Sunday, May 31, 2015

One Who Cried for a Tree

He sat in front of me and tears rolled down from his eyes. “I am crying,” he said.

I keep quiet. Talks on current political scene of our country have somehow traversed into environmental politics.

“People cut trees to make homes, and in the long run they suffer,” he tells me. “Foreign money has made all the difference,” he adds.

I have something else to say about my place. “In our village, people do make a number of huge houses. But they do plant a lot of trees. They compensate trees with saplings and trees.”

Silence grows like a quick creeper between us and it draws us much closer.

“I was in love with a tree in our courtyard,” he tells me. He is an artist and I do not find it odd even when he goes on describing that tree. It is a jackfruit tree.

“One day it cried and when I talk about it I still cry,” he sheds silent tears. I let him cry and talk.

He was in college when it was cut. One day his father said, “Your sister has to get married. Our house does not have doors. I do not have money to buy wood. So we need to cut this tree down.”

He protested. He stood near the tree, hugging it. He was an art student and people thought him to be naturally mad. They chased him away and cut the tree down.

Silently came down the tree and it fell on the ground with a thud. He rushed to the spot. At the base stump, with its age showing in cambium circles, he stood with a universal pain sprouting from each of his bodily pores. Then suddenly the stump started shedding tears. “It came like a fountain. It did not roll down. But it sprayed up as defiance to the human world. I was dragged away from there by my parents.”

I could see his eyes welling up again and tears rolling down like beads of atonement for the sin done by someone else.

Suddenly he smiles. “You know, in a few years time, from the sides of the tree stump, there grew another jackfruit tree. Now it adorns our courtyard as if nothing had happened on that day. Each time I visit my home, I go near and speak to it,” he tells me in utter joy and he shows me the goose pimples that have just come up on his skin. “Each time I recount it, my body reacts.”

For the last couple of years I have been losing my faith in art and its ability to elevate human beings to subtler sublime realms of existence. But when I listen to this anecdote from this artist, I regain my faith not only in art but in those rare artists who still care, for earth and the numerous forms of life in it.

We come from a culture where before cutting the trees, the woodcutters asked permission from the tree and also apologised to the birds and animals that resided on the tree. We come from that culture where when if a tree is cut another tree is planted as a compensation for what has been lost. Where did that culture go?

It has not gone anywhere. It lives in individual beings who are sensitive enough to cry for a tree; it resides in those people who take each cut inflicted on the earth and its pillars as a personal loss. It is there in those people who feel each chainsaw rushing through their heart when it actually splits through the wood of woods.

We have hope.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

When an Art Writer Commits Hara-kiri: Some Thoughts on Seppuku

(Seppuku cover page)

New words for the titles of novels or exhibitions tinge the tips of our receptive antennas; they cry for attention and we fall for them. That’s why when a recently concluded Indian Biennale had a title like ‘Whorled’ I had this unsurpassable urge to see it as ‘whored’. Not only beauty but also meaning lies in the eyes of the beholder, they say. If so, the vulgar meaning that I derived must have been there in my eyes. Only thing that made me look a bit decent in my own eyes was the crony capitalistic moorings that the biennale had presented in the name of global aesthetics, somehow justified the general whorification of visual culture for the sake of pomp and the so called political art. Being quite suspicious about the name games (both naming games and name dropping games), I, the politician amongst the art critics (but am I the only one? In varying degrees of perceptive clarity there have been Mr. Suneet Chopra coming from an absolute red background and for god’s own sake, a saffron clad but less verbose Mr. Raghu Vyas from a similar cadre based political system), therefore had a perennial doubt on the title of a novel ‘Seppuku’, written by none other than one of the leading art critics in the North, Vinod Bhardwaj.

When it came in Hindi, I was offered a copy by the author himself. I was happy because fiction out of the real is always realistic than it is otherwise. Examples have been around in Sanjay Kumar’s  Artist, Undone and Amrita Chowdhury’s Faking it etc. Complete with Chintan Upadhyaya’s smart alec baby on the cover, the dominant background of red had given me all the reasons to suspect it as a political thriller with sufficient amount of art thrown into it. Being a non-Hindi reader it was only my concern for a fellow art critic who coaxed me into reading the novel in Hindi original, which I successfully failed in completing. Since then I was waiting for its translation to hit the market. Translated into English by Brij Sharma, Seppuku, eventually as I could read from cover to cover in one go, once again disappointed me. If it was my inability to read the original in Hindi that had induced me with a sense of shame, this time it was my ability to comprehend literary excellence as well as the lack of it embedded in a literary work of art was the culprit. Seppukku is first in a trilogy that the author has planned on the under (and over too) currents of Indian contemporary art. As the pilot issue looks like a condensed and episodic gossip said in a first person narrative of the protagonist, Baldev, I am not so confident about the second and third editions; however, as I know that Vinod Bhardwaj has been an art insider for the last three or four decades in Delhi’s art circle, there could be enough materials for the second and third issues of the trilogy, but then it all depends on how the raw material is processed, filtered and presented aesthetically. 

