work for government or the private sector. Textile designers, fashion designers, graphic designers and so many more have this feature of creativity harnessing economic benefits. Goes without saying that you have to be really good, so make sure you have equipped yourself well.
What do you think are some emerging fields where arts graduates can expect to find employment?
Many of the new fields are in the digital world and will provide exciting career opportunities to young art professionals. Game design and animation will be a major field in the future. IAC (Institute for Art and Culture) has developed an exciting linkage with some well known French institutions supported by the French government that promises to establish this professional space in Pakistan. Then there are other more traditional professions which somehow have not been well attended to. This includes heritage related professions which could cover a huge gamut, for example conservation of the built heritage, heritage promotion through tourism, documentary and film making and cultural industries and such others. At the IAC we have formed a collaboration with the Walled City Lahore Authority (WCLA) to launch these programs which we will be doing very shortly. The idea is to bring practice and academic learning together to promote knowledge generation and safeguard our heritage. I think that Pakistan’s recognition that tourism sector has to be organized and promoted for economic growth will provide many career opportunities for the young and the old. So this is a sector which is going to be a major employer in Pakistan. I would like to mention Kamran Lashari, the DG of WCLA, who has the dynamism and courage to continuously explore and support new ideas and directions.