Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hard Times of Thanklessness, Corruption and Nepotism in Art

(Biren De- 1926-2011)

We are a thankless community. Yes, I am talking about the art community in general which includes not only artists but also critics, writers, curators, gallerists, dealers, consultants and other art activists. We have this tendency to celebrate the visible, the successful and the confirmed affairs. When the real issues come we just shrink back. Just like any other irresponsible citizen who throws his junk right in front of his gate and feels that anyway now it is out of his ‘home’ though the heap is now on someone else’s doorstep, we too show irresponsible behavior when it comes to the real issues pertaining to the society in general and the art community in particular.

You may ask who has given me the right to spread a blanket accusation on the art community. I have gained it for myself because I too am one amongst this thankless community. Let’s face it. There are exceptions but to improve the quality of a society/community the exceptions should become a rule, a norm; not a forced one but as natural as a reflex action. For example, when Manohar Devlalikar, contemporary of M.F.Husain, lived a tramp’s life and died a tramp’s death in Delhi (right near Mandi House where Lalit Kala Akademy is situated), to organize his last passage to the abode of peace, artist like Inder Salim Tikku, Sushil Kumar, Al Saidi Hasan and many theatre personalities came around and did all what they could do. There was no procession with the dead body around the city, there were no ululations, there were no breast beating, there were no public statements and there were no photo ops.

A few years back, a young sculptor, Ashok Prajapati passed away in Delhi. He used to work in the Garhi Studios. He had a lot of friends. His friends organized a condolence meeting at the Garhi Gallery. We all went there. It was a silent affair with artist friends sitting around his photograph, in their white sober clothes and remembering the good times they spent with the late artist. The moment was very intense. Ashok Prajapati was not a celebrity artist. But he had earned his friends. Friends come around when something happens. And we need a community made out of friends. Today, we deliver our social responsibility through facebook postings. I don’t say that facebook is a bad option. It is one of the most powerful tools to develop a friendly community but my point is not that here.

On 12th March 2011, Biren De passed away in Delhi. If I use a typical journalistic phrase, ‘Biren De was found dead in his Chittaranjan Park residence on 12th March 2011.’ Now for the beginners, Biren De was one of the most celebrated abstract artists of the 1970s and 1980s. There was time when Neo-Tantricism became an internationally acclaimed aesthetic approach, mainly thanks to Ajit Mukherjee’s publication on ‘Tantra’ in the US, Biren De used to be hailed as the undisputed master of the Neo-Tantirc style. His name was pronounced in one breath along with the names of G.R.Santhosh, J.Swaminathan and K.C.S.Panicker. Throughout his life Biren De actively painted, living almost a secluded life in Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi. However, during 1990s and the new millennium Neo-Tantricism had become an obsolete artistic style.

How does an artist become defunct when the style in which he is/used to be famous for becomes obsolete? A kind of art going out of circulation does not devalue the spiritual and material existence of a person who has created that art. He may become less visible, his art may become less visible, but how can he or she be done away with only because that style is no longer in vogue? If it is like that today’s contemporary works could be treated as obsolete art in the coming years. Does that force today’s artists to live an undignified life in future? Or could anyone disparage an artist and his life for nothing? Above all, could anyone just outcaste him like a pest and forget him by pushing him into the dark shafts in our minds?

That’s what exactly we did with Biren De. His death did not make into the front page headlines. The news of his death did not become tickers that roll at the bottom of the news channels. Some good Samaritans sent across text messages. And quite a few wondered, ‘Was he still alive?’ Biren De was living alone. Another artist friend living in the vicinity was helping him out in organizing things. A maid servant came everyday and cooked and cleaned for him. Last year he had a fall and had his shoulders broken. But he kicked back to health, traveled to Germany to see his wife and again came back to his studio cum residence in C.R.Park. As usual, on that day too the maid came, cleaned the house, and made tea for the master. When she touched him to wake him up, she found the body unusually cold on a hot March morning. Neighbors were alerted. The artist friend was summoned along with the doctor. And the doctor declared him dead in sleep out of a heart failure. There was an intervention by the people near around to avert a post-mortem and they succeeded in it. The body was taken to Nigam Bodh Ghat and after two days, the artist friend collected the ashes. And he keeps it in a locker and waits for De’s wife to come and receive it.

I just remember Manohar Devlalikar. He lived a Tramp’s life and died a tramp’s death. Biren De had a roof over his head, a very solid and comfortable one. But qualitatively, Devlalikar and De were brothers in their post celebrity life and death. They breathed their last in their loneliness. There was no procession, no condolence meeting, no public statements or photo ops. When a senior artist contacted the Lalit Kala Akademy authorities in Delhi to send in a wreath, the answer came immediately, “Today is Second Saturday.” (For anyone who does not know the Indian systems, Second Saturday is a government holiday in India and on a holiday Indian workforce refuse to work if they are in the public sector). We could call it official apathy but there is something beyond that; our general thanklessness. We are busy organizing triennales, biennales, community workshops, building new audience communities, art fairs and so on. We just don’t have time.

