Monday, August 21, 2017

What do These Torsos Whisper? Looking at Kanchan Chander’s Works

(Senior artist, Kanchan Chander, pic from the artist's facebook)

At the Visual Art Gallery, IHC, New Delhi, I stand before the works of Kanchan Chander, senior artist based in Delhi whose solo exhibition titled ‘Whispering Torsos’ is currently on there and to be frank I am at a loss for words. I am at a loss for words not because I am too overwhelmed to be muted nor am I hugely benumbed by the starkness of glitter, colour and images. I am at a loss for words because I do not know where the works to be celebrated or to be condemned. Hence I take a deep breath and let myself to soak in the works and the meanings that they impart. Kanchan has ‘gone back to the torsos’, as she would like to put it. She has been painting an emblematic female torso for quite some time; a sort of mutilated self, fragmented womanhood, objectified woman’s body and ‘use and throw’ consumable. Definitely, her diversion to the world of sequins and the Bollywood divas had brought her accolades from the Business Class and those have been heavily commoditized since then. That could be one reason that one feels, after the initial psychedelic feeling that gets you at one go, a sense of settlement. You are in a comfort zone; Kanchan Chander and the torso imagery.

(Koi Lauta de Woh Beete hue Din)

However, I am not really comfortable in the comfort zone that Kanchan has provided with her latest suite of works comprising of the paintings, drawings, graphic prints and an assemblage done during the last two to three years. As they are thematically held together by the dominant imagery of a Torso, mostly in a mutilated ‘tribhanga’ position as idealized by the traditional Indian sculptures, one could forget the three years that have gone in between the making of these works. The works are encased in certain cases, layered and overly ridden by materials such as found objects, sequins, illustrations, stickers and so on. I particular like the works titled ‘Kahani Ek Torso Ki 1 and 2’ and ‘Whispering Torsos 3 and 4’ because if you listen carefully when you could hear the whisperings. These heavily ornamented works reveal how the torsos are surrounded by the social imageries that define the role of woman in the society.

These glittering torsos are seen in the middle of miniature pictures of muscle men, stickers of cartoon characters and graffiti like markings. There are small locks, key holes, padlocks and similar contraptions fitted all over, which together interestingly add to the general ornamentation of the central figure. A closer look tells me how Kanchan as a woman and then as an artist sees the role of woman in our society. They are supposed to be looking good always (presentable and pleasing) but should not have any autonomy over her body or mind. Her decking herself up itself is done for the male gaze, though often they claim to wear their freedom in what they choose to drape themselves. Woman in this case is in a dilemma; on the one hand she is expected to cover herself up from head to toe in order to protect herself from the male attack and on the other hand showing her skin the name of freedom becomes a feast for the gazers. So what a woman does is a balancing act even when she subjects her ‘torso’ for the assessment of the public gaze. Kanchan portrays her torsos as the female body in dilemma. And the locks and contraptions of subjection and subjugation that one sees as a part of ornamentation comes as a translation of Manusmriti that says ‘women are taken care of.’

(works by Kanchan Chander)

Kanchan borrows two dominant images from the traditional art historical discourse in India; one, Lajja Gauri and two, Yogini. Lajja Gauri is a headless goddess who sits in a certain provocation portion and is seen giving birth to a child. Kanchan replaces the child with a woman; the bold woman giving birth to another bold woman. And in Yogini, she is given an iconographic embellishment with a maze on her left hand, which makes her a punitive goddess or rather a goddess who has got her power to act. Some of the works express the artist’s wishful thinking; ‘Had I got Wings’. Here she paints a surrogate portrait, giving identity to her torsos (or is it reclaiming an asexual/de-sexualized body from the safe camouflage of the torso?) and one of them seen growing angelic wings. Surprisingly, in one of the works of the same series, a surrogate portrait (with unmistakable resemblance to the artist’s younger self) is presented as if she were being expelled from the Garden of Eden. In her drawings Kanchan becomes a lot more playful than in her paintings, and the latest body of drawings on handmade paper seem to be done with a primitive vigour; the vigour of a woman painter on the walls of a cave, a cave of her own.

Is there a tinge of regret in the whisperings of the artists? Is it a remembrance of the things past, which cannot be retrieved? Is it a compensation for what has been lost? I have the reasons to think so because in one of the paintings, I see this title and also the encryption along the spine of the torso, ‘Koi Lauta de Mere Beete Hue Din’ (First I thought it was French)- Give Me those Good Old Days Back. I remembered two things instantly: one, the famous song from Ijaazat (1987), Mera Kuch Samaan Tumara paas pada hai (sukha to mein le aaye thee, geela man shayad bistar ke paas pada ho, vo bhijwa do mera woh saman aluta do—The dried ones I have taken with me, the wet mind is lying somewhere near your cot, please send that back to me). Two, S.H.Raza’s famous painting, ‘Ma Kab Lautoge, Kya Lavoge’ (Mother, when will you come back and what will you bring). I do not know what has provoked Kanchan to pick up those words. It could be a favourite poem of hers, which I do not know. But it is open to interpretation. Is there any regret about the life that has gone by, especially when the artist feels that it is a new beginning?

(Installation by Kanchan Chander)

There are mandatory images of Frida Kahlo in this exhibition, which I think most of the women artist in India have a fetish for. They are obsessed not with Frida Kahlo as an artist but with the idea of Frida, who stood for freedom, passion, love, sex and complete disregard for social norms. She had the undying passion towards life. She was in a way narcissistic and she made her life a celebration even at the face of adversities. Indian women artists like Frida because she embodies what they could not or would not do. So in Kanchan too, Frida comes as an idea which I thought could have been avoided. The major problem with women artists in India is this that they are either like sanitized political commentators like Shilpa Gupta or absolutely spiritual abstract artists. If not, they are either reluctant feminists like Anita Dube and Mithu Sen or celebrators of femininity like Seema Kohli. We do not have feminist artists. Nalini Malani, Vasudha Thozhur and Navjot Altaf are two names who would declare their feminist position politically. Rekha Rodwittiya claims herself to be a feminist but she could be maximum a feminist who just do not handle ‘issues’ pertaining to women; women artists could be safe feminists also. Like the closet gays we have closet feminists also. Among the young artists, Neha Chosky and Shweta Bhattad have done overtly feminist statements in their art and performances. Like all that glitter is not gold, all those women artists who handle ‘woman issues’ cannot be feminists. Being a feminist and involved in discursive feminisms in public and private life is a political positioning of the artist that comes with a lot of conviction and social risks. I do not see Kanchan as a feminist artist. She is a reluctant onlooker at the gallery where in the arena the real fights take place; Kanchan is sympathetic to the feminist causes but in her works, she remains feminine with all its traps. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Quit India 75 Chalo Dilli: How this Show Kills the Image of India

Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of this country, a proud Indian and as an art professional with almost three decades of experience in the concerned field I went to see the exhibition ‘Quit India 75 Chalo Dilli’, inaugurated by you at the National Archives of India. My patriotism ends where my eco-humanism begins therefore I should say that my pride as an Indian citizen is in all what we do as a collective in our country. I need not tell you that culture is a part of our heritage, contemporary life and most importantly it is a facade of our country that leaves very last impressions on our international guests. Hence, I should say that any cultural presentation is at once a reminder for the citizen and an invitation to the guests for partaking in the cultural history as well as the general history of this country. To put it in other words, any cultural exposition done in the public and private sectors forms a sort of cultural diplomacy. An invitation to our history should be a pointer to everyone in order to show how as a country we deeply we care for human values, dignity of life, cultural expressions and political activities of our citizens and above all our openness to the world.

An exhibition of this scale as a whole is a telling sign about how the Government of India thinks about itself, the country, its history and also the possible visitors of this exhibition. An exhibition which could have been an exquisite and rare exposition of extremely valuable historical documents pertaining to a pivotal moment of modern India’s history towards its independence from the clutches of the British Raj, however is reduced to, in the mildest words I can come up with here, a brazen display of linguistic arrogance and ideological titling, which I would say with all humility of a citizen as well as all the vehemence of an art professional as a cultural critic, historian and curator, puts our country in an extremely poor light. You may be offended because a supreme administrator like you and the BJP as a part that has somehow carried off and away the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi with no convincing explanations from or of or by history have of late taken all efforts to highlight the role of Mahatma Gandhi as a central God Head in the Hindutva discourse though there have been slips from the President of the Party calling the Great Saint a ‘Clever Trader’ (Chatur Bania). The Charkha Museum in the Rajiv Chowk (erstwhile Connaught Place) is the latest addition in the recent history of co-opting Gandhiji for your purpose. But I don’t mind that.

What makes me sad, sir, is the Quit India Exhibition at the National Archives. When I saw the advertisements in the newspapers and the highlighting of this show in the cultural snippet columns in the leading national dailies of which some are hugely critical of you, I thought I should see this exhibition. Besides, I am interested in the history of India in general and the history of our national resistance against the British Raj, led by Mahatma Gandhi and his disciples. Quit India, the final clarion call let out by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 telling the people of India ‘do or die’ for the independence of India using non-violent means in fact paved the way for the transference of power in another five years. Though the war fatigue had worn the British out and the Indian administration had become an overhead liability by the mid of 1940s, it was Gandhiji’s stubbornness and the ‘clever’ ploys of a commander-in-chief at large that held the warring factions within India together at least till the ouster of the British from the Indian sub-continent. But we are aware of what the departing British administration had done to our country.

This period, between 1942 to 1947 and a decade prior to this, is very important and interesting in Indian history because by that time, Gandhiji had in a way grown tired of the political manoeuvrings of the Congress and its rival Muslim League, and also Gandhiji was facing the heat both from the faction led by Subhash Chandra Bose who demanded direct action through military means (or rather violent means) and the issue of untouchability and separate constitution for the Dalits raised by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar. Gandhiji led the Dandi March in 1930 and later a series of discussions with the British Authorities which had resulted into the provincial governments. Gandhiji also had seen the infights for power by the Indian leaders and also the growing dissenting by the Jan Sangh, the right wingers and the socialists within the Congress who would soon declare their independence by forming the Communist Party of India. Interestingly both the RSS (the Hindu Maha Sabha/Jan Sangh backed cadre group) and the Communists neither joined the non-cooperation movement nor the Quit India Movement. Both had their own reasons to do so. Subhash Bose’s escape to Singapore, from there to Tokyo and the formation of Azad Hindu Fauj (Indian National Army) and a special regiment for women (Jhansi Rani Regiment) and so on had spiced up the scenario of the Independence struggle of India amidst a War worn world. The Quit India Movement stands right in the middle of all these. An exhibition on this cannot be boring especially when the National Archives brings out its valuable documents on display.

I should say the exhibition is disappointing mainly because it’s lopsided and badly put together. A National Archives Show cannot be this garish and shoddy. The exhibition has everything but nothing. First of all there is not a single photograph in its original pristine form from the archives. Each photograph is blown up and digitally printed on flex materials to make the visual large and too visible to comfort. Once you enter a very badly done portrait relief of Mahatma Gandhi welcomes you. A speaker on the left corner belts out some patriotic song which actually kills the mood of the show. The lighting is full flash flood; hence everything is under ‘lime light’ literally. No focusing of lights or dramatisation of visual. Everything is like an election campaign in an open street full of varying visual vying for attention and a cacophony of indistinct sounds and music. The indistinct sound comes from a film division documentary projected in 35 mm scale marring the visual concentration splitting into unexpected pixellations. On our right is an enlarged round rimmed spectacles to suggest Mahatma Gandhi and each glass has a back projection with some Quit India material. The old caskets like museum containers have the old documents displayed. There are interactive touch screens but no head phones; that means they are meant to read, not to listen. The four halls thus filled with flex boards and the fourth hall is your ‘Man ki Bath’ documentary along with other photographs.

Sir, here I have to tell one thing what had put me off at the outset itself. First, the flex boards and not a single pristine photograph from the time, which I would have looked at for a longer time absorbing the days of struggle for Indian independence. Flex boards are good for election campaigns not for museum level exhibitions. I am aware of the ongoing ‘language problem’ in India. Hindi is our National Language, no doubt (I can read and speak in Hindi). There is a militant opposition for Hindi in South and the North Eastern parts of India. We had recently seen the blackening of the Hindi signage in Bengaluru metro stations. But sir, when we have an exhibition in the capital city of India, don’t we think that our viewers are not going to be just Indians but foreigners too. What is atrocious sir (please don’t mind my English) is the ‘Hindi’ forced at the face of the viewers. Its Hindi, Hindi and Hindi. I searched for a single English note that simultaneously explains what the exhibit is all about. No. Only Hindi. It is almost like saying, If you don’t know Hindi, please Get Out. You are not welcome here. I also thought that the whole exhibition was done for people who just had cataract operation. Each letter is six inches big which really do not help one to read unless a huge distance is between the letters and the reader. Lack of scientific approach in design and display. The same electioneering approach.

