In the times of censorship, talking about creative freedom is a risky affair. Our ministers say that writers are paper tigers. A very erudite central minister who is also a legal hawk says that writers should involve in creative things; they just should not get into the matters of politics. How foolish one could get in this subject. If creating art is not political it is nothing else. Good artists make good political art. If a work of art does not have the politics and beauty of its time, the continuum of time and its will to future, then it is not a work of art at all. It could be a decorative object, ironically timeless for the time being. There is no bad art as such. Bad art is something that deals with politics ignorantly. The politics that manifests in art is not the politics that we see in parliaments, assemblies, streets, marches and in libraries. It is the condensed, deliberated, inspired and visionary outlook of an individual who is alert, aware and divinely prophetic. Such artists are few in number and that’s why we have lesser number of good works of art. Our political art is like fruit juice in tetra packs. It clearly says ‘No fruit pulp used’. Our political art comes with the warning in small fonts: ‘Nothing political about it’. Like our artists are afraid of the word feminism, our gallerists are afraid of the word political. I have heard a gallerist telling me, “I cannot showcase that kind of art. It is too political.’ There is something Harry Potterish about it. You-know-something-that-cannot-be-defined type. It is too frightening to be taken in or discarded.
(Perumal Murugan who committed 'suicide' as a writer continues to live a person)
I want to talk about freedom of expression and its own limits. It is paradoxical and ironical as freedom in its core contains the limitlessness of anything and limit is a word something that forcefully curtails anything that aspires (for) freedom. Constitutionally speaking, freedom is a word that comes with so many clauses. That means, freedom gives birth to limitation also. Just like limiting anything would eventually result into the notion of being free or freedom, the idea freedom also automatically brings in the limits that one has to draw in anything and everything. Universal citizens also need to carry passports. Freedom, while exercised mentally perhaps does not engender limitations but it could be limited by a sense of overwhelming-ness or boredom. But when it is exercised out here in the material world, we have to create certain invisible limits, whether it is a very mundane act like keeping a cup on a table in a restaurant where a stranger shares an opposite chair or a work of art created within the privacy of a studio or writing desk. However, these conscious acts of self defining freedom need not necessarily be palatable to all the parties and the resultant works of art or deeds could easily offend anybody. Humour could easily invite vandalism and murder as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo early this year. In India, recounting an early tradition could force a writer to commit a literary suicide as seen in the case of Perumal Murugan.
(intended to provoke- a painting by Akram Husain)
If freedom and its self limiting or self editing or censoring can’t assure the smooth passage of a work of art from the artist’s studio/desk to the larger community of art lovers and readers, then we should be more aware of such a situation. Freedom assured by the governments creates a climate for creativity where the artists and writers could create their works of art, project in public and generate a series of debates at times severely critical of the governments themselves. An egalitarian government only can take such critique on its stride and in the spirit of familial bonding. A country that is hailed as motherland or fatherland cannot victimise its children/citizens for talking back to the parents. When such a familial climate is poisoned with the fumes of suspicion and conspiracy freedom takes a backseat and the helms are taken over by fascists. Works of art produced in such climates will be ridden by anxiety and fear. When a work of art is produced in anxiety and fear that will be more critical of the governments. In such scenario, artists are condemned not only by the governments but also by the mobs that subscribe the state ideology uncritically. At times artists would find ways to circumvent censorship, and also overcome fear and anxiety and they will retreat to make decorative art or narratives with covert political messages. It is a fact that fascist governments always fail to read into parables and stories. That means fascist governments’ outlook on culture is skin deep. They want the obvious and palpable. They do not understand the subtle and meaningful. Hence, during the days of fascism, I as an art critic expect more and more subtle yet meaningful works of art from our artists and writers.
