Protest, politics and Indian contemporary art

It’s always nice to have one’s byline in a publication they read, but in many ways, The Hindu is specially special. It’s stood for a serious, no-nonsense gravitas for generations. So to be in its op-ed pages is a good feeling. As a friend put it, “Ex-governors, professors, statesmen…and you. Vaav.” I feel thoroughly grown-up. For now, at any rate. 

Here’s the unedited version of the article on Indian contemporary art and political protest:

Let’s be honest: aesthetically, Siddhartha Karawal’s “Divine Cow” is not the most noteworthy bovine in the annals of Indian art. It is, however, perhaps the most manhandled one.
Last month, at the Jaipur Art Summit, Karawal’s “Divine Bovine”, consisting of a cow made of Styrofoam and a balloon, made the news. It was floating above the Pink City, minding its own business. Unfortunately, this offended some people. So the cow was hauled away by the local police. Who the offended were and whether they were feeling offended on behalf of cows in general or Karawal’s Styrofoam cow in particular remains unclear. We can only presume they’re the same people who garlanded and worshipped the once-floating, now-grounded cow when it was in police custody, and that its bovine honour was restored when the worshippers yelled “Gau mata ki jai!”
As it turned out, all those outraged by “Divine Bovine” were mistaken in their assumption that Karawal was poking fun at sacred cows. “Divine Bovine” was supposed to be a critical comment upon the way we mistreat cows in cities. Karawal wasn’t challenging anyone with “Divine Bovine”. If anything, he and the cow-brigade were essentially saying the same thing: show the cow some love.
What this ridiculous episode served to underscore is that an artist may create a work of art, but it is the viewer who completes it. If the one who sees it will not or cannot recognise the artist’s intention, then it’s hopeless.
Around the world, contemporary art is used to seeming incomprehensible. To perplex is almost a basic requirement — it’s the first step to ending up as thought-provoking. In addition to this, most modern and contemporary Indian art is politically bland, which makes it seem almost indulgent to some. Still, art’s ability to perplex may have saved some of our more talented artists.
For instance, in his video titled “Three Bullets for Gandhi”, artist Tushar Joag multiplied himself into three and arranged his avatars to look like the Lion Capital of Ashoka. Each Joag spat out bullets and fire. Some may only notice how handsome Joag looks in “Three Bullets for Gandhi”. Others will wonder about the violence and twisted ideals that the State embodies when Joag presents his carefully-inexact replica of the official emblem of India. Ahimsa, anyone?
Back in 2002, artist Shilpa Gupta peddled little bottles filled with red liquid on the streets and local trains of Mumbai. The bottles were labelled Blame and carried this inscription: “Blaming you makes me feel so good, so I blame you for what you cannot control – your religion, your nationality.” The curious performance was her way of responding to the US-led ‘war on terror’. By the time she was ready with her little bottles of Blame, the Godhra riots had happened and “Blame” felt more pertinent than ever. Imagine her performing “Blame” today, and I, for one, get the chills.
In 1994, Bhupen Khakhar painted a watercolour in which a seated man was cradled by another. Both are nude. The one who comforts the seated man is mostly blue-skinned. He has many arms and in one hand, there dangles a garland. In another, the blue-skinned man holds a lotus that is rising out of a discarded, green shirt. The painting is titled “How many hands do I need to declare my love for you?” It’s an exquisitely gentle and tender painting, glowing with sensual intimacy. However, a homophobe may be disgusted by it and if the person viewing “How many hands…” is itching to manufacture outrage, they can go blue in the face claiming Hinduism has been insulted.
Fortunately, few know of these works of art and fewer have actually seen them, which means both the art and the living artists are safe. Since Indian contemporary art has cultivated a reputation for being elite and its audience is at best described as niche, few see or talk about it. Add to this the deplorably outdated collections of modern art in most Indian museums. Net result: the chances of being seen are low and being misunderstood, lower.
Usually, an Indian artist becomes a topic of conversation when their works break records at international auctions or if their name is Maqbool Fida Husain. When Husain was first accused of obscenity and disrespecting Hinduism because he had painted Hindu goddesses as nude figures, it must have sounded like a joke. If traditional temple art is to be believed, these divine ladies aren’t particularly fond of covering up, after all. But the ridiculous turned first into embarrassment, and then miserable shame.
Court cases were filed against the artist. Violent protests, led by right-wing political activists, would mushroom every time his paintings were shown. There were numerous cases of serious vandalism, led by thugs believed to have political connections. The fear inspired by the anti-Husain brigade was so piercing that one gallery hid the fact that an upcoming exhibition included a portrait of his. It wasn’t even a painting by Husain. It was just a photograph of him.
Husain had his share of supporters, particularly in the art world, but outside, the detractors swarmed public opinion. People said Husain was courting controversy in the hope of staying relevant. None of them paid heed to the fact that he didn’t need religious sectarianism to stay in the news. If anything, the political ‘activists’ who led the charge against Husain were the ones riding on the coattails of his fame and reputation.
The Supreme Court would eventually dismiss the cases against Husain in 2011, but by that time, the damage had already been done. The eagerness with which Husain was maligned would make many in the Indian art arena less inclined to wave their aesthetic fists in the right-wing’s face. If Husain, with his charm, fame and media-savvy, couldn’t make himself be heard, then what chance did others have? Galleries couldn’t afford to have their premises vandalised. Artists couldn’t afford long-standing court cases. The Husain experience suggested that the well-behaved world of Indian art needed to add caution to its bag of tricks.
And yet, despite being studiously apolitical, Indian contemporary art has also been unwaveringly idealistic. It was born out the Progressives’ burning need to develop a distinctively modern and indigenous artistic identity. Since then, the art may be exhibited in cocoon-like galleries. It may be bought and sold by an elite that is frequently disconnected from average Indians. Still, within the private monologues and debates that characterize Indian contemporary art, our artists have also questioned social attitudes and criticized the establishment. Only they’ve done this subtly, with neither them nor their gallerists making any noise about the politics.
Sometimes the protests and idealism would be meshed in artistic imagery, like in the works of Navjot and Vivan Sundaram. Repeatedly, we’ve seen artists rally together to create collectives like Sahmat, Open Circle and KHOJ, which have offered insightful socio-political commentary. Sometimes the questions would be tangled in the dense but beautiful works made by the likes of CAMP and Desire Machine Collective. Performance artists like Inder Salim and Tejal Shah have long perplexed many with their strange and fantastic ways of exploring political issues. Recently, 400 artists signed a petition supporting the writers who returned their National Awards. Before you ask why they didn’t return anything, check how many Indian artists have been chosen for state honours. It’s a disappointingly tiny number.
Perhaps it is time for Indian artists and art to become less polite and more political. Perhaps it is time to abandon subtlety. But that’s only half the work done. If they voice their protests, will we hear them or the cacophony? If they create a work of political art, will we see their idealism or will we see only sacred cows?

