Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Irony of Mainstream Patronage for Political Art in India

There is no art which is not political. Human beings are fundamentally political animals. Therefore, art created by human beings cannot be nothing but political. When some people particularly qualify themselves as political artists I find it a bit difficult to digest. If it is art, it has to be political nothing else. But most often we do not look at a work of art as a political entity. This happens because we have been trained to look at a work of art in terms of aesthetics. Truth, Soul and Beauty-these are the three aspects that we are taught as the prime qualifications that art should have or that it should evoke. Nobody has told us that it is about the political understanding of the artist who has created the work of art too. It is not taught to us so mainly because politics as not the prime mover of human emotions in the beginning. While beauty, soul and truth moved people or rather they wondered at these as manifested in natural and man-made things, politics was too materialistic a thing which created patterns of rule and subjections in the minds of the people. Politics was result of the organization called society. Hierarchies were the hallmarks of that realm. But in the realm of beauty, truth and soul, there were no hierarchies so to speak.

Hence, when someone speaks of political art or being a political artist, he/she feels that s/he is adding a new dimension which has been shunned so far by art. Hypothetically speaking, the day a social organization called society came in place, the next dawn witnessed the artist from that society doing his work of art with a subtle difference. He was adding one more dimension to his works; his thoughts on the society, his political thoughts. Today, we point out the works of Banksy or the overtly political Ai Wei Wei and say that they are political artists. We also pick and choose the works of Somnath Hore, Chittoprasad and Zainul Abdein and say that they did political art. Going back further wee show the works of the Bengal School artists and say that they did political art in a different way because they were supporting the nationalist cause by rejecting the western norms of art creation. History, with its mechanical methodologies and perspectives has conveniently categorized what is political and what is not political in art. I will not blame because at the outset, history also would do some categorizing efforts before writing critical histories. However, today, it is absolutely fallacious to say that some are political and some others are apolitical in their creativity. What I see is only the degrees of suggestion. Let me explain.

You pick up the picture of Mahatma Gandhi, blacken his tooth with dark paint, you paint some scenes from contemporary or historical uprisings, you express some left wing political ideologies using red colour, you do something interventionist in terms of art, you do a performance and make your political stance on an issue clear- any of these could confer you the title of being a political artist. But an artist who paints the simplicity of nature, the village folk, inconspicuous village or city scapes, river fronts, forests, inconsequential people and so on we say he/she is apolitical or just an artist who makes beautiful pictures. Here the word ‘beautiful’, which is foundational to art, sounds almost as a bad word; an accusation. To put it in different words, if artists are indulged in overtly recognizable socio-political issues both in intelligent and unintelligent ways, with or without giving any respect to form and rhythm which are again the fundamentals of art (making), we call them political artists, while we disparagingly look at those artists who give a lot to create a sense rhythm, harmony and formal cohesiveness but with no overtly recognizable political references. This is the fallacy of our times.

A work of art which is severely political cannot enjoy the mainstream patronage because a political work of art gains its name from being an aesthetical object or idea which goes against the grain of the dominant ideology that rules the society. The dominant ideology protects the rich and powerful and also helps in maintaining all the exploitative systems. If political art is resistive in nature how could it be a part of the dominant system and enjoy the state as well as private patronage? Perhaps, in Indian context at least, I would say this category of calling artists political art or their works political is absolutely wrong because the number of political artists, self proclaimed and otherwise do enjoy dominant ideological patronage. This could happen only in an Orwellian scenario and it is happening in India. Journalists without knowing anything about the art which they are writing about use platitudes like ‘political art/ist’ to qualify certain kinds of art and artists. This has further worsened scenario. Those people who do performance art at times tend to call themselves political; but anything that is done within controlled atmosphere with implications of danger is not called political art but stunt. Such stunts keep happening in places like Khoj International. In our present socio-cultural and political situation of the country, if a real political art comes out that artist will be behind the bars. That is not happening; that means no real political art is happening in this country. Stunt men are not arrested. They are always back patted.

Let me come back to my personal views on political art and why I call all the works of art are political and only the degree difference is palpable. At the outset itself I have made it amply clear that a work of art is produced by a human being and a human being as part of a society has to have political thinking and it would naturally be reflected in the works of art he does. That means, a work of art does not take place in a vacuum. Modernists all over the world tried their best to create the original mood, without being referenced by external sources. Some of them were successful only to become self imitation artists by losing the ability to be original as they are referring to themselves. Some of them including Picasso failed miserably on this front because he too had to go for the unexplored tribal cultures for newer and exciting forms. Yet another lot who insisted that nothing matters in this world other than the harmonies they could conjure in their minds and push their expressions at par with music embarked on a very confusing journey of abstraction. While some of them knew what they did, at present I can be so sure that the majority of the artists who do abstraction do not themselves know where to begin and where to end. Their verbalization on their works are either restricted to form and colour or to some esoteric spirituality. Most often the verbalizing of both the abstract artists and their critics are equally humbug, ‘full of words signifying nothing.’

However, the decision to do abstract art is a political stance. A world that makes too much of sense in concrete forms could be objectionable for some personalities. They retreat to abstraction as a political stance. This is an apolitical stance which in fact is a political declaration; ‘I do not want to make meanings’. But to arrive at that decision one has to have a strong political awareness. Those artists who do landscapes, city scapes, memory drawings and what not, are doing political art because they are functioning from within a society. But to call oneself a political artist, one has to have such conviction. But all those who have such conviction would never say that they are political artists. A simple glace at them would reveal what exactly their art says. If everyone is an artist, then it should also be taken for granted that everyone is a political artist too. But the quality of politics is very important. One has to know what politics is and what is quality politics in art? If someone keeps on painting the faces of beautiful women I will not discount him of his chance for being a pro-woman artist. But then it depends on why he does such art. If he says or at least believes that he does so for the market wants to so then the degree of his politics drains out completely leaving some dregs. Art exposes the artist behind it.

During Italian Renaissance, the mega geniuses of art, culture, science, exploration, architecture, music and so on, operated under the pressure of political intrigues and conspiracies of the Medici family that invested heavily in their creative works. The artists falling in and out of favour of the Medici elders was a common phenomenon and the ire of the masters would have costed the artists of their lives even. So working under them needed a lot political loyalties, strategies and survival plans. One could have been heavily critical of the theocratic state of Italy of that time but as artists they had to find different ways to express their differences with the state; which they did in their works interpolating them with extra-scriptural narratives or scenes from parallel theologies. We live in a world where the political loyalty of artists always stands in doubt. Artists have become much liberated people who need not necessarily be displaying their loyalties in public. However, their works would speak for themselves. However, we see artists who are claiming themselves to be political artists and enjoying state patronage. We see artists vying to become political artists. But I say I real political artist need not either say it or use overt political themes or ideas. If the artist is intensely political and stands for the theory of ‘unto the last’, then his or her work would say it. Rest is bullshit. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Those First Twelve Kilometres Where We Prefer to Live, Breath Easy and Fart Easy

(Dana Majhi carrying his wife's dead body, with his 12 year old daughter)

Dasrath Manjhi and Dana Majhi- does something ring familiar? They are connected by the deaths of their wives. Former in Bihar, when could not find a hospital on his side of the mountain, he had to carry his pregnant and bleeding wife in a hammock and climb the hill to reach the town hospital only to find his wife dead. This incident changed the course of his life. Manjhi started attacking the hill with a vengeance and he relentlessly cut the hill for twenty two years to create a road through the mountain at once reducing the travelling distance between his village the nearest town with medical facilities from fifty five kilometres to fifteen kilometres. The latter, Dana Majhi whose name strangely and eerily sounds same as the former also had to go through a similar ordeal in a different context. His wife was undergoing treatment in a city hospital in the impoverished Kalahandi district in Orissa. She died on Tuesday night and as the hospital denied ambulance services to him for ferrying his wife’s body to his village sixty kilometres away. Majhi decided to walk. He covered the body in a piece of cloth, lunged it over his shoulders and started walking towards his village with a determination to cover the distance, a wailing twelve year daughter beside.

