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An alarm call to a threat

Print edition : Jan 31, 2003 T+T-
The Monument; sculptural installation by Vivan Sundaram.-KANISHKA PRASAD

The Monument; sculptural installation by Vivan Sundaram.-KANISHKA PRASAD

An art exhibition organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust in New Delhi as part of its programme `Ways of Resistance', comes as a timely response to events and developments in contemporary India.

CONTEMPORARY art all over the world, for over a century now, has been able to free itself from the stranglehold of both religious institutions and patrons. As such, it has become the unhindered expression of those who, from their sensitive perception of life around them, are able to communicate reality more sharply and directly than the average human being who is reduced to a battery chicken in an age when monopolies carve out markets and hold them captive just as the early factory owners held their workers captive or owners of bonded labour in mines and brick-kilns do even today.

This has resulted in contemporary art becoming a sort of alarm clock to warn people of the threats lurking in a monopoly-controlled consumerist society that could strip them of their rights altogether. These threats are global of course, but they are very concrete and particular in given societies at definite periods in their history. This comes out clearly in the exhibition of the works of 34 artists curated by Vivan Sundram, which is being shown at the Lalit Kala Akademi's gallery in New Delhi. This exhibition is part of the `Ways of Resistance' programme undertaken by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT), which includes book releases, the staging of plays and the screening of feature films and documentaries.

The exhibition allows one to understand the fundamentally anti-imperialist character of all genuinely contemporary art of our times. Whether it is Rabindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore in India, Pablo Picasso in Europe or Kakuzo Okakura and Ichiro Fukazawa in Japan in the past, or the artists we see in this exhibition, anti-imperialist imagery and narrative and attempts to free art of the clutches of consumerism (but not the market), are strong features of our contemporary art.

In India, political icons of the national movement, especially the image of Mahatma Gandhi, loom large. It may be the pensive portraiture of Akbar Padamsee or the surrealistic back view of Gandhi by Surendran Nair, with the body pock-marked with pin-pricks. It could be the image of a fragile, fasting Gandhi, sipping honey and water, with worker bees pictured on a shutter that can be raised or lowered at will as in his battle with the British. In all these works, the connection of our contemporary art with the anti-imperialist national movement is not a subject of debate.

What interested me, however, was how the anti-imperialist thrust was deepened and carried forward by different artists to address questions of gender and caste as well. In works that used popular imagery, turning it upon itself to suit our times, we have Arpana Caur's `Nanak in Bleeding Times'. It uses the contrasting imageries of glorifying a Bhakti saint and of extolling the royal hunt in traditional Udaipur and Kota paintings, to bring our attention to the state as the murderer of innocent citizens with policemen playing the role of the hunters and religion bleeding as a result of pogroms in its name.

There are other images that target the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), where the oppressed and instinctively industrious bees of Atul Dodiya's image are replaced by lathi-wielding fascists with only instincts and no independent thinking to guide them, in the works of Natraj Sharma. Probir Gupta's `Human Demolitions', an installation that features a cow and a pig in a rice bowl, warns those people who want to split India on communal lines, as the East India Company tried from the time of Warren Hastings, that they will find their own instruments turned against them in the struggle for existence. The company learnt this during the First War of Indian Independence of 1857 (incorrectly described by the artist as a `mutiny', just as `The Boston Tea Party' cannot be an accurate description of the War of American Independence, or `The Storming of the Bastille' of the French Revolution). But the warning is obviously to those who would communalise concepts such as gaurav (pride); asmita (honour) jangan (people), as we see from Parthiv Shah's photographs that expose the hollowness of the emotive propaganda of the Sangh Parivar, or Ram Rehman's `contested spaces', showing monuments marred with hurriedly constructed communal, alternative structures. Beside them, his Babri Clock, ticking away dangerously, with dire consequences for both society as a whole and the perpetrators of fascism in particular (as Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo found out too late) serves as a timely warning that the easiest solutions are not the best. Atul Dodiya's image of the `Wolf at the Door', Pushpamala's `Labyrinth' of burnt wooden sandals and N.N. Rimzon's grieving individual surrounded by images of destruction, send out the same kind of warning.

A large number of artists have concentrated on the individual with his or her independent expression in a democratic society as a determining factor of development. The way in which this expression is collectively manipulated by exploiters comes out sharply in Jitish Kallat's `Panic Acid (or Cloudbursts and Brainstorms)', which shows a crowd being `electrified', and in Sudhir Patwardhan's `Riot', which warns one against such easy collectivities.

