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.