On Freedom of Expression in Art

This article was first published in Mint Lounge.

The Brush Speaks Louder Than Words

In 2006, Sanjeev Khandekar and Vaishali Narkar had a show in Jehangir Art Gallery titled Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick. It catapulted Khandekar to notoriety because there were vociferous protests accusing the show of obscenity and it was shut down. Considering the quality of the works in Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick, there’s a strong argument for the protesters having done what many aesthetes may have recommended. However, regardless of the mediocrity of the art on display, the point was that Khandekar as an artist should be free to create and show his work. Mumbai’s art community rallied around him and suddenly, Khandekar shared something with one of modern Indian art’s masters, M.F. Husain: They’d both been accused of creating art that was considered obscene by some.

Two years later in 2008, student artist Chandra Mohan’s paintings of Durga, a Shiva lingam and Jesus were destroyed by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members during an internal evaluation of final-year art students at Vadodara’s MS University. For once, the VHP had the support of a certain section of the local Christian community, which was not amused by Chandra Mohan’s depictions of Christ. The police followed the vandals and alarmingly, they let the vandals go scot-free but arrested Chandra Mohan for threatening Vadodara’s secular atmosphere. The art community protested again, this time at a national level. Freedom of artistic expression, it seemed, was under attack.

Montage: (from top) M.F. Husain’s Bharat Mata; a work by Bhupen Khakhar; Manu Parekh’s Interpretation of Benares ; and a work by Sanjeev Khandekar, from the show Tits, Clits n Elephant Dick.

