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The Common Rooms of Segregation

Why there are common rooms for girls in co-ed colleges? Why the students are asked to master the ‘Master’s Voice’ in universities?
Mrinal Kulkarni,
taking three examples from her life tries to find out answer to these pertinent questions.

“The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.” Bell Hooks (1994)

Believing in this idea of bell hooks I strongly feel that we have to look at the space and process of education to understand the role of power and authority in the development of a girl’s intellectual persona, which is regulated through her body, socio-economic and cultural situation and knowledge. Taking three case studies of my own experience as a student in two different colleges with completely different academic disciplines and as a teacher in different art institutes in India, I make an effort to understand the power and intellectual authority in relation to the space of domination and the changes come in due to globalisation and commoditization of education.


Like any other teenager I also dreamt a lot about joining college, which meant freedom; freedom from uniform, freedom from ribbons, freedom from tight schedules, freedom from coercing of teachers and the list could go on. But the first day in a Science College, Vikram University, Ujjain, was a frightening experience. There was no freedom. College life was enclosed within the ‘common room’ and classroom.

Leaving apart the prestigious liberal universities in India (which can be counted on fingers) this is the reality that girls face in all the other universities. As most of our universities were established along with freedom movement, with the motto of developing thinking minds, the encouraging space for women was also very much needed. During those days in co-education colleges, separate space for women to sit and be away from gaze was considered to be a need so that more girls would come to study. This was the reason for the creation of ‘common room’. That’s why in all the coeducation colleges common room is situated near the principle’s (guardian’s) room with a direct entry. The common rooms have tables, chairs and toilets (only girl’s toilet available in the whole college premise)

Although the intention were very good and it served its role in development of Indian women in early 20th century, in due course of time it has become a place of ideological contestations as this seclusion of girls within the college does not create a healthy atmosphere for the development of their identity. Mostly the girls move in groups and they are afraid of being alone. They start feeling threatened by their own bodies. Their bodies turn into ‘evil’. This (common room) arrangement makes a girl to hide and cover her own body. One is forced to think about the clothing, manners and even the volume of voice that they could make. Duality of mind and body gets created only for the girls in these situations. Opposite to this conditioning the boys grow up naturally, devoting their whole energy in the development of mental and physical faculties and in the decision making process (through elections) of the institution. I do not overlook the fact that these days even in the local colleges, girls take part in electioneering. However, for arguing my case I need to generalize the case here.

The dream of college starts with the wish for power over oneself and one’s own personality development and ends with the idea that women do not prefer to share their ideas. They are made to believe that girls do not crave for power or authority. Here power is interpreted in masculine terms whereas girls recognise their own use of power which ‘acutely pleasant, profoundly feminine and magnetically erotic’. (1) But as this does not directly come in conflict with the authority structure it is accepted and permitted. So the girls feel happy but they never develop a voice to call a spade a spade. Even in their later life, even if they do not like to do several things, they prefer to keep quiet, as it is felt that they are not supposed to be done by a ‘good girl’. They act innocent. They live a schizophrenic life. An ideal situation for creativity gets lost in the morality of power.


Within a year I shifted to a more liberal faculty (Faculty of Fine Arts Vadodara) and I felt very relieved as it was not only a shift to a different place but it was also a field that I enjoyed. The hesitation, ill confidence (the creation of my earlier training) in personality slowly faded away. But this process was not that easy as the power of language i.e. English as the medium of education and communication, proved to be a major hindrance. But the practice of intellectual challenges posed through class presentations helped to develop an authority on certain subjects. In turn we started learning how one could occupy the space of authority in a way that could reinforce and perpetuate domination. This issue of domination is not only in between the student and the teacher but also between other students, seniors, and authors of the books as well as the ‘owners’ of the books.

The academic training of developing a research paper on any particular topic is such that it includes everything what you have read, whom you have read, the number of books you have read, articles on particular topic you are aware of  etc. What is not demanded was how it was related to your own personal practice as an ideating subject. Hence, one becomes so adapt to select an apt reference from the whole book that one seldom reads the whole thing. Everyone knows the books in fragments. Books are just there for quotations. The holistic vision of education gets curtailed. One just develops a fragmented image like E.H. Gombrich is equal to story of art, or Linda Nochlin is equal to ‘Why there are no Great women artist? What are the other writings of these authors, how they negotiate their positioning through their different writings, how and why they develop a particular way of argumentation and writing are the questions that stay unclear till one decides to do in depth personal research.