This much and a little bit more everyone knows by now. It is clear that Majhi walked for twelve kilometres and then some local people intervened. Sensational as it was the news flew thick and fast; district collector ordered an ambulance and cremation cost of Rs.2000/- under Rajaharischandra Scheme. The man’s determination won against the apathy of the hospital authorities and it did create flutters in the political circles of Orissa.

 (Dasrath Manjhi, the Mountain Man)

It was an unfortunate incident. True. But what makes it more unfortunate and a real tragedy is not just the hospital authorities denying him ambulance service and not even the man’s determination to walk with the dead body over his shoulders. The tragedy lies in the fact that he was allowed to walk like that for twelve kilometres by the local people! It was at the twelfth kilometre they could find people left with some conscience in their existence. Their intervention turned out to be crucial in changing the course of events. But what were the people doing in the first twelve kilometres? Did they walk through absolutely deserted areas? Did they pass through the villages with similarly poverty stricken people? Or did they pass through some philosophers’ streets where they deem death as a natural culmination in whichever form it comes? Or did they go by such streets where rich and powerful lived and thought that death would never dare even to look at them?

Those first twelve kilometres that Majhi walked with his wife’s dead body and a minor daughter in tow are the ideal sample that could measure up the totality called India which claims to be moving from development to development, leaving its subjects to rot, die or commit suicide with nothing to hold on to or redeem themselves. In an India where cow protection is much more important than human protection, imaginary representation of a country in the form of a goddess and protecting her as the prime aim of each confirming citizen than protecting their own female folk, Majhis are one day’s breaking news and next day’s trash. I see a lot of breast beating on this incident in Orissa in social media. But none of these breast beaters has asked about the first twelve kilometres’ response. The day we correct the first twelve kilometres, India will be alright because majority of us prefers to live in those first twelve kilometres. And Majhis carrying dead bodies of their hapless women is not the kind of first scene that we would like to wake up to. We need the visions of some winking babas who would help us breathe easy and fart easy. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

JohnyML- a Brief Biography

Early Life
Born to late Vakkom K.Lakshmanan and K.Krishnamma in Vakkom in 1969, JohnyML started writing poetry at an early age and got his first poem published when he was thirteen. His father being one of the founder members of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) in Kerala, JohnyML developed an interest in politics and started following his father’s footsteps in village reformation. Reading collected writings by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in his teens left a deep impression in him and guided by his mother he started reading poetry and literature avidly. Artist Shibu Natesan who is his first cousin, initiated him into art history.

JohnyML finished his school education in Government High School, Vakkom. He took science stream for his Pre-Degree and spent two years in the Sree Narayana College, Sivagiri, Varkala. During those years he spent a lot of time in Sivagiri, the death shrine of Sree Narayana Guru and studied his works deeply. In 1987, he joined the University College, Thiruvananthapuram and completed his BA and MA in English Language and Literature in 1992. In 1993, he joined the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda and took MFA in Art History and Criticism in 1995. In 2003, with the support of the Charles Wallace India Trust he took MA in Creative Curating from the Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK. Though he enrolled for a PhD in the IIT Hyderabad, he decided to discontinue it after a year.

After working as a Junior Lecturer in a higher secondary school in Kerala, JohnyML opted to become an art historian and writer. He started off as an art critic in 1995 with Hindustan Times and Indian Express. He went on contributing art columns in all the New Delhi based dailies. His column in the Hindu Business Line in late 1990s consolidated his position as an art critic in Delhi. He has been having his short and prolonged stints as a political journalist since 1997. He became a senior correspondent with the Malayalam Vaarika and in He was with Malayala Manoram for a year in 2005.

JohnyML is the founder editor of India’s first online art magazine, He also founded and edited one of the most popular online art journals, (now defunct). He has been an editor of the Art and Deal magazine also has guest edited Art Etc. He contributes to Art India Magazine, Creative Minds, Art Journal and many other exclusive art magazines. Currently he writes in and

As a Blogger
Starting a blog in 2008 was a turning point in JohnyML’s career. As an avid reader and writer, JohnyML started making independent blog entries on art, culture, cinema and life. He named it after the famous statement of Malcolm X, ‘By All Mean Necessary’. This popular blog is largely followed by the art and cultural communities from all over the world. JohnyML is quoted widely in the news reports abroad based on his blog entries. His autobiography ‘To My Children’ is a series of thirty blog entries done between 2010 and 2012.

Curatorial Practice
JohnyML is one of the pioneering curators in India who worked towards bringing respect to curatorial practice, which in India is largely dominated by self-designated people with no academic or practical qualifications. He has curated path breaking shows like ‘Small but Significant’ (2000), ‘Dreams: Projects Unrealised’ (2003), ‘Twilight Zone of the Great Indian Digital Divide’ (2004), ‘Compensation for What has been Lost’ (2006), ‘Video Wednesdays @ Gallery Espace’ (2008-2009), ‘Lensing-it’ (2011), ‘Thekkan Kaattu’ (47th Annual Exhibition of the Birla Academy, Kolkata), ‘LoC- Line of Control’ (49th Annual Exhibition of the Birla Academy, Kolkata) and currently working on the Golden Jubilee Exhibitions of the Birla Academy, Kolkata. The other important exhibitions include ‘Cartist Project’ Jaipur,  ‘Goa Reloaded’, ‘R.A.P.E –Rare Acts of Political Engagement.’

In 2009 he conceptualized and curated one of the largest murals projects in India. Titled ‘Vibrant Gujarat,’ it was done in a factory interior in Baroda by a team of artists. In the same year he undertook a 3000 kilometer journey across India to research on how art and art history are taught in small town art colleges. JohnyML’s writings on this journey is available on and in his blog.

JohnyML was the Project Director of the United Art Fair (2012) and Pune Biennale (2015)

JohnyML has authored eight independent books so far and has contributed to various volumes. K.S.Radhakrishan (a monograph co-authored with R.Sivakumar), By All Means Necessary (a collection of essays from his blog published by the Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy), The Circle of Life –the Art of Siddharth (Prakriti, Chennai), B.D.Dethan and his Distinct Style (Suryakanthi, Thiruvananthapuram), Straight from Life –animal and bird imageries in Ram Kinkar Baij (Musui Foundation, New Delhi), In the Open (Ojas, New Delhi), Timeless Bronze (Uttarayan, Baroda), Biography of Arvind Kejriwal-India Janadhipathyathileykku (Malayalam published by DC Books), A Pilgrim with a Camera on the Ramp (on the works of Prabuddha Dasgupta published by Ganjam, Bangalore)

JohnyML is a well known translator who has translated thirteen books so far. He translates international literature into Malayalam.

‘Mistress’ by Anita Nair, ‘Eleven Minutes’ by Paulo Coelho, ‘Embers’ by Sandor Marai, ‘Distant Star’ by Roberto Bolano, ‘I Married a Communist by Philip Roth, ‘Famished Road’ by Ben Okri, ‘Black Book’ by Orhan Pamuk, ‘New Life’ by Orhan Pamuk, ‘Inferno’ by Dan Brown, ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley, ‘Lost Symbol’ by Dan Brown, ‘Strangeness in my Mind’ by Orhan Pamuk, ‘Astonishing the Gods’ by Ben Okri (all for DC Books, Kerala) and ‘Ramkinkar and His Works’ by K.G.Subramanyan (Musui Foundation, New Delhi),

JohnyML has travelled in seven countries. He travels all over India to attend seminars and also to teach short terms courses in the universities. He has taught in the National Institute of Design and many other fine arts faculties. He has also directed three documentaries on artists: On Jeram Patel, On N.N.Rimzon and on Sanjeev Sinha. He worked as a campaigner for the Aam Aadmi Party in his village for six months in 2015. However, he does not want to be identified as a hardcore political activist and prefers to be known as a politico-cultural critic. He lives and works from Delhi.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Double Speak in the Indian Art Scene is Dangerous than Pellets

In our art scene I have a lot of interesting friends. Some of them mean well to me and some of them do not. But that does not make much difference because after all what I do in the art scene is more important than what others think about me or what I think about others. Yet, I can’t help recounting an incident. One of my artist friends, a few years back, suddenly started saying very good things about me. He was in fact reporting about a party that he had attended on the previous night. He said that all our artist friends were of very high opinion about me. “You know, they say in India there is only one art critic who has the guts to say things as it is; that’s JohnyML,” he said. As I knew him well, I took two pinches of salt from the air before relishing the words of praise. But he had not finished and he added, “But you know X?” I knew who X was; a noted artist. “She says you are a number one bastard.” He grinned. I could peel a layer of satisfaction from his face.

