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” Bauhaus and Santiniketan: Two Models of Art and Design Education, Impact and Implications”

Bauhaus and Santiniketan: Two Models of Art and Design Education, Impact and Implications

  1. Siva Kumar


The Bauhaus and Kala Bhavana, the art school at Santiniketan, were two institutions that played seminal roles in art and design education in the early twentieth century. Several of their teachers and students made individual contributions to the modern art of Europe and India, however, that is not the burden of my presentation; I am concerned here with the models of education they developed, their impact then and their implications today. Both Bauhaus and Kala Bhavana were products of a certain rethinking in art education undertaken in response to specific social and cultural conditions. The Bauhaus position was articulated primarily by Walter Gropius and that of Santiniketan by Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. An initiative that was possibly mooted by Rabindranath, and realized through the efforts of Stella Kramrisch and Johannes Itten, who were then teaching at Santiniketan and Bauhaus respectively, brought about the first coming together of the modern artists of the east and the west on a common platform in Calcutta in 1922.[1] Since then the two institutions have often been compared, and seen as two parallel developments in Germany and India. But there were both convergence and divergence in their approaches to education. I shall begin by listing some of the similarities and then move on to a discussion of differences.

Both Bauhaus and Kala Bhavana were founded in the same year, 1919, and they shared several features. The most important of these was that both institutions were involved in scripting a radical shift in the teaching of art and design in Germany and India. In 1953, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, commenting retrospectively, said that, ‘The Bauhaus was not an institution… it was an idea.’ The same can be said about Santiniketan, it represented a group of artists bound by a community of ideas, more than an institution. The ideas that guided the Bauhaus and Santiniketan artists were similar, and both aimed at making a social intervention through art rather than shaping a cohesive art movement defined by a recognizable style or artistic concept to which all its members subscribed.

At the centre of their programme was an effort to collapse the differences between art and craft, and to see them as belonging to a larger and continuous spectrum of creativity and communication. This led them to invest in a new pedagogy based on the explorations of visual language and materials, which allowed a creative person to move from one end of the spectrum to the other using a foundation of common linguistic resources. At the Bauhaus the student of architecture or painting was also expected to enroll in a craft or trade workshop and learn rug-making or iron working or furniture building or bookbinding and so on, besides architecture or painting. At Santiniketan besides learning a wide range of painting techniques, the students were expected to opt for three crafts practices from a list that included needlework, batik, woodblock printing, floor graphics or alpana, elementary architectural drawing, stage and festival designing etc. Pottery, leather work and weaving workshops also operated in the campus and were open to the interested. This was something that no art educational programme had endeavoured to do since the beginning of the Renaissance, and thus constituted the healing of a breach that had for long separated the arts from the crafts. This led to two things: firstly, it broke the stereotype of the artist as a specialist in one medium, standing, socially and intellectually, a notch higher than the craftsman or designer. Secondly, besides changing the professional profile of the artist both the Bauhaus and Santiniketan programmes aimed at bringing about a wider change in taste.

Both the Bauhaus and Santiniketan came into existence in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and had features that owed much to this historical moment. And they were, to that extent, correctives to a given social situation; many of the teachers and students at Bauhuas were war veterans trying to turn a new leaf with a liberal socialist orientation, and those at Santiniketan were sympathetic to the anti-colonial nationalist movement. Given the fact that the Bauhaus was a state-funded art institution, and that Rabindranath did not wish to get his students embroiled in political activism which disrupted education itself, although both these institutions were not radically political or overtly activist in their ideological orientation, they were quietly resistant to the powers that be. It was manifested most prominently in the form of an aesthetic shift, and less overtly in the form of a subtle shift in the inherited gender perceptions. The inclusion of crafts in its training and the enrolment of women students to its courses, and occasionally to its faculty,—although arguably limited in several respects—were factors that signaled a change in gender perspectives in art education and practice.[2] The new male artist at the Bauhaus and Santiniketan was someone who not only painted, sculpted and build houses but also designed textiles or did alpanas, similarly at least some of the women artists at both places discarded what were considered feminine crafts and ventured to paint or sculpt in contravention to inherited and prevailing gendered traditions of practice.[3]

Yet there were important differences between them. Let us begin with the social conditions under which their utopian programmes were shaped. Both Germany and India were countries that were sore and licking their political and economic wounds during the interwar years. And the educational programmes of the Bauhaus and Santiniketan were utopian dreams sketched against this background. The Bauhaus artists, in the early post-war years, were temporally caught between the nihilist antiwar gestures of the Dadaists and the revolutionary utopian postulates of the Constructivists, but individually each of them chose to settle somewhere between pre-war Expressionism that invoked a particularly troubled German spirit, and the optimistic, more technologically grounded Constructivism, and gave a complete miss to the nihilist and anarchist spirit of Dadaism. The Santiniketan artists, on the other hand, branching off from an earlier anti-colonialist effort at regaining a national identity through a historicist art practice, moved towards a constructive engagement with nation-building and cross-cultural exchanges. The optimism of the Bauhaus came from a belief in the possibilities offered by technology—which was not particularly ideological and allowed them to connect with both avant-garde Russian art and modern American architecture—and its potential use in building an industrialized, more connected and less hierarchical modern Germany. And that of Santiniketan came from a newfound cultural confidence derived from cross-cultural encounters which allowed them to challenge colonial cultural impositions and plan ahead independently for a modern India. Thus while the Bauhaus, despite its early half-hearted medievalism, took a predominantly technological turn, Santiniketan fostered a more cultural turn throughout its early history.[4]