(Vinod Bhardwaj)

You don’t call water, H2O, unless you are a scientist. Even scientists do not ask for a glass of H2O, when they are thirsty. Seppuku is H2O, when it comes as the title of this novel. Seppuku is a Japanese word and it means Hara-Kiri, suicide by splitting open the stomach. Japanese Samurais used to practice this sort of self annihilation at the face of shame and loss of dignity. In our context, the novelist intends to use Seppuku as art hara-kiri or artists doing hara-kiri (aesthetical) or the art scene in general doing hara-kiri without realising the foolishness of it. But, throughout the narrative, you do not see any sense of hara-kiri either being discussed by the characters or imparted by the novelist himself. Perhaps, he could have called it a Golden Goose or some sleazy Japanese word for that. Seppuku is a misnomer therefore it is unfortunate.

Now the story; Baldev is a failed painter who turns himself into an art authenticator. Pratap Narayan Rastogi is his friend, contemporary and a super successful artist. When the story begins Pratap Narayan is in a comatose state. There is a flurry of activities in the market to turn this calamity into another opportunity to make gold. Everyone in the art scene seems to be making money; some have even tried pushing ‘fake’ Pratap Narayan works in the market. In the due course of the narrative we come to everything we already know. We start identifying the fictional characters in the living or dead art personalities. Pratap Narayan is successful because he is good with high society women. Period. He does cunnilingus (sucking clitoris) well. That means he has scaled the heights by his tongue rather than by his brush. He is impressive because he has got a great body too. In the novel gallery women travel around in limousines (in Delhi?). There are efforts to mix facts and fiction when he brings Souza, Husain and Dhoomimal gallery into the narrative. Finally Pratap Narayan dies. Baldev, the narrator to his horror finds that one of the works that he has authenticated is a fake as the original is there in Pratap Narayan’s studio which has been lying locked for a while. Baldev goes in search of the woman who has got the fake. But the chowkidar tells him that the house has been lying vacant for a long time. Baldev loses his sense of reality. He questions his very existence. In a Kafkesque or Camus-esque note the novel ends.

(party goes on..but does art?)

Now I, as a reader, am confused as characters with suck-able vaginas and fill-able purses populate the landscape of the novel and the mighty Pratap Narayan does his tongue twisters well on them only to enter into coma followed by the tongue cleaner, death. These characters do not evolve as rounded characters; they remain types. They are forced into the novel to perform some scandalous acts and depart. And the references to the sexual deviancies and related acts (or let us say sexual acts in general- I do not want to sound to be a missionary or a saint who does it for mission’s sake) seem to have come out of the perverse thinking of the writer himself. It is not that the narrations of sexual acts make a writer a pervert. There are hundred and one examples in literature where sexual acts are described in such a way that each of them looks like unparalleled exercises of human mind and libido- Shakespeare, D.H.Lawrence, Alberto Moravia, Jean Genet, Georges Bataille and so on come to my mind. Here, Mr.Bhardwaj takes a lot of pleasure in narrating the sexual acts exactly the way the deprived gossip mongers in any high societies do. Bhardwaj fails completely in elevating the story into a grand fiction.

We live in a world where fictional versions of artists’ lives make gripping stories not only in literature but also in celluloid. We live in a world where writers like Sarah Thronton, Katherin Kuh, Sudhir Venkatesh, Paul Helguvera and so on write stories from art world’s underbelly with a lot of research and literary flourish. In Seppuku, we see identifiable characters and perhaps to the immature people it may give some kind of thrill of recognition. But literature operates in a larger ether where localized narratives stand only when the context and characters evolve as universal characters demanding empathy from the readers. Bhardwaj fails in it and he fails in it absolutely, despite the endorsement of Subodh Gupta, Chintan Upadhyay and Uday Prakash. Vinod Bhardwaj is an insider and a silent observer of Indian contemporary art. I know my criticism would hurt him. But being a writer myself I cannot help saying the truth. My criticism on his literature may help him doing the second and third issues of the trilogy in a better fashion. After all, our art scene does deserve a better fiction. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

My Political Activism Makes Me Happy, Why?

(Interacting with people who came to join the AAP after a public meeting)

‘April is the cruelest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain’, said T.S. Eliot at the outset of his path breaking poem, in fact mixing despair and hope in equal measures, making the reader experience the heat of the month while walking on the rope of desire, balancing completely on the open umbrella of memories. I too was walking on a tight rope precariously, shaking profusely with bouts of indecision, but at the same time regaining balance by holding on to the singular belief that redemption of a human being is possible. To be redeemed, one has to fall into the depths. But in my case I had not fallen into any depths. On the contrary I was to redeem myself from a shallow career choice that had taken me from one shallow spot to a series of others incessantly. I could have walked off but there were pressures of other months. March is not like April and February, obviously is not like March or April. So like an Okri child I was wading through the shallow waters of illusory gains, heavily day dreaming and getting entangled in the invisible threads of lethargy. I was acting activity and I was living lethargy. Dulling effect of lethargy on body was so disastrous that I saw the strong ramparts of my body caving in like dough mounds kneaded by a merciless machine of nothingness. Hence, after a period of dullness, I cannibalized the machine of nothingness into an auto-proteinating regime of rejuvenation, through which I found the rhythm of a regular being who does not ask himself to choose a rope rather than a road.

