Friday, November 25, 2016

Love’s Labour’s Gained: Incubating Love by Pradeep Mishra at VT Station

(Pradeep Mishra with his Incubating Love at the VT Station Mumbai)

All over the world, railway platforms (like street corners) are the places where people entertain their senses with interesting art, music, dance and magic. Unlike in the west Indian railway platforms are uncontrollably crowded and people hardly get time to ‘stand and stare’ as the worries of catching a training and finding a place in it haunt them the moment they embark even a journey to the railway stations. These days, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation takes an initiative to ‘decorate’ the stations with some works of art. This is being emulated in other cities where the rapid rail system is introduced, as in the case of Jaipur, Mumbai and Bangalore. While the major airports in India have done away with the usual kitsch of touristic symbols and replaced them with some commendable works of art (but questionable in several other cases), the railway stations in India either subscribe to the idea of ‘decoration’ or filling the spaces with the so called ‘traditional art’. There had been attempt to put some works of art in the New Delhi Railway Station in 1990s but despite having some of the works of art placed there, it had failed miserably in getting people’s attention.

(Incubating Love by Pradeep Mishra)

If permanent works of art wouldn’t gain the required public engagement in the Indian railway platforms, could temporal art forms catch the eye of the people? An experiment recently done in the 8th platform of Mumbai Victoria Terminus Railway Station, in a project titled ‘Bori Bunder@ Platform Eight’ seems to be have attracted people from different walks of life, especially towards a project titled ‘Incubating Love’ by one of the young and silent contemporary artists, Pradeep L Mishra. In a space like a railway platform where people are in transit even on a regular basis, visual articles appear as a part of the milieu and in due course of time they become the part of the consciousness. Hence, the clock piece, the warning signals, the weighing machines, the sandwich shops, the tapping of the shoe shines etc become a part of the visual subconscious of the people. However, it is strange that the architectural and artistic beauty of the station itself or even the sculptural and relief art forms incorporated with the original architecture of the station building become astonishingly new and fresh only when they are shown to the people in their entirety from a distance. This means that a sort of distance from the original space is required to understand the works of art on a daily basis especially for the commuters whose minds are preoccupied in various ways.

(People with Incubating Love)

This poses two interesting issues regarding the works of art placed in a busy railway station: One, there could be any number of works of art but they do not thrust an individualistic impact on the commuters but they would generally create a visual subconscious and it could proved by taking a work of art from its place in a railway station for a few days, and definitely people would start missing that ‘something’ there though in the long run people would forget it (they would be happy if it is brought back). Two, if the same works of art are documented or photographed by the mainstream media and show it to people quite regularly then they would start recognizing its symbolic worth at least pertaining to the station. That’s why to establish Mumbai, the movies either start with a pan shot of the luxurious Marine Drive, if it is to give a general idea about the city, or with the Gate Way of India, if the story has something to do with the general history of Mumbai, or even the famous VT Railway station’s facade, if the protagonist happens to come by a train, or the sprawling airport of Mumbai. These visual symbols popularised by the mainstream movies, television and journals, make any new comer to the city to pose before the said monuments and click a photograph, subconsciously realizing their cultural and symbolic relevance.

 (Incubating Love at the Platform)

So long as such symbolism is not pumped into the minds of the people, even if our authorities place a lot of works of art in the busy railway stations like VT or Church Gate or New/Old Delhi Railway stations there would not be any required cultural impact. One more thing I need to say here; to ‘see’ a work of art one needs a ‘distance’ which could be either physical or virtual. This distance is created by a sort of spatial control (of presenting and viewing). The space controls the idea of ‘seeing’ or in other words we could say, what we see is proportionate to the control imposed by the space in which we witness the object/work of art. A work of art scene in a trade fair, art fair, gallery, museum, railway station and in a photograph is seen differently even if the same work of art. This is the kind of control and distance that I have mentioned. Here the physical control becomes the virtual distance or the virtual control (as in the case of a photograph) becomes the physical distance. That means, a work of art, however impactful it would be in the beginning, when it is placed in a busy railway platform, it loses its aesthetical value and becomes one of those props that create the general visuality of the platform. That does not mean that one should not place a work of art in a busy platform but I emphasise the need for making constant virtual or physical distance with it so that people could see it in its entirety and understand its cultural value.

(Pradeep Mishra with his work)

However, that is not the case of a temporal work of art, especially when it involves a sort of interaction (in its minimum, just passive looking and in its maximum, helping the artist out to move around the work) by the people who look at it. Pradeep Mishra’s temporal work titled ‘Incubating Love’ is one such work. Pradeep takes a trolley which is used for hauling parcels of different kinds, a bit coarsely, and covers a square wooden crate with jute cloth, exactly the way the parcels are covered and places a trough with fishes and a water lily plant. Surrounding it are beakers covered with jute clothes and jutting out of those beakers are the red roses. The artist hauls the trolley along the 8th Platform, which I understand as one of the less crowded platforms and is mostly used for filling the wagons with parcels. Besides, it must be opening to the Bori Bunder side, less crowded and is busier with transportation of goods. Whatever be the case, when Pradeep pulls it around and keeps at some spots, curious onlookers come, talk to the artist and even clicks the picture. Speaking to the artist becomes a mode of understanding the work of art, for those people who sees the strangeness of the load that the artist who definitely does not look like a labourer hauls around.

(Labour Love, painting by Pradeep Mishra)

The words love and labour are strangely connected in different contexts. Shakespeare said, love’s labours lost; the failure to gain love even after trying very hard. Love is laborious, in most of the cases till the beloved falls for the guiles of the lovers. Love has the pain of the labour and once it is gained it is satisfying as labour would pay for the labourer. Like a labourer has only labour to share, a lover has only love to share. Love ends up in the labour in the labour room, if the love is consummated without protection. I do not know whether Pradeep has gone from the high seriousness of philosophies that connect labour and love to the frivolous meanings that I have been jotting down. However, I understand that Pradeep, as a serious artist connects love and labour in a philosophical fashion and says that only labour means hard work could sustain love and beauty in the world. He also says that the labour is as dear as love and the labourers should be loved and cared for. By brining the tender-est of nature’s products, like flowers to a rough trolley to a loading platform where goods are handled coarsely, Pradeep brings in the contradictions of life. Even if the labourers are doing their works coarsely, their love for life is as tender as the flowers and their life is natural and we need to infuse nature back into our lives. A painting titled ‘Labour Love’ that Pradeep has done along with this work, shows the silhouette of a group of work men trying to lift up a huge parcel, which interestingly is as light as cloud or a foam or cotton. The work done with charcoal on jute clothe is interesting because I would like to read it out as the labourers attempt to touch the cloud of salvation and sublimation though their labour.

(People and Pradeep Mishra's Incubating Love)

Pradeep Mishra has been a very sensitive artist for the last one decade. His paintings filled with iconic animal imagery come from his innate love for the nature’s beings. As a true nature lover, he has done process art works in different platforms including the Khoj International in Delhi, where he has sprouted seeds and flowers on the mud beds. Last year, almost in the same year, Pradeep did another public art project with a social group in the Bandra, at the Jogger’s track, where he depicted a whale with sand washed ashore by the waves. He titled it ‘Mother Land’ (more here: Negotiating the public spaces with works that would touch the hearts of the people is more important than creating spectacular works in the middle of the cities and giving opportunities to make selfies by one and all. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The Failure of Curatorial Thematic and the Contextual Works of Art

(Mrinalini Mukherjee's work in a curated show- for representational purpose only)

Of late I have been thinking a lot about the contradictions involved in the thematic curatorial projects. When a curator plans out a road map for a thematic curatorial project, he/she considers a series of factors, right from accommodating the funder/gallery’s interest in it to the possible ideas pertaining to thematic of the project that the artists could conjure up. The curator approaches a set of artists with a theme mainly for three reasons; First one is the ideal case, that the curator knows that the artist whom he is approaching has been doing the kind of works that could fit into the thematic frame work of the project. Second reason is more practical, that the curator knows that these are the artists who are the properties of the season and roping them in would help the project to get a good visibility and economic mileage. The third and final reason is more authoritative from the curator’s part that as he knows that the artists would respond to his curatorial call. I find all these three are a bit haphazard as far as the very idea of art creation goes.

