Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When a Secular Sculpture Turns into a Religious Idol: ‘Mother and Child’ in Trivandrum

Materialism and spiritualism go hand in hand. What determines both is the presence of history. Through the mediation of time the public and private domains uphold as well as express a particular aspect of either materialism or spiritualism in order to make the living an experience and the living experience comfortable. The New Millennium is a particular juncture in the world history where denominations of various ideologies celebrate both materialism and spiritualism with equal verve even when they fight with each other severely on the ways in which such celebrations are to be taking place. Hence, we have the conservatives, extreme conservatives, liberals and extreme liberals, and any other streams that come in between these clearly demarcated zones adequately oscillating between materialism and spiritualism, two sets of notions and practices that stand as polar opposites and making visible and invisible bridges so that these two poles could be connected in whichever manner possible. The new age gurus, self help books, conformist theoreticians and theologians, and all those market pundits work round the clock to do this bridging or in other words to wed these strange fellows and force into sharing the nuptial bed. 
However, it is important to see how the grosser forms of materialism and spiritualism, namely consumable objects and religions respectively determine the course and dynamics of history and the psychological environments where history is formed or deformed, used or abused. While history has always taken this pride for its special place in all kinds of relationships that lead society to progress and at times to regress, sometimes, we see this ironical but very painful sight of it being displaced by the grosser forms of materialism and spiritualism, which we know as the relationship builders in any societies in the world because they are the fundamentals that balance a society as a whole and the individuals in particular. When the grosser forms over-determine the social and domestic spaces, the historical rationality or even the commonsensical historical understanding gets replaced by consumerism and religious blindness. 

Sculptor Aryanad Rajendran

I wrote this rather loaded preamble in order to set a background for what I am going to write now. Perhaps, this incident which is curious in many ways is not new at least for the readers in Kerala. In Trivandrum, around fifteen years back a huge sculpture depicting a mother breast feeding an infant was erected at the gate of the famous Medical College Hospital in Trivandrum. Aryanad Rajendran, a sculptor but not popular the way many other artists of his generation are, is/was the sculptor who created this ‘Mother and Child’.  Aryanad Rajendran is in fact an insider as he works as an artist in the modelling department of the Medical College. Hence, this sculpture though a government commission or a commission by the Hospital, which is under the state government, is/was a tribute to his work place. This sculpture has been imparting a sense of wonderment and also a sense of comfort for those people who pass by and who happened to visit the hospital premises for some reason. 

In Kerala, huge sculptures do not really thrill people just because they are big in size. The audience in Kerala has been trained in a way by looking at the huge sculptures of Kanai Kunhiraman for almost five decades now. They know what a huge sculpture means. Therefore when this ‘Mother and Child’ came up the visual sensibility of the Kerala audience was not particularly thrilled or challenged because it was a moderate sculpture with an enlarged look. (incidentally I should mention that in Chadayamangalam, Kollam, Asia’s biggest sculpture ‘The Jatayu Complex’ is being readied for public visit). If one travels through the length and the humble breadth of Kerala, one could see thousands of Christs, Shivas, Krishnas, Mother Mary’s, St.Georges and so on in huge sculpture forms in front of temples and churches, which would put Aryanad Rajendran’s ‘Mother and Child’ to shame. But I should say the presence of this sculpture has been a soothing one despite the ruggedness of modelling.

Though not clear about the intention of erecting such a sculpture at the entrance of a famous hospital I could come up with two important reasons: one, it must have been the time when the Government of Kerala or the Government of India itself was promoting breast feeding. Two, it must have come up as a morale booster for the young mothers and the soon to be delivering pregnant women who come for medical help to this famous hospital. And the sculpture has been there with all its secular credentials without hurting anybody’s sentiments even if the left breast of the woman is more or less exposed as a result of the breast feeding. I use the word secular because the ‘mother’ in the sculpture remains an emblematic mother of Kerala, especially a Kerala of yesteryears as this mother is seen wearing dhoti and blouse, not Sari or Churidar. She does not look like Mother Mary from any angle, nor does she look like any Hindu goddess who feeds a baby. Of course, in Muslim mythologies we cannot expect such a depiction. 

Today, however, the secular credentials of this sculpture are in question. Irrespective of their religious affiliations, people both men and women of different ages light candles and incense sticks to wish safe and painless delivery for the young women who have been admitted in the maternity wards of the hospital a couple of blocks away. Though this phenomenon was reported last year in December by a mainstream newspaper in Kerala and recently a radio jockey in a video clipping being sent out via whatsapp, the ‘news’ was treated as ‘something curious’ and ‘something to be approached reverently’. Only the radio jockey added a bit of cynicism in his comments though finally he joined the crowd and wished well to the people who came to light the candles there. Perhaps, he wanted to be critical but considering his vulnerability amidst a crowd that was doubly insecure because of their own vulnerability as the relatives of the girls undergoing labour pain in the hospital and the religious connotations involved in the act of lighting the candles and incense sticks. What shocked me was that none of the worshippers knew the artist who made it. What made me more curious was that none of them knew for how long this sculpture had been there. Most of them did not know why they are doing it; they had only one answer, because it helped girls deliver painlessly and Caesarean delivery became a normal delivery. 