(an interesting invitation from Nehru Centre, London)
In the days of fascism and the fear generated by it, it is foolishness to go for direct confrontation with it. While artists and writers could collectively object the fascist regime, it is pertinent for them to keep cool and find strategies to express their thoughts. It is a sort of aesthetic guerrilla warfare. In April this year, a group of people approached me with a plea. They wanted me to respond to a particular incident in Assam where the right wing fundamentalists had vandalised a show of a young artist Akram Husain. The problem with his show was his depiction of Lord Krishna in a bar surrounded by a group of bikini clad young women. According to the artist, it was a rasaleela scene and it was his interpretation of it in the contemporary days. The fundamentalists slapped a police case against him and the police filed an FIR. The show was dismantled. The friends who approached me wanted me to support the cause of the freedom of expression and they wanted me to support the artist, Akram Husain. I told them that the work of art in question was aesthetically poor and not done in good faith. Artists are not those people who could anything in the name of freedom. Akram should have known that our country is going through a very bad period in terms of freedom of expression and anything that touches upon the Hindu mythology should be treated subtly. Here Akram had indulged in making the obvious vulgar. While his critique stood its ground, his work did not justify the critique. It was too naive to be political. Hence, my response was this that a political artist also is driven by political awareness, social awareness and religious awareness. One cannot be separated from the other. If one is aware of all these, he or would exercise restraint in saying this bluntly. As I said before, fascism plays with the obvious and it also opposes the obvious. Akram Husain was working on his surname Husain and he thought a religious controversy would make him another star in the league of the legendary artist M.F.Husain. Akram’s freedom fell flat on its nose. Nothing is heard from him after that.
(author, political thinker, cartoonist,late OV Vijayan)
Seen in a different context but against the backdrop of freedom of expression, it is pertinent to see how we as creative people position ourselves in the society, its tradition both cultural and political, vis-a-vis our own works. Despite all that freedom we have as creative people is it possible to align our names as co-producers of a work of art with a universally acclaimed name? For example, however I deem myself as a good writer, is it possible for me to say that I am a collaborator of Orhan Pamuk or Ben Okri if I use their novels as a trigger or a model to generate a series of narratives and can I publish a book saying that I am the author of the book along with Ben Okri, especially when Ben Okri himself has not seen it or discussed or not even know about it? Late O.V.Vijayan, the great writer, political thinker and cartoonist, wrote a book in late 1980s titled ‘Kurippukal’ (Notes). In that, Vijayan portraits himself as a ‘humble historian’ who visits Shivaji, Akbar, Marx and such historical figures and enters in a direct dialogue with them. It is a book of imaginary stories but original findings and views. My question is could Vijayan have published the book claiming himself as the author along with Carl Marx or Chatrapati Shivaji? Reason tells me that it would have been ridiculous. We can get inspired, we can rework, reinterpret, re-present an existing work of art. But we cannot ever say that we are the co-authors with the original writer or artist.
(Book cover If only I were a Bird)
Though taking such liberties with an author like Rabindranath Tagore is permissible as the copyright time frame regarding his works has been over by now. Recently I received an invitation from a friend and it showed that writer-artist Aurogeeta Das, performer Anshuman Biswas along with Rabindranath Tagore having an exhibition titled ‘If only I were a Bird’ along with a book of pictures under the same title. This show will be inaugurated and the book will released on 4th November 2015 at the Nehru Centre, London. Curiosity sent me to do a little research and I found out that this is an outcome of workshop with kids in Tagore Centre where Aurogeeta Das recited and retold the stories from Tagore’s oeuvre and Anshuman Biswas interpreted them in his performance. The works of art thus produced are of birds and the exhibition is comprised of these works. The invitation as well as the book show that Aurogeeta Das and Anshuman Bishwas are exhibiting with Rabindranath Tagore. I thought it is misuse freedom. This co-authorship tells me that there should be a limit to freedom even if I was debating it at the outset of this essay. How can I use a Shakespeare play for a residency workshop, with a performer and a few youngsters and then claim the outcome as a project done myself and Shakespeare? I think artists should be humble enough to acknowledge their indebtedness to great masters and also not misuse their names for personal mileage. Ai Weiwei is given an exhibition in Melbourne along with Andy Warhol. It is a curatorial intervention. Weiwei perhaps is more relevant and popular than Warhol was. So it is justified. But what about this lady, Aurogeeta Das and Rabindranath Tagore?