Sir, I understand that language is identity (one of the elements that helps one form an identity and crisis too) and one should be proud of one’s mother tongue as well as national language. But at the same time, sir, language is a window to the world. If we are sticking to one language means we are closing not only windows but also doors. If we are talking about a new India, then it is an India that has opened its windows and doors to let the foreign winds to come in also the national breezes to waft across and as Gandhiji had put it, ‘never to be blown away by those currents’. Hence sir, these are the avenues where we really need to think about using multiple languages so that we tell the world by that gesture itself that look we are a new India and we are surging to grow and also we are true to our tradition, athithi devo bhava (Guest is God) and we make you comfortable including in the use of our language. Here the Quit India exhibition at the National Archives is clearly meant for Indians that too the North Indians who are natural Hindi speaking and reading people. Sir, it is not democracy; it is not inclusion. Sir, it is exclusion. By doing this, you have excluded me from my own country’s heritage. When I was there, right in the middle of the cacophony hardly five people were there and I realized later that all of them were from the office or the department. I was the lone visitor! Right from the Central Secretariat to the National Archives, almost a kilometre, while walking I found the flex boards announcing this show displayed along the tall iron fencing. Sir, if you really wanted the show to be Hindi and to be ‘seen’ by people, the whole show could have been kept there in the street, displayed in the fences because hundreds of people are there in the road but none inside the archives.

The Quit India exhibition gives out some more pointers. Though the exhibition organizers had not provided anyone with any magnifying glasses, which is mandatory to read small prints, I trained my eyes to see the names and details printed in the documents. I have to say this that however you try and purge this country of the Muslim traditions and cleanse the history of the Islamic contributions in socio-cultural and political life of India you wouldn’t be able to do that. To do that perhaps, you have to start a new National Archives and put the existing one for incineration. Our country’s history cannot be without the contributions of the Muslims. Even in the Azad Hind Fauj I see a number of Muslims. By the way sir, one of the first martyrs of INA hails from my village and INA Hero Vakkom Abdul Khader’s home is next to my home. I understand that this exhibition has given quite bit stress on Azad Hind Fauj and Subhash Bose. I don’t remember seeing a good presence of Nehru. I know you have the political as well as ideological reasons to do so. But sir, pitching anything to prove a point which does not have historical proof would develop internal contradictions causing the final collapse. And at times, sir, however we try we wouldn’t be able to include those who were not in the Quit India Movement. Though you perhaps would feel to have the early RSS and Hindu Maha Sabha leaders into the narrative, it wouldn’t be possible because they simply were not in the movement! You should seriously think about this internal dynamics of history. However, we try to create new history, the histories that have gone by would show up unexpectedly or rather come out like the ghost carnival from the vaults of archives. You can always interpret history but you cannot change history. You can include yourself in the history by virtue of your works, but you cannot create a new folklore and call it history.

Sir, this exhibition could have been really great had it not been limited by its design, language and promotion. What ails our country at least in the cultural field is our greed for numbers than quality. This exhibition, had it been given to historians who have studied the particular portions deeply to curate it and also had assigned designers from well known design schools (Gujarat boasts the best design school in India, NID) to create the show, and if you had consulted good communicators regarding the use of language and employed a good advertising agency to promote the show, things would have been absolutely different. We have still time sir. Please set the ideological agenda aside when it comes to project India to its own people and the guests. New India and Make in India, your ideas have a lot of value but obviously not like this one. Make in India cannot be so shoddy an affair like this Quit India exhibition because we have always better professionals in this country.

Your sincerely


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kiran Nadar Museum to Sevagram’s Nayee Talim: What’s Up Child Art Missionaries?

On 29th April this year, I was invited to deliver a memorial lecture on Raja Ravi Varma on his 169th Birth Day at his native place Kilimanoor in Kerala. I was too happy to receive this invitation from the Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy and I readily agreed to do it. When I reached the auditorium I found very few people as audience. Any public speaker would know the effect of such sparse audience. One of the organizers told me that in the same village there was another program celebrating the birthday of Ravi Varma organized by a local club and most of the people had gone there as they had managed to stage some interesting entertainment programs. As I was walking towards the car after my lecture, suddenly a young man appeared from nowhere and told one of the office bearers who was accompanying me, ‘Sir, when you organize something, do try to involve children from the locality, arrange some competition for them and give them some prizes liberally. The whole village would turn out for the public meeting. We conducted a children’s painting competition yesterday and today just before the public meeting, we announced the prizes. All the men and women were there thinking that their children would get some awards. We gave many first prizes, second prizes, many third prizes and a few encouragement awards for different age categories. And the prize distribution was kept just before the vote of thanks. So we had an auditorium full of people, many of them standing and sitting in the aisle.”

Of late I have been looking at the promotional programs of many galleries and museums where find they are all suddenly woken up to the fact that children are also artist. There are very integrated and concerted efforts to get the children to the galleries and museums. They are invited there not really as viewers of the works of art displayed there but as ‘artists’ who could do some works in the relaxed but sensitized atmosphere of the galleries and museums. I was astonished to see the number of viewers for one of the video promotions done by the Kiran Nadar Museums during the summer this year (during the school vacations, to be precise). It was around 20000 views. I found it very amusing because the major ‘actors’ in the promotional video were children (obviously from the middle and upper middle class) and they were very enthusiastically telling us/the camera that it was a wonderful thing to make art. Then I remembered that all of sudden there is a heightened interest for the children and their art in the galleries and museums. The first one that I noticed was done by the FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art), a subsidiary of the Vadehra Gallery and it had organized well scheduled workshops for children, definitely for a price. Then I found the NGMA, Delhi conducting workshops for the children. Today I found yet another invitation by a private gallery doing workshops on child art or children’s art.

