Summer Suitcase: York students experience India’s culture

This is the second in a series of weekly "summer suitcase" stories, showcasing the international breadth of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Fourteen students from York’s Fine Arts Cultural Studies (FACS) Program experienced first-hand how art is created on the other side of the world when they visited Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay) from June 25 to July 15 as part of a FACS course titled, The Arts of India. While there, the students shared their experiences and insights through a series of podcasts which were part of the course curriculum.

The Mumbai trip was organized and taught by FACS Professor Denise Nuttall, a widely published scholar on Indian culture and an accomplished tabla player.

"I’ve never seen such an excited bunch of students," said Nuttall. "For most of them, it was their first time in India."

Above: Professor Denise Nuttall (front row, second from left) with 14 York
University students prior to their departure for Mumbai, India

While in India, Nuttall lectured the way she would in any other course at York University. However, she also wanted her students to "live their destination."

"If we in the academy are serious about teaching and learning in this post-colonial age, we need to offer students the chance to experience the arts ‘on location’, in the cultures they’re rooted in," said Nuttall. "Experiential knowledge allows for a different kind of engagement with arts and cultures, in ways not possible in the traditional classroom back home."

 For a further taste of India, click here to listen to autorickshaw perform "Ganamurthy" from their 2004 JUNO-nominated CD Four Higher. The band comprises four of Canada’s most exciting and musically pioneering young artists: York alumna, vocalist, pianist and percussionist Suba Sankaran (BFA ’97, MFA ’02), tabla player Ed Hanley, bassist Rich Brown and percussionist Debashis Sinha.

Billed as an Indo-jazz ensemble, autorickshaw‘s music lies on the cultural cutting edge – the musical and cultural equivalent of a masala. Using Indian classical rhythms and melodies as a departure point, their compositions infuse elements of improv and jazz.

To enjoy an even deeper connection with the culture, the students were housed at a local hostel provided by the Spastics Society of India, one of the country’s leading NGOs. There, the students enjoyed lectures and workshops given by a diverse group of guest artists, including some of India’s most celebrated filmmakers and musicians.

The course also featured cultural field trips to the Prince of Wales Museum, which houses one of the finest collections of Indian miniature paintings; the Film and Television Institute of India for a lecture by its director, Tripurari Sharan, on national Indian cinema; and the Nehru Centre for a night out to enjoy a concert by Ustad Sultan Khan, India’s foremost sarangi (bowed fiddle) player. The students also enjoyed a Kathak dance performance by the renowned dancer Sitara Devi during their visit to the Nehru Centre.

One of the trip’s highlights was a visit to the City of Caves. Located on the island of Elephanta in the Sea of Oman, the caves contain shrines, courtyards, inner cells, grand halls and porticos arranged in the symmetry of Indian rock-cut architecture. They are filled with exquisite stone sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses, dating back to AD 600.

"This course has taken two years of planning and many years of research in India, building contacts to be able to provide a textured, in-depth course on interdisciplinarity and the arts," reflected Nuttall.

Left and below: The City of Caves on the Island of Elephanta

For Nuttall, one of the trip’s many memorable experiences was watching the students come alive during a lecture by Indian classical and fusion musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, as they discussed music-making in today’s global village.

"Shubha and Aneesh were electric," recalled Nuttall. "The students were fascinated by their music, their way of life, and how they create such amazing music with people worldwide that they have not even met!"

Outside the course, students explored the life of India’s financial capital. They tried on traditional clothing, mingled and ate with the local people, shopped in bazaars, and attended the cinema, as well as locally produced concerts, plays and dance performances.

The students also experienced the more difficult side of Mumbai life: its tropical heat, monsoon rains and, tragically, the state of emergency following the bombings of Mumbai commuter trains on July 11.

To see and hear India through their collective eyes and ears, click here. (To ensure easy access, the podcasts are recorded as 8bit, mono-audio mp3 files.)

Renate Wickens, technology-enhanced learning professor in FACS, initiated and developed these active learning podcasts. "We wanted to provide students and people listening to the podcasts with real-time commentary on a course mounted half a world away," explained Wickens. "To do that, we had to assemble the right hardware and software. We also had to get students used to the idea of talking about a course as they took it. Once the course began, though, the students quickly integrated their podcasting into it."

The Web site also provides a link to a series of e-mail blogs that function as a behind-the-scenes look at the pedagogical underpinnings of a studies abroad course in the fine and performing arts. In the blogs, Nuttall and Wickens, Beth Alaksa of York International and Marlene Kadar, coordinator of FACS, have recorded a unique day-to-day account of this international learning experience.

"Although podcasting and, to a lesser extent, blogging continue to generate ‘a buzz’, it’s only through experiences like this one that you really come to appreciate their instantaneous reach," said Wickens. "Within seconds of posting a podcast or typing a blog entry, it is available globally to anyone with an Internet connection.

"Educational technology, such as podcasts and other rich media authoring, is not simply a vehicle to disseminate information. It also functions as a fundamental part of the inquiry process," Wickens continued. "In podcasting India, students were not only part of the technical process; they also had to contemplate the day’s events and distill this information into a narrative structure that made sense not just to themselves and their instructor, but also to a large and undefined public.

"Podcasting India was more than an experience in cooperative and collaborative learning. It was part of a new understanding of learning, one that challenges the conventional boundaries between absorbing and disseminating knowledge," she said.

To contact the FACS students about their studies and adventures in India, e-mail

The Arts of India course is the first in a series of studies-abroad courses planned by FACS. For more information e-mail Kadar at

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts.