Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ma- Ben ki Gaali and the New Bharat Mata in the Indian Political and Visual Discourse

Somehow we all are very touchy about our mothers and rightfully so. Kanaiah Kumar who is currently jailed in the high security cell of Tihar Jail, Delhi for sedition charges while giving a speech at the steps of the administrative block in the Jawaharlal Nehru University just a day before his arrest, raised his mobile phone and said that he could show the messages that abused his mother and sister profusely by the right wing who, he wondered, were the same people who spoke highly of the ‘mother India/Bharat Mata’ and had been baying for the blood of the anti-nationals. Considering the events in India today, we also need to say here that what hurt some people most is not the ‘anti-national sentiments’ but the ‘anti-nationalist sentiments’. Most of us know where the difference lies. Nationalism is more of a cultural inclination and soft pride about the goodness and wellness of the place or country where we happen to take birth, while Nationalist feeling is something that is imposed by certain political and religious ideology/ies that demand a huge amount of patriotism (the contradiction is there in the articulation itself; your nationalist loyalty is measured by the patriotic fervor that you cherish) and illogical loyalty for the country which you have been happy to be born and brought up in.

Let’s rest that argument there for the time being and proceed with the idea of ‘Bharat Mata/Mother India’, which is all of a sudden on the upswing mode. As we know, this chant and pride of/for Bharat Mata is more than a century old. Indian nationalism, as any student of history knows is an outcome of the colonial process and the erstwhile sub-national movements, wars and struggles were not really for establishing an India as we see these days. Historians have noted that burning, looting and breaking the existing systems that include both the social political and religious structures, were a part of the process and all, irrespective of their religions and social perspective had done these atrocities. But when the British became the sole authority of the Indian sub-continent, subjugating the subject fiefdoms as tax paying entities, it became necessary for the erstwhile warring provinces to bury their differences and join hands against the common enemy. We should also understand that even in the process of forming a ‘national resistance’ which was primarily a conglomeration of ‘sub national resistances’, some of the parties were surreptitiously working with the colonial masters in order to perpetuate their interests and survival. This shows that our nationalism was not without any betrayals or vagaries of its own kind. But it was the idea of ‘Mother Nation’ that could ethically and emotionally bring all these warring factions together and it was emotionally difficult for many to defile the mother, means the country.

(Goddess Lakshmi by Raja Ravi Varma)

Hence, by the second half of the 19th century AE, we started seeing the formation of a peculiar notion of ‘Mother India’ getting consolidated and it was purely an abstract idea, which was liable to be interpreted in the most pious way by the ‘patriotic’ subjects. Indian sub-which that has been conjoined invisibly despite its cultural and linguistic difference, in fact stood on the common mythologies and the shared values of Hinduism manifested in different forms and practices all over the sub-continent. And we could see how the original structured religious philosophies either talking about the ‘primordial’ god whose existence even before the existence or talking about the ‘primordial couple’- Shiva-Shakti or Purusha-Prakruti. The presence of this binary but joined inseparably in evocation and meaning, helped the early nationalists to formulate their nationalism around it and the ‘mother’ became all the more important in the process. And ironically we should see that this idealization of mother also comes from a predominant male chauvinism shown by the Indian society in general because any war including the mythical ones were waged in the name of women or by staking women in the war efforts. The very basis of the atrocities committed against women during the war is because in wars property/earth/land/women are considered as one or as the part of the war spoils as a whole. So, upholding one’s right over the earth/land/kingdom/nation is equated with one’s right over the woman who belongs to the land. Woman, therefore has been treated as an entity that has to be fought over as she lacks her own agency.

Mother, though we attribute a lot of value to her then and now, is not different from any women in that case. But the early nationalists had to use mother as the primordial Shakti and this could gravitate people’s sentiments around it; the sudden view of India as a nation and as a mother abused by the whites could change the whole course of the nationalist movement. That’s why we see the slogan ‘Vande Mataram’ in late 19th Century in Tara Shankar Banerjee’s ‘Anand Math’. One has to be particularly watchful here because this slogan was not coming from the material men but the spiritual seekers that in fact could give more authenticity to the claim over women’s body and soul as India as a philosophical unit could easily identify such a claim. Coming from Bengal, it took very less time to mix up this abstract Vande Mataram with the image of Ma Durga, which is the reigning deity of the Bengalis. One need not say it emphatically that the initial anti-colonial struggles started in Calcutta and in Bombay because the colonials were ruling India from these places and the initial struggles were intricately connected to the human labor, surplus value or profit and the alienation of the worker from the work. India was changing fast because of the introduction of rail and postal service. The printing technology was the real catalyst for consolidating the dispersed and diversified nationalistic efforts.

 (Galaxy of Musicians by Raja Ravi Varma)

Though these communication facilities were there, in their nascent form it was very difficult to involve a large populace into the common nationalistic struggle from different parts of India. With no literacy to be considered, it was necessary to have pictorial depictions of ideas that could penetrate into the walls of ignorance. Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was perhaps the first artist to recognize this factor. He was not a nationalist per se. But he wanted his works to be seen by the people, not just by the rich royal and feudal patrons. He had already painted the Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of Indian mythology and it was now his responsibility, as he thought, to proliferate these images amongst the masses. He was not a Hindutva artist as we understand today of the word, but he was a Hindu with an intention to get his works in all the Hindu household as an inexpensive but a reverent image meant to be worshipped. Hence for the first time people got a chance to identify with the goddesses who looked like them. Instead of feeling disgust and awe (the way the French felt disgust while looking at the familiar prostitutes in the works of Eduard Manet in the late 19th century), the illiterate Indian people accepted the gods and goddesses who looked like them. It was the beginning of ‘Bharat Mata’s’ journey though Ravi Varma did not have any intention to create such a ‘rath yatra’.

Ravi Varma could be the pioneer artist who imagined an India with all its cultural differences. His ‘Galaxy of Musicians’ was not a political map or the effort was not to create a visual topography of a political India. What Ravi Varma attempted in this painting was to bring the cultural varieties of Indian ethnic diversities into one pictorial frame and using the musical harmony as a device to imagine the beautiful and harmonious co-existence of different cultures within one India. We cannot just say that Ravi Varma was unaware of the socio-political movements that were taking place around him. He knew the initial upheavals of a political nationalism in Maharashtra and its Hinduist thrust as he was a well travelled artist in the western parts of India. So though apparently an apolitical artist, Ravi Varma had this subconscious inclination and interest to see the kind of India that would come into a reality eventually. Ravi Varma did not live to see the independence of India. But he could foresee what is coming. He knew eventually India would come under one flag/one frame. But what we need to appreciate in his artistic vision is his deliberate choice of avoiding the ‘male’ figures from his future India. He saw a ‘woman’ India or rather a women India. It was progressive on the one hand considering his time and on the other hand he was going by conventions because India saw women as land and land as women, the right on which were in the hands of the male. Hence, Ravi Varma here is the absent male who creates the visible/present female.

 (Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore)

Though it might sound unethical to posit Ravi Varma into this scheme of things to which he does not have the capacity to forward a counter argument, art historically it is necessary to see that Ravi Varma indirectly creates a Bharat Mata, with some kind of a physical contour which looked like belonging to the common women in India. Though Ravi Varma knew the Botticelli’s 15th century masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus’ and modeled several of his works on that painting, it was his choice of models, ethnic beauties of India that had made all the difference. What Tara Shankar Banerjee initiated in his clarion calls, in Ravi Varma it found its visual echo. In Vande Mataram, Banerjee allowed the people to see their women and women themselves in the slogan. Ravi Varma by giving the visual semblance of the ordinary people to the ideal mother/mother land/mother earth, made it visually viable. Then happened the printing press revolution in Bengal primarily and elsewhere in India too. The local artists reinterpreted the ‘mother India’ in the Ravi Varma way. Cheap prints were available for the common people. Newspaper cartoonists and illustrators were profusely using the ‘common woman mother India’ and were pushing her towards some kind of a political divinity. She was ordinary yet she was divine. And looking around the artists saw that the best form of an ordinary woman achieving the divine powers was to combine her image with that of Ma Durga.

The Durga image came as a result of all the powerful woman, originated, hailed and then filtered out of the Tantric forms, then to the mainstream Hindu art by the 7th and 8th century AE, became the standard iconography for the artists, cartoonists and the illustrators. Mahishasur Mardini, the vanquisher of the buffalo demon was the most powerful iconography of Durga. With her lion mount, eight hands attributed with weapons and finally with a dying Mahishasur at her feet, she was the perfect choice for the mother India to find manifestation. In her struggle to be seen and heard, she had assumed the most ferocious looks. At times she appeared as impoverished, at times crude, and at times really aggressive, in the hands of the illustrators. Interestingly we have to see Ravi Varma had never portrayed a Durga, the way the later artists did. People lapped it up and for the political activists, especially the Hindu version of political activism it was an easily adoptable visual vehicle. The shrillness of imagery however was too much for the more egalitarian and educated class. They wanted to see Mother India in much more graceful manifestations. It was Abanindranath Tagore who made all the difference in redefining the Mother India. Though it did not become the standard mother India after a point of time, it could change the visual discourse pertaining to the Mother India in Indian political and visual discourse.

 (Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, 15th century AE)

Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) did his Bharat Mata in 1905. The year is very important. It was in this year, based on their Divide and Rule policy, on behalf of the British Empire, Lord Curzon, the Governor General of India, divided Bengal into two parts; Muslim dominated East and the Hindu dominated West (Bengal). India’s nationalist movement became quite strong after this. One has to see the irony; today we are talking against the Muslims and ironically, the Indian Independence struggle here was against dividing the Muslim from Bengal. Abanindranath, perhaps, was thinking about a much cosmopolitan, humanitarian, compassionate and less aggressive Bharat Mata. In Tagore’s work we see a Bharat Mata with four hands; one has a japamala, a rosary, showing her religious/spiritual bent of mind. In another hand we see a sheaf, which shows the agricultural flourish, one has a palm leaf book, showing the erudition and one hand holds a white cloth, showing the symbol of peace. A very potent image indeed! But what makes Tagore’s work more impactful is the de-sexualization of the woman; she is a mother and she is clad in saffron clothes and this saffron is different from the Hindutva saffron today. This cloth connotes the idea of renunciation. She is not sexually appealing like Durga (who is in the act of killing a male demon which could be seen as a sexual play). She is more like a nun or a widow; the one who has disinvested herself of all her sexuality for the cause of the land. She is not to be desired but worshipped and emulated. Tagore places his Bharat Mata against the voluptuous goddesses envisioned by Ravi Varma. But could this Bharat Mata stay in the visual memory of people in India?

No is the answer. Reasons are many. With the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi into the Indian political struggle, the Hindu thrust as formulated within the Congress and represented by Tilak and MM Malavya was pushed behind and a more secular approach was put in place. Gokhale who was the political mentor of Gandhiji was not really following the Tilak like Hindu nationalism. Gandhi learnt the ropes from there but at the same time knew that estranging the Hindu lot was not a good thing. So he upheld Gita as his political text and followed it to the T. The Hindutva tendencies within the nationalist movement were kept under check by this move of Gandhi and he had to pay a heavy price for it later on 30th January 1949. Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fundamentalist shot him dead. But the irony is it was Mahatma Gandhi who inaugurated India’s first ‘Bharat Mata Temple’ in Benaras. In a program attended by Khan Abdul Gafar Khan and Sardar Patel, Gandhiji, while inaugurating this temple had said: “In this temple there are no statues of gods and goddesses. Here only a map of India is raised on marble. I hope this temple will take the form of a worldwide platform for all religions along with Harijans and of all castes and beliefs, and it would contribute to feelings of religious unity, and peace and love in this country’ (quoted from Icon of Mother in Late Colonial North India by Charu Dutta in EPW November 2001). Gandhiji’s vision was much closer to that of Abanindranath Tagore though he did not want a human figure there.

 (Nargis in Mother India, 1957)

In the post-colonial India where Hindutva did not have much of a say despite their never ending efforts they kept the heat on in different levels and till they found their chance in 1992 in the destruction of the Babri Masjid and it was mainly through temples, RSS branches, VHP and many other outfits (which is now counted as 91 number). The post-independence India actually did not do much to curb the activities of the Hindu nationalists. It was necessary to keep both the Hindus and the Muslims in good humour especially after the partition in two different phases; in 1947 and in 1971. Hindutva people always behaved as the hurt parties though their hurt was largely neglected by the people in general and the governments in particular. They had an opportunity to consolidate during the Emergency period in 1975, which was a short lived honeymoon with the socialists in India. Indian governments led by both Congress and many other regional combinations were mostly tolerant and benevolent towards even to the Hindutva forces fearing the vote bank politics would decimate them had it not been in that way (which eventually decimated them). Hence, overt presentations of the Bharat Mata were allowed right from the school levels. During the youth festivals Bharat Mata is an unavoidable tableau. Through match boxes stickers, films, village fairs, textile calendars, new temples this idea of Bharat Mata as an aggressive goddess was kept alive and she was a potential tool only to be used at certain times. It is interesting to see how, the Bharat Mata is on a come back trail and both Ram and Hanuman are in a retreating stage.

It is imperative to discuss how Bharat Mata took a different turn and moved many leagues away from the images that both Raja Ravi Varma and Abanindranath Tagore had created from their proximate perspectives with the emerging nationalist sentiments in the late 19th and early 20th century respectively. Bharat Mata got a new avatar in Nargis (Dutt) in Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’, the cultic movie released in 1957. Nehruvian Socialism was not really working and the new License Quota Raj was emerging strongly. The new political leadership was not really interested in the Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Jai Jawan Jai Kisan slogan was inspiring (1965) but not really taking the kisan anywhere. Feudalism in general was not ready to leave its clutches loose over the Serbs and the farmers were pushed under the yoke of debts. Hence, Mehboob Khan’s (notice his religion) Mother India presented a new Mother India, in Nargis, who presented the toiling farmer woman with two sons. With her husband leaving them for the fear of debt, the burden of the family falls on her. One of the sons becomes a dacoit and takes revenge. But in the film, what we see is a young voluptuous Nargis becoming a desirous mother, whose body is desired by the feudal lords. Interestingly, there is an Oedipal subtext to the story which is extraneous to the narrative of the film’s original story. Sunil Dutt, who acted as one of the sons of Nargis got romantically involved with his ‘mother’ in the film sets and post film shoot they got married.

Nargis, in the popular imagination stands for two things; the toiling mother, the fighting mother, the dignified mother and the mother who is voluptuous and desirable by her son/s. The toiling mother who is an agricultural worker takes a lot from the Ram Kinkar Baij’s imagination (not directly but from though a larger visual culture awareness). Baij’s famous sculptures ‘Santal Family’ and ‘Mill Call’ were already there in the cultural scene and Baij’s interest was more in the industrialization as pitted against the natural agricultural scenario of India rather than the direct conflict between the colonial master and the subject. Baij imagined the celebration of the people who move from one location to the other with a lot of spirit to survive than complain. He as a free soul was not either wanting his protagonists to be under the yoke of any ideology. It was more like carrying the essence of the Gandhian philosophy with the village as an autonomous unit. Baij’s protagonists were free to move out of this unit and also were free to come back to this. But in Khan’s imagination we see Nargis trapped in the rural setting, which is agrarian and oppressive at the same time. Sunil Dutt, her son moves out of the system not only by becoming a Daku but also by marrying his ‘mother’ outside the film’s narrative.

All of a sudden we have a double edged Bharat Mata unlike the voluptuous Bharat Mata of Raja Ravi Varma and the desexualized Mother India of Tagore. Here in Nargis we have both. She resists the sexual advances of the feudal lords; she fights like a Durga. But at the same time she is austere and monogamous, and believes in the Hindu way of life. She wants her children to study. She is a farmer. She is the embodiment of piety. All attributes attuned to that of Tagore’s  Bharat Mata. But her body is voluptuous and desirable. So from Nargis we see the slow transition of Bharat Mata in the calendars and other visual ensembles; she regains her sexual prowess (more like Ravi Varma characters) and gets her fighting spirit (like Durga). Together they make the present aggressive, desirous Bharat Mata image. Sometimes she is clad in saffron sari, she is with her mount Lion, the backdrop against which she stands is the topographical representation of the Indian Sub-continent where the northern part is made more abstract as a conscious effort to push the memories of partition and the Jammu Kashmir conflict out of the viewers’ minds. The Akhand Bharat (undivided India) concept of the RSS is played out here. This Bharat Mata is a woman with a lot of ‘male’ power. She is ‘masculine’ in her war spirit and ‘feminine’ in her physical attributes. Sometimes she is seen as wearing a tricolor sari. At times she is holding the national flag and at times she holds the saffron flag. This interchangeability of the flags connotes the polity as a Hindu polity. Tricolour could be replaced with saffron, it seems to say and interestingly that has been a demand of the several Hindu outfits. 

During the Ayodhya movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and during the aftermath of it, and even during the new first decade of the new millennium we witnessed a benevolent Ram, the Ram in Gandhiji’s imagination or even in the Uncle Pai’s versions of Ramayana, turning slowly into a masculine, angry and armed Ram who is about to wreck revenge on all those who stand against the making of a Hindu Rashtra. But it slowly lost its steam and the main architect of this movement, Mr.L.K.Advani slowly left his hawkish stance and turned into a dove before he was rendered politically irrelevant by Modi-Shah duo. Now with the JNU row, we once again see the reintroduction of Bharat Mata. From Go-mata to Bharat Mata was a lighting transition. Go-mata did not yield enough results and it is time for the Bharat Mata, who is actually a ‘mother’ of our time. The fear is this; she will be violated by the enemy of the country. This fear is a potent weapon to make everyone a nationalist. Ironically, we are a lot that uses maximum number of expletives that highlights the violation of our mothers’ and sisters’ private parts. The invocation of Bharat Mata sounds like an obscene thing these days because of this connotation preordained by the same aggressors who are out there to decide the nationalists and the anti-nationalists. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Ballad of Bant Singh: A Fighter of Our Times

(Bant Singh)

Drops make an ocean; it is true in the case of people’s movement and also the movement against the people. When Kanaiah Kumar is arrested on sedition charges, the youth of India turned drops of protest to form a huge ocean of resistance. So are the people who now stand for the over politicized nationalists sentiments; slowly they too are turning into an ocean. Elsewhere, the stories of rape, Dalit beating and caste discriminations are submerged in the noise of the wailings of the hurt nationalist sentiments. But the injured and insulted ones are coming together, slowly, steadily and forcefully in order to change the course of history. As Malcolm X once put it, now the chickens are coming to roost. The tables are being turned. This is the last throes of the upper caste and upper class hegemony in India and they are desperate. The oppressed people are going to take over this country and Bant Singh, who has been hailed as the singing human torso is one of those drops which constitute the ocean in the making.

Bant Singh’s story is all over the world. But in the times of television and social media, our attention span has become a monkey that jumps from one branch of information to the other. Upon hearing the news of atrocities committed against the oppressed, downtrodden, children, old people and women, we are enraged and our passions run helter-skelter and find manifestations in our angst ridden status messages. But then we move on to the next happy moment, reassuring our paining selves with the news of good tidings, only to shudder at the memories of the bad events that have just passed. Bant Singh with his revolutionary songs reminds us that we need to have this never say die spirit in order to change the world. When he was asked to shut up by the Panchayat and also by the relatives and friends, he did not shut up. Like any other valiant father, Bant Singh also stood up against the tormentors of his daughter who had raped her after her marriage was fixed. Both the daughter and father went to court and got punishment for the rapists. But the dominant and powerful Jat community in rural Punjab took revenge by cutting away the legs and hands of Bant Singh. He survived with one useless leg saved by the doctors just give him at least some human shape.

 (The book cover )

In 2006, when this tragedy hit Bant Singh, though initially it was not known to many, thanks to the consistent efforts of the left wing political activists (CPI) and many other social organizations, it had become a national issue. In a decade’s time people seem to have forgotten him as they are now burdened with so many other issues, despite their graveness all seemingly facile and passing. Noted journalist and poet, Nirupama Dutta, however has taken the pains to keep the issue alive by bringing out his biography. Titled ‘The Ballad of Banta Singh: A Quissa of Courage’, this book is a journey of Bant Singh’s life, which has always been filled with optimism and fighting spirit even if at each juncture it is bogged down by Punjab’s casteism amongst the Sikhs. One of the positive sides of this book and Nirupama’s narration is that it never gives a graphic description of Bant’s daughter’s ordeals as a rape victim. She, Baljit Caur, appears as a hardworking and fighting young woman who does not carry the burden of victimhood. She has all the reason to behave one as her first marriage engagement to a better family was called off due to the incident and also was socially ostracized for a long time.

The places where Nirupama could have gone into the detailing of the plotting and planning of the rapists and also the actual incident to make the book spicy and catchy she takes the stance of a diligent activist and a feminist who has tremendous self-respect respect for a fellow human being. As a writer, Nirupama’s attention is to bring Bant into focus and show the reader how this man, despite of the ill fate fallen on him, kept on working for the poor and downtrodden. One would wonder whether Bant is the text of sub-text of the book as Nirupama gives a very erudite but crisp narrative on the caste systems prevalent in Punjab. Bant Singh comes from the Mazhabi Sikhs who had converted to Sikhism from the lowest castes in the Hindu hierarchy. They converted to it because they thought this religion with no caste barrier would give them respect and dignity. But as time went by, the Mazhabis became more and more oppressed by the dominant Jat Sikhs. The author, through Bant Singh speaks her own anger against the system even if she hails from a privileged class and caste.

(author Nirupama Dutt and Bant Singh at the Jaipur Literature Festival)

Bant Singh’s perseverance in fighting against inequality through his recitals of poetry of Ravi Das Udasi, the famous romantic revolutionary poet of Punjab, has become the topic of veneration and admiration amongst many activists from across the globe. Bant sired eight children and he educated all of them though he himself was not educated. Once he was introduced to the poetry of Udasi, he became the voice of the poet. Nirupama recounts the story of Bant using Udasi’s poems as the anchor lines. The book is painful as well as inspirational. Behind every inspirational story, there must be a thing of pain which often is not seen by most of the public. As he started getting financial assistance from organizations and the governments after his story became the national news (tehelka was at the forefront to create a fund for him), the villagers started telling that now Bant had changed as he became rich. Bant counters the criticism with a smile saying they too could become rich by losing their limbs. The most important thing about Bant Singh is that he does not lose hope. Even today he sings it with all his might and he vows to fight for justice for all the downtrodden people. Bant Singh is Rohit Vemula, he is Kaniah Kumar, he is Jyoti Pandey and he is all of us who have been asked to prove our nationalism by toeing the line drawn by the bigots. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

I am a Wood Cutter

I am a wood cutter
With an axe sharp
Subtle yet strong
I am a wood cutter
With a head gear
Moustache and muscles
I am a wood cutter
Just out of a picture book
As you all have seen me
I am a wood cutter
Of woods that are bad,
Dead still stand obstruct
I am a wood cutter
Who seeks permission from
The birds that dwell on it
I am a wood cutter
Of woods that are bad
Yet obstruct paths
Slowly I cut, cut and cut
May not push as time would
Over many more dead trees
That obstruct and destruct
I am wood cutter
Straight out of picture books

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Don’t you know that our parents Loved and made love violently?

(moral policing- for representational purpose only)

Dear brother, elder sister
Why slap me, thrash me
Why beat her, abuse her?
Yes I do have a mother
A loving sister at home, but
Dear brother, elder sister
Tell me could I hold their hands
Share a dream and land a kiss
On the lips that sing my songs?
Do you make love to your
Mother and sister, dear brother
Elder sister, do you make love?
Why slap us, thrash us and
Abuse our love for what reason?
You say this is not our culture
Don’t you know that our parents
Loved and made love violently
In all postures, from front and back
Sharing juices of all ends
To make you and me, why brother,
Elder sister you slap us, thrash us?
Who gave your right my brother,
Elder sister, who taught you
These songs of morality?
Bring them here before us
Let’s share this heart, cake, coffee
And these wonderful roses with them
Dear brother, elders sister bring them
One by one to the book of justice.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Courageous Retrospective: Himmat Shah at KNMA, Delhi

(Himmat Shah)

Himmat means ‘courage’ and ‘Himmat Shah’ means ‘courageous sculptor’. By the time you come out of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi where a massive retrospective of the veteran sculptor, Himmat Shah, titled ‘Hammer on the Square’ is currently on, you would definitely say, “He was quite courageous.” Fifty years of active sculpting, mural making and drawing have finally brought him the due recognition, which has been evading him for a long time. Like a hermit, Himmat Shah was living in the Garhi studios for many number of years, making works, telling stories both spicy and serene to all age groups of visitors and celebrating life in its simplicity till the market boom brought him money and the freedom to relocate himself in Jaipur. The retrospective at the KNMA has around 300 works of Himmat Shah of which as the website of the organization claims, 215 belongs to the museum itself. Such a vast collection should be anybody’s pride possession especially when the totality of its presentation is met with wider awe and acclamation not only for the artist but also for the collector.

The stories yarned by Himmat Shah have caught many an unsuspecting listener into the web of it and made him or her, a permanent admirer of the artistic and narrative genius of the artist. Interestingly, Himmat Shah’s sculptures and the drawings that often triggered the sculptural renditions do not have this narrative verve as their static nature itself is quite magnetic and thought provoking. The early drawings abundantly displayed (must be the result of the bulk buying which is called ‘buying the studio’) show the young artist’s experimental itching that moves from mere line games, structural drawings and very figurative and expressionistic erotic drawings. And one would be enthralled to see corresponding sculptural formations displayed tastefully in the galleries. There are so many photographic documentations of the artist with his contemporaries, spending lighter moments as well as involved in the working process. These works and documentations together make this show worth visiting.

 (Hammer on the Square by Himmat Shah)

Famous for his ‘heads’, Himmat Shah’s oeuvre however does not start or end with heads. Taking inspiration from the post-Rodin modernist sculptors like Brancusi, Tatlin, Epstein and many other minimalist sculptors the second phase of Himmat Shah’s sculptures are mostly unlike the well-known Himmat Shah works. The idiom and also the mind that had inspired those works seem to be absolutely different from what we know of him today as the artist was trying to make a point or asserting his presence in the very sculptural scene of India in 1960s and 70s. Hailing from the Baroda school, Himmat had already gone through the phase of making murals and metal based sculptures, perhaps inspired by K.G.Subramanyan, and also worked with architects in Ahmedabad. The metal sculptures of this time also prove that Himmat was not yet at peace with himself.

The minimal sculptures that parody and also sincerely follow the western modernist sculptural idioms tell us how Himmat was caught between two different worlds. And his self-doubts were not really ‘performed’ in sculptures but had found their way into the drawings. Each sculpture in this genre has a small metal flag flying atop curiously suggesting their Indian origin. May be he was trying to tell the world how sculptures imitate the temple architectural forms in their very organization or it could be a surreptitious critique on the growing right wing ideologies within our country. But so long as we do not know the political leanings of the artist in details we cannot just pin this point on his sleeves. Though the artist is famous for his erotic bend of narratives, his sculptures do not present or represent any of these the way Picasso used to do in his sculptures. There is also a Giocometti phase in Himmat’s works where the contours of the bodies that he created as well as the very volume of the sculptures go very lean, rugged and thin. They may not be evoking the existential feel which the Giocometti sculptures would evoke even by a fleeting look because Himmat seems to have not continued that existential ‘thing’ in his sculptures his Swiss counterpart had followed.

(Heads by Himmat Shah)

Himmat as a true modernist has followed the steps of Picasso who had been inspired his findings of the tribal sculptures. Perhaps, our artist might not have felt the same need to drink from the same source as Picasso had done, but he definitely has taken a lot of inspiration from the ‘heads’ that Picasso had done especially in his paintings. In Himmat, I should be underlining, we see the flowering of human heads into a different spring. Himmat makes the heads again and again at different periods, going back and forth in his inspiration, tries out different materials, compositions, styles and so on, only to achieve the same brooding results, an array of heads, that has made his hallmark style noted and famous. They look like the skulls of some beings once inhabited the planet earth or some alien planets. They strangely resemble the human beings but their contours are defined differently. Himmat draws the features minimally using dots and lines; he leaves the hagiographic details alone and at times nullifies them. They are suppressed, compressed, elongated, pulled and pushed- but they still have the brooding look.

The more you look at the heads of Himmat Shah, the more you come to know about their presence and after sometime you feel that it is not you who watch them but you become the object/subject of their watching, observes his friend and contemporary, Krishen Khanna. It is true that we also feel the same. The heads are beautiful at times, they are broken and bruised at other times, they are cut into two but not yet parted, and yet other times they are bleeding to eternity. They look like the fossils of some warriors who have fought greater wars to establish the kingdom of thinking. They are done in different mediums and for Himmat nothing excites him more than the basic medium of clay does. Most of his works are fashioned in clay and baked. He literally ‘works’ on clay and he makes ‘war and peace’ with clay. When the same works are casted into bronze and also works are done for bronze casting, they have a different feel about them. In KNMA you have it all.

 (Himmat Shah with his mural in Ahmedabad)

I remember sending one work of Himmat Shah to Kerala for a buyer which was sourced from Delhi. One of my friends had promised me to ferry to Kerala by train. It was at that time I heard that Himmat’s works were sought after by the buyers. Something was being cooked up. Nobody was writing about Himmat but everybody was saying he/she should have a Himmat work. This added interest in Himmat had brought him once again into the focus from his almost recluse life in Jaipur. People started visiting him and in one of those visits that I did with the biggies of contemporary art including Subodh Gupta, he told the gathering that at least we all should go to London as it was a great place to visit. Perhaps, Himmat was making a joke. He had gone there for a knee surgery and he was very impressed by the city of London. Most of us had even lived there for some time and Himmat was absolutely oblivious of the fact that these youngsters were spending most of the time travelling in other countries than sitting in their studios working. Himmat still remains a simple man though less active in his sculptural production.

KNMA is a rich organization but unfortunately it has not brought out any brochure or hand out material for the show. There are some hefty volumes produced in the last couple of years and all of them are collector’s items, and obviously not meant for research purpose. One of the book claims that each book has a different terracotta element on the cover specially done by Himmat himself. And the books being limited editions and collectors’ items, they are definitely going to rot in some shelves. KNMA should bring out readable and handy volumes about the artist for the use of the public as well as the researchers. A book becomes worthy of being called a book only when it is opened and read. A collectible book is not a ‘read’ book. A collectible book is a show piece that serves the purpose of boosting somebody’s ego. Those people may make money out of Himmat’s works in the coming years who have these works and books in hand. But the artist would die so would his memories if you do not produce history that is worth reading. Surprisingly, even the website of the KNMA has only one image of the show. Is it stinginess or arrogance? If it is for a selected few, then why show at all?

Friday, February 12, 2016

One More Artist Departs: Life and Times of Rajan M.Krishnan

(Rajan Krishnan)

Obituaries in a way are the reviews of not only the lives and works of the departed ones but also that of the writer himself. In a gap of exactly sixty days this is the second obit piece that I am writing. On 13th December I was deeply grieving the death of Hema Updhyay and on 12th February I am saddened by the demise of Rajan M.Krishnan, a well-known contemporary artist who has been a close friend of many and mine too. Almost a year back the news of an unexpected brain hemorrhage at some wee hours of a night that hit Rajan M.Krishnan in his Kochi studio came to us, friends like a body blow and all of us have been anxious all these while about his well-being. Somehow his family chose to keep him away from the friends and even the gallerists. Nobody knew for almost year what has been happening to him. They say, his condition worsened a couple of days back and he breathed his last at 8.30 pm on 11th February 2016.

 (Painting by Rajan Krishnan in my show)

I do not remember whether Rajan had any exhibition in 2014. When the stroke came unannounced at Rajan’s studio, someone told me that he had been working hard for a year for his forthcoming solo show. If I am not wrong, Thekkan Kaatu or Dokhiner Hawa curated by me as a part of the 47th Annual Exhibition of the Birla Academy of Fine Arts, Kolkata was Rajan’s last exhibition in which he was represented by a brand new work, the image of an Arabian horse standing stately at a sea shore, in his hallmark grey and white style. Rajan was embarking on a journey to understand the positive and negatives of colonialism by going towards its roots. The horse is an emblem of the first arrival of the Arabs even before the arrival of the Dutch and the Portuguese to the Indian shores. Like a stark image in a Tarkovsky film, this horse stood alone in a desolate shore before galloping into the history of Indian sub-continent. Rajan was a film buff and he liked the films of Andre Tarkovsky who had sculpted in time and painted on the celluloid.

Rajan was Rajan MK. Artists changed their names, rather expanded their initials when money came in the art market. The art market controlled by the north Indian entrepreneurs and the international art scene that addressed people with their surnames for adding western politeness to their eastern counterparts demanded the south Indian artists who went by their initials and first names change or expand their initials. It was amusing for us to see our Rajan becoming Rajan M.Krishnan. Over use or over familiarity smoothen the edges of a crude joke and the names became familiar and normal. Then came the great onslaught of the social media which demanded an expanded surname for registration of an account. India got its surname via facebook. Rajan MK or Rajan M.Krishnan, the person behind the name was the same, smiling, argumentative, mildly persuasive, friendly, polite, but assertive enough when it came to his art.

 (Painting by Rajan Krishnan)

Kochi was changing in the 1990s. Globalization was not new to Kochi. All the cool people in Kerala were from Kochi in those days. Cinema industry there too was centered in the city. Art had found an abode there in Kalapeedam established in 1960s. There was a Chitram gallery run by the noted painter Late C.N.Karunakaran. In 1987, after the death of K.P.Krishnakumar, one of the leaders of the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, a few artists had started living in and around the city. Though the twin cities of Fort Kochi and Eranakulam were definitely not the hub of Indian contemporary art as we see today there were attempts to bring art to the city by the public and private agencies. Lalitha Kala Akademy under the leadership of Ajayakumar revived the Durbar Hall and made it exhibition worthy. Woodland hall at the MG Road was hired by young artists and put up their shows. At Edappally the Madhavan Nair Foundation had started its activities in the early 1990s. At Fort Kochi, Dravidia and Kashi were at their inception stage through tree festivals, Bob Marley festival and so on. Many years before the Kochi Muziris Biennale foundation was set up, it was Rajan who made the ground fertile for the growth of Indian contemporary art in Kochi.

(Rajan Krishnan in my Daman camp)

After obtaining his PG in painting from the fine arts faculty of Baroda in 1996, Rajan M.Krishan (who was still Rajan MK) decided to go back to Kochi and set up his studio there rather than trying his luck out there in Baroda itself or in more lucrative cities like Mumbai or Delhi. For almost five years nothing was heard about him as the market was not seeking out young artists, nor was it looking at Kochi as a potential port of landing contemporary art. It was not that Rajan played the role of Vasco Da Gama for contemporary artists in Kochi. Artists were already working there and what they lacked was an anchor. In Rajan they found one as he had already started associating with Anoop and Dorry, the founders of Kashi Art CafĂ© and Gallery. At Rajan’s modest studio in Kochi artists gravitated for animated discussions, food and music. Renu Ramanathan, a journalist with the Hindu daily also came to Rajan’s circle and they decided to be together in life.

(Rajan and Renu - source facebook)

Rajan-Renu or vice versa was much stronger and lauded in Kochi and elsewhere than the duo in the KMB leadership. It was through a very definite highjack attempt masterminded by one of the Biennale leaders that Rajan was dethroned and he had to find alternate ways to establish himself in Kochi. The overthrowing of Rajan took place through facilitating schism between the Kashi Gallery management and Rajan M.Krishnan. Soon Kashi became the front office of the Mumbai based art market operations in down south. Rajan had to help other galleries to come up and collaborate with them. While the Mumbai market was using Kochi as a recruiting center, whether you like it or not, it was Rajan who gave an identity to Kochi based artists and so many of them came out of his studio who found occasional success in both Mumbai and Delhi art markets.

 (work by Rajan Krishnan)

Looking back I can say for sure that Rajan was instrumental in creating a Kochi art style which is more environmentally concerned, poetic and nostalgic. The large scale works that Rajan had started working on contained the images of the left over places where the industrial collapse had given a different hue of rusting and decaying. He was poetically expressing the degeneration of a literate society in Kerala. He, almost like a botanist documented the water plants, palm trees, the wild plants that grow along the river fronts and so on in his characteristic style. They were the emblems of a dying culture. Through them Rajan asked the initiated public to take responsibility of such degeneration of the eco system and the eco system of politics and culture in Kerala. Rajan was a village boy in his mind. Even when he was living in the city, he was thinking about the nostalgic life in a village; not because he was craving to go back there but because he knew that slowly such a life also would change and the environments will yield before the onslaught of urbanization and industrialization, which would eventually turn everything into rusting landscapes of abandoned structures.

 (Rajan Krishnan in his studio)

Living with artists, moving around with artists and working with the artists seemed to have given a different high to Rajan. With him, another parallel commune of artists was getting formed in an island nearby under the leadership of Reghunathan, a sculptor. Reghunathan lived a marooned life in that island, depending on the local produce and the backwater fish, toddy and so on. He did his surrealistically sarcastic sculptures in thatched sheds and the transporting or those works to the mainland by boats was considered to a local festival of the island inhabitants. Reghunathan also initiated organic farming in one of the fields, all with the support of the local artists. Rajan was a willing collaborator in all these activities though eventually Reghunathan became a Biennale supporter and Rajan, a staunch opponent of the same.

 (Painting by Rajan Krishnan)

I do not know whether Rajan’s opposition to the KMB was based on the alleged financial mismanagements or was it based on the personal differences or old rivalries. Whatever it may be Rajan was never a part of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. And one could definitely say that he was one of those few artists in Kochi who withstood the co-opting tactics of the Biennale management. They could collaborate, co-operate and co-opt all the art establishments including the public owned Durbar Hall in and around Kochi. It was only the establishment of a gallery called ‘Birds’ in Trivandrum and also something called ‘Triva Contemporary’ Rajan seemed to have affiliated with the then incipient or nascent Biennale. Birds and Triva died an eventual but natural death as they were not expected to survive more than two years. Rajan stood by them as those initiatives in a city where he did his graduation in Painting. But he showed a high amount of dignity in keeping himself away from the market tantrums.

 (Rajan with his project Ore)

Bodhi came to his life during the boom years and changed him for good. Bodhi gallery was the one and only gallery that could play the role of a game changer in those years. Amit Judge of the Bodhi Gallery and Sonal Singh, his first lieutenant picked up Rajan M.Krishnan and gave him one of the most ambitious solo exhibitions in their Wadibunder Dockyard Gallery in Mumbai. Rajan, much before the Biennale could think of making art with the larger support of student community in Kerala, implemented a very ambitious project of making a million terracotta human and animal  figures a la Antony Gormely and he called the project ‘Ore’. This took almost three months for hoards of art students in Kochi to make millions of those figures. It was ambitious and interesting and Bodhi supported it well. Perhaps, a compartment full of students came from Kochi for the Bodhi opening of Ore and they were carted to the gallery in two Volvo buses and Rajan was given a red carpet welcome there.

 (Ore Revisted by Rajan Krishnan)

The collapse of market had affected so many artists and I don’t whether Rajan was affected harshly by it for I have never looked at anybody’s growing or diminish wealth. Even after the collapse of market, Rajan announced the making of two buildings for himself; one his studio in Kochi and another Walden Pond House in Iringalakkuda, Trissur where he spent his last years. The inauguration of Walden Pond house was an event and was celebrated in the social media. This Walden Pond house was an idealistic expression of Rajan’s wish to live near a pond, the woods, closer to nature, simply but beautifully. Henry Thoreau, the 19th century economist and philosopher had chosen to live near Walden Pond, retreat waterfront in Massachusetts. Thoreau said of this: "I went to the wood because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Rajan also wished to live a simple life but productive and philosophical life like Thoreau. But he could spend time there only in total amnesia.

 (Rajan’s Work)

I have been writing obits for a long time now. I wonder how death has become a part of my writing career. I have memories to share about the people who depart. Those memories are perhaps not an intimate relationship that I had shared with them. Those are memories that linger on even if I try to avoid them. Rajan participated in a couple of campus that I had organized. What I remember is one night at the shallow sea shore in Daman that we friends sat at a table and sang under the influence of an insane moon that was shining up there and the air thick with Eros. Rajan played Tabala on the table beautifully as he was accomplished Tabalist. I followed him with my not so trained fingers (though I too had learned tabala during my school days) . We were then the wings of the migratory birds. One of them has flown away into the horizon, to the mighty atelier of a simple god. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Enclaves of No-Identity: Shilpa Gupta’s Subtle Takes on Borders at Vadehra

(Shilpa Gupta - pic:Indian Express)

Who won’t sing the praises of one’s own land of birth? That’s the first symptom of a human being becoming numb in brain. One could be liberal in all the possible ways but the moment he or she sings the praises of the land of his or her birth then the person becomes a bit limited in his liberal views on the world and its beings of all kinds. In the colonial era it was the prerequisite of all people to fight for the freedom of their human rights and the only way to do that to gain freedom for the place of their birth which they identified as their nation. Had it been a finished project, the fights for human rights in all the freed countries including India and Bangladesh wouldn’t have continued even today. If we do not have our fundamental rights then isn’t it an absurdity that we sing praises for the same country that curbs our basic human rights? These are not the words of sedition but these are the thoughts that occur in my mind when I look at the installations of Shilpa Gupta currently on in Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery.

There is not a single poet in the world, especially during the anti-colonial struggles, who hadn’t sung the praises of their land of birth. Most of them say that their country is their mother, she is an ascetic and she yields everything for her children who are her subjects too. Each person holds a ‘golden god’s land’ in his nostalgic memory. Funnily enough, we all carry a ‘devil’s land’ too in our minds. We put our country against the devil country while the devil country does the same to us. So let’s say there is god’s country and devil’s country. I would like to add that there is human country too. Unfortunately human countries are the countries which are marked as no-man’s land. What an irony it is. Shilpa Gupta’s untitled installations, which have already travelled the important international exhibitions, present this irony in most subtle (which is characteristic of most of the works of Shilpa Gupta) yet powerful way. At the outset itself, let me take this opportunity to say that if you have missed the show, you have missed a very good show. Take it from me for I am not your soothsayer.

 (Installation by Shilpa Gupta)

The story unfurls at the Indo-Bangladesh border. There is a Coochbihar pocket and a Rangpur pocket. Based on the dominant populations in these respective places, they were taken by India and Bangladesh based on an agreement. In the dominant narrative of the partition of 1947 that happened at the rich north western front of India which had resulted into the making of India and Pakistan and also in the narrative of the present day Bangladesh that became a part of the west Pakistan with an absolutely abandoned geographical location from the center of power in Islamabad (or in that case Lahore or Karachi) and a forced name like East Pakistan until it was freed by the efforts of India’s military operation with this lofty name Mukti Bahini in 1971, mostly the narrative of the latter has been going unnoticed. Partition stories always pitch the pain on the north western side of India rather than poor eastern side. For a long time, Bangladesh was under the benevolence of India’s power until the politics in that country took an obvious religious turn. Who got caught in between were the populations of different religions but caught in different countries.

