Footsteps to freedom

Published : Aug 15, 1998 00:00 IST

Dhiraj Choudhary sees art as the battlefield of his struggle for freedom.

DHIRAJ CHOUDHARY is an artist who sees 50 years of India's Independence as a double struggle. It is not only the struggle of a colonised people to free themselves of colonial rule, but also the struggle of individual artists to free themselves from their low status in traditional society whose worst elements, such as the landlords, were preserved by colonialism to oppress the mass of the people. Moreover, feudal ideology, steeped in caste and religious orthodoxy, was given a divisive edge to become an instrument of the colonial policy of "divide and rule"; communalism is an example.

In traditional societies, artists were allowed to paint, but not think for themselves. That was the job of the patron. That is why when the illustrious Kashmiri Brahmin family of Pahari painters, that of Pandit Shiv Raina, fell on bad times and took to art in the 18th century, it lost its standing among Brahmins and was relegated to the caste of carpenter-painters!

By and large, in the 19th century too, apart from a handful of gentlemen-painters who were tied to the apron-strings of their colonial masters, artists were largely printers' assistants, scroll painters and the like. It took the mass peasant upsurge of the 1920s to create what we call the modern artist in India, an intellectual being free to express his or her feelings and pass judgment on events around him or her freely. And it is only in the 20th century that we can look at the titled Tagores - Rabindranath, Abanindranth and Gaganendranath - the middle-class Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy, and the son of a rural barber and masseuse, Ram Kinkar Baij, with the same eye. Without the mass peasant upsurge of the 1920s, "We, the people of India..." would have meant little.

Indeed, much of India's aesthetic tradition in contemporary art owes its origin to the craft of the humble scroll-painter who became the model for Jamini Roy's "new art", and whose clear bright palette adorns the works of artists as varied as K.C.S. Panicker, Reddappa Naidu, M. F. Husain, Arpana Caur, Shail Choyal and Lalu Prasad Shaw. Other artists, notably Zainul Abedin, Sunil Das, Chittaprasad and Dhiraj Choudhury, made the lives of the poor and the displaced the subject of their art. Here we see the hungry famine-stricken peasants of Bengal; the fighting peasantry of Andhra gathering the harvest in fields the zamindars of the Nizam had been driven from; a dead protestor in a pool of blood in a Mumbai street; vagrants, beggars, prostitutes - but all citizens of a free country.

There was a heady euphoria too, and one catches it in Dhiraj's animal studies, crowd scenes and vibrant landscapes of places all over the world. This Indian contemporary artist was testing his wings in the 1960s. And today he confronts the world with a sense of self-confidence.

The process, however, was not so simple; it was a powerful internal struggle that led the artist from his flowing sketches of places he visited to dark studies of street people living on pavements with animals and fighting for scraps with them; of the wealthy eating the poor at banquets, cutting them up finely with knives and forks; of the crowd of the dispossessed transforming their individual helplessness into a collective strength. These drawings of his from the 1970s to the 1980s are stark pen and ink works whose intensity he then channels into the dark tresses of the Banalata Series of the 1990s. This is the most significant period of his work, marking a sharp break from the past.

His cannibal-rich of the 1970s can be seen transformed into cannibal clowns, monsters and mountebanks in the 1980s. This was the age of post-Emergency India, the brave new world of big-name sunglasses, upmarket shoes and safari suits. It was the age of all kinds of announcements for the 21st century by one who, ironically, never lived to see it. It was the period when an entourage of freedom fighters, social workers and technocrats was replaced by friends and cronies, advertising agency professionals and film stars; a high-profile galaxy but the same old cannibals in new clothes. This was the decade when the lessons of the freedom struggle were unlearned, its goodwill squandered away and the canker of communal and divisive forces introduced in its place.

Old values were lost and new ones had not been found. At such times the artist dreams of Nineveh and Ur, Sravasti and Samarkand - only beautiful names. And the substance of life is reduced to the kiss, the clinch and the screw. When ideals fall apart, one's grasping fingers are the sole arbiters of reality. In this mood of the 1990s, years of tall promises and low performance, we find the artist conjuring up the image of the Bengali poet Jibananda Das' famous poem, "Banalata Sen of Nattore". And the darkness of the age is characterised by the dark mass of her hair.

This brute existentialism, however, never lasts long. True, an artist thinks and speaks with his fingers, but not only of truths at one's fingertips. In Dhiraj's work, they emerge as profound concerns of the national movement, evoking Ghalib's Delhi of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians; of Tagore's inspiring tale of Ananda drinking water from the hands of the untouchable Chandalika; of the colonial presence in Indian society as a plunderer and oppressor, who kept India divided in a manner people in this country were never divided before; of political life losing its quality and becoming a mere performance of clowns and mountebanks; and finally, the visual image of Ravana as a sadhu who becomes a ten-headed demon once he has Sita in his hands. This image suits India's present situation very well.

Dhiraj Choudhury has never hidden behind the subterfuge that his art is not political or has no relation to social concerns. And he says so clearly:

For me, art is not merely an exercise in aesthetics or technical expertise. That is the reason I have never felt the need to pursue 'art for art's sake'. The better part of my creative forces, therefore, has been utilised in portraying the ills of our society, and in doing so, the hungry, the deprived, the tortured, the wounded have invariably crept into my works. The pictures I paint may not be pretty, but they are an expression of my love for humanity and my genuine concern for the world at large. My art is not a pleasure trip. It is the battlefield of my 50-year struggle for freedom, which is still going on!

This exhibition will be shown at Rabindra Bhavan, Gallery Mirage and Gallery Freedom in Delhi; and from there it will tour Chennai, Pondicherry, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chandigarh. It will definitely remind people of what India had started out to fight in 1947, how much of that fight is over, and how much remains, both in society and in individuals. For society, as it frees itself from the shackles of exploitation and oppression, also frees individuals of inhibitions and prejudices in the process.

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