(Radha Benod Sharma after being attacked in Jaipur- source net)
Suddenly we all will now speak about intolerance. In the second consecutive year once again the miscreants have hit the Jaipur Art Summit, a low key art expo which has been taking place in the illustrious Pink City, Jaipur, Rajasthan, citing obscenity in one of the paintings displayed there. If last time it was a flying cow done by a young artist Siddharth Kararwal, this time it is Radha Benod Sharma, an Indian artist who has been living in London for the last eighteen years and trying to do all what he can to help a few struggling young artists in his home state as well as in West Bengal, not only by funding their art activities but also by promoting them in the shows presented by his own organization. The allegation against Benod Sharma, the artist raised by a woman activist from the hitherto unheard of Lal Sena is based on a work where he has painted a half nude reclining woman at the lower left foreground of the painting.
As all of us have seen it in the news channels, the alleged obscenity in the painting slowly gives way to a generic allegation about the artist who in the process of saving his painting from the aggressive woman activist ‘violating’ the modesty of an ‘Indian’ woman by pushing her away with his elbow. This blurring of the boundaries of two different allegations, one, of the aesthetical obscenity and two, the modesty of a self righteous woman, is far more dangerous than the original content and context of the said vandalism. Here we see the unfortunate scene where the artist is forced to justify his art and act (of painting as well as pushing the woman) by brining the ancient Indian aesthetical history that includes Khajuraho sculptures. It is so sad to see an artist suddenly turns into a culprit and has to stand before the media to justify his painting as well as the painterly effort.
(moral police in argument with the artist)
Today’s Indian Express reports that the woman who had not only raised the alarm but also acted upon it by taking law in her own hands is ‘missing’, that means as the heat had been turned upon her by the Rajasthan Police she went underground. The reports followed after today’s newspaper stories also say that no action has been taken against the culprits. Some of the news portals even gave the picture of the other vandalisms that had happened against Hussain’s paintings at the Gufa Gallery in Ahmadabad to illustrate the present issue in Jaipur with a definite aim to incite the feelings of the intellectual, aesthetic and the secular communities/people in the country. If we are not discerning, we would fail to see the truth. First of all we have to see that unlike Maharashtra and Gujarat where vandalisms against art had happened before, the Rajasthan administration led by the Chief Minister Vasudhararaje Sindhia reacted to the incidents immediately first by shunting out the Police men who roughed up the artists last year and then openly regretting on the unfortunate incident. This time too, Rajasthan Police instead of accusing the artist or the art summit, put the blame squarely on the woman and her outfit for taking law into her hands. This is a commendable thing that we should not fail to notice.
My heart goes out to Radha Benode Sharma who had to face this indignity and also to the organizers of the Jaipur Art Summit. Jaipur is a city besides its historical flamboyance and related touristic attractions of late has become a brand in its own by hosting the world famous Jaipur Literature Festival. A series of small scale art and culture festivals including the Cartist Art Festival and Residency and the painting of the metro stations in the city with the tribal art of India (done by tribal artists and local artists together) have attracted more art people to the city. The artists living in the city and the galleries operating from there also have to be lauded for their efforts to make the historical Pink City more contemporary than before. But at the same time, we should not create a negative feeling about the city because a couple unfortunate incidents happened there in the same venue and within the same context. A conspiracy angle is always possible and also it is easy to connect with the right wing fundamentalism within our country.
(Moral police force proudly displaying their game of the day)
However, I would say, it is easy, yes it is easy to connect this vandalism to the right wing fundamentalism in our country. But think again. If we see the whole thing as somebody’s conspiracy to gain local fame and political mileage, then we understand that it is a one off incident, not a norm. Yes, it had happened last year too. But that does not mean that there is a pattern always. If we think calmly, we can see that the miscreants could strike only at a weaker target. If the same lady had gone to the Jaipur Literature Festival after carefully reading one of the latest releases and created a ruckus there for the obscenity/a scene involving nudity in that particular piece of literature, she would have been immediately thrown into jail because an attack on a world famous program which has already become the prestige of the state would have been scarred the reputation of the state in turn reflecting upon the inability of the authorities to curb such stray incidents. Compared to this we all know the Jaipur Art Summit is a weaker target. But attacking even a weak target like this, they know would create ripples in the country. They were looking for a cheap mileage. The miscreants would not have touched the same painting had it been in the India Art Fair in Delhi, for it also is a cash rich and powerful platform patronized by the rich and affluent of the country.
I have to say that in the city of Jaipur, people who are involved in the art scene are aware of the lurking danger. In the beginning of this year, when I was curating the Cartist project in the city, the organizer insisted that a Hanuman carrying a the hill image painted by (with no nudity, no bad implication, nothing, a popular image of Hanuman) the Mumbai based Raj More should be removed because he thought the miscreants would attack the project as a whole. Though the artistic stubbornness won in the battle of nerves with the organizer, there was a palpable tension when the car on which the image was painted, was displayed in the city. I also faced the ire of the fundamentalist of the local kind in Pune in 2015, where the head of the Pune Biennale and myself as the project director of it were heckled and the painting done by Manil-Rohit of Delhi was taken to the Sivaji Nagar Police station. Unlike in Jaipur, we became the butt of ridicule not only by the miscreants but also by the Police force. Unfortunately, the Pune Biennale organizers did not display courage to go public about it and draw people’s attention. I consoled myself and the artists by saying that the organizers had to survive in their city to which I was an outsider.
(a foreigner trying to protect the work from the moral police woman)
If I had insisted it would have become a national issue. But I did not because I knew that it was a part of the ongoing intolerance. We have not been hearing such things for a long time now. The country’s attention has turned to nationalism and other issues including the demonetisation. The incident in Jaipur should be condemned. But if we make it a part of the intolerance debate, then unnecessarily we will be giving more mileage to the miscreants than to the real issue. There should be a total sensitization in the country towards art to which there should be measures taken up by the governments irrespective of their political agenda and ideological leanings. When we hear some random woman or man judging a work of art it sounds more obscene than the obscenity that they allege the work of art in question has. Hence, there should be a model code of conduct for the Police men and the party workers of all kinds where it should be categorically said that the judgement of a work of art is to be done by the qualified people. If someone oversteps this, they should be given exemplary punishment and I am sure Indian authorities are not that bad that they couldn’t see the absurdity of such vandalisms. Let us divert our attention towards that than celebrating this issue and asking the governments to be answerable to it. Just treat it as a law and order situation and be vocal about the value of aesthetics in public life. To do that the artists themselves have to go beyond their market values. They should become philosopher kings of their own worth.