Two things are important here; one, none of the worshippers wants to check out whether this sculpture is a religious one or a secular one. Two, none of them knows the time in which this sculpture has come up there. Their idea of worship plays around an ambiguity, a hearsay and a wishful thinking. None cross checks the success rate of the prayers at this ‘Mother and Child’. All the rational and historical lines that separate a secular sculpture from an idol of worship are blurred here. The ancientness that the people attribute to the sculpture is almost accepted by one and all around there and they all tend to believe that it has been there forever. If tomorrow someone says that this was erected in late 19th century or early 20th century by one of the Travancore Rajas, even if the reality is that it is hardly two decades old (or lesser than that) nobody would dare to question the veracity of it.
The worship modes are clearly religious and predominantly two different religions have shown their willingness to accept this sculpture as the part of their pantheon; namely Christian and Hindu. Christians, by following their church customs light candle sticks. Hindus going by their tradition light bunches of incense sticks. What is missing here are the chaddars that the Muslims could and would bring to spread before the sculpture (which could be a reality soon if no administrative intervention happens here). But in Kerala, like elsewhere in India, when it comes to religion (with more emphasis to spiritual satisfaction and wish fulfilment) people once again blur their scriptural and traditional differences and visit temples, churches and mosques. So the people who light candle at the mother and child sculpture need not necessarily be Christians and the people who light incense sticks need not necessarily be Hindus. They could be even Muslims. Though there were some kind of rational exhortations from some social organisation telling people that it was a secular sculpture it seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The practice continues non-stop. 
Why does such frenzy happen in our social domain? Why do we sort of absolutely circumvent the visible contradiction of praying to supernatural powers asking for divine interventions right under the nose of a medical establishment which is supposedly the embodiment of the scientific progress that the human beings have achieved so far? Is it because of the maxim that we do our part and half is done by the God? Or is it because in our popular imagination, mainly of the popular movies where divine intervention is a reasonable thing to happen than scientific intervention? In the popular movies we see the intercutting of scenes between an operation theatre and the woman or man of the person who is operated upon, challenging and pleading with the god at the same time, often through a song. India’s psyche has enough space for supernatural despite its firm conviction is science. That is not a bad thing but a beautiful thing to happen because it connects people with what they do not know but know as a reality.

However, there is a problem when such sur-realities are brought into the social domain, kicking away the lessons of history. While blurring the demarcating lines between mythology and history one could as the historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, make ‘history into mythology and mythology into history’. It is an irony that all the socio-political and cultural calamities of the present and the last centuries are created by this conscious interchanging of history and mythology. When the grosser form of spiritualism which is religion, becomes the socio-cultural and political determinant factor, a simultaneous religion-ization of the public and private domains happens automatically. This is because of mythology getting dominance over history without cross checking the facts. When it happens, the majority of the people in the society turn into sort of believers simply because they do not want to be left behind in the mainstream socio-political and cultural debate. It is not really because they believe in that given religion in a certain way but they just become aware that they too belong and to belong they need to go by the tide. How far their belongingness goes is never probed into. It actually works within the domestic realm without their knowing as the religious festivals and temple or church festivals become suddenly important and a greater attention is given to the religious discourses. People caught in this web become negotiators of their own doubts and in the final analysis they start believing that what the mainstream discourse says has got ‘truth’ in it (this truth was contested till yesterday by themselves, a fact is conveniently forgotten). 

This change in the domestic space gets reflected in the social/public domain. The markers that determine a particular religion or religions become all the more important and based on those social relationships are re-modified and re-modelled. While the secular skin is kept intact the fissures start appearing in the flesh, muscles and sinews, taking the fluids of these ruptures directly into the stream of blood and brain altering the ways of feeling and thinking about the other/s. When religion determines the social relationships, it in another way over-determines the social spaces. That’s how we a community that refuses to give an ambulance its space to speed up, gives space meekly to temple or church processions. While an ambulance is not escorted by the Police force, a festival procession always has a contingent of police force along its route. The spaces in television, newspaper and all other media are determined by the religious considerations and no editorial dares to critique the congestions created by the religious processions. That conclusively says that we have become a society determined by religion/s which is definitely not a symptom of modernity. While core spiritualism helps people anchor to the depths and beauty of the life in general, religions destroy this core and occupies the social and mental spaces vitiating it to ultimate destruction.

In Trivandrum what is left is the simple taking over of the ‘Mother and Child’ sculpture by a religion or a joint committee of religions provided the still intact social fabric of Kerala. Once a committee comes around to put an end to this practice, there would be another committee forming to protect the practice of lighting lamps before the sculpture. The secular intention of the sculpture would transgress to the level of making it a rallying point of differences between the rationality and religious bigotry in the social space of Kerala. Once a defence committee is formed to protect the practice, there would be a fight for dominance within the committee, of castes, tribes, families and so on. The neutrals like the doctors and artists could also be drawn into the friction sooner or later. Hence, here is something that should be done by the Government of Kerala in order to avoid a huge future crisis and a religious fight that would disrupt Kerala’s secular life. The Government of Kerala should put an end to this practice and tell the people that it is a secular sculpture and no worship is allowed there. Though the practice of people lighting lamps before a secular sculpture could be seen as an innocent act of faith, the danger that it engenders could create another Babri Masjid or Ram Temple issue. A simple act of faith could scale up into a gigantic religious war resulting into genocides and pogroms. When a dam is built thousands of temples go under water leaving no trace of it. None complains, for the act shows the political will of the respective governments. So is the case of city development including the establishment of rapid transport systems. So the political will could change the situation in Trivandrum; only the political will could change and reclaim the sculpture as a secular one. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dangerous Reading in Trains

