In the beginning..

The historically disadvantaged Indian community in South Africa has had an uneasy relationship with art especially fine art and its choice as a career. The reasons for this can be found firstly in our history as indentured laborers who came to a foreign country where survival meant back breaking physical work. Even after indenture, most Indians were working class and all family members worked to contribute to the cost of food and rent. The pursuit of art with its attendant need for expensive materials, lessons and  time  – must have seemed like an indulgent fantasy.

Wealthier ‘passenger’ Indians were no less inclined to practice art since art galleries and art schools were predominantly white. The religious practices and conservative views of the Indian community also erected barriers around the art world with its seemingly  liberal views and paintings which included nudes and other ‘shocking’ subject matter.

Changes afoot…

In 1954 the M.L. Sultan Technical College was established with funds from a wealthy businessman – Malukmahomed Lappa Sultan – and land provided by the Durban City Council. They offered skills training and in the 1960’s Commercial Art and Design, and Industrial Clothing Design Courses were introduced. This institution allowed those Indian youth with artistic abilities to study art which had practical applications ensuring that they could easily find employment. In 1961, the first Indian University – the University College for Indians- was opened by the apartheid state on Salisbury Island.

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The Art History Room at University College for Indians

The department of education offered courses in Art and Craft aimed at teachers for use in schools. The success of this course which attracted many talented young people led to the establishment of an art department in 1962. This university was moved to Chiltern Hills in 1972 and renamed University of Durban-Westville (UDW). They had a modern department which offered courses in sculpture, printmaking and ceramics and this became the only place where Indians could study Fine Art. Many noteworthy artists emerged from UDW before the art department was shut down in 2000.

Today creative young Indians have many more choices of where and how to study, as well as having greater financial support. However, security and anxiety still affect the choices of career for those who are incredibly talented and achieve distinctions for art at school. The pressure from families and society to chose the fields of medicine, law, economics or engineering still exists. The fear that studying art can only lead to a career in teaching since making a living from it is never certain also exists. I hope that by providing the examples of those few artists who have achieved a measure of recognition I can motivate others to do so.

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