A Teacher, Historian and Critic

Presenting to you, Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat M.A., M.Phil, Ph.D.,
Art Historian, Art Critic, and Independent Curator,
Former Head and Associate Professor,
Department of Fine Arts, Stella Maris College,
Chennai, South India.

Ashrafi desires individuals to feel differently about Art, and in her lectures on Art History, she told her students, ‘without Art History, creativity will neither be born nor happen,’ and her research and her life prove it. Ashrafi has written sizeably about Modern and Contemporary Art for years in India.

On invitations from various artists and art galleries, Ashrafi has curated exhibitions, held numerous lectures on Art, authored over 200 exhibition catalogues, essayed issues of Modern and Contemporary Art, and, was published in various publications in India and overseas too.

She is a published author and her books are ‘Madras Modern: Regionalism and Identity’, ‘Framing the Regional Modern’, and, ‘Hariraam Veeraraghavan – A Metaphoric Self in Abstraction.’

Ashrafi was the recipient of the 2016 Brew Magazine’s ‘Women’s Achievers Award.’ This was for her contribution to Art History and Art Criticism. She was the Guest Editor for a special issue of MARG Magazine, Contemporary Art in South India. She was an Art Critic for ‘The Hindu’ from 2001 to 2011.

She is no ordinary woman, Ashrafi is one in a million. Meet the legend in Art History,
Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat. Discover more on Ashrafi’s life, work, and the path she took to shape a career in Art and Art History. 

A conversation with Chippy & Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat.

Chippy————— Welcome to The Conversation Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat. It’s an absolute honour to have you here.
AshrafiWell. I am happy to be here.
ChippyLet me just jump straight. If somebody asks you who’s Ashrafi, how would you describe yourself?
Ashrafi‘Who is Ashrafi?’ Well, Ashrafi is… I am really stumped by this because I have never ever thought about it. Well, I would consider myself first a teacher, who has been passionately interested in art, art history, and design. I mean, everything to do with art. So, that’s how I would consider myself, a teacher first, because that’s my passion.
ChippyThat’s the fact.  What if you take out the professional aspect out of it, how would you see yourself? Who would you say who you are?
AshrafiWell, as a person, I am quite a softie though I appear to be a hard nut outside. There is a different world within me. I have love and passion for many things as a person. I had an incredible childhood and it all started there. I am a Bohra Muslim who grew up in a joint family. There were seven of us in the family, four of us girls.

I grew up in the 70’s and fortunately, for me, my community was always quite open minded. And especially my father, I would give all the credit to my father who was very keen that all his girls were educated. My mother was a very creative person and my father cared for all of us and thought deeply about our future.Unfortunately, my eldest sister couldn’t do much. Though she had a lot of talent for languages, my grandmother never allowed it. By the time I joined College, my grandmother was no more and my father could take his decision. I was very fortunate in that respect. 
ChippyYour father’s support, which is very crucial in what you are now, you know. Because of that you became what you are today. 
AshrafiI need to mention this, ‘how important it was that he supported me’. Initially, I joined as an economics student in Ethiraj College. After a week I said, ‘I am not going back. I just don’t like the subject’. At that time I also got to know about Stella Maris College and its Fine Arts Department. I told my father, ‘I want to do fine arts’.