(Image for representational purpose only)
Books could cause huge damages; to a person’s sanity, dignity and health. Did you say ‘sanity’? What’s new in it? Books do make good citizens turn against the state. Had there been no books the world would have been a better place.
Stop wishful thinking. People would write, publishers would publish and people would read. Even if they do not want to read, the book writers and the publishers would make it such an appealing thing that it would drive people either to the Amazon portal to order the books or go to the busy books stalls in the busy markets and ask the shopkeepers, “Brother, do you have ‘that’ book? No, sold out? Really? Why don’t you suggest me something good to read?”
All the book stall guys are the same. You may have observed. To such sweet, polite and proud queries like these, they would always have this ready answer: “Madam, this is the best among the latest. A real page turner.” “Really? Give me two copies. One for myself and one for my daughter. She is coming tomorrow from the US.” “Here are your copies, madam. Hello, how are you sir?”
Here I have to correct a thing that I said in the beginning. To become good citizens also you could read books; books of a different kind, which would make you proud of your country, your army, your religion, and mind you, they may help you to scorn at the other religions also. These books could make you (or make you imagine at least) a millionaire overnight (or over a year if you go by step by step), good wives (note the point, never good husbands. Good husbands are never made, they are born), good Yoga practitioners, good cooks, good flirts, good sports persons and very good at bed. 
Oh, you are asking me for a simple formula, to differentiate between books that screw up your mind and the books that help you to be a good citizen? Your question has the answer embedded, dear. 
All of a sudden I started finding books in the metro trains. Good citizens started leaving ‘good’ books in the metro coaches. Good citizens who respect the border of our country and disrespect the border of all the other countries, good citizens who like to migrate to rich countries and hate all those poor people who come from the rural part of our country to the cities in search of ‘bread and butter’ (bread and butter or roti-zubzi or simply do roti?), good citizens who stand up when the national anthem is played in the movie theatre, puff up their chest and sing along and so on started either leaving books in the metro coaches or started reading those foundlings for a change. 
I made a survey of these books and these are the books that I found: copies of scriptures (abridged versions) of the dominant religion, thousand mantras of many gods (if you recite it between the stations your wishes will be fulfilled), Who Moved My Cheese? The Monk who Sold his Ferrari, Autobiography of a Yogi, The Success Story of Patanjali and the following authors Devdutt Pattanaik, Paulo Coelho, Amish, Chetan Bhagat, then some Autobiographies of Adolf Hitler, Jhansi Rani, Mahatma Gandhi  and so on. I was amused to see a copy of a cook book by Tarla Dalal. 
Reading could be dangerous. But it depends on what you read. You read at your own risk. Always, the author or the publisher never takes the responsibility of the ‘thought damage’ that they could cause. That’s okay; because that’s what we do when we drink a bottled or canned or tetra packed fruit juice or aerated drink. We know the danger, we read the cautionary note but we don’t care. Books are also like that. There may not be a note of caution; but there could be some damage. However, my damage was of a different kind.
The other day I was in the metro coach, as usual going to my work place exactly ten stations away from where I get to with one change of line. It takes me exactly thirty two minutes to come out of the station and takes another eight minutes of walk to my office. In total forty minutes of commuting, of which thirty minutes of reading on one way and another thirty minutes on the return trip. That’s the one hour of reading time I have in a twenty four hours long day. Am I happy about it? I am happy about it because the files that I have been handling for the last twenty three years have rendered me almost brain dead, but this reading these days functions as an antidote. It is a cleansing experience. One hour of pilgrimage through books inside the air-conditioned metro coaches. 
I was reading the notorious author (only in this country she is considered to be notorious, rest of the world she is famous) Arundhati Roy’s latest book, her second novel, ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’. Such an ironic title. A year back when the book was announced, I marked it in my dairy and waited for the book to come. Not that I am big fan of this author but I had once met her in a mall in the south part of the city. I was just coming after delivering some files to the head office and had thought of doing some window shopping. I asked the driver to wait at the side lane and ventured into the sprawling mall that looked like a coral reef in the unlikely waters. Suddenly I saw her, this author coming from the other side of the corridor. A small woman (I used to think that she was six feet tall and strong muscled who could fight the country’s army single handed) and a shy smile which definitely said, ‘leave me alone’. I did not dare even to look at her eyes (though I feel like a tiger behind my office desk with so many files heaped before me, the fate of people to which I was the arbitrator). She went her way and I went back to my car. Nothing more was to be seen. I had seen something wonderful and I did not contaminate the feeling with the visuals of dispensable consumer goods. My driver asked, “Saab, aap to jaise gaya vaise vaapas aaya.” (Sir, you came back as fast as you went). I did not say a word. 
I stood there where two coaches are coupled with rubberised folding panels which remind me of accordion bellows, and read the book. A few young men were minding me, I could feel. I felt the gazes coming from different directions. First I thought one of the gazes was aimed at the book. I thought the person was simply interested in the book as the publication of it had aroused quite a lot of media enthusiasm (though not as huge as her first novel written twenty years back). Then I felt a gaze struck ‘this side of my face’ (somehow I remembered a phrase I had liked from a poster printed in one of those foreign magazines that used to come to the office library). It happens, I told myself. Somebody must be curious to see a person reading a book so absorbedly especially when everyone is lost in their smart phone screens.
“Why are you reading this book?” a shudder passed through my innards as I heard that question from a mouth that was a few inches away from my eyes. I just could not recognise the owner of that mouth that had a very thick and red tongue inside. 
“Why the fuck are you reading this book?” that tongue repeated. 
By this time, somebody had snatched the book from my hands and someone has pushed me to a side. The train suddenly shifted rails, I thought as I was about to fall to a side losing my balance and grip. But before I fell someone held me tight by my shoulders and straightened me. I knew it was not a kind gesture. The grip on my shoulder had the power of hatred.
“Don’t you know that this woman is a behenchod saali anti-nationalist?” I saw six pairs of eyes staring at me and beyond them there were uncountable pairs of eyes looking at the scene. Only difference was those eyes were cold and the ones near my face were hot as anger sent sparks as if from a grinding machine. 
“Maaro madar chod ko, (beat that mother fucker up),” owner of one of those pairs of eyes said and before he finished someone had acted upon the order. 
The blow had landed on my stomach and for a moment I thought the breath had left me and something had gone out of me through my rear end. I moaned and yet without losing my dignity, I tried to reason with them.
“Brother, I am an old man, do not treat me like this. I do not read this book for the author, I happened to get it from this metro yesterday night. I thought of reading it and leaving it here once I finished. See, it is a good story, a good page turner,” I knew I was telling a lie. I remembered my book shop friend calling me up saying, “Sir, your copy is here and please pick up whenever you want.”
“You bloody anti-social South Indian, are you trying to fool us? We know what we allow them to leave in the metro coaches. This shit of a book cannot come here. We do our combing for the kind of books that good citizens leave in the metro coaches. We know the kind of good citizens who read them. You fucking uncle, your South Indian revolution is not still dead” a very young man who could have been my first son’s age (nearly twenty) twisted my shirt collar with one hand and my left wrist with another. Even in the pain and shame I was thinking how these young people got such atrocious ideas in their minds. When this author wrote her first novel, these boys’ parents’ had even not thought of wishing them to this earth. 
“Sons, please listen. Don’t do this. I could be reading it for pleasure. Or I could have been asked to read it by some learned person. Or I may be a journalist who has been assigned to review this book. Or even I could be from the Intelligence Department and am reading it for reporting the seditious content, if any in it,” I did not know what gave me courage to say that much.
Did those words change the attitude of those boys? I do not know. What I knew was this much: they kept on abusing me with the choicest expletives that makes the capital city of this country distinct from any other state capital and they went on punching me.
I did not know how many stations had passed by that time. The absurd drama of self styled mobile censors went on for quite some time it seemed, as they kicked me out of the coach (definitely without the book) I just could not make out where I was. I felt absolutely in a different place in a different time. It took a few minutes for me to regain my presence of mind. Yes, I knew this place though I had never come to this station before. It lay on the same line but seven stations ahead where I usually got down. Seven stations. That means they abused me for nearly fifteen minutes. Plus the three stations before they caught me; that comes to seven minutes and together it makes twenty two minutes. Three minutes less to my destination in the other lane. How many pages I could have finished today? At a rate of one and half page per station, how many pages? My thoughts went in that way.
I staggered down the stairs to go to the other side to catch the return train towards the intersecting station. At the foyer of the station plush like a mall I read the neon-lit board hanging like a trapeze artist in skimpy clothes: “Read with Metro, Making Reading a Habit. Ask for Books at the Metro Counter. Or Find Your Surprise in the Coaches itself.” 
It had a picture of a cross section of citizens reading in an absolutely clean, ordered, not crowded metro coach as if smart phones never existed in the year 2017. I could not locate the faces of those guys who had ruffled me a few minutes back in them. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Truth of Drawing