Why this interest in children’s art all of a sudden? Is it because that all these managements have realized that only through catching the children young, they could not only bring their parents to the galleries and museums and turn them slowly into potential buyers and art collectors but also train these youngsters from the very beginning as art aspirants so that they would either become artists in future or loyal art collectors? Catch them young is not just a phrase but it is a very ideological method used by the political and religious organisations in order to indoctrinate the fresh minds of the children with ideas, notions and ideologies therefore a designed sort of world view so that they would grow up as citizens believing completely into what they have been taught from the very beginning. If religion, politics, sports, circus and anything that needs training could be taught to kids from the very beginning why couldn’t they train children to become potential artists or art collectors or even artistically inclined loyal groups? It is possible. That’s why the western museums insist on programs for children and the schools there make museum and gallery visit mandatory in the syllabus. If you remember how a major chunk of the viewers for the Kochi Muziris Biennale is created out of the uniformed school children, you would understand that these children would grow up into adults who believe in the kind of art shown by the Biennales.

There is a sense of pedagogy, identification, informing and a mild sense of indoctrination in all these activities. But my point is not that. I would not unilaterally say that these galleries and museums are attracting children for the vested interests. While I acknowledge the fact that there is a vested interest to create interest groups in the society, I would also say that it is a part of joining the egalitarian bandwagon of the international museum and gallery practices. While the international museums and galleries are expected to perform their corporate commitment and socio-cultural responsibilities, Indian museums and galleries had not woken up to that cosmopolitan outlook. But better late than never as I think about their gradual opening up to generate an inclusive strategy for the children (of the better of families, I should say, that could pay for it or have the time and leisure for taking their children to the venues). In the international scene, I have observed that it is not necessary for the children to really ‘draw and paint’ when they are there. They could even just spend their time happily, looking at the works, shying away from the nudes, giggle and ogle at each other before the nude sculptures and touch and feel the interactive works specially designed for the children. But I am sure whatever may be the strategies nothing would assure loyalty from these kids. You would be remembering those teenage children sitting in front of Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ and very keenly looking into their smart phone screens. Those white kids must have been trained in visiting museums at an early age; but in the picture they are absolutely defiant and disloyal to what they had been taught or made to experience from the very beginning. In Indian galleries, my observation goes, it is still about ‘DIY’ philosophy; children are asked to make, draw, paint, play with clay and so on.

This expectation of an outcome could be dangerous in the long run because once out of the museums and galleries the children are thrown into a big bad world where their peer group people are playing war games and other illusionary games in the smart phones. Hence, keeping the children away from their unwanted, uncalled, unexpected, unobserved experience by barricading them with the art experience is a futile exercise. It is high time to approach the issue of children and their practising of art more scientifically and methodically. Though there have been a lot of studies so far about children doing art, art done by children, art done by autistic children, art done by prolific children, art done by mentally challenged children, art done by the children of artisans, art done by the children in exile camps, children from the economically deprived classes and areas, art done by children who are terminally ill, art done by children living in high rises, art done by children in slums, art done by children who are born to mixed parentages and so on, in India we have not yet started looking at children doing art or children in the gallery and museum situations in a scientific, psychological and cultural ways. Either we are imparting them skills or we are making them experience high art. In both the cases what we miss is the genuine thinking and execution of art by children.

I am not an expert of child art or art done by children. However, my experience in the art scene as a critic and curator, my experience as a father of two children, my experience as an observer of art done by children and my experience as a reader of art theories, I could come up with certain observations regarding the children doing art and child art. Before that let me recount two incidents from the art history. Let the first one be from near to home: When Ravi Varma was a small child, it is said that he used to draw pictures on the lime coated walls of his palace. Seeing those pictures, his uncle Rajaraja Varma was very impressed and said to have exclaimed on the ‘illusionism/realism’ that he had achieved. Second episode is from Spain. When Pablo Picasso was a child, his father had left an unfinished painting on the easel and it is said that the young Picasso saw it and completed it with such verve and realistic precision that his father decided never to touch paint again. Both these stories seem to have a bit of exaggeration in them. But what we need to see in these stories is the stress given to the amount of ‘realism’ that those children had achieved. This realism is not only about the soundness of form, rhythmic nature of the lines and the rotundity given by shading and so on but also about the child’s grip on the visual language which is to be gained by consistent and prolonged training by a young boy till he reaches adulthood and a proper grip on form and perspective.

What Ravi Varma and Picasso had was this ability to draw the very similitude of the object, thing or person that the children had modelled their drawing upon. But according to the stalwarts who had closely studied the art created by children, this ability could be exceptional and commendable but cannot and should not expect from all the children. It was Frank Zizek, a Viennese artist who was known more as a pedagogue than artist, who had formulated the term ‘Child Art’. In the early years of the 20th century he established an art school for the young children in Vienna and considered children not as miniature version of adult men and women but as independent beings with an absolutely different kind of outlook on world, life and art. These formulations of Zizek were further taken up by theoreticians and educators like Herbert Read and used effectively in the educational policies of Britain and later on elsewhere in Europe and America. At the same time we have Sigmund Freud in Vienna itself experimenting with the drawings done by masters like Da Vinci as well as mental patients. We all know that Freud’s conclusion about Da Vinci’s possible homoeroticism was based on an experience of a dove pushing its feathers into the infant Da Vinci’s mouth, which in many surrogate drawings he had expressed later.

Devi Prasad, known for his pottery works as well as his work in the cottage industry sector was a devoted follower of Frank Zizek and was one of the early teachers who had worked with Mahatama Gandhi at his Wardha Ashram school where Gandhiji was formulating the ideas of Nayee Talim, New Education Method. Devi Prasad was a student of Nandlal Bose in Santiniketan and as staunch follower of the Santiniketan philosophy Devi Prasad thought that children were given a chance to develop naturally in Tagore’s dream school and it should be an ideal model to be practised at Sevagram school in Wardha. In due course of time Devi Prasad developed his own ideas about child art through various experimentations and practices with the children and confirmed that children were not miniature versions of adults but independent beings with a mind. His findings could be found in a well written book titled ‘Art: The Basis of Education’. This book is very modestly priced at Rs.75/- and is published by the National Book Trust of India.