It wasn’t. By and large, the mass of the Indian populace doesn’t really care about art, so artists are actually free to do whatever they want to do. Most art doesn’t register on the radar of national awareness and incidents of violence are exceptional (even if the work inspiring them generally isn’t). Art, the kind that is bought by collectors, is considered an elitist arena and as far as most of the public goes, they’re far more comfortable and familiar with a pretty landscape than the delicate violence in an Anju Dodiya painting. No matter how provocative or contentious the work, we’re far from the day when the impact of a controversial piece of art will be as widespread as a film, for example. There have been few efforts to increase public interest in visual arts and none of them have come from the government, which has let state-run art institutions sink into an abyss of mediocrity. Most art schools in the country have primitive syllabi and unimpressive faculties. The National Gallery of Modern Art in both New Delhi and Mumbai is a source of embarrassment, considering their callous attitude towards exhibitions and their own collection.

Art in India is a private and personal initiative. Gallerists have created reputations for themselves without any supporting infrastructure. Artists didn’t have a market they had to answer to until the noughties and they were free to respond to the world around them as they saw fit. This is why modern and contemporary Indian art actually has a rather impressive tradition of creating works that go against the grain of conservative thought.

Look at F.N. Souza, who poured out his rage against the Roman Catholic machine through his mesmerizing and yet grotesque depictions of Christ. He hadn’t painted as much as savaged the canvases and the contrasting compassion in his nudes is striking. Bhupen Khakhar celebrated homosexuality long before it was in vogue to do so. Paintings such as Two Men in Banares (1982) would still be considered bold for the way Khakhar brought the sacred and the profane together. Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Alphabet Stories (2001) attacked the government’s attempt to rewrite history textbooks. For the work titled Blame(2002-04), Shilpa Gupta took on the role of a pedlar in Mumbai and sold little bottles of red fluid with a label that read: “Blaming you makes me feel so good. So I blame you for what you cannot control: your religion, your nationality.” The directions for using Blame were: “Squeeze small quantity on dry surface. Neatly separate into four equal sections (can be unequal too). Tell apart sections according to race and religion.” Imagine trying something like this in China.

When it comes to nudity, Indian artists haven’t been coy. Almost every significant Indian painter has painted and exhibited nudes, including Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Jogen Chowdhury and, of course, Husain (who was slapped with an obscenity charge in 1996 that was finally dismissed earlier this year). In 1993, Mrinalini Mukherjee made Pushp, a hemp sculpture that showed an enormous vulva (the piece is around 40 inches tall) and can only be described as voluptuous. Subodh Gupta slathered himself in Vaseline and posed flagrantly naked in Vilas (1999). Abir Karmakar paints gender-bending self-portraits that are often unnervingly voyeuristic and still poignant, like In the Old Fashioned Way(2007). Earlier this year, T. Venkanna showed a painting that was a copy of Gustave Courbet’s Origin of the World, except he had a limp rubber rooster stuck inside the outsized vagina (go on, think of the synonym for rooster). Inder Salim has hugged trees and walked around Delhi naked as the day he was born for a number of his performances. Viewers may have batted their eyelids a little more than usual but no one questioned an artist’s right to create or show works like these. In fact, when photographer Raghu Rai showed his tasteless and sexist “nudies” in 2007, demonstrations by feminists against that particular exhibition would probably have been justified.

There’s no doubt that incidents such as Chandra Mohan’s arrest and Husain’s 13-year legal ordeal have made some cautious but it’s worth remembering that India is a country that wants to be a democracy. One in which public demonstrations, like the ones that were organized for Chandra Mohan, can make an impact even if they are by a relatively small group of people. Our laws might be hazy on what constitutes obscenity but at least we have judges who will quote Pablo Picasso and have no qualms in labelling those who harassed Husain as ignorant and narrow-minded. In comparison to the repressive regimes of countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan (all of which produce excellent art despite legal and social straitjackets), the acts of the right-wing minority that have troubled Indian art seem almost pesky.

We complain about how the market is the master of the Indian art scene, we lament the absence of proper art education, and we gnash our teeth at the lack of museums and governmental support for art. All these are valid concerns but so far as the freedom of expression is concerned, the muzzle can only be put on an artist by the art fraternity. This will happen if the threat of a few thugs makes gallerists and curators cower, if the artists submit to anxieties instead of using their work to respond to their circumstances. If there is a gag on Indian art, then it would have to be tied by the artist himself. No one else has either the capacity or the right.