Drawings Hands by Escher ( For representational purposes only)
Why do artists do drawings? Nobody generally asks why a singer hums or why a writer pens down his ideas in a notebook. But artists are often asked why they draw. Very few artists in the contemporary Indian art scene have taken courage to answer this question for the simple reason that a majority of them just do not draw. They create gallery ready paintings and sculptures and the act of drawing is reduced to the level of blueprints that could be depended upon for transporting the ideas into a grander scale. Many an artist thinks that drawings are unfinished artistic expressions and lesser fields of artistic prowess therefore they have to be treated as secondary exercises. This misconception is largely a recent one in the history of art because irrespective of the geographical locations, most of the artists in the world today consider themselves as ‘producers’ of art objects than creators of ‘art’ itself. The gallery readiness and the project based approach to art in fact removes drawings as a veritable hindrance than a demonstrable artistic flourish. Yes, we do have artists who treat drawing as ‘finished’ art objects so that they could also be treated as gallery ready objects. I have seen artists specially creating ‘drawing books’ and ‘sketch pads’ to be exhibited in their forthcoming shows which I find germinating out of the guilt factor in them induced by nothing other than art historical familiarity that they have cursorily gained in due course of their formative years. 
A singer hums because she/he takes it as a part of their existence that finds expression in various ways of auditory renderings. When she/ he hums what they create is a sonic space within the gross space of their physical existence, where they could trace the joyous movement of their happy soul without realising that she/he is in that pursuit. She/he does not intend it to be ‘performed’ for an audience nor does she/he do it for recording for the posterity. Hence, the humming of a singer exists as a part of a whole repertoire of their singing career contributing subtly to the finesse that they achieve towards the matured phase of their creative career. Now think about a scenario that someone decides to make a home video of their singing/humming and stores it somewhere without their knowing about it. At some point these recordings become very valuable evidences of their genius and its manifestations in the world of music. So is the case of a writer who pens down his/her ideas, many of which perhaps would never find the light of the day. But they constitute the literary flourish of the writer in various forms and in turn they become a secret inventory for the writer to make private visits to it often or once in a while in order to enjoy the variety of it with the same innocence and wonder of a child who looks into the grandmother’s chest full of souvenirs, memorabilia, collections of artefacts, clothes, ornaments and above all fragrances. An artist who draws like a singer and a writer would enjoy the same happiness, which had been enjoyed by the masters in the world art history including those from India. 

Drawings are the silent paths of the soul of the artist that traces his excessive and uninhibited joy and responses to events, phenomena, people, beings and objects in the nature. When an artist draws s/he immerses herself in the very act of getting one with the form, shape, light and shadow of the above mentioned elements. While a painting or a sculpture has conscious deliberations of the artist for the desired effects, drawing happens naturally for it does not desire anything as a final product. If meditation is done to merge with the higher element of the nature, which we call the higher soul, god etc., drawing is a similar thing where the artist sheds his separated-ness and becomes one with the act of drawing, therefore the object that becomes the model for the drawing. There could be hundreds of people watching him drawing but he feels so lonely in the wilderness with his model right there in front of him. The act of drawing then becomes a prayer, as Tagore would put it, where the drawing and the artist become one and the same. That’s why great artists keep looking at their drawings as if they were something very fresh. It becomes at once a point of departure as well as a point of inspiration. Attainment of such unity of time and space within the ambit of creativity needs tremendous amount of discipline at the same time an innate sense of contentment. That means, the product of such meditative act is not treated as a product of contemplation for others so immediately. It could wait, may be it could be ‘found out’ or even with sufficient time gap between the drawing and its public viewing one could develop a sense of detachment with it. With this attitude when the drawings are seen or shown by people, the reception of it becomes fresh and above all, curious. The drawings, seen with the difference of time become tell tale evidences of the artistic mind, personality and his/her truth. And if he or she is insincere, mind you, the drawings would tell that also to the world without any shame. Drawing is as mysterious and revealing at the same time as the visible lines on the palms and the invisible lines on the head.   

