Monday, April 16, 2018

A Strong Political Artist with a Masterpiece: Watch out artist Sumeshan K

Artist Sumeshan K
Some artists make one masterpiece and the rest from their studios would be assessed by that one particular work. Some other artists keep on making works to reach that moment of making a masterpiece. Rare are those artists who make many masterpieces and still remain fresh in their other creative works. Masterpieces take place in an artist’s life when he is at the peak of his creativity and many more masterpieces follow in his career when that peaking of creativity refuses to fall. Remain there at the peak of creativity demands either a constant sense of elation or the persistence of primordial oppressions. While the permanent state of joy takes the artist makes the artists levitate than fathom deeper, the permanent awareness of historical oppression helps the artists to dig deep and find the reasons for such oppression. This is a sort of scientific search tinged with an emotional fervour  it is a clarion call for liberation with a heightened sense of justice. Those artists who lack in both or oscillate between these two poles do make ‘good’ art but they never ‘lift’ or ‘hurt’ the sensibilities of the onlookers and the fellow artists. That’s why I say, in an artist a masterpiece happens when he is at the peak of his creative sensibility. He turns out to be a medium to manifest for it is at that moment of creation that he channelizes the awareness imparted to him by the history into the work of art. 
If you know this truth you wouldn’t miss the works of Sumeshan K, an artist from north Kerala, currently living and working in Chennai. This twenty eight year old artist has a Degree in Painting from the Fine Arts College, Thrissur and a Post Graduation in the same from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. Sumeshan has already taken the paths that the other artists of his age would choose in their formative years. He had already had his stint in the Kanoria Arts Centre in Ahmedabad and a scholarship has brought him now to Chennai where he spends his time creating paintings and drawings at the Lalithakala Academy Regional Centre Studios. What makes Sumeshan stands out from the artists of his age is the fact that he has already done his masterpiece. It may be a tall claim from my side but looking at an ‘untitled’ work done by Sumeshan which sits broodingly at his studio in Chennai stands evidence to my claim. All the visitors in the studio have noticed that work and must have thought about it as a masterpiece but may be for the first time I would like to articulate it for the studio is not frequented by many art critics and writers these days. 

A masterpiece generally should have a title; a name. But some masterpieces do not have a name to begin with and in due course of time it gets different names from different people and one of them, which is strong enough to compete with the other names would stick and the future would know the work with that name; interestingly that name which is an attribution than an original appellation may go just the opposite direction to what had been thought by the artist during the time of its making. But masterpieces have this tendency to withstand not only time but also misnomers and bad interpretations. Hence, let me make the first attempt to name this work which I think should stick: ‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’. This explanatory title has the meaning of the work embedded in it. Sumeshan comes from a tribal family and the historical injustice inflicted on to his own people through thousands of years has condensed in him as a very special awareness about his existence in this society and as an artist he has understood the need for resisting all such injustices. May be as a educated young man Sumeshan himself has not undergone such socio-cultural discriminations; I cannot be sure on this because even in the egalitarian educational institutions in India we find caste oppressions, which obviously comes as a result of one’s physical appearance, linguistic abilities, economics status, family position, geographical locations from one hails and so on. 
‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’ has a female character in the middle of the painting whose body is bend and her hands (more than two in number emphasizing her ‘divine’ nature) are in a motion suggesting a self flagellation, whose impact is highlighted by the reddening of her own back. The reddened circled looks like a dark pool of thick blood or the color change of her dark skin because of the never ending spanking. The blood spilled from the pool seems to have spread all over her thick and curly hair that has fallen forward covering her face. This redness could also be interpreted as the rise of a red moon whose red light spilling over the cascade of her hairs turning the pain into something eerily romantic. She stands in a special circle (as circles show demarcated spaces or boundaries, the transgressions of which could be detrimental to the existence of the one who is destined to stand inside the circle) full of venomous snakes hissing aggressively at something/someone outside the pictorial frame. Just ahead of that we could see a dog agitated and barking at an invisible presence. There is a dramatic light falling over the protagonist and makes the circle precisely a yellow moon. It looks like a night ritual but a very poignant one. The painting means more than it appears. Sumeshan says that it is a ritual of resistance of his own people or rather a ritual that he has devised artistically for his people who have been oppressed by the feudal lords for many centuries. There used to be custom that a tribal youth had to present his newly-wed bride to the feudal lord before he could consummate his marriage. In the case of agriculture the yield was to go to the feudal master and the tiller had to go with meager portions. Such gross injustice has resulted into socio-political resistance which unfortunately gets curbed by the state machineries that collude with the feudal lords. Therefore, Sumeshan’s painting imagines a ‘bride’ who beats herself up as a ritual of resistance and all her anger along with that of her people and society turns into a pack of hissing snakes and a howling dog that move like a military contingent towards a common oppressor who by default becomes the focus of the painting. The more I look at this painting the more I understand its masterpiece quality and you may find it too.

What intrigues me is the red color that has come very deliberately in this masterpiece work of Sumeshan. The red could have been just seen as the redness that spills out from the bruised back of the bride. But in Sumeshan’s work titled ‘Korathi and Comrade’ (An Outcaste Woman and the Comrade), even without a trace of red, I see red; in fact this work is a black and white one done out of charcoal, watercolor and dry pastel. But I would call it a ‘RED’ painting. Only thing that I want to clarify is that how critical or appreciative is the artist of this ‘red’ for it is not a simple red but the political red, the Communist red. This work , Korathi and Comrade has everything that leads to a visual critique of Communist (Marxist) movement in Kerala especially among the backward and tribal people. Started off as the redeemers of these sets of people, the Communist parties slowly moved away from their causes and started self feudalizing themselves. In the process, the extreme leftists got their foothold amongst the tribal people and such forces are called ‘Maoists’ today. Sumeshan is not a Maoist but an artist. But he sees the failure of ‘red’ of all kinds including the Maoists. Let me explain how it is etched in this particular work.
Korathi is a traditional field worker woman and her name gets smudged as she is often called by her caste/tribe name. But in 1930s and 40s during the political strengthening of the left in Kerala and elsewhere the working class was taken as a unified lot by overlooking their tribal/caste wise varieties and differences. Caste, a defining social ill was overlooked by the leftists and it was replaced by the Class Struggle. In the process, the (lower) castes got romanticized in the propagandist literature and theatre as they were shown as the right owners of land and the rightful heirs of a possible revolution. Symbolism of a sanitized, energized, muscled working class was borrowed from the Stalinist Russia and we could see the same symbolism in Sumeshan’s painting with a major alteration. In the place of the well muscled factory workers, we see emaciated field workers and on their sickle and hammer we could see an owl perched precariously. The meaning is at once cynical and ominous; owl is a symbol of darkness as well as a potent symbol of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Sumeshan puns these two meanings (how the life of the tilling class has turned dark and how the hope of richness still remains a ludicrous possibility). On the left side of the painting we see a stylized ‘Korathi’ raising her sickle to the sky where a dark moon is seen ‘shining’. The woman’s farm laborer status is highlighted with ‘tools’ and the presence of a stack of paddy. The ritualistic headgear and the dramatic costume take us directly to the famous song from a KPAC Drama (that is the counterpart of IPTA) that says ‘Ponnarivaalambiliyil kanneriyunnole’ (Oh girl, who glances at the golden sickle of a moon). The romanticizing of the farm workers and their integration with the upper castes, we understand from this painting, ironically remains a romantic dream and the possibility of such integration seems to be absolutely elusive. This tableau like painting has a centrally positioned coconut tree (which is a stand in for the Kerala state) and we see a dog urinating on it; I need not elaborate further on this. The choice of the artist to remove the red color from this painting is a great choice in itself; the red revolution seems to have lost its color! But the artist has taken that red to the tribal people and their self punishment for upholding their dignity. 

