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Visual Studies as career option: Getting candid with a research scholar
Research scholar at JNU gets candid on Visual Studies
DIMAPUR — Gone are the days of limited subject choices, as today’s generation benefits from a multitude of subjects and fields, allowing students to align their academic courses with their skills and interests. Visual Studies, a relatively new discipline that uses critical theories from many fields to study visual objects, has grabbed the attention of many.
For Deeplakshmi Saikia, a research scholar of Visual Studies in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, it was her love for books that became the biggest driving force to venture into this field. She pursued an MPhil in Visual Studies at JNU after completing her master’s degree in medieval Indian history. Her research delves into medieval manuscripts, but she indulges in reading fiction and poetry, writing non-fiction articles and listening to music and podcasts in her leisure hours.
In an exclusive interview with Eastern Mirror, Saikia shared her take on Visual Studies as a subject and about its career prospects.
Could you provide a simplified explanation of what Visual Studies in the School of Arts and Aesthetics entails, as there could be many who are still unfamiliar with the subject?
The centre for Visual Studies in the School of Arts and Aesthetics provides courses that help in the theoretical and critical study of visual arts (i.e., sculpture, painting, textiles, architecture, ornamentation, etc.) – both contemporary and historical. Students are taught a range of research methods which are often inter-disciplinary. Exhibitions and interactive sessions with eminent art historians, curators, artists, etc. are also held at the center.
What skills are necessary for someone considering studying Visual Studies?
Critical thinking and analytical skills are necessary for someone considering studying Visual Studies. Also, I feel, it is helpful if one has a general awareness of or a keenness to learn about history and politics. Papers are usually written in English or Hindi so one has to be able to speak and write in these languages.
Could you provide an overview of the steps involved in pursuing this course, particularly in JNU, from initial interest to enrollment?
Most M.A. or Ph.D. courses in Visual Studies require a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, respectively, in any stream. After that, one has to clear the entrance examination for the particular course which usually involves objective-type questions and/or an interview by the faculty of that course.
The School of Arts and Aesthetics in JNU offers a post-graduation course in Visual Studies. To apply for that, one needs to have a bachelor’s degree in any stream with 55% of marks. An entrance examination (CUET or Common University Entrance Test) is held which comprises objective-type questions. To apply for the entrance examination of the Ph.D programme, one has to have an M.A. with 55% marks in any stream. After that, selected applicants have to appear in an interview in which they have to present a synopsis of about 1000 words indicating their preferred research theme, the research questions, and the sources they aim to consult. Applications for the examination for M.A. or Ph.D. come out during the first half of the year, around March. Alternatively, students can apply directly for the Ph.D. programme if they have completed their M.Phil. or have demonstrated considerable research experience through published work.
What factors should one consider when contemplating this subject?
Besides interest, I feel one should also go through the courses and faculty in that course in a college or university as these sometimes may not align with what someone is interested in studying or researching. For instance, the School of Arts and Aesthetics in Jawaharlal Nehru University and National Museum Institute in New Delhi offer great theoretical courses in Visual Studies and Art History. However, if one is interested in practice-based courses, then Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan and Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda are better.
Are there unexpected challenges that aspiring students should be prepared for while taking up Visual Studies programme?
Visual Studies is a fieldwork-intensive study and it therefore can be challenging if one is not financially equipped. Fellowships are offered for various categories of students in their M.A. or PhD. such as Non-NET Fellowship, JRF, etc. which is helpful for travel to libraries, archives, the sites of interviews or observation, photodocumentation, etc. Students may incur expenses for such travel or buying a high-quality camera for photographing artworks or buying an audio recorder for interviews or accommodation in hotels, guest-houses, etc. Research in Visual Studies entails looking at specific artworks and one has to present photographic evidence of these artworks along with their written work in order to explain what they have studied and seen. Sometimes, it is also difficult accessing sources in libraries, archives, museums, etc. if the people in charge are not helpful (something which I have experienced a lot) and then it takes a lot of requesting to get them to show you works or even books which are not on display or readily available.
What makes studying Visual Studies rewarding?
What makes pursuing Visual Studies rewarding is that it is a stimulating field multi-sensorially. Culture is not a homogenous and static entity and it keeps evolving continuously. It is hard to reach stagnation in this field.
Share us some potential career opportunities and scope after completing this course.
There is no dearth for jobs as teachers or curators or researchers or even practitioners in most of the cities and towns in India. Scholars are also hired as art consultants by private individuals and organizations.
How does the job market in Northeast India align with the study of Visual Studies?
Many universities in northeast India such as Tezpur University, Rajiv Gandhi University, North-Eastern Hill University, Guwahati University, etc. have departments related to cultural studies and north-east India studies which hire people with degrees in Visual Studies. Besides that, museums, art galleries and private organizations also hire people from the field of Visual Studies as curators or researchers.
Advice to students interested in pursuing this course, especially focusing on manuscript-making.
There is no high art or low art. Sometimes we tend to think that only a manuscript which is intact or with beautifully colourful intricate paintings is important, while another manuscript which only contains sketches or doodles or is worn-out is not important. But that is not right. In Visual Arts, it is not only a “beautiful” or seemingly complicated artwork that is important or worth studying. A fairly “simple” manuscript can also be the subject of one’s research and bring up new information and knowledge. So always trust your sight but also be skeptical of it. Sight is not everything. There are many things to a manuscript and its making besides what you can plainly see, such as questions like who made it, who was it made for, how was it used, the processes of making it, what other manuscripts or artworks were being made simultaneously in that region or other places that might have affected it, what was the socio-political conditions in which it was made, etc.
Can you share us a memorable incident from your coursework, highlighting the key learning points?
During coursework in my second year of MPhil in Visual Studies, we were presented with an image in the classroom and asked what we could see. I was the last one asked to speak up and I was hesitant to say what I thought because what I was seeing felt ridiculous to mention. But I was the only one to rightly identify the image. That taught me to trust my sight and not hesitate to speak what I see.
The best thing you saw at an art gallery/museum
The wall reliefs of the Cologne Cathedral in Köln, Germany which I saw in November 2022. There, visitors are allowed to touch most of these artworks. Every time I touched these reliefs made by someone centuries ago, it felt like the artist’s hands and mine brushed against each other across time.
Food that holds a special place in your heart
Mashed boiled potatoes and eggs, called koni aloo pitika in Assamese. It is simple, healthy and something that my family eats almost every night for dinner. It reminds me of home since I live in New Delhi.
One book that everyone should read
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I think every woman should read this book because even though published way back in 1929, it is still a very relevant book and emphasizes how material conditions impact and also may inhibit the lives and progress of people, particularly women and other minorities.
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