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Tackling Art and Culture in CSE

Art and Culture is perhaps the most feared section in the UPSC Prelims. The performance in this section may decide if one gets a chance to appear in the mains. In 2014, 16 out of 100 questions were asked from this section. Even though the number came down to just three in 2015 and 2016, given the unpredictable distribution of questions in UPSC Prelims, art and culture cannot be ignored.


The prelims syllabus just mentions “History of India and Indian National Movement”. Despite being anopen-ended syllabus, UPSC asks most of the questions from specific sections which must be covered by all aspirants. This article is written in three parts. The first part deals with the topics to be covered. The second part deals with the changing demand of questions asked in the examination and the third deals with the approach and books which must be covered.


Topics to be Covered


As stated earlier, the Prelims syllabus given by UPSC seems to cover everything under the sun. Thus, it is advisable to keep the UPSC mains syllabus as base and build upon it. An integrated approach covering art and culture is essential. The aimmust be to get a good score in mains and get a rank and not just clearing Prelims.


The mains syllabus states Indian culture will cover the ‘salient aspects of Art Forms, Literature and Architecture from ancient to modern times’. If a candidate can cover these topics with sufficient understanding, then most of the questions in UPSC prelims on culture can be answered. These topics can further be elaborated as -


. Architecture - Stupas, Caves, Temples etc.

. Art - Sculpture, Painting, Pottery and Performance art (Music, Dance, Theatre, Puppetry etc.).

. Literature - Languages, scripts, Schools of Philosophies, Indian Calendar etc.


Apart from these topics, the various religions in India and their doctrines must also be studied. Special emphasis must be given to Buddhism and Jainism as many of the ancient works, be it literature or architecture,have been influenced by these religions. Since the last few years’ questions on Buddha’s teachings, his life, mudras etc. have been regularly asked.


Reading and understanding these topics would also help in answering the mains questions. For example, some questions asked in UPSC mains recently were - How do the Stupas expound Buddhist ideals or Write a note on Tandava Dance.


Trend of Questions on Art and Culture


In the pre-2009 era, the questions on culture were direct. Take for example this question which was asked in 2008 –“Bimbavati Devi is a well-known dancer of which type of dance?” Such questions can be answered after reading any book on General Knowledge and requires little analytical ability and conceptual clarity. However, the questions on culture asked now require students to do three things - (1) Understand the topic while keeping a holistic view, (2) Relate the static syllabus with the contemporary events and (3) During examination analyze the options, eliminate the most obvious wrong choices and then answer the question.


For example, some questions asked in the last few years were - (1) Which of the following best describes the concept of Nirvana, (2) Which of the following kingdoms are associated with the life of Buddha, and (3) Comparison between Ajanta caves and Mahabalipuram monuments. Clearly, a superficial reading on topics such as Buddhism, monuments etc. will not be sufficient to answer these questions.


Approach and Essential Books


Mere mugging up of facts is not sufficient to answer the questions which are now being asked by UPSC. While preparing any topic, it is essential to cover the basics i.e. theoretical aspects, the static part and the contemporary developments. To illustrate the approach let us take an example of Dance forms. The first step would be to read about dance holistically. This would include the three aspects of dance i.e. Natya, Nritta and Nritya. Then read about Tandava and Lasya and about the 9 rasas. Once the basic is covered start with the classical dance forms of India like Bharatnatyam, Kathak etc. Read about their basic and distinguishing features. After this, move on to folk dances. However, the folk dances need not be read in much detail. Finally, cover the contemporary developments like list of dances in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage etc. Similar study needs to be done for other topics such as music, painting etc.


Further, it is advisable to cover culture after gaining some basic knowledge about ancient and medieval history. This will help the aspirant to get an idea of the timelines while reading about architecture and painting which will make the study more interesting and much easier.


Thus, the basics of history must first be covered from NCERTs of class VI to XII. Students who have some basic understanding can start from class IX NCERTS as well. After this, the class XI NCERT - “Introduction to Indian Culture (Fine Arts)” must be read. Notes should be prepared and this can act as a base for further study. Then, the writeups on the website of Centre for Cultural Resources and Training (CCRT) must be read. These cover almost the entire UPSC syllabus. Lastly, this knowledge must be further enriched by making note of contemporary events that come up on newspapers.


Such systematic study of art and culture would make the syllabus interesting and enable the candidate to answer most of the questions asked. The most important part of studying art and culture is timely revision. It is advisable to keep the sources to a minimum and revise them regularly. Writing multiple mock test would help the candidate gauge the level of preparation and should motivate to work harder. Keep practicing and Best of Luck!


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