Before going into the matter further, let me confess that I have done all these three types and perhaps still continuing to do so due to various circumstantial and professional reasons, however, I feel it is pertinent to discuss it here in order to give a different direction to the young curators who would dare to think differently than what has been hailed as curatorial practice not only in the gallery/funding circuit but also in the so called biennale and art fair circuits. It is even a curious factor that none has even asked once why there should be curatorial filtering in the case of art fairs because fairs are basically business platforms where those who could afford to hire a stall should be given an opportunity to exhibit their wares. There comes the class consciousness then; most of the art fairs and biennales work on a class/caste based ideology and prevent the so called low art from being exhibited in their platforms mainly because they want to cater to the ‘taste’ of the upper and affluent classes/castes. The generic argument that the art fair curators often place before the galleries and artists apply for a space is all about maintaining ‘quality’. That means, whatever we see in the art fairs are the kind of ‘quality’ works of art and we are supposed to believe in it.

(for representational purpose only)

Talking about artistic creativity, it is unbounded by any curatorial or social themes. It happens spontaneously based on the creative inclinations of the artist, which however does not rule out his/her interest in the socio-political and economic issues of the country or the world. I would not subscribe the fact that art is a spiritual activity as understood generally by the art people. While creativity cannot be tailor made, contemporary times have made most of the young generation of artists to accept the curatorial interventions as a natural phenomenon in the art field therefore they find there is no problem in succumbing to the curatorial pressures, which is not a bad news for the curators. With an art scene where anyone who puts together an exhibition claims the status of a curator, in certain ways artists could circumvent the curatorial diktats because the curators themselves do not understand what the artists are doing for the exhibition that they are ‘curating’. But that is not the case of the curators who in fact directs the artists to come up with something that would go with their curatorial themes.

If artists are ready to work with the curatorial themes or in other words, if artists show their willingness to respond to the given curatorial thematic, despite showing their creative skills and sparks, wouldn’t it be reduced to a sort of experimentation or in the worst case, an assignment? If such a question is raised to the artists, most of them would say, why shouldn’t they give it a try as it is an opportunity to do something different, in a different medium, in a different context, perhaps in a different country? When artists think in that fashion there is no problem but the issue that comes up their is whether we should see that as a work of art or a work of art in process, or a work of art which is an outcome of a contextual experimentation or even a work of art which loses its relevance once the given context and theme are removed from it. These days, when there is no other argument to support their works, most of the artists say that it is created in a particular space, responding to a particular curatorial theme and perhaps they are not going to continue with similar works or they would enter into a kind of experimental mode only when they are given such a context elsewhere.

(Black Water Vortex by Anish Kapoor)

When artists do such kind of art practice, we could call the outcome as ‘response art’. Response art is such kind of a work of art done by an artist responding to the given curatorial theme, given space where the work is created and within the given temporal experience though the artist would make use of his/her hard earned technical skills there in the implementation of it. However I should add here that ‘response art’ is not ‘responsible art’, nor is it a sort of art that has larger socio-cultural or economic validity due to its responding nature. When the curatorial thematic is taken away from the final outcome, when the physical context is removed and also the circumstances that triggered the artist to make such a work of art is removed from the work, then what does one have there to look at? A simple experiment would prove it. Let us take any ‘site specific’, ‘experimental’ work of art that we see in the biennales and other avenues; at times even in the galleries. And try to see them in a different location and context, with absolutely different material and intellectual conditions? Would the work generate the same effect? If Anish Kapoor’s Biennale work (2014) is removed from there and put it in a washing machine showroom without mentioning the name of the artist, will it create the same effect as it had created in the KMB? Just think about another work of art, a painting or a sculpture in the gallery and then in a washing machine showroom. Find the answer for yourself.

I do not intend to say that all the thematic curatorial practices should end. Nor do I say that the artists should not respond to the curatorial themes. But I would like to see how artists could make their works of art so naturally without any compulsion including the economic pressures. In that case, if the curators are making thematic ideas for a project, they could approach the right kind of artists and choose the works from their studios. Unfortunately, such efforts are neither undertaken by the curators nor funds are given to them to do so by the galleries. When such an ideal curatorial practice come into being, we would have a variety of curators who involve in their studies and come up with ideas that are relevant not only to the times and galleries but also to themselves. Now what happens with curatorial practice, especially done by the young and mid career curators is quite ironical: They look around and find who are all the happening artists and whose works are highly demanded in the market. And they make a curatorial thematic so that they could invite/accommodate these artists in the project. When it comes to the young artists who think themselves as radicals (I wish all of them were thinking radically these days), they put a great effort to find some radical practices and try to create a thematic around it; that’s why we have curatorial themes with the words ‘political’ and ‘experimental’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘universal trope’ and so on coming up quite often.

(for representational purpose only)

It is quite unfortunate to see that most of our curators have either become part of the establishment or have created their own establishments. The rest of the new lot are desperately trying to be a part of the establishment. Nobody can create a work of art within the establishments; that is a truth. After creating one’s works of art, one could enter into the system for its further life. It is almost like you inside your bedroom and you in the street. Inside the bedroom, you are not answerable to your dreams but in the street you need to negotiate with the system. Similarly, curators can dream up anything in their minds but they also need to negotiate with the system once they come out in the streets. But the whole idea is to negotiate the system not with the system. Here negotiation means avoiding the slaps that the system would give you on your face when you go with your curatorial dreams; but the moment you negotiate with the system, at each level you need to compromise or re-adjust yourself. That’s why most of the curatorial projects fail to make an impression in the minds of the people once the show is done. The best way is to discard the whole idea of curating and to find a different way to put together shows. If not assume a clinical academic position and do not make any radical claims because a curatorial thematic cannot make any dent in the current culture. The best way is to let the artists and curators work differently and let the curators do a lot of hard work to find out the artists doing works that would reflect their curatorial ideas. Let the artists stop responding to the curators’ ideas; let them learn to make their art as they breath, naturally.

To create such a situation, one has to imagine such a situation. That needs a lot of courage; perhaps, leaving the art scene altogether for some time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Coelho’s Mata Hari and Our Kuriedathu Tathri

(Margaretha Gertrude Zella aka Mata Hari)

It took me three hours to finish reading the novel, ‘The Spy’, the latest from Paulo Coelho’s pen (yes, pen, do not go for the other meanings of the word). Not really a page turner but the 180 pages work of fiction based on the true story of Mata Hari, the spy woman who was executed on 14th October 1916, within just two years since Europe went into the First World War, is a sympathetic retake on a woman’s life. Marguerite Gertrude Zelle aka Mata Hari was a Dutch woman who sought her freedom and became a double agent for the warring Germany and France. Mata Hari became famous as a dancer and seductress in the high circles of Paris, which gave her a passport to the state secrets, as alleged by her inquisitors.