So, my father said, ‘you are going to college. You will finish this one year. Next year, you can do what you want’. If at that point in time my father had said, ‘okay, do what you want’. And had I stayed at home for one year doing nothing, my life would not have remained the same and I would not be who and what I am today. The support he gave me, the push he gave me has always helped me to be a better person and I strived for more.
ChippyDid you have any ambitions or dreams growing up? What did you aspire to become?
AshrafiYes, I did have one dream.  I always wanted to be a teacher. Always. It was during grade seven that I realised I wanted to be a teacher. I had some good teachers in school who inspired me. My seventh grade teachers had an impact on me, especially my brilliant Geography Teacher and another Teacher, she was an all-rounder and a strict disciplinarian. I picked up discipline from her. And it was during my one year stint in Ethiraj College doing Economics, that I had History as an allied subject. I had a fantastic History Lecturer and that’s how I developed a love for history. Dedicated, passionate and strong Teachers from my life inspired me to follow that path. 
Chippy—————So did you follow your passion for Fine Arts?
AshrafiOf course yes. After I completed my first year in economics, I joined the Fine Arts Department in Stella Maris College for my FIne Arts degree. 
ChippyYou were very clear how you want things in your life to be. So, how was your life in Stella Maris as a Fine Arts student?
AshrafiIt was fascinating and interesting for me. I loved the subjects. The Lecturers were very exceptional and they again inspired me. I was so inspired by them that I joined for Post Graduation and later completed my M. Phil in Fine Arts too. I was actually blessed to have such good Teachers, who really inspired me. So, I was very firm that ‘come what may be, I am going to come back to Stella Maris and will teach here’.
ChippySo did that happen?
AshrafiYes it did materialise. It was after my post graduation that I decided to teach Art History and be part of this institution. I did approach my Head of the Department with my interest in teaching and she said, ‘we’ll look into it’. So, this gave me some time on my hands and I joined Max Müller to learn German. I realised the fact that I had no flair for languages, none at all.

It was during one of the German classes that I got a call to meet the former Head, and the Founder of the Department, Dr. Sr. Edith Tömöry immediately. During this meeting she said, ‘I am revising my first edition of the book, and need someone to help me with research for my book. And I think you are the right person. So will you assist me and help me?’. I said, yes. And that’s how I joined Stella Maris in August 1977 as Sr Edith’s Research Assistant. I helped her with research, did illustrations, and more. In 1978, at the beginning of the next academic year, I was offered a teaching position. And the rest is history.
ChippyThus began your career in teaching, A dream come true.
AshrafiMy first job. Obviously, my first and only job. Oh yes, it was a long time. From 1972 to the day I retired in 2012. 
ChippyWow. I am speechless. Take me through that time when you first started your job as a Lecturer? How have things progressed in your life? How have you grown over time in your profession? 
AshrafiWell, it’s a long journey. I started off with a lot of interest in Art. One thing about me was that I was not simply happy reading about a work. I was always interested in knowing what it is which made them create art in such a way? So, initially, my interest began with Indian Art. Soon I found that the books were not very inspiring, that were written on Indian Art.

I found that Western Art History had very good books written by scholars and felt the reading was made easy and understandable. It was at this point, around 78-79 that the Time Life series, came out with Great masters. And I got interested in that, and I started collecting books on Art. I collected the entire series, and I started reading from these books. And these books gave me much more additional information than I could have got it from any other source. So, the cultural context of a work of art is what actually made me very interested. And I wanted to know as to how an artist from a particular context, from a particular culture, from obtaining a certain patronage, how did they survive. 
Chippy—————That’s fascinating. So how was your growth in the department? 
AshrafiI had to earn my way. I started as a Lecturer, later became Senior Lecturer, Associate Lecturer and in 1991 I was made an Undergraduate Head and progressed to Postgraduate Head. And finally I became the Head of the Department of Fine Arts and retired as Associate Professor. 
ChippyBeing a teacher helps you enhance your knowledge. Reading, researching…
AshrafiI carried this reading into my class. And my students found it very interesting. And for me, it was a passion and I used to read and deliver it to the class. And at that time, the students were equally interested.This is how I developed my interest in art, developed my interest in collecting art books, various kinds of art books, and I was slowly building up a library.

Then it became inevitable in the mid-80s, I have to go beyond my post-graduation degree if I have to go up the ladder in my profession. And that I was required to do my MPhil. So, I did a part time M. Phil from the University of Madras, and my M. Phil thesis was based on “Changing Concepts in 19th century European Art” and this made me extremely interested in Modern Art. Then 10 years went by, and then it fell on my head that I have to do my Ph.D. Now, Ph.D. was something I was terrified about. 
ChippyWhy was that?
AshrafiI had no choice but to do my Ph.D. Now, I did not want to do it in the department. I had told myself that I will never do another thesis after my M.A. dissertation, but I did an M. Phil thesis. So, when I was left with no choice because I was heading the department and it was a requirement, which the university had brought in that the head should have a Ph.D. degree. 
ChippySo off to complete Ph.D. 
AshrafiI didn’t know what subject I would actually work on. Folk-art tradition fascinated me and I told myself, ‘I am sure that there is something in art, where the folk-art tradition is’. I had minimal knowledge about modern art in India as my whole focus was always in the West. I did a research proposal. And I went to University of Baroda for registration. Of course, there was a panel meeting. And was put under such scrutiny that I felt crucified. I was asked so many questions for which I had absolutely no answer. 
ChippyOh dear!
AshrafiOh dear indeed but then somehow, I was fated to do my Ph.D. in Baroda. Dr. Parul Dave Mukherji. I wanted her to be my guide. Initially, she was a little reluctant, because she said, ‘I have no knowledge’. There were many other guides but I didn’t want to work under any male guide. I was clear about that from day one. So, after much consideration she took me on. I registered myself, I went on two years sabbatical having been awarded the Teacher’s Fellowship by the U.G.C. and started my doctoral studies. 
ChippyExciting times and excruciating stress. How did these two years fly by? Were there any hurdles and how did you overcome them? 
AshrafiOh no! Absolutely painful times. This was a period which I thought I would not survive. I thought I may have to give up my teaching also in the bargain. It was so difficult for me. I can’t tell you how difficult it was because I never understood any theories. I found it very difficult. I said, ‘how do I survive? How do I read?’ 

Thanks to my guide. She’s the one who opened up many windows for me. I was willing to work to any extent. To my bones, I was ready to work, but I needed guidance. The direction which came from my guide Parul Mukherji was exceptional. She opened up so many possibilities. Once I was level headed, I said to myself, ‘I will not take this stress anymore. Rather I will enjoy the stress’. The moment I changed my attitude to enjoying my stress, you know, it became something different. Of course, I was able to finish my work in two years. My viva was in 2004. And I got my degree.
ChippyAmazing journey. How did you get into Art Writing?
AshrafiIn 2001, while I was doing my doctoral studies, Ms. Sharan Appa Rao of Apparao Galleries, approached me and requested to write a catalogue essay for her exhibition. I responded, ‘I am not capable of writing exhibition catalogues’, and for that she said, ‘ for your Ph.D., you can write thousands of words but for my catalogue essay you can’t write some 2000 words’. She’s the one who actually initiated me into writing on Art and on Artists. Then she’s the one who slowly introduced me to ‘The Hindu’, a daily newspaper as an Art Critic. 
ChippyApart from your teaching job you also diversified into Art Curator and Critic. 
AshrafiYes. I became an Art Critic for The Hindu for almost 10 years from 2001 to 2011. And that’s how, you know, my journey began in this arena.When I wrote for The Hindu, I used to get very positive feedback from many of the readers. I was approached for writing catalogues for the artists’ exhibitions. And slowly my career picked up.

It’s now 20 years since I’ve been in this field. And for which I would say thanks to my guide, Parul Mukherji. Every time when I tell her thank you, she says, ‘what are you thanking me for? You don’t know how hard you worked to get your degree’. I always said, ‘true but without you, your guidance I couldn’t have done it’. So, that’s how I’ve gone through my journey. It wasn’t a bed of roses at all.It’s going to be 10 years of my retirement and I have been an Art Critic now for twenty years. 
Chippy—————That’s your professional journey. Over three decades of teaching career and now this. You are truly an inspiration. In the meantime you started a family too. 
AshrafiYes, I got married. But I was not blessed with children. While keeping my job, I took occasional leave from work and spent time with Shabbir, my husband who at that time was working outside the country. And at one stage, I almost gave up my job. I thought I had the possibilities of working where my husband was stationed. I did get a job there, then they said, ‘you’re not a citizen. So, we cannot give you a job’.Once again, thanks to another man in my life, my husband, who said, ‘you will not give up your job. We’ll see what the future holds for us. But at the moment you just continue with your work’. 
ChippyYou were thinking of relocating to be near your husband.
AshrafiRelocating. Yeah. But Shabbir said not to sacrifice my career. I continued with my job. Frankly speaking, this gave me a lot of space for myself, to think and to do exactly what I wanted.I had good family support from my husband’s side, who were very supportive of my work. I am truly blessed that way.

My mother-in-law who never interfered, my co-sisters who never bothered. Although they were all homemakers, I was the only one who was working. But they were all supportive and understanding. They never judged me, let me be who I am. It was a happy ambience, which also helped me in my teaching because I didn’t have to go through any stress or tensions or anxieties from my home front. So, 100%, I would say I was dedicated to my reading, to my teaching and pursuing my passion. Truly blessed.
ChippyHow did you meet Shabbir?
AshrafiShabbir Bhagat was a good friend of my brother. They were in college together and he used to come home often. I was in school and science subjects, physics, chemistry and maths were all Greek to me. Shabbir was good at science. So, whenever he came home, I used to ask him doubts and he used to clarify, he used to actually teach me. If it hadn’t been for him, I would have never cleared my school as a matter of fact. I just managed to scrape with a third class. But I managed to finish my school. 
ChippyHe liked you. Didn’t he ?
AshrafiI was not even aware that he was interested in me. He didn’t tell me. He was so afraid that I would say no that he sent the proposal through my brother. My brother brought the proposal and I was quite excited about it. I liked him too. And finally when he proposed to me, I said, ‘yes’, so that’s the story of how we met. We had a long engagement. I met him around 1969 and we got married in 1979. For 10 years, we got to know each other.
Chippy10 year engagement. Quite unusual for the times.
AshrafiAbsolutely. That’s why I keep repeating, I am blessed. My family was open to that. Otherwise, you know, the next thing is to get married. So, that’s why I say, my father played such an important role. And my husband was instrumental in pushing me into doing my Masters. I was really happy with the bachelor’s degree. I didn’t want to do my masters because I was scared of the idea of doing a thesis. I dreaded it but I did it. Fortunately, the two men in my life have played an instrumental, significant, and very seminal role in moulding me, in making me as a matter of fact what I am and who I am today.
ChippyBeautiful story.  A lot of love stories don’t have good endings.
AshrafiThat’s why I always tell myself, I am the blessed one. I am really blessed in every way, every day.
Chippy—————Moving on. It is a fact. You were instrumental in the growth of the Fine Arts Department at Stella Maris College. In your career spanning 34 years, you have helped shape a department that now is truly remarkable.
AshrafiAbsolutely. As a matter of fact, we were the only institution and department in an institution affiliated to the university which had a three-year degree. Normally, all fine arts degrees were for four years. One year is the foundation, and then the other three years of specialisation. But that was not the case with Stella Maris. 

That is when I decided along with my colleagues and with the support of the Principal whose support was very instrumental, In 2008 we changed over from a three year course to four years and renamed it Bachelor of Visual Arts (BVA) degree with two options in specialisation, Painting or Design. And a BVA degree came into existence within four years. Our first batch passed out in 2012. And it continues to date. I feel very happy that I worked towards establishing a four-year course.

When I was a student, we were just 25 in a class. In the mid 80s, it was about 35 and then gradually the strength went to 40, 45, 50 and by the time I retired the strength was almost 60. To undertake a course in Art History, one needs dedication, passion and above all interest. I found that many of the students thought it was a waste of time until I reminded them ‘without art history, your creativity will never be born or happen’. I said, from where will you get your ideas, unless you go back to your past history and see the artists how they have worked? Some of them were sharp enough to realise this and made a career and profession out of this.
ChippyYou are also the person who introduced travel as a way to learn Art.
AshrafiThe other area I help curate is exploring. I tell my students reading alone is not enough. You have to encounter art. And for that you have to encounter architectural space, art galleries, spaces. Our Founder, Sr Edith always said, ‘travel child, travel. You will learn a lot by travelling’. Sr Edith also made it mandatory for the art students to travel every year to the places of historic and artistic interests. We used to take students to Rajasthan, Khajuraho, and to South India. I have travelled extensively with my students throughout India. And I was fortunate enough that the students gave me an opportunity to travel with them. 

When I was teaching Western Art History, there were few students who wanted to travel internationally. It all began in 1989. Every time I took Art History lessons starting with Egyptian Art, ‘Ma’m, let’s go to Egypt.’ Greek History, ‘Ma’m, let’s go to Greece.’ ‘Let’s go to Turkey’. But travel never materialised until 2006 when one day I decided, ‘I will take my students to see work of Art.’ 