There is a reason why I recounted this incident which in fact had amused me a lot than hurting me in any manner. These days, I come across some art people who profess themselves to be hardcore secularists but somewhere harbouring this idea that whatever the present government at the centre with a firmly placed and unapologetically declared ideology of Hindutva as its anchoring force, does is good for not only the society in general but also a lot good for the culture of our country. Their arguments go something like this: “What if they replace the institutional heads with their own people? Till now the previous governments were keeping their people in those positions. But you see, this government is doing horrible things. But let’s hope something would happen for good. I believe, things are going in the right direction.” I am at a loss for figuring these statements out in the right perspective. Are they forwarding a critique or are they saying it’s fine? These fence sitters are everywhere, especially when a majoritarian government takes the reins of a country.

Majority of the people would tend to support the policies of the government using filtered down propagandist ideas and untested as well as unqualified pedestrian wisdom. They believe that being with the government policies despite its anti people stances in several other fronts would help them to progress materialistically in life. While a section of people ululates the government policies regarding social engineering and manufacturing of culture and consent, another section keeps a studied silence or ambiguous hems and haws which could interpreted as yes or no depending on their strategies of survival in a given time and context. Those who critically approach the government policies without taking hardcore oppositional views and yet provide logical and constructive criticism are lampooned at various levels by calling names or throwing gender, religious and racial expletives at them. I am pained at the fact that the art communities which are supposed to be functioning away from the dominant ideologies and mainstream societies too somehow has succumbed to the pressures of the time. They have gone back to the basic Darwinian theory; survival of the fittest. And unfortunately today the fittest amongst the artists are those who keep silence or remain ambiguous about the anti-people government policies.

I don't say that the artists should come out and make political speeches or do some chest thumping on behalf of the suffering humanity, Dalit oppression or anti-Muslim rhetoric. Nor do I insist that the artists should make works of art with overt political implications, messages, suggestions or underpinnings. Artists could live in seclusion and seclusion is one of the political stances. But we should not say that artists living in seclusion are silent. Silence and seclusion are two different things. Keeping silence and yet trying to be present in the political as well as socio-cultural mainstream is a choicest crime. But retreating in a secluded life and still working without fussing about in the social realm is a chosen political stance. It is a sort of committing social suicide as the Buddist monks do via self immolation. They decimate their being and make their final act painfully strong before the watchful eyes of the oppressive government. It is also like Perumal Murugan’s ‘murder’ of his writerly self (though he called a suicide of the writer in him, in my view it is a murder, a sort of violent immolation of the self by splitting it into two spiritual and physical. While allowing the physical self to live on Perumal Murugan killed his spiritual and creative self which was definitely a political act; an act of symbolic resistance against the right wing moral policing against his art and research). Artists could retreat into nothingness, means no social presence at all for years on and still they could work and when the good climes come back they could resurface and show the world what they have been doing all these years in seclusion. 

Many have forgotten this art of seclusion. They all want to show their good selves in the mainstream society so that they could be seen, heard and recognized and even awarded as artists. This situation has created the surfacing of degenerate art in India. Look around. Most of the galleries have stopped doing shows. Those artists still want to show are going to the public galleries. The important art platforms have already divested or even surrendered their founding philosophies in order to get funds, political favour or presence. The art of the alternative has come to take the mainstream position these days. Graffiti art which was started off as an art/act of rebellion has now been absorbed, co-opted and castrated by the mainstream society by helping it to appear in the public as well as private funded walls. The self serving middle class invites artists to their housing colonies to decorate their walls and the newspapers hail them as the part of city’s aesthetical resurgence or city beautification. Even the people’s political parties like the one that rules the partial state of Delhi also promote graffiti culture taking some sort of social integration as its medium and purpose. These self defeating acts of aestheticisation of rebellion into domesticated city beautification also have brought in a different kind of degeneration to our art scene. Our major art institutions have almost stopped having good shows, instead they have started presenting projects all of which have the rightward tilt, towards an imaginary nationalism.

One of friends recently surprised me by saying that none cares even if the prime art institutions in the country function well or not. Whether they are opened for the public or are closed forever, none bothers. He is a devoted apostle of free market and right wing liberalism but as he operates partly in the art scene he has to speak out against the illogical acts of cultural twisting undertaken either by the government or its agencies in order to survive as a radical, cutting edge and ‘different’ sort of an art enthusiast for the age old belief that the art scene has people who are unrealistically romantic and impractically left leaning. So it is still imperative for many to wear the mask of social progress against social development. One clearly knows what one means by progress and by development. Progress is a fundamental principle of the left leaning ideologues and believers because through the overthrowing of orthodoxy, they believe they could usher in a new world of mentally liberated people. Development on the other hand means the materialistic development of the infrastructure for easing commerce and industry making the global economic flow channels hindrance free without heeding to the socio-cultural and politico-religious disparities and imbalances that such developments would cause while sticking to tradition and orthodox practices of socio-moral and religious practices. Somehow, people believe that artists are for progress and they are against development. My friend has not have seen the fact yet; in these days of degeneration, many of the artists have become the apologists for development. 

My friend religiously underlines the fact that he is educated and liberal so he cannot accept the fact that human beings are different based on caste, gender or race. But at the same breath he adds that life is such a bitch. It has to be imbalanced. Everyone cannot be rich. He quotes his servants who say that in their villages there are people who believe that the present prime minister of the country is an avatar of Lord Vishnu who has taken birth to change this world and alleviate the poor from their grievances and elevate them to the perpetual heaven of luxury, comfort and security. They however do not see that to get passage to those heavens one has to be from a higher caste, follow right wing ideologies, stick to orthodoxy, be gender biased and definitely think that cow and country are better than anything else in the world. Mother and motherland are better than heavens, they say. While we are over conscious of our motherland, mothers are generally ignored the moment we put gender bias as our guiding principle. Surprisingly, my educated artistic friend believes that India is not of the educated and the urban people like ‘us’ but it belongs to the people like ‘them’ who come from village and blindly believe that the Prime Minister is god’s incarnation. For a moment, you would think that the friend is really progressive and believes in democracy by taking an inclusive stance. But the truth is that my friend is actually reflecting himself or his basic faith in the government by shrouding it in the ignorance of the servants who come from the villages. He says that ‘you and I’ are different and ‘you and I’ do not agree with beating up the Dalits in Una or elsewhere for skinning cows or killing cows. But he adds, “But see, 90% of the Indian citizens believe that the Dalits should be treated like that.”

I do not know from where my friend got this statics that 90% Indians believe in beating up the Dalits. I am sure that he is speaking his mind by covering it up with the 90%. My friend is not the only one. I have come across so many people who have become uncritical of the government policies regarding social engineering while extolling its contributions towards the economic and militaristic growth. These are the artists who are seen these days in the mainstream art platforms. My friend is just a tip of the ice berg. I remembered my other friend who quoted another artist saying that JohnyML is a big bastard when this friend of mine said that though beating up of Dalits is a bad thing to happen in India, ninety per cent of the Indians believe that Dalits should be beaten up. I am vary of such friends. They speak their mind using the ignorance of servants and other artists as a cover. Such double speak is more dangerous than the pellet guns currently used by the Indian military for curbing Kashmiri rebels.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Why be Apologetic about Your Art? Stand Erect. Let the System make Changes

One day a young artist was showing some of his works to me. Well versed in Kangra miniature style, this artist held out some future promises though his answer to one of my questions made me doubtful about his future promise. It was not really his answer but the way he answered had put me off for my question was as simple as a query about the medium of his works. Externalizing his hesitation and moral trepidation by scratching the back of his head and by shuttling his eyes restively around my face he said, “Poster colours on mount board.” I was sad, to say the least. I told him, “Never hesitate in answering a question regarding your work. Do not be apologetic about your work at all. The moment you are apologetic about your own creation people grow suspicious about your intentions. If you know what you are doing or rather what you have done, and also if you know the medium that you have chosen to do the work, be confident and say it straight for no medium is a bad medium for an artist. And above all, doing a work of art never amounts to committing a crime.”