One fine morning you get up from your bed and someone tells you that you are in a different country. In a recorded statement from one of the ‘chitmahals or enclaves’ where human beings who are denied of any kind of citizenship have been living constantly putting up different physical guises and assuming different religious identities in order to survive. A work that shows the blurred names of people or children is presented to us by Shilpa Gupta as a possible enrollment list in a school in such a locality. The more you train your eyes to read the names the more they get blurred. A powerful visual representation of a predicament in which the human beings find it extremely difficult to have a fixed identity, this works tell us that even a wind in the night could shift the unseen borderlines and they could be in a different place. Shilpa says that it all depends on where exactly one stands in a given time. You could be a Hindu in a Muslim country and vice versa without your own knowledge or approval. This need to adjust continuously with the changing vagaries of the border police or militia or rather the governments has given rise to a new human race, which is neither nomadic nor settled. What name could we give to them? Refugees? If so refugees to where?

(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)

Today the world is facing a huge refugee crisis. We have seen powerful images of dead bodies and vessels filled with human creatures looking for a life elsewhere and an anxiety surging in their thoughts about their impeding deaths by water. We have seen the images of people spending in boats without any basic facilities and imagine, continue to do so for a long time till the intervention of the United Nations and its coaxing of reluctant nations into host countries. The refugee problem is an outcome of the greed of the human kind that promotes war for economic profits. Whether you agree with it or not capitalism is something that maintains war not peace. It has to sell its weapons and wars should be kept on. If there is war, after a period, the peace loving people will leave their ‘beloved’ lands behind and more importantly their ‘dignities’ behind and seek refuge elsewhere. But in Bangladesh we see people who are not ever refugees. They cannot just move. She tells us the story of a person who has been picked from New Delhi where he was working and dropped in some enclave in Bangladesh. He had to bribe his way back.

Shilpa Gupta’s works do not speak in voluminous images or texts. They are minimal and suggestive. They just gently touch you and you feel the sharpness of that touch; you will have a love and hate relationship with that touch. It is exactly like an old beggar touching you gently for arms. You just hate it, but the human suffering behind that fractional contact between two skins takes you to a different plane of human existence. You may not give a few coins to him but he will remain in your mind for a long time; and the touch? Use the perfumes of all Arabia you will be able to wash the feel of that touch away. Shilpa’s works impart that feeling. The long yarn extracted from the Jamuni sari from Kolkata, as long as the 2800 kilometer fencing at the Indo-Bangla border is laid down in the vitrine as a gentle reminder of the dismembering of human beauty and making yarns out of it in order to create borders between people who are neither gods nor demons. One of the most powerful installations here is a search light in full strength on in a tiny dark room and the moment you enter the light blinds you for a few minutes and you grope in your utter incomprehension about the ‘place and space’ until you get back your normal vision and see a little video clip of a boat wandering the blue water of the Bay of Bengal.

(Installation by Shilpa Gupta)

Shilpa’s works are not just the works inspired by the Indo-Bangla border issues. Though the starting point was that, they transcend their ‘thing-ness’ and ‘locational specificity’ slowly and become universal metaphors of human beings who are without identities and even a name to qualify them. Even Shilpa does not have a name for them. Even religions perhaps would not accept them for the religions need people who have basic means of sustenance and enough brain space to fight for illusionary causes like which one came first; my religion or your religion? Here in such border there are people who are left to fend off for themselves as religions know that they have to fight a different war for survival so they are not interested to speak about Allah or Ram. This is perhaps the same story as in Gaza strip. When we go through the history of Palestine and Israel, and the strife which has been on since the mythical times we understand that now neither Judaism nor Islam is interested in the ongoing fight. Isn’t so absurd that you start a war to assert your religion and slowly it becomes a diplomatic game so that people could still fight just to live on and the countries could negotiate peace and war on alternative seasons depending on the international arms trade. Has Islam or Judaism won in Palestine so far?

One should go through the graphic novels of Joe Sacco (Palestine, Footnote in Gaza, and Journalism) or those of Nicholas Wild (the Kabul Disco series) to understand the human predicament in such war zones where people do not real identities but some sort of cards so that they could get on with their daily business without getting caught by the authorities. What Shilpa Gupta does in her series of installations (we should understand that she has been fascinated by the border issues ever since she started her mature art career and most of the works both digital interactive types and physical sculptural objects have this notion of border as the point of departure) which have been done over a period of five years is akin to what Joe Sacco and Nicholas Wild have been doing in Palestine and Afghanistan. Both Sacco and Wild in their graphic novels speak of the parallel trades during the times of strife. People adopt different ways to survive and also to make profit. Human suffering is one area where profit lies; look at our entertainment industry. And look at our television serials and the tear jerkers and comedies. They all serve the purpose of selling consumer goods via creating desire.

 (Installation by Shilpa Gupta)

Unlike television serials, in these real locations of profit making within the human suffering, there are diversified ways that defy human logic and even the intelligence of an efficient detective. One person speaks (as presented by Shilpa in a minimal text and gold like metal piece as small as a ball pen cap) of how he smuggles gold from Mumbai to Dhaka. He just gets into the train with a tatkal ticket, sleep for three days and lands up in Bangladesh with his booty. And the catchphrase is this: I get the best sleep of my life. There is exhilaration, danger, suspense and death defying greed to make money and also the perennial instinct to survive, all rolled into one in that statement. Cattle smuggling is a punishable offence in India; eating beef could even land you in jail. But it is a trade in Bangladesh. So there is a strong business of cattle trade between India and Bangladesh still. The irony is the erstwhile robbers of cattle have become the ‘traders’ in it and they just need to tell the authorities that they happened to see this livestock wandering at the border which is ‘flexible’ at times. An installation is created by broken China (porcelain). It says that 59% of animal bone ash is added to the clay to get strength and translucency to the Bangladesh porcelain). Also there is a series of drawing made by cough syrup, which is banned in India and legal in Bangladesh. Borders are very strong and fenced but they are porous when it comes to human avarice; gun trotting army men and well-armed guerrillas are not different in this matter. Passport-less human beings keep playing the game of survival with them.