Sumeshan is a wonderful artist and he has to be seen and understood by the people who have a leftist thinking because it is through this aesthetical criticism that the left could correct itself. The chances are not remote that Sumeshan becomes a cynosure of the right wing people simply for criticizing the left for its failures. But that would be simply a hijacking. Sumeshan should be seen, critiqued and celebrated by the people who still believe in democracy and the people’s right to land and justice. Sumeshan is an artist who thinks a lot about the people’s right to have land for living and farming. In one of his untitled works we see the upper portion of a skeleton lying horizontally in a buried position. A closer look reveals that the skeleton is embellished by landscapes and farms. It looks like a skeleton dreaming its land; it is the dream of a farmer who died without owning a piece of land but tilled others’ lands for nothing, for torture and shame only. No political party could redeem them. Their red has lost its color and has become dark. If you are talking about political art, it is high time that you look at the works of Sumeshan and artists like him.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Some Thoughts about Art Viewers

Any talk regarding art viewers beckons a series of questions. Who is an art viewer or the spectator of art? Should she be an informed person or a casual enthusiast? Where does he reside and how far does he travel to see art? Which are the places that she expects to see art? Why all those people who look at the works of art are not qualified as art viewers? What is the minimum qualification that one needs to become an art viewer? These questions may sound a bit outlandish because most of us think that viewing art does not need any special qualification and one could be an art viewer at any given point of time. Also the post modernists amongst us would argue that anything and everything around us is a work of art therefore we are constantly watching art works. While all these answers are valid in their own contexts, the most feasible answer could be sought from the living and lived examples that we see in the context of art production and proliferation. For the time being let us forget that the works of art happen or take place everywhere around us and we are constantly watching them. And let us pitch our argument in the fact that the works of art are produced in certain places and are exhibited in certain specified places. Some may hugely offended by reading this for them art is no longer a ‘special’ thing produced somewhere and shown elsewhere. But we will come to that a bit later. To begin with let us say, an artist creates a work of art in his studio and the works thus produced are exhibited in a gallery or a museum.

In one of the earlier essays I had explained how artists seek recognition and appreciation more than money when it comes to the exhibition context. Money is an outcome but appreciation and recognition are the direct impacting that an artist seeks when she exhibits her works. While money as an outcome could remain elusive and tentative (till the actual dealings are done and money is transacted) within the gallery space till the last moment of the exhibition, appreciation by the viewers is something pre-assured in an exhibition space. Once the exhibition is formally opened and the viewers/patrons flow in, what the artist craves for is some words of recognition; it could be a cursory enquiry about the textures, forms or about the theme. It could be an enthusiastic conversation on the school of style that the viewer wants you to be an associate. You could agree with his point of view or dispute it; however, the engagement is all the more satisfactory for the artist. Some viewers do not talk at all. They don’t even look at the face of the artist. But they do spend a lot of time before each work of art on display. Looking at them is the real pleasure for the artist; a complicated pleasure that is eked out of the thought about the viewers’ reflections. Viewers are a difficult lot, if you have sit in a gallery while your exhibition is on, you would know it. Many are very stingy with appreciative words; many are stingy in expressions; many try to ignore the artist; many often hang an enigmatic smile on their lips which could put the artist into depression at times. Some viewers play too pricey to be neglected. An artist during her exhibition is more mentally troubled than her gallerist because of these ‘viewers’.

Who are these viewers? Where do they come from? Why do they play pricey? They do because they are very valuable people in the art scene though nobody openly accepts this fact. There are different types of viewers. First of all, there are adamant art lovers. They can’t even explain their love for art. They like to look at the works of art and be happy about it. Such people are like the eclectic readers. They just love reading books so they keep on reading. Secondly, there are art fraternity viewers. This set shows a tribal behavior. These viewers have well demarcated roles within the art scene as (fellow) artists, critics, art writers, art historians, art friends, small time collectors, big time collectors, art dealers, gallerist’s friends, party goers, celebrities and so on. Then we have exclusive artists as viewers. When one artist exhibits it becomes a family necessity that the other artists go and see his works. The artist who is currently exhibiting definitely thinks that only her fellow artists understand her better than anybody else. The artist may say the same thing to the critic and the art writers. Here I would like to avoid the collectors’ lot as devoted viewers for their viewing has got a different purpose; the purpose to collect or not to collect. The last but not the least set of viewers is comprised of people who just walk into see an exhibition. They are not compulsive exhibition goers as we have seen with the first lot. But they are people who actually decide to get out of their homes and catch up a show in the town. They may not have any previous experiences in looking at works of art or they may not be regular in galleries. But they do come out of their homes and enter the galleries once in a while. And I would say these are the people who make an exhibition ‘successful.’ If anywhere in the world, an art show becomes a blockbuster show, it is because of these people who ‘decide’ to go and ‘have a look’.  

Their decision to go and take a look at the works of art on display may not be directed or driven by an expert opinion or the public opinion. Sometimes these could be the reasons for such a decision. But one cannot say it for sure whether their visit to a gallery at a given moment is decided by an expert opinion seen in a public forum or it was just a compulsion to catch up with something that would perhaps become something historical in their life time. Such viewers, I would say are created by the dynamics of history. Such dynamics of history could be seen only in a society whose members are cosmopolitan in outlook and derive some pleasure and pride in looking at something that is ‘framed’ and ‘displayed’ in a demarcated space. This lot may be looking at film posters, theatre posters, public sculptures, graffiti and many such public art pieces in their daily commuting. But they don’t spend a few minutes to delve deep into them. The daily visual might become a part of their visual memory or cultural understanding about the places and spaces where they live but such etching in memories may not be indelible as the grooves of such etching could be facile and shallow, which could be replaced by another set of daily visuals. But if they take some time to go into a gallery or a specially demarcated place for art and look at the displayed art pieces, then it is a conscious act, a choice which could change their attitude towards life forever. 