This chance encounter on a discussion table in an art promoter’s office forced me wear my thinking cap for a while. I thought of the other extreme of this young artist; the ‘over confident’ young artist. Such artists are aplenty and in the market place they are seen as happening and successful. These artists say whatever comes to their tongues. Sometimes they know their answers for sure and they do not have any hesitation to say it out. They know their subject matter and also they know their mediums. Ironically, such overconfidence of the artists also has put me into a state of inexplicable grief. Experience has taught me that those young artists too sure of their works have somehow matured before time and their works appear as close ended. There is a feeling of ‘that’s it’. And when you have that feeling it is followed by this line, ‘so, let’s look somewhere else for something interesting.’ Early bloomers have always presented this sense of dejection amongst the viewers. Each time they make an extremely confident and conclusive work of art, they are posed with another gigantic challenge either to maintain the present momentum or to go beyond it to present something new. Slowly, such artists give us dettol washed, sanitized works of art with predictable or predicated narratives around it. The smarter ones amongst these overconfident early bloomers, when they face with far more intelligent questions or even confront their own weak moments in public spaces of presentation, they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well, I don’t know.’ Call it height of arrogance or height of ignorance, I think such artists sell their confidence, definitely not their art for their art fail to impress seasoned minds like mine.

Why does this happen? Or how does it happen? What makes a young artist mumble incoherently and sound apologetic about his or her works? What makes another young artist say things confidently by tying up the loose ends or just leave the ends completely opened so that anybody could say anything without holding the artist responsible for their conclusions? Till recently we used to think that the disparity was created by the language. English being the language of political as well as economic power, being conversant in that language gives an artist a natural passport to recognition if not stardom. If both evade the artist then he/she could at least float in the right kind of circles and make right kind of connections which would eventually take him/her to materialistic success. Those who do not speak English (who are known amongst the English speaking crowd as vernies, a condescending abbreviation for vernacular) are destined to be second class citizens in the hierarchic structure of the art scene in India. However, I have come to understand that it is not the language alone that determines the confidence level of the artist. For an artist, say from Tamil Nadu does not need fluency in English to tell someone that his medium is either ‘oil on canvas’ or ‘poster colour on paper’. He/she just needs to understand what is being asked. If someone wants to know further about the works or about the artist who is not conversant in English, he would definitely find an interlocutor; that’s the way we watch movies with subtitles and read international literature in translation.

The confidence level of an artist lies in elsewhere; his/her understanding of the world. The smarter ones use a lot of art historical name droppings. The more you drop names from contemporary art scene of certain countries or from remote art historical annals which are not regularly visited even by the art people, the more security rings will be created around you. People use art history as a weapon to intimidate the inquisitive minds, which perhaps is a legitimate way because a scientist upon questioning would definitely drop theorems beyond our grasping power to save his skin or a pandit would drop some Sanskrit or Arabic couplets to floor the opponent or the general enthusiast. But the smarter ones amongst the young contemporary artists function not really based on art history, which is too academic for them to handle. Selecting a special area of knowledge and information which are currently in parlance but not among the generic crowds but only in the specialized groups of people helps these artists to remain special and invincible for the time being. Look at those artists including the Raqs Media group and the artists who are enamoured by such art or artists collective. They operate in special intellectuals zones and claim that only those people who are intellectually at the same wave length could understand their art. It is almost like saying that only a botanist could understand a flower. A poet is a fool because what he says about a flower is not ‘the flower’. 

Seeing such kind of art and artists flourishing or getting recognition and fortune, many youngsters who are still using conventional mediums like painting, sculpting, print making , photography with focus and so on think that they are some kind of sinners who are simply gate crashers in an elite scene and any act of theirs caught under the light should be explained apologetically and talked about with a lot of hesitation. To remove this disparity and injustice from the art scene, I would suggest that there should be a fundamental change in the art curriculum of our fine arts academies. With periodical syllabus revisions and academic assessment and so on, the fine arts faculties in India try to be abreast with the times but they are not seeing the truth yet. We have a vertically divided teaching practice; on the one side we have practical training (polishing skills) and the other side we have art history and theory. As they say, East and West never meet, skills, history and theory never gel, however the teachers try to create bridges between these two or three disciplines. Another interesting factor is that there is also a horizontal division in our art teaching systems. In this horizontal division theory tries to cut across both conventional practices and conventional art history, and tries to bring them in the same line without emphasising either practice or history. Such hybrid educational systems are followed by the prime institutions like Arts and Aesthetics Department of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University and so on.

It is important to take stock of the output of these institutions. UGC is the only constitutional agency to which these institutions are accountable and answerable. They cannot be made accountable to any other agency for their academic nature. But when we check the output we understand that these institutions have not produced neither artists nor art historians or art experts. These institutions do not give any course curatorial practices; but the graduates from these schools become automatically curators. This alchemy happens because of the horizontal entry of theory into the art scene in India. A majority of the teachers who teach in these institutions are not qualified to teach contemporary art for their specializations are in ancient arts. Does anyone sign a consent form for heart surgery if the doctor is an MD in Orthopaedics? We don’t  But in art we do. That’s why someone who is a doctorate in Mughal miniatures could give lectures on performance art. It happens only in India. 

Unfortunately, in India we have created a Brahminical division among the students of art by these vertical and horizontal divisions. We have students who call Sri Rama Pattabhishekam or Coronation of Rama by Raja Ravi Varma as the ‘wedding photo of Rama’ when their visual sense is tested during the entrance interview. We also have students who have just spent a couple of summers in Paris visiting museums and have come back to join a course in art. So who is going to survive in this? Students with artistic determination mostly come from middle and lower middle classes. Their confidence to survive is shattered either by this imbalances in the educational system or by the disparities that they face later on in their practical lives. In my view, these disparities could be done away with to a large extent provided if we change the way we teach art history and theory to students. We have just changed some cosmetic changes; JNU does not call art history, art history. They call it something else because art history is old fashioned. We have incorporated film studies, theatre studies, Dalit studies, Feminism and so on in the curriculum, but I say to no effect. Students are not to be taught or informed. They are to be made live art history, theory and other branches of knowledge.

How is it possible? Let me introduce my way of looking at it and suggest certain changes in the academic learning. First of all, we need to weed out all confusions pertaining to the art teaching and practicing within the academies. No art faculty in this country should tell their students that they could become artists if they have a knowledge base but no skills. The post-modern liberalism has approved that anybody is an artist. It is a false theory. This false theory is created by the capitalists in the world so that they could make the rich and powerful to do things the way they want. A singer is a singer when he sings well. Anybody is not a singer only because one has some theoretical know how of singing. Also our academic curriculum for artists should give a lot of stress to skill, imagination and design. These sessions should be soulful than mechanical. Art history teaching should create links between what is taught and what is practiced. The theories, if not leading students anywhere should be discarded. Art should be taught with professional precision. Art history should break its linear tendencies and should go for reverse methodologies, leading students from contemporary history to the histories of yester years. And above all, the students should be given lectures on socio-political and cultural histories of India. Academies that call their fine arts as liberal arts these days create courses and produce graduates with specializations that none needs particularly for any use. Instead, the liberal histories should be incorporated as an integral part of art course. When a student comes of the college as a fresh graduate, he or she should be ready to face the world like an artist who is unapologetic about what he or she does. To face this world, one needs not just artistic skills but the knowledge of politics, economics, ecology, society and the ways in which it works and culture. They should be prepared to understand that art does not happen in vacuum. They also should be made to learn that artists are the last people standing even when the world goes down on its knees before avarice and philistinism. Artists should be taught to become the greatest humanitarians in the world. When artist learns to stands for the universe, he gains all the confidence and to stand for the universe needs to the backing of an integrated understanding of his or her world. Today our academies are incapable of producing such graduates. It is high time that they change their course.

