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Expression of pain

Print edition : Aug 24, 2007 T+T-
Sounding a warning? A painting at the Hidden Feelings on Canvas exhibition in Chennai.-PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Sounding a warning? A painting at the Hidden Feelings on Canvas exhibition in Chennai.-PICTURES BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A recent exhibition in Chennai, Hidden Feelings on Canvas, on the violence against and oppression of Dalits marks a welcome change.

Sounding a warning?

AN exhibition of paintings, Hidden Feelings on Canvas, held recently in Chennai, once again brought to the notice of urban viewers the agony of the oppressed Dalit community. Many of the paintings effectively portrayed the pathetic life of Dalits in Tamil Nadus villages, their misery and anger, fears and hopes, faiths and beliefs. The painters who contributed to the exhibition were students of the three government colleges of art based in Chennai, Kumbakonam and Puducherry.

An interaction with the artists and some lovers of art brought to the fore the limitations of this medium in taking Dalit issues to larger sections of people. A sad revelation was that there were fears lurking in the minds of the Dalit artists, particularly the budding painters, that revealing their caste identity could jeopardise their professional prospects. An accomplished Dalit painter, whose works are now in reasonably good demand, said he was afraid that the moment his caste identity was made known, his commercial interests might suffer a setback. Given the rigidity of the caste system and the deep-rooted, birth-based prejudice against Dalits, such fears cannot be dismissed as unfounded.

Another point raised was the general apathy among people at large to the issues relating to Dalits. Many people think that when no violence against Dalits is reported, there is no Dalit issue. Seldom do they realise that violence is only one part of the suppression Dalits encounter. They also forget that for Dalits, caste-based discrimination is a daily problem, and untouchability, though banned by the Constitution, is still practised in myriad forms. Only when untouchability is totally removed and caste-based discrimination and violence against Dalits are ended forever will the Dalit problem cease to exist. This points to the need for constant efforts to create awareness about the problem among all sections of people, with media support. Besides the media, both print and visual, different forms of fine arts such as music, drama and cinema have already been put to use. But not much has been done to use painting as an art form in the fight for the liberation of Dalits. Why this is so is a matter to be scrutinised by the concerned.

One of the striking features of paintings is their potential to have a lasting impact on the minds of those who view them, perhaps even more lasting than what some other art forms such as dance and music can possibly do. And this seems to be one of the reasons that these works of art appeal not only to kings, aristocrats and the elite, for whose pleasure painters down the ages have been creating them, but also to ordinary people.

Measure of discrimination

The 1,500-year-old cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora in Maharashtra, the immortal fresco at the Sistine Chapel by the Italian artist Michelangelo (1475-1564) and The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), also of Italy, are among works that continue to attract people even today. Both these Italian painters represented the Renaissance humanist spirit.

In the later modern era, even when the elitist hold over painting was further tightened, there were attempts to take the art closer to people. Socialist critics disapproved of the modernists stress on artists reflecting in paintings their personal feelings and projecting abstract concepts. They wanted artists to cover subjects relevant to peoples everyday life. They also held that creative art had a great potential to fight repressive ideology. Pablo Ruiz Picasso (1881-1973) was the pioneer in exploring this potential of the art. His immortal painting Guernica was a powerful expression of protest against Nazi Germanys bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town, in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. Charnet House was his reaction to the killing of lakhs of people in Nazi concentration camps, which housed prisoners of war, mostly Jews.

Later, Picasso became an activist of the peace movement, which adopted a dove he painted as its official symbol. Ever since, painting as a form of protest has come to stay and exhibitions of paintings showing the horrors of wars have become an inalienable part of the movements anti-war campaigns. Many more artists joined Picassos trail. From the Spanish Civil War to the recent wars launched against Iraq by the United States and its allies, artists have expressed their anguish over mindless killing through poignant paintings.

What surprises many, however, is why artists have not shown the same amount of concern for the plight of the victims of oppression and exploitation. For a long time, artists in the West were conditioned by the prevailing religious dictum that the purpose of art was to illustrate the Gospel. When in the early 17th century Diego Velazquez (1599-1600) came out with Old Woman Cooking Eggs and Water Seller of Seville, both depicting the life of ordinary people, theorists decried him for painting on lowly subjects, though his aristocrat-patrons hailed the marvellous works.

One of the few early artists who ventured to paint the darker side of human life with great effect and win recognition for it was Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945). A German, she had to face the wrath of the Nazi regime for her highly emotive paintings of the poor and the sick. Her work of compassion was also an indictment of a system that made workers lives miserable. She also has some war paintings to her credit. Intolerant of her powerful visuals, Nazi rulers harassed her, banned the exhibition of her works and bombed her house. Though 76 years old at that time, the steel-willed artist walked on in her chosen path, until her death.