In another installation, which though does not speak of borders directly Shilpa asks the viewer to take part in the act of understanding the borders/walls that have been there but we generally give no attention. Shilpa, in one of her earlier digital installations had captured the souls/shadows of the viewers on the wall even after they moved away from the possible locations of the cameras. Titled ‘Speaking Wall’, this work is interactive in the sense with a small green strip for a screen on a wall in a darkroom with a brick layered narrow path to the screen from a yellow line that marks the ‘territory’. One has to walk over it and wear the headphone and the screen start showing what Shilpa speaks to you over the headphone. “I have been here. But you never saw me. One step back. One step back . ….March forward.” Slowly you forget the surrounding and start responding to the ‘polite command of the wall’. May be a fence too talks to you like that. May be all the walls talk to you like that; provided you ever decide to hark on what the walls have to say. Shilpa Gupta becomes the wall here. Whether you want to hear or not, she speaks and speaks good. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Album of Resurrection- Two Books of Raghu Rai

(Raghu Rai's book 'The Album- Family and Friends- Book Cover)

“Which brings me to togetherness and separation-you may part with a person after years of being together for various reasons. Emotional or sexual incompatibility could take a toll, as you drift off in opposite directions. The fall out is never easy or straight- it is not a sword slashing straight through the two. In my case, at least, I feel that some part of the other person comes along with us, and some part of us, for sure goes with the other. And so, we learn that there is no o black and white, and the pain lingers on in grey,” writes Raghu Rai in his book ‘The Album-Family and Friends’. This book came to me yesterday evening and surprisingly another book by the ace photographer was waiting for me in the boot of a car in the same evening. Titled ‘Vijayanagar Empire- Ruins to Resurrection’ this coffee table volume has a straight jugalbandi in it. Raghu Rai clicks the photographs of Hampi, the ruin of the erstwhile Vijayanagara Empire now located in Karnataka and his former wife, Usha Rai writes the text. In Hindi they say, ‘jab bhagvan deta hai, deta hai chhapad faad ke’, which means, ‘when god gives he gives in abundance’. I was happy to carry these two heavy volumes for one and half kilometer. I walked all the way like a mother carrying the burden of her kid happily and determined. When it comes to books, I too am like a mother though this mother in me does not like the traffic in Delhi.

(Raghu Rai with kids)

The titles of these books by the veteran photographer Raghu Rai set me thinking. Here is an album of his family and friends, taken mostly by himself and in some of them wherever he is the subject of the picture, taken by a close friend who too is a photographer. The albums often take us back to the memory lane. The moments of our inexplicable joys and endless sorrows come back together to the present unsettling us for the time being. We recover and recompose ourselves by deliberately pushing the memories between the thick covers of a family album. But albums tell us how we were, how we have been and how we are. They are the touchstones of our own physical worth. They not only embody the aesthetics of the times but also that of the photographer who has taken it. The more we look at the old photographs, the more we think about the photographer who had taken it. He or she is always absent. That’s why perhaps, in the frames where Raghu Rai himself is absent, but his kids or wives are present, he always captions the image as ‘Avni with Papa’ or ‘Lagan with Papa’ and so on, them being his daughters.

(From 'the Album' by Raghu Rai)

Raghu Rai in the first book confesses that had it not been the pressure and support of a few people in his close friends’ circuit he would never have made a revisit to his own family photographs which he had taken over a period of four decades. There is always some trepidation in visiting the old memories and images especially when some of the subjects in the book have exited from the author’s life perhaps not in a good note.  In retrospect when he recounts the event of separating from his first wife, Raghu Rai sounds calm and philosophical but only the people involved, including him know the actual depth of the pangs. This mood of lingering pain is there in this album collection because though the celebratory moments are so palpable in the photographs, the women subjects of the photographer somewhere carry a tinge of pain, doubt and anxiety in their faces. As his children grow up, their happy abandonment gives way to some sort of grave expression on their faces however they try to be happy and flying. Raghu Rai perhaps knows this and that’s why he has to come with such a statement in the writing. 

(From 'the Album' by Raghu Rai)

It is a book of confession as far as Raghu Rai is concerned, it seems, though he would not agree with my point of view on this. Most of the photographs that he had taken towards the end of 1960s and also during the period of his first marriage look more happy and contained than the exuberance that one sees in the photographs that he has taken during the second marriage and after. Here I am not attempting to do any value judgment nor do I want to pass a judgment on his life. However, as Raghu Rai is a human being with emotions and possible determinations and indeterminations, confusions and resolutions, behind his tool called camera, obviously all those emotional issues would have affected his frames. That may be one reason why he took so many years to publish that book. And in one place he questions himself for being reluctant to publish these photographs and finally he gives it a try. The book has also got a very touching documentation of his friends and also by his friends.

(Himmat Shah and Sujata in Mussoorie by Raghu Rai)

Raghu Rai’s books, if you read a few of them, do not give a variety of narratives regarding his own life for he has a very straight about him becoming a photographer. One may even think that the first part of his writing in many of his books is the rehashed version of the original story. One cannot expect a different narrative about his own life in each book; but there could be ways of putting it differently, which Rai seems to be very reluctant to do. But when it comes to the verbal narratives about the works and the events that triggered those works he becomes a very sensitive writer too. The Album, published by the Raghu Rai Foundation is definitely a worth reading and worth looking at book. He is by all means one of the greatest photographers in our times. What gives his works a touching sense of presence is his non-deliberation of images. He looks for the right combination and the right moment than the right event. Look at the picture of Himmat Shah and a friend in hills. What makes the picture important is the convergence of the electric lines just behind Himmat in a mysterious fashion. The events within the photographs may be very insignificant but the combinations of volume, light and shadows make the photographs very interesting. This makes him different from many other contemporary photographers who look for events and deliberate a lot on the meanings these images could produce either by contrast or by irony. Raghu Rai seems to be a free bird in the firmament of images; he flies because he, like Jonathan Livingston, the seagull, loves to fly.

 (Vijayanagara Empire by Raghu Rai and Usha Rai)

The second book that I read yesterday night has this title ‘Vijayanagara Empire-Ruins to Resurrection’. His former wife Usha Rai writes the text and there is no text written by Raghu Rai other than a few jottings here and there as introduction to certain photographs. This book published by the Niyogi Press, Delhi, by virtue of its subtitle brings a different meaning. Here is a collapsed marriage between the two and now in this book it is resurrected, virtually. Usha Rai is a lucid writer as she used to be a very committed journalist with the Times of India during late 1960s. She knows the purpose of the book and her style oscillates between historiography and tourist brochure writing. However, the writing is sensitive perhaps, she wrote when she was travelling to Hampi with her then husband, Raghu Rai. There are four sections in this book. One delineates the history of the Vijayanagara Empire. Second part is the photographs of the excavated sites during 1960s and 1970s when Raghu Rai used to visit the place regularly. Third is a revisit to the place in the recent years with his digital camera. And the fourth and last part has his fascination for the rock scape of Hampi, which would enthrall any visitor even today. They look like sculptures done by the dexterous sculptor called ‘almighty’. 

(Hampi- by Prabuddha Dasgupta published by Ganjam)

Raghu Rai has always said that he needs an object or a person in order to do the photography. He considers photography as a sort of Indian equivalent, Darshan. That means it is a kind of ‘witnessing’ without purpose. The darshan will instill you with awe, respect and bliss. You cannot differentiate one from the other and that happiness could be inexplicable and beyond any logic. It is as similar as people making darshan of a temple idol, a guru, a saint or even a celebrity. But in Hampi, at the rock scapes, Raghu Rai becomes the worshipper of forms than objects or persons. He may have looked at the rocks as sculptures or objects or Titans frozen in time. He comes closer to the sensitivity of late Prabuddha Dasgupta in these photographs. Prabuddha a lover of abstract forms even on the human body, had travelled to Ladak to photograph the vastness of nature. Even a seashore without any people could give him a different high and he could make pictures out of it. Prabuddha had also visited Hampi and the Ganjam company has brought a beautiful book with his photographs, which surprisingly do not have any text or even a direct reference about the photographer.

After seeing some photographs of certain places, most of us would like to visit those places to experience the aesthetic sublimation that is seen in the photographs. But when I see these photographs I feel that I should never go to Hampi just because I want to preserve the feelings about the place given to me by both Raghu Rai and Prabuddha Dasgupta.