Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Indian Art is also ‘White Middle Class (Fe)Male and English’

Work by Subodh Gupta
A recently conducted survey in Britain says that the working class representation in the cultural fields has gone down considerably that should cause panic among the people who stand for equality and justice. The representation of the working class in the visual art is just 18.2% and the best of the jobs in this sector are often held by the ‘white middle class men.’ The survey also says that only in the field of crafts the working class representation is comparatively higher and relatively proportionate to the general population. This data however cannot be used for assessing the situation in India, still this should be telling us some hard facts at our faces also. The working class representation in Indian art organizations is also negligible and this feature has also crept into the arena of selecting the artists. Today, the Indian art industry, though it does not have any industry status bestowed by the authorities, has become a conglomeration of upper class/caste, English educated/speaking, globally oriented and power brokering communities. 
To understand this issue in the Indian context, we should identify the working class and what makes someone belong to working class. In India working class is no longer the factory going or office going people. They have transcended themselves to the category of middle class which is an admixture of various upper and lower castes often vying for supremacy in various social domains including the work places. Economic freedom and the invisibility offered by the urban spaces have helped many lower castes (and other backward caste people) to overcome the caste barriers to a certain extent. So the real working class people belong to the lower castes that are destined to live in the rural areas and urban fringes immobilized by economic and caste burdens. It is very difficult for an art professional to come from one of these castes or communities and take up a higher position in the art industry or art education. I do not say that it is impossible but it is possible only to a few, which is a negligible minimum in the demographic percentage.
Work by Shilpa Gupta
One of the points in the above mentioned data analysis from Britain deserves a revisiting. The relative higher representation of the working class in the field of craft underlines the fact that in Britain also the craftspeople still come under the working class category. In India, most of the craftsmen come either from the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) or the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (generally called Dalits now and formerly they were mentioned by the condescending term, ‘untouchables). While the craftspeople who have moved to the urban centers and have found jobs in various industries move towards the urban middle class, the ones who have preferred to live in the rural areas still bear their craft as ‘caste’ around their necks and are subjected to various social discriminations. The British art education introduced in India during the mid 19thcentury was mainly for the craftspeople for preparing them as better workforce in order to contribute to the Empire’s socio-aesthetical ends. The British education was not intending to make Indians artists at par with their British counterparts nor did they want a new middleclass to come up from these craftsmen. It was something similar to the English education system introduced in India by the British. As Macaulay said, the education should produce Indians who are capable of serving the British values not only by deeds but also by the total restructuring of the moral values. The British authorities did not want to create and Indian gentry that would stand up to the Empire but they couldn’t have stopped the historical dynamics that created such an Indian force. Same thing happened in the case of the craftspeople and artisans who were to serve the purpose of Empire. They wanted to gain individual artistic status by moving away from sophisticated craftsmanship offered by the new ‘art education.’ 
Work by Bharti Kher
Intermingling of caste happened in art institutions perhaps better than in any other training and work field in India under the British because many individuals wanted to become independent artists by getting trained in these art institutions which were primarily catering to the artisan castes/classes. Perhaps in the egalitarian years of nationalism during the late 19thcentury and in the early 20thcentury we see the Brahmins and the lower castes sharing the same studio spaces and training under the same teachers. However, we cannot say that the lower castes who got trained along with the upper castes gained the same social status in their professional life. Exceptions were there in certain places where the lower caste artists were facilitated to become great artists and through that they could transcend their caste position easily that it would have been otherwise. But at the same time many lower castes were appointed as craft tutors and studio helpers, carpenters and potters in the same institutes who never got any social position as individual artists, while the upper caste artists became lecturers, professors and gurus and masters. 
We could see the same situation till the mid 1970s when some of the fine arts colleges in India were still art and craft institutes where the teachers were just studio potters, painters who got trained in academic painting styles, traditional sculptors, carvers and carpenters. There were agitations led by the students to upgrade these colleges and to get ‘academically trained’ artists as their teachers. The irony was that most of these agitating students were coming from lower middle class families and also from artisans’ castes. Their demand to get academically trained teachers should be justified because their struggle was not to become artisans and craftspeople like their parents and family elders but like the individual artists who belonged to the upper castes and socially advanced classes. It was in a way a simulation of the same what had happened during the early 20thcentury. The artisans and craftspeople who got trained in the British art education system were not really striving to become better trained craftspeople but individual artists. In the last quarter of the 20thcentury too the aspiration levels remained the same. And interestingly, the expansion of educational facilities had brought in students from various castes to the art institutes, but their class status remained as lower middle class. There were rarely middle class students in those days but in the turbulent days of social change in 1970s their middle class status had to go under cover and camouflage itself as lower middle class or lower class. 
