(Sidharth Bhatia, Founder Editor, the Wire)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become an art appreciator. During his election campaign in Karnataka Mr.Modi chose to praise a ‘Hanuman’ portrait done by a young artist, Karana Acharya which has become the aggressive face of the extreme right wing political outfits like the Bajrang Dal, Vsiwa Hindu Parishad and other mainstream and fringe right wing denominations. I would say Mr.Modi is a bit late in appreciating it or rather he has chosen an appropriate time to speak about it as a ‘magnificent (piece of) art’ for today he wants nothing but the support of the right wing extremist groups that could garner votes for the BJP in the forthcoming Karnataka Assembly Elections, especially through an artistic symbol which has become the ‘face’ of such groups even before Mr.Modi had noticed it for the first time. This particular face of Hanuman done by the said artist had captured the attention of the public almost two years back when it suddenly started appearing in the rear windscreens of the private cars, taxis, autos and even trucks that plied especially in Maharashtra and in some parts of North India. This Hanuman Fever had been long subsided and recently it has found a new lease of life with the aggressive right wing forces coming openly in the streets in support of the ruling party, BJP, reminding everyone of the Taliban days in Pakistan and Afghanistan two decades ago.
Sidharth Bhatia of the Wire online journal has captured the nuances of this phenomenon wonderfully in his latest article that has come up in the public domain a few hours ago. In this article he cites similar appearances of right wing aggressions in the Indian art scene and also explains why those were less harmful compared to the full scale damage that the present endorsement of the Prime Minister could cause to the Indian art and cultural scene in the coming days. What impressed me a lot in this article was the general assessment that Bhatia has made regarding the Indian contemporary artists and their approach towards the Indian politics. I want to quote Bhatia extensively on this point mainly because I have been voicing similar concerns regarding the nature of the political art of India as well as the claims that certain Indian artists make about the political nature of their works. Let me now quote Bhatia:
(The art Mr.Modi likes, Hanuman by Karan Acharya- pic. from the Wire)
“At one level this sounds like a moot question – contemporary Indian artists have not shown any propensity towards questioning the burning issues of the day. There has hardly been a significant expression, leave alone protest, about rising intolerance. The artist community did not participate in the award wapsi campaign, and nor has there been any major exhibition that comments on the important questions of the day, such as communalism or attacks on minorities. It is as if Indian contemporary art is operating in a vacuum, cut off from social reality, happy to display in galleries abroad. If and when a prominent artist overtly makes an artistic statement on an issue such as rising, ugly majoritarianism, we will see how the militant elements of the parivar react.”
(PM Modi, taken from the Wire)
Bhatia here makes a few important observations; one, contemporary artist generally do not respond to the burning issues today therefore there has been no significant artistic protest about the rising intolerance in the country. Two, Indian artists did not cooperate with the other intellectuals when they were protesting by returning their awards and prize moneys. Three, Indian artists think as if their art was produced in a vacuum and they are happy to exhibit their works in the ideologically neutral spaces like galleries. From my experience I would say that no significant artist in these days has made any ‘significantly overt’ comment on the ugly majoritarianism which would have brought the ire of the right wing forces. It is so unfortunate to see that the very same artists hail politically persecuted artists such as Ai Wei Wei of China as great artists. Our artists’ greatness is always borrowed or rather they live under the reflected glories of someone else. During the market boom years a decade ago Indian contemporary artists had gained some kind of celebrity status which none of them has till date used for voicing a serious concern for the socio-political situation of the country. I should be fair to the artists who have been doing so but the truth is that those who do protest and stand against the political, religious and ideological intolerance are not the so called ‘successful’ artists and so long as their visibility is obscured by their lack of ‘success’ in the market place their voices however significant they are may not be heeded even by the ‘Hanuman’ loving right wing forces in the streets. The protests of such artists are often shot down by the cyber soldiers of the right wing in the social networking platforms. That’s why till date not a single bullet has been wasted on a visual artist in India by the right wing extremists; for they know that these artists ‘just don’t matter.’ Why waste time?
(work by Subodh Gupta)
Let’s look at a recent interview done by an Indian Express reporter with the celebrity artist, Subodh Gupta (dated 6th May 2018). The question goes like this: You (Subodh Gupta) have largely refrained from political works, with 1KG War Ingot (2007) as one of the few exceptions. But now you are engaging with the subjects such as displacement and migration. In Cooking the World at Art Basel, last year you offered a shared meal as the strongest indicator of inclusion and acceptance into a community.’ Now Subodh Gupta answers this question: I don’t think there is any point in jumping into things. If I am deeply political myself, there is no point in making political works. In some instances, it is being done because i think making political works has become fashionable.....As an artist I feel compelled to respond to what is happening in Syria. It is painful how the country and its people are being devastated.’
