Experiments with truth

Print edition : June 26, 2015

From the series of lithograph block inscriptions about traumatic incidents in the history of post-Independent India. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The graphic images of a toothless Gandhi, the reproduction of a photograph taken in 1931 when he was 62, against a background reminiscent of the red flag, with the white star at the top right-hand corner. On the top of each image are twin words, one, the liberating ideas and programmes of Gandhi, and the other its counter-forces. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Poverty/Pokhran. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Emergency. Photo: By Special Arrangement

1969. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The anti-Sikh riots. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Bombay Blasts. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Rath Yatra/Babri Masjid. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Riyas Komu’s work “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi”, which layers a Gandhi image against a background reminiscent of the red flag, and his litho blocks depicting incidents that scarred the history of post-Independence India mark the artist’s attempts to redeem the meanings of words and images.

In a world that usurps words of meaning, evacuates concepts of ethics, and robs images of their resonance, transforming them all into their opposites, art turns into an adventure of excavation, renovation and reassertion. Today, iconic images like that of Gandhi and Marx and their ideas have been nullified of their subversive energy and turned into vacuous figures and mere receptacles to serve the forces of power and oppression. In this “splinter, pick and choose” process, Gandhi is reduced to amenable fragments and tame symbols; Marx becomes just another icon of the past or a hollow, clichéd slogan.

In the context of such selective amnesia and active memorialising of untruths, how do we redeem and redeploy Gandhi or Marx? In the contemporary context, what has Gandhi got to do with Marx? Have they become spent forces or jaded idea/ls of yore in the profoundly consumerist and deeply globalised world we live in? Riyas Komu, in his new show in Fort Kochi titled “On International Workers’ Day, Gandhi from Kochi”, which was inaugurated on May 1, poses, probes, prods and ponders on these questions.

What we see in the show are two sets of images arrayed against each other: the first one is a set of graphic poster images on the wall and the other a series of litho blocks placed under the glass atop tables. The graphic images are that of a toothless Gandhi, the reproduction of a photograph taken in 1931 when he was 62; bony, bare-chested with his ribs jutting out, he is smiling disarmingly at us; this black-and-white image of his stands out against a background reminiscent of the red flag, with a white star at the top right-hand corner.

On the top of each graphic are twin words, the first, Gandhi’s panchsheel principles, and the second, words/realities that counter the former: Satya/Perception, Ahimsa/Violence, Antyodaya/Victim, Sarvodaya/Fear and Swaraj/Control. These two series of words, one, the liberating ideas and programmes of Gandhi, and the other its counter-forces, separated by a slash, add an ironic tinge to the open smile below. According to Amrith Lal, the second set of words is pitted against the first: “When words are cleansed of their moral essence, they acquire a new meaning. The newspeak hinted at by the artist suggests the possibility of making a deracinated Gandhi, who could be commandeered at will for propaganda.”

This act of excavation, redemption and reassertion of words are especially relevant in the present-day Indian context where words are systematically emptied of history and hijacked to serve divisive ends.

Radical politics today is also about liberating words and images from certain hegemonic and oppressive registers, and thus creating fresh political synergies with new connections. As the philosopher Alain Badiou reminds us, “…the contemporary world is doubly hostile to truth procedures. This hostility betrays itself through nominal occlusions: where the name of a Truth procedure should obtain, another, which represses it, holds sway. The name ‘culture’ comes to obliterate that of ‘art’. The word ‘technology’ obliterates the word ‘science’. The word ‘management’ obliterates the word ‘politics’. The word ‘sexuality’ obliterates ‘love’. The ‘culture-technology-management-sexuality’ system, which has the immense merit of being homogenous to the market, and all of whose terms designate a category of commercial presentation, constitutes the modern nominal occlusion of the ‘art-science-politics-love’ system, which identifies truth procedures typologically” ( Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism).

This act of excavation and renovation of images, symbols, words and signs are all the more significant today when Gandhi and Marx—their images, words, ideas and programmes—are appropriated by fragmentation and trivialisation, and in the process, systematically evacuated of their subversive political content. Riyas’ works act in the opposite direction; they fight fragmentation by bringing together otherwise disparate images and words to make us pause and reconsider.

Litho blocks

The parallel set of lithograph blocks —which is a homage to Raja Ravi Varma—is titled “Stoned Goddesses”. They carry “inscriptions” about traumatic incidents that scarred the history of post-Independence India: Partition Riots; Gandhi/Godse; 1969; The Emergency; The Anti-Sikh Riots; Rath Yatra/Babri Masjid; Bombay Blasts; Poverty/Pokhran; and Godhra/Modi, along with a brief description of each event. According to the artist, these images represent his “attempt at understanding independent India’s psyche through important events that scarred its history and, in the process, shaped my identity”.

This counterposing of the poster image and the litho blocks triggers several trajectories of thought in the viewer; they spawn an unsettling but radical interface between “lofty” political ideals/ideas that sometimes go awry sans vigil, and the “heavy” facts and painful experiences of/in history. What you confront is the multilayered and contradictory surface of the image, which is a palimpsest of ideals and nightmares, social memories and political history, image and symbol. Facing them are the stony, bare surface of the litho block hewn with historical events in reverse print, as if waiting or ready for an imprint.

“Gandhi from Kochi” thus brings to the fore certain all-too-familiar words, images, signs and events, by excavating them from the moral morass they are currently buried in and hold them up against our times and eyes. By layering the Gandhi image against the loaded background of red and the evocative sign of the star, he prods our vision and thought to potential trajectories of political action and urgent vigil. Here is an instance where the artist Oksana Pasaiko’s words ring true: “Ask not what contemporary art is, but what contemporary art should be.”

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