According to Devi Prasad, art should be the basis of education of all kinds because only art could make a child sensitive to his living environment, people and anything that comes in touch with him. Devi Prasad, almost with a missionary zeal believes that children could develop a healthy personality only through art and he also underlines that the aim of the art is not about making a work of art for aesthetical enjoyment alone but to create a healthy personality. A child who practices making art or dealing with art objects and materials could handle anything in the world with a lot of sensitivity. The Do it Yourself idea comes from this Nayee Talim approach towards art and education. In the west during the first half of the 20th century there was a huge resistance from the pedagogues against the use of art as a method of education. They found that letting children do whatever they wanted was a waste of opportunity to mould them whereas Zizek believed that letting the children do whatever they want in the presence of a teacher who understand the child and the childhood, could lead the children to greater heights of understanding which could be translated into any kind of education. Devi Prasad also believed in the same theory and successfully practiced it. As Gandhiji’s idea was to spread this swadeshi Nayee Talim in all the seven lakh villages in India, he expected the education be parsimonious and austere. Therefore the art education also should be based not really on industrial colours and canvases and prepared clay, instead it should be based on the available materials, right from pigments to gunny bags to newsprint for like Gandhiji, Devi Prasad also knew that all the children in those village schools wouldn’t be able to afford industrial colours and drawing materials. Hence the stress was given on the ‘poverty’ of educational methods. Devi Prasad substantiates his ideas of poverty by recalling Tagore who also had propagated ‘poverty’ and defined it during the educational period as something that would maximize the potential of the children who functioned from within the limitations.

Right from the possible influences of displaying the so called masters’ works in the classrooms to the mutual appreciation of works by children themselves, every possible thing regarding children’s art education and general education come in this book for discussion. Devi Prasad says that while exposure to the masters’ art is good for the children to emulate certain qualities, he says it is not at all good for the children below 13 years mainly because they have the tendency to imitate the adult world which is detrimental to their normal growth. With no parameters to judge their works, children would find their works more interesting and liberating; when they listen opinion about their art and when they see their works displayed in the school and every one looking at them, they would feel elated and it would bring a sense of accomplishment, which would instil a personality in them which is out of any kind of greed or competition because of the sense of accomplishment. Devi Prasad discusses what to do when a child repeatedly draw the same thing due to the lack of new ideas and experiences. How do you give a new experience to such children is another important question that he discusses. Children from different environments could liberate themselves through drawing where drawing becomes therapeutic. Devi Prasad does anticipates the ‘Ram Shankar Nikumbh’, the art teacher in Tare Zameen Par, the Aamir Khan movie in 2007.

I am not going to talk about this book in detail because this article is not intended to be a book review. What I am trying to ask here is whether all these museums and galleries that have all of a sudden taken up the mission of making children into great artists, giving them art history lessons or art making workshops, consider all what have been discussed in this article. The question is this: What is behind this sudden interest? We need some explanation. What are their policies on child art? Do they consider it as merely hobby oriented? Do they consider it as therapeutic? Do they think it as a reach out program? Do they consider it as a relaxing for hyper active urban kids? Do they think about an alternative life style? If so, what is that alternative life style? What kind of art materials are given to them? What kind of art history or appreciation is taught to them if at all those are imparted to them? We need some explanations of these questions and more. It is not a critical question put by one feverish cultural critic or art critic. These are very important questions for everyone in the society because the answers to which would make them more informed and tolerant people, as Devi Prasad would put it, it would help them to develop healthy personalities. If not, like many I also would doubt that there must be some huge funding or international hype for those who promote child art in their respective countries. I searched for such funding windows but could not find; maybe I am not looking in the right direction. Whatever may be the case, we need to engage ourselves intellectually on the case of child art, children doing art and art for children.

( Images for representational purposes only sourced from Facebook)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dear Artist, You can Bring About the Change- Read it Carefully

(Akhlaq Ahmed's Painting displayed outside the India Art Fair 2017)

Each time when an open discussion takes place regarding the alternative avenues of showing art to people, often the whole talk veers towards the idea forming artists’ collectives. I have been observing this for quite some time especially when I involve in a discussion with the artists in Kerala. This idea of forming collectives has something to do with the general ideological milieu of the state, which has made several such collectives successive in other professional fields. Formation of collectives has come into the Malayali psyche mainly through two sources; one, most of the late 19th century and early 20th century social reformers had underlined the need for standing together and forming organizations. One of the highly influential philosophers and social reformers, Sree Narayana Guru had asked the people to ‘strengthen themselves through collectives’. The second reason is more universal because by 1930s itself the socialist streak had crept into the thinking of the nationalists from Kerala who believed the Marxian dictum of ‘uniting of the world proletariat’ for they did not have nothing to lose but chains. If you want to look beyond the 19th century you could the influence of Buddhism in Kerala, a religion which had emphasised the aspect of ‘unity’.

Like fish love water the Malayalis love unions. The problem of Malayali unionism is this that they multiply as they unite in as strange aspiration for individualism within the unions. Hence, as facebook these days shows, each Malayali is an ideologue, a pedagogue, an orator, a law giver, a path finder or path breaker and at the same time terribly united with society. That means a society is heavily ridden in and by contradictions. The Malayali artists’ liking for unions and organisations in order to demand their rights from the government or government agencies and their perennial liking for membership in certain organisations stem from this socio-intellectual milieu. However, the causes for their disintegration are ingrained in these organisations. Any organisation automatically sets up a hierarchy where some people take the leadership and rest of the people follow them. Whether you like it or not there is always a sense of regimentation in such organisations and each person in the organisation feels that he or she is undeservingly made into a follower or rather his or her talents are not recognized or respected. While neglecting the fact that a highly talented artist could be a very bad leader and a very good leader could be a very moderate talent, each one in an artists’ organisation thinks that they deserve leadership. Many would like to make their voices heard and when it is not possible the chances of lobbying comes up. Then the story is the same.

