Thursday, October 9, 2008
When the Saints Go Marching Out
In my short trip to meet Shibu Natesan, one of the all time intelligent painters in Indian contemporary art scene, from my village, Vakkom in Trivandrum District, Kerala, I look at those people who are sitting idly at the road side. In my childhood there used to be a lot of wayside tea-shops where the workers gathered to have their morning tea and discuss the daily news. Irrespective of their caste, creed and economic status, these tea-shops unified them into one thread of social consciousness. They discussed politics, right from the state politics to the international politics including the imperialist incursions in Vietnam, success of Soviet Russia in resisting American Imperialism, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao, Kanu Sanyal, Charu Majumdar and so on. Now those days look so remote and could be seen only through the sepia tinted filters of nostalgia.
I cannot go on like that; get into the memory lane and talk longingly of those good old days. But my context is different. Perhaps, it is my deliberate training that I should be seeing the people of my village and its surroundings in the context of Indian contemporary art. I hurry through my memory; have I ever seen these people represented in Indian contemporary art? No. People are the last things to be featured in the Indian contemporary art. Objects have taken their places- the orgy of objects. Then I prod myself, is it necessary to portray people in contemporary art? Do people belong to contemporary art, or does contemporary art belong to people? Interesting, hmm.. I am getting into a very dangerous area.
Looking at the faces of the people who look at the bus in which I am traveling with their boredom filled eyes, I realize one thing.- they are all bored and they all have lost hope. They do not seem to know what really want in their lives. My mother tells me that all those people do not work but they want money. They all have turned greedy. But I am not able to discern their greed from their helplessness. On either side of the road, there are huge concrete buildings, concrete monstrosities coated with fluorescent plastic emulsion colors. The socio-economic disparity is clearly visible even in this remote village. People are divided vertically; on the one side there are people who grow richer and on the other side, the people grow poorer.
If this is the case of a comparatively well off and educated village, what could be the general case of the remote Indian villages? What would be the people doing? Are they affected or influenced or revolutionized by the art forms that claim to be dealing with the issues of people affected by the imported and home grown neo-imperialist forces? I ask a few people whether they know about Subodh Gupta and Aneesh Kapoor. None know. I ask them whether they know about Enron, Iraq war, American invasion of the poor countries etc- They know it, if not directly, they know it indirectly and they are angry.
What is our contemporary art doing? Or to be precise what is our contemporary artists doing? While expressing their angst against the American imperialism, the all pervading corporatism, ironing out of tastes through brutal indoctrination, making people into cannon fodders for imperialist wars etc, do they touch the nerve centers of the people in our country? Does the Indian populace in any manner energized by the Indian contemporary art? We talk about a growing market, an expanding market, a boom here or a boom there, a market collapse, a stock exchange recovery, hope for the years to come etc, vis-à-vis Indian contemporary art? What are we talking about? Are we forgetting people? Or Indian contemporary art is all about aesthetics minus people? When people are erased from the subjective consciousness of the artist, it cease to be art. I don’t know what else it would become. What I know is that it definitely cease to be art.
Let us see the kind of subjects that Indian contemporary artists deal in their works. They all deal with the issues ‘affecting’ people. Ironically people are their mainstay. Dislocation is one of the major themes our artists talk about. Dislocation and migration happen thanks to the grabbing of land from the people by multinational corporates and their Indian counterparts. People are given inadequate cash compensation or land compensation, which render people virtually helpless and hopeless. When they are not given any compensation, they are drawn into never ending legal disputes. Once thrown out of their own lands what people could do is to migrate to cities. In cities they become the garbage, constantly flushed out to the fringes.
Indian contemporary art deals with the issue of migration and dislocation so vehemently that, if it was every powerful in articulating, this issue should have been solved with immediate effect, as Indian contemporary art is one of the major economic forces of the country at this time. But why is it not happening? Are the artists not serious about what they are doing or are the people who are dealing with the art not serious about it? Arundhati Roy, the author who speaks her mind, says that in India now there are 56 million people dislocated from their homes. Out of this 56 million, several million kids of under five years die during the process of migration. Roy calls it a genocide facilitated by the state and the imperialist forces that work towards ‘economic well being’ of the country.
What has gone wrong with Indian contemporary art? Does it have a social responsibility? I talk to a lot of artists and they all look concerned about the issues, but with no results. If I ask, they say, how as individuals they can bring in positive social changes? Some artists have grown so fatalistic that they say that art cannot do anything towards social causes. Art has become a powerless tool, and it can now only generate money and more money. Let me remind you, it is not my observation, it is the observation of some artists. Arundhati Roy supports militant uprising of people (the Maoists) in the villages. The state calls it ‘Terrorism’ and she calls it the last resort of the people who wants justice. She says that the state has conflated poverty with terror, and also hunger with militancy. People are just asking for food and you are suppressing them with brutal state power. What are our artists doing? By painting or sculpting these issues and presenting them in galleries, do they think that their responsibility is over? Or can an individual artist take any kind of social responsibility at this stage? If not, then what is he doing in his canvases? A kind of masochism? I don’t know.
In Orissa, Christian missionaries and those poor people who just for food and education converted to Christianity are burnt down and brutally assaulted? There are so many successful Orissan artists in India. What did they do at that time? When Bihar was afflicted by the floods, what did our successful Bihari artists do? We all talk about secularism, but when it comes to defined terrorism, we all become Hindus, Muslims, Christians and so on. Money has blinded us and it has rendered us insensitive. I don’t say that all the artists should go out in the streets and work for social causes. But there are some risky areas where one should be able to talk boldly- but none talks. You can talk about terrorism and anti terrorism within the confines of the national discourse. But the moment you criticize your own national clichés, you are entering in a dangerous zone. So you make your arguments as abstract as possible. We, artists talk against terrorism, but we never concretely say that there is a state sponsored terrorism. A lot of risk involved in saying that. One artist recently told me, ‘We are going through a period where we are not able to speak what we want.” I don’t know he was making a critique on his own ineffectual life or he was just saving his face by generalizing it as the condition of our lives.
“People are fully aware that to take to arms is to call down upon yourself the myriad forms of the violence of the Indian state. The minute armed struggle becomes a strategy, your whole world shrinks and the colours fade to black and while. But when people decide to take that step because every other option has ended in despair, should we condemn them? We are living in times when to be ineffective is to support the status quo (which no doubt suits some of us). And being effective comes at a terrible price. I find it hard to condemn people who are prepared to pay that price”- Arundhati Roy.
Roy takes the stance with the ‘so called’ terrorists. She knows the risks. She is a celebrity author so the state cannot do ‘things’ against her that effectively. But our contemporary artists are far richer and popular (perhaps not) than Arundhati Roy, still why don’t they take bold stance on particular issues? I have an answer for that. Taking an analogy from Arundhati Roy, I would say, we have learned the technique of survival. How can we live in a society where there is abundance of poverty and struggle, and feel that our richness protects us from these? Roy says that we neglect and pretend that poverty and struggle just don’t exist. It is a survival technique because our hands are too muddy in the making of poverty and struggle for others. To continue with the analogy, Indian contemporary art is an area where high intensity flash lights are focused. It renders its edges blurred and dark with some kind of depth. We refuse to see the darkness as the light is so strong and the light, for the time being looks like eternal.