On Thursday (17-9-2015), Chinese dissident artist, Ai Wei Wei and British-Indian artist, Anish Kapoor walked the London streets to find a ‘human solution’ to the Refugee issue in the Europe than a ‘political solution’. They threw grey blankets over their shoulders and walked for around eleven kilometers from the Royal Academy, where Wei’s solo exhibition is opening today. I saw the pictures of these two world renowned artists walking blankets on their shoulders. I remembered the scenes from our primitive lives. People who were not even thinking about such a protest march in future moved around with beaten bark and animal hide over their shoulders. Races of human beings moved from one end of the world to the other with them along with their leaders wearing coarse blankets around their shoulders. The symbolism of Wei and Kapoor looked quite powerful. The call for a protest walk went out from these artists and the organizers had asked people to carry a grey blanket over their shoulders and some placards. A great march, a great movement though symbolic, that reminded one of Moses leading his clan to the Promised Land. Grapes of wrath could be sweetened if more and more such symbolic acts happen elsewhere in the world.
India at present does not face a refugee crisis. Even if it faces a crisis, due to the vastness our country and the deeper callousness of our governments such human plights are never taken care of. The Syrian child Aylan Kurdi’s dead body had shaken up the world conscience. In retrospect, I would say, the image demanded a second look. The picture of the black child about to be devoured by a patient vulture does not demand a second look. The revulsion is so strong that it does not eke out piety. It gets one to the washbasin to throw up. Hence, Kurdi’s body was an aesthetical reminder; it was not bloated or rotten. The child seemed to have carried ashore by angels who had hidden themselves in the waves. They had not even removed his shoes. But after a week or so, another Syrian girl’s dead body was washed ashore. None wanted to see it. It was three days old, bloated and decayed. Pain has its aesthetics; struggle too has it. Death, yes, death even in its violent forms leaves a bit of aesthetics so that people could see it again and again. There is fun in the aesthetical processions as evident in the smiles of Wei and Kapoor. But then we cannot criticize them as they achieve their goal. People have woken up to the cause. So many artists, young and jobless accompanied them though their pictures were not so highlighted as those of Wei and Kapoor. They too wrapped themselves with grey blankets. For the time being people liked the spectacle of the procession with two international stars leading it.
(Police man registering the death of Aylan Kurdi)
Wei and Kapoor are stars. Their shows are blockbusters. Their names eke out curiosity exactly the way the names of Brangelina brigade would raise curiosity. They are stars in the firmament of international art. Had Banksy been not so particular about his anonymity, he also would have walked. Then a Banksy whose face is known is not a Banksy at all. Mr.Damien Hirst was absent. Even if he is a star, he is a native English. He cannot just accept refugees there in his country. He has to go with his country’s politics and decisions. He has too much there at stake. But Kapoor has other places to go. His semi-Jewish origins will save him always. Wei does not belong to Europe and he is a permanent dissident. Hence he can afford to do that. Besides, he is a bigger star than Damien Hirst. It is not about selling. It is more about one’s moral integrity to be a rebel with or without a cause. Hirst has accepted the customs of his country. He has given his rebellion to the market. Wei can still evoke rebellion amongst youngsters. Kapoor is a darling even of the vandalizers of his works. He has decided to continue with the exhibition of his work at Versailles though there have been repeated efforts to deface his sculpture. Kapoor elegantly refused to clean the sculpture up. He decided to let the graffiti be on it by saying that we just cannot wish away what is there.
That’s how star artists maintain their rebellion. I am just forced to think about our own art scene. Our biggest refugee crisis was in 1947 with the partition of India. Then there were crises in 1971 after Bangladesh war and later in 1980s the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The 1947 refugee crisis still remains the mainstream memory. The others got diminished in due course of time. As a country that had aesthetically handled the human crises at various stages, like the Partition narratives, movies etc, the Bengal famine narratives, pictures, art and so on, we should be having some kind of conscience left for the regular human crises in our country. But somehow that is not happening. For example, the European Refugee crisis is not our immediate problem. But that is our world’s problem. What did our artists do towards that? The meat ban is not a large scale crisis of the world. But it is a crisis of our population. What did our artists do? Did it not affect their conscience at all? Now in Mumbai, they say that taxi drivers’ permits will be given only to the Marathi speaking people. What did our artists do for our fellow Biharis and UP-ites who work in Mumbai as drivers and many who reach there to be future drivers, if not film stars?
Our artists just don’t care. They are often safe players. However, let us think about a different scenario. Let us take a few leading artists in our country and them calling for a large scale procession in Mumbai or Delhi. Will it be possible now, especially during the days of growing right wing fundamentalism? I would cite the example of the context of forming the SAHMAT. Safdar Hashmi was killed at Gaziabad in 1989. It woke the artists and intellectuals up. They formed SAHMAT, against communalism. This organization did a lot of works and mobilized a lot of opinion whenever our country went through a crisis. In 2007, when Chandramohan was attacked by the Hindu fundamentalists in Baroda, our artists went to Baroda, from Mumbai and Delhi and showed solidarity with the protesting students and teachers in the fine arts faculty. But all these things have become the events of past. The rapidly eroding secular thinking of our country is not protected by the artists though since the new millennium we could see a lot of artists and art stars. We have seen the meteoric rise and falls of several art stars. But at least some of them remain. But what they are doing? Don’t they have the capacity to lead a protest march in our country? Why they don’t do it? Are they not real stars?
In fact there are no real art stars in our country. In the recent years we had only one rock star in the art scene; that was M.F.Husain. Since then we do not have art stars. Though Subodh Gupta has achieved some amount of stardom, he does not command the power of Wei or Kapoor because he has not taken any public stance on socio-political or cultural issues. If you ask what is the opinion of Subodh Gupta on the meat crisis, I do not know whether he would give a definitive answer criticizing the right wing governments for such decisions. He has to live in Gurgaon. If someone asks Jitish Kallat about the Marathi-ization of drivers’ permit in Mumbai, I do not think he would make a statement against the Phadnavis government in the state. It is very difficult to become a star and also maintain that stardom. Gone are the days that artists could claim star status only by virtue of their selling capacity in the market. Now they have to take a political stance. But Indian artists fail pathetically in this front. The youngsters are still better. The elders have become too afraid of losing their positions and glamour. Recently I conducted a survey in my village; I asked a few people, showing them the pictures of three important artists in Indian art scene, and of course two of them from Kerala, whether they knew them or not. The answer was negative. None of them knew the faces. You may say, art is an urban activity. But let me tell you, if the rural India does not know you, you are nothing and you will remain nothing forever. Wei is known to the rural China. Kapoor is known to the backyard countries of the world. That makes them star. Indian artists are pieces of coals coated with gold leaf. They shine till criticism scratches them.