Friday, August 19, 2016

About Laughing During the Dark Days: A Letter to Zakir Khan

(picture from net, illustration purpose only)

Dear Zakir Khan,

Good that you asked me this question; why many people in India love to hate Muslims? You, in fact, did not use these words, instead you asked, ‘why our acquaintances have contemptuous perception about Muslims?’ I can feel your pain and I share it. Contempt for anything comes, as the old adage goes, from familiarity. We need to tweak it a bit to make it suitable for our times. It makes sense and sounds feasible when we change it by saying, strangeness also brings contempt. Muslims as a generic religious group, despite its innate sects and factions, and liberal, moderate and extreme ideological anchors, has come to have become the strange ‘other’ for anybody who hails from other religious groups. In India, this contempt and hatred for Muslims have become all the more pronounced these days.

The historical reasons for pitching Muslims against Hindus vary depending on the historical time that we consider in order to analyse this hatred. The Hindu-Muslim strife in India, if seen in the right perspective never had religion as its fundamental reason. More than religious differences it was the politico-economic power differences that had created strife amongst these two religious groups. The geographical conception and imagination of India as an undivided subcontinent is first of all a religious imagination which was a result of the geographical conception and imagination created by the British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent. Till then, India was never the ‘female’ (Bharat Mata) form as we imagine today literally (visually) along the geographical boundaries of our country. Innumerable chieftains and local kings were making adjustments with the dominant powers including the Mughal power and it simply continued under the British rule too. Most of the rebellions till 1857 were basically for ‘tax money’ based on the land and agriculture and commerce within and without it. Religion was a subtext in the discourse of power in the Indian subcontinent.

By the mid 19th century, consolidation of the British power in India had evoked political resistances against the British and those movements had to be based on a common cultural ideology in order milk out political unity amongst the local kings and chieftains who enjoyed the support of both the Hindus and Muslims. Political unity of India could not have been possible without imagining a geographical nation which was a unified India. Common heritages and cultures had to be dug out, unified and re-codified for the purpose of imagining that physical nation and the available historical research was leading to the Vedic Hinduism, travelling over Mughal and Sultanate periods, rise and fall of Hindu kingdoms and Buddhist kingdoms, the resurgence of Hinduism with the arrival of Sankaracharya in the 8th century and so on. Importantly, when the imagination of a large Hindu nation was taking place here the Indian Muslims were also a part of the nationalistic risings against the British. However, sooner than later they realized that the dominant groups that led the anti-British movements by and large were having Hindu leanings which obviously had forced the Indian Muslims to have their own socio-political organizations not only for being a part of the nationalist struggle for Indian Independence but also for reforming the Muslims communities spread all over India from its own trappings of tradition and religious orthodoxy.

This history is known to us and also the aftermath of it. When the British left, they had already divided India into two; almost half a century before the British had divided Indian Hindus and Muslims into two mutually opposing factions by dividing Bengal into East and West Bengal, which later we would see once again becoming the arena of political contention between India and Pakistan. Partition in 1947 and the pogroms that ensued further created emotional ruptures between the Muslims and Hindus in India. Surprisingly, the Sikh community which had been bearing the brunt of partition patched up emotionally and culturally not only with the Indian Muslims but also with the international Muslims. However, an imaginary nation has been still in the minds of the those people who keep on believing that an undivided India could be realized through outnumbering Muslims in socio-cultural and politico-economic  spheres by periodical attacks for flimsy or concocted reasons.

Over imagining a nation with expanded political boundaries only because it was imagined so at some point of history is the present problem that India is going through. We all know that India has to have a world supreme military power as well as fascistic political will to destroy all other nations spread all over this region and bring them under the so called undivided India. Indian political leadership including the present one in power with dominant Hindutva ideology knows it well. Yet, both the Indian Muslims and Hindus imagine their country as Bharat Mata, a lady standing with her iconographical attributes filling in the physical contours of the geographical map of India which all of us had learnt to draw when we were in school. The recent evocation of Gilgit and Balochistan by our Prime Minister in order to checkmate Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, despite all its political, militaristic and social implications, inadvertently has also brought something which the Hindutva ideologues have been not wanting to come to the fore; the real geographical map of India. In a worst case scenario if India is forced to cede Kashmir and PoK, then our Indian Map will be seen without that part that stands for the head of our Map/Bharat Mata. Suddenly, the stark truth stares back at our face. Our cultural imagination which has always cemented the political imaginations lay in tatters, which our Prime Minister had not thought of doing.

Suddenly, the Indian Muslim has become Kashmiri Muslim. Kashmiri Muslims are those people who want to take Kashmir to Pakistan, they say. In the din of Hindutva, we forget the fact that the constitutional provision had given them the right to self determine, which India fears that given a chance would prove detrimental to the larger imagination of the Hindutva ideology. Hence, now within India, Indian Muslims are no longer the real other; the real other are those people who stands for Kashmiris’ right to live peacefully and determine their future political course. Today, Indian Muslim is all those people who stand against the Hindutva. Within the Indian Muslims, the Indian state has found two different types of extremists; one, those who support Kashmiris and two, those who support the ISIS. The beef eating Muslim is no longer a threat as the Indian people have exposed the hypocrisy of the Gau Rakshaks. Today Indian Muslim has taken a new identity; they are one with Dalits, social activists and all those media people who are called the Presstitutes.

India’s political and cultural leaders always knew that the rupture between Hindus and Muslims would worsen as time went. Hence, all their efforts have been to appease both the religious groups without giving a chance for the other to attack the political establishments. This tightrope walking done by most of the central and regional governments in a way paved way for the negative consolidation of politics based on religious fundamentalisms. Today, without addressing the Hindu terrorism we cannot address Muslim terrorism, at least in India, and vice versa. One has begotten the other. Social media is one place where one could see bigots from both the religious groups making rampant attacks on each other based on falsehood and blind faith. These avenues of politico-cultural discourses have never helped in patching up differences. The more the Hindu fundamentalists quote from ill digested knowledge of Vedas and other religious scriptures, Muslim fundamentalists counter them with their equally ill digested understanding of Islam. Religion has become a footnote in the war of egos than providing an avenue for informed socio-political and cultural critique.

The efforts of Indian cultural producers to create a nationalist Muslim in the mainstream novels and films also have taken a backseat knowing well that such attempts would no longer serve any purpose. The other has been created and in turn it has created further others. The only problem is that many of the Indian Hindus laugh at the Muslim ways (I have heard someone saying that Muslims wear elder brother’s kurta and younger brother’s pyjama) but they fail to see that they are also being laughed at for carrying the obvious religious marks all over their bodies; look at the Indian Hindu males and females wearing reams of threads around their wrists, rings of various effects in fingers and the Brahminical tuft on their heads even when they wear three piece suit and speak both King’s and Queen’s English. A progressive society always laughs at itself. When it starts laughing at others and forget to laugh at itself, remember that it has started degenerating and it has revived some kind of orthodoxy which is fundamentally against human refinement. Ability to laugh at and laughed at is a symptom of social refinement. India has lost it. That’s why a stand up comedian is arrested for spoofing the mannerisms of some cultural icons. A society that becomes largely intolerant towards the others forgets the fact that it has already become a laughing stock before the world.

So dear friend, when you are laughed at, just reassure yourself that those who laugh at you have already drawn their boundaries and have declared to the world that they have stunted themselves and have become socio-cultural and political dwarfs and their laughs do not eke out fear and revulsion but pure sympathy for their gigantic ignorance that needs clinical support than logical retort or debate.

