On the ?uncertified? Pathshala

At a time when our entire education system is in crisis, the quality of education is in question and the values that student?s inculcate is a source of fear.?A student of?Pathshala South Asian Media Institute,?in response to questions about the validity of the very certificate he has obtained, talks passionately about the institution?s pedagogic model and how he has been transformed by it.

by Mahtab Nafis?

Mahtab Nafis
Mahtab Nafis

A letter to whom it may concern
BEFORE joining Pathshala, I had studied in nine schools and one university (all certified) in this country. But never before had I found an environment similar to the one at Pathshala. South Asian Media Institute, founded by Shahidul Alam. Forget about competing, none of them are even light years close.
From a very early age I had sincere doubts and disagreements with the ?socially accepted? and ?certified? educational systems. For, all I had seen was a bunch of sheep-like people following a curriculum given by a governing body or authority without assessing, questioning or having an opinion on the teaching method or the materials. It seemed that people blindly followed the dictum ?this is how things are?, an attitude which I could never accept. Everywhere, I saw teachers give students instructions or orders to follow a rigid structure, to memorise, to cover the syllabus. Even those studying in a creative field had teachers who would promote and indoctrinate a particular pattern of thinking or school of thought. This basically means that you are thinking other people?s thoughts and are being conditioned in someone else?s mental shadow.
Now a rational mind would ask, ?Wait, if life is a journey and if I am an individual, then am I not supposed to react to things on my own terms, to accept or reject accordingly?? A rational mind would also wonder, ?Where is my precious individuality amongst all these prescribed and imposed ideas!? Or, ?How am I supposed to even develop an (own) identity??
For, all I had seen was an un-questioning and un-critical submission to one?s surroundings. The culture of asking questions and critically analysing an idea and ideology, of breaking it down to its fundamental elements and reassembling it in the light of one?s own reflections, and then deciding what to accept and what to reject, was completely absent. A process of severe grinding and burn, but it is essential for the development of a conscious individuality. There is no alternative.
Strange as it may seem, I was always audacious, I would not conform to another person?s thought or to social conditioning, I would always ask a thousand questions. Whenever I was faced with such conflicting situations, I would tell myself, I shall not be orchestrated or controlled, I shall not be stripped of my individuality and most importantly, I shall question everything before submitting to it. I had decided that no one else would decide for me, that I myself would pave the road I walked.
It is this set of ideas and principles that brought me to Pathshala. There, I found a group of lively people indulging in their own creative ideas and ways of thinking, fashioning their own ?self? and future and co-existing in peace. I found an environment where a student continuously deconstructs her/his self and reconstructs it with the critical knowledge of his/her surroundings. I found it refreshing that the teachers do not spoon-feed the students, instead, they would present an idea and her/his opinion about it and then ask and encourage the students to evaluate it themselves and form their own ideas and opinions about it. They would also instil in students an awareness of social justice and a sense of accountability for dealing with things, core principles which I found being practised in the perimeters of Pathshala. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of hope with my introduction to this factory of dreams.
Now, please allow me to detail the journey I encountered in this institution.
I had enrolled in the three-year professional photography programme. I was in the 17th batch. In our first year, we learnt technical basics, the elements available, and history. In the second year, we went through the process of applying the knowledge gained with the existing or established methods or ways of doing it. But at the same time we were also in the process of repeatedly asking, ?How does it relate and apply to me, or does it at all, if it does then why, if it does not then what can be the alternative?? We were allowed to pursue our own preferred artistic choices, to be obsessed with it, to make mistakes and then correct it ourselves being true to our own life experiences. Thus we were developing our individual inclinations and identities, and a sense of direction which was not ?imposed?.
In these two years we participated in a workshop with a celebrated Norwegian artist and a group of students from an Australian university. The Australian students and teachers came to our institution, they paid for our trips and tours and in turn they had this opportunity to do a workshop with us, the Pathshala students.
In the second semester (last) of our third year, we were taken to China for a 45-day trip to attend a workshop with a group of Norwegian and Chinese students and teachers. Again, they paid for our tickets and accommodations for their opportunity to do a workshop with us, the Pathshala students. After the workshop, grants were awarded to the students who had performed the best. Note that not all batches are lucky enough to get such a tour in their third year, it depends on available opportunities, something that the Pathshala administration is continuously on the lookout for.