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Male Fruit by Sajeesh Pallikkara P A

The Male Fruit by Sajeesh Pallikkara P A

May be only a few people in the North know about a bold act of a girl in Trivandrum, Kerala who bobbitised her tormentor a few days back. The molester is a self-styled god man who surprisingly got her mother's support in the heinous act to which she too has been a willing partner as reports say. The girl after severing the rapist's organ with a kitchen knife went to the police and informed them about the injured god man lying in her place. The girl gained not only public support but also the administrative support as the chief minister himself came forward to support her. The god man has been remanded in hospital itself. Trolls and memes are active in the social media. Above all there is debate going on whether one could take up law in hands or not. The first artistic response has come from Sajeesh PA, this year's national award winning artist. He paints a banana bunch where the fruits turn into male organs. The severed stem drips of blood. This visual critique of the artist is on the collective chauvinism of the highly literate Kerala where women irrespective of age are objectified and vandalised. The apparent obscenity reflects the apparent obscenity of the society. A befitting work of art from Kerala that needs a strong soul search regarding gender sensitivity. The irony is that this is the same society that comes out with innovative protests like 'kiss of love'. The latest news is the the state government has employed fifteen transgenders in the Kochi Metro Rail. Sajeesh' work deserves applause and appreciation.

Philosophy as art @NGMA, New Delhi

Work by Korean artist  Kim Ho-Suk at NGMA Delhi.

The NGMA, New Delhi has something new to offer, a solo exhibition of the South Korean ink artist, Kim Ho-Suk. Titled 'Hiding Inside the Light' this show comes as a part of cultural diplomacy exchange between the two Republics, India and South Korea. Sixty year old Ho-Suk is a contemporary artist who follows a traditional style; ink on Hanji paper. These large scale works, hung without frames could be categorised into three: individuals, lifeand death. Minimally done, the portraits of individuals both known and unknown assume mythical qualities in Ho-Suk's visualising. Life and death are interchangeable in this artist; one starts when the other ends. The cyclical continuity of life and death in Korean philosophical tradition stands close to the Indian philosophical outlook. Considering the Buddhist-Hindu proliferation in the South East Asia in general had originated from India, this artist's works don't look unfamiliar at all. The Oriental depth and silence are palpable. Ho-Suk likes fish, cockroach, bees, ants and many other insignificant beings as his pictorial subjects, underlining his advaita. Many a title strangely resembles Hirst's notorious title 'the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.' It is heartening to see that South Korea respects artists doing traditional works while creating adequate environments for contemporary art. India can take a few tips on this from South Korea. Show continues for a month. Catch it if you can and more importantly if you want.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Saint of Fertility

Work by artist KT Mathai 

As MathaiMathai Kt has not told me anything about this exquisite painting done as a part of the LKA camp recently held in Derhadun, let me call it 'the Fertility Saint'. Done in acrylic on 4'x5' canvas, this is one of the twin paintings about the other I would write later. Reminding the viewer of the Rajput miniature traditions and also the famous Abhisarika Nayika painting/s, this has two central figures: a Sufi like Saint and a tree with buds about to be burst into blossoms. This Saint figure started appearing in Mathai's works after his Clown series and He is a stand in presence for all saints who are dead, living and yet to be born. The cloud is at once a reality and metaphor; it reflects the tonsured hill, together making an hour glass image to represent our losing time. The artist reminds us of the early atrocities done by us against the earth, which was a predominant theme in his works earlier. But there is hope. Pink of the saintly garb shows the femininity and fertility. Lo! Wherever he has passed is now budding to hues and life. The grey of the future would turn colourful as the Saint walks into it. Mathai resonates kumaranasan: do not be inert in meditation. Come, we need more like your here for this earth.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Amma of Ratheesh

Work by Ratheesh T

Mother's Day is gone. Still we are not alone. How it could be? Sang Michael Jackson. Ratheesh T ArtRatheesh likes MJ and knows how to dance like him. In the Facebook I see this work by Ratheesh. Titled 'Amma' this work is done in 2016 and was exhibited in Mirchandani Gallery. This work is multilayered in meaning and autobiographical. Here is a kitchen with a sophisticated chimney, stove and shelves. Ratheesh cooks and serves his mother. There is fish curry, Avial and brown rice. Look at their feet. They have not worn sandals. They remain rooted despite all facilities. Look at the mother; she is dwarfish and impish. She looks like a raw goddess. Did you say savage deity? Ratheesh's facial hairs are styled showing his modernity. But his bare body shows the non-detached nature in him. Haven't you noticed that they left the crockery safe in the shelf and eat from coarse plates? Is modernity just an external demand and in reality it's just a burden to be happily put away in shelves? Ratheesh paints life in its stark appearances but you see when reality is depicted with passion it appears as a dream; fictional. That's why of late Ratheesh paints dreamscapes too so that they look real for the viewers. Ratheesh has polished his language over a decade. His 'Amma' is a work that would last in history.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Letters to Namdeo Dhasal: Taste of Protest Poetry by Chandramohan S