Yours sincerely


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bugdom in Shibu Natesan’s Latest Suite of Watercolours

(self portrait by Shibu Natesan)

“Death does not talk about death,” says Shibu Natesan. Death, then definitely talks about life; each death subtly, if not violently, reminds us of life, the preciousness of it and above all the need to love each other for our time on the earth is limited though each of us is invested with the potential to become immortal. Death, for Shibu is not the end of a living organism but an inevitable transformation through which both the higher organisms and the lower ones have to pass. From being, one moves to the zone of becoming. We do not feel like seeing dead bodies because it reminds us of past and physically it does not show the possibility of a future other than the purest form of decaying, cell by cell, releasing all what has been once fragrance, now a revolting stench. Dead bodies do not talk about death but our revulsion for it. Death is neutral and impartial; the decay depends on degree though death does not have any degree. A dead thing could remind one, of the futility of life’s vanity as well. It is not the negation of life but a soulful call to discard vanity. Humans like any other beings on the earth have the capacity for apotheosis; they could become gods, provided they realise the god potential in them. It is a journey, a practice and a penance.

 (work by Shibu Natesan)

Shibu’s recent works are of transience; bodies die and the death is not instantaneous. It is a process that progresses moment by moment and he believes that if one could see death as a ‘living process’, then the final revulsion for the dead bodies does not occur in the minds of human beings. We do not know whether rats feel dejection when they witness a human being lying dead, but as human beings we do feel revulsion at the sight of a decaying rat’s body. This revulsion is caused by the reluctance of human beings to accept dead as a living process. An unblemished skin is worshipped but when the same skin is seen torn by rashes we turn our faces. As a painter Shibu has accepted death as a living process, exactly the way Kumaranasan had accepted it in his poems like ‘Veena Poovu’ and ‘Karuna’. Between Kumaranasan and Shibu Natesan there lies a river of time which has the width of a century. But in his own way, Shibu too has reached that exalted philosophical positioning of an artist who ultimately sees death as a living process. Great artists have always addressed death while the superficial ones have always celebrated life. The great ones have always found out that death is a threshold to immortality and to rejoice in death one needs that awareness of life being a preparation for a grand death.

 (work by Shibu Natesan)

Cemeteries and human skulls have evoked more sublime thoughts than fear amongst the weaklings and shallow beings. Hamlet was looking at a skull when he had faced with a dilemma and our own Raja Harischandra had realized the deeper truths about life when he was working as a cemetery attendant. Shibu is in a Hamletian phase in his career, not really in terms of the ‘to be or not to be’ sort of dilemma, where deeper inquiries into the transitory nature of life and it as slow progression to death take over the mere celebrations of contemporaenity. Artists who are bracketed within the word ‘contemporary’ either celebrate or problematize whatever is contemporary. They exclude the larger dimension of life and death by preferring life over death. Art has been a way of pointing out socio-political problems through aesthetical modes for many. It is not a bad thing to do, however, when we see most of the activities in the society are meant to flag out as well as to tackle the problems of various kinds, seeing art jumping into the same bandwagon makes it almost redundant an activity for often it fails in creating larger repercussions other than controversies or monetary celebrations. In one of my articles before this, I had mentioned that art need not necessarily be carrying out a social role or purpose other than being art which has the capacity to move people’s mind causing fundamental changes in the life philosophy. I had also argued that only by turning the artistic eyes towards simpler things around us could bring about that ‘moving’ of minds.

 (work by Shibu Natesan)

A political speech or an inspirational speech moves our minds. But the effect of it is not expected to be long lasting provided if we are not keeping the vibrations that we have received from those speeches in a separate box in our minds. As we have the tendency to mix up everything in our minds and make a mess out of our life and its philosophical clarity, we tend to go back to our previous state of mind after listening to the political speech capable of moving us. The slogan ‘azadi’ may linger on for a few days or weeks only to fade away when newer slogans catch our attention. A tune that is pumped into our consciousness by the electronic and new media, moves us for while until it is replaced by another equally moving tune. All slogans are meant to die, so are all the exhortations however aesthetical they may be. But certain things remain and keep moving us to moments of sublimation that lead us to the thresholds of apotheosis. Call it nostalgia or by any other name, certain smells, certain sounds, certain pictures, certain faces, certain voices, certain feelings, certain contexts, certain occasions, certain climates, certain atmospheres, certain terrains, certain travels, certain shores, certain forests, certain breezes, certain songs, certain albums, certain soils, certain waters, certain smiles, certain tears, certain mumblings, certain whisperings, certain prayers, certain memories, certain forgetting, certain follies, certain sins, certain acts of piety, certain falling of feathers, certain birds, certain thunders, certain lightning, certain tastes, certain touches and certain what nots sublimate us as nothing else does. May be your child’s first cry or your mother’s voice in the phone, simple.

(work by Shibu Natesan)

Try to capture these in your works. Let me tell you, if you are not a good artist you will fail. Thousands of them have failed in depicting these emotions. But similar emotions could be evoked via subconscious selection of other objects and subjects. In monsoon, at night, under the white lamp, the insects that he does not know living around him in small thickets, at the top of the coconut trees, under the leaves in his lovingly tendered garden, come one by one as if they were curious about the lonely painter in a white mansion sitting alone in his white robes, completely lost in depicting his own self on the papers. His nimble fingers move and the contours of his face appear on the paper. From the ceiling, from behind the book shelf, from the ledge, from the back of the chair, these creatures of insignificance keep looking at the artist at work. They are many and in different varieties. Their eyes shine but not visible in the blaring white light around which moths do their death dance to the silent tunes of their limitless universe. Their antennas are up, their blue shells and rainbow wings vibrate. Here is their last performance. They submit their lives to a creator who is capable of leading them to immortality.

(work by Shibu Natesan)

Shibu finds them in the morning; at the book shelf, under the table, near the half opened book, near the sketch book, near the palette. They are just there, motionless, weightless and in a trance; he finds them dead. How alive they look in their death. Shibu has been painting them meticulously, the way a modern painter would do to his female nude model. The insects are captured in their ultimate perfection; they are like machine parts, bullets and some of them even look like mummies from Egypt. Shibu paints their death and their life after death. In his sketchbooks they have started a new journey into immortality. Their apotheosis has happened. Through the depiction Shibu has also transcended his own mortality; he finds no difference between him and a bug. It is not a Kafkesque transformation. There is no existential dilemma here. Here is a wiling entry into the bugdom and their immortal heavens. Shibu finds no difference between what he does and the bugs do. They have been looking at him and he has been looking at them, in their different incarnations. (When I first saw them I suggested that the title ‘The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, the famous title of Damien Hirst’s pickled shark, more suitable to these humble drawings than that ambitious work of Hirst).

(work by Shibu Natesan)

“These are not dead bugs, they are transformed bugs,” says Shibu. I could see the drawings and the artistic intention and decision behind it. Each time Shibu paints a dead bug he sees it from one perspective. Then he touches it, turns it, sees it, observes it and sketches it from different angles. “In death they model for me or rather their death compels me to paint them; in their death they have become more powerful than they were alive. Now they could move an artist,” says Shibu. When an artist moves his mind beyond the physical purposes of his artistic production, he just does not need an end of/to his works. Great poets have reached that sensibility of seeing a flowery branch, a blade of grass, an ant and all alike. Great artists too have reached that level. North European Renaissance artists have painted bugs and creatures, the humblest beings on earth with great attention and detail. They were not making scientific classification or doing anatomical studies. It was a state of being to be one with the greater and larger truth of universe; one life and one love. Shibu is in that path. Hence he paints what he sees through the window of his study room. Same scene, painted in different times, in different lights. Neo-impressionism, you tend to ask. “No,” says Shibu, “Pleasure of seeing,” he concludes. Yes, exactly the way bugs look at us from wherever they are- with no purpose but for pure pleasure. Who said bugs don’t have the pleasure of seeing?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Art Does not Change the World but Moves the Mind

From the kitchen window I could see these bunches of berries, half pinkish red and half white hanging from high branches of the tree that grows over a fifteen feet tall boundary wall. Little humming birds hover around the bell like white flowers, butterflies flit all over, occasionally a monkey jumps over it never touching the berries that make my eyes widen with happiness each morning as I enter the kitchen. Children don’t find any devices around to climb over the wall and pluck the berries. Necessity has made them small inventors; they tie a little bottle or stone at the end of a kite string and throw it over the branches. The stone goes over the tree, covers the intended branch and comes down. Holding both the ends of the string, the kids pull it down, slowly but meticulously, plucking the sour berries (someone told me about its taste. If slice it and rub it with salt, chilli powder and a shot of lemon, it would taste heaven, they say) and make way before the gardener sees the unnaturally shaking tree, comes rushing and chases away the truant boys.