This, in turn, led to some important differences in their approaches to developing a material and language-based approach to pedagogy. In the Bauhaus it was based on the ‘preliminary course’ initially designed by Itten and subsequently altered by Moholy Nagy and Josef Albers. If Itten’s ‘preliminary course’ revolved around studies from nature and materials including colour, analysis of old masters, and life study, those designed by Moholy Nagy and Albers eschewed the analysis of old masters and study from nature, and moved emphatically towards exercises with materials and the abstract principles of form-making and design. To some extent this was also reflected in the teaching programmes developed by Kandinsky and Klee. Their engagement with material and language was pre-thematic and based on universal abstract principles comparable to the physical laws of nature.[5] The three ideas of modernist formalism, truth to materials, form follows function, and less is more, all primarily related with architecture and industrial designing than with painting, were the unstated guiding factors of the Bauhaus educational programme at large.

In contrast to this Nandalal’s pedagogy was not only closely based on perception and the study of nature but also on their interpretation through different visual conventions. It is in relation to this that he undertook the analysis of various visual traditions of world art, especially of the east, and tried to point out the underlying implications and possibilities of each, both for the representation of visual experiences and visual design. The stress was not on a set of common principles but on the elucidation of different possibilities offered by traditions founded upon different ways of seeing and expressive needs. Further, there was no preliminary course in Nandalal’s scheme of things. In Santiniketan each new student began with his or her personal effort at creative work. The enquiry into visual language and the role of materials in shaping the work followed, one learned as one worked; skill development and learning to work in collaboration with mediums went hand in hand with the realization of the expressive and communicational needs of the individual. Nandalal accepted a plurality of possibilities and his pedagogy was more geared towards the needs of the individual, and it was constantly innovated in response to the needs and talent of the student and not developed into a universal programme through which each was put through.

Gropius gave diagrammatic expression to the complete course at Bauhaus in the form four concentric circles. In it the outer ring, representing what the students were expected to do during the first half year, he wrote, ‘Basic Course, Elementary study of elementary form, Study of materials in the basic workshop’. The second and third circles represented what the student did during the next 3 years. In the second circle he wrote ‘Study of nature; Study of materials; Space study, Colour study, Compositional study; Study of construction and representation, Study of materials and tools’. In the third circle he gave the following list of mediums: ‘Glass, Clay, Stone, Wood, Metal, Textiles, and interestingly, Colour.’ In the fourth and innermost circle he wrote ‘ Building: Site testing, Design, Building and engineering science’. Later the diagram was modified to include ‘Science’ and ‘Comparative history of art’ within the second circle and ‘Photography’ in the third devoted to mediums, and ‘Town planning’ and ‘Social services’ into the innermost circle.

This was fully in keeping with Gropius’s idea that ‘the ultimate goal of all artistic activity is the building!’ and his belief in architecture as a ‘total work of art.’  But it also shows that the Bauhaus programme began with preliminary exercises and moved in stages to the production of a certain kind of art object, in this case an architectural work that subsumes all other arts and crafts under it. This was a new version of the academic tradition of art training that graduated from skills to a predetermined image in graded steps, adopted to the changing technological horizon and production methods of the Twentieth century. Nandalal did not visualise any one art form as subsuming the others, nor did he believe, as we have noted, in an art training that moved in stages from learning of skills to original creation, the relation between the work of art and all the other elements that went into its shaping such as skills, traditions of practice and material manipulation were for him symbiotic.

If Nandalal were to do redo the Bauhaus course diagram he would have perhaps place the creative work at the centre and presented the rest like a life circle of the creative process revolving around it, and read it not from the periphery to the centre but as a movement from the centre to the periphery, or perhaps a constant wave movement from the centre to the periphery and back. In fact the diagrammatic model of his pedagogical programme took the form of a triangle, with nature, tradition and individuality forming the three arms of the triangle framing the work of art.

If at the Bauhaus the handling of material and language were technologically determined, at Santiniketan they were seen as infused with cultural values. And this points to two different directions with their own aesthetic possibilities. The technologically determined use of material and processes (as all visual languages are broken down into processes in practice) led to objects with clean geometrical shapes and forms, without any ornamentation and suitable for mass production using machines. That many of the objects of everyday use produced in the Bauhaus workshop were exquisitely handcrafted in expensive materials and therefore remained luxury objects should not blind us to the direction in which their aesthetics pointed. We might argue that the Bauhaus design programme was at its best was an attempt to introduced pre-modern values of individualized artistic designing into industrial production.[6] On the other hand ornamentation with organic motifs, sometimes even in excessive proportion, was central to the functional objects designed and produced in Santiniketan. There was no facility for industrial mass production in India at that time and therefore these were definitely not designed for it. In fact most of the functional objects designed at Santiniketan were produced employing traditional handicraft skills and methods of production that were readily available and the costs were kept low enough for the middle class to buy and use them.[7]