Although works on the everyday life of the poor and the oppressed appeared every now and then, inspired by socialist ideals, liberation movements and civil rights movements (such as the ones in Africa and the U.S.), this art, by and large, has for long remained the preserve of the privileged. The only difference is that kings and aristocrats have now been replaced by corporate bodies and the rich. Even the skill of appreciation of paintings is considered an inherited or acquired intellectual property of the elite. And, given the high-market value of the artefacts produced by artists, any artist would have to think twice before forgoing this patronage.

The movements against racial discrimination and oppression had to deploy all their skills to rope them in. For instance, in the case of African American artists, none of the early painters highlighted the issues pertaining to their racial acceptance in society. They were only driven by personal and business interests. Only in the 20th century did African American painters produce political and artistic paintings on race-based issues. This change of mindset happened when some of these painters were insulted by their white rivals, who could not tolerate blacks getting national recognition. Breaking their mental chains or social fear, many painters joined the civil rights movement and came out with effective portrayals of African American life.

The Indian experience is not any different. Themes of paintings remain the same for mainstream artists gods and goddesses, festivals, temples, palaces, heritage buildings, landscapes, and so on but for some occasional breaks from tradition. Even the nationalist movement does not seem to have made any impact on the painting world, except for some portraits of national leaders. The Dalit movement, which emerged following the birth centenary of B.R. Ambedkar in 1991, has at least been partially documented by the print and visual media. It gave a new life to Dalit literature. A few documentary films, still photographs, short stories, poems and plays on untouchability and atrocities against Dalits in Tamil Nadu have also appeared for well over a decade . However, these have apparently failed to evoke any big response from painters.

Seen in this context, Hidden Feelings on Canvas was a welcome change. It was organised by the Dalit Resource Centre, Madurai, and Dalit/Adivasi Concerns, CSI Madras Diocese. The brains behind the exhibition was G. Chandrasekaran (Chandru), the Principal of the Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai. As part of a workshop programme, he took the students to villages affected by anti-Dalit violence and made them interact with people and record their (the students) feelings. Chandru, who has created some striking paintings on the subject, said, What you reflect on while reading a newspaper cannot be art. The artist should see for himself the social environ and try to understand the undercurrent from the people themselves. The 1990s marked a significant period for the over-one-crore Dalits in Tamil Nadu. Even before the festivities connected with Ambedkars birth centenary were over, Dalits of two villages in Thoothukkudi district were badly injured in police violence in 1992. In 1995, Kodiyankulam, a Dalit village in the same district, bore the brunt of police violence. The entire village was ransacked by heavily armed policemen. A year later, Dalits of a village in Dindigul district had to face police wrath. In 1999, 16 Dalit estate workers were chased to death in the Thamiraparani river in police action. Scores of Dalits were either killed in police firing or in attacks by caste-Hindu groups. A Dalit panchayat president and his associates were murdered at Melavalavu near Madurai. In certain places, Dalits were deprived of their right to contest panchayat elections.

While some of the exhibits attempted to portray the living conditions of the oppressed people, some directly represented one or the other of the atrocities committed against them. With headless bodies strewn around, one painting depicts the massacre of Murugesan, the Dalit president of the Melavalavu panchayat, and a few others. The cruel way the inhuman act was perpetrated has been brought out well. Another exhibit shows a ruined village. One of the numerous forms of untouchability the two tumbler system (separate tumblers for Dalits and non-Dalits) was seen in another painting. A few exhibits showed the execution of Jains and Buddhists in Hindu Tamil kingdoms. (Dalits of todays Tamil Nadu are, according to some Dalit intellectuals, descendants of Jains and Buddhists.)

One of the most appealing paintings shows an angry young Dalit beating the parai with a stick, with all the force at his command (the parai is a percussion instrument similar to a drum). Equally striking is the o ne that shows a healthy woman, with prominent eyes and a smile on her face, suggesting confidently that the situation is not all that bad and that a new dawn is in sight.

Noted Tamil writer Azhagia Periyavan said, The artists skill has come out in an admirable way, and he appreciated the manner in which colours had been used. Yakkan, artist-journalist, said the paintings on display reflected the awareness of the artists and their creative skill. The paintings truly represent Dalit feelings and that gives them an aesthetic value.

Artists need not be obsessed with pleasing people, said Chandru. He observed, Personal freedom is all right, but it is a part of human rights, which cannot be ignored. Artists should look around and study the local environs, study peoples customs and beliefs. Even caste-based conflicts could drive them to paint. I want them to help break caste barriers. His students, the budding artists, have apparently responded. More may hopefully come out of the shell soon. The problem, however, does not seem to be that simple. Dalit artists have to shed their fears, and the others have to bring an end to their inherited prejudice.

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