Musings on freedom

Print edition : March 27, 2020

"Jantar Mantar 2019", photograph by Vinit Gupta.

"User manual for the largest democracy", Jyothidas K.V. Photo: credit

"Untitled", mixed media, Mithu Sen.

Photograph by Valay Singh. Photo: credit

An exhibition in New Delhi of the works of 52 artists titled “The Constitution of India at 70” reminds us that we are the inheritors of a powerful artistic tradition that never ceases to be a protection for us even in dark times.

THE surge of the wave of independent thinking that developed after the end of the First World War with the collapse of the major multinational empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia and Turkey opened up a new range of activities and political experiments. Among these were the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the first socialist state that challenged the colonial system, and self-destructive alternative of authoritarian fascism that ushered in a period of regimented monopoly capitalism. The effect was both global and polarising as never before.

It led to another devastating world war whose climax not only saw an alliance of bourgeois democracies and socialism making common cause in not only wiping out fascism but also unleashing a myriad of national liberation movements as never before, but not without the threat of nuclear war raising its ugly head in the form of yet another final solution like the atom bomb. But even that could not stem the tide of national liberation that eventually overthrew the nuclear-armed, fascistic and apartheid regime of South Africa by a mass movement despite the support this regime got from global monopolies and the imperial system.

The impact of such earth-shaking events still wakes us up from time to time as people begin to feel that past ideas and victories won by humanity are being frittered away and destroyed. This is a constant challenge as it leaves no part of us and our lives untouched. This is not surprising as our own art today is at least part and parcel of the national movement and the upsurge of the 1920s led by Mahatma Gandhi. It was this period that saw our own Bengal School develop along with the integration of world art trends such as impressionism and expressionism into our own framework of aesthetic expression.

The Bengal School was an overt attempt to develop a “national art” of India that was not parochial, but it survived beyond this largely because it freely coexisted with other such developments as the nihonga art of Japan and universalist European movements such as the Bauhaus school with its theosophical moorings that was dismantled by Hitler in 1934 for being “degenerate art”.

It was no accident, then, that Nandlal Bose was asked to embellish the text of the Indian Constitution of November 1949, along with Santiniketan students of his such as Beohar Ram Manohar Sinha. He later went on to study under the post-liberation artists of China, adopting the different compositional element of the multi-centred art of China and Japan and creating free spaces of contemplation distinct from the unicentred art of the West that developed in Europe after the Renaissance and in the powerful artistic expression that developed in France after the revolution of 1789 with its slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

It is this intrinsic dialogue between the processes of self-liberation, artistic freedom and universality, developing alongside the movements of humanity, greater equality and democracy, that has emerged as an important driving force in an exhibition of 52 artists entitled “The Constitution of India at 70”, curated by Aban Raza for SAHMAT, under way at Jawahar Bhawan in New Delhi.

The relevance of this collective effort, supported by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust, against the background of towering paintings by M.F. Husain on the national movement and yet holding its ground is a powerful expression of the spirit of the poet and martyred freedom fighter Ram Prasad Bismil whose song “Sarfaroshi ki Tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai, dekhna hai zor kitna baaju-e-qatil mein hai” (We desire to put our heads on the block to test the strength of the arm of the murderer). The exhibit also echoes both Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Hum Dekhenge” (We shall overcome) and Bertolt Brecht’s famous lines: “Will there be singing in dark times? Yes, there will be singing of dark times”.

This again is not surprising as artistic expression is a reassertion of one’s humanity in the face of those who would reduce us to the level of an animal. This aspect comes out firmly in the works of Pushpamala N., who attacks fascistic attempts at breeding a super race like one breeds domestic animals. And a cry challenging this arises from a study of buffaloes by Guru Charan Murmu, who says he may be black but is not a buffalo. Mad Paule echoes the words of the dramatist Eugene Ionesco, “I will not be a rhinoceros”, challenging the attempt by authoritarian forces to destroy sensitivity to the oppression of fellow humans. A number of works of resistance, including five works of Gopa Trivedi on a poem by Pash, “Ghass” (Grass), reminds us to never think that the weak cannot resist the powerful by evoking the vision of grass growing over ruins of past tyrants.

Others, such as Gigi Scaria, Sumedh Rajendran, Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai and Jyothidas K.V., highlight the fascist theories of the final solution that have been emerging since the murder of Mahatma Gandhi and the various assasinations that have followed. Others have chosen to highlight figures such as B.R. Ambedkar through their images and quotations and even pages from the Indian Constitution.

Others such as Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Khursheed Ahmad, Tsering Negi, Valay Singh and Vibin George have chosen moments in history, from the attacks on our Constitution going back to the Emergency of 1975 to various draconian provisions and violations of human rights in different parts of Kashmir, Manipur, Assam, even Shaheen Bagh.

There are also works by senior artists and photographers such as Vivan Sundaram, Arpana Caur, Nalini Malani, Mithu Sen, Arunkumar H.G., Pablo Bartholomew, Parthiv Shah and Ram Rahman, using trends and works of the times to carry visual messages that awaken us not only to their originality but also the consistency of our artistic tradition that refuses to bow down in spite of all the ups and downs we face as we carry the messages of secularism, equality, freedom of speech and movement on our shoulders.

One aspect to be noted, however, is the faith the artists have in the masses as the repairers of damage to our society. This is evident in the work of Navjot Altaf, Gargi Raina and Sameer Kulavoor among others and awakens hope in artists and viewers alike. In essence, this exhibition is both timely and necessary to remind us that we are the inheritors of a powerful artistic tradition that never ceases to be a protection for us even in dark times.

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