Art as political statement

Published : Mar 07, 1998 00:00 IST

An exhibition in Delhi proves that radical art exists as a distinct genre and that it is rich and varied in terms of the imagery it employs.

Pictures : ABHIJIT DAS

AN exhibition of 37 works of radical art by 31 artists produced over a period of 75 years has opened at the Academy of Literature and Fine Art in Delhi. The use of the word "radical" to describe this art form is significant. After all, there is an element of radicalism in all modern art, just as there is an element of originality in all contemporary works.

There is, however, an important difference between works of heightened originality and those in which the artist makes a conscious statement. Roop Krishna, a Santiniketan-trained artist from Lahore, who set very high standards, was unwilling to accept Amrita Sher-Gil at face value and criticised her European salon-style work, telling her to learn from the people. The show features a postcard of his, written to Alokendranath Tagore a couple of weeks after the Chauri Chaura incident to ask Rabindranath his opinion of Gandhi's action in withdrawing the non-cooperation movement after the burning of the police station in response to unprovoked firing. Obviously, radical artists, being artists, were able to take to task leaders of the national movement. And they have done so at different periods of India's history. The postcard has three figures: a Hindu sadhu, a Sikh granthi and a Muslim Sufi, all clad in saffron. It reminds one that colour of sacrifice once signified a broad unity of Indian traditions but has now been appropriated by those who claim to represent the majoritarian viewpoint. Hindu revivalism has impoverished India's tradition, and the work opens one's eyes to this as well.

Another work on show is a Vivan Sundaram serigraph of the Emergency period. It pictures Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi as tyrants with whips, standing between bars; there is an empty red space with the electoral symbol of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) on it, having cut across them. This work reflects the end of the Emergency and the hope that a Left alternative will emerge. It did not. The same artist, in a mixed media box produced seven years later, used the radical influence of Marcel Duchamp to capture the assassination of Indira Gandhi in a work that shows bullet marks in wax on a window, and a fallen bougainvillea twig; it reminds one that the fall of an autocrat leaves little to defend and, ultimately, neither the body-guards nor the sycophants remain. And the bougainvillea bush provides little protection. This work also gives one the premonition that much more is to follow. As, in fact, there was.

The richest element in the show, of course, is the changing typology of the political leader in independent India. From Anil Karanjai's blind visionary, a sort of Karnad-style Tughlaq; to Noni Barpujari's naked figure on a swing with a Gandhi cap on his head, swinging from party to party; to Vijaya Bagai's earlier version - of a blue figure jumping from one staircase to another, between the crevasses. This phase seems to be over by 1993, with Torit Mitra's "Black Cat/White Cat". It portrays a figure draped in the national flag and surrounded by Black Cat commandos, with the common man (portrayed as a white cat) on the pavement. But then the "globalised" politician no longer needs protection, if one looks at Paritosh Sen's masterly study of a mafia don, with rings on his fingers, rifles galore and a bevy of guard-dogs. The white cat is now well and truly threatened.

The threat was always there sporadically - one only has to look at Sushant Guha's "Resettlement Colony", Arpana Caur's "World Goes on" or "1984 Widows", Atul Sinha's or Shamshad Hussain's "Babri Masjid", former Prime Minister, V. P. Singh's "Tandoor" (painted after the gruesome murder of Naina Sahni), Neeraj Bakshi's homage to his framer who was killed in a Delhi bomb blast, R. K. Tikku's wood construction of trees and bullets, Sidharth's guns and megaphones, which also figure in Neeraj Goswami's work, and Probir Gupta's collage and drawing dedicated to the artist as political activist, inspired by the murder of street theatre activist Safdar Hashmi in 1989.

The marginalisation of the rural masses moved Micky Patel to draw a faceless mother with hungry children over Che Guevara's statement: "I don't think that you and I are closely related, but if you are capable of trembling with indignation each time that an injustice is committed in the world, we are comrades; and that is more important." That feeling permeates the works of Amarnath Sehgal, Surinder Sambhyal, Bulbul Sharma, Anandmoy Banerji and Somenath Hore - and Sunil Das' homage to the mine-workers who died in the mine disaster at Gaslitand in 1995.

What strikes one is how images evolve over the years. In 1948, Chitta Prasad portrayed the freedom struggle by depicting two tribals killing a tiger; in 1997, Umesh shows only a loincloth-clad man tipping over a hat with the Union Jack on it. Obviously time has dulled the memory of the struggle that actually took place. Similarly, the pipe-smoking godman of Gaganendranath Tagore becomes the pipe-smoking representative of the management of a mine in Sunil Das' work, and represents a force to be held back by the miner's spade in Apoorva Desai's painting. If Shamshad calls for peace after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Atul Sinha rebuilds it in a series of three monoprints in reverse from disintegration to reintegration.

It is evident that an exhibition that draws from 12 Delhi-based collectors cannot be comprehensive, but it does show that radical art exists as a distinct genre; that it is rich and varied in terms of the imagery it employs; that it is moved by a humanism much more profound than that of art produced only for self-gratification or for the market; and that it also breaks the limitations of technique and format, using the box, the postcard, the poster and other such forms thought to be beyond the purview of art. It is, in fact, far more innovative than merely original expression, and bolder too; for the artist sticks his neck out consciously to challenge both the accepted norms and those who break such norms in a manner that is detrimental to humanity. It is a genre that is suppressed because it frightens the status quo. It is the writing on the wall that has an unpleasant habit of appearing when those in power least want it to. And indeed, the readers of the Ganashakti board in Debabrata De's drawing seem to be avidly reading what those in power may not even want to see. This is the real art of our times, to be found in studios of artists and in private collections, but not in commercial galleries nor in grace-and-favour collections of the state.

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