The novel is short and crisp and while reading one feels that Mata Hari is a much wronged woman by a society governed and led by the patriarchal values. Margaretha (a spelling used in the novel) was a woman ahead of her times; perhaps that quality of her came from the fact that unlike many other women of her time, she did not want to live an oppressed life, initially by the parents, then by the school and eventually by a husband and family. However, young Margaretha was confused about her own self, like many other female protagonists in Coelho’s novels. Like other protagonists, she too aspired for a good life. Her body was violated by the principal of her school, when she was just sixteen years old. Since then, for Margaretha sex became a painful and abominable thing but she realized later in life that she could return it in favour of the luxuries that she received from the rich and powerful.

(The Book cover)

Margaretha marries an army man and goes to Java as her husband is deputed there. There the philandering army men make their wives mere witnesses to their womanizing, almost crushing their subjectivities as individuals. The wife of one major Andreas, having insulted by her husband as he flirts openly with a Javanese dancer, takes out her pistol and shoots herself. She dies in the hands of Margaretha and the look in the eyes of the dying lady, suddenly ‘enlightens’ her and she decides to leave Java and go back to Holland. Margeratha now knows what life means to her; she wants her freedom. She also knows she could use her body to gain access to anywhere she wants and she migrates to Paris by flirting with a French officer. She chooses a life of a dancer by pretending herself to be an exotic dancer from the east and adopts a name, Mata Hari.

Mata Hari, in her exotic dance, removes her clothes one by one and in the process she realises that she absolutely comfortable with her body. She is now the much written about cultural personality of Paris and everyone wants to be with her and of course to sleep with her. In one of the episodes we also see how a young artist of that time namely, Pablo Picasso trying to flirt with her and as she understands, to ‘bed’ her. But she likes an Italian artist present there, Modigliani and he treats her with due dignity. She goes through a series of bedrooms of the rich and powerful and suddenly is ceased by the fear of getting old. She gets an invitation to perform in Berlin and by the time she is on her first platform there, the war between Germany and France starts. Now Margaretha has to leave the country. In Hague, she decides to become a German spy and once back in Paris she agrees to be a double agent by becoming a French Spy. The intrigues finally lead her to the prison and all those high ranking men who have slept with her disown her. Finally, she is executed by the firing squad not because there were evidences against her but her acquittal would have left many men with grease on their faces.

(Author Paulo Coelho)

The novel tells us something emphatically: Freedom and love are to be hailed. It also tells us that Mata Hari was not a spy but used her ability to glide through the affluent circles to share gossips because for her political intrigue was a strange thing. She wanted to live her life without heeding to the morality imposed by the male world, which hypocritically tried to sneak into her bed whenever it got a chance. While millions of European women silently suffered the disgrace imposed on them, Mata Hari decided to live her life. She always kept the seeds of Tulip that her dying mother had given to her. Tulip seeds would become tulip flowers wherever they are, they cannot be anything else. Mata Hari was to be a daring woman and she could not have been anything else.

Technically speaking, the Spy is an epistolary novel; it is comprised of two long letters written by Mata Hari from the Saint-Lazare prison, addressing her defend advocate Maitre Cluent and the letter written by Cluent explaining his angst in not being able to save her from the firing squad, without knowing that Mata Hari was writing a letter to him, which is to be handed over to her estranged daughter. The narrative technique is familiar as in the other novels of Coelho. A sinning or sinned woman as the central character and the author pitches in to say (through his narrative) that she is not a sinner but our perspective is what making her a sinner. Mata Hari stands closer to Maria of his early novel ‘Eleven Minutes’. Maria too is a woman who pawns her body to earn a good life and goes through tremendous physical and mental tortures to realize her own self/worth.

(The Trial of Kuriedathu Tathri in artist Namboothiri's imagination)

While reading this novel, somehow I was constantly reminded of Kuriedathu Tathri, a Malayali Brahmin woman, almost a contemporary to Mata Hari but less known outside Kerala. Kuriedathu Tathri was violated by a middle aged Brahmin, when she was hardly ten years old. Then she was forced to marry the rapist’s younger brother. Then the brothers together ‘presented’ her to many men. In the meanwhile, Tathri too used her body to assert her right. She became a problem for the Brahmin community and was made to go through a trial which was called ‘Smartha Vicharam’. In the trial conducted in 1905, Tathri revealed the all the sixty six men who had sex with her for almost fourteen years. Instead of punishing those men, the society was successful in excommunicating her. Mata Hari is a successor of Tathri.

Paulo Coelho has been a delightful read till her wrote his last novel, ‘Adultry’ which was published internationally in many languages simultaneously. It was a disaster. The right mix of spiritual pilgrimage to alleviate oneself from the apparent sins and ample amount of sex has been the attraction of Coelho’s works so far. His early novels, Alchemist, Zahir, the Warrior Light and so on stand apart because of their pure spiritual quest. The sex and sexuality that Coelho uses in his later novels have become very predictable these days. Had it not been Mata Hari’s life, this novel would not have been much of an interest for the reader. Though full of quotable quotes on life, freedom and love, and above all on domestic and platonic relationships, the novel seems to be a rushed one without really imparting any literary pleasure pertaining to structure or narrative. The subdued, calm and whispering tone of Coelho could be heard throughout the novel, which is detrimental to a literary narrative. I believe, Coelho should attempt non-fiction now. For an Indian reader with some spiritual introduction to the Hindu/Indian philosophical diversities, Coelho’s takes on humanity, love and freedom look very text bookish, even if it is quite exciting for the Euro-American readers who are too materialistic to be spiritual or need additional environments to feel spirituality. I think the popularity of Coelho in India shows nothing but our growing interest in materialism and the growing gap from the spiritual foundations of (Indian) life. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

V V Vinu's 'Noon Rest' and the Trap of Biennales

(V V Vinu's 'Noon Rest at Shanghai Biennale)

Biennales and art fairs are neutralizing agents of the acerbic and acidic cultural critique generated by the visual, audio and textual forms of art. Though most of the biennales and art fairs claim that they present the most innovative and critical works of art as a part of their biennial stock taking and provide some sort of aesthetical direction to the international art scene, apart from giving a few tips to the trendy international art collectors to hobnob with the celebrity artists, super powers of art galleries and dealers in the politically undisturbed cool climes of the state of the art pavilions in the most exquisite cities with some historical past and good cuisine culture, they fundamentally de-edge the critical nature of the works of art and domesticate them for their purpose. Let migration, disposession, mass exodus, autocracy, political oppression, poverty, religion, caste, genocide, rape, child abuse and anything be the point of departure for a work of art, the moment when it is brought into the biennale or art fair circuit, experience shows that it loses it edge, of course in the process making the artist a household name and the work of art a familiar aesthetical form at least within the closed communities.

(V V Vinu aka Vinu Vadakedath)

Vinu V.V, a Kerala based artist is now in news because his work, ‘Noon Rest’ (Uccha vishramam) is in the 11th Shanghai Biennale which opened on 16th November 2016. Ever since the opening of the Biennale, Vinu is a much talked about artist in the art circles. In fact this work was exhibited in a small gallery in Kochi and its fame was contained within Kochi though there had been newspaper articles and online discussion about the show; still the artist was not discussed the way he is discussed today. This shows two facts about our art scene; whatever be the strength of the artist and the works of art that he produces, the effect of it will be limited and contained until he is taken to a national or international platform. Period. It also tells us that in the international platform the work of art and the artist to certain extent transcend their initial position and become much milder than what they are originally meant to be. For instance, the title of the work, ‘Noon Rest’ could be dubbed bad English in its original position as the artist had translated the Malayalam title (Malayalam thinking) Uccha Vishramam into word by word translation as ‘Noon Rest’. While the word Siesta was available to him, it was Vinu’s original position to treat it as basic and rustic as possible which the cultural scene of Kerala that celebrates its own Biennale, thereby curtailing the possibilities of reaching out within the given cultural scene. However, when it goes into an international platform, the very title becomes exotic and too loaded to resist its charm. How does it happen?

