Thursday, January 21, 2016

From Rohith Vemula to Chintan Upadhyay and Back: Lack of Steam in Indian Art or Artists?

(Chintan Upadhyay)

How big the contemporary artists are in today’s India? From within the limited constituency of fine arts the cultural influence that the artists could exert in this society seems to be very nominal if not negligible. The naked disavowal of the contemporary artists came in the wake of the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26th November 2008, which later on named ‘26/11’ after the infamous ‘9/11’ in the US. The enthusiastic and new hounding media personalities scrambled through the city of Mumbai and sought the response of people from various cross sections of the citizenry, clearly avoiding the voice of the artists who resided in the same city. While the Bollywood actors vocalized their angst, the visual artists were largely neglected. In 2008 November, the global meltdown was only two months old and in Indian art market the effects of it were yet to reflect. Till the day before 15th September 2008, the day Lehman Brothers applied for bankruptcy status, Indian contemporary artists were page three regulars and they were coloring the city in all the possible ways. Some artists had even claimed, I remember, saying that the boom in the market was facilitated by the hard work of the Indian artists.

One could pardon him instantly for the sheer lack of the understanding of economics and the underlying games that set the market balls rolling. Though not from the fine arts, it was the creative people who mobilized large scale opinion formation in our country since the Indian independence. They were successful in adequately raising barriers against the bulldozers of ideological, political and religious arrogance at various stages in India’s post-Independence history. 6th December 1992 was one such point when the creative people upped their aesthetical and pacifistic resistance. They were successful to certain extent when the horrendous riots happened in Gujarat in 2002. Once the witch hunting started against the secularists and the rationalists in our country ever since the right wing BJP came into power at the center under the leadership of Mr.Narendra Modi, the writers, scientists, dancers, historians, theoreticians and so on came en bloc against the brutal acts of intolerance by the fringe forces of the right wing party covertly and overtly supported by the core ideologues of the Hindutva. Somehow the artists were missing from the action.

 (Martyr for a Better world- Rohith Vemula condoled by friends)

Was it because the artists do not really cut such large figures in our society or is it because our artists, at least some of them who are having larger than life image in society, are apathetic towards or afraid of the fascist forces? Narendra Dhabolkar was not really known to everyone in India. Govind Pansare was also not a huge figure like M.F.Husain or FN.Souza. M.M.Kalburgi was known only to those people in the rationalist circuit. K.S.Bhagawan became a national figure when he received death threats from the right wing hooligans. But their deaths could have been lost in the wilderness had it not been their work and influence that they had exercised in their own circuits. Akhlaq at Dadri who allegedly had cow meat in his fridge was not a national figure of any sort but he came to represent the helplessness of so many ordinary Indian citizens irrespective of their religion, in exercising their fundamental rights. The Dalit children who were burnt alive (whose death was ticked off as the death of stray dogs by none other than the former Chief of Indian Army and a junior minister in the present central government, Mr.V.K.Singh) became emblematic of our struggle of equal rights and justice. But our artists have completely failed to live up to the times. I have not seen the contemporary artists making bold public statements against such atrocities.

It does not mean that these artists do not have an opinion. Somehow they are afraid of telling it as it is. Definitely many of them must be expressing their angst through their works of art. But like many of the female artists in India who do ‘feminist’ sort of bold works and at once deny their affinity towards ‘feminism’ (which they detest like a bad word) , most of the Indian artists, though do works that stand against the right wing fundamentalism avoid speaking about it in public. I believe, if people are not heeding to the words of the contemporary artists on social issues mainly because they do not find anything connecting between their works and themselves. Does that show that our artists live in fools’ paradises, totally avoiding people’s concerns and living in ivory towers? The artists need to think about it. If the journalists are not asking questions to the contemporary artists regarding the social issues, then it must not be taken as their lack of awareness about the concerns of Indian contemporary art or artists, on the contrary it should be understood as their awareness that these artists are the makers of ‘beauty’ not always ‘truth’.

 (Martyr of Beef- Akhlaq of Dadri)

One may object citing the fact that artists like Anish Kapoor and Salman Rushdie have come out strongly against the right wing and fascist leanings of the Government of India. One may say that they are living in foreign countries and are safe enough to express their opinions. But it is not so. Anish Kapoor for vocalizing his views on the Indian government has in fact lost a chance to be one of the cultural advisors of the Rajasthan government. Salman Rushdie is definitely not a favorite of government of India for more than one reason. Interestingly, just before the recently concluded Bihar assembly elections, when asked about the political affiliations and the state of the Indian polity, the most recognized artist, Subodh Gupta, in his typical way said that the elections would bring a great change. Yes, the victory of the Grand Alliance in Bihar against the BJP could be seen as the ‘thing’ in Gupta’s mind. But in a different scenario with BJP coming to power in the state, he could have got away with the same statement and remained in the good book of the BJP also.

 (Anish Kapoor)

This ambivalence is the real problem with most of the artist and artist communities in India. The gallerists suddenly moving towards supporting the traditional and tribal art is an indication of how they would like to play the game safely. Also there is a sudden lull amongst the performance art activists. These artists who have been doing bold presentations, social interventions, nude performances and so on under the benevolent regime of the former UPA government, suddenly seem to have gone hiding. I can see a lot of artists incorporating the images of Indian gods and goddesses in their works. Also one could see a strong sense of decoration and voluptuousness creeping into the works of art of the present day. There are works of art by the conceptual artists but they often discuss generic themes like women’s liberation, social equality, spaces, urban locations, migration and so on. I do not say that these issues are less pertinent. But they look a bit misplaced given the political and social climate of our country today. And I have all the reasons to think that there is a strange amount of self-restraint from the artists themselves. While I consider that these are survival tactics that the contemporary artists adopt, therefore should be left alone, there are many of them in the name of economic success and compromised survival, getting headlong into the projects that obviously help perpetuating the right wing ideologies. When I come to know some of the people who organize the biggest art events in this country and vouch for political art go around seeking money and are ready to facilitate the government projects provided enough money is sanctioned.