At the end of the academic training you feel that you have an authority on the subject which you have chosen but that is completely cut away from the personal. ‘Personal’ is another contentious subject in academic parlance. From starting onwards the students are told not to use the first person singular ‘I’ and they insist that the personal views have to be justified with the views of established authors. So slowly you feel afraid of ideating. The personalisation of a particular subject is accepted so much that the authority of the scholar transforms into tyrannical power of knowledge. Hence, even if the liberal set up of a classroom is established, which questions the space of domination, the power of domination is reinstated through this personalisation of knowledge. Thus the theoretical knowledge gets separated from the practice, which then results into the alienation of academic culture with the other world (2). In the context of art (history) education this alienation is related to the theory and the ongoing art practice.

That’s why in several art history departments few students interact with the students from other departments like painting, sculpture etc, who are present in the same premise. Interaction with other disciplines like literature, theatre or films could be seen only in a few students which they have already developed through their personal interests. This lack of interaction amongst students engenders the fear for contemporary art; many of them are not clear what to do with the ‘contemporary art’, as there is a lack of written material on the present art practice. By chance if someone is able to do away with this fear and start writing they are considered to be so great that it becomes difficult for them to work in a real space. So lastly one has to unlearn everything to survive as an ideating subject by questioning the monolithic structure of the academic writing (3).


After finishing my academic education I decided to shift to New Delhi, as I wanted to become an ‘art critic’. It was necessary to survive in a big city like New Delhi and it became necessary for me to take up teaching assignments in colleges and writing assignments for the newspapers. Almost for a decade I taught art history and art appreciation for fine arts, designing, film making, architecture and even bio technology and science students. I taught in recognised art colleges as well as recently established private colleges. So it has been an interesting experience of learning the changes coming in pedagogy due to gloabalisation and the commoditization of education.

As most of these private colleges have affiliation with various foreign universities, their curriculum is very flexible. There is enough space for new pedagogic approaches. So you are free to develop your own style of teaching and chapterisation of the syllabus. It is really interesting to develop a course and create various presentations, as it need not be taught in a monolithic chronological way. So one can make students to be aware of various ideological, political positioning of artists and writers. Here the personal approach to the subject is very important. Classrooms become active with several views of students, which are mostly developed from their own personal experiences. Classrooms become places of chaos and confusion as everything lastly used to end on ‘how we will prepare for exams’. Because the evaluation system is still based on the final examination, as the college authorities are not comfortable with the project paper based evaluations. They want to carry on the ritual of three hours long final examinations.

While I was trying to bring in personal in my way of teaching I was also trying to question the classroom territoriality by bringing in teaching as a group activity (4). But the idea of classroom as a space to reinforce domination was so much ingrained in the management’s mind that they objected these practices. They were more for the strict rules to define the time and space a teacher spent with a student so no one trespassed the prescribed limits. It was more in the fine arts field as it was observed as the domination of ‘theory’ (the term itself is questionable) over practical.

As already mentioned, these private colleges are affiliated to the foreign universities mostly the American ones, which follow the MIT style of curriculum. That’s why there is an inclusion of ‘art appreciation’ for bio technology and science students. When we look at it in Indian context most of these students have a complete disregard for ‘art’. They are trained in quick result based education so they used to find really difficult to understand the whole subject (of art). Lack of visual reading also was a major problem for them to develop at such a late stage of their student life. The Indian authorities are also aware of it and they take it as a ritual as they know that these students are going to compete in international job market they have to be the masters of the language of power structure/hegemony. Because of this they ask for a stress on Indian art and culture in the course structure as these students will be ‘Indian’ and they have to be the masters of that proscribed category.

Taking note of the relation of authority, power and education it becomes clear that ‘education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it’ (5). But education as "the practice of freedom," (6) the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world has to be developed in India. This is possible with the creation for context where students’ subjective needs can be integrated with study, where the primary focus is a broader spectrum of ideas and modes of inquiry, in short a dialectical context where there is serious and rigorous critical exchange. Because this is going to be rare as there is a crisis of engagement within universities due to the commoditization of knowledge. It is not possible to have a formulaic teaching and formulaic syllabi but one can revolutionise the classroom by shedding the image of ‘all knowing’ professor, and adopting the four main themes of feminist pedagogy empowerment, community, social action, and reflexivity. To adopt that one need not be feminist (as still this word is a taboo in here).


  • Fire with Fire; Naomi Wolf. Ch. 15 Are We Ready to Embrace equality (question mark)page no. 267
  • bell hooks and the Politics of Literacy: A Conversation with  Gary A. Olson JAC 14.1 (1994)
  • Ibid.
  • Toward a Revolutionary Feminist Pedagogy by bell hooks
  • Ibid.
  • Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black Sheba, bell hooks (1989).


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