Friday, January 30, 2015

Vad Fest 2015: Do We Need to Protest or Wait for a Vad Biennale?

(Vad Fest 2015 Poster)

“Baroda looks over-developed,” says an artist who had been a former student of the fine arts faculty, M.S.University, Baroda almost two and half decades back and is currently on a visit to the recently concluded Vad Fest 2015. I cannot help but agreeing with him. Development kills, taking a cue from Francis Bacon’s maxims, I muse and add, absolute development kills absolutely. That is the thought that still lingers on in the mind of someone who still holds on to the ethics pertaining to any kind of development. Planning and urban development manifested in new pavements, parking lots, newly laid out lawns, fences, high walls, barbed wires, spot lights and the general renovation and rejuvenation of the space kill the sense of nostalgia that we all carry in our minds about a place that we had left long back. In Baroda too, those people who have come to visit the Vad Fest 2015, after a long gap, would definitely feel the same; the death of nostalgia. Generally, when we dip the crumbs of nostalgia in the hot tea of reality, agitation sets in. Where have all those old charms gone? Who has taken it away and replaced them with sanitized facilities? None of us asks, had it not been these visible developmental programs, where we would have parked our cars? We had cycles then, today we have cars, that too very big ones. Humility of pedalling has given way to the arrogance of pressing the accelerator. Still we feel the pain of seeing a permanently or temporarily shut way side tea stall beyond the barricades; it was where we all had once stationed ourselves for discussing art and culture into the wee hours of night. Yes, most of us are agitated by the uncanny feeling imparted by the flourish of Baroda’s infrastructural development.

Agitation in our minds, however fades off when we walk into the faculty of fine arts premises, where the Fine Arts section of the Vad Fest 2015 is taking place. For those uninitiated, Vad Fest is ‘Vadodara Festival’ and is initiated by the Tourism Department and the Gujarat Government to promote art and culture in the state. Art and culture are no longer innocent activities of creativity. They obviously constitute a part of government policy and play a pivotal role in national and international diplomacy. Gujarat has been under the BJP rule for the last thirteen years, first under Narendra Modi and now under Smt.Anandiben Patel. Therefore this ‘Art and Culture Festival’ comes under the administrative and diplomatic policies of the state government. The BJP government/s in the state has been implicated for inciting communal divide, pogroms and vandalizing art and culture in the state at various times since 2002. In 2007, the very same fine arts faculty that currently celebrates the Vad Fest 2015 had come under the attack of cultural censors from the right wing fold. Much water has flown down the Vishwamitri Bridge since then. Artist community that had come up against the BJP government at that time was left to mind its own business by the right wing activists. No attack on artists’ community was reported since 2007. No artist had to flee Baroda due to political ostracism. A few of them took off from there to greener pastures for their own reasons, which was though a result of the infamous Chandramohan issue in 2007.

 (Vad Fest poster )

They say Baroda was never again the same Baroda since 2007. Wars, communal divides and pogroms change the complexion of any society. In fact these factors are intricately connected to the political dispensations and economics of the respective times; and they are in fact the causes and effects at the same time. With or without communal divides and pogroms a place keeps changing as the effects of politics and economics appear there in various manifestations. Underdevelopment, development and overdevelopment are deliberate machinations of collective political will and in every situation art and culture also take different forms, changing the cultural discourse of the place. The exodus of a few from Baroda in 2007, however had not changed the course of cultural discourse in Baroda or in the national scene quite drastically. The artists and intellectuals who had decided to stay back or remained unmoved and took the turn of events naturally made readjustments in their discourse as a part of resistance and survival, which in turn created a subterranean discourse of art and culture. Had the exodus been so drastic and earthshaking, today Vad Fest 2015 would not happened. Had that exodus been so effective that it could make the discourse to change its course, then definitely there would not have been such an enthusiastic participation in the Vad Fest 2015.

Vad Fest 2015 is a 360 degree cultural festival, which at once shows brain and brawn. There is an overall sense of euphoria in the streets of Baroda as the faces of famous singers and dancers greet the citizens from huge hoardings. Festivities come with a price tag. People are ready to pay. You may tend to ask where all the poor people have gone from Baroda who cannot afford tickets to these mega events. The fact is that enclave-d culture is for the middle class and upper class who could afford to buy tickets in the front to middle rows respectively. The political and business classes always get those rows either by paying upfront or by getting complimentary passes. Poor are not complaining either. They get fringe benefits as such festivals offer so many small scale business avenues and job opportunities. We live in a ticketed democracy. If you could afford to buy an expensive ticket you get the front seat in the democracy. But from the fringes we have always got the right to question such queue jumps. In culture, luckily there is no lathi-charge and water cannon firings. Therefore we will not be baton beaten if we turn too critical about such mega events. I could not see too many roadblocks for such mega events in Baroda.