(For representational purpose only- source Net)

The fact is this: highly individualised artists cannot be members of certain unions. Even in the highly authoritarian states artists either become parable and fable painters or painters of apparently innocent themes or abstract works so that they could hide their real views behind those expressions or they become completely regimented artists who would do anything for the government or organisation. That’s how, anywhere in the world they generate propaganda art. Propaganda art need not necessarily be propagandist in the conventional sense. An authoritarian government with very conventional ideas of art would always prefer to have mediocre artists who stick to certain norms of art making. The readable symbolisms which are often highly euphemistic and sycophantic are taken dear by the authorities. My point is simple; artists can create lose organisations which could be open platforms where one is not expected to agree with the other or even if agreement is there it could be expressed in the most surreptitious terms. But artists can never create organisations which has a clear hierarchy and an agenda. With the high sense of individualism and a lot of aesthetical as well as existential hangovers artists are at their best when left alone; organizations are impossible for them. Often people see it as egotism of the artists who do not want to agree with the other; but that is not really the case. They do not want to agree with the other because they have other ‘fantastic’ ideas; sometimes they may be absolutely imaginary and impractical but these differences are to be registered. So an artists’ organisation means tremendous amount of cacophony, disagreement, murder if not suicide. Forming a co-operative society of the artists for creating a housing colony is a different thing. But think of pooling in money for starting a studio complex.

That’s the fate of the artists anywhere in the world. They are different people inside though they conform to the society at various levels for reasons of day to day survival. Who doesn’t want a peaceful family or personal life? So they often keep off from so many other issues and behave like ordinary people while living a fantasy life inside and that is the fantasy that we see as their art. Now, the real question is how are these artists going to show their works to the public? Or they want to show it to others at all? If they do not want to show, then the case ends there. They could do their work and keep it in their studios. But that is a very remote thing to happen. Everybody wants appreciation. For a stand up comedian, a singer, a dancer or anybody who is performing something for people, their applause matters a lot more than the pay cheque given to him/her by the end of the performance. Similarly, a visual artist’s life is fulfilled and a sense of completeness occurs only when his/her work is seen by others. The very visual of someone standing in front of his work and look at it gives him the ultimate satisfaction. To be seen or to be visible is the most important thing for a human being; and for an artist is of perennial importance. So we have a conclusion here; artists want to show their works to people. But here comes the next problem.

(for representational purpose only- Source Net)

Who is going to show your works? Are there enough galleries around? Even if there are, are they interested to show your works? If they are not interested are you going to keep the works with you and fester and get frustrated? What would you do? Would you approach the government agencies and ask them to provide spaces for showing your works? If they say what would you do? There was a time when artists used to present their works on the roadside and pavements. Now are the pedestrians really interested in your works? Do they have any idea what you are showing them from the fences or walls? If they need to stand and stare just a few colours and forms wouldn’t do. They should feel that they need to take a second look at it. They should know that ‘of course that these are paintings and the artists want to say something to us through them.’ How is it possible? How could you attract people to your works? I have the answer.

To attract people to your works, people should know that your works are aesthetically valuable and meaningful for them. This is possible only when you start showing your works at home. Home? Yes to your people at home. I have seen several artists in Kerala and elsewhere where artists keep their family members out of their studios. They do not even allow their little children to come and take a look at the works (there are many artists who interact with their wives, husbands, mothers, daughters, sons, grandparents and so on. I do not deny that). If you are like a person very secretive about your art, then change today. Make the change in your attitude; you need to show your works to children and wives or husbands. Here I need to say one more thing: Many artists do not paint nude because they think that children are there at home. Married women artists hardly do any male or female nude thinking that it would show upon their ‘character’. Husbands do not allow women artists to paint nudes (of course there are husbands who don’t mind but they are rare gems). Make the thorough change in the mindset. Whatever you paint, that is your freedom and that’s the image that you conceive not practice. So bring your dear and near ones to your studio and show the work/s. Each time a work is finished, sit with your family members and discuss it. Do not teach them art history or make critics out of them. Just talk to them about what you feel about your work. And listen what they think about it.

(for representational purpose only. Source Net)

Once that is done, let me assure you that your family is going to respect you. They will give you the space and peace to do your works. Now here is the next step; show the works to your neighbours. Do not mind what they think about you. But bring them to your studio, give them a cup of tea and tell them why and what you have painted. Create sympathetic viewers in and around your home. And next step, do a show in the local community hall. Do not think about lighting and other paraphernalia. Once you have your family, your neighbours and friends with you, full of awe, respect and love for you, then they would do the rest. May it be a Saturday or Sunday affair. The whole village would turn up to see what you have done. Talk to the people. Let your wife/husband/children/friends who have already acquainted with your works and your ways of looking at the world to talk to more people. Then next morning you go to the junction just like you used to do before, you will see the difference; you would be treated as an artist. Next step, get a few of your village people to a friend’s show in a gallery in the nearby town. They would enjoy it. Give them some brochures free. If possible gift them with some post cards or small drawings. Then next step, have your show in a gallery. I am sure your village, the next village and your friends’ village would turn up for your show.

Imagine, all the villages in Kerala (if not in India) are doing this. Then everyone in the country would be aware of what art is. I am not talking just about paintings. I am talking about any kind of works, sculptures, installations, photography art, assemblages, floral decorations (devoid of the religions bend) and what not. Then in that situation, when you exhibit on the road side in a city, people would stand and look at your works because they know their village painter/artist.  They know that ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ of their village do something like this. They would strike up a conversation with you. They would be happy to meet yet another artist. Do you think this is impossible an act to perform? No, I think it is possible. Late Rajan Krishna when he did his work ‘Ore’, he had asked a lot of people to collaborate with him. He had the large heart to get all of them for his opening of the show in the Bodhi Gallery, Mumbai. This is not just a community work. It is the work of love without hierarchy. We often think that our old mothers or wives do not understand art. They do but they do not have the time or you just don’t invite them to your studio or you don’t take them to an exhibition. Do try, there would be a sea change. It is not a community work but a thing of pride. When you call your neighbour, you think that he is well off financially than you; he thinks that you are one of those ‘useless arty types’ so he keeps off. This helps growing the mutual suspicion and hatred. He may have a car but you have your painting. You think he looks down upon you. But he thinks you are too arrogant to call him a friend. Go to his home, invite him to your studio and see the difference. Who knows he turns out to be your biggest collector and well wisher and a closest friend? Yes, you can do; only you can do it.