Looking at these berries I think of their purpose of being there. They are the making of a wondrous hand. The berries are here to carry the seed and perpetuate the species of that tree on the earth. But others find different purposes for it. Some berries are tasty; some are sour and some are even poisonous. Some cause various kinds of allergies; some are good to look at but are never to be consumed. Each has a purpose of perpetuating its species. Rest of their uses are found out by others, including birds and human beings. Depending on the quality of looks and taste, human beings judge the berries as edible, poisonous, decorative etc. The meaning of a berry is its berry-ness. When it is brought to another situation, suddenly it acquires metaphorical values; some meaning which is not intrinsic but added to it by associations. Apple is one of the innocent edible fruits in the market but even the staunch Christians would not think of the original sin when they buy a kilogram of it for themselves. None laughs at a woman who goes around biting into an apple. Yet, when the apple is painted on a canvas or displaced from the tree or fruit stall and placed it in a gallery or museum, suddenly the meaning changes; everyone suddenly sees the ‘history’ of apple both in mythology/ theology and aesthetics. People have found out the ways in which they could see purpose of anything and everything including an apple.

 (Subodh Gupta with his Absolut bottle)

When depicted in art objects and subjects come to have meaning and purposes though such connotations are not the intention of the artists. Like berries art that comes from the minds of the artists too does not have any particular purpose. If at all there is a purpose for art that is just the perpetuation of the artistic abilities of the artist himself/herself. Each work of art is an intention as well as a decision. The tree has an intention and decision in producing a bunch of berries. It does not see the birds as primary consumers. Perhaps, it may be seeing the birds as primary carriers so that the seeds could be delivered elsewhere. An artist is also like a tree; he/she has an intention and a decision. Any work of art produced therefore carries an artistic intention and a decision, both of which do not have anything to do with its further perpetuation in the minds of the people or in the market. The intention is often simple; that ‘I want to make a work of art’ or ‘I want to make something out of something’ or ‘I want to make something that makes me happy’. The decision part is also equally simple: ‘I want to do it in this way’ or ‘I am doing it in this way’ or ‘this is the way that I do it’ or ‘this is what I do with it’.

Real artists are those people who create works of art with pure intention and strong decision. When the intention is adulterated or the decision is weakened, the resultant work of art would have weaker genes to survive the times. This statement invites another discussion; one could say that all the artists have good intentions when they do art and all of them have stronger decisions too. I am nobody to question their intentions or decisions. But works of art are such things that once perceived or tasted with heightened sense of aesthetical understanding, their intentions and decisions are revealed to the trained eyes. This self revelatory aspect of a work of art often puts the artists into trouble; those who have done with impure intentions and weaker decisions are exposed sooner than later. As I said before, artistic intention is all about a self justification of making a work of art, decision is nothing but executing it the way one wants it to be. Each artist makes a self justification for doing a work of art and the way it is done automatically explains the artistic decision behind it.

(from Dutch Renaissance, Entombment)

This is a dangerous proposition. When we accept that each artist has an intention, we should also accept that whatever the artist intends is exposed in the given work of art; what seen is not just the representation or non-representation and style but it is also the mind of the artist. An artist who paints the glamour and glitter of an urban space is either celebrating it or critiquing it. He/she cannot say that urban space is a metaphor for the celebration of life. This could be a naive argument from the artist’s side, however that naivety itself is then an intention of the artist. And the way he has painted, sculpted, photographed, videoed and so on shows the decision of the artist vis-a-vis the medium, the perspective, the time and the positioning of him/herself within or without the work of art. That means, a work of art which is produced by an artist often gives away the artistic intention and decision. Art history says that most of the Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance artists hid a lot of secret meanings, scientific findings, agnostic scepticism and so on in their works without offending the patrons. One needs a deep understanding of the history, theology, sociology and political make up of the times to understand those works in the right perspective. However, what comes to fore is that those complicated works too revealed artistic intentions and decisions at some stage of historical analysis.

Compared to those days, today we live in much shallower times with short attention spans and peripheral understanding of things. Artists too have fallen to the follies of our times. Instant fame, name and riches have come to define artistic success in our contemporary times. Fame and fortune also could come via being different and creating complicated art deliberately. But surprisingly, if complexity is the hallmark of a particular work of art today, then we also understand that it is not the complexity of the minds of the artists but their intention to make the work of art complicated than lucid. It is an intention as well as a decision. I do not want to say that whether it is right or wrong. But I would say that it gives away the ways in which an artist tries to make his/her work complex and comprehensive. The decisions within those works are crystal clear. Only way to deflect artistic intentions and decisions is to attribute metaphorical values to these images and objects. But unfortunately we live in such times that everything is either a metaphor or a self revealing platitude. The metaphorical lack of our times has made the job of an art critic much tougher for only he could rely on his deeper or shallow understanding about the world and nature in order to dredge out meanings as well as befitting metaphors. The self revealing nature of the images is because of the over exposed ways of our lives these days. We even know the background score of our wrist watch. When we consume anything we know everything about it via advertisements. So the consumption is a sort of sharing the experience that one already has known virtually; consumption of it is a reaffirmation of the same experience in the real time. This renders the works of art and experiences/decisions revealed/expressed in there an underlining rather than an exciting first time experience.

 (work by Jan Van Kessel, 1659)

The question then is what could be the right kind of art that protects the intention and the decision of the artists? In my opinion contemporary art has been overtly depending upon the immediate incidents and experiences, memories, images, texts related to them. Over identification with/of the experiential quotes within the art or as art has reduced the artistic intention to some sort of cleverness of cajoling the viewer to a turn of surprise exposition/s. The decision is already visible because the styles that the artists have chosen are self revelatory and resonate with what the viewers have already seen around them. The political intentions and decisions of the artists are too palpable to be real or serious because they flit around the berries and flowers like butterflies, moving from one flower to other at a time but around a variety of flowers and berries over a period of time. So we see artists working on migration at one point of time and in the coming season we see them celebrating nationalism confined within the geographical boundaries. At times we see them working against the fascistic political ideologies and other times hailing militaristic moves as paramount gestures of patriotism. Such works of art are passing fancies, like the moths that come to die in the light of the truth and simplicity.

Can art do anything to change the society if that is the case? Art, being one of the ultimate expressions of human potential, it has the ability to create empathetic responses amongst the viewers/listeners. It comes as a natural a spontaneous thing for both the artist and the viewer. It is not necessary that we would like to go out and change the world the moment we see a work of art. A work of art does not ask us to change the world or society. It fundamentally asks one to change oneself. A good piece of music is the right intentions and decision of a musician so is a good work of art is that of a painter or sculptor or any other fine artist. It moves the viewer not to change the world but towards the innards of one’s own self. Today, a propagandist work of art could ‘inform’ people of political turns and twists in a country but it can never change the people who view it. Had it been so, India should have been without religious conflicts or without garbage everywhere for we see a lot of propaganda for keeping the society clean of religious conflict as well as littering. A work of art stands for the artist’s expression of the simple truths that he finds around him/her. A proper reading of it would reveal his/her intention and decision too. Once those are understood, people would marvel at the work of art and would move towards the sublime zone of existence. One need not necessarily be dealing with the social realities or political realities of the time directly. The secret is lies in the capturing of simple truths of life which are capable enough to turn potential metaphors and could reveal not only the artistic intentions and decisions but also many things more provided if one has the eyes to see simple truths and their abilities to expand and contain the times and beyond.  

