Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Relevance of National Awards in the Time of Fake Political Artists

Johny ML with Akhil Mohan and Sajeesh PA

(This is a near to the fact transcript of my speech delivered at the RLV College of Fine Arts, Thrippoonithura, on the occasion of felicitating Akhil Mohan and Sajeesh PA, the National Lalit Kala Academy Award Winners. Some portions of the speech are elaborated and modified for the link language of English)

Dear friends,

Thank you very much for inviting me to deliver the key note address on the occasion of felicitating Akhil Mohan and Sajeesh PA, who have been conferred with the National Lalit Kala Academy Awards. Both these award winners are the former students in the RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Thrippoonithura and this gesture of felicitating them by the same college is a commendable one because in these days of spectacular art and celebrity artists none cares to give that much importance to the National Award winners. Many people still think that the artists get national awards only when they do certain lobbying and boot licking of the jury members or authorities. I would dwell deeply into this subject a bit later.

However, both Akhil Mohan and Sajeesh PA, two gifted painters who have passed out from this college are lucky because at least a few newspapers have written about their achievement though the so called national dailies published in English language have not given due attention to these award winners. But don’t lose heart. The very fact that at least a few Malayalam newspapers cared to publish this news itself is heartening enough besides the attention and appreciation that these artists have already gained from their friends in the social media. When all other media fail the artists at least the social media these days stand with them. Being a Malayali I feel proud at this moment because I believe this is a good start provided these artists fuel their creativity further and make everyone to take notice of what they do in the coming days. I am sure the media are also going to take notice of it.

Why I say that as artists both Akhil Mohan and Sajeesh PA should feel good about the kind of appreciation that they have already got from their friends and the regional media because recently while I was attending a panel discussion organized by the Bombay Art Society at the NGMA in Mumbai on the topic of ‘Writing on Art in the Regional Languages’, I had randomly asked the audience whether any member of it knew about the National Award Winners from Maharashtra. It was an august audience with stalwarts like Sudhir Patwardhan, Suhas Bahulkar, Shakuntala Kulkarni and Abhay Sardesai among them. None of them had even heard about the National Award of the year let alone the award winners from Maharashtra. I did not insist that they should know, but I said that it was just an indication and a point to be pondered further.

There is a common view about the National Awards; if a National Academy gives an award to a writer or a theatre activist, soon it will be hailed as a great achievement, while if it is given to an artist, none cares much. The persisting complaint from many quarters is this that the media celebrate only the writers, dancers, singers and actors; never the visual artists. Let me explain the reason for this phenomenon. First of all the constituency in which visual arts function is a very limited one. Even the greatest of writer and actor at times do not understand the greatness ingrained in a work of art or in an artist. So while the visual artists take a lot of pride in being readers and viewers of these people’s writings and acts, hardly a few from the other side of the fence accept or acknowledge that they understand art and artists. If at all they do, they do it for the purpose of media, especially when they visit some spectacular art expositions like the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

So, the limitation of visual arts is an inbuilt one; its constituency is very small. Very few people, compared to the general population, make art and very few people appreciate art. Another unfortunate thing is that even among the minority that appreciates art we find a miniscule of members who would think of becoming a patron of the art. A person who boasts to have spent Rs.25 lakhs to buy Italian Marbles for his bathroom prefers to buy a Rs.20/- poster to stick it inside for visual embellishment and never thinks of spending Rs.5000/- to buy an original drawing from an artist who lives in the neighborhood. The media go by the readers’ taste; when readers themselves do not have any taste for visual art, why should they waste their ‘valuable’ space for publishing something about art at all? But that is not the case with literature. Whether you read it or not, you should have a home library. Buying books, even if it is not a largely seen trait, is given preference over buying a work of art for the only one reason, ‘we buy what we understand’. So people buy literature and cinema. They do not understand art so they do not buy it.

I have a different opinion about it. It is not because people do not understand art therefore they do not buy but because they do not have any reason to make an effort to understand art or artists who make art. Let me tell you those people who visit art expos like Kochi Muziris Biennale do not have a different attitude than what they have in them when they visit Vega Land or Disney Land or such theme parks. If we say that people throng in KMB sites because they want to take in the fresh air of art, we are fooling ourselves. It is a touristy thing and people like tourism only because the foreign tourists go there. If foreigners go in certain neighborhood suddenly we understand there is something in there. So we too go there. Secondly we have a problem of too much of literacy. When a society is too much literate in the literary sense, they do not understand anything other than words. Kerala is such a society that thrives in words. Speeches, television debates, social media discussions, reading newspapers and literature are rejuvenating medicines for the Malayalis. To certain extent this is true in the case of Bengalis also. But if you look at the states that never boast of their literacy in fact celebrate their visual artists. You go to Orissa and Bihar, the media celebrate their artists. The artists need not wear the worst fashion or speak in strangely accented English in order to catch attention of the press in those states. Only in Kerala, because of over literacy, the media need extraneous stimulants and atrocious English to give artists news space and column space.