In other works on show the artists highlight the resistance of the victims to the attempts of communal forces to divide and oppress them. This comes out poignantly in the works of Veer Munshi and Inderjit Tikku, both refugees from terror-hit Kashmir, who refuse to be communalised by fascist propaganda. Munshi has evolved a coffin-like structure where his self portrait is equally labelled `terrorist' and `refugee', `fundamentalist' and `separatist'. Tikku has produced an effective poster of himself as either a Hindu or a Muslim, as `Indersalim'. It is interesting how hollow the slogans of both Hindutva and the Taliban sound in the face of their victims' challenge to them.

Sheba Chachi and Sonia Jabbar, in the voice of Kashmiri women, assemble testimonies that show one that in situations of `divide and rule' the people may be helpless in the face of the armed terror of communal forces in the service of imperialism and monopoly capitalism that feeds on it; but they understand how if you "Silence the community, the nation dies" or that "When the gun is raised, the dialogue stops". Or, as in Ghulam Sheikh's Modi-like Lion grazing cows that are likely to be its next meal, we find that the people of Gujarat too (and Sheikh is an eminent artist from Vadodara) are not fooled. The fact that the BJP has lost ground in Saurashtra and northern and southern Gujarat, even if it has divided and terrorised central Gujarat into catapulting it to a bloody victory, should be a hopeful sign that the cows may yet gore that wily lion before they all get eaten. Prashant Panjiar's series of photographs of a growing wall between communities in Ahmedabad and Pablo Bartholomew's burnt churches are stark reminders of the Gujarat experiment, if such reminders are needed.

It is interesting how various artists, by simply exploring their individual experiences, strip the truth of its social fig leaves, as in the works of Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh, Neelima Sheikh, Gargi Raina, Tejal Shah, Rummana Husain, Jehangir Jani, Sovi Savarkar, Altaf and Vivan Sundaram, exposing how communalism, feudalism with its gender and caste bias and capitalism with its fatal business rivalries, pervert and destroy our lives enough for us to want to resist and destroy those who visit these evils on us.

The process is complex. Savarkar demystifies the inhuman character of `Hindutva' by juxtaposing the images of Dalits forced to carry spittoons around their necks so that even their spit does not defile the earth, but stamps a swastika on the spittoons to remind us that by degrading one set of human beings we degrade all of humanity, and ourselves, with it. His imagery of an anti-Manuvadi art, expressed in a powerful aesthetic language, does a lot to strip devotional imagery of its sanctity and question whether the meanings of symbols are as well-founded in our tradition as they pretend to be. Rias Komu follows a similar debunking of ritual symbols.

Vivan Sundaram, by raising the image of a Mumbai riot victim (photographed by Hoshi Jal) to that of a hero in his sculptural installations `Mausoleum' and `Gun Carriage', throws the gauntlet at the government of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine, which ruled Maharashtra then. In the same way, M.J. Enas challenges American imperialism with his image of Bertolt Brecht's `Mother Courage', reminding us that the resistance to a world dominated by monopolies, empires and consumerism has a long tradition behind it. Navjot Aftaf sees that resistance becoming stronger with the development of information technology in an installation highlighting televised testimonies, information pipes and doors of secretive bureaucracies now helpless against progress to hide their crimes, as in the Tehelka case.

Walter de Souza has contributed an interesting sculptural piece for a wall-angle, calling on us to speak out, while Suranjan Basu's classic wood-cuts stress cooperation among the oppressed and the exploited. There is no doubt that from this exhibition we understand clearly how politically correct art must also be well-executed and aesthetically path-breaking to be effective, but I missed works with a real sense of resistance to fascist onslaughts such as Vivan Sundaram's `Bangla Desh' and `Gulf War' series, or of a powerful alternative, like his portrait of Marx from his `Heights of Machu Pichu' series, or his portrait of A.K. Gopalan, the communist peasant leader, veteran of so many temple entry movements and militant opponent of Indira Gandhi's Emergency.

The inclusion of these works would have shown that not all our resistance to fascism has been as weak as in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. This is evident from the 26 years of Leftist electoral victories in West Bengal after six years of semi-fascist terror and even armed attacks with imperialist intervention supported by a party in the National Democratic Alliance government, recently. The stability of resistance provided by the Left forces in West Bengal is a record in world history. A visual record of it is called for. Despite this gap, I do believe that the exhibition is a fine reflection of our most perceptive contemporary art and has been a timely response to events and developments in our country today. It also reminds us that those who talk of Indian culture as if it belonged to them alone are the most hostile to its growth and development today. More than that, the exhibition calls on us not just to be spectators, but to come forward to resist.