The book, 'Letters to Namdeo Dhasal' by Chandramohan S

Poetry moves and absolute poetry moves absolutely, if we go by Bacon’s style of saying it. What if poetry is created to fuel a movement? That should be a different kind of poetry. Poets separate themselves from the generic fields of poetic utterances in order to write ‘separate/Dalit’ poetry. In such locations poetry is a mutual process; it is created for a niche audience by (a) niche poet. Appreciation of such poetry can happen only in a zone of mutual agreement or mutual critique. Poetry written in this fashion writes off the poetry created elsewhere away from this niche. Can Dalit poetry survive on its own within and without its own genre? While the question remains so, there is an inescapability of ‘Dalitness’ in any poetry created out of a Dalit experience. That’s mostly expressed through the language of utterance. Chandramohan S is a poet who calls himself a ‘Dalit Poet’. His second collection of poems titled ‘Letters to Namdeo Dhasal’ released in Delhi stands proof to his Dalit aesthetics. Why he writes poems? Chandramohan answers: ‘I write poems-People have the right to bear arms’ (Write Poetry). Language and the caste ‘hymens’ are his major concerns as he knows language is hijacked for ideological purposes. ‘The adjectives were abandoned/suffixes and prefixes scrambled/Vowels lynched and hung upside down/epithets beheaded’ (Occupied Language). He proudly says: “This poem is not pimple free/is printed on rough paper.’ (Plus Size Poem). There is an urgency to evoke, there is an anger to protest and there is sarcasm to irritate in his poems. I wonder what makes him a poet, his Dalit experience or his poetic ability? Or are they inseparable? If so can the absence of one cancel out the other? The book is published by Desirepaths, Baroda (Venkataraman Divakar). Price: Rs.150/- A good collection of thought provoking poems.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Cats of 99 Lives: Celebrating Cats by Sudhakaran Edakandy

You must be drastically a ‘contemporary’ artist if you have not attempted a ‘cat’ image in your works of art at least once. When artists move from the homo-centric aesthetics to the eco-centric one insignificant beings start appearing in their works. An artist’s greatness and his universal perspective could be measured from the depiction of flora and fauna in his works. Kerala based artist, Sudhakaran Edakandy paints a series devoted to many lives of cats and is currently exhibited at the Lalitha Kala Academy Galleries in Kozhikode. Titled ‘Cats of 99 Lives’ this exhibition features fifty watercolours and three sculptures. Cats are philosophical beings and are great survivors. Their playfulness gives way to some kind of existential seriousness as they grow up. In their detachment they are like ‘Bhishma’ and in their focus they are like ‘Arjuna’. They feature in several comic strips and animation films also. Sudhakaran takes all these aspects into his painterly concerns and has captured the earthly and the other worldly characters of cats. Cats expressing Nava Rasas, a watercolour, is one of the highlights of this exhibition. Sudhakaran’s show is an interesting tribute to our neighbourhood heroes (heroines too) on the roof tops and boundary walls. Also this exhibition indirectly pays rich tribute to the great pictorial traditions like the Kalighat Paintings and the ones created by Ram Kinkar Baij and K.G.Subramanyan. The exhibition continues till 28th May 2017.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Story of Misfortunes: An Effective Installation

Work by Ranjeet Singh
Delivery enabling Oxytocin, a hormonal injection becomes a growth enhancing catalyst in several backward parts of India. To procure girls for sex work, in such places, girls are injected with, mostly with the consent of their parents, this hormone for three to four years. By the time they reach their teens they will have the physical growth of young women in their twenties. Then they are trafficked by the agents to the red streets in urban places. Ranjeet Singh ‘showcases’ this issue in a minimal installation titled ‘A Story of Misfortunes’ by presenting the photographs of some of these girls (with their permission and knowledge) in glass jars along with the vials of Oxytocin and syringes. Ranjeet underlines the pathos by placing one gourd/vegetable which is also injected with the same hormone by profit prone farmers. Born in Jharkhand, Ranjeet obtained MFA from the Banaras Hindu University. He has been painting and documenting the lives of the slum children for five years. Currently Ranjeet has devoted his creative energies to artistically represent the life and times of the coals, coal mine works and the drastic environmental and health issues that the mining has caused in his native state. ‘The Black Earth’ was his recent solo show at the Dhoomimal Gallery in Delhi. A version of the featured installation was also exhibited in the ‘It’s Big’ show by the Po10tial Group curated by me in the CKP Galleries, Bengaluru in 2016. Ranjeet Singh lives and works in Delhi.

NGMA Show - Itihaas

Show Itihaas at NGMA Delhi

National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA New Delhi) celebrates its 63rd foundation day with a sculpture show. The show is already a month old. Twenty two artists are dusted out of the NGMA Collection and are exhibited in a very innovative way. From D.P.Roy Chowdhury to Sankho Chowdhury, from Ram Kinker Baij to Kanai Kunhiraman you have known and less known artists spread out inside and outside of the old building. The exhibition also reiterates that before 'Gupta' period in Indian art there was a mixed period of modernism here.The invisible curatorial intervention is palpable in the display where the packing crates are used both as pedestals and backdrop. This warehouse look of the show makes an oblique connection between the two existences of a work of art; one, before the people, two, far away from their eyes, in the stores. The experimental display, however at times clutters the view. Deliberate dimming of lights also fails at some places. The title of the show 'Itihaas' is apt for the word connotes not only 'history' but also 'the way it happened'. The wall texts tell us that the catalogue writer should not write poem on the show and display there; very naive indeed. NGMA has now a functional cafe. The blasting air-conditioner is a welcoming respite. But the cafe-man tells me that I am the only visitor since morning. Why don't you make the cafe your meeting place, artists? Now the visiting time too has been raised to 7 pm. Itihaas is a must watch exhibition.

The Art of Baiju Neendoor

Work by Artist Baiju Neendoor
Baiju Neendoor is a Qatar based Indian artist. He took Diploma in Painting from the Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikkara in 1991. In his paintings he portrays the futility of violence using an Expressionistic visual language. This particular untitled painting done in acrylic in a 5’x 6’ canvas is one of the latest works by the artist in which he responds (or I interpret) to the current phenomenon of serial rapes and gang rapes in India in general and Kerala in particular. The famous Ardhanareeswara concept is deconstructed as if the male and female principles were two layers of entities within the same body rather than a fused being that respects both the sides and does not discriminate. This de-layered being is standing right in the middle of a forked path that runs into a city in the background, represented minimally by the artist. The male entity seems to have all the control as he holds the threads but a closer look would reveal that he is now simply reduced into a tragic figure in a very precarious situation as his male organ is being pulled by the female entity by her left hand in the right hand she holds a pair of scissors. 