In the first semester of our third year, we had started working on a personal project based on our previously acquired theoretical and practical understanding, which by now had helped create identifiable individual voices. But I was deeply unsatisfied because I felt that one of my precious third year semesters would be wasted visiting some country and doing workshops. To me, it was more valuable to attend a full length semester at Pathshala, where I could intellectually engage with my dear brilliant Pathshala teachers to further develop and hone my artistic voice. So I cheated. In my last semester, although we were attending an international workshop and producing work which would later form a book, I did not attend the last part of the last semester. I wanted to force my teachers to fail me so that I could attend an uninterrupted semester devoid of any distraction focusing exclusively on my personal progress. And this I did. It had a lot to do with the quality of the individuals we got to teach us in our third year.
The dynamics of a Pathshala classroom is very different from the ones available in our country. Here, each batch (three-year photography) consisted of a group of 20?25 students, admittedly varying in age, gender, and social and educational backgrounds. What the Pathshala faculty sought, as far as I could tell, was a deeply passionate interest in photography, a questioning approach to life, open-mindedness, and sensitivity towards the ?other.? In the same classroom there could be a 40-year-old bearded man sitting next to a 17-year-old young girl, both equally imbued in a particular idea or philosophy. The calm with the impulsive, the disciplined with the messy, the rich with the poor and the focused with the wandering?. we sat together, debated and discussed, listened, proposed and pondered. We developed mutual understanding and respect without forsaking our diversity, both teachers and students, all together.
In Pathshala?s system, students are allowed to disagree with the curriculum (which is under constant scrutiny to keep it updated) and to propose their preferences. Students are also allowed to arrange guest lectures if they think it worthwhile, after discussing with the administration. The students have the responsibility of evaluating the teachers, we did it officially every semester. It is a system where incompetence has no place, whether the person in question be a teacher or a student. Everyone is accountable for their actions and words. If someone is found to be lax in developing, he/she is informed of the complaints and warned. If he/she is still found to be in that state then the sorry soul is respectfully sacked after a certain period has elapsed. We humbly show them the exit and tell them to ?go spread their nonsense elsewhere.? For, Pathshala is a place where we expect one to grow each day. Individuals who pollute the environment are simply not tolerated. We call for student-teacher meetings to discuss and decide crucial matters. These decisions are not taken on the basis of authority or majority vote, rather, they are addressed rationally, and only the most sensible judgements prevail.
Pathshala is an institution where our two-hour classes would often stretch to 10-hour marathons, simply because we, the students, wanted it as the teacher was such fun to be with. It is an institution where I found the teachers to be more excited about a student?s passion than the student him/herself. The rigour, the energy and the intensity with which teachers approached us was unbelievable. Sometimes our teachers would get tired and feel frustrated with our arrogance and stupidity, but the next day the same teacher would come back with greater optimism and a better strategy to deal with us. Our beloved teachers would never deal with two students in the same manner, they knew individual perceptions differed, they would respond accordingly. Students were not allowed to be happy with whatever progress they had made, we were continuously pushed to test our limits, to expand it on every single occasion.
Moreover, two grants would be available for the students, one especially for a meritorious woman student, the other would be awarded on the basis of overall merit and needs. Yes, it is true that students from Pathshala constantly keep getting international awards and recognition but that is not our primary focus. We are taught to pursue our art with the utmost integrity, to put substantial meaning to our persuasion, the accolades are only by-products.
In Pathshala, we have created a culture of critical debate and discussion regarding social, philosophical and ideological issues. Besides formal classes, we organise film screenings, presentations and lectures. Our talks over a cup of tea are not just petty reflections on mindless entertainment, instead we talk about big ideas, and sincere concerns. Here, we see each one of us illuminating our collective future.
Then of course we have Chobimela. Oh! This is something on an entirely different scale. Briefly put, its a bi-annual photography festival, founded (once again) by Shahidul Alam; it runs on the spirit and passion of the teachers, students and friends. It has been running for 16 years, has gained the reputation of being one of the most important photography festivals in the world, a reputation which keeps growing. Besides artist (local and international) exhibitions, lectures, discussion panels and workshops by reputed professionals in the global industry are held. And our batch was lucky enough to get two Chobimelas in our three academic years!
So, now, if we see someone trying to discredit our Pathshala and Shahidul Alam with disinformation and dishonesty, of hurling accusations devoid of precise facts, of spouting nonsense and narrow-mindedness, you should know that by doing that, they have discredited themselves most by displaying a lack of sincerity and their capacity to understand the matter. If you have any doubts, I invite you to come to Pathshala.
A former Pathshala student and now a practising artist.

Originally published in?New Age, August 10, 2016

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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