We are in a Catch 22 situation. We have a very active and well informed media as well as a vigilant public. But this public does not want art. As this public does not want art the news media also do not give any attention to the visual artists or art. Now, imagine a different scenario; say, the media are celebrating artists irrespective of awards or exhibitions. All the media give a weekly spot for art. Don’t you think that the people would take interest in art slowly? They would definitely. It is a mutual process; the more the media project arts the more the people lap it up. The more people take interest the more the media talk about it. But somewhere it has to start. The process has to start at some point by some daring people within the media. But unfortunately they go behind the spectacular programs like Kochi Muziris Biennale. Recently Anish Kapoor, the world renowned artist came to Kochi and made a statement like that the Biennale gave the Kerala people a different lesson towards appreciating art. The media celebrated his words. But I would like to ask Mr.Kapoor who is he to say that? What does he know about the aesthetic sensibilities of a Malayali. Why should an average Malayali internalize the forced quantum jump from painting to the cutting edge installations? What is the outcome of such an unlearning and relearning of aesthetics? If I am in the place of media, I would have told Anish Kapoor to get lost. He, like the Kochi Muziris Biennale is an agent to the western garbage to be proliferated in the Indian shore. They want to kill the traditional skills of India and fill in our museums and aesthetical avenues with the western reject garbage hailed by the so called Indian contemporary artists supported by the agencies like Kochi Muziris Biennale.

When we talk about the National Awards in visual arts, I have seen many people raising their eye brows. They doubt the authenticity of these awards because they believe that these awards come by a lot of boot licking and lobbying. Let me tell you, during the art market boom people stopped looking at the National Awards at all. They even stopped doubting the National Awards. Why? Because till then they were lobbying and bootlicking for it. Now with the arrival of the boom, those former lobbyists became the award makers themselves. They no longer needed awards or national agencies. They set up their own awards and started giving to the artists they wanted to promote. I would like to bring the names of the Kashi Art Award, FICA Award, Khoj Award and so many other awards. What did they do? They gave awards to the artists whom they wanted to promote in the market. They sent them abroad for three to six months to come back and do the ‘international art’. This was done deliberately to create a new market. Look at the way Jitish Kallat got the first SKODA prize. Jitish had already been a well established and well exhibited and internationally renowned artist. By giving award to him SKODA was not just appreciating his art but taking him in as brand ambassador. Has SKODA prize done any good to Indian art? Same is the case when the liquor major Absolut joins hands with a renowned artist like Subodh Gupta. They are simply sharing the brand. Now look at Sudarshan Shetty. He is working with Rolls Royce company for a project. Once again, look at these three people, two were/are Kochi Muziris Biennale curators and one is a participant. Do you see the truth of it now?

When the market collapsed in 2008, Indian art market stood the pressure of it for another three more years only to succumb by 2012. Many galleries were closed. Many were relocated to smaller places. Publication of catalogues was stopped. Many artists were dropped from the list of artists of the galleries. So many things happened. At that point some of the well known mid career artists woke up to say that it was time to look at the National Lalit Kala Academy or regional Lalit Kala Academies. Suddenly, when all the other streams were dried out, with most of the awards stopped, they felt that it was time to tap the potential of the National academies. Such opportunists were the artists. I understand that all the Lalit Kala Academies are not transparent. But things are changing these days. National Academies are not offering a future for the artists who have been awarded. It is an appreciation and an indication. The awardees are selected by a jury that thinks that they have the potential to go further. Apart from a National Show and a certificate and cash, no future is assured by the National Academy, which I think is a good thing to do. It is not the state’s job to carry forward the career of an artist. It is not in the art market or business. I am sure that both Sajeesh and Akhil deserved this award that’s why the jury selected them from many other applicants. And this awards gives them a great opportunity and a great responsibility; responsibility unto to themselves.

Let me close this speech by citing one more thing. An artist’s responsibility is not towards the society. Artist has a responsibility to share with the society like any other member of a society. An artist need not necessarily be working from within the system of the society. He/she could choose to be out of it. He could remain in a critical space in between and always negotiate his space for his purpose. There are fake prophets moving around who paint Gandhi, Sree Narayana Guru and Jinnah and call those paintings and sculptures political. There are women artists who paint some female saint and call themselves feminists. It is high time that we recognize all these fake coins and discard them. An artist’s life is not to compromise with the society nor is it to critique the society constantly. An artist’s job is to be the clear conscience of the universe, a mirror held unto himself first and later to others, his efforts are to be directed at finding the larger truths of peace and happiness through the explorations of human potentials and fine tuning of skills. That’s the life and job of an artist. It is good to be together, holding hands and stand in unison. But remember, when you are holding hands on either sides, your hands are no longer free to do your work. Let the hands be free and let them hold whenever need be. Grow wings that could take you beyond the limited desires. One day who knows you want nothing like the young lawyer in Chekhov’s ‘Bet’.

Thank you


(Postscript: In my speech I also mentioned why artists should focus on what they are good at and continue doing that. This would take them to the minds of people. While many other artists could be forgotten in Kerala, the works of Kanai Kunhiraman would remain as he has done what he is good at throughout his creative career, which he still continues vigorously. Take my words as prophecy, there will be a day when there will be temples for Kalabhavan Mani and Vinayakan for they are the people who did (are doing) what they had/have been good at. They are the rock stars who touched the minds of the people. Artists also could do that)

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