A viewer is created by the dynamics of history and his/her ability to feel that dynamics in the air. When a political movement happens, many people who have been apolitical in all their lives suddenly make a decision to come out and join the demonstrations in the streets. They are the people who have felt the dynamics of history in the air. At the same time there are millions of people in the same city who remain in their homes or work places, pretty much aware of the goings on but are unaffected by the force of the events. In the case of the making of a viewer also these factors work. Hence, if a person walks into a gallery, we should understand that he could become a ‘real’ viewer for his decision to come there must be a choice and for him it must be a life changing experience. Once he is hooked to the experience he would like to replicate it in different times and in different situations. In this context we could also say that a viewer is a person who volunteers to walk into a gallery. She is one of the people from the public who make that crucial choice of being a volunteer for looking at art. This person may not have seen any review of the show, she may not have any friendship with the artist, she may not have even heard of the artist, it may be her first visit to a gallery; but there is something that goads her into the gallery and she would become a permanent art admirer provided her first visit has generated some life changing experience in her. 

Taking these into consideration I would say an art viewer is always in the making and he need not necessarily be an art insider. He/she could be a member of the public who makes a choice to visit an exhibition. This person cannot be taken for granted because in our society there are many such people who are waiting in wings for the right time to make an entry. If they were not there the art scene would have been a very boring one with the same people (friends, family and fellow artists) exhibiting and viewing the works of art. A viewer is a person who is there to give you a strange but memorable encounter. This is the meeting of two hearts and brains. That viewer in her decision to look at your work of art has made a historical decision to be under the influence of your art. For that person to the works of art may offer a chance encounter with revolution and beauty. Such things rarely happen; a meeting of beauty and revolution. A bloodless revolution that would make two people fall in love with the same idea and would remain in an invisible relationship without even communicating about it. I do not mean to say that a set of people who just get hoarded inside a gallery or a museum for the purpose of ‘visit’ or ‘selfie’ qualify as ‘viewers’ in the same sense. 

How do that historical dynamics take place vis-à-vis an exhibition? The presence of a set of works of art in a gallery could create a ripple in its surroundings. It gets mediated to the public by word of mouth or by active publicity and critical mediations. But these do not assure the arrival of the viewers in the gallery. An invisible rapport should be created between the people of the city and information about the work of art. The strength of such information should be so strong that it does not miss the antenna of the sensitive among the public. Once this transmission is done the people make the ‘choice/decision’ to walk into the gallery. They do not know what brought them there; was it mere curiosity or their deep seated interest to see the works of art. Nobody can say anything. Only that encounter could reveal it. Hence the arrogance of the artists and the gallerists that the general public does not understand art should be nipped in the bud itself. If one removes all the mystery around the art and the critical mediation that at times confuses than explains, viewers would automatically enjoy what they see. Often the viewers say that the symbolism (private symbolism created by the artists) that they witness in the works of art is too difficult to crack. I do not say that a work of art should be an easy give away but it could have explanatory tools so that the viewer gets into the core of it. But unfortunately to ward off such historical viewers, the galleries and artists mystify works of art as much as they could. But there are demystified art with lot of mundane symbolism which is an absolute give away. In my view such simplification of art and resorting to easy and stereotypical symbolism would not help to create a historical viewer, rather it would push a potential viewer into the rut of habit and familiarity. That is one of the biggest traps that the viewers have to escape while looking at the works of art. But what are these works with stereotypical symbolism? Also what are these works with desirable symbolism that helps the viewers remain on their track to glory? Perhaps, another essay would explain the difference between mundane symbolism and exceptionally fresh ones. 

(Images for illustrative purposes only taken from the Internet)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Art Patrons and Viewers as Patrons

The question that I raised in the last essay was regarding the nature of the (art) patrons/clients/consumers. In this essay, my intention is to elaborate on that subject and see the conventional understanding about it could help in any way in a changed scenario where the artists have almost become obsessed with the idea of patronage; or rather seem to do so. There may be some voices that would come up to dispute this aspect of artistic obsession with patronage and such voices would definitely argue that the primary intention of the artist is not the existence of a patron but creativity itself. In this front I cannot raise a counter argument for the voice of earnestness is true beyond any doubt. Almost all the artists who are not doing ‘commissioned’ works at any given time and are involved in their studio practice, while working on their works of art do not really think about the possible patrons. But at the same time I would add that the moment an artist finishes a work of art, from somewhere or nowhere this thought about the possible patrons somehow creeps into the mind of the artist. That is not a wrong thing to happen. On the contrary that is the right thing to happen because the moment a work of art is finished within the four walls of a studio (I am still thinking of an artist working from a conventional studio) even the artist cannot predict its possible trajectories of journey and the encounters that it might experience. While certain amount of predictions are possible about the possible patrons along the way, beyond a point it is impossible to conceive the nature of the patrons in whose hands or homes the work of art is going to find a permanent or a temporary home. 

Here again the concern seems to be overtly of a patron who would shell out money to possess the work of art in concern. But does a patron mean only a buyer or a collector? Who is a patron and what exactly is his/her nature? The Latin origin of the word ‘Patron’ is ‘Pater’ which means ‘father’. This very definition should tell us the ideology of a patron in any field though the nature of a patron has been undergone various evolutionary processes and currently the word has been used in many other contexts without its original underpinnings. The etymological meaning of the word tells us that a patron is always a male and a father figure. During the early days of social organization under religious and royalty, religious establishments were the patrons (fathers) and an equal role was played by the royal kings and emperors. In a polite society an artist was a person who was supposed to obey the wishes of the father and create according to His needs. Thinking of a female patron (then it should be matron) was an impossible task as women were kept not only out of decision making but also out of money making. Deprived of both power of discretion and power of transaction women more or less remained outside the parlance of art patronage and it was always the Father who took all the decisions regarding art. It took many years that had seen the separation of religion from state, industrial revolution, evolution of the modern individual self and feminist activisms, for facilitating a change in the idea of patronage. Today, patron is also a matron and a patron need not necessarily be someone who always ‘buys’ or ‘collects’. He/she could simply be a promoter of the art and artist simply by frequenting the art shows and artists’ studios.

Today’s patron is also a viewer; a spectator. He/she frequents the places where an artist presents his/her works. He would follow the artist very closely both physically and intellectually. When it is needed he would write about him in the magazines and journals and also would introduce him and his works in the cultural circles that he frequents. By doing this he makes a contribution to the life and works of the artist/s. And in rare chances, this viewer could become a patron in the conventional sense too. That means, he could buy an odd work of art for the sheer pleasure of it. To put these observations in differently, I would say, a patron is a person who is a fellow traveler of the artist; this travel could involve collecting works of art from the artist or even becoming a frequenter in his art shows. Out of these patrons, an artist would definitely like the former one for the financial input that he/she is able to make but at the same time the artist cannot just do away with the patrons who come simply to look at the works of art on display. An artist is a hungry person who looks for appreciations by words of praise, criticism and consolation. Perhaps, someone who gives a lot of value to appreciation by the patrons wouldn’t even mind if his works are not sold at all. Human beings are suckers for appreciation and recognition. Even a hungry person’s face would shine up if someone tells him/her that he looks beautiful even when he is tired. Give him a free meal, he would satisfy his hunger but would forget you immediately. The face and words of a person who says good words about an artist gets etched in his/her memory than the face of a benefactor who has made a cursory buying. But yes, the artists do remember the names and faces of the patrons who makes substantial buying.  

In an art scene where collection of works of art for sheer pride has been replaced by the idea of investment the idea of patronage also has changed considerably. Today’s buyer is not a loyal buyer though there are a few still around as the last specimens of an extinct species. Today’s buyer is a person with an eye on profit. He knows what he is investing in and the possible benefits that he would reap from such investment in art. This works against the meanings of the word ‘patron’ which come closer to ‘charity’, ‘philanthropy’ and ‘benefactor’. The buyer is not a person who would give much stress on these ideas of philanthropy and charity. He is not out here to help an artist or promote his aesthetics. His idea is to invest money in a particular product which has a speculative price in the future markets. In this matter he is advised by art consultants and galleries. Therefore these art consultants and galleries are not really the patrons either. They no longer want their galleries and viewing rooms are to be visited and frequented by the people who just come for aesthetical appreciation alone. They want potential buyers to walk in and make the investment. They know how to coax them to do that. Hence, the patron in the form of an appreciator has more or less lost the value in the eyes of the gallerists, dealers and art consultants. They believe that an art establishment could be functioned without the presence of patrons as viewers and fans of aesthetics. This has started reflecting in the art scene ever since the art market became global collapsing the regional boundaries though much of the patrons still have parental affiliations with the artists due to their specified citizenships. However, the global superstars in art investment and patronage have transcended the geographical affiliations and citizenship and have become real global market players but their number is very limited and remains inaccessible to a large contingent of artists from all over the world. Or to put it in other words, this large contingent of artists remains invisible to these global patrons due to their provinciality and immobility. 

 I do not mean to say that there are no art patrons in the provinces and regions. They are there but unfortunately they keep emulating the bigger players in the market in all the possible ways, at times almost making their acts farcical and pathetic. However, they do play a role in keeping the local market active but again the problem is that the model that they replicate is insular in many ways and within that insularity they are able to promote only a very few artists and slowly they become patrons and middlemen at once. While they behave as local patrons to the local artists, in the next level they become the middlemen for the bigger players elsewhere. This chain continues creating a very impenetrable hierarchy because as the hierarchy strengthens itself, the aesthetical decisions get homogenized and the plurality that is a prerequisite for the flourishing of cultures in any country slowly fades off either by the conversion of the artists into this new homogenized mode or by the gradual withdrawal of many artists into marginal areas of art activities. That means erstwhile patrons become dealers and a sort of feudalism comes to get reestablished in the art market. Today we see the adverse effects of this feudal set up in the market and it would take a total revolution to make any difference to it. Interestingly, in the present scenario nobody knows what could be the right way to create an alternative patronage in order to facilitate that revolution. Most of the people in the art scene know for sure that the survival is assured only by accepting the existing terms and conditions of the homogenized market or perish. 

In such a scenario, artists can survive only one kind of patronage; that is the patronage of the viewers and the critics and historians even if their opinion on the works of art could be severely critical and at times detrimental to the positive thinking of the artists. But it is important have someone to speak about the art. Many viewers who frequent the galleries (therefore worthy of being called as patrons of art) generally try to speak to the artists and get some inspiration. In fact, it is the other way round. If you talk to an artist whose works are on display, your kind words would make him/her happy than a wad of currency notes offered to him as charity (there are some crazy rich people who would walk into a gallery, offer some money to the artist as a booking advance for a particular work and never turns up to collect the work). In my view, the first step towards change in patronage is to create more viewers for the art than to create more buyers for the art. When there is an increase in viewership, there would be a chain of reactions happening around it. A flurry of economic activities would follow this crowd which in turn would bring the attention of the media. Here you may ask me whether it is all once again going back to the economic aspect. Yes, patronage is eventually to help artists financially also. But my point is that today the patronage has become quite insular, exclusive and partial. It has created an economic hegemony within the art scene. This can be broken down provided different levels of economic patronage are created within the art scene. This is possible only when more and more people take interest in works of art and visit the galleries and say a few words of critique or appreciation to the artists. History happens with people. Market is only an addition to the history. History could be fashioned by market only when people involve in markets. Otherwise it would remain as a vintage section raising only curiosity and anxiety but never interest and love for the objects of art and their creators.

It is easier said than done; the creation of viewers. The first question is why there should be viewers at all? As one of the seminar respondents in Kochi asked, why someone insists that people should come and see their art. If you have the right to create a work of art and put it in public, the public has the right to see it as well as avoid it. There are a number of books being published every day and the reality is that we do not read all what is published. Still there is a flourishing book market and that is not concentrated in one place. But the difference is that there are readers for the books even if they are not a united lot and are seen dispersed all over the place. Compared to them art viewers are very less in number. If the numbers are increased, even if they are not a united lot, there would be a market generated around them. All the books are not collectibles; they are multiples and easily affordable. Similarly, all the works of art need not necessarily be strictly collector’s choices; they could be multiples and be targeting a plural patronage and of course in an affordable price. The possibility of an alternative market could be created only through the creation of mainstream viewership. That may sound a bit ironic but that is the reality. You create mainstream viewers for the art, then you see the magic of alternative markets sprouting up around them. All the markets need not necessarily driven by products; it could be driven by consumers also. In the art scene, there is still a chance for the creation of an alternative market through the creation of viewers; which means a consumer driven market than a product and capital driven one. Seen against this scenario, we understand how difficult it is to find viewers for works of art. And the question is who is the art viewer? May be that demands another essay. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Art Market and the Realities

In a seminar held in Kochi recently, a heated debate was initiated logically and ‘naturally’ by the keynote speaker, Prof.Ajayakumar on the topic of ‘art market’. Though the topic was not straight away placed for debate, before anything could be done to control the outcome, it was cascaded into a flood of observations, recounting of personal experiences regarding market, a total rejection of the very idea of market and the insistence on an ideal space for producing and consuming art and the need for finding an alternative market. Two people, namely artist Lakshmanan and Prof.C.B.Sudhakaran, from the audience categorically said that if you were in the market, you should be prepared to live up to its rules. ‘If not better do your art and revel in the very idea of ‘creation for self expression and satisfaction.’ Though such assertion sounded fatalistic and overtly capitalistic, everyone could feel the sense of freedom such a statement could impart through its acceptance. I was personally asked by some audience members whether I had accepted market as a reality or not. ‘All for it’ was my answer; yes, I accept market but the rider to go with it is the ethical practices that a market could uphold. If I put it in other words it has to be in the form of a question unto myself and to all; do such ethical practices exist in the market? This small essay is an attempt to narrate the arguments that I had placed before the audience in this matter of art market and also to vivify certain points that I thought were not pushed across well.
First of all, (the general) market and art market cannot be equated or discussed using the same parameters or methods. What makes them be the part of the same family is their adherence to the idea of market where commodities are transacted for monitory benefits. There are two ways of creating a market and the resultant profit making: one, a need of the consuming populace is identified and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that demand/need. Two, a need for the consuming populace is artificially created and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that ‘created’ demand/need. The most interesting aspect in both these is their interdependence; they have this very special ability to mutually reproduce the future markets. The fulfillment of an existing demand/need creates another need not just because of human desire but the introduction of a product to satisfy any demand automatically creates another space with an imaginary need where the artificially created demand would fit in perfectly. I could explain it with an example of a kitchen-equipment. You need cooking gas for cooking (for what else it could be!). So you have a gas connection and a gas stove with multiple burners. Suddenly you find your ventilation system is poor and the kitchen gets hot air and smoke. Or you are told so by the companies that make electric chimneys. They tell you the adverse health implications and how the new chimney could save you from all those troubles. So you have an electric chimney fitted above your stove and before long you find that the whole kitchen design is inadequate to function in a modern way. So you have either get the kitchen redesigned or you breakdown the whole house and redesign the house in order to fit a new kitchen inside it! This is a chain reaction. (You make a house with a car porch. As you have a car porch now you buy a car. As you work from a different city your car remain parked in the porch for almost major part of the month till you come back and take your family for a drive that lasts a few hours). 

Art market is entirely different from the market that we have seen just above. First of all art market is not a general need based one as in the case of cooking gas. While every house needs a cooking gas module, it is not necessary to have a work of art in every house (though that is the ultimate aim of the artists who seriously deliberate on alternative art markets). That means, while the general market rests its claims on human needs and desires, the logic of art market rests totally on desires, not on needs. However, when the desire takes a different turn other than satisfying the aesthetical needs (including keeping the home atmosphere sophisticated, cultured and peer-reviewed(!)) and arrives at somewhere near profit making, then it too becomes a need based one. In this case, we could say beyond any doubts that art market is one of the ultimate by-products of the general market, which unfortunately does not reproduce the general markets the way other products do. Even the behavior of a work of art in the art market is completely different from the behavior of a use-based product in the general market. The former behaves in an elitist manner while the latter has the possibility of behaving both in an elitist fashion and a pedestrian one for the end users of the latter are often coming from different strata of the society. The end users of the former (means, art market) come from an exclusive class that has created its own desire for acquiring a work of art. That’s why even if a work of art is temporarily lodged in the collection of a dealer and has gone into the collection of a collector, the provenance of it mentions only its final abode, not its temporary lodgings. Art product needs a mansion, not an inn. 
We have seen here how art market is different from the general market. The natural question that could be asked here is this; why these two markets behave differently. According to my studies, this difference manifests because of two to three reasons. The first and foremost reason is art’s speculative value itself. The second reason is the logic of consumption of an art buyer and third reason could be the possible elevation of the end user/consumer/buyer into an elite or executive club, which could be translated into the elevation in the social hierarchy which may not be otherwise assured by mere consumption of costly food, clothes, vacations, foreign trips, acquisition of properties, vehicles etc. Let me explain it one by one. In a general market, any product has certain parameters within which we assess our need/desire quotient, which includes ingredients that have gone into its making, its positive results on consumption, the social value that gets add to the consumer, expiry date and the price. If the parameters of the product and the consumer are matched then there is nothing to stop the consumption. That means, general consumption of a product is triggered within controlled atmosphere and its eventualities could be determined beforehand. In the case of art market, the parameters that make a product worthy of a potential buyer’s attention is not controlled and not even triggered by the mutually identifiable and agreeable norms. There is an absolute abstraction about the price and quality of the works. This is where the speculative price comes in. However, even speculation needs some kind of identifiable parameters and they lie in the name and fame of the artist, the vintage quality of the work of art, the previous track record of it (or of the similar products) in the market. While the chances of rigging of prices of a general product in the general market are very less (unless it is a war situation or ironically in a very speculative situation as in the recent case of a speculation/rumor on the price of salt in the northern part of India where people panicked and started stocking salt on exorbitant prices), if a few people involved in the art market decide to rig the price of any work of art, they could do it within minutes. History of art market tells us that spurious products of an artist (with suspected authenticity and certificate etc) never fail the speculative prices of the artist on a long term basis (though temporary aspersion could be casted against such artists and their works as in the case of M.F.Husain, Souza and Jamini Roy).

For the time being, let us forget the dealers of art who play in the secondary market and cause all the price riggings. This is for the convenience of explaining the second point that I have placed in the paragraph above. The point is the ‘logic of consumption’ of a buyer/collector of a work of art. Why does he or she decide to buy a work of art? Let’s say that he/she does not have any interest in art as an investment point. First of all such people come to the art market with the money they have earmarked for the ‘purchase of culture’ from their general budget or profit. That means, such buyers are those people who have satisfied all other desires or have given primacy to the desire for collecting art. That is the result of complete satisfaction or a choice towards satisfaction. So what do they purchase when they buy works of art? A careful look at their attitude towards this purchase reveals that what they buy is not only beauty and the values related to aesthetics but also a ‘share’ in the culture of their country or the countries that they love to call theirs. So this is as good as possessing a piece of prime property in a beautiful city or having a special membership in an elite club or even having a passport of a country that hardly gives out passports to rarest of rare citizens (may be a platinum passport of a country where rest of the lot have only work permits and ration cards!). This is like sharing the richness, heritage, cultural primacy and even antiquity of a country. The logic is this; while one could assess any other item with tangible quality, with a price accordingly, art is something that in its essence carries an intangible value, which is called culture. That’s why while the really ‘cultured’ ones make their vacations to art fairs, biennales and museums while the common mortals throng beaches and hills. 
 Through the acquisition of art people partake in the wealth of a country’s culture and while having a country’s culture on their walls they generate a speculative value to their own collection, which in turn would add value to the speculative market elsewhere whether they are interested to put their fingers into it for profit or not. Often devoted collectors rarely go out into the auction market for they find it condescending to their status for items from a collection are often find their ways to auction houses only when the estate falls to wrong hands or it faces bankruptcy or the estate has disinterested heirs. In this sense, these solid collections behave like gold reserve in the central banks which assures value to the currency notes; the art collections with solid estates become gold reserves that help increasing the speculative values the works that come to the auction houses. This is the only place where we could see the logic of general market comes closer to the logic of art market as both general market and art market needs currency with a reserved value. That’s why Paul Helguvera while describing the contemporary art market/art scene as a pyramid where the artists are just workers and the museum director/s become gods, envisions another scenario of a work of art reaching the highest price possible and entering in one of the biggest collections or top museum collections and turns ‘dead’. A dead piece of work is the work that has surpassed all the values that currency notes can fetch and become a reserve asset, like a dead grandfather’s photograph that gives a strong sense of grounding to a living business family. 

The third category of people in the art market is the one that is constituted by the people who have earned enough or well enough to satisfy all their other desires and partake in culture. But they are different from the second category that creates ‘dead works’ and makes them assets of assurance for the other markets. The third category of the people has money but lacks in class. So acquisition of works of art becomes the logic of elevating themselves into the executive club. The third category behaves almost like the second category that partakes in the country’s culture but they differ from the second in identifying their desire not as partaking in the country’s culture but partaking in the country’s cultural elite. This is a way of climbing up the social rungs but they never want to make their assets dead though they would turn assurance for the rest of the market. In their enthusiasm to participate in the desire to reproduce wealth through speculation they too get into the games of secondary as well as auction markets. This aspect of the third category makes them less of cultural elite and underlines them as cultural aspirants with an added taste for wealth. While the aesthetical partaking in history and culture is replaced by the taste for wealth, the third category demotes itself from being and becoming the second category. Even if they vouch for the indebtedness that they feel for the aesthetical fineness of a work of art, when it comes to wealth creation they would push it into the market without any prick of conscience. This cusp set in fact contributes a lot to the existence of the art market therefore we cannot just write them off. 
 As we understand that these are the factors that lead and govern the art market, it is fair to think that a work of art as a product cannot survive or assure its perpetuation without a market for itself. The crass logic of the general market is that of withdrawing a product that had once been patronized by many consumers but no longer in the choice of that consumer segment. In the case of mass production and general consumer market, a producer does not suffer much due to this loyalty shifting and even he could fill up the lacuna caused by withdrawing a product through the introduction of a new product designed to cater the new demands of that particular consumer segment. Hence, so much of ethical fallacy cannot be attributed here because none suffers through the withdrawal of a product. But in the case of art market, the sudden withdrawal of artists and art works from the market causes a great collapse in many fronts. Losing of patronage causes the pedestrian-ization of art and artists, and it takes many years for the artist to find patrons once again in the market, in the meanwhile he/she would have completely lost out to the external factors of life. Losing of patronage also causes the rupture in mutual faith that has been the operative lubricant between many components in the art scene including gallerists, dealers, investors and collectors. Art as an organic expression of human life even if a lot of technology is involved in the making of art these days, collapse of its sustaining systems would cause a series of invisible damage to a country’s cultural fabric which would reflect in all the fronts of life. That’s why I insist that there should be ethical practices in the art market for it is more prone to ethical fallacies that the general market.

To conclude the essay, let me just put some light on the idea of alternative market. What is an alternative market? As the word suggests, alternative market is a market that stands beside in parallel with the existing dominant market. Second question is whether the two words, alternative and market go hand in hand or not? Alternative can be possible in the case of product but how market can be different in its governing rules? In a shop that sells alternative clothes, foods and medicine could be patronized but can that market be patronized for in the newly created situation only the products are different but the market remains the same. May be pricing is the only adjustment point and a difference in assurance on quality and durability. Similarly, those who argue for an alternative art market, in my views, in fact are asking for a market with different art products or rather the same products with differently marked prices, quality assurances and different avenues. In fact if you look at it realistically we could see that the art fairs, biennales, art expos, book fairs and so on have become alternative markets in their own rights. When the consumer flow thinned in the usual markets, the stake holders created new avenues where the consumers/clients/patrons could converge in ‘ideal’ places and spaces where they could check, test, taste, evaluate, haggle on and strike business deals and collect without the pressures and regularities (ordinariness) of the traditional art and publishing markets. Against this backdrop how are we going to realize the demand for alternative art markets? As I said before, it is not the market that is going to change but the products, their appearance, their value, their cultural and economic implications and above all the new avenues for such newly created market operations. Still the question remains, who could be the consumers/patrons/clients of such newly created alternative markets? I think I need another essay to delve into that question. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A New Mural in Trivandrum by Dr.Ajitkumar

(Dr.Ajitkumar and his mural in Trivandrum - all mural photo credit: Jayachandran Kadambanad)

If someone thinks that Thrissur is the heartland of ‘Pulikali’ (A hunting game enacted by people with their bodies painted like leopards and tigers, and are pursued by actors dressed up as hunters, accompanied by the drum beats), Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital city of Kerala now has got something to challenge such a notion, not in real terms but conceptually. A conceptual mural painted by Dr.Ajitkumar on the hundred feet long wall of the G.V.Raja Stadium (also known as the University Stadium) facing the Kerala’s massive legislative assembly building is one of the new visual attractions in the city. The four lane road laid in two tiers creates a wide corridor between the G.V.Raja stadium on the one side and the Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium, Assembly building and the famous Hanuman Temple on the other side, leaving a capacious viewing space for the new mural.

(a view of the mural)

Dr.Ajitkumar, an artist, environmentalist, a champion of Euthanasia and an urban space specialist, with this yet to be titled mural adds one more feather to his artistic cap (Now I am informed that the mural is finally christened as 'LIBERTY BODICE'). During the last few years Ajitkumar has been involved in converting the city walls into large scale murals done by many well known artists in Kerala under a project called ‘Arteria’, an initiative by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation. With artists like N.N.Rimzon, B.D.Dethan, late Asanthan, Sree Lal, Kanai Kunchiraman, Pradeep Puthoor and so on painting the walls with large scale works in their hallmark styles and images, the graffiti friendly city of Trivandrum has now achieved a different look. Though there are murals at the key walls in the city (including a thirty feet mural by K.G.Subramanyan), one cannot say that the residents of the city have really got the ‘kick’ of these mural for a major part of the viewers are constituted by a floating population that visits the city for some work or just passes through it. However, the curiosity in the eyes of the people as they pass by these murals gives some kind of an assurance that sooner than later the city will be wake up to its transforming skin features.

(detail of Ajitkumar's mural and Delacroix' Liberty Leading the People)

The latest mural of Ajitkumar has a strategic location and it comes as a part of the ‘Clean City’ program of Trivandrum Corporation, which in turn is a part of the Swatch Sarveshan Abhiyan of the Government of India. The mural has a hunting scene which emulates the famous 19th century French painting ‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugene Delacorix. In the Delacoix painting one could see a bare breasted Goddess of Liberty leading its people towards victory and liberty treading over a heap of dead bodies of the vanquished. The concept of Liberty as a woman slowly takes shape into the concept of nation as a woman/mother who could suckle her children in many a country including India. Ajitkumar adopts notion into his mural but gives it a different thrust.

(detail of the mural by Ajitkumar)

Here in this mural the protagonists are two people, a huge woman and a smaller man (which formally has a concurrence with the Delacroix painting though devoid of other accompanying figures) and she is about to vanquish a leopard that lies on its back with its four legs up in the air. The leopard’s elongated shapely and stretched body covers almost the whole length of the wall, which should be seen as a very effective strong strategy. The sleek body of the animal with its dots almost splits into pixels reminding one of the large scale works of the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. But the glee that one experiences in the works of Murakami is absent in Ajitkumar’s mural altogether and in its place what we see a sense of grimness, tension and controlled aggression. The bodies of the black human beings (somehow they are painted as primitive/subhuman beings) resonate with the ferociousness of the leopard not only in design but also in their tension and aggression.

(a view)

The symbolic overload is suitable for the times that the artist has chosen to paint the mural. When the times are oppressive and the commissioning establishment cannot just go against the diktats of the central governing body, the artist has to find an allegorical way to state the fact and also the ‘state of affairs.’ This work of art definitely does not have any overt critique on the totalitarian regimes that are around (both the homegrown and the imported varieties) but the mural says the unutterable in a different way. There is a victor and the vanquished in the work. The victors are black people. Why they are black and in a way have subhuman traits as their painted bodies have the leopard faces on? Their blackness shows the people who are to be liberated or rather seeking liberation are still black and live in subhuman conditions. They are a sort of primitives and are in fierce fight with the aggressive forces. What one notices is the political correctness that the 19th century painter had brought in his work and how Ajitkumar picks it up as a usable visual quote in disguise. The correctness lies in the dominant part/action attributed to the woman protagonist and reifying her to certain extent and also the attribution of a secondary position to the visibly male character. Does Ajitkumar want to say that in the beginning of revolution (war) the rules of political correctness are observed only to be toppled at a later stage where the man would take a dominant position? One could read so, if one thinks it should be read it in that way.

(detail of the mural by Ajitkumar)

The whole action, stretched out to the hundred feet length of the stadium wall takes place against a sylvan backdrop where there are lush greenery and beautiful pink flowers. Good that the artist in a possible urgency has not tried to incorporate some familiar flora and fauna just for the heck of ‘touristic’ purpose. Ajitkumar as a discerning artist transposes the whole scene to a different space, a mythical space which could easily be turned/read as a historical space (as in our country often they interchange their given locations for political convenience) and spells out the eventual victory of the oppressed over the bestial forces. The color scheme has to be layered out/laid out vis-à-vis the social meanings of such colors in order to understand the picture. One could also read the scene in terms of taming the nature by people who would eventually evolve as beings with a scientific bent. A dotted big cat could be seen as nature that resists culture. Similarly it could be a totem figure that stands for earth and sky and the scene in this sense is a overcoming of the elements by human beings for ‘liberating’ themselves from natural ‘subjugations’. In the colonial visual discourse, a tamed tiger/leopard is always seen as a domination of the colonizer over the subjects, their lands and their resources. Hunting game had become a site of male domination as well as colonial domination not only over the people but also over their ‘nature’. This becomes all the more important when we see innumerable sculptures and toys where the colonial ruler is killed by a tiger (Tipu Sultan) reversing the symbolic order.

(Kings hunting scene, Colonizer attached by the Mysore Tiger)

Any work of art introduced to a city’s public spaces initially redefines the space to a greater extent. It is never seen from a frontal position, the way we see a work of art in a museum or a gallery or even a film poster. This is always seen from various planes, distances, times and climatic conditions. Each time the work would create a different response in a viewer unlike a work of art would in the case of its display on a neutral gallery or museum wall. In this sense, a work of art in a public space remains impressionistic throughout its existence. Each viewer takes a different mural in his/her mind depending on the time of the day and climatic condition under which he/she has seen the work. As it is the case, it is not necessary that the authorial intent is to be discerned each time; for someone sees the tail of the leopard first and the rest later and someone sees the attacking figures first and the tiger later. Some could even miss the leopard while seeing the flowery forest behind. I sincerely hope people ‘see’ the mural in whatever they like and take an impression of it in their cultural consciousness. That’s the way a work of art grows into the city’s psyche and body as well.  

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ratheesh T’s ‘Smell of Pepper and Jasmine’, an Evidence to Political Art

(Smell of Pepper and Jasmine by Ratheesh T, oil on canvas 7x8')

Are you on a look out for some ‘political art’ in India? Then go to Galerie Mirchandani+Steinruecke in Mumbai where a show titled ‘Nine Painters from Kerala’ is currently on. I may not qualify the show as a ‘political’ one just because it comprises of nine artists from Kerala, a state which is hailed to be a politically charged one. Each state in India is political and each artist has turned out to be political as the time demands such politicization of artists and their art. Did I say art? Hmm…I have to make a clarification here; most of the artists who are already politicized for right or wrong reasons, to me, are not making ‘political art’ in a strict sense. In a politically charged atmosphere any utterance cannot go free of political under or overtones. In that sense many artists do what could be called political art but the story ends there. Some are overtly political that often become sloganeering in a sophisticated way to which one would find a befitting example in an exhibition recently concluded in Delhi’s Vadehra Gallery. Titled ‘Holy Shiver’ this exhibition had images of Dr.B.R.Ambedkar both in painted and sculpted forms. But if you just take a metro from the Lajpat Nagar Station and get down at the Central Secretariat, just out there you could see the recently inaugurated Dr.Ambedkar Museum and Research centre and right in front of that massive building the same images of Dr.Ambedkar and the Ashokan Pillar. You may decide, which one is effective as ‘art’ in the eyes of the public that include public intellectuals, just intellectuals and those intelligent people who survive with their intelligence in an urban space.

(Artist Ratheesh T)

Here in this small article what I would like to articulate is the political intensity of a single work from this ‘Nine Painters from Kerala’ exhibition (Do not mistake that the gallery is overtly interested in the aesthetics produced in Kerala. The simple reason for this show is this that all these nine artists have been promoted by this gallery for over a decade). The work is titled ‘Smell of Pepper and Jasmine’ a 7x8  feet oil on canvas work by the Trivandrum based artist Ratheesh T. This artist has been doing some wonderful paintings with the images that he has sensitively as well as cynically culled from the immediate surroundings of his life. At times they become caricatures of a life that has lost its regular reality and could exist only in a caricature form in order to find relevance even in their marginalized lives. Ratheesh no longer lives a marginalized life for the riches that the art boom had brought to him have elevated his socio-economic position. But the fact of marginalization is such that even the socio-economic sublimation through education and money often does not erase the stains that a caste society has smeared on the faces of the people who survived the fringe lives. Caste is such a powerful social classification in India and only the articulation of it could remove the stigma attached to it. What Ratheesh does as an artist is this articulation with a humorous vengeance, the way Kunchan Nambiar used to do in the 18th century. There is a tremendous amount of self loathing in it but that aspect is covered with a sense of celebration which a so called ‘sophisticated society’ would abhor to do.