Thus though there were several common elements that went into the shaping of these two models, the hierarchical relationship between themwere different at the Bauhaus and at Santiniketan. This led to the Bauhaus, despite having several important artists on its faculty, being primarily recognized as a school of design,[8] and Santiniketan as acentre for art. If the Bauhaus produced a new kind of designer who had the refined aesthetic sensibilities of an artist and the technicalknowhow of an engineer, Santiniketan produced a new kind of artist, who was interested in visual communication and not merely inself-expression, and was willing to exercise his sensibilities at different levels. But what are the implications of the histories of these two institutions for art and design education today? Technology is unidirectional, it only moves forward and renders the present obsolete in the process; in the world of technology to pass into history is to become extinct, to become as dead as a stuffed Dodo in a museum. Technology that has been supplanted is not available for use anymore but only for historical study.[9] Culture, by contrast, has a longer shelf life, it can be resurrected,phoenix like, from memories and museums, and can breathe life into new creations in a different age. But cultures that offer a motivating vision at one moment in history can also turn into dead habits; become a burden sitting heavily on our minds and shoulders making it difficult for us to move freely. Perhaps at suchmoments new technologies can help us to regain the freedom to think anew.[10] The possibility of a discursive dialogue between culture and technology is one of the things that the new educators in art and design might wish to consider.





[1]   The historic meeting of the East and the West was commemorated with the exhibition The Bauhaus in Calcutta: An Encounter of the Cosmopolitan Avant-Garde organized by The Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in 2013.

[2]   Although the better known Bauhaus and Santiniketan artists are all men, but both institutions played a pioneering role in finding a place for women in the arts. Marianne Brandt, Gunta Stolzl, Benita Koch-Otte, Marguerite Friedlander-Wildenhain, Ille Fehling, Alma Siedhof-Buscher and Ami Albers in Bauhaus and Santa Devi, Protima Devi, Chitraniva Choudhury, Sukumari Devi, Jamuna Sen, Gauri Banja, Indusudha Ghosh, Rani Chanda, Ira Choudhuri, Meera Mukherjee, Kamala Dasgupta and others may be mentioned.

[3]   With reference to the Bauhaus the issues involved are discussed by Ulrike Muller in Bauhaus Women, [Flammarion, Paris 2009] and by T’ai Smith in Bauhaus Weaving Theory: From Feminine Crafts to Mode of Design, [University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2014]. In the context of Santiniketan, while Protima Devi played a role in introducing both Fresco painting and batik to Santiniketan and Kamala Das Gupta and Meera Mukherjee became notable sculptors, Nandalal Bose, Benodebehari Mukherjee, K. G. Subramanyan, P. Hariharan, Riten Majumdar and Devi Prasad Gupta made significant contribution to design education and practice.

[4]   The initial allusions to community and medieval guilds at the Bauhaus was more strategic than earnest affirmations of ideological inclination. The image of the Gothic cathedral that appeared on the cover of the Bauhaus Manifesto in 1919 was after all a medieval structure fragmented following an expressionist instinct and reassembled according to cubist principles, and even Georg Muche who was close to spiritualist Itten asserted that ‘the ideas of Ruskin and Morris and the German Werkbund left us cold. Nothing was more remote from our minds than the medievalism of the Bauhutte [medieval craft guild]. For Muche’s statement see, Eva Forgacs, The Bauhaus Idea and Bauhaus Politics, Central European University Press, Budapest 1995, p. 58.

[5]   This is implicit even in Paul Klee’s explanation of perceivable facts of nature in his Pedagogical Sketchbook, and even more so in the second volume of his Notebooks subtitled Nature of Nature.

[6]   Many of the objects that were designed by the Bauhaus like the Barcelona Chair and the ebony and silver non-drip tea pots were exclusive handmade products that combined functionality with aesthetics, and were therefore expensive. Some like the Bauhaus cradle or Rietwelt chair were one off objects, which the designers themselves did not expect to see mass reproduced. The knock off industrial production of even the more functional Bauhaus designs came later.

[7]   At another level this is reflected in the use of photography for both documentation and interpersonal socializing in the Bauhaus and its substitution by drawings, especially on small postcards exchanged between members of the community, in Santiniketan.

[8]   This explains why, although the Bauhaus placed great importance on medium, American art critics like Clement Greenberg who also argued for the centrality of medium and formal innovation in defining modernism did not pay attention to the Bauhaus artists; and it was not limited to Greenberg either, even Meyer Schapiro who argued about the humanism of abstraction did not discuss the Bauhaus artists in relation to modern art.

[9]   Think of the manner in which negative and diapositive films have become unavailable in recent years.

[10] The use of photography and cinema to extent and renew the life of realistic representation during the modern period is an example of the reinvention of a vision grounded in an earlier period.


[This is the text of a paper read at the conference Bauhaus and Creativity, at the Bauhaus Institute, China Academy of Art, Hangzhau, 13-14 October 2015]

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