(a painting by V V Vinu)

The artist, a fine arts graduate in sculpture from the RLV College of Fine Arts, Thrippoonithura, does not shy away from the fact that he belongs to a Dalit family and the inspirations for his works generally come from his own autobiographical contexts and backgrounds. Being a Dalit or belonging to a Dalithood is stronger than Dalit positioning and posturing because of the proximity of the Dalit to discrimination and deprivation of various kinds. Vinu, in a few artistic statements has reiterated that he is inspired by Ayyankali, an early 20th century Dalit activist, scholar and reformer and he details how he had exhorted the agricultural workers who belonged to the Dalit groups to come together to drop their farming tools as a protest against the social injustice of not allowing the Dalit students enter school premises. Dalit discourse however is not a monolith but unlike other subaltern discourses, there could be a monolithic core for all the Dalit experiences for the very idea of Dalit itself is about being discriminated, dispossessed and vandalized. Vinu’s work does not come from the Ayyankali episode directly but it refers to the ‘tools down’ strike in a different fashion.

(When V V Vinu was featured in a prominent Malayalam Magazine)

‘Noon Rest’ is a symbolic revisiting of a particular aspect of the labour/slavery suffered by the Dalits who belonged to the feudal lords or lived as farmers in the leased out lands. In both these cases the Dalits had only one possession in their hands; their labour power. Even their bodies were identified with this aspect of labour. Noon time is the only occasion when these Dalit workers rested their bodies for a few minutes after sticking their sickles on the nearest trees. The placing of those tools happened automatically or naturally that they did not attribute any particular value to that act of ‘resting’ their tool in that way. Interestingly, as an insider what Vinu sees here in that act is the displaced metaphor of rest not only of bodies but also of their social role as farmland slaves. I would further say that those were the only times when they separated labour from their bodies. That means a resting body is not a labouring body therefore free from its slavery even though temporarily. Those were the only moments when the Dalit farmers reclaimed their bodies as social subjects perhaps subconsciously. Hence, Vinu’s accentuation is on this social subjectivity of the farm slaves in a displaced metaphor of their resting tools.

(Speaking Stones by N.N.Rimzon)

There could be a huge hiatus between the artistic intention and the readerly reception of a work of art when it is exhibited in a context which is far removed from the real context of its origin. One cannot insist that a work of art could be exhibited only in its contexts of origin or where the contexts of origin are understood in the right sense. If that is the case we cannot exhibit any work other than the studio of the artist. While that being the case, there is a danger of the work of art losing its intention/meaning and becoming something else in the readerly/viewerly efforts. When the Dalit discourse or experiences that had given birth to the work is taken away from it or misunderstood or understood academically within a sanitized zone, the work of art becomes a formal exercise which gives birth to an interesting form, especially a rural one, coming from India, from south India, from Kerala, from Kochi/Trivandrum, from a field, from a Dalit artist. By the time a work of art like ‘Noon Rest’ is understood in this fashion or as an exotic form, the rest of the discourse is nullified or become an academic context of the work of art which would give it some sort of history, which in turn would help the buyers, future collectors, auction houses or museums to place their provenance and description.

(Divine Death by Ratheesh T)

What I have said in those many words could be summarised into one word, which is ‘co-optation’. When the Dalit ideas are co-opted in the mainstream platforms they lose their resistive edge not because they do not have to become mainstream but because it is prematurely brought into the mainstream without a critical or cultural context to find allegiance with (other works of art). I do not intend to say that Vinu’s inclusion in the Shanghai Biennale is a wrong thing nor do I say that it would make Vinu dissociate from his Dalit ideas in future. But the danger that I perceive is a different sort. The mainstream world is always in the ‘look out’ for something ‘different’; what it wants is not a different ideology but a form, a hollow form where the mainstream could fill in its ideology including that of the market economy. As I mentioned before, Vinu’s Dalit idea infused in the work of art would become a supportive material for the transactions of it in the market rather than it becoming a point of departure for many Dalit related aesthetical discourses to start. Once Vinu is co-opted by the mainstream Biennale circuit more and more opportunities would come for him and this would make him dig into his Dalit past and present and find raw materials and narratives to create his works. In this process, he would slowly exclude the community and its ideological issues from which he works because the international art circuits are the places, as I have mentioned at the outset, where ideologies are neutralized for the purpose of the market.

(Sunilal with his paintings)

Vinu today is selected in the Shanghai Biennale for the ‘difference’ that his work has generated in its form. And the narrative structure that he has to support it is quite appealing among the international art communities because they all know the histories and narratives of different kinds of discrimination and deprivation. Hence, it is not difficult to treat the Dalit issue as expressed by/in Vinu’s work as an international one cutting across the borders. However, this early catch is going to be detrimental for Vinu develop as a worthy reckoning artist not only in India but also in the international art scene. The reason for this are two folded; first of all it is a one off work of Vinu (though he has other works) whose aesthetics is still in the formative stage. Secondly, had it been after a few years with a solid body of works that made Vinu an important artist in the Dalit visual discourse primarily in Kerala and then elsewhere, his inclusion in the Biennale would have created a much bigger impact. Now I would say what is going to happen; there is will be a scrambling for Vinu’s works from different quarters and if he does not have the will power to say No, he would be making work on order. Money is a huge temptation and most of our artists have succumbed to it and I do not think Vinu is an exception for he is human. Coming to the Indian galleries, they are all going to hunt for his works and there is not a single gallery in India which is not Brahminical and absorbing Vinu into their schemes would finish him as an artist.

(A drawing by Savi Savarkar)

Shanghai Biennale or not, Vinu as the first Kerala artist to participate in it or not, it is important see the fact that Vinu is not the first artist who has expressed Dalit issues with such aesthetical finesse from Kerala. Though, N N Rimzon has not openly made statements about his close allegiance to the Dalit ideologies or the Dalit discourses in the socio-political fronts, he has invariably made it clear that his works are about the Dalit discourses with a Dalit sensibility (I am not taking his personal belongingness to a Dalit community into consideration here) and many of his works including the ‘Dalit Gestures’ (Adiyalarude Samjakal), ‘Speaking Stones’, 'Far away from 108 feet' and the innumerable drawings that show a hamlet in castaway space which is liminal between the fields of production and the avenues of consumption. Only a proper retrospective of Rimzon could bring out this aspect of his works. Had he been included in the Shanghai Biennale for the ‘Dalit’ subject, then it would have been much more perceptive from the curators’ side. We also have Ratheesh T and Sunil Lal, who have been dealing with the Dalit subjects in more conventional painterly forms. Their Dalit-ness was not highlighted in India even by their galleries because the Brahminical structures prevail in our country. Only Savi Savrakar in Delhi has openly made his Dalit ideology not only in his personal statements but also in his works. For this reason Savarkar has been hugely discriminated and still he does not have any private gallery shows nor is included in major curatorial projects. When curators become middlemen of art trends, they too catch artists young because they could finish them off in one go. 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Indian Art Galleries Finished the Idea of Visiting a Gallery

(Lado Sarai Gallery street in South Delhi, photo by Gireesh GV)

Could the art galleries gain their audience back, especially in the times of demonetisation? Galleries have been going through a bad patch in India for the last five years, with several of them shutting down, a few of them minimizing their activities either by relocating to exclusive places or smaller spaces, some of them remerging only during the art fairs or Biennales and yet another lot existing only in their online portals. Only a very few galleries could remain where they have been and still hold on to their past glory if not by attracting sales but at least by putting up shows. The grand openings, lavish parties, elaborate catalogues and artists travelling en masse to other cities to attend a fellow artist’s exhibition opening etc have become a thing of past and veritable album materials to reminisce in the evening of life. Except for the openings, the foot fall in the galleries have come considerably down (and in some places almost nil) and if at all somebody goes into a gallery, it is either for a friendly visit or some consultancy (I do not know whether galleries are making any sales these days because most of the artists are willing to sell out of the gallery waiving off the commission part and also reducing the prices to fit the budget of the buyer who comes with a pre-knowledge that it is a buyer’s market).