I have been into politics since childhood. Being the son of a political activist who had moved from one party to another (a couple of times only moving from red to tricolor), eagerly and desperately looking for a spotless platform for ideation activity, my fate too had been sealed very early as far as political activism was concerned. For a long time political reading for me was a supplement to my readings into culture and I had not taken any interest in data or enormity of corruption that had been taking a better share of our political lives. I was happy to be a closet radical while developing all those traits which would have erased the radical habits slowly but steadily. My re-entry into active political arena was as a political journalist in mid 1990s in Delhi. Interestingly, I was so naïve in those days that I could not even discern from one politician to another one. Every name rang the same tune in my mind and every face brought the same ugly reflections of a quintessential corrupt politician. But I have always been a quick learner but a slow employer of the lessons thus learnt. I remained a political journalist for almost ten years and I could say for sure that I was more existential amongst the political journalists and a politician amongst the existential artists. I was looking for a right combination and upon finding it an illusion which was entertained only in books, I decided to quit.

 (with the AAP workers at Vakkom)

Quitting political journalism for a full time art career helped me in more than one way. First of all, amongst the politically naïve artists, I was a politically aware art critic. Secondly, the moment I shunned the career of being a political journalist, I became more curious about politics and became a keen learner of India’s political history. I should say, I read more political history than art history in the decade that followed though I never showed my political views in public and always kept a low profile when political issues came up. In the scene where I operated, which is the art scene, politics has always been a thing of gossip and self righteous opinion making, which did not go beyond a couple of phone calls. I also noticed that most of the artists, especially the ones who lived in big cities always curbed their political opinion in order to be on the right side of things. They apolitically handled everything that needed urgent political addressing. I should not say that there were no really politically aware artists. They were there but soon I found out that they too were standing on the crutches of party politics and were enjoying all those privileges that the party insiders on the top echelons would enjoy. It was disgusting. But my decision was to keep quiet on that front and look more at the aesthetical problems in art vis-à-vis sociology and economics.

Things changed for me when I witnessed the Jan Lok Pal bill protests in Delhi. Then came the infamous Nirbhaya case. I saw the political acumen of Arvind Kejriwal in launching a political party named Aam Aadmi Party. In December 2013, Kejriwal’s AAP came to power with the outside support of Congress in Delhi. The government did not last even two months. Kejriwal ejected himself out of the trap he was in. I was cynical in the beginning and it was when I started using my social networking site (facebook) for expressing my political ideas. Perhaps, I was the first one to ask Mr.Kejriwal to do away with the hallmark cap of an AAP worker once he became the Chief Minister of Delhi for the first time. My argument was that if he was an ordinary man and the CM of the ordinary man, he need not have distinguished himself from the millions of ordinary people who do not wear those caps. I do not know whether he saw it or not. But then, till he resigned, he was not seen with the cap. He wore it again when he contested again in Varanasi, this time against a mighty opponent, Narendra Modi. Kejriwal lost and Modi won. I was sympathetic to Kejriwal and was not so critical about Modi. I was of the opinion that Mr.Modi also needed his time to settle down and do things. But for many like me, the hope was misplaced. Modi started showing his true colors sooner than later.

(With the AAP workers at Vakkom)

I intensified my campaign against Modi and his autocratic and theological regime through my facebook. In the meanwhile I saw how Mr.Kejriwal came to power in Delhi for the second time with an absolute majority by wresting 67 out of the 70 seats. I was happy to be the first writer who had written a book on Kejriwal (DC Books 2014). I thought, after Kejriwal’s resignation and his total obfuscation from the public space by the antagonistic dominant media, my book would not sell well. But today it seems to be out of print. Like any other ordinary citizen in this country who uses facebook, I also started posting my political views on both Kejriwal’s AAP and Modi’s BJP. For the last one year I have been more vocal on politics than the matters of art. It was a natural transition. I could not have done otherwise. The art scene was behaving like an individual castrated; due to the lack of political will, with no constituency of its own, the artists’ community was behaving like a defeated lot. Interestingly, many of the artists started going weak in the knees before power and political arrogance. Today, art is a lost cause in India. Our country does not need the so called political art; it needs art done by politically conscious artists. We need more artists who can vocalize the critical political positions within the larger communities. I could not see any coming up. It was then that I decided to move out of this lost scene and join a more focused and energetic scene; politics.

I could not have chosen any other party. In India, there is no other party which has taken me by force; which has attracted me and compelled me. I have been keeping my talks on for over a year with my village people and a few leading lights who were already working towards making the AAP unit in our village. I could have joined the Delhi AAP. I knew that I might have been forced to behave like a pushy politician in Delhi to grab the attention of the leaders and I would have become a political survivor than a political activist. Hence, I chose to join the party in a small village, where I could start my work from the Panchayat level, which in fact is a true reflection of the AAP’s manifesto. Today, I am an active party worker. I make public speeches, I visit people, I talk to people and keep no grudge against any individual from other parties. As an AAP worker I am not addressing the individuals; they are my village people. But I address the systems of corruption and nepotism. I question the dominant ideologies and the ways in which the political parties implement them into the lives of hapless followers. Our fight is double edged- We have to create awareness about the system amongst the people and at the same time fight corruption politically.

