Making art from work

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

Journalistic photographs taken to illustrate articles, morphed into a formal compositional cohesion for an exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi, stand out on their own as aesthetic objects.

I HAVE always believed that there is no distinction between objects as art and as things in themselves, except how we choose to present them. Unusual rocks are found everywhere but when one sees them properly mounted and arranged, as in the imperial palace at Beijing, one realises that we have the capacity to make an artistic statement out of almost anything.

It was with this premise that we arranged the exhibition of the photographs of J. John, director of the Centre for Education and Communication (CEC) in New Delhi, at the Lalit Kala Akademi. The photographs were part of a large body of works taken to illustrate articles in Labour File or for reports of the CEC. As such, they were what one would call journalistic exercises. But when we began to look at them from the perspective of an exhibition, not only did works emerge that stood out on their own as aesthetic objects, but we were also able to give them a formal compositional cohesion.

First, the theme of the exhibition was Work in Progress. From this angle, it was only a step forward to see where the photographer had treated the subject creatively. Either by capturing a moment in action, as in the case of a jute worker of Bengal treating the fibre, or from the angle of evocation, as in the case of a construction worker seemingly trapped in a column of rods of his own making. From here, we could choose works embodying action on the one hand and those whose imagery told a story.

We could then rise above both immediacy and the narrative to give the exhibition a compositional cohesion. One thing we noted was that John's eye had caught the cross-form in a number of the photographs. The form has a number of meanings historically, as is obvious from the writings of the noted Indian historian D.D. Kosambi. But essentially it is the process of joining things, of bringing them together, that is highlighted by the use of the cross-form in religious icons and in these photographs of the work process.

Indeed, it is no accident that Jesus Christ, with whom this form is most closely associated, was a carpenter by training just as our most powerful syncretic-thinker Kabir was a weaver. But that is only part of the story. The task of the social joiner is fraught with danger and oppression, for those who rule do so only by dividing the people and keeping them separate from each other. So the joiner is a threat to exploiters and oppressors and has to be dealt with. In the Christian context, it is ironic that the joiner meets his end on a wooden cross, almost as a warning against the act of joining itself.

From this perspective the narrative of the crucifixion seemed particularly apt. There were photographs of labour as an act of bringing things together, like a carpenter making a window. There were photographs in which the cross-form was embedded, as in the picture of Kerala headload workers carrying pipes along a road. And one could go beyond that symbolism in photographs like the one of a Pakistani food-seller, where the cross-form blends with that of the crescent, reminding us that despite the fulminations of Samuel P. Huntington, Christianity and Islam have much more in common than the perspective of the clash of civilisations would care to admit. The joiner sees these links and strengthens them, the oppressor tears them apart to dominate and plunder. Indeed, the joiner perspective goes beyond the crucifix and we see the cross-form change into the hammer and sickle, the symbol of worker peasant unity and liberation from both exploitation and oppression.

The pursuit of the cross-form purely as a form then organises the rest of the photographs of the labour process in a sequence from bondage to craft production and industry, spanning the history of civilisation from slavery to serfdom, capitalism and socialism. In fact, one of the photographs in the lot was of a child carrying Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) banners at a demonstration, a picture that narrated the message that `Socialism is the Future'.

TO me, the importance of this aesthetic effort is that it presents the process of labour from the angle of creativity. And the best approach to labour is to make it creatively satisfying. This it cannot be as long as the profit motive dominates production. And this exhibition reflects what happens to work, one of the motors of human civilisation, when it becomes a captive in the hands of profiteers.

It breeds child labour, which ruins the health of children rather than train them to acquire new skills. This we can see from the football production in Punjab, the Zardozi embroiderers of Varanasi or the child carpet - weavers of Bhadoi. It also shows how increasing casualisation and mechanisation have made work more arduous, how women are being forced to do the jobs of men but at lower wages, how hazardous jobs are undertaken by the desperately unemployed without any protection, and how a process that has helped one of the apes from developing into man with a complex civilisation as a support base, is today being used to destroy skills and casualise labour, driving the vast mass of workers to conditions reminiscent of the jungle. This is the fate of the vast majority of workers under globalisation in South Asia.

However, the main strength of these pictures is that they show how the processes of cooperation, communication and organisation inherent in the labour process also breed an inherent resistance to its being dismantled into something more primitive. But this resistance does not take a correct direction automatically. It has to be organised and trained systematically. This is what comes across in the picture of a young boy carrying red flags at a demonstration. Upsurges are spontaneous but organisations give them direction. It is interesting how these questions too are raised and answered by the photographs that were taken largely to document various types of work.

This exhibition reminds one of how beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Objects exist both in nature and in culture. But they must be put together with a perspective. And that perspective gives them the quality of art.

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