 (renovated old building that houses MRID at FFA, Baroda, with Dhruv Mistry sculpture. Pic. Abhimanue Vadakoott Govindan)

There is a road block for the Fine Arts section of the Vad Fest 2015. Keeping 2002 communal unrest and pogroms in general and the 2007 Chandramohan issue in particular, in mind a few artists and intellectuals raised an ethical issue prior to the Vad Fest 2015 and pleas were made to the artists to withdraw their works from the Fest. It put at least a few in dilemma. Some did withdraw their works from the exhibitions and many went ahead to participate. While some artists had problems of categorizing them into different curated compartments, most of them felt happy to be a part of the exhibitions. When I visit the faculty of fine arts where I was a student two decades back, I find the sense of euphoria looming large over there in the atmosphere and in the weekend the city seems to have come in full strength to witness the works of art in display. I do not find any protestors at the gate of the faculty. I have seen them in the facebook actively campaigning against the Vad Fest 2015. The lack of democracy or the apparent choice of buying democracy with money is not seen here. You can walk in to the faculty, visit the shows, meet the artists, curators and even have cup of tea from the famous canteen of the faculty. This is a moment of reunion for many and for several others it is to participate in something that takes place in their city.

I think about the psychology of the facebook protestors and the enthusiastic participants as well as the citizens of Baroda. Facebook protestors are righteous and well meaning people but completely displaced in their argument.  In the meanwhile the participants, curators and the citizens of Baroda are slightly guilt ridden and they want to do away with that guilt. I would like to explain these points further. In Germany, after the fall of the Nazi regime, there was a blanket acceptance of eclectic art and cultural expressions, almost without critical resistance. Nazi Germany had abolished artists and burnt art works and ostracized and fumed the defectors. Post Nazi Germany had the need to wipe out this collective guilt. The acceptance of eclectic cultures and expressions of art was the need of the time. Today, if the Government of Gujarat is supporting and even making a platform for contemporary art and culture, it should be seen as a collective atonement on behalf of the citizens of the city or state. It wants to rub off the stain that was caused by the unfortunate events in 2007. It is in fact a city-centric or state-centric initiative. It cannot be and should not be connected to the pogroms of 2002 or the general demand for an apology from Mr.Narendra Modi. I would like to see this festival especially that happens in the fine arts faculty as a collective atonement of the city and the government, which still hold their pride but say apologies in very elaborate terms. The curators and artists are also equally apologetic, in more than one sense, because they want to say their fellow artists and curators that they are doing it for the city not to hurt the sentiments of those who oppose it for ethical reasons.

 (display at the painting section- pic Abhimanue VG)

Ethics, when it comes to art and culture in today’s world of economic definitions, is a re-adjustable cloak, and it could be worn as per the need of the time without feeling shy of it. Ethics has become a cloak because the parameters to define ethical practices have changed considerably. Ethics is in a permanent mode of transition and it at times oscillates between rights and wrongs, right perspective and wrong perspective, and unsettles the thinking of the viewer who looks for an anchor. If we stick to the hard and fast rules of ethical practices, of defining black and white with no chance of a grey emerging, then functioning within a zone of creativity becomes next to impossible. If we go by an abstract ethical value of art and culture, we become purists and between the purism and fundamentalism the demarcating line is too thin to be seen. And if one asks me to stick to the ethical codes of art, then I would ask how we could do art in Delhi or in any other city centres in India? Each urban space is built on violence over the destitute and the dispossessed. Urban economy stands on a pool of blood and corruption. In that sense, we can’t do a probable relationship with our Pakistani brothers and sisters, we cannot have any cultural or economic or social relationships with the United Kingdom or the United States of America. We cannot have any cultural dealings with countries and communities that have done atrocities against us and people in general. Shall we remain permanently the captives of a nostalgic golden era where everything was well and good?