 (Inaugurating the AAP Party office at Vakkom)

People mock us. People mock me. Both right on the ground and in the facebook, people come forward to mock my efforts. They think that it is a fancy; a passing phase. They think that nothing will happen to this party. They believe that we will lose interest and go. They think so because this party is a party with no power, economic or otherwise. This party does not have massive following in Kerala. But I have a dream, I have a dream to build the party from the grassroots. I have a dream to be an activist at the ground level. I address power and I address power with responsibility and free of corruption. It may be a distant dream but to me it looks very near. I believe that government and governance means ruling force and the opposition. Together they make a government. In our country, often opposition is neglected. Democracy has become a majoritarian autocracy. My political vision is an ant’s eye view of things. I see from the ground and strive to reach perfection of politics. This is what every AAP worker in Kerala aspires for, I believe. And we will turn the political scenario of Kerala around. My political work justifies my conscience and vice versa. It makes me happy.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When Nirbhaya and the Moga Girl Came to Vakkom

(AAP Workers protesting against the Moga incident at Vakkom)

On 29th April at Moga in Punjab, a girl was molested in a running bus in the presence of her mother and younger brother, by a group of hooligans belonging to a political outfit or having affiliations with the ruling party in Punjab. Both the girl and mother were thrown out of the running bus and the girl died instantly. This incident generated huge protests in Punjab. Finally, a truce was called between the father of the girl and the ruling party of Punjab. We are sure the case will be slowly pushed out of the public memory as the culprits were traveling in a bus owned by the Deputy Chief Minister of Punjab and his wife, a central minister. Above all the Deputy CM of Punjab is none other than the son of the Chief Minister of Punjab. It takes a Rohit Shetty or Shankar to cook up a story and put Ajay Devgan or Vikram or Vijay in the lead so that some kind of justice is delivered in such a case. Otherwise, in the real life, with this much power packed at on one side of the issue, the molested girl’s family is not going to get any justice. To top it up all, one of the ministers in the Punjab Assembly declared that it was the ‘fate’ of that girl. I think, those who carry an iota of dignity with them must have hung up their heads in shame on that day. I did. I could not even look at my own face in the mirror.

There is a stark and startling difference between the Moga incident in Punjab and the Nirbhaya incident in Delhi, almost three years back. On 16th December 2012, in a moving bus in Delhi, a girl, posthumously known to the world as Nirbhaya and today known as Jyoti Singh Pandey, was brutally assaulted by a group of revelers who actually worked in that bus. Nirbhaya died the death of a martyr. She brought in a great change in our society. While she was fighting for her life in Delhi and later in Singapore where she was sent for treatment by the Government of Delhi under the then Congress Chief Minister, Shiela Dixit, the Indian middle class woke up and came out into the streets and staged a moment of revolution, which shook the seats of power. The moment, its momentum and the resultant movement was so contagious that not a single incident in India since Independence had consolidated the Indian mass the way the Nirbhaya incident had done. It was not her religion, it was not her identity and it was not her social status that helped her in becoming the fulcrum of a social movement. It was something else. That something else was denied to the Moga girl. So the protests were confined within Punjab only. Initially, it showed some symptoms of becoming a national movement. But something failed the masses from within. What was that?

(People protesting at the Rajpath in Delhi against the Nirbhaya incident)

When Nirbhaya incident took place, India had already been doing a soul searching through the India Against Corruption movement, which later manifested in various demonstrations by Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal, Kiran Bedi, Baba Ramdev, Swami Agnivesh, Medha Patkar, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and so on. People were already fed up with the corrupt ruling classes. Nirbhaya was the last point where the patience of the masses snapped. They just wanted to tell the rulers of India that they did not want to tolerate the anti-human activities caused by the failing law and order system. People reacted, strongly, heavily and extraordinarily. Nirbhaya incident was one of the tipping points that helped the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party in getting 27 seats in the Delhi Assembly by the end of 2013. But there is something curious about the national proliferation of the Nirbhaya Sentiments and the lack of it in the case of the Moga girl.

Perhaps, the Aam Aadmi Party unit in Vakkom, a small village in Trivandrum District, is the only political outfit outside of Punjab that did a protest march against the infamous Moga incident. It was a humble but powerful way of registering our protest against the ruling class in Punjab as well as generally in India. We at the AAP unit here did a brainstorming regarding the possible action plans to protest and it was my idea to take out a protest march that highlighted the Freedom of Women and Equal Rights and Justice. I took up this issue for a couple of reasons. First of all I was the first curator in India who responded to the Nirbhaya incident through a well thought out art project. Titled R.A.P.E (Rare Acts of Political Engagement), this show featured twenty two young Indian women artists who very strongly responded to the Nirbhaya incident. The second thing was much more telling than aesthetically oriented. I found that while the whole of India erupted against the Nirbhaya Incident, very few people even bothered to speak about the Moga incident (I tried to speak to a few village folks but they responded to the incident as if it were a folk story of sort). I soon nailed the reason for this lack of interest even immediately after a huge discussion around the controversial documentary titled ‘India’s Daughter’ by Leslie Udwin.