Cry Freedom: An Online Show

(Freedom is Away when the Greedy One Tempting Us- by PK Sadanandan)

First of all let me thank all those artists who acknowledged my call for an online show on the Independence Day of India. It was too short a notice for any exhibition. Had it been informed to the Guinness Book of World Records, this online exhibition would have been registered as the quickest online shows ever. But this absolutely does not matter when it comes to my practice. Out of the people who acknowledged the call in the facebook only six artists responded with their works and I am extremely thankful to them. Out of the six four are from Kerala (my home state), one is from Vijayawada (Andhra- therefore technically South India) and one is from West Bengal. The call was given out on the eve of the Independence Day and definitely it was not a good evening to sit and do some work, especially to respond a curatorial idea of ‘Freedom’. I understand that the thin response not as a discarding of my idea but as the constraints of the artists themselves. Artists are not people who could be prodded to do art. But there are artists who are spontaneous to respond. Now let me present the works of those artists who have sent their works to me.

‘Freedom is Away When the Greedy One is Tempting Us’ is the title of the small painting by P.K.Sadanandan who has been creating mural style paintings for over three decades. The painting done out of natural pigments on canvas, contains a symbolic yet poignant moment. In an open yet confined space we see an oppressor and the oppressed facing the viewers as if they were from a museum display. The oppressed, a farmer seems to be strangely happy in his ‘bonded’ state. What I would like to see here is the relationship between the State and the Subject/ the Market and the Consumer/the Dominant Ideology and the Blind Follower. The word ‘temping’ in the title functions here as a key to the work, which despite all the possibilities of shaking off the chains, often the human beings are ‘tempted’ by the chains. Stating of the obvious in an exaggerated fashion could be a call of provocation to wake up and ‘turn your light’ not for the raining is falling but revolution is calling. P.K.Sadanandan had done a very large mural in the last Kochi Muziris Biennale depicting the life and times of Kerala.

(Work by Palash Paul)

Palash Paul is an artist from 24 Parganas District, West Bengal. Though I have not been able to see many of the works by this artist, the present work that I have with me (as an image) is done on a sheet of paper which has the word ‘FREEDOM’ printed out in reverse. The word is interpolated by a single black ink stroke that goes up towards the right top corner and ends in a small flower like formation which I would like to call as the signature dots than a flower. What makes the work intriguing is the artist double denial of the idea of freedom. First of all he ‘reverses’ the word; the reversal itself connotes the reversal of everything that is connected to freedom in India. The inking over it, a sort of vandalizing seems to be a response of a helpless citizen in this country (of any country) who stands before this lofty idea of freedom but with no devices to exercise it. The work is at once graffiti-esque and calligraphic. The ink stroke somehow turns out to be a signature, showing the artist’s optimism to go forward and high. And with a sigh he signs off with the dots at the end of the line.

(Work by Shaji Appukkuttan)

Shaji Appukkuttan is an artist who has been searching for the spiritual manifestation of the world where the saintly beings lead the way for the existential ones. Shaji, despite all his spiritual trips appears to me more as an existential artist and in the present untitled drawing he presents an esoteric world view that combines all his ideas about existence and human transcendence. Freedom, for Shaji is something to be attained personally, not as a collective activity even if he is ready to be a part of the crowd that cries freedom. Here in the drawing we see a mythical tortoise carrying a triangular world on which the ‘yogi’ (definitely not the UP kind) rests, doing a strenuous posture without any strain. Perhaps, in this context, I would read it as a work that tells us the strain of the world which drains the idea of human freedom for money and power and how the saintly figures doing the balancing act for all. This is also a cryptic symbolic representation of the idea of freedom that does not have anything to do with the apparent material world.

(Freedom of Co-existence by Shivkumar Kappala)

Shivkumar Kappala from Vijayawada titles his work, ‘Freedom of Co-existence’; it is a simple feeling and an aspiration too. The work is romantic, innocent and a bit naive too. What we see is a man looking at a parrot that has just come down near his face without fear. Both the man and the bird are not in shackles. They communicate silently through eyes. However, this is a moment of reconciliation with the human and the animal world/nature, which could be collapsed at any time. The idea of co-existence could be collapsed when the avarice of human beings gets stronger than his compassion. This mutual gaze is romantic at that the same time evoking the flimsiness of the moment. The bird/parrot, which is often portrayed as a bird in captivity is free now, but for how long we do not know. The artist seems to mean only good to the world hence I restrain myself from reading too many meanings into it.

(Work by Balucharan)

Balucharan from Trivandrum has presented an untitled work that in a way presents the origin myth. In the garden of God, Eden, the paradise everyone was happy. The primal man and woman were happy in their freedom. Everyone co-existence; the lion and deer drank from the same pool. None knew what cruelty was. This looks like a wonderful photo opportunity for all of them before a God who has just come there with camera. Everyone faces the artist/god/photographer. This is the romantic idea of the artist about a world of freedom. Everyone is happy in his/her place. But as we know the ‘after story’ which has been told in many different ways, there would be a ‘sin’ that would bring in all the human follies including the subjection of man by man, woman by man and nature by both man and woman. Hence, this is a group portrait before war.

(Freed(O)2m b y Narayanan Mohanan)

Narayanan Mohanan is a Kochi based graphic artist and has an experience in the advertising field. And his work shows it. As a graphic artist and visual communicator he picks one of the most poignant episodes from the recent political realities of the country and gives it a visual representation. The title of the work is ‘Freed(o)2m’. It is freedom with the ‘O’ representing oxygen. The reference is to the recent ‘gas tragedy’ in Gorakhpur where around 71 children died due to the oxygen supply failure. The national colour and its strength dissolve the way the bodies of the suffering people in India, the colours forming an ‘O’ and the Ashoka Chakra taking the shape of 2. The cry for Oxygen and the possible asphyxiation due to the lack of it is connected to Freedom and the lack of it by the artist. Also, using this minimal expression, the artist says that the country has been reduced to a ‘0’ by taking away the oxygen/freedom of people.

There could be a question of the quality of the works presented here. Their quality could be adjudged only on comparison and I have not made any attempt to compare these works with any other work of art or aesthetic model currently existing. They are treated as they are given to me. And I find that is the most truthful way of doing it because these artists have shown their sincerity and faith in their works. Perhaps, in another context, in comparison with many other works dealing with the same theme, these works may not be discussed in detail by the viewers. But I leave that to the viewers. In the meanwhile, I wish all the best to these artists and to all those artists who celebrate India’s freedom today.   