I am not concerned much about the relationship between the galleries and the artists in this article because it could always fluctuate depending on the kind of deals that they strike mutually. There have been complaints from the artists immediately after the market crash in 2008/09 regarding the dropping of them from the gallery artists’ list like hot potatoes. We all know that the demotion from being a hot cake to a hot potato is not only quite demeaning but also depressing. The fluctuations in their relationships were caused mainly by mutual unethical practices. First of all the artists started believing that the galleries were there for ethical business and the sole aim of the galleries was not to make profit but to promote art seriously and sincerely as they used to claim. But the artists should have known that the gallerists were not really enlightened people with socialist and democratic mindset. Galleries are primarily capitalist outlets that stand for profit making. They treat art as another commodity to be sold in the market; the only difference is that art has a speculative value and could earn more as it gets vintage in the secondary as well as in the auction markets. I would say that despite many warnings from the art critics like me the artists fell head over heels for the deals offered by the galleries. I am not saying that all the artists did so.

(a gallery view; source net. representational purpose only)

Let us turn our attention to the audience who have now almost abandoned the idea of visiting art galleries. One would ask whether there was an idea like that before at all. Even if the gallery visiting people were not in huge numbers there was a time when people visited galleries after reading about the works of art displayed there. The word ‘private’ attached to the galleries is very important in understanding the dynamics of visiting a ‘gallery’. The colonial people who amassed wealth through exploitation and business also started collecting works of art from different parts of the world apart from commissioning individual artists in their own countries and elsewhere. These were kept in the cabinets of curios initially and were opened to the guests during parties thrown by the owner. With huge museums being set up by the empires and the enlightened emperors and later by the modern states, these artefacts were opened to people for admiring. The word gallery came from the palaces and the palaces that turned into museums where the display rooms were called galleries. With the capitalist market well in place and the profit flow steady, there arose a necessity for some avenues for the newly emerged wealthy class to look at some good artefacts. The modern galleries were set up in the late 19th century and in the early 20th century for catering to the buying class. That means, the very idea of gallery is embedded in an exclusive market. If museums were places where people could engage with the works of art as if they were facing divinity inside the churches, galleries were simply the places where the rich and affluent could face the art without disturbances of the vulgar public, and definitely with an idea of buying in mind.

If that was the case then it is pertinent to ask why galleries were opened to the public. That is where we find the ingrained crisis of all the business establishments. Though galleries were meant for a limited buying class, it became imperative for the gallery owners to claim a space in the cultural life of the place/city or the country from where they operated. They also understood the fact that so long as the works of art done in some private studios by unknown artists remain ‘exclusive’, their innate charm to influence more people would be left dormant, reducing their public/cultural value in a big way. That means the worth of a work of art increases as it becomes more popular through public exposition through various mediums. The magnetic power of a work of art and the creator of it became stronger with more and more people looking at them and talking about them. That means the audience with or without buying power became an integral part of the gallery practice. While both the buying class and the gallery owner class detested the presence of the vulgus populus in their premises, it became a necessary evil to promote the ulterior ends of art business. Whether the people walk into a gallery really enjoy or not, their presence makes a lot of difference to the art business. But the mindset of the galleries about the people is that they are all free loaders looking for an evening among the artists with a lot of free food, drinks and talks.

(a gallery view, source net, representational purpose only)

Even if the gallerists in India would dispute my views on their treatment of the audience, historically speaking the common visitors are not always expected in the galleries. That’s why we have ‘press openings’, ‘VIP Openings’ (in a democratic country!), ‘public openings’, ‘visit by appointment’, ‘price on request’ and so on printed on the invitation cards ,websites, emails and so on. During the boom years, whether one likes it or not, art dos became an extremely private affair of exclusive communities of artists, art lovers, critics, historians, curators, buyers, dealers, middlemen, consultants, journalists, celebrities and so on where none from outside was expected. After the opening day, in fact though the galleries kept their doors open for the public during the day, they seriously did not expect the public to walk in. Some of the gallerists, drunken by profit started openly telling that they did not expect the public at all in the galleries. One of the biggest art fairs in India, the India Art Fair, openly said that it was not for the public but it was just a platform that provided business meetings for the exclusive people. The public hours were in fact charity hours (with a ticket and begged on passes) for the public which was openly made to feel that it was not expected there. All the other claims regarding footfall made by the organizers are just building up of the charisma of the events and the artefacts displayed in there.

Turning art galleries into private viewing rooms and refusing to switch on lights for the random visitors  in the odd hours, and a total disparage shown towards them by the executives present there have caused a slow but steady erosion of people from the idea of gallery visiting. None would prefer to get insulted in a gallery only because they wanted to see some art. There was a time where the Indian galleries in their crass imitation of the western galleries (that are tax paying galleries with a commitment to the local governments and the art funds of those countries) started claiming that their projects were meant for public communities and local community participations. But my experience have proved that no community living in and around of the private galleries (hardly ‘communities’ live there because most of the galleries are in the upmarket places) ever venture into a gallery to know what is going on in there. The reason is that the vibes that they art programs give out are exclusivist, capable enough to repel the humble people around the galleries. Today, with or without a lot of money flowing into the market, if people have abandoned the galleries then the onus should be on the galleries themselves. So long as people do not know about what is being projected as the visual culture of our country, such works of art are not going to be a part of the collective memory of our country. Such works of art not seen by people even after getting exhibited in the galleries would face the same fate of those works of art made and sold to the collectors and buyers to cater to an excessive demand during the boom years. They will remain incognito for many years and in the meanwhile if the artist loses his fame and relevance in the art scene, those works of art would become absolutely dead ones, liable to be scrapped in the junk market.

(a gallery view, source net, representational purpose only)

It is high time that the Indian galleries change their strategies. Those galleries that are still active should reconsider how their shows should be presented, also they should think about the way of attracting the common people to their galleries. Today, Indian artists are not considered worthy to make a social comment because they are not contributing much to the socio-cultural and political life of our country. When an issue happens they are never asked for an opinion because even if they have earned money during the boom years they are not considered worthy of having an opinion. This has happened because the galleries have not made any effort to get people into the general art discourse of our country. So long as people respect works of art and the artists who make it, nobody is going to give any value to an artist. The efforts to get art and artists closer to people should come from the galleries; it can never be done by pushing the guests into page threes because the people in general are not interested in page three. While they pluck out the shampoo samples stuck on the newspapers, they do not even look at the face of the model. People should be given something, if not in samples but in the forms of aesthetical enjoyment and friendly introductions to the works of art. For that one should have a welcoming attitude. One should also start treating a work of art as visual philosophy not mass produced wares arrayed in the supermarket. To begin with the galleries should respect works of art, artists, critics and art viewers whether they bring profit or not. If not, Indian galleries are going to face the doomsday because with demonetising, the buyer knows where to buy the works from and artists know where to sell their works. If that is the case, the galleries would become dispensable showrooms with naked walls, darkness and despair. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Demonetisation and the Survival of the Young Artists in India

(work by Banksy)

An artist friend from Baroda asks if the galleries would not help artists any more what could be the right course of action from now onwards especially in the present context where the demonetisation declared by the Government of India has almost rendered most of the private galleries that have been into cash transactions helpless. They all are busy these days to keep their houses in order and maintain their accounts books ready for any kind of inspection by the authorities, unannounced as expected now! The question that comes up here is this: were these galleries really helping the young artists at all? Most of the galleries would say, ‘yes’, but with a rider saying that they promote/support artists of their choice, a fact which none can dispute. Considering the negligible number of galleries compared to the number of artists in our country, no person with common sense could expect that these galleries could support all of them. That means, here is a foregone conclusion, artists are supposed to support themselves by doing whatever that could bring them money or conditions in which they could live a dignified life.