 (Children in Punjab protesting against the Moga incident)

My finding was simple but shocking. People reacted sharply because the culprits came from economically, socially, culturally and politically deprived backgrounds. The molesters were underdogs who were looking for some fun. They belonged to some urban shanty in Delhi where people lived in subhuman conditions. The culprits were migrant poor therefore they were immediately seen as pests or malevolent creatures waiting to disturb the social harmony and peace. They were beasts from the urban jungle therefore they needed to be hunted down. The middle class felt exactly the same about these migrant poor men who were looking for some fun which ended up in the merciless raping and killing of an unsuspecting girl who had gone out for a movie with her friend. I am not pitching my argument on behalf of the urban poor who assaulted Nirbhaya and killed her; in fact I demand capital punishment for them, ironically exactly like the other members in the dominant middle class. But in the case of Moga incident, the culprits had a huge political cover. The culprits belonged to the ruling class/family and also they were working for the transport company owned by the Deputy Chief Minister and his wife, who is a central minister. Suddenly, the Indian middle class became absolutely silent on this. Are they afraid of the rich and powerful? Or do they think that when committed by the rich and powerful, a crime is a notch less than the actual crime? Do class affiliations and aspirations alter the perspective on crimes and social injustice?

 (Celebrities coming out to protest against poor hawkers in Mumbai)

In the case of the verdict that the actor Salman Khan recently received for the homicide caused by his callous driving almost twelve years back, and the kind of support that he gets today from his kith, kin, politicians, colleagues and the huge fan base, clearly shows that the middle class feels that the crime if committed by the rich and powerful is partly permissible. Or rather they would accept it for sometime till it festers within them and causes some kind of depression which they would express through their negative voting. Middle class and upper class are like that. Let us take a couple of incidents that took place in Mumbai recently. The BMC (Is it Brihan Mumbai Corporation or Bombay Municipal Corporation?) brought out an order letting the hawkers to use the pavements of the rich locations like Pali Hill and Malabar Hill. These are the places where a square feet of space costs around Rs.1,50,000/- (one to two lakhs rupees for a square feet of space). When the vendors were allowed to set their stalls there the film stars, musicians, celebrities and so on came out in the streets to protest against the corporation’s move. They said that the vendors will litter and congest the roads and pavements, which will collapse the peaceful ‘ecosystem’ of their lives. The rich people see it as an encroachment. They hate the poor vendors setting up their makeshift stalls there. They just do not want the poor in their vicinity. In Mumbai you can hear people doing breast beating to protect the Parsi colonies and Hindu colonies. But nobody talks about protecting the colonies of the common people. The MHDA colonies are crumbling. But nobody cares. The protest of the rich is against the migrant poor; not really for the environment. But these people, these celebrities themselves do not ask whether they really belong to Mumbai or not. How many of them are from Mumbai? They have all come from Punjab, UP, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and so on.

 (Leslie Udwin- director of India's Daughter)

When we decided to take out a procession against the Moga incident and also for sensitizing the people of Vakkom about women’s rights, equal rights and justice, we knew that we would not get many women to participate in the procession. In such villages women are politically illiterate even if they are educated academically. They may have some political understanding but their opinion is always swayed either by their husbands or fathers or by those of the dominant groups that come to help them. When we came out in the streets with placards, only two women were there with us and both of them were the wives of two AAP workers. When we were walking along the streets, most of the people were curiously looking at us and some of them were at least jeering and mocking us. But when I thought of it, the lack of women in our company itself shows that the sensitization is not needed to them, but it should be directed at the men folk in the village. I expressed my views in the party gathering at the office and they accepted it. I believe that women need to know about their rights. They need to identify their power embedded in them. They need to unlearn the lessons of patriarchy which is the guiding for them. They need to ask questions. And to make a conducive atmosphere for them to do all these, the men folk should change their attitude. They should get their women out of the kitchens. They should feel the need for them to have opinion in the public life. I could see the fear in the eyes of the men here. I am sure that they would change one day. I am sure one day the women would come out express themselves. Then this village, along with many other villages will change their course and complexion.  

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Foouckling* Raja Ravi Varma and Art Lovers

(One of the 'high quality' prints at Raja Ravi Varma Memorial Museum/gallery in Kilimanoor, Kerala)

Kerala celebrated Raja Ravi Varma’s 167th birth anniversary recently. Organized by the Lalitha Kala Akademi in Kerala at Ravi Varma’s birth place, Kilimanoor in North East of Trivandrum District, in the newly inaugurated Art Gallery, there were more political speeches than scholarly re-inventing of Ravi Varma for the posterity. In the social networking sites, I happened to see that one of the famous auction houses predicts a hike on the prices of Ravi Varma’s works. It has been doing the rounds for a long time; the rarer the works the dearer the prices. Ravi Varma is a vintage item not only in his works but also in legends pertaining to him. But vintage things are static too; they remain the same, exuding the beauty across the audience but leaving nothing to wonder because the legends remain the same. To make the vintage into contemporary, you need more than political will and political speeches. It needs creative art history with a lot of imaginative historians working around the legend. Ravi Varma’s detractors are his own sycophants. They repeat the same intellectually polished romantic renditions around Ravi Varma’s art and life, making him more and more a dead artist than a historical artist who could live through generations through constant memory making.

(display hall at the RRMM)

Raja Ravi Varma must be turning in his grave. That was exactly what I felt when I reached Kilimanoor on a hot afternoon. I asked the private bus conductor where the gallery was. He asked a few other people to finally tell me that it was somewhere. He promised to drop me there at the gate itself. He qualified the place as where some ‘sculptures’ were kept. I had seen a newspaper report that detailed the presence of sculptures in the gallery compound and ever since I was curious about them. The gallery is built in a 1.66 acre property which has two undulating decks. On the first deck we have this gallery, done typically in Kerala traditional architecture style. Before I could attend to the details of this architectural wonder, I thought of going inside the gallery and see the works of Raja Ravi Varma. I should say I was deeply disappointed. If Ravi Varma had come with me, he would have broken down instantly not only out of grief but also of shame.

