When I joined service in a college, some thirty years back, in a small town in Mid –Travancore which I had always associated with extreme conservatism, I did not bargain for the type and size of talents displayed by the student community. The intra-mural competitions were big events which stretched on for weeks. The classical music competitions used to be held over a period of two days. The folk dance and classical dance, both solo and group- each of these events took two full days to complete. The judges were well known experts in their fields.
The long and short of it is – every other girl could sing or dance ,or sing and dance, or respect these forms of art. Parents spent a lot of time and money to train their children in whatever form of art their wards were interested in or had talent for. Students spent a lot of time and energy to become accomplished in their chosen fields.
Today, in the same college, getting students who can give quality performance is no easy task. Those who do volunteer to do it, more often than not, lack calibre, expertise. Classical music and dance have given way to cinematic (now banned – the term I mean)dance and film music. Not that there is anything wrong with or inferior about either. It’s just that they require little or no training. In these days, when making value judgement is considered a mortal sin, I make bold to say that those were good days, when young minds were put to rigorous but enjoyable training to master the complexities of classical art forms. Those were the days when the students and their parents believed that to acquire skill in classical forms of art was a worthy enough mission, and that there were things as important in life as the entrance exams - which brings me to the villain of the piece.
I do not remember in which year the entrance exams to professional courses were introduced in Kerala- but the decline of interest and engagement in arts and fine arts mentioned above became instantly felt after the introduction of this phenomenon. I hear stories of how school and pre degree students who were being trained either in music or dance were abruptly taken out of these classes and admitted to coaching classes giving training for the entrance exams. Kala was cut down to size. But the sense of rhythm inherent in human nature cannot be suppressed. Fortunately, the TV which quietly made entry into every home in Kerala provided plenty of models of disco/cinematic dancing. Centres which taught disco dancing began to appear in big towns in Kerala where young people went to shake a leg in order to fulfill their urge to sway to rhythm.
What the entrance exams have done to Kerala – at least in the part of Kerala I speak of –is, they have enlightened the parents about the futility of art. Traditionally, Kerala was a place where it was believed that training in some form of art would enrich the experience of life, train and discipline the mind, add a deeper dimension to personality, and also enable one to deal better with this business called life. This inherited wisdom was uprooted and blown away overnight by the hurricane which came in the form of entrance exams which descended on the state in the eighties. I tend to compare my pre-entrance with the post-entrance students. The difference is not in how they dance on the stage. It is in how they conduct and carry themselves, in their weltanschauung and the way they face a crisis situation. The pre-entrance lots – they were respectful but they could challenge you in class. They were involved in the happenings in the classroom. You entrust them with a job, they would do it with such heartwarming earnestness and sense of responsibility. They would sometimes walk up to you and ask whether you would recommend this book or that, or if their understanding of some book they'd just finished reading was right. They somehow gave you the feeling that they believed that learning was its own reward. They made you feel happy and grateful for being allowed to contribute to the learning process. And they made your heart swell with pride when they interrupted your lecture with ”Ma’am, aren’t you contradicting yourself?” For they were genuinely interested in the process of education. They had the time and inclination to actively engage themselves in the process of holistic development which educational institutions attempt to offer. And the post-entrance generation? Well, they are different. I guess it is the prospect of the entrance exams looming large and intimidatingly before them that makes the difference.
Sweeping generalizations, I know. I could be wrong. But a huge change has come over the attitudes to life in the post entrance days, both of the parents and therefore of the students. It would be naive to attribute the change in the timbre of the student personality to decline of interest in arts. But I can safely say that this disinclination for anything other than entrance test related activities is symptomatic of this change. And I prefer the good old days.
I’ll conclude with a small incident. A few of weeks back, my friend’s college- going daughter started quizzing me about how to get a book published and how to get a publisher to accept a book. She’s always been a quiet one and so I was surprised. I asked her about this sudden interest. It’s not sudden, she told me. She writes short stories -it’s a passion with her. I remarked that her father, who himself writes extremely well, must be excited about her interest. She kept silent. A couple days later when I met her parents, I talked to them about this. I was told in no uncertain terms not to give their daughter any bright ideas. Let her first learn to earn her bread and then she can think of writing, I was told. But what harm does a little bit of writing in free hours do, I persisted. She ought to be studying, and not wasting her time indulging in such useless exercise.
Guess we live in times when man lives by bread alone.