Poets, writers, dancers, filmmakers, photographers and many other people who specialize in their respective fields of fine arts do not practice their forms of art targeting a preconceived or prescribed patronage such as publishing houses, financiers, funders, platforms and so on. They all do practice their art forms because they are genuinely inclined to that art form. None of them stop practicing their art forms because there are no adequate avenues to express themselves. As human beings living in this society, within a system of economics, they too worry about the funding and other material conditions. However, I do not think that a poet or a writer is too worried about demonetisation and gets too anxious about his creative output. A dancer would not stop practicing because of demonetisation. May be those fine artists including film makers would worry about it because their productions need a lot of money and till yesterday all those productions were riding on black money. But what about those film makers who were making films using white money and keeping their accounts clean? That means the worry is only for those people who have been using black money or thriving in profit making.

‘Profit making’ is the catch phrase here. Any artist who is not looking for a profit does not have any reason to worry; with or without the market their creations could live on. When exactly did this idea of profit making come into the art scene? Let us forget those art forms that could be produced in multiples like cinema and are treated as business platforms. We have to ask here whether fine arts, importantly painting, sculpture, graphic arts and so on, are business avenues or not. If anyone considers it as a business platform then he has to worry about demonetisation or the possible absence of black money in it. Profit is possible only when the works of art are mass produced or produced in limited numbers but charged exorbitantly. Profit is also possible when competition is cut. It is only possible when someone’s labour is underpriced and someone’s management of the exploitation of that labour is overpriced. That means profit is possible only when there is an imbalance in the society which could amount to injustice in many cases. Art is not different from it if it is considered to be a business avenue. Our anxiety on demonetisation and the galleries withdrawing support to the artists come from the fact that we too want profit. The moment we want profit we become a part of the corruption. We may not want the corruption to happen but we are forced to be a part of it.

Is there any relationship between profit and profession? We always talk about professionalism or art as a profession. Going by our social experiences we have taken this for granted that if someone has done a professional course and is a practitioner of it, then he/she should be getting a better pay than the others. That means ‘profession’ gives you an edge over ‘jobs’; that also means that jobs could be done with minimum skills and profession could be done only with training and practice. But profit making and profession do not have any relationship between each other. If we see there is a relationship then that is because of our corrupt thinking. The word profession comes from the religious faiths where one has to go through a thorough training in religious practices and he has to publicly declare or take an oath of allegiance to the faith and assert that he would never corrupt or leave the dictums of the religion. As times passed, the word profession was adopted to other disciplines like medicine, science and so on. A true professional is a person who goes through a prolonged period of training and then a prolonged period of practice without wavering from the fundamental principles of his education. If so, do we have real professionals today? No is the answer because most of the people think that professionalism or adherence to a profession would give them profit.

Artists could make profit only when there are patrons. Whether he/she is a professional in art practice or not is immaterial here. Patrons are the people who support the artists in small and big numbers depending on their aesthetic inclinations and spending power. When the artists have patrons they could continue with their works. Even in the case of folk and tribal artists their art flourishes because they either get patronage from the village markets or the bigger markets elsewhere mediated by the middlemen or they get patronage from within the community. They are happy because they are not looking for a profit. That’s why we do not see folk and tribal artists as superstars like contemporary artists because the superstardom of the contemporary artists is not determined by their aesthetics but by the financial assets that they amass via selling their art. When patrons are absent at times the state pitches in to support the artists. But again in a large democracy like India it is impossible to expect equal patronage for all the artists from the government. Any attempt to equalize patronage by the state would end up in further corruptions.

Once again we have to ask some fundamental questions. If there are no patrons at all, will there be an erasure of artists from the face of the earth? Or if there are no patrons will the artists stop working at all? It is here we have to think about artist as a creative person. One could be a professional going by the meaning of the word; one has to have a prolonged training and then prolonged practice. But are they meant to bring profit for them? Definitely it cannot be expected. But can’t the practice bring them their livelihood? Rightfully it should be like that, but unfortunately one cannot always expect art to bring livelihood to the artists. If we look at the history of modern Indian art we could see all the doyens had worked in different situations yet remained themselves to be professional artists. For example, Raja Ravi Varma personally sought patronage from the royal families. Amrita Sherghil was rich from her family but still she sought patronage from the rich class. The Bengal school artists became teachers of their own rights and earned differently and practiced their art. Interestingly these artists including Nandlal Bose, BB Mukherjee, Ramkinkar Baij and so on were not really selling their works. They used to even give away the works to interested people because they earned their livelihood from their university or school jobs or even in the emerging advertising fields. The Progressives also earned their livelihood and some extra money from the benevolent patrons who collected works because they liked the works. They were not buying works for profit making in a future market.

This clearly shows that artists can seek patrons but not businessmen to deal with their works in the present scenario. And also all the artists cannot expect benevolent patrons for themselves. Collecting art for the sake of enjoyment is not based on any future profit so the services of art consultants and galleries would become obsolete because their choice would be that of the collectors. When I say this, I am not envisioning the possibility of the absolute removal of the galleries from the scene. Galleries would function the way they want in the post demonetisation era but they are not going to support all and sundry. When there wouldn’t be profit in unimaginable amounts there will be less number of people coming into the scene to do art business. Those who want to spend money on art would eventually go out and see the art for themselves. This is the crux of correction in the art market which is going to happen.

What are those artists who do not get either patrons or galleries to support them going to do in the coming days? The answer is already there. In the post boom years, the young artists have been diverting themselves into teaching and advertising and so on and making their livelihood. This is going to continue and it has to be a norm than an exception. Artists should practice art and they have to find out their livelihood from elsewhere if not they are not finding it from art itself. But what if you want to remain an artist only; here we take a word dusted out from the storage- the word struggle. Living a fulltime artist’s life is full of trials and tribulations and there are a lot of struggles, mental and materialistic. Only those people who are ready to go through it would do that until a benevolent patron comes into their lives. And history belongs to those artists who dare to be artists. But unlike in the written histories that have celebrated struggling as something very special, this struggle of the present days is not going to be so romantic as seen in the annals of history. Your struggle is not going to be celebrated by the society because the society is least bothered about you or your art. But it is your ability to make the society to turn its neck and look at you that makes you successful, not with your struggle but with your art. Nobody is going to be tolerating a struggling and troubling artist. Hence, keep your struggles within your studio, live with your head up and back erect with a lot of tenderness and love for the world in your heart and do your art. You are going to be noticed. If nobody does, time would. Do not lose faith in yourself and in your creativity.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Idea of Death in the Life of Someone Dying: When Paul Kalanithi’s Breath Becomes Air

(Paul Kalanithi and Lucy Kalanithi)

Somewhere in his book Paul Kalanithi writes about death, “Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I did not know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but that I did not know when.” He goes on to say that death is an acute awareness and it was not just a medical problem. “The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.” Paul Kalanithi died of lung cancer in March 2015 and he was just thirty five years old. His academic achievement is unprecedentedly unique; a BA and MA in English literature and a BA in Human Biology. Now let me quote from the black flap of the book that I am going to write about in this brief article: “He earned an M Phil in history and philosophy of science and medicine from the University of Cambridge and graduated cum laude from the Yale School of Medicine.....He returned to Stanford to complete his residency training in neurological surgery and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience, during which he received the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s highest award for research.”

