Grounding Artists in a tech driven world
How Michael’s Journey Inspired his Pedagogical Philosophy
Meet Michael, a man with a passion for the arts and storytelling. He was born in Kenya, and he went to school in a small town 80kms from Nairobi. When his dad retired, they returned to India, and he finished his schooling in Ooty. He admits he was pretty aimless until that point. But soon after, he head to Bengaluru for his undergraduate study,and that was where he first got into the arts.
“For the first time in my life, I had a reason to be,
I found some sort of focus in my life.”
While studying, he joined a theatre group, mainly filled with young students like him. Their style was very different from the usual Neil Simon that the uppity English theatre groups performed. They gravitated towards more humane stories, such as the apartheid in pre-revolution South Africa, or the genocide in South America. They would perform four or five plays in a year, and Mike got totally obsessed with theatre, he found something that he really wanted to do.
But he then reached an age where he had to start making his own living. And it was hard to choose a profession. It was very hard to survive in English theatre. Most of the groups were amateur, not that that was a bad thing.
“The word Amateur comes from the word ‘amour’ - which means love. It’s beautiful in a sense, to not be bound by profit or making, but being able to enrich your soul.”
The next obvious choice for him was film, and so he drifted to The Film and Television Institute in Pune. The archives there had introduced him to a body of cinema that he didn’t even know existed. Before, he had only seen what was in the cinemas, which was basically Bollywood and Hollywood. In Pune he got to see films from Bolivia, Poland, Senegal, Russia, and Japan. There was a huge collection, which as cinema has not been seen by most people today. It opened him out to the whole world.
After the course, most of his peers headed to Mumbai, but Mike headed back down south. He got a job in a small village in Tamil Nadu, called Karigiri, near Vellore. It was at Schieffelin Institute of Health, a leprosy hospital. This experience changed his life. Suddenly he was out of the arts space and was with normal ordinary people.
“I got out of the institute thinking that cinema was the centre of the universe and that Brunel was on my left shoulder, Antonio on my right, Tarkovsky on my head, and John in my heart. But meeting epidemiologists and pathologists, who were equally or even more passionate about their work than so-called artists and filmmakers, I really had to rethink everything.”
Mike was moved by their dedication, they were humane about the way they treated their patients. He was ashamed and embarrassed of the obnoxious attitude he had, thinking that as an artist or a filmmaker, he was on a pedestal, as if he had some special privileged access to the world. But his 7 years of experience working in the hospital really grounded him.
He also met a lot of people with severe disabilities, and his whole notion of beauty changed. These patients, their outer facades were mangled, but their souls were so pure. He had met some of the most beautiful people there. Mike worked with the doctors and patients to create over 50 films on different aspects of leprosy. They were mainly educational, for healthcare workers and patients to learn. Some of his works were also addressed to the community to help change the common misconceptions of the disease, which are deep rooted.
“I started to connect with Gaston Roberge’s words, about the social necessity of film. Films can be aesthetic, entertaining, or could have a social responsibility and be used as communication,”
At the hospital, he met a Belgian doctor who had come to teach a series of workshops on the psychosocial aspects of leprosy. He was an evangelist of trying to better the relationship between doctor and patient. He inspired the love of teaching in Mike. Soon after, Mike experimented with teaching local school kids the different dimensions of the disease and also gave them some fundamental understanding of the language of cinema.
With a newfound purpose, Mike headed to Bengaluru where he started teaching. He recalls how a few years down the road, he had conducted a script writing workshop in Mount Carmel’s. The participants were mainly college students and a few young writers. As a part of their exercises, they had to spend an afternoon with a person afflicted with leprosy. A girl came back after the session and said to him “ He reads Bernard Shaw, He knows who Bernard Shaw is!” And he responded with amusement “Why shouldn’t he know who Bernard Shaw is?”
Today, working at Datsi School for Storytellers, one of his core missions is to develop artists and filmmakers who are grounded, and can respond to the lived experiences around them.
“For the students of today, technology is like second nature. They are born almost with a computer in their brain. The crisis today is not a technical issue, but a contextual problem. Who are we? How do we relate to our environment? How do we relate to other people?”
Mike believes that such concerns have to be embedded within the learning space. This sensibility of applying technology and the arts, is even more necessary in India’s AVGC industry, because its history has basically been one of dominantly being a service provider and not the creator.
The challenge is to empower the student with the tools of media so they can engage with the world more meaningfully. To nurture young minds who think and question, students who are critical and technically proficient, and are able to engage and create dialogue using different forms of media.