There is a saying, accident always happens to others until it happens to us. And we all believe that accidents never happen to us until it knocks at our door at the oddest of hours without any warning. When someone’s studio gets sealed we are internally happy for the trouble that he got himself into. When someone’s work is broken in transit we are happy that it would make the guy to pay for mending it. We are seriously happy when we come to know that our friend’s Prague or Berlin show came back without having the pleasure of any collector’s touch. We feel like thumping on our chests like gorillas when we see the sealed crates with ‘fragile’ stickers and a German address.


We have responded collectively only for M.F.Husain and Chandramohan. We are concerned with M.F.Husain genuinely because after Raja Ravi Varma, he is the only artist who has touched the masses. We were concerned with Chandramohan because we were genuinely concerned about the secularism and democracy in India. For no other issue we have ever stood together, with or without our reservations. Of course, you would remind me of Surendran Nair’s work at the NGMA. But then that was only a Delhi-centric response and it was really a strong response.

(Picture for representational purpose only)

Now, let me delve a bit into one of the recent developments in Delhi. Suddenly, on the front and rear entry gates of Rabindra Bhavan in Delhi where three academies (Fine Arts, Music-Drama and Literature), one gallery complex, two libraries, three book stores, conference halls are situated, there appeared two sign boards, ‘Parking Only for Official’s Vehicles’.

(representational purpose only)

Three days back, I was stopped at the gate by a security man and he pointed his fingers at the board. So I asked him, “Where shall I park my car?” He pointed across the road and what he meant was the limited parking lot in front of the Doordarshan Kendra (Headquarters of National Television of India), which was already full with ‘their’ cars. Besides, to reach any other parking in the area you have to drive half a kilometer and walk back. So now what has prompted the authorities to reserve the parking space of Rabindra Bhavan for officials only? What is this Rabindra Bhavan all about? It is a public building where people come for different purposes. If they don’t have the access to this building, who is going to come to this place? Now, what could be done on this, I ask my own community, that is the art community? Is there anybody to raise a finger against this? (My days of struggle are over. So there is no need to go to LKA any more, so why should I make an enemy out of the chairman and the secretary. Who knows, I will be a part of the Triennale or Biennale or National Exhibition or camp? Why should I lose my chance? I have driver and he has his mobile. I can handle it, no problem- is that what you think right now?)

Another vital issue: These days wherever you go, public or private institutions, you see private security people, uniformed and bored people, who itch to show their authority to anyone and everyone. There used to be no security men in the Rabindra Bhavan in our good old days (here I am a bit nostalgic). But those were good old days. Today, anybody could be a potential threat to the state. So the state should employ watchdogs everywhere. And private security agencies are a new way of siphoning out funds. I can understand up till then: we need surveillance, control etc. etc. But who has given these poor guys in uniform an extra authority to question you like the following: You are in front of the gallery entrance, the remote control system will open it once you reach a particular point. Suddenly, a sleepy guy wakes up from his pornographic reveries about the women who go in and come out in the premises, asks you this question: ‘Saab, aap ko kahan jaana hai? (Sir, where do you want to go?) Now, why should this illiterate wretch ask this question to anyone when he knows for sure that people come to the gallery to see art or the artist or to meet friends.

(representational purpose only)

At the main building, once you reach the stairs or the lift, suddenly someone hisses behind you. That’s a security man not a snake. He has seen you walking in and going up to the stairs or lift. At that time he will not move an inch of his sorry self. But he takes immense pleasure in calling people from behind. If making entries of your name and address is mandatory, then it should be informed to the visitor in polite terms. It just does not happen in Rabindra Bhavan. Security people are for surveillance and they are not supposed to ask questions to the visitors because that is not expected from them. No security personal in an airport ask you while he/she frisks you, about your destination and purpose of visit. Is there anybody out there to voice this opinion?

When corruption and nepotism happen right under our nose, we keep quite and when it affects us suddenly we look for a community. People show you thanklessness because you too are often thankless to them. This is the way the community split into innumerable pieces which look almost impossible to paste back to the original shape. Like slaves we take everything with a foolish smile pasted on our faces. We never ask who is giving public funding for art and who is using it? We never question who is taking decisions on behalf of us. Instead we take all the dirt on our face as if it were our fate.

With one small example (which could be a very big example too) I will conclude this note: This information is collected from some pictures in facebook. During the India Art Summit (January 2011), two foreign curators came from Australia. They visited a few artists in Delhi. With all their innocence, they posted their visit to India in facebook. I found them (from the pics) sitting in a ‘seminar/panel’ at the Lalit Kala Akademy where (from the banner) I could make out that as a collateral to India Art Summit, a seminar on ‘Future Aesthetic Visions of India’ was going on. These two ladies were there along with Raqs media group, Diksha Nath and some other people whom I don’t recognize. In some other pictures we see the same ladies at Diksha Nath’s lawn in Sundar Nagar where her in-laws (Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh) serving tea to them.

My simple question: Anybody knew about this Future Aesthetic Vision of India? That too held at the LKA during IAS? And what is Diksha Nath’s authority to represent India ( 1.5 billion people, man) and its future aesthetic vision? Who has invited her there? Why the same people did not invite a number of young vibrant art professionals (girls) writing, traveling and researching on Indian contemporary art (I can name them if you ask me)?

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