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is Paul Kalannith’s autobiography and an absolute page turner. Even if the introduction of the book says that it is an incomplete work as Kalanithi passed away while writing it even when he was going through the debilitating chemotherapy, the book gives a complete picture of his life and most importantly of (everybody’s) death. Here is a young man who wants to become a writer but before that he wants to know how the human minds worked. So he goes on to pursue literature in the University and by the time he finishes this education he realises that he needs to know about human biology and history of it. From macro world to the micro world, his journey has been intense and by the time he reaches his destination of a high position in Stanford itself as the Scientist-Doctor, fate strikes him down differently. Kalanithi writes it down how.

 (The book cover)

This could be treated as a book of death, a philosophical work that intends to understand death in the mind of not only a man who is living but also in the process of dying. The opening statement of this article is very telling for all of us come with an expiry date but we do not know what the exact date is. As we go on celebrating our lives, getting into ego trips, quarrelling and posing, suddenly life gives an indication of that expiry date. In Paul Kalanithi’s case he gains a vision as he is diagnosed of cancer. He understands now that he is about to die, but still he does not know the expiry date. In such a situation, doctors would tell anyone to get into the stuff that you want to do all your life but have postponed for some reason. Doctors would also give a glimpse of your future; depending on the prognosis, you could live for six months, six years or six days even. If that is the case what would you choose as your dream pursuit?

It is difficult for a doctor, not an ordinary doctor but an Alpha scholar of Neuroscience. Paul Kalanithi knows what his illness is all about. He participates in his treatment as a doctor would do in the case of a patient; but being a doctor-patient is a difficult thing. Being a genius, he understands it all, perhaps more than what his doctor in charge knows about his illness. This knowledge gets him in conflict with his colleagues and personal doctor; one of them even tells him that had it not been him, they would have gone ahead with the treatment they had decided. When given a chance, Kalanithi decides to continue neurosurgery even when his physique was failing him. Then the final realization comes in. He is supposed to write down his life, and death too. He writes while his fingers, hands and shoulders go through acute pain. And in the meanwhile through artificial insemination he and his wife Lucy Kalanithi decide to become parents.

 (Paul and Lucy Kalanithi with their daughter Elizabeth Acadia)

Born to a South Indian migrant couple in Arizona, Paul Kalanithi was a child prodigy who took an interest in literature and all the other subjects. Literature became his first love and at one point he thought that he would choose poetry to scripture. In the book he writes about faith and love, which only the glimpses of death could evoke in you completely. Kalanithi writes: “Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest; a chasing after wind, indeed.”

If this book is a book of revelations then the epilogue written by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy Kalanithi, a doctor herself is so moving that at some stage one would wonder whether the book is good or the epilogue is. Like word and meaning, they have been together for twelve years and Lucy becomes the meaning of Kalanithi’s book with her twenty five pages long epilogue. Holding their eight months old baby, Elizabeth Acadia (Cady), Lucy writes: ‘ “Bereavement is not the truncation of married love,” C.S.Lewis wrote, “but one of its regular phases- like the honeymoon. What we want is to live our marriage well and faithfully through that phase too.” Caring for our daughter, nurturing relationships with family, visiting Paul’s grave, grieving and honouring him, love goes on-lives on-in a way I had never expected.’”

(Dr.Paul Kalanithi)

By the time I finished reading the book, I had tears flowing down on my cheeks. I did not know whether those were tears of sorrow or relief. I was feeling choked and the tears were the only way to vent my feelings on a cold and silent morning. Paul and Lucy did not share a trouble free life. They had their share of fights and they were about to separate, an episode that Paul reveals in his book. Lucy accepts that publication of a private crisis with dignity. Lucy writes: “..I am glad that Paul wrote about it. It’s part of our truth, another redefinition, a piece of the struggle and redemption and meaning of Paul’s life and mine. His cancer diagnosis was like a nutcracker, getting us back into the soft, nourishing meat of our marriage. We hung on to each other for his physical survival and our emotional survival, our love stripped bare.”

My eyes moisten even when I write these words. I had read Randy Pausch’s ‘Last Lecture’ years back, a similar story of a young computer scientist with three young children and wife and the sudden diagnosis of cancer ( Pausch had taken three months to finish his book and Paul too almost took same time to write, yet he thought it was incomplete. What struck me while reading the book, ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ was the micro narrative that Paul Kalanithi takes up for writing about anything that comes to him or happens to him. Everything is seen in a fresh light, even the park bench, restaurant, ice cream, sun rises, soap foam etc become so important in Kalanithi’s narration. This happens when death sheds light on life and also when people become so attentive not only to their lives but also the lives of others. A must read book.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sasimoni Moharana: An Artist who turns Cow Dung into Sculpture

(Sasimoni Moharana, artist in Raghurajpur, Orissa)

She does not remember her age. But she could tell me that she is more than eighty years old. Her back is hunched and feet flattened, her fingers are sturdy and crooked a bit. From nowhere she looks like an artist; the stories that I have already heard do not match with the person whom I have just met. She has not moved out of Raghurajpur for many years and as she jogs her memory she finds that she has not even travelled anywhere other than to the Puri temple. But her works, small little toy like sculptures that do not justify the word ‘sculpture’ but not toys either, have travelled all over the world. Whoever visits Raghurajpur, a village for/of folk artists in Orissa does not go back without buying a few sculptures from her. She is a very special artist, rarest of sorts, who makes her works in cow dung. Her name is Sasimoni Moharana.

Sasimoni does not speak any language other than rustic Odiya which is translated to me by Kshitish who has taken me there. His interlocution is a bit authoritative and he makes his interpretations which I understand. As we reach the village Raghurajpur which is around fifty one kilometres from the Puri town where the illustrious Jagannath Temple is located not far away from the Bay of Bengal, it is the godhuli time. A very special time of the day, which could be called twilight or liminal, neither day nor night; not even dusk. May be it is at this particular part of the day people feel their existential pangs so intensely and that must be one reason why our ancestors had insisted that people should focus their minds on their ishta devata, favourite god or goddess.

 (Entrance of the Raghurajpur folk artists village)

Beating of drums, clanging of gongs, ringing of bells and enthusiastic bhajans, litanies are already on at a temple at the entrance of the village. Children run around, elderly men move towards the temple where I could see a couple of people washing large cooking vessels which gives me the impression of an elaborate village lunch a few hours back. Cows that are not so tall hurry back to their stables with a few stray goats, proportionately short to match the nature’s order trailing behind them. Clouds of buzzing mosquitoes descend from the damp lands around as the veil of the darkness gets a bit thicker than before. Anticipating their daily arrival people have already kept burning incense pots outside their homes.

