Thursday, February 12, 2009
Me No Secular Democrat
To be an art critic or in that case, to be appreciated as a ‘worthy’ art critic, do I need to wear my secular democratic credentials on sleeves?
Human beings have this tendency to form an opinion about their fellow beings even if they don’t know the people about whom they form an opinion. It could be called prejudice. But then it is a strong word. A casual opinion about the other comes from hearsays or from appearance.
During my college days and during my formative years as an art critic, I used to sport a long beard and disheveled hairs. And going by the spirit and philosophy of the time, I too was ‘radical’ when it came to the issues of market economy and religious fundamentalism.
I was never a left party member. I had never worked for any political party. But in colleges where I studied, my fellow students took me for a leftist. I never thought of correcting their opinion as I had many other things to do.
I grew up imbibing the left over spirit of radical leftism. Like many teenagers of my time, I too was fascinated by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. I was fascinated by Genet and Sartre. Also was fascinated by Van Gogh and Lautrec. Those were growing up days. And like for any other youngster ‘rebelling’ was a vitamin for proper physical and intellectual growth.
So I rebelled against parents, relatives, friends, politics and in general I rebelled against the society. I did not know anything about economics though I read a lot of Marx, Engels and Lenin, ironically.
I did not ask from where the money for rebellion came. But it was good to stand for the struggling human beings and believe that you too were a struggler. Beard was a necessity, later it became a necessity out of no choice.
One day, a gallerist asked me, “Johny, when did you shed off your radical thoughts?”
I wanted to tell her that I never shed off my radical thoughts. I still am a radical. But I don’t know how to define my radicalism. I believe, my life and works are radical enough to satisfy my soul. I never took dowry for my marriage. I never borrowed money from anybody. I never asked my wife to be in kitchen all the time. I never asked anybody their caste or religion. I never conspired to get an academic position. I never pulled threads to get an award. I never asked for anybody’s recommendation to get a scholarship. I never applied for a job in public sector. But I love a lot.
I think that is radical enough.
When I was in Paris, one senior artist patted on my shoulders and asked me, “So when did you finally decide to take a pro-imperialist stance?”
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders because I never said anywhere that I was an anti-imperialist and I would never go to a western country. Yes, I have expressed my anti-imperialist sentiments in my writings. In that case, I stand along with Arundhati Roy, Naomi Klein and Michel Moore. At the same time, my inspiration comes from people like Malcolm X, Bob Marely, Marcus Garvey, Dubois, Franz Fanon, Che Guevara, Steve Biko and so on.
When I did a small curatorial project with one of the commercial galleries in Delhi, many years before the market boom happened, some of my friends asked me, “Johny, finally you also sold off yourself to the market?”
They all were working in schools or banks or colleges. I was jobless by choice.
First time I heard that I was a religious fundamentalist when I shared a platform with O.Rajagopal, then Minister of State for Railways with the BJP Government in center. It was in 2000.
People said, “JohnyML became a right wing person.” You may wonder whether I am so important a personality or not. May be or may not be. Anyway, at that point of time, I was one of the widely read journalists in Malayalam language, reporting from New Delhi.
These days, again I am listening it from people. “JohnyML has vested interests and he has become a right wing man.”
Reason- I am curating a project titled ‘Vibrant Gujarat Mural Project’ in Baroda, Gujarat, where the notorious Narendra Modi is the Chief Minister. And ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ is a phrase taken up by Narendra Modi by the end of last year and implemented it as a program in January 2009.
Modi’s ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ program is to invite multinational corporations to make investments in Gujarat. He is successful in this program.
However, Narendra Modi’s name cannot be separated from the religious carnage that took place in 2002 in Gujarat. Many people from a religious minority were brutally killed by the right wing fundamentalists. And Narendra Modi was nodding his head in approval.
Yes, seen against this backdrop, one can say I am endorsing a person who has caused a holocaust in 21st century. Also one can say that I am going by the corporate heads who want Narendra Modi as the next prime minister of India.
So the title ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ is the problem for the secular democrat intellectuals who would like to question my credentials and accuse me of being a right wing person. If the title was ‘Black Gujarat’, I would have been dubbed as a ‘radical secular democrat’ curator.
I don’t want to be one in that way.
This idea for the mural project came in when I visited Baroda during the first week of January. All the newspapers were reporting on the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ program by Narendra Modi. I read a lot of reports about the success of it.
Then I met Asit Shah of Art Home Gallery. His factory space was lying vacant and I found the place feasible for any art experiment. The first thing came to my mind was to convert the whole space into a gigantic mural. The theme of the mural came to me immediately: Vibrant Gujarat.
I explained it to Asit and my artist friend Somu Desai who had agreed to lead a team of artists to do the mural. I told them that ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ is the mood of the time. There could be a mural in the line of Mexican Murals, which could speak of the cultural, social and economic vibrancy of this state, Gujarat. Artists are free to choose the images. They can be critical of the political leadership, if they choose to be critical. It was an open curatorial position.
I would have been a dictatorial curator had I asked my artists to come out with such images that would criticize the policy of Narendra Modi and make the project title into an ironic play.
All those critics and artists, even couple of journalists who interviewed me on this project, have problem with the title and the curatorial position, which obviously they do not know. They reached a quick conclusion that JohnyML was endorsing Narendra Modi’s project.
One journalist asked me whether I was funded by the Modi government. Another critic in Mumbai blogged that he was surprised to see ‘JohnyML endorsing Modi’. He wrote how an editor like JohnyML who constantly criticized the right wing fundamentalists when they attacked Chandramohan in Faculty of Fine Arts, do such a project for Modi.
Good. I am doing something during economic recession. It is an art project. It is not a political project. One should be happy that something is happening.
I am not here to make right wing fundamentalists happy. Nor I am here to make the secular democrats happy. I don’t want to wear my conscience on my sleeve. My work speaks for itself.
And I don’t believe that one should go against market economy. And I believe that if Modi comes up with a wonderful art project and ask me to curate it, I would do without any problem. But I will not pawn my conscience to any ideology.
I am a free individual in this country. I carry a passport and I pay tax. I will not waste my energy to earn the status of a secular democrat.