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Ego—Jealously—Revenge: How Human Beings Screw Themselves Up

I read a news today; in a Malayalam newspaper. It caught my attention because it told me how human beings are, fundamentally. In Trivandrum, a few policemen took a new bike ridden by a young man into custody citing that the two-wheeler did not display a number plate. The boy told them that he was on the way to the RTO to collect the number for this bike. They did not heed to his pleas. The news item says that the cost of the bike is Rs.2.5 lakhs. The boy complained to the station house officer and in turn he called up and asked the policemen to release the bike. Before releasing, one of the policemen, opened a packet of salt and poured into the petrol tank of the bike. Any foreign particle, especially salt would jam, rust and kill a vehicle which is made of steel. Upon this becoming an issue the policeman was summarily suspended from the force and the enquiry is on.

This news reminded me something that had happened to me around fifteen years back. I too was using a motor bike then. I had a small studio in South Delhi and one day I left the bike within the premises of the rented studio as I had to go elsewhere with someone and that person dropped me back home in his car. The next day I went to the studio, saw the bike where I had left it. I spent my time in the studio and by evening I went to take my bike. I brought it out and started kicking; the bike simply did not start. I tried my best but in vain. I pushed the bike to the nearest workshop and the mechanic quite adept in engine work brought all his experience out to kick the bike to life. No way, it just wouldn’t oblige or obey. The mechanic spent almost a few hours but he could not do anything to it so he asked me to go there next day. Next morning, after much prodding and tinkering he reached that Eureka point. Lo..there was a small nail inside one of the engine part just adjacent to the kicker. An experienced hand at bike engines, he categorically declared that it was a ‘revenge act.’ Nobody would do it unless that person has a lot of hatred in him.

Who would do that to me? In South Delhi, even in those days (one and half decade back), a biker was an underdog. Everyone in the locality boasted a couple of high end cars (out of the limited range available in the market compared to today’s daily introduction new models from the major brands) but I found no reason for anyone to push a nail into a bike’s engine only because it dared to came into their locality. I made some silent enquiries to find out the possible culprit. Nothing came of it. May be a couple of months after that incident, I was about to kick start my bike and the landlord of my studio happened to come out of his house. He saw me on the pavement, sitting on the bike, kicking it to start. He took a good look at me and asked me whether it was my bike. I just smiled. It took no imagination to know who had pushed that nail into it. Did I see a glimpse of regret on that mousy little man who without fail came to the first floor studio on the fourth of every month to claim the rent? In fact, I did not want to look at that man’s face for I did not want to embarrass him.

Perhaps, these two stories have one thing in common; incapacitate someone by any means necessary so that he/she would suffer a sense of loss and inconvenience. It is an act of revenge, a very covert but planned attack. But there is a question; why should the policeman in Trivandrum or the landlord in Delhi have some animosity for someone who just doesn’t cause any harm to them? Thinking of it, I find the answer: They want to wreck revenge upon somebody just because they don’t ‘like’ him/her. What is the root cause of this dislike? That is quite abstract a thing to answer, however I would try to elucidate it. The root cause of this dislike is ego and the jealousy coming out of it. The term ‘ego’ has varied explanations right from spiritual discourses to psychological and  socio-cultural discourses to which I do not want to get in now. The Ego that I am talking about here is the sense of self importance that comes out of territorial ownership. Most of the fights between human beings are caused by this territorial possession. Why did you park your car here? A person could lose his life on this question. A whole community may get into arson, murder and loot upon that question. Human beings have learned to make boundary walls than collapsing it. So, Ego is a sort of right to certain portion of earth, property or wealth. Anybody who does not belong to is an intruder who deserves to be punished.

Now let’s just think about the behaviour of the policeman and the landlord. The former did not like the boy coming by a new bike to his territory (of jurisdiction). The very presence of the boy in his youthful cheerfulness, clothes, apparent freedom and above all a very costly bike seems to have hurt the ego of the policeman immensely. The question that comes to his mind is how dare you do this? This question must be coming out of two other reasons: one, the policeman must be so possessed by his own importance or helplessness. Two, he must be bogged down by utter jealously upon seeing the boy on the costly bike which he considers as an assault to his own imaginary dignity. Then what he thinks next is to wreck revenge upon the boy. The territorial aggression has been made into a legal issue by citing the absence of a valid number plate. The hurt ego which has taken the form of utter jealously gets its pragmatic manifestation in pouring the salt into the new bike.

In the case of the latter, the landlord, this is simply a case of ego which also has different manifestation. First of all, he thinks that the bike parked inside his property is a sort of trespassing, which has affected his ego. The second thing is that if someone has done it, then he should be taught a lesson. The territorial aggressors should be punished! The ego of the man then transforms into a sort of revenge. The punishment could be simply deflating the tyre, which is what generally people do when they feel especially irritated on people. Deflating the tyres and scratching the paint are two things that generally vandalisers resort to do. But when you go beyond that, like taking the pain to open the engine and push a nail into it or opening the tank and put a full packet of salt into it, then it is a well thought out act of revenge, therefore a crime. I feel that both the landlord and the policeman have done a crime.

People like to do such ‘innocent’ crimes. For them these are innocent crimes because they think they are justified in doing so. What they have been doing is simply protecting their territory, ego and self esteem. They just do not think of the inconvenience that they cause to others. The jealously angle is palpable in most of such vandalising type of crime. Some people scratch the paint off the bodies of new cars because they get a perverted pleasure out of it. It is a sort of jealously sublimated into the form of a minor crime. You celebrate the buying of your first car and your friends celebrate (mentally) the first parking lot accident or scratch to your car. This happens mainly because people are so blinded by ego, possessiveness and intolerance. All these three things could turn into crimes therefore tragedies. Macbeth was egoistic and he thought at every stage he was being snubbed by his friend Macduff and also by King Duncan. Othello was over possessive of Desdemona. The Houses of Romeo and Juliet could not tolerate each other. All ended up in tragedies. Life is not just Shakespearean; every ordinary human story is full of self inflicted tragedies. Ego turning into jealousy and revenge is what we see in our lives. There is only one way to redemption; decrease the intensity of ego; live in the truth that we are nobodies. And we become somebody only when we transcend all our baser qualities to higher qualities. Man could become God. But never by putting nails and salt into bikes’ engines.

(Images taken from the internet for representational purposes only)