I opened up to the whole department and started taking trips with my students. And our first departmental trip was to France and Italy in 2006. Then more and more students got very interested. So, till I retired in 2012, we went across Europe looking at museums and architecture and culture, and nearly saw all the countries and all the museums. So, that one on one encounter and experience with art is breathtaking. 
ChippyYou love travelling and have travelled extensively. Share with us your favourite  places in India and overseas?
AshrafiI think that’s a very difficult question to answer. I found Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh in India very fascinating. I thought I was looking at art completely every way, and everywhere.

We travel extensively as a family. We had taken European trips. The Christmas festivities there, especially in Munich, Vienna, Budapest, Prague were amazing. It was like being in a fairy land, happy atmosphere.The cold, of course, was killing but when you see people so happy, radiant, joyous, and then that spirit of Christmas, it was a sight to behold. The Christmas festivities in Europe, I found it really very, very fascinating. And I just loved it. Even today when I have to relive some of these you know, I go back to this Christmas time in Europe.
ChippyIs there anyone else who inspired you?
AshrafiMy mother. Without her support, I don’t think anything was possible. It’s her creativity, which all of her children have got. I inherited her creativity. She was an extremely talented woman, who did almost everything except paint and draw but I could draw and I could paint. My mother encouraged me and let me pursue this side of my talent and due to this I was able to get into Fine Arts History. 

Oh! My mother was a strict disciplinarian. This was another important aspect. Whether we liked it or not, she would make us sit by her and she would be telling stories about her life. I used to tell myself, ‘do I have to hear all this?’  But now I realise how important stories are in our lives and those nuggets of philosophy that she imparted actually came very useful and very handy for me, especially in my teaching career. 
ChippyIf you ever get a chance to go back in time and meet your 18-year self, what would you tell young Ashrafi? 
AshrafiI don’t think I have any regrets about anything. I was happy doing whatever I did, at every stage in my life. And so, at 18, wherever I was, whether the crossroads or a direct road, I seem to have chosen my path and have travelled it the way I wanted it, supported by my destiny, and by the almighty.
ChippyWhat advice do you have for a person who’s looking to get into Fine Arts? To break into the industry as an Art Historian or become an Art Critic.
AshrafiI would say only one thing. That is only hard work please. It’s 99% hard work, and it’s 1% what do you call inspiration. And that has been my philosophy. I don’t consider myself as a great intellectual but I found that consistent hard work is the only option. This has been my mantra, and I have always conveyed it to my students. Even today, I have the same suggestion, do whatever you have to do but unless you work hard and it is not consistent hard work, nothing will materialise. 
ChippyThat’s a good message. I am honoured to have you with us today and truly humbled. It was a true delight talking to you.
AshrafiI have never had an opportunity to talk about my life as such, which you gave me an opportunity that in the beginning, you know, like I was frozen. I didn’t know you, as to where it has to begin and what it has to be. So, thank you very much. Yeah, thank you for making me realise what I have done in my life. Otherwise, I don’t think I’ve given it a second thought either.  

I am really blessed that I always tell myself, every morning I get up, I say thank God for whatever you have given me and made me. So, I mean, without the support, I don’t think I would have been able to achieve what I was able to do.
ChippyI think it’s been such a beautiful conversation and thank you so much for the time that you’ve given me. 
Follow Dr Ashrafi S. Bhagat
With former students.

2 thoughts on “A Teacher, Historian and Critic

  1. Wow Ashrafi ma’am!!
    It was wonderful reading this conversation….and going behind so many years ..
    Truly, you, were an inspiration to me .! The
    Year you taught us…. design fundamentals in year 1 and art history ( world art) in year2.
    If I’m a teacher today, it’s only because of the fineart department, Stella Maris College and the faculty for guiding me always into the right path .
    Thankyou ma’am
    love you very much

    Rashmi Rose John
    1991 -94 batch

    • Message from Ashrafi Ma’m.
      “Thank you dear Rashmi for this message. Students like you have inspired me to push my folds. Good to know that you are a teacher. Wishing you the best.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s