The tragedy of the man however does not evoke any sympathy in the viewer for s/he understands that he is the maker of his own fate. This act of a possible de-membering reminds one of the infamous case of Bobbitising happened in the US in 1993. Lorena Bobbit had cut off the male organ of her abusive husband using a kitchen knife. Here Baiju Neendur expresses his angst against the ‘rape’ incidents by empowering the rebelling female entity in the traditional half man-half woman concept. He further ridicules the male by making him hold a polythene carry bag in his left hand to ‘preserve’ his maleness if the menacing act of his female self takes place. I found this work immensely interesting.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Amana: the Visual History of Injustice by Chitrakaran Murali

Chitrakaran Murali T

Chitrakaran T Murali does not call himself an Ambedkarite. Nor does he claim any role in Dalit activism in Kerala or elsewhere. But there is something in his paintings that makes him a fellow traveller of various movements that attempt the Dalit Deconstruction and reconstruction of (dominant) history. Using his research interest and his artistic skills, Murali creates his paintings that speaks of a past from which the articulations of the downtrodden have been expunged and to certain extent till date remain almost obscure if not invisible altogether. Murali's artistic life has certain interesting aspects. 

Murali T aka Chitrakaran (artist/painter) is an artist who does self curating his works. His life is a living gallery and the book that he has come out with is a moving museum of sorts though humble in stature. The story of the artist goes like this: Three decades back Murali joined Trivandrum Fine Arts College as a painting graduate student. Due to familial reasons he had to take up a job as a graphic artist in one of the leading dailies. After a couple of years he resumed his education in the college while working at the newspaper desk as an artist at night. In 1990 he got an opportunity to participate in a camp with the leading artists like Sudhir Patwardhan, Bhupen Khakar, Manu Parekh and so on. As a very young artist he was so awestruck by those artists yet he did not feel like following anybody's style. The painting he did in the camp had the image of a mirror in it. Murali had thought that art should be something that reflected the viewer, not the artist himself.

Twenty long years from 1993 to 2013, Murali kept himself away from the art scene. Perhaps he had his reasons to do so. In 2006, Murali started a blog and started posting his works and narrating the historical background that inspired the images in his works. Then Facebook happened; with this like many others this artist too got a good number of followers that inspired him further to explore what he liked most; the expunged history of the Dalits, Women and the downtrodden. As Murali has been writing his notes in Malayalam the history behind his works remained limited though his works gave the hint of his frustration with the mainstream history and his perennial need for articulating his own analysis of it via visual and verbal terms. 

'Amana' is Murali's art book that serves not only as a book of documentation of his works and writings which have appeared in his blog and social media posts but also as a moving gallery and library; the gallery exhibits his works in the pages of the book and the verbal narratives attached to them functions as the library. This portable library-gallery amuses me immensely because I recognise it, despite my disagreements in certain aspects of his aesthetics as well as the literal interpretations of history, as one of the parallel and subaltern streams of art making and proliferating which have to be recognised by art historians, curators and critics in order to avoid succumbing to the suction power of the glamorous mainstream social history and the history of visual art. Recognising the works of Murali is a way of resisting the hegemony of the mainstream art and it is also a way of the plurality of cultures within and under the blanket term of 'culture.'

The title 'Amana' comes from the deciphering of a Tamil-Brahmi script inscribed on a clay artefact excavated at the Muziris-Pattanam ancient port site. The meaning of the word is 'Buddhist or Jain Monk'. Either it came from the word 'Shramana' or this word was Sanskritized from the 'Amana' word. Murali titles his book/gallery/library, 'Amana' because he pitches his interpretations of history in the Buddhist-Hindu binary. According to him Kerala was a Buddhist state/land and after Shankaracharya's conquest of India philosophically, the Buddhists were persecuted in Kerala in a big way. Murali traces the etymology of several words related to religious and social rituals back to this conquest that Hinduism had over the Buddhism. 

According to Murali Shankaracharya's overpowering of the Buddhist scholars in the royal courts in India was not just intellectual but it had a lot to do with diplomatic coercion, physical abuse and even assassination. In order to finish Buddhism, Murali says, Sankaracharya used distorted logic and he demanded the heads of the defeated Buddhists in return. He says Thalappoli ( the practice of women standing in a row with a plate full of flowers, rice and a full coconut as a part of temple rituals) is in fact the reception of the victorious Hindus with the heads of the assassinated Buddhists. He also asks why the 'Mokaambika Devi' is a mute Devi who in fact is the goddess of learning and education. According to Murali the centre piece of the original idol in the Kolloor temple is that of the severed head of a learned Jain nun. Murali paints his findings in symbolic graphic terms and forwards his verbal narrative as a part of it in the book.

In Amana we see not only the interpretation of socio-religious historical issues but also pure social issues based on caste hierarchy. More than hundred years back in Kerala women were not allowed to wear upper garments. Besides in order to curb the upward growth of the downtrodden the rulers used to impose various kinds of taxes on them. One of the most ridiculous taxes was mulakkaram or breast tax. Depending on the size of the breasts women from the lower castes needed to pay taxes. Nangeli, a woman from the lower caste was the first one to rebel against it. When the court officer came to collect the tax, she asked him to wait, she went to the pond, took a dip and came back only to severe her breasts and place them on a plantain leaf before the officer. She died of excessive blood loss. Her husband jumped into her funeral pyre. This incident had forced the king to repeal the breast tax. This historical incident however finds only a minimal mention in the mainstream history. Murali paints three works based on this in three different times.