(Sita Andardhaanam- Sita goes into the earth- another 'high quality' print in the museum)

This Ravi Varma Memorial Art Gallery, which was inaugurated by the present cultural minister Mr.K.C.Joseph (Congress) and amply helped in making by the current MLA, Mr.B.Satyan (CPM) on 29th November 2014, is a disaster artistically and architecturally. Lalitha Kala Akademy claims that forty ‘high quality’ prints of Ravi Varma’s oil paintings and oleographs are displayed for aesthetic enjoyment. The very first sight of one of the works presented at the beginning of the gallery was so insulting to the memory of the artist that the ‘high quality’ prints had not even gone through proper color correction. The frames are expensive and the printing is done cheaply. I am not an expert in printing. But I can say for sure that these are below average prints and something has gone terribly wrong in the tendering, vendor-ing, executing and displaying. One could feel like asking any expert in printing where exactly the print job has gone wrong. Is it in getting the right printer or in the shoddy dealing? I am sure my dear friends, Kaattoor Narayana Pillai who is the chairman of the Kerala Lalitha Kala Akademy, Vaikom M.K.Shibu, secretary of the Lalitha Kala Akademy and Mr. Francis (who was the Chairman when this job was commissioned) would give me an answer to these questions.

(The Ravi Varma Museum/Gallery building)

The gallery strangely resembles the Guild Gallery in Alibaug near Mumbai. The spatial arrangement is more or less the same but the difference is while the Guild Gallery showcases the works of the contemporary artists with studied care and lighting, here in Ravi Varma Memorial Gallery in Kilimanoor, the poor quality prints are mounted in ‘wonderful’ frames and displayed without considering any chronology or curatorial discretion. One may wonder why, Lalitha Kala Akademy and the cultural department of Kerala is so callous in executing something which could have been a permanent tourist attraction and a historical centre as Ravi Varma’s birth palace is a few paces away from this memorial gallery. While asking around, I got the feeling that the Ravi Varma family is not that impressed by the job that the LKA has done. But there is not even a complaint book to register my complaint.

(G.Shankar, the architect who designed this museum)

The architecture is another disaster. The building and the development of the premises is said to have incurred an expenditure of Rs.1.37 Crore so far. The architecture is done, as I said before in typical Kerala style and is designed and created by one of the famous ‘low cost’ architectural firms, namely Habitat led by a highly reputed architect G.Shankar. This architect is famous for his environmental friendly green architecture. But I want to ask Mr. Shankar what he has exactly done to this building. The building has a tin roof which is covered with a rubberized asbestos tiles which provides insulation and a cover at once. One may wonder is this how one reputed architect envisions a museum which is supposed to house the internationally reputed art works? Or did he think that the museum is going to house only prints of Ravi Varma and those prints need only a decorative shed? Mr.Shankar should give an answer to these questions. If I go by the Arnab Goswami way, the Nation demands an answer from you Mr.Shankar.

 (Shilpi Rajan made this Ravi Varma portrait in cement. I am not going to believe it is Ravi Varma)

I could see around ten sculptures in the museum premises. P.S.Rajan, who is known as Shilpi Rajan has created a portrait of Raja Ravi Varma in cement. One of the journalists asked him what he was thinking when he was making a ‘kshatriya’ artist’s portrait. The question came from the fact that the sculptor hails from a backward caste. His answer was simple: I am a sculptor, I saw sculpture Ravi Varma in my mind.’ I was curious to see the sculpture and I have to register my protest here, with all due respect to the sculptor that it is not a sculptural portrait at all. By making this sculpture the sculptor has demeaned the image of Ravi Varma that millions of people carry in their mind. But Rajan could escape from this situation only by quoting Sree Narayana Guru, who while consecrating a Shiva idol in a temple told the opponents that he was consecrating an Ezhava Shiva (a backward caste Shiv). Rajan could say that it is a Dalit Ravi Varma and make his way out of the possible controversy. But I am sure there would be no controversy as not many are hugely interested.

(Valsan Kolleri's sculpture)

Out of the sculptures I could see the works of Onix Paulose, Augustine Verghese, Saju Mannathur, Rajan PS, Jyotilal T.G, Jayan AK, Sudhakaran NK, Sanu VR, Raveendran MV and Valsan Koorma Kolleri. The parameter for selecting the sculptors to work here was that they should be an Academy Award winner. If so the works of Valsan Koorma Kolleri and Saju Mannthur stand distinct for different reasons. Valsan’s abstract work evokes curiosity about its form and stature. Saju Mannathur is a trained mural painter and his sculpture is the portrait of Nala from Nalacharita, which is quite impressive. An acclaimed sculptor like Jyotilal T.G does not seem to have done justice. The other works may be good, but they do not stand a chance within Ravi Varma’s vicinity. The nation asks another question; Why did the Akademy refuse to make any consultation with acclaimed artists and art historians?