Those who read my views on Vad Fest 2015 may question my intentions for I have been very critical of certain mega cultural programs in India. Though this is not a platform to go back to the nuances of those issues, I would say that those criticisms were primarily based on the ethics of economics and the resultant aesthetical corruptions. Here, in the case of Vad Fest 2015, either case is not in my purview. There has been no economic allegation against anybody and the aesthetics in display is homemade and open to critical debate. Again those who raise their fingers against me might ask how I could separate the larger politics and the immediate past of the country or state from the Vad Fest 2015 organization. They would like me to accept that Baroda should remain a dark hole despised by anyone and everyone in the cultural field only because the cultural activities are supported by the BJP government. But unfortunately, I am not here to sign on their dotted line. I would like to see Baroda flourish again and stand clean without any stain of a past incident. We could learn lessons from the past occurrences and we could stand guard against darker forces creeping in the cultural discourse. The problem with those people who oppose Vad Fest 2015 is that they mix up ‘funding’ with ‘censorship’.

 (viewers at Vad Fest. Pic Abhimanue VG)

Funding is not censorship. Funding but obviously is control. But control is not censorship either. As there is no free lunch in business, we cannot say that the funder would expect and accept a free play of criticism. If anybody says that culture is not business, as I have already stated, culture is business and it is a part of policy and national and international diplomacy, whether artists would like to hear it in this way or not. Also I request them to remember the quirky statement quoted by Slavoj Zizek in one of his writings, ‘When I hear the word culture, I take out my cheque book.’ In Vad Fest 2015, I did not see any direct or indirect censorship exercised by the funder. I could not even see some sense of control over the aesthetical choices of the curators. Of course, there is a huge amount of self restrain amongst the curators considering the lessons from the past. Compared to the controversial works of Chandramohan in 2007, in Vad Fest 2015 there are so many works that shows frontal nudity and almost there pornography. Interestingly those are the works got the red mark, that means they are sold. Protestors should open their eyes and see these indicators. Also I could see a lot of collective studios and spaces where artists letting their imaginations loose even if they involve sexuality, nudity and certain amount of vulgarity. Baroda does not seem to be doing censorship on any of these works.

Vad Fest 2015 and its fine arts expositions are quite huge and elaborate. I should congratulate all those who curated these shows and the people who directed the whole program successfully. But I would still say that these are not survey shows. These are shows that stick to the conventions of curating works of art that have come out of the erstwhile students and teachers of the faculty and also from those artists who have made their national presence even if they are not from the faculty. The exhibitions, seven in all, look complete in themselves but once you come out of each segment of the show you get a feeling that something is seriously missing. This is not a criticism to kill but to mark out the glaring gaps. One of the major gaps is seen in the contemporary art section. This section has major works of many of the Baroda alumni artists as well as the ones who have national presence. But then the question is, do these artists really represent Indian contemporary art in a holistic sense? Though there is a separate section for video art, installations, site specific art, photography, digital art and performance art are not adequately represented or debated. Graphic Arts section is quite exhaustive and the curator has taken special care to accommodate most of the former students and established artists in this section. I wish these works got more space to do justice to them. Sculpture section somehow disappoints me. Impressing sections are Path Finders and Magnificent Seven. Painting and Baroda Chronicles are ambitious efforts to accommodate most of the Baroda based artists.

 (Vad Fest director Jayaram Poduval (right) with British artist Gavin Turk)

Commendable in scale and sincere in execution, this festival has done more than one good thing to the Baroda art scene. Each section has a separate catalogue and each one of them look sufficiently documented though I find the curatorial notes a bit disappointing. The essays included in the Magnificent Seven catalogue are academically researched and readable in nature. Path Finders catalogue provides the picture of those people actually explored the Baroda scene initially and helped in making it happen. In an effort to accommodate all the teachers in this section, there are a few young teachers included here and they, with all due respect to them, do not qualify to be ‘path finders’ in the true sense. But then everything has its own conceptual and pragmatic limitations.

Before I conclude this article, I would like to say that this festival has all the potential to become a biennial or triennial cultural festival provided the state and the local administrative bodies give it the same support that they have given to it now. In that sense, Vad Fest as a whole has all the ingredients to be the next biennale of India, following the path of Kochi Muziris Biennale and Pune Biennale. The organizers and conceptualizers of Vad Fest have done something similar to these efforts and what it needs to do is to fine tune it further and push towards the other venues in and around the fine arts faculty. I may say that Vad Fest is a precursor of a possible Vad Biennale. It could be called VB or BB (Baroda Biennale). Why not? What do they say, yes, the more the merrier. 

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