I think Subodh Gupta’s answer in many ways justifies the statement made by Bhatia in the Wire. Artists are not political at all in this country. Subodh Gupta accepts that he does not want to do anything ‘political’ because he is not too involved in it. Being apolitical is the easiest way to be successful; it also translates differently being successful owes a lot to one’s silence towards the atrocities committed by the state and also in the friendship maintained with the people are partisans of the state indirectly as well as art patrons. In extreme cases what you could make is absolutely apolitical art which will go ‘value free’ and ‘ideologically free’ in any situations. Gupta accepts that it is fashionable to do political art in certain circles therefore it is a compulsion to do political art at times. And he takes the example of Syria and the mass migration caused by the ISIS. For the rich world, which is also the right wing world, that seeks the political ‘other’ likes this political issue of Syria because that could affirm their belief in making a political other in the form of terrorising Islam. Subodh Gupta talks about sharing a meal in order to create social bonding. And he could do it in Art Basel, far away from India (now someone would say that he had performed a communal eating in Delhi a few years back) where it could be taken purely as a ‘bonding’ act because the cook and the eater are from the same class (upper and rich class). But Subodh Gupta wouldn’t be speaking critically or appreciatively about the BJP ministers’ charitable act of going to the Dalit homes and eating food (despite the mosquito attacks) in order to generate social bonding (to make the Dalit ‘pure’). Subodh Gupta wouldn’t dare to speak a word about this political gimmick (and mocking of the Dalits) because if he does then he will have to be prepared to take a series of political questions. So better play it safe. It is easy to sermonise about Syria because it finds acceptance both in home and abroad for everyone wants a good ‘Islamic’ other.
(work by Riyas Komu)
I have been talking about the lack political art in India and also about the foolishness with which certain people promote certain artists as political artists so vehemently that their foolishness just slips off right in front of the people. An artist like Riyas Komu, when he creates a visual syncopation of Gandhi and Ambedkar, though it looks such a politically and socially relevant theme (as many people do think that Ambedkar has more shelf value than Gandhi now and Ambedkar is politically useful), he just does what is apparent in a clever. He neither leaves Gandhi behind or problematizes him in the presence of Ambedkar nor does he places Ambedkar politically vis-a-vis the Dalit discourse in this country. What Komu does is a visual short cut to get applause exactly the way Husain had done with Sachin Tendulkar, Madhuri Dixit and Mother Teresa. Komu is not a political artist but he chooses what is politically relevant and in currency. But several of our public intellectual openly embrace Komu’s art because it look ideologically potent and radical; but the fact is that it is exactly like the BJP appropriating Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Ambedkar. It adds to the BJP’s vote base similarly, Komu’s so called political art increases his market share. Komu’s art has done nothing towards the ongoing Dalit discourse and as an artist and curator what he does is catering to the upper caste/class art investors by promising them to ‘curate’ some ‘politically relevant’ art from the South East Asia. But how can one do such double standard acts in the name of art making or curating while keeping oneself safely from the deeply disrupting socio-political issues taking place relentlessly in our country?
(Riyas Komu- Pic courtesy The Week)
Sidharth Bhatia points out how Mr.Modi’s sudden interest in art could give birth to a sort of ‘state art’ or ‘art endorsed by the state’. In fact there are several artists in this country who are ready to do art endorsed by the state (which is fundamentally different from the art pieces that are annually awarded by the state academies. They are not endorsement in the sense as these works of art do not support the ideology of the state). Recently, many artists sent the portraits of the prime minister and the image of the prime minister doing yoga for the national exhibition competition. Now the state stands separately from the contemporary art of the country. The day state involves it in directly the landscape of our art scene would change forever. There wouldn’t be any art shown in the public and private galleries that does not cater to the taste of the state or remains absolutely value neutral and ideologically free. It could create a scenario in which the state censors coming down to the studios and galleries to find out degenerate art either to burn them down or to show them as an example of the art that should be shunned by the people. It would tell the people that the artists who make such are dangerous to the society and even they could become the traitors of the country. But at present there is one consolation for sure; come any kind of censorship may, the censors wouldn’t find censorable art in our country because nobody is doing any politically challenging art. It would take no time to take Guptas and Komus as ‘state artists’ (court artists). Mr.Modi just needs to find some time to visit our private and public galleries. He wouldn’t find anything anti-BJP there.
Postscript: India has got artists who could challenge the state and the right wing ideology. But the censors wouldn’t find them easily. They all have found out their own personal allegories to speak secretly against the state and right wing fundamentalism. But unfortunately they are not there in the galleries. Mr.Modi may not have enough time to travel to those nooks and corners of our country where the artists sit in their private dens, shivering in political righteousness, craving for equal rights and justice and creating works that could fool the censors. Future belongs to such art.