Friday, August 5, 2016

Sculpture or Idol? The Art Controversy in Sankaracharya University, Kerala

(Aadi Sanakaracharya- Controversial forever)

Over assessment and over reading of the meaning of a work of art could land a progressive political party in soup. That’s what exactly happened with a section of the students’ and teachers’ unions belonging to the ruling Left Front in Kerala. In Sri Sankaracharya University, a university established in the name of the Aadi Sankaracharya, a 9th century scholar who is said to have defeated the prominence of Buddhism using the scholarly interpretations of the Vedic scriptures and paved the way for establishing Hinduism as we know it today, the installation of a sculptural icon of Sri Sankaracharya at the newly inaugurated arched gate has provoked the left leaning students and teachers. The opposition which has by now snowballed into a large scale controversy involving political as well as religious factions seems to have put the left parties into a spot. While the right wing political factions have found a stick to beat the ruling left parties, even the left leaning intellectuals and artists have found the move of their political fellow travelers ill-timed, insensitive and irresponsible to certain extent.

A section of the left wing students’ and teachers’ unions opposes it because they say that the installation of a ‘Hindu idol’ would eventually turn a university into a temple by replacing the academic stake holders slowly but steadily with the religious stake holders (read right wing political and religious parties organizations). They allege that there have already been moves from the right wing forces to take over the university and convert it into a Hindu religious establishment. There had been certain moves in the yesteryears to rename the university as ‘Kaladi Sanskrit University’ but it was shot down by both the public and the members of the academic communities. While the general consensus on the nomenclatural logic of the university remains intact, those who oppose the installation of the Sankaracharya ‘Icon’ assert that the university’s name is commemorative but it is definitely not established for teaching Hindu religion or Sanskrit. The opposition also reads the whole issue from a Dalit perspective saying that the move (to establish an icon) is to underline the Hindu leaning of the university. 

(Sri Sankaracharya University, Kaladi)

Most of the people from the art community who have responded to the issue see it as a non-issue made into a controversy. One could see how the opposition has brought the right wing forces as the protectors of artistic freedom. Unfortunately, the opposing sections have failed to understand the artistic side of this Sankaracharya icon. Once the university decided to have a sculpture at the new gate, the Vice Chancellor of the University decided that the sculpture could be made by the faculty members of the Sculpture Department in the university. T.G.Jyotilal, an acclaimed sculptor who heads the department took the responsibility of sculpting the image of Sankaracharya which is ‘radically different’ but ‘not provokingly away from the norms’. Jyotilal made a collective effort by holding workshops with the students of the faculty, bringing technical expertise from outside. The work of the sculpture in cement cast has been on for the last two months and is nearing completion.

“There is a major difference between an idol and an icon. An idol is made for worship and an icon is made for larger cultural consumption,” says Jyotilal. According to him the moment the agitators used the word ‘idol’ in the public memory it suddenly got attached as a religious idol. “It is so unfortunate that the agitators could not see that we are all modern sculptors and we do not make idols for worship, which is a different ball game altogether. We were attempting to create a sculptural icon of Sankaracharya, who was a religious personality but never a god in himself,” says Jyotilal. Sankaracharya was a commentator of religious texts and was an able debater who could convince the opponents about the virtues of Hinduism. He used both secular and religious logic. 

(Sculptor Jyotilal TG)

As Sankaracharya lived in the late 8th and early 9th century CE (some attribute his time between 5th c and 12th c), none of us know what he looked like. There are no photographic evidences to prove the likeness of Sankaracharya. The idols we already have in parlance in different parts of India come from the common understanding about the Bhakti poets and saints of the 13th to 15th centuries. If one looks at the idols of these poets even in Kerala (like those of Melpathur Bhattathirippadu, Poonthanam, Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan and so on), one could see they do not considerably differ from the likeness of Sankaracharya’s idols. The interesting fact is that though Sankaracharya lived a few centuries before the Bhakti poets, the idols of all these personalities were made almost during the same time; the time frame could be fixed somewhere between late 19th century to the late 20th century. Hence, even for Jyotilal the point of reference is the available image of Sankaracharya to which he could take some poetic and artistic licenses, perhaps even removing a few stark religious iconographies.

The photograph of the sculptures made available to me by the sculptor himself tells me beyond doubt that the artist has not re-created the popular image of Sankaracharya, instead he has created a Sankara who is more like a saintly scholar, more like a Buddha or Jain Teerthankaras in our mind. This semblance does not mean that Jyotilal and team were trying to deliberately subvert the ‘Hindu’ version of Sankaracharya and to make a Buddhist one. Here, the Sankaracharya sculpture is more serene but not cinematic; it is more sculptural than idol like. Generally speaking if at all people remember Sankaracharya they must be doing it via book covers, CD covers, calendars and popular flex boards. Ironically, Kerala is a place which had produced the first Jagadguru Adi Sankarcharya movie in 1977. Directed by the leftist poet P.Bhaskaran, this film had closely followed the ‘myth’ of Sankaracharya. This had not created any controversy in Kerala in those days. Similarly in 1983, G.V.Iyer had directed the most famous Aadi Sankaracharya film in Sanskrit language which had reaped National Awards. This film too had not created any controversy. 

(Jyotilal and students at work)

The times were different and works of art were taken for their aesthetic finesse and interpretational values. No one, including the Dalits, had got sentimentally hurt by watching these films. Today, the time has changed and we see the right wing bigotry on the rise. This has also necessitated the Dalit uprising all over the country. Hence, a Sankaracharya sculpture in front of a university can become a point of debate. But the debate should have some space for the voices of the artist. The irony is that the same left parties who opposed the right wing forces for seeing religious figures in the works of M.F.Husain are now seeing religious meanings in a creative sculpture done by a group of academically qualified sculptors with clear left wing politics. The counter actions of the right wing parties to protect the interests of the sculpture (thereby sculptors too) have hijacked the issue to their side forcing the ‘progressive left parties’ into defence. Till now they have been behaving exactly like the right wing forces baying for the blood of independent artists.

“Unfortunately, the agitators are not seeing us as artists and academics,” says a dejected Jyotilal. “For them academic practice means reading and writing. Sculpting or making a work of art is not an academic work for them. They think that we are workers who execute others’ plans. It is unfortunate,” Jyotilal continues. When the University authorities asked the sculpture department to take up the job, it came forward thinking that it was an opportunity even for the students to do a large scale sculpture whose theme would give them a lot of scope for artistic interpretations. But the left parties somehow have misread it. They projected certain internal fears saying that once the ‘idol’ is installed, the right wing parties would come to do the ‘worship’ and they would eventually turn the university into a temple. Right wingers are capable of doing it. But now, they have become the protectors of a sculpture by default. The agitators could have ‘protected’ the secular nature of the sculpture exactly the way they had done in Trissur Kerala Varma College. 

(Mahatma Gandhi by Ramkinkar Baij and students of Santiniketan)

Ram Kinkar Baij made Gandhi sculpture and his students decided to make it into a monumental concrete sculpture, which they did. The sculpture is still in the Santiniketan campus. When it was installed, the Naxalites of the time did not like it. They wanted to destroy it using crude bombs. After a few failed attempts they left it there. But Baij conveyed to them that he would be happy to make a Mao the way they wanted provided they met the expenses. He said that it was just a sculpture and they should just leave it alone. May be in the case of Sankaracharya sculpture in Kaladi too, the leftists should take a Baij-ian approach; just think about it as a Sankaracharya sculpture and if they need an EMS sculpture next to it, they should commission the artists to make it and obtain permission from the university authorities. Still, if some people come and start lighting lamps and conducting pooja, don’t we have a government there? Haven’t we learned a lot from Nilakkal and Babri Masjid?