MSU, where freedom was once a lived reality

A distinct memory for any visitor to Vadodara is likely to be of students of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSUB) with their sketch pads and pencils at the railway station, at Kamatibaug (now Sayajibaug) or at the Khanderao market, sketching away. If you waited long enough at the train station, you might even become the muse of a budding artist. Such was the omnipresence of the student of the Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA) in Vadodara.

For those of us in other Faculties, getting to dance at the garba hosted by the Fine Arts Faculty during the Navratri was a privilege. Students wore everything from denims to chania cholis as they danced to the dhols.

That’s how we left our university – with memories of a free and happy space. Of the time spent hanging out on the steps of Central Hall, of the arguments with our professors, of the boisterous campaigning during student body elections and of sipping over-boiled tea in cracked cups at the college canteen.

Then May 9, 2007, happened. A mob stormed the FFA to protest against allegedly obscene depictions of Goddess Durga and Jesus Christ by a 26-year old student from Andhra Pradesh’s Mandapalli village. Srilamanthula Chandramohan work was displayed as part of the evaluation for his Master’s in Visual Arts (MVA) degree. Chandramohan’s works remain sealed in the faculty as a crime scene, unevaluated. And he, without a degree, facing two criminal cases, one for his art that allegedly promoted “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion etc” and another for attempted murder and arson in 2018, when he allegedly set fire to the V-C’s office out of frustration for not getting his marksheet.

In a sort of déjà vu, FFA saw another round of vandalism when, on May 5, an MSU syndicate member, Hasmukh Vaghela, targeted Kundan Yadav, a first-year Master’s student from Bihar for “objectionable” depiction of Hindu Gods and the Ashoka Pillar.

Leading artistes who have been associated with the FFA since its inception in 1950 as one of independent India’s first and finest schools of art, find these episodes “painful”.

They talk wistfully of a time when the late NS Bendre, who taught painting at the faculty, set up the ‘Baroda Group’ in 1956, thus shaping a generation of artistes known for their “regional modernism”, who stood out from among their peers who had trained in British-era Indian art schools. Apart from Bendre, the FFA also saw teachers such as KG Subramanyam, Bhupen Khakkar, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Ratan Parimoo, each of whom came with a distinct style and school of thought.

Acharya Vinoba Bhave, Dadasaheb Phalke, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Kanhaiyalal Munshi, former RBI governor IG Patel and the 2009 Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan are among the university’s distinguished alumni.

Founded as Baroda College in 1881 by the ruler of Baroda State, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III, the university was established in 1949 by his grandson Pratapsinh Rao Gaekwad, who was also its first chancellor. Vadodara soon came to be known as a city that patronized the arts, one where freedom of thought and expression was a lived reality.

It was Sayajirao III who invited the famous Raja Ravi Varma of Travancore – the artist who is known to have been the first to give human form to Hindu Gods and Goddesses through his art – to Baroda state. The city has a gallery dedicated to Ravi Varma in the Maharaja Fatehsinh Museum.

The city’s various museums, market places and offices running out of artistic spaces designed by European architects, its palaces, its railway, its artists and its alumni, make Baroda (now Vadodara) a living gallery, somewhat like Paris’s Montmartre.

MS University’s most imposing structure is the Central Hall in the Faculty of Arts whose dome, inspired from the Gol Gumbaz of Bijapur, was designed by British architect Robert Chisholm in the Indo-Saracenic style. The original Baroda College ran out of this building.

Drawing from German universities and Banaras Hindu University, MSU is among the few unitary universities. Unlike other state universities where the governor is the chancellor, MSU, though supported by government grants, has a member of the royal family as its chancellor. The current chancellor is Rajmata Shubhanginiraje, wife of the late Ranjitsinh Gaekwad, an FFA alum himself.

The university campus, in the heart of the city in Mandvi, stretches from the Music College, now the Faculty of Performing Arts, on the banks of the 18th century Sursagar lake, to Pratapgunj, 3 km away, where the hostels are. In between are the Kalabhavan, a 1892 palace housing the Faculty of Engineering and Technology, the Faculty of Fine Arts on the banks of the Vishwamitri river, and the Faculty of Science in Pratapgunj.

There is hardly a student who has not seen the room used by poet-philosopher Sri Aurobindo in the Faculty of Arts when he was Sayajirao III’s speech writer and principal of Baroda College from 1893-1906. Aurobindo’s house in Vadodara’s Dandia Bazaar is now a national memorial.

The university is also home to the Oriental Institute, a post-graduate teaching and research space that preserves rare manuscripts with their translations.

Yet, it’s FFA that stands out as the university’s biggest centerpiece. An academic catalog on the MSU website says FFA has produced some of the “best-known artistes of the country”. It goes on to say: “Emphasis is laid on creative identity of students and teachers to foster an approach to the study and practice of art which is inquiring, experimental and research minded”.

But with every clash, every assault on creativity such as the recent one, that space for “experimental and research-minded” art shrinks somewhat.

Misra, Resident Editor, Gujarat, is an alumnus of MS University


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