(Late Hema Upadhyay)

At times artists look like betrayers. When in India, the writers were giving up their awards, the artists were simply keeping quite. There are several artists organizations in our country and SAHMAT is one of the leading organizations in Delhi. But the SAHMAT platform too has become an annual pilgrimage center for the self-proclaimed revolutions and contractors of social changes who do not like people with different opinions joining forces with them, thereby reducing it into a coterie of back patters and mutual sycophants. The artists part in SAHMAT have become a prop in the hands of the organizers and the organization has fallen into the hands of the so called ‘radical artists’. In the safe zone of the annual function, the visual artists actually do the works (revoltingly on flex prints) which do not impact anybody at all. While the writers, historians, scientists, film makers, actors, theatre personalities and so on openly and brazenly come out against the right wing fundamentalism, our artists are still scrambling around to find a safer turf to play the game safe.

 (From Living Museum initiated by Chintan Upadhyay in Partapur, Rajasthan in 2008-09)

People today do not heed to the words of the contemporary artists. Despite the efforts of the journalists who try to popularize the works of the contemporary artists, they remain obscure in the minds of the people because the artist shave failed to touch the human chords with their sensitive works. I do not say that such works are not produced; but they are not seen or discussed. Rather the artists who produce them do not come out in the open and talk. I wish them to talk and take the risk. The recent example that has been haunting me for quite some time is the plight of my friend Chintan Upadhyay. He has been a very vocal artist who somehow has fallen into the bad times today. He has provoked so many people not only through his works but also through his words. If you ask me, I would say his biggest contribution is there in the village of Partapur in Rajasthan where he had initiated the Sandarbh Nature workshop which has now international presence. In Partapur in an old building he started a ‘living museum’ where the museum display comprised of the daily utensils of people which they displayed when not in use and took away when they were needed to be used in farms and other work sites. But Chintan is today in judicial custody for the alleged involvement in his wife’s death. Friends have been campaigning for his release but the campaign has not found a national momentum.

 (From Kalakakshi protest in Kerala- artists drawing portraits of patients in hospitals)

Why, the Justice for Hema and Chintan campaign has still not gained the momentum nationally even like the Kalakakshi, an artist non-profit group that moved against the Kerala State Police, which gained popular support from all over India via social media. The support group that works towards gaining justice for Chintan and Hema somehow could not reap massive support for Chintan should think about why their movement is not yet a large scale national cultural movement or at least a movement that involves a majority of the artist community. In my view it comes from two fundamental reasons; first of all, it is a legal issue now and under the purview of the Indian judiciary, and many would not like to comment openly on it mainly because of the sensitivity of the case not only as a legal matter but also as a case that involves the murder of two people. Secondly, the matter of a contemporary artist’s plight has become confined within the limited constituency of the artists as most of the general public sees the case as a matter of crime and the ensuing punishment. Chintan’s contribution as an artist does not come in between his present plight and the culturally inclined people in this country. Is it because that the work of art done by Chintan or in that case by any artist eventually does not touch the lives of people that they become almost nullified in their social existence?

 (In front of People's Living Museum initiated by Chintan Upadhyay- from left JohnyML, Somu Desai and Lochan Upadhyay)

I have been mulling it over for the last couple of days as the news of Rohith Vemula’s death has hit the national news and has become a focal point for the rallying of dissenting voices against the central government and the right wing fundamentalism. Though there cannot be any comparison between Chintan or Hema and Rohith Vemula, a forcible comparison would deduce the fact that Rohith’s death has touched the conscience of our nation because he killed himself for raising a public issue, a very sensitive issue that touches upon the hearts and lives of a majority of the people in this country; social and caste oppression on Dalits. But Chintan’s incarceration or Hema’s death has not touched the people like the way Rohith’s death has. Hema’s death had shaken up the country exactly the way any double murder involving some celebrities would have done. But then right in front of our eyes we saw how the issue is being pushed to the inner pages of the newspapers and to the personal pages of some friends. Comparing Rohith’s contribution to the social cause when he was alive with those of Chintan and Hema, his must be negligible as this artists-duo together and separately had invoked national and international social issues in their works. But Rohith’s death became a people’s issue whereas Chintan’s incarceration or Hema’s death has not become a people’s issue. Where exactly we, as contemporary artists failed? Have we failed completely in touching the hearts of the people despite our intelligent dealing with the social issues? It is high time to think about it. Even if we have raised pivotal issues, why people could not understand it? Is it because our efforts to evoke a response in the social sphere through aesthetic means were aborted in the galleries? If that is an eventuality which cannot be scuttled, wouldn’t there be a need to speak up using our tongues? Why we shirk and shy away when the pivotal issues haunt us? None in the art community has spoken up against Rohith’s death even after Mr.Ashok Vajpayee has given his D.Litt back to the Hyderabad Central University which had ousted Rohith. Where have we gone wrong? It is imperative that someone has to hang until none comes forward. But if none comes forward, then our art is going to be spineless and tongue-less. 

No comments: