Monday, February 5, 2018

Asanthan's Death: The Harvester of Protests



Artist Asanthan Mahesh

Sometimes the people of Kerala would work very hard to undo all the good will that the state has earned from people all over the world through its scenic beauty, hospitality, heavenly beaches, Ayurvedic treatment, food, political spectacles, a little bit of art and its cynical people. Kerala is a package deal with a lot of sunshine and unexpected political hartals. On 31st January 2018 at Eranakulam, the current nerve centre of Kerala's art witnessed something horrendous which has left a permanent scar in the minds of the people in general and the artists in particular. Something started off as a heated opposition by a few devotees from a temple near the Durbar Hall, which has been the prestigious art venue of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademy, regarding the decision of the Akademy to keep the dead body of Asanthan, a much loved local artist for paying last tributes by friends, colleagues and public soon snowballed into a major controversy involving the right and left wing political parties. 


Work by Asanthan
The problems started in this way: Asanthan was fifty year old and was not in a good health condition. A staunch believer in naturopathy Asanthan took his ailments lightly and lived his life fully, working till the day he breathed last. Death came in the form of a heart attack and the shock waves that the news of his departure sent amongst his friends were quite unprecedented. None thought that Asanthan had such loyal friends following and soon a demand to place his body at the Durbar Hall was mooted through Facebook and the Akademy responded to the demand with great sympathy. A banner announcing the condolence message along with a smiling portrait of Asanthan was hung in front of the Durbar Hall. It took no time for a group of people who claimed themselves to be the devotees of the nearby Shiva temple came and started agitating under the leadership of a local congress leader. They tore the banner off and started threatening the Akademy secretary and staff saying that the dead body would desecrate the lord Shiva. Police and the district administration were called, a compromise was sealed and a decision was taken to bring the dead body into the Durbar Hall premises through a backdoor. 




The issues should have ended there but it was just a beginning. The protest by the temple people looked quite premeditated. The vehemence of the protestors and their hurling of threats that they would involve the RSS in the issue and also the absolute opportunism of a congress politician joining hands with the fundamentalist forces made it amply clear that it was an orchestrated trouble and now it has been viewed that the temple people (read right wing forces) want the prime property in and around Durbar Hall and they have been waiting for the right time to strike and stake claim. However, the cultural community in Kerala views it in a different light. They say that we could expect them inspecting and censoring the displayed works of art sooner than later. The disregard that the temple fellows showed to the body of Asanthan has deeply disturbed the cultural sections of the society and the chief minister and the cultural minister had to break silence finally through their social media pages ordering enquiry followed by arrests. The protests against the right wing forces still continue in various parts of Kerala.




Who was Asanthan? Why his dead body invited so much of right wing fury? What was that triggered so much of hatred against him by the temple people? Why his life did not create such furore while his death did? The answers have to be sought elsewhere. The trouble had broken out even an hour before Asanthan's dead body was brought to the Durbar Hall. That means the temple people had studied the scenario well ahead in time. The moment they destroyed the banner with the artist's picture on, it became almost clear that they were not targeting the dead body but the caste identity of the dead body. Asanthan was a Dalit. He was a known face in the crowd. He lived in penury and could not even finish building a small house for himself. The questions raised were in these lines: had Asanthan been an upper caste should there have been such hue and cry on it? Asanthan to certain extent had denied his Dalit identity. Was it his arrogance in dealing with the Hindutva shastras provoked the ire of the right wing forces?



Asanthan was not his original name. His name was Mahesh, ironically the meaning of Mahesh is lord Shiva. At some point in his life he anointed himself with a new name which was Asanthan, one who was not calm by nature or by force. But in real life Asanthan was really a Santhan, a calm and quiet person. He said he had a storm in his mind. He was researcher in local herbs and knowledge and was in the process of writing a book. He recited poems and did theatre works. Asanthan did odd jobs to survive. He hardly made any money out of his art. While several of his contemporaries climbed the ladder of success, he remained in his humble locales, painting them. He knew being Dalit was a huge hurdle in scaling the heights of success. Nor did he force himself to polish his visual language to suit the purpose of the market. He painted the local life, local people and local landscape. At some point he might have realised how his black complexion and Dalit origin had become a hurdle. He knew how the social fabric held the warp and weft of discrimination intact. So he decided to take the Hindu religion headlong. A religion that had insisted pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shoodra/Dalits if they happened to hear Vedas was to be understood from inside. So Asanthan went to study Vedas. He converted himself into a brahminical life while remaining poor. Ironically, the same brahminical establishments that he tried to enter and embrace desecrated him and his body on the day of his death. It became once again clear that death is an inevitability but it happens quite accidentally while caste is an accident but it happens inevitably in our lives. If karma decides our caste then as he believed Asanthan was a kalakaaran, an artist and his caste was artist's caste. By converting himself into Brahmin ways he practiced brahminical strictures. But he was not allowed to become a Brahmin. Once a Dalit always a Dalit, that's the way the society looked at Asanthan.




In our country there are several Asanthans. They articulate their local life. They don't use the experimental traits of modernism, nor do they use the glossy surfaces of the contemporary art. They make the art that smells earth and cow dung. That art has the fragrance of grass tips and colours of the forests. Their human beings are not able bodied super models. They are black in colour. They draw and sculpt their experiences. But none wants them in the market. Market embraces the white art not the Dalit/black art. It hails the subaltern but with its own parameters. Asanthan did not wait for the world to accept his works. He drew what he wanted to draw. He thought one day someone would fetch his works but unfortunately death fetched him before he asked for it. But what a harvest his dead body has done! A harvest of protests, which is still on in Kerala. 

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Nude Earth: Jiji George Draws it

Artist Jiji George
'Strange Sounds from above the Skies' is one exhibition that I would have regretted had I missed it. This ensemble of paintings, drawings and sculptures shows the relentless spirit of a forty two year old Jiji George and his ability to listen to the voices not only from above but also from below, behind, inside and outside. An artist hailing from the sylvan Wayanad district in North Kerala, as the poet would put it, Jiji carries a forest in his heart and mind even if life has been taking him from cities to cities in India ever since he obtained a post diploma in painting from Mavelikkara fine arts college in 1999. Currently the artist works with Infosys establishment in Trivandrum.



Done mostly in black and white, the paintings and drawings of Jiji resonate the ecological anxieties that most of us understand but refuse to recognise as a 'live' concern of our lives. A severed branch of a tree or a felled wood perhaps gives us the idea of a clearing which would soon be turned into a site for some high rise building. The ongoing constructions around us reassure us with safe zones of habitats not even once intimating us with the pains of expulsions and exclusions. In the concrete jungles that the modern men dwell one wouldn't hear the heart rending cries of the expelled that include both human beings, forest and the animal lives. True to the poetic tradition of the world, Jiji listens to these 'silenced' wailings and that silence would haunt us forever once we come face to face with his works.






The mighty ones who construct, the rich ones who inhabit and poor ones who are expelled and all are alike absent in Jiji's works. The silent noises that one hears from above and everywhere are the result of this absence. In Jiji's works what dominates are the images of confined spaces. Each confined space is a defined space by the human beings where the natural movements are refashioned according to the rules of an establishment that is led by avarice. These spaces are seen either from above or from a tilted or tiered angle so that the viewer could see them in their entirety. But sooner than later we understand that the definition of these spaces is done by milling constructed structures. And the next step is recognising the spaces where the constructions are not made. Ironically, the spaces that are left without constructions appear before our eyes as ruptures or wounds giving us this uncanny feeling that leaving some area unconstructed could be something quite unnatural!




Jiji envisions the earth as plots; measured, divided and partitioned pieces of lands. There is a sense of impossibility that manifests in these divisions making the plots almost surreal. In such a scenario Jiji makes some quirky visual proposals by stacking up plots complete with boundary walls, unevenly and calling it 'plots for sale'. The cynicism of the artist gives way to poignancy when he paints the image of an elephant inside a defined plot and titles it 'unknown terrain'. Each work has a poetic edge, a surprise that is commonplace and commonplace visions that masquerade as surprises leaving the viewer in a terrain of ambivalence, mostly about his own relationship with the spaces/plot around him. It's an unexpected reminder of our own living conditions as well; but the artist does it subtly, with minimum arrogance.




I could say more about his paintings but I resist that urge for each work for in its silence contains something that we are instrumental in erasing from the face of the earth. Each work is our handiwork for we divide earth and auction the woods; we tame animals and colonise their lands and resources. We become such hypocrites that we show our concerns off by wearing it on our sleeves and make pageant out of it. Jiji with all his innocence becomes an apostle of nature in a land where such messengers are lampooned and their churches are burnt. Still he writes the requiem for the dying earth; hails it with his heart. Each boundary wall, with that horror of realisation, the artist says, creates the shapes of death and fascism. In 'unusual turn' and 'fragmented reality 2' we witness it.




Jiji's papier mache sculptures are a visual treat. Each work in its sheer whiteness is a stark presence with a foreboding silence. I am so impressed by a sculpture titled 'speaker'; amidst a wood of a leafless trees there is lone chair occupied by a haunting absence. The sculpture titled 'bird's eye view' is a simple topographical spread on the floor but with its vehemence of truth: the division of earth into plots. In 'see-saw' we see a frozen moment where the globe is sawed by a see-saw device with silence and time seated vacantly on each chair. Jiji almost shows his interest to retreat into the innards of nature when he sculpts the work titled 'cave'. This exhibition is currently on at the Vailoppilly Cultural Centre, Trivandrum. A must visit show.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Total Chaos Called 59th National Exhibition


(above eye level display of Bose Krishnamachari's works)

59th National Exhibition conducted by the Central National Lalit Kala Academy is, to put it in the mildest of terms, depressing. You may wonder why myself being one of the preliminary juries say this when the exhibition has the works selected by the same jury. As I have held it always, any art competition in the world does not bring up the best, but what maximum it could do is to bring up the best out of the available entries. The case could also be further explained that with such a national competition that has lost its credibility over a period of mismanagement and nepotism today gets very limited entries from all over India. I do not intend to discount those artists who have applied and also who have been selected. But I want to reiterate the fact that in the case of the National Exhibition it is easy to reject the worst than to select the best. You wouldn’t believe that this time, during the preliminary selection round I came across such entries which had the images of Gods, goddesses and even Mr.Narendra Modi doing yoga exercise. I can understand how artists gauge the political climate of the country and do propaganda art in order to get noticed, if not selected and awarded.


 (an awarded work in the darkness)

What makes the 59th edition of the National Exhibition a depressing affair is primarily the award selection. While I could see a number of works that really deserve and command an award in their respective mediums, the awarded ones look really of low quality. When I say this I am sure the Academy administration would turn hostile to me and chances are rampant that I wouldn’t be involved in its future activities. Risking my career forwarding opportunities, I dare to say this because for me art is more important than who get what out of the art administration and other policy compulsions behind it. The awards are obviously not given for the quality of the works (except a few) but for external considerations such as region, medium and age. While age could be one of the criteria, region and medium shouldn’t be strictly the criteria for awarding art. The award winning works do not tell the viewers that they do really deserve an award, especially when they are seen along with better works that are not awarded by the jury members.


(Manu Parekh's work among the selected artists works)

The second problem with the National Exhibition this time, perhaps all the times, is the absence of a curator. As you know, despite all the updating efforts, the Lalit Kala Academy exhibition facilities always remain substandard. There are walls, floors, hanging threads and lights. The Academy has to recognise that these basic infrastructures just do not fulfil the requirements for exhibiting contemporary works of art effectively. This time again, the exhibits are hung from the walls with no rhyme or rhythm. There are not divisions based on mediums or themes. There is no special section for the awarded works. The works are badly lit. One of the awarded paintings with an image of a copulating canine couple is literally pushed into a rectangular niche with no light so that despite the award none would see this embarrassing image. Embarrassing image for who? I am sure, the image is embarrassing for the cultural minister who had inaugurated the exhibition. I am sure that must be the reason why the painting is displayed with no light or one minimum light which is incapable of lighting it up, especially a painting with sombre ferric brown as the predominant colour. If you cannot flaunt your awarded work then why exactly you give an award to it?


(a work that got award)



(a work that has not got an award)

The absence of a curator screams out to the viewer when you see the works of Manu Parekh, Bose Krishnamachari, Jyoti Bhatt, K.S.Radhakrishnan and N.Pushpamala kept along with the selectees of the National Exhibition. It looks like they too had applied for the National Exhibition and somehow they got selected! In fact these artists are featured in this exhibition only because this time the Academy has decided to re-introduce the ‘Invited Section’. The above mentioned artists are ‘invited’ for the ‘Invited Section’ but there is no section carved out for them. I find it as a great disservice to these artists especially to such senior artists. Had there been a curator, the works of Bose Krishnamachari wouldn’t have been displayed at such heights! Now to look at the image you need a ladder to climb on. One would get the shock for his life when he sees the works of Manu Parekh and Jyoti Bhatt displayed inconspicuously. It is not right, the Academy should know. K.S.Radhakrishnan’s sculptures are pushed into a gloomy little corner with no sufficient light. Pushpamala’s ‘Arrival of Vasco da Gama’ captures the attention of the viewers only because of the magnetic power of the image itself.


(a work that got an award)


(a work that has not got an award)

Why and how does it happen? I understand that the present administration headed by Shri.Krishna Setty is well meaning and wants to do things in the right way. But it looks Academy has an inherent way of doing things wrongly. As an art historian, curator and critic, my first demand to the academy is this that it should invite a curator to handle their exhibitions. Here is no self-promotion; I say, the Academy should invite any curator other than JohnyML (I cannot make my stance more clear than this) to put up their shows. Secondly, ad hocism should end. Academy should not treat the National Exhibition as some ‘annual exhibition’; it should treat it as India’s most prestigious national exhibition. The present exhibition does not give out any such impressions. If there is an invited section, it should be planned well ahead of time and there should be a separate area to exhibit those works. The works of the established senior artists should come as a blessing and a context for the youngsters who have been selected for the National Exhibition. Similarly, the India Art Fair is one of the biggest art events in India. The National Academy should have something to flaunt at that time too. This again, should be well curated. But I am told that the present National Exhibition will be taken off of the walls exactly a day before the opening of the India Art Fair and exactly on the day of the beginning of many a collateral show in town. What’s happening to our National Academy? I am also told that there would be a Kala Mela duing the India Art Fair time. But no such intimations have been given out to the art scene so that it could expect something out of it.


( a work that got an award)


( a work that has not got an award)

As an art historian and curator of these contemporary times I would like to suggest one thing in order to increase the quality of the National Exhibition. The major hurdle that the Academy faces today is that a few good artists apply for the National Exhibition. This situation could be reversed and we could make a lot of good young artists apply for the National Exhibition if the Academy takes a decentralised approach to the project. Each state Lalit Kala Academy should become the nodal point for applying for the National Exhibition. And it should be the responsibility of the state academies to get more applications from the state. If there is no state lalit kala academy, the Central Academy could ask the Regional Centres to become the nodal points. For the preliminary selection process, the Central Academy could employ one or two of its jury members handpicked from the same region along with a central observer for the process. Such filtered works should be brought to the centre and there could be another preliminary selection committee. With this process the bad ones will be filtered out in the regional level itself and what one gets in the centre will be of good quality. Regarding the preliminary jury of the centre, there should be contemporary art practitioners and historians in the panel than getting very old artists who are not really ‘familiar’ with the contemporary practices. Also in the award jury, there should be two members from the preliminary jury included in it. Otherwise total mess like this year would be the result. I would say, with due respect to the award committee members, they have screwed up the selection. All these things could be reversed provided there is a decentralised approach. 


Friday, January 19, 2018

A Painful Art Viewing Experience at the Palette Art Gallery


(Rajesh Ram with designer Rohit Bal, at the former's show opening at the Palette Gallery, New Delhi)

‘I Wonder’ why I went to Palette Art Gallery, New Delhi today. I shouldn’t have gone there. I was enticed by a small video in the Facebook by Rajesh Ram, the artist who is currently exhibiting there. I thought the show looked good but had my own reservations about the works seen in the video therefore decided to pay a visit. Rajesh Ram, Krishna Murari, Rambali Chauhan and Saptarshi Narkar- somehow the names of these four artists come to my mind together and the reason must be their arrival in the art scene almost at the same time during those good old boom years (do you know by September this year the Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers would celebrate its tenth anniversary making us remember painfully the collapse of our art market, which projected a brave face for three more years?), exploring art in their respective mediums and styles. Had the market been a bit kinder to them, they would have created better works during these ten years. I did say ‘better’ works because the works that I see in the Palette Gallery do not encourage me to say only good things about the artist and his creative bend. But that a little later. Before that I need to say something else.


(Rajesh Ram's works today in Palette Art Gallery)

I shouldn’t have gone to Palette Art Gallery today. If they had said that the visit was only by appointment I could have avoided the embarrassment. I reached the gallery during the lunch break thinking that I could have my lonely dialogue with the works but I was mistaken. The gallery was filled with people and for a moment I thought I was in the wrong building. A group of fashion world people absolutely unaware of my presence were talking to each other, biting into sandwiches, a couple of them smoking there at the sunny terrace, a couple of lanky and sleepy models lounging in sofas kept against the wall, in fact against Rajesh Ram’s watercolours and some of them checking out a wardrobe full of designer clothes. I could easily figure out the scenario; it was a fashion discussion in progress and rightfully in the right place as the gallery owners are well known fashion designers. But what put me off completely was the way Rajesh Ram’s works were shoved aside as piles of discarded objects. It was so unfortunate to see how works of art are treated in a gallery, especially those from a show which had opened just four nights back. ‘I Wonder’ is the title of the show. I still wonder why I was there to witness that complete indignity meted out to the works of art of a contemporary artist.

(Another view from Palette)

It is my boon or curse to be at the right place at the wrong time. Or do I reach in the wrong places at the right time? Or do I witness things in the wrong places in the wrong times? In whatever be the case, I am sure I am making another set of enemies for writing this. I do not have any problem in the gallery owners using their private premises for any purpose they think good. But they should have announced that the gallery is closed for the day or a particular number of hours. I check the gallery websites before I venture out to see a show. Palette website had not given me such a clue. I have this indelible feeling in my mind and also in my memory that I have witnessed something very very bad; almost a crime, a rape or a murder, which I was not able to stop or alter the course of events. The fact was that nobody even cared and they treated me as non-existent. I could click some photographs and none of them was even offended by my act. Forget all those. What worries me is the attitude of the art promoters towards art. If the gallerists had any respect for the artist and his works, this wouldn’t have happened. They would have either closed the gallery for a few hours or could have declared the gallery closed for the day. I am afraid they would now file a case against me for encroaching into their private property. But they are sweet people and I am sure they wouldn’t do that to an art critic.


(Display from the opening day)

Now coming to Rajesh Ram’s works in the show; the first response of mine is as simple as this, ‘Rajesh Ram could do better works’. The visual language that he uses in his watercolours is a done to death thing by most of the Orissa born artists, after the considerable success of Jagannath Panda in the art market. Even the theme seems to be something discarded by most of the artists who got success during the boom years: The theme of social displacement of people. Rajesh Ram repeatedly paints the crumbling buildings and the new ones coming up. The only work that engaged me in painterly terms is titled ‘Crocodile Tears’ and as it is natural to good works, is quickly taken by someone. I do not want to write out an artist like Rajesh Ram because he has got talent but the works are not done in the right earnest. The artist seems to be terribly lacking in visual thinking. The works stand between the stale photorealism and yet to be consolidated Indian version of neo-expressionism. I wonder why an artist like Rajesh Ram just couldn’t look beyond the issue of displacement and dispossession. Holding Walter Benjamin by ears the curator makes the show to be read as an ensemble of storytelling. In that case which image doesn’t have a story behind it? Should it be a story always? Can’t an image exist without a story? When the image has a story to tell without any external persuasion, the viewer should be able to read a story out of it. In Rajesh Ram’s case I am not able to read any story at all. May be I am a failed art critic, an anachronism therefore with highly negligible opinion, so forget me if not you forgive me.


(Crocodile Tears from Rajesh Ram)

Formally speaking, Rajesh Ram’s sculptures are good to look at but they are not fresh enough to be excited about. ‘Predominate’ is a work with bad taste. I do not know whether the artist has done it as a political critique for it has a human body, an elephant head with its trunk turning into a snake. Is it about the remover of hurdles becoming the hurdle of social progress itself? There is no clue in the curator’s note about it. But the sculpture does not look like having a subtle taste. I would have embraced it had other sculptures been with such coarseness for I like the raw visual expressions. But the other sculptures are that of a small boy in different acts. A few of them are realistic (Discipline, Hands Up, Messenger, Man in Action), some of them are imaginative (Hiding Yourself, Heart on Tree- it should have been trees on heart) and some are highly exaggerated. Thematically and formally one could see the required consistency an artist needs but it is also visible that they are done in one go; not in a process taking a long period. They seem to be subsidised versions of early Jitish Kallat sculptures like ‘Eruda’ and the smart alec baby series by Chintan Upadhyaya. I do not want to be negative about Rajesh Ram’s artistic efforts. He has done his best but what he needs to come out of is his desire to be in the big league. He has used the big leaguers’ visual language which they have toiled to get for themselves. Rajesh Ram should work on his language; this is not a demand for ‘originality’ but a desire for something closer to heart. Krishna Murari had slipped into a Bharti Kher mode at some point and it took him a long time to get out of it. Rajesh Ram seems to be sceptical about his own abilities. He should let himself loose completely; here he is holding himself back to fit in (the gang of the successful). Rajesh Ram should look at his reality and create his art. He has shown the potential in a few works like Discipline, Hiding Yourself and Man in Action. But the unity of thought is lacking in there. Dear artist, realise your existence and reality and speak in an unapologetic language; you will be alright. Your art will not be shoved aside to make room for a fashion trial.