As we approach the veranda of her home, Sasimoni is already into her prayer and worship. Bending over the ritual vessels and lamps, she stands before an idol of Shiva annihilating a ferocious demon. She is wearing a white sari with red mango patches block printed. I notice her not wearing a blouse beneath it. Most of the rural Orissa women still do not wear blouses and with their memories of dislocation from deep rural areas to the organized villages like Raghurajpur intact, older women prefer to be what they used to be in those good old days. “As we turned seven we were given a white sari called Bombay Chaap, sari block printed in Mumbai. Then we were married off to twelve year old boys,” Sasimoni reminisces as we settle down inside her drawing room, an 8 feet by 12 feet room with its walls painted with bird images and foliages in ‘duplicate’ colours. The houses are laid out on either side of a broad tract of land where village gods and goddesses have temples, people have committee hall and the boys have their meeting squares and so on. The houses are like railway bogeys with a narrow walkway leading to the rooms on the one side.

 (Sasimoni Moharana with daughter in law Kavita Moharana)

I wonder why Sasimoni called the colours on the wall ‘duplicate’ with a wink in her eyes and a smile on her lips reddened by constant chewing of beetle leaves. “The artists here never use artificial colours bought from the market. But the young generation has no patience to make colours out of rocks, shells, leaves, flowers and any other pigment producing substance,” says Sasimoni and she fondly looks at the walls where her grand children have painted those pictures. She seems to be happy for the last generation of a great lineage of artists and artisans keeps the interest in art on and does not intend to rupture the continuity of creative circuits. “But I make my colours even now. Years of grinding rocks and lime has made my hands and elbows weak and painful,” says Sasimoni.

In Raghurajpur, anyone who walks on two legs is an artist and they are proud of being an exclusive artist community that practices a variety of art forms, at times daring to innovate and often remaining faithful to the traditional streams. Sasimoni is perhaps the only one artist there who works in the medium of cow dung. Rest of the artists, especially women who used to make cow dung sculptures have already shifted to other mediums like paper pulp and glue, including Sasimoni’s daughter in law, Kavita Moharana. Sasimoni makes what she knows and at times what she does not know also. She could talk to you, listen to your talk while making sculptures; the focus is clear and the skilful fingers do not miss a shape. Her improvisation of form is seen in one of the lizards that she has created; that is neither a lizard nor another reptile- it could be one creature that exists in the old memories of Sasimoni.

 (Sasimon's works)

Born to an artist who lived near Puri temple and did art works for the temple, Sasimoni was married off to Bansidhar Moharana at the age of nine. Bansidhar, a wood carving artist and in his late eighties now is agile and does his work. When Sasimoni got married there was no organized market for their arts and crafts. They had to work in the beetle leaves plantations and earned very little money for their livelihood. Even in those direst situations none of them left their creative abilities behind and the works that they created were sold around the temple where the tourists and devotees were their major patrons. In 1950, an anthropologist, Elena Jolly got them together and with the help of the government established a village fifty kilometres off Puri which is now known as Raghurajpur.

 (Parikit and Kavita Moharana, Sasimon's son and daughter in law)

When in Puri, Sasimoni’s community was not making sculptures; they were in fact making Ganjifa, the painted round cards for the card game. Then there were people called Mahari who danced for the Lord Jagannath. With Jolly establishing the Raghurajpur village, most of them moved to the village and for the last sixty five years or so they have been living there with a lot of pride. The new generation in the village has heard stories about the villages that their parents and grandparents had left behind but has not gone there. The change in the aspirations is visible. Most of the young boys have motor bikes and girls ride on bicycles. “They too practice art,” says Sasimoni, “But they also want to do something more than art in their lives,” she adds. They want to do more in life because they too have understood the ways in which the world functions; they understand economics and they do not allow anyone to exploit them.

 (Parikit Moharana's painting)

Sasimoni wakes up in the morning and after her ablutions and pujas, she gets into work. She prepares cow dung with enough materials to harden it and then get into grinding the colours. Once the dung sculptures are dried they are painted on, which is done meticulously by Sasimoni herself. In the meanwhile the household chores are taken care of by Kavita, the daughter in law. She brims with enthusiasm and covering her head with the edge of her sari, she tells that she does not find enough time to work. However, she takes me to the studio a floor above where her husband Parikit Moharana works on his patchitras. The studio looks humble but I do not see anything different than the studio of a contemporary artist. I wonder why these artists do not command the prices that our contemporary artists do that too at times with the help of support of the skilled supporting artists.

 (Parikit's studio)

In Parikit’s studio, Kabita shows me the works that she has created; coconuts, dried seeds and empty bottles painted over with patterns and the Jagannath faces using pigment colours. The craft is meticulous and the brushwork and choice of colours is precise. She also shows the works done by her daughter and son. In one of the bottle works, a female name is written and I ask whether it is a signature. Kabita covers her head once again as if driven by habit and gives a shy smile. “That’s my son’s work and it is his girl friend’s name,” she says. One bottle is so attractive with repetitive patterns and I ask for its price. She says that it is priceless and she does not intend to sell it because it is done by her daughter and she loves it a lot. If you have thought that they are mere artisans and are ready to sell anything that is there only because there are some prospective buyers you are mistaken. They are artists with modern artistic attitudes and sensibilities.

(Kavita Moharana with her daughter's work)

Kavia takes out Parikit’s paintings. They are kept in a roll inside a PVC pipe. They belong to this world though their art is made in the traditional stream. They know how to preserve their art, how to make it and transport it but still they do not know how to make huge profit out of it. Lord Jagannath stands in the middle and Balabhadra and Subhadra flank him. In another canvas it is an iconic Jagannath in the middle and a lot of motifs around it. Kavita points at the unfinished paintings and the white patches where colours have not gone into. “The unfinished areas for detailed narratives,” says she. “Each cavity will have an avatar and in some other paintings my husband would paint an assortment of mythological stories,” with pride in her eyes Kavita says. She also contributes to Parikit’s works whenever she is asked to do so. “I fill in spaces with colours, help in making colours but the real problem is that I have to look after my in laws who too do art all the time, apart from attending the daily needs of the family,” Kavita says and she does not fail to add that she also paints whenever she gets time.

 (some works by the Moharana family)

The canvas on which Parikit paints is very special. It is not a conventional canvas but a prepared surface using old saris and adhesives. “One of the young men in Raghurajpur is a specialist in making this sort of canvas,” says Kavita. An old sari is stretched and is treated with glues and pastes till it becomes hard and gives a smooth surface to paint on. How much do they get for a painting? “Depending on the size and the time that we spent on it,” says Kavita. A five by five that I have just seen is sold for a mere fifteen thousand rupees, which the middle men would sell for around seventy thousand rupees in the urban market. Kavita is not worried, “We do not know what they do with the work. We get what we ask for.” Curiosity led me to ask her whether she has heard the names of those famous artists from Orissa who live in Delhi or elsewhere. She thinks for a while and says that she does not know any of them. Fame is not real fame if you are not famous in your own place, among your own people who pursue more or less the same profession as you do.

Sasimoni is happy to see us back in her drawing room and is willing to pose for a few photographs. “Are you afraid of the young generation leaving this profession and going away to pursue their urban dreams?” I ask her as it is time to leave. “No, I am not. They have art in their blood and they cannot escape the calling,” she asserts. The girls in the village do not fall in love or marry outside their clan. But I have not asked the girls whether they do not fall in love at all. Boys definitely marry outside yet the community still seems to be held together by the glue of art and tradition. As they are all doing financially well, with no greed for making money or amassing properties, they are relaxed in their approach to life. The girls peddle around and boys bike around not going too far in distance or tradition. And unlike in other places, Sasimoni is adored by even the youngest member in Raghurajpur.