 (Work by Saju Mannathur)

Ministers and MLAs speak of the possibility of this place becoming an international heritage centre. Whenever there is a mention of the word international, I feel like checking the lavatories there. I went there and the scene I saw there was appalling. For the whole 1.66 acre of land and buildings, there is only one toilet, which is made along with the green room of an amphi-theatre. It is gloriously dirty and the door is without a latch. I think G.Shankar, the architect should explain this also. Or does Kerala deserve only this much? 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Joining a Political Party in the Age of Artistic Escapism

(AAP Leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal)

I have been asked by many friends and well wishers why chose to join a political party; Aam Admi Party. Even yesterday night, one of my well wishers who visited me at home asked me to re-think my decision. My mother and sister still wonder why I have decided to join a political party. It is not that they do not know about my political views, but they have always thought that I would limit them within my area of engagement; that is cultural criticism or maximum political criticism. Today, I feel like explaining my decision to join a political party, at least to my friends and well wishers. I have a quite a few reasons, but I would consider detailing only a few out of them.

For the last twenty five years, I have been under the impression that art started where politics ended. It was never the other way round for me. I had full faith in art and its capacity to alleviate human beings from the pits where humanity had befallen. Pushed over by the forces of avarice and power mongering, humanity, today humanity has gone further deeper and it is beyond our ability to fathom this bottomless pit. I used to think that art could engage human beings with the idea of redeeming this fallen humanity, a mission which the politics of different colors had miserably failed. Art, for me was not an imitation of politics; but it was always a tangential critique of the same. Art came up from the darkness holding the beacon of hope whenever there was utter darkness thickly delivered by the ignorant forces of politics. However, at time politics learned from arts; exactly the same way science followed art and even today it does. Politics showed the symptoms of redemption whenever it followed the paths that have been shown by the art and artists. Politics fell into the abyss when it pushed art into the abyss of negligence.

 (Mr.Narendra Modi, BJP leader and the Prime Minister of India)

Foolish I was to think that politics was the only villain in this process of annihilating art from the creative brains and hearts of the artists. I used to think that politics had made artists the victims of its mechanizations. But it was not true. Since 2012, India has been going through tremendous pressures and changes caused by social upheavals and political plotting. In 2013, India witnessed the rise of people against corruption. It was fuelled by the dejection that the Indian middle class felt about the horrible rape incident of Jyoti Singh aka Nirbhaya in Delhi. India was ushering itself into a new political spring. People wanted a change at the political front; they wanted a new leadership to take over the steering wheel of India. Mr.Narendra Modi was preparing himself for the driver’s wheel for a long time. He consolidated his position as a national leader through well strategized moves and by 2012-13, Modi made himself the undisputed leader of the BJP.

It was not that Mr.Modi was showing the Indian public a political alternative. The electorate knew for sure that they would vote for change as they have always done. This time they wanted a change in the ‘leadership’. Two leaders came to the national scene; one was Mr.Modi and the second one was Mr.Arvind Kejrival. While the former told the Indian populace that he could take India to a new future where everyone would enjoy financial prosperity through corporatization of Indian economy, the latter told the working class, lower middle class and the middle-middle class that he would provide them with a corruption free India. He told them that he could bring in a just India, though not so rich India. He promised the small industries and small business men that he would protect them from bureaucratic pilfering and looting. He told the destitute that he would provide them with shelters. He told the people who lived in shanties that they too had human rights and he would ensure them the rights that had been so long due. Delhi voted for Kejrival. He became the Chief Minister of Delhi. He abdicated from power as the central government clamped him using the Delhi Police. India in general voted for Mr.Modi and he became the Prime Minister. Now he is about to complete one year in power and Mr.Modi is not the same man. India suddenly realized that Mr.Modi too is another wholesaler of his country to the capitalist forces. Nationalist jingoism is only eyewash. 

(JohnyML at the AAP office at Vakkom)

Kejriwal ruled from the streets of Delhi in the cold winter of January 2014. And he left power for a cause. Some say he saved his face by abdicating. That could be true or false. But the issue was not just about his face saving. The issue that remains today is this; Have we done away with corruption? Kejriwal gave a tough fight to Mr.Modi in Varanasi. Later he proved his worth in Delhi by generating a landslide victory for the AAP. Delhi people were ready to forgive Kejriwal for his 49 days old first term and the rhetoric and political immaturity he had showed. They brought him back to power with a thumping victory of sixty seven out of seventy seats in Delhi assembly, giving out warning signals to the Modi government. It said; the Poor are still in India. The farmers are still there. They want a dignified life. AAP soon faced inner party troubles. Four leaders were expelled from the party. But the party is still strong and it stands for its values.

I have been a silent spectator of these developments since 2012. I have been watching how our artists responded to the socio-political situation in India. I was keen to know about how they responded to the issues pertaining to the women’s right and security, education, rapes, attitude towards third gender, response to the religious minorities, co-optation of national leaders to the BJP fold, beef ban, land acquisition bill, internet neutrality, farmers’ suicide, mindless urban planning, dislocation of people, workers’ rights, exploitations of different kinds of the work place so on so forth. To my shock and dismay I found that only a few artists or members from artists’ community responded to these issues vehemently. Of course, a very few did it. They showed their angst and rage through facebook postings and sharing of concerned articles. They stood for certain causes by sharing and liking. But the lack of outspokenness of artists appalled me. They were not speaking out. I expected them to speak out. They did not.

(Ad.Thushar Sarathi and Jaison Cooper. They asked for human rights and Police put them behind bars accusing them with Maoist connections. Where were the artists then?)