(Mill Call by Ram Kinkar Baij)

In ‘Smell of Pepper and Jasmine’ Ratheesh while subverting the beauty concept that is prevalent in Kerala, very strategically problematizes the notions of purity, work, social surveillance and (sexual) desire. The social relationships between castes and sub-castes have always been a problematic in Kerala. The present upper caste, Nairs, was ‘Sudra’ in the caste hierarchy. But with certain socio-political maneuvers Nairs reached the upper echelons of the society, establishing anything ‘Nair’ as the desirable position. Hence, today we see the Nairs still involved in Brahminizing itself and all the other lower castes, which were out of the four tier system of caste, by emulating the Nair codes of life create further caste divisions. Hence, even some Dalit communities find it natural to emulate what the Nair does and perpetuate the caste divisions and discriminations within their societies. The Hinduisation of Kerala society using many a religious platform tries to force out caste categories in order to homogenize them as ‘Hindus’ and in this attempt establishes the ‘Nair’ habits as the standard habits of living therefore desirable by all the lower castes. The Nairisation of Kerala society has been happening for several decades and it has reached its pinnacle in the recent years especially through the mainstream media and films. The homogenized Hindu however has not yet become ‘Nair’ in Kerala in terms of social relevance but has accumulated the burden of caste-ism perpetuated by the Nair caste. The white Sari with a golden border and the participation in temple rituals by the Dalits are the results of such Nairisation of the Kerala society, which in fact has become so gullible before the intoxicating power of Hindutva.

(Mullappoo Choodiya Nair Vanitha by Raja Ravi Varma)

In Ratheesh’s work we see the protagonist is a dark (Dalit) woman and it is clear that she is on the way back home after a temple visit. There is something very comical about her that constantly makes her ‘non-belongingness’ obvious. Her body is dark but he wears a white sari with a golden border (a must for religious occasions). She is happily oblivious about her surroundings though her ‘body’ and the paraphernalia that embellish that body correspond to the surroundings. She is as animated and happy as the women who are running to the mills in Ram Kinkar Baij’s ‘Mill Call.’ The strain of her vigorous walk is palpable in her tense thigh muscles of the left leg which is pushed forward. The drapery is painted in such an animated order that they not only capture the force of her bodily movement but also the wind that blows against her that billows the pallu of her sari that conceals a ghostly presence who is walking with her. I will come to this ghostly figure in a while. Before that let me see the surroundings; it has pepper plants and jasmine plant on the other side. The pepper smell could be the smell of a dark and sexually powerful body of the young woman whose rawness is temporarily covered by the ‘Nair’ attire. But her raw sexual appeal is as strong as the pepper and the jasmine that she wears on her hair is once again a Nair attribute (about this later). The jasmine flowers show the pure nature of her ‘self’ (which is often denied to a Dalit body) and also the subtle ways of love she is capable of. Ratheesh gives iconic status to a girl who is otherwise seen as a ‘thozhilurappu jolikkari’  or ‘Kudumbashree amgam’ (two government schemes that assure job to women; though it is generally for women only Dalit and OBC women go for it as these groups are seen as group of women who are uneducated and good for no other jobs than menial work).

(work by Ratheesh T)

Who/What is that ghostly presence behind her bellowing sari pallu? Clearly that is a man and is obvious from the muscled legs and a vascular palm tensed in an act of grabbing. In that moment of pure oblivion, this unidentified presence is crossing that girl and he looks back at her. We do not see his face as the whole of his upper body is covered by the edge of her sari. A very superficial reading could lead us to believe that this presence is that of any man who is about to molest a poor girl going back home alone. But thinking of it in a more ‘religious or rather theological’ sense we could see Ratheesh suggesting the presence of an evil angel titillating her into some sin. Or could it be a suggestion that the girl is already sinned and the sin is constantly crossing her looking back in absolute glee? What is that sin that the girl has committed? In my view, the sin could be the voluntary submission of her body to the forces of the upper caste ideology/aesthetics. She in her utter innocence has de-politicized her otherwise political body. She has just become an instrument of perpetuation. While she remains apolitical, for the viewer her body becomes the contesting field of various socio-political and aesthetical demands that subject her dark/Dalit body for their ends. Hence, Ratheesh’s painting is to be seen more as a warning to the marginalized women rather than a celebration of their newly assumed ‘upper caste’ identity.

(JohnyML in front of Smell of Pepper and Jasmine by Ratheesh T)

The presence of Jasmine is pivotal in this work for various reasons; first of all jasmine flowers symbolize erotic passion and sexual desire. This could make our protagonist lady into a desiring and desirous subject. She is like a bomb/vedi, in the common parlance, a qualification which is never given to a Nair woman under the same circumstances but is definitely attributed to a dark/Dalit girl in whatever good dress. But the presence of Jasmine is more than that. This painting as a whole is a great critique of Raja Ravi Varma. Interestingly Ratheesh also hails from Kilimanoor, the birth place of Raja Ravi Varma. And more ironically, despite the presence of so many Dalit families around Ravi Varma’s palace, who were the workers in the sprawling paddy fields just in front of them, not in a single occasion Ravi Varma had felt the compulsion to paint a working class/Dark/Dalit woman. He painted only fair skinned Nair women and the only exception was when he painted his mother in law in dark complexion. He achieved some major award from national and international exhibitions for his work titled ‘Mullappoo Choodiya Nair Vanitha’ (Nair Lady with Jasmine Flowers in her Hair). Here Ratheesh introduces a Dalit woman with Jasmine flowers in her hair. By doing this he indirectly asks why the body of a Nair woman doesn’t become sexually desirable/available and it is so when a dark complexioned girl wears flowers in her head? When we see the whole painting in these terms, the White Sari with golden borders becomes an aesthetic reclamation of such rights from Raja Ravi Varma by a contemporary painter who happens to hail from a marginalized caste. The Jasmine flower gets a different value and the painting of drapery adds to the strength of that reclamation. Ratheesh subverts all the existing aesthetical norms created out of Ravi Varma’s paintings, using the very same techniques (oil on canvas) and does it quite effectively. Political art is not painting Ambedkar’s portrait and exhibiting in A-class galleries.