Every September 5, on Teachers’ Day, the President of India honours meritorious teachers chosen from all over the country by the Ministry of School Education and Literacy for the National Teachers’ Award for their inspiring contribution to education. Among the awardees for 2019 is Saji Kumar V S, an art teacher from Kerala, who brought about changes in the lives of many children during his three-decade-old career.
A native of Kollam, Saji has been an art teacher with Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs) in Port Blair, Minicoy, Malappuram, Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha since 1990. At present, he works at JNV Alappuzha.
JNV residential schools were established in 1986 to bring the best out of rural talent
Being a teacher at residential schools all these years, Saji is quite close to his students and has been able to help them find beauty in their life and surroundings.
Wherever he served, the art teacher has left behind imprints of his mastery by changing the wastelands into lush green gardens, blank walls into canvases, filling the landscape with sculptures, filling every inch of dull space with hues of hope and happiness.
“All the creative activities are done engaging all the students. There might be students who think that they have no artistic talent, but when part of team work, they discover their art and joy,” he said.
Together with students, Saji has painted the compound walls of his schools, converted the halls and school verandahs into mural art canvases and filled the landscape with themed gardens, stone parks, scrap art, sculptures and plants.
Innovation is his key
At JNV Port Blair in Andaman, during his very first academic stint, Saji initiated his students to digital art. While pursuing his passion of photography, he formed an art studio there by associating with Bengali artists like Aloke Adhikari.
At Minicoy, he attempted to revive the long-lost cultural art forms and cuisine of the island and educated the students on the importance of preserving its rich heritage. In a four-day festival, his students presented the forgotten dance forms of the island and prepared over 100 authentic traditional delicacies with the help of their parents and grandparents.
At Malappuram, he and students beautified the campus with sculptures, art works, and created a museum by collecting ancient pieces and heirlooms.
He was the one to curate, for the first time, a month-long mural painting workshop for students under the guidance of the famous mural painting artist Gopi Chevayoor. The students later converted their school into a mural artefact by adorning the walls with mural paintings.
Saji then moved to JNV Vithura in Thiruvananthapuram where he spent the next 13 years. Among his numerous contributions to the school were a Biology Park with cement sculptures of cell dimensions, human eye anatomy, a sculpture of sage Agasthya, a Mathematics Park with wooden structures of pyramids and height charts and a Physics Park with convertible atomic structures.
Leading students to their roots
Saji feels that Indian art has never been given deserving attention in art syllabus. “Even during my fine arts education days, I haven’t learnt much about Indian art history. All you learn is about European art, but not ours. Kerala, for instance, has traditional art forms like murals, kolamezhuth, kalamezhuth, kettukazhcha, face painting and body art done for kathakali, theyyam… My attempt is to lead my students back to their roots. With Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti, we have launched a programme ‘Know Your Country’ to promote indigenous art forms,” he said.
At JNV Alappuzha, Saji and students have erected a horse in wooden effigy at the entrance. The horse is modelled after the heavily-decorated float at the temple offering called kettukazhcha. He also organizes regular art camps for students that are graced by famous contemporary and traditional artists.
A member of the 12-member committee that works on the National Curriculum Framework, Saji believes that art has a crucial role in education where students explore life, discover themselves and be refined. He has pitched inclusion of theatre and dance in school syllabus and appointment of teachers in schools.
Art, he believes, is beyond paintings and colours. “It can be music, sculpture, film, photography, farming or cooking. Anything that gives happiness is art.” He has integrated art education with multimedia and digital space, constantly upgrading his skills to match the contemporary. “One thing I learnt from by career is that the teaching community needs to update knowledge regularly and keep up with technological advancement. Every day, students are getting a new exposure in technology. If not learning, the teachers have to at least be aware of the new tools. If teachers become outdated, there’s no point in education. They have to be empowered with redesigned teaching modules and methodology.”
Saji’s continuous efforts have made him a recipient of the National ICT (Information and Communication Technology) Award for Teachers 2011 instituted by the Union government to honour teachers who have enhanced student learning by integrating technology-supported learning with school curriculum. He has students all over various premier institutes like NID and those pursuing career in fine arts, animation, film making, editing and visual effects.
Saji will officially be conferred with the National Teachers’ Award at Alappuzha Collectorate during a webinar on Saturday (September 5). The event will be held online because of the prevailing COVID-19 scenario in the country and the seven-day national mourning being observed in honour of former President Pranab Mukherjee. It is learnt that a formal felicitation function will be organised in New Delhi later.
Recognition for art education
The national honour, he says, is a recognition for art education in the country. “Parents are not aware of the importance of art in refining a person because they are completely focused on academics,” he said.
He says that children explore art and grow only with the support of parents. For his growth, Saji owes it all to his parents T K Sreedharan and V S Leena who offered him and his sister Sujakumari all exposure and freedom to learn, unlearn and explore. “Our parents were our influencers. We joined youth clubs, libraries, cultural groups and pursued music, art and academics alike. If not for that support, I wouldn’t have become an art teacher or my sister pursued music.” Saji and his wife Biji have made sure that their children Sruthi and Viswajith follow their heart and art along with formal education.
At the residential school system, Saji tries to be supportive of the children in pursuing integrated learning, converting the ambience of the school to pique their creative interest and creating a bonhomie among the students and teachers. In between all these, Saji has time for personal works too. Sculptures, artworks and photographs he created over the years are lying crowded all over his home, staff quarters and ancestral home.
“I don’t have enough time to pursue professional art now. My hands are full with academics. I have been part of group exhibitions along with artists from Lalithakala Akademi, but haven’t done a solo exhibition so far. More art works are part of my retirement plan. Exhibitions and workshops, I hope, will happen post retirement,” he said.