Work by Rembrandt
Except in the metros, most of the provincial art schools and colleges still have a majority of art students coming from the artisanal classes; which automatically translate into lower castes in India though in the institutes this aspect is not so vehemently highlighted these days. In the regular art colleges we see art students and art history students hailing from middle class (the erstwhile lower middle class that got a promotion due to economic mobility) but a majority still has the lower caste (OBCs and SC/STs) status. They all study without much caste discrimination within these institutes but the moment they enter the higher education or job sector the caste aspect starts slowly creeping in. Today, a cursory look at the biodata of the artists who are full time professional artists in the Indian art scene, we could say a majority of them are from the artisan classes (OBCs and SC/STs). The caste surnames ‘Acharis’, ‘Karmakars’, ‘Sutars’, ‘Mistrys’ and so on point at this fact. Some of them have transcended the caste identity either by taking away the surname or by becoming economically successful.  But the rest of the artists remain in a semi-opaque curtain of caste which at once makes them visible and invisible as caste individuals. As I mentioned elsewhere, the economic success mostly in the urban spaces and the fame that follows makes the artist unburden himself of the caste weight even when has a caste title attached to his first name. 
This is not the case when we reach the elite institutes that impart art and art historical/critical education in India. The presence of the lower caste students are either minimal or even if they are equal in number as the upper caste students, the success ration in performance is depended heavily on the skin color, beauty concept, English speaking abilities, acceptable English-European-American accent, social mobility, proximity with power structures and so on. During the last fifteen years or so, the number of lower caste students getting into such cream institutes have gone considerably down and even if a few of them get into it, their success or performance is hardly highlighted or made visible in the centre. Perhaps, they may be making some impact elsewhere, within the same caste groups, regional languages or Dalit study groups, protest movements and so on. But the professional rise is hardly assured to these people. If you look at the professional working in the major Indian galleries, museums, auction houses, art consultancy services and so on, we would come to know with a shock that no dark skinned, non-English speaking, not fitting to the beauty concept male or female are employed in any of them. They are simply ‘White English Male/Female culled from Indian origins’. 
Vincent Van Gogh
It is pertinent to look at the number of artists who have come up in the art scene in India and are almost promoted during the last ten years (the post boom years to be precise) we could see that most of them belong to the upper middle class, upper caste, English speaking, fair skinned categories. But if you look at the stars who came up from 1995 to 2005 (a very crucial decade in India art) most of them belonged to the lower class (which became middle class in due course of time and some could go up to upper middle class status) and OBCs and lower castes. They have been now relegated to the vaults to make them vintage properties. But something else happened during those boom years. When the upper class and upper caste families found that there was money in the art scene, they started pushing their children not only to the traditionally known art institutes in India but also to the newly established art and design institutes that cater to the global students and audience. During the post boom years, these students came as graduates and post graduates in the scene with a global training, global attitude and global art works which perhaps do not have anything to do with the Indian politics or reality. This new breed of artists and art professional today rule the Indian art scene, once again underling the caste and class divisions in the general Indian society. This is one area to be probed further in order to understand why the Indian art scene also turned ‘While Middle Class English’ exactly the way British art scene has turned. 
I do not have a substantial data to support my arguments but I am sure if someone really is interested to go further, this essay could be a starting point to debate the issue. I have been dealing with the issues mainly keeping the male artists in India in my mind. But it is interesting to see how Indian women artists have fared through these caste-class issues because many Indian women artists who are prominent today do not belong to the lower castes or lower class. They are either married to upper castes or class or are able to transcend their caste and economic status through economic gains made out of their art sales or through the success of their husbands (as artists or business men or other professionals). What happens to those women artists belonging to the lower castes (OBCs and SC/STs) who get trained in the art institutes? Where do they go? Even if they are there in the scene as successful or semi-successful artists, how do they deal with the caste-class issues in their lives? It may be an interesting area of study if someone is really interested to go into the nuances of it. Many women artists in India today wouldn’t be interested to talk about it because they are not even able to understand feminist positions in art or any other field therefore unable to call themselves ‘feminists’. Hence, I doubt whether there would be any woman artist in India today who would come forward to articulate caste issue as caste and class issue as class issue itself. May be I am wrong. Or may be women artists today articulate the caste and class issues by interspersing them inextricably with the ‘feminine’ issues. More debates are needed in this field of study. 

PS: I welcome readers to inform me more details about the issues that I have raised here in this essay. If I have gone wrong anywhere, you may correct me. 

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