Similar was the case of Kuriyedathu Thathri. Brahmin women were supposed to marry very old men and were soon widowed. After that their lives were tortious while the menfolk made temporary alliances with Nair women. Thathri was a Brahmin woman. She was accused of illicit relationship and was excommunicated. Before that there was a long trial and to the shock of everyone, Thathri revealed how she had been abused by many men since childhood. She took out the names of 64 men! Murali paints Thathri as a bold woman. Like this the artist interprets each historical anecdote with critical acumen. No surprise that Murali is never celebrated by the media or by the art festivals that take a lot of pride in being 'political'.

Personally speaking, I have certain differences with the ways in which Murali has critiqued certain myths. I have found over reading for ideological purpose in the myths of Parasurama, Shiva and so on. What I stand for is the reconciliation with the past and resting it for eco-humanistic and cosmo-humanistic purposes. History should be interpreted for not repeating the same folly. Therefore I find the interpretations of Murali quite convincing, gripping and at times quite moving. The paintings have a sense of illustration and graphic art. This may be because of the artist's long professional work as an illustrator and graphic artist. This book, Amana should be seen by all, read by all and above all bought by all for this is an alternative voice in art; whether you agree with it or not, you cannot just ignore it and silence it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reclaiming Durbar Hall for Kerala Artists from Biennale

Durbar Hall Ernakulam
 Durbar Hall, Kochi has assumed a festival mood as it stands clad in decorative flags and specially created festival hangings. Art is a religion with many gods that tolerate each other therefore, the Shiva temple next to the famous hall in a way adds to the devotional sentiments of the surroundings. Two artists namely, Manoj Brahmamangalam and Pramod are at work in creating a decorative installation at the entrance of the hall. The Durbar Hall is getting ready for an exhibition of late KG Subramanyan's works from the collection of Seagull Foundation on Kolkata, jointly presented by the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademi.

Aksharananda with Manoj Brahmamangalam and Pramod

People going to the temple and making the Durbar Hall ground a thorough fare to elsewhere look at the installation arch being created by the artists. They itch to photograph it. People want art and they could relate to the art that they understand. Even if the visitors of Biennale say that Kerala is yet to prepare itself aesthetically to understand international art, people in Kerala know their art. Manoj and Pramod say that even during the Biennale month they had created impressive installations and people had commented (including the foreign tourists) that their installation was better than what they saw at the biennale.

Durbar Hall Ernakulam

However Biennale authorities blinded by the imperialistic ideologies are not ready to entertain or promote Kerala artists. The artists in the biennale trust themselves say that the Kerala artists are yet to use modern technology to use spectacular art. Being the agents of imperialism and capitalism, the anti-nationalist aesthetics of biennale and the promotion of it have been choking the creative streams for the last seven years. It is high time that we all seek a method to put an end to it.

Aksharananda with Manoj Brahmamangalam and Pramod

The first way is to reclaim Durbar hall from the hands of the Biennale Trust. It has created an MOU with the Government of Kerala that during the Biennale year for four months, the Durbar Hall would be given for the use of the Biennale. The best part of the year is thus taken away from the Kerala artists who are denied opportunities to exhibit there in those months. Biennale being monopolistic in all the possible ways, has taken over all the venues in Kochi- Ernakulam by incorporating them as collaterals. So many itinerant gallery spaces have sprung up in the area to present the Biennale supporters' works as collaterals. Ideologically, dumb and foolishly opportunistic, these galleries function as Biennale's 'benamis' during the biennale months.

Durbar Hall Ernakulam

From my extensive interactions with Kerala artists, I have come to feel thus that a majority of the artists do not want to support biennale because if its undemocratic and monopolistic attitudes. As the government is supporting biennale for purely touristic reasons, the artists are hand tied. Artists being a professional group with no organisation to back them up are left literally helpless in Kerala. They are now being bulldozed by the fascist moves of the biennale. Even the Lalitha Kala Akademi is now feeling its hands tied as the best months of the year are given to Biennale. Both the Lalitha Kala Akademi and the artists in Kerala want to reclaim the Durbar Hall back for the use of the artists.

Durbar Hall Ernakulam

Biennale does not show any sense of responsibility towards the Kerala society as it is purely a tourist oriented business venture. Except for the four months once in two years, the biennale authorities are least bothered about the life of the artists and their art of Kerala. These imperialist agents who promote anti- nationalistic art speak a lot about political art but has kept studied silence in all the socio-political issues that have been taking place in the state since 2012. This studied silence is there to placate the religious and caste based politics in Kerala so that the biennale could make hay while the sun shines. Some of the artists who do not want to be identified informed me that they works for money for biennale because all the avenues in culture today work in tandem with biennale authorities and muscle them down to do menial works. Many work for it only because they do not have any source of income.

Durbar Hall Ernakulam

Artists in Kerala are very disturbed about the way Biennale is monopolising cultural spaces and aesthetics. They also feel that the government should realise the folly in supporting the biennale. "Biennale is cultural fascism" says an artist. "But we cannot say /biennale should not take place because the artists are involved there too. We need healthy art environment facilitated by the government so that we could make artistic statements via our works that would be a counter visual narrative against the biennale culture," requesting anonymity he says. Today artists in Kerala are in a mood to reclaim Durbar Hall for themselves.  " The government has given them a lot of money. It has offered them permanent venue also. Now government should give Durbar Hall to artists, and pump in money in all the regional and District art centres so that Kerala's tourism will develop in a  decentralised fashion. We cannot tolerate Biennale's monopoly" says another artist. 

Durbar Hall Ernakulam

The Government should gauge the mood of Kerala's art scene. More than 80% of the artists are not interested in biennale. Even the tourists say that they would like to see Kerala art and culture not he installations that they have seen in their countries. The government should stop funding the Biennale and let it take place as a private initiative. And it should be given only logistic support during the biennale months. The rest of the money should be channelised via Lalitha Kala Akademi and District Tourism Promotion Council and create healthy environment for Kerala artists to flourish. Kerala government  should not support any thing that kills the pride of the state and the national feeling in the name of internationalism. Let the call for reclaiming Durbar Hall for Kerala artists be the first step towards that.