What might the abstractions of cosmology look like to an artist? What does aesthetics mean to a quantum physicist? How does one imbue a space meant for scientific inquiry with inspirational, reflective art?

These questions and many more were discussed in a three-day workshop held 14 – 16 April, marking the first step in a year-long collaboration between the Department of Fine Arts and the School of Physics. Funded through an Institution of Eminence grant, the collaborative project will draw on an intensive dialogue between the two disciplines, culminating in a series of art works that will animate the new building of the School of Physics. The project is led by Prof Sharath Ananthamurthy of the School of Physics and Dr Kirtana Thangavelu of the Department of Fine Arts.

Laying out the rationale for the workshop, Dr Thangavelu noted, “The opportunity to design art works in a new building that will house the School of Physics is a singular opportunity to speak and listen to each other in ways that can be mutually enriching.  The results are filled with possibility and potential, of course, but are also as yet unknown and unknowable.”

The opening day of the workshop, inaugurated by the Vice Chancellor Prof B J Rao, featured talks by eminent physicists including Prof Gautam Menon of Ashoka University and Dr Prajwal Shastri from the Raman Research Institute, and philosopher Avinash Jha (CSDS). Opening the deliberations, Prof Ananthamurthy expressed the hope that this would be an opportunity to transcend disciplinary boundaries and engage in a mutually enriching journey of understanding. Prof Menon pointed out that there was a tendency for us to think about art as way of “disturbing” the status quo, and science is put into service to “reassure”, prompting the response from other speakers that the reverse could also be true.

On the second day of the workshop, Prof Unnikrishnan of the Defense Institute of Advanced Technology spoke on the aesthetic quality of scientific theories, followed by an introduction by Mr Sreedhar Keremene to “embodied knowledge” as practiced in the performance of Yakshagana. Ms Priyanka Sil and Dr Thangavelu from the Department of Fine Arts offered historical and contemporary approaches to understanding artistic practice as both technique and intellectual response. Winding up the presentations on the final day was Dr Kavita Vemuri of IIIT-Hyderabad, with a talk that brought together ideas from neuroscience, optics, and colour theory to bring attention back to the possibilities of trans-disciplinarity. Reflecting on the deliberations of the three days, Prof Usha Raman of the Department of Communication outlined some ways in which the collaboration might proceed.

The talks were interspersed with lively discussion and debate among the scientists and artists, with several students offering insights and raising provocative questions. Prof Unnikrishnan echoed the thoughts of many when he noted that art could help create an ambience that would inspire even as it interrogated both the product and process of science.

By Professor Usha Raman, Department of Communication