I could speak to a few people in the art scene. They all told me that their job is not to speak out. Their job is to flag out issues or critique through their works. They are not vocal but their works are. I found this argument nauseating. This escapist view has been doing the rounds since our independence. Artists always said that their job is to create art. Politics is a dirty field and they do not want to enter in that field. If there was an issue, they are ready to talk through a collective like SAHMAT. If there is an issue they are talk about it through the grapevine. I have not seen anyone so far coming out strongly and making a statement about any of those abovementioned issues. I am not surprised if the novice artists do not do it. But I have seen the so called radicals getting cozy with the power centers. To see this is really disheartening. I salute those poets, writers, journalists, socialists, socialites, social activists, scientists, singers, dancers and so on coming out strongly against anti-humanitarian and anti-people rules imposed on the people by the central and state governments in the country. To my shame, I have been seeing only a very miniscule section of artists standing up and talking against.

Adorno, said that there cannot be poetry after Auschwitz. After fuming millions of people in gas chambers and witnessing such enormous levels of atrocities against human beings by the Nazis, he said, there cannot be poetry. How could poets write poetry? Adorno was right and wrong at the same time. He was wrong because there was/is poetry after holocaust and he is right because the poetry never remained the same. It was different. Poetry spoke in/through blood. Poetry spoke through the thousand voices of the freedom seeking people from all over the world. In this cacophony there occurred a new poetry with a new meaning. That defined the poetry after holocaust.

 (I do not stop you from worshiping Cow. But why do you stop me from eating beef?)

I waited for something to happen in art scene of our country. I waited like a hungry pot at a dried up well vacantly looking at the scorching heat coming through the layers of the burning sky, reflecting nothing. I stopped writing art criticism, at least temporarily because I was that hollow pot with a dark mouth, booming out nothing. Nothing was happening in the art scene. Like a mendicant, I wandered from one city to the other, looking for art and artists, who could tell me that they are at least on their way to do something against the anti-human policies of the government. Everyone seemed concerned, but none seemed to have the guts to talk about it in their art. Artists were talking about survival and some of them were talking about international travel. To my horror I found many artists were painting the pictures of gods and goddesses. Is it a new fad? In the newly found neo-Hindu scenario, do the pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses sell well?

I do not know about the sales part of it. I am sure works of art are being sold and crores of rupees have been generated in the market. Money created out of selling beautiful works of art in these days of political turmoil in our country is as obscene as the money created by the auction of the Prime Minister’s suit that chants not the name of Ram but his own name. Such Narcissism? Could be or could not be. Narcissists are very lonely people. Mr.Modi is an extremely private person who is a spin doctor unto himself fearing that if does not give attention to the details his carefully constructed image may fall apart. Did our artists make some recopying of Dali’s Narcissus, at least to spite the Prime Minister? Nothing was happening. I was caught in a very absurd situation of Samuel Beckett. There was hope but it was not even hope. At the end of each day, a small dirty boy was coming and telling me that the Mr.God was not coming today.

(The gate of Auschwitz concentration camp. Josh P Shankaran, an artist had painted this image in 2001-02)

It was at this juncture I decided to start updating my facebook with political status messages. I was not looking for appreciation or criticism. I was ready for a dialogue but I was not sure whether someone would come up with some courage to engage in a dialogue. Some did and some just ignored it. I was not doing my status update for any ego satisfaction. Someone very close to me called it my side of political pornography, something meant pleasure myself in isolation. I did not go to argue or prove otherwise. I just continued and I am sure my joining a political party is not just the outcome of it but it was my idea to tell my friends that I was getting ready to do so. Art was not helping me. But my joining a political party is not out of dejection. If I do out of dejection, in a given situation, if all the artists decided to become revolutionaries overnight, then my stance has to be corrected and I will have to resign from the party. I do not want to do that either. My choice is out of dejection and more than that out of my choice, an exercise of my free will; a declaration that I am not going to succumb to the pressures of time.

My marriage with politics is not because that I have fallen out with art. I have not lost the passion for art and art criticism. When there is good art, there is good criticism too. I do not claim myself as an internationally acclaimed curator or a cultural theorist. But more than any cultural theorist who has been operating from the art scene in India, I engage myself with cultural and political theories. My writings stand witness to it. I should not be talking about my own works. You may refer to those at your own leisure. I am concerned with the status of women in this country. I am concerned with the increasing number of rapes. I have an opinion about religious fundamentalism. I have certain views on religious minorities. I have some observations on the ways the political parties function. I have a say on the political ideologies in our country. I have my views on land and farmers. I have my views on Dalit politics. As an individual interesting in thinking and analyzing and expressing the findings through writings, I have decided that I need to articulate it on a political platform also. My views may be right or wrong. When expressed from a political platform, all the political people could respond to them also. I am not a leader but I am not blind follower either. Between leading and being led, I have found my space to express myself while being in touch with the workers and people. There is a sudden sense of liberation facilitated by breaking down of the personality guards that I have been carefully keeping all these while. Today, I can stop my cycle on the way and speak to a head load worker or a former classmate who got married at the age of seventeen and already a grandmother of two. I am politician today because I want to speak to my people; the people of this country. Art need not wait because I have not left art behind though I am slightly angry with the artists in this country.