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?

Freedom of Expression, Indian style

Even if you live under a rock, you’ve heard of AIB Knockout, a roast of Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh, hosted by Karan Johar and conceived by the comedy collective All India Bakchod. The live event was held in December last year and at the end of January, AIB released a set of three videos that gave everyone a glimpse of what went down that night. As you might be able to tell from this piece I wrote, the aesthetics of a roast aren’t exactly my cup of tea. 

However, that doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and file a police complaint against them. Because only an idiotic ego maniac would do something like that and because AIB showed excellent form by taking all criticism cheerfully on the chin and not pouting or sulking in response. Some, like censor board member Ashoke Pandit, responded to the tasteless jokes in AIB Knockout with remarks that were equally (if not more) tasteless. But hey, it’s a free country. If Pandit wants to let us all know just how crass he is — and not in a closed-door performance as those in AIB Knockout were, but on a public platform where he’s just being honest and himself — that’s his call.  

Unfortunately, the matter snowballed rapidly. Two organisations — one Hindu and another Christian — filed complaints because they found AIB Knockout offensive. Given below is the piece I wrote in response to the idea that AIB needs to be gagged because they’re offensive. As of now, Maharashtra’s ministry of cultural affairs is believed to be investigating the matter while the police are supposed to figure out whether the complaints are valid and worth pursuing. Meanwhile, we learnt that the censor board wanted to beep out “Bombay” from a song. The former editor of Urdu newspaper Avadhnama was victimised viciously for printing a Charlie Hebdo cartoon and then, a newspaper vendor was arrested in Mumbai for selling Avadhnama. The only joke here is being made at the expense of freedom of expression in India. 

This piece was first published on

Spare a thought for Akhilesh Tiwari of Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha. The YouTube videos of mata ki chowkis organised by his organisation last year have had 21, six and eight views respectively. And then there’s AIB Knockout, with a million views in about 12 hours. It’s got to hurt. Yesterday, Tiwari emerged out of obscurity when he filed a written complaint against Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh for their performance in AIB Knockout. (It seems Tiwari missed the detail that the show was scripted and Johar, Kapoor and Singh were not the scriptwriters.) “The show, which can be seen on YouTube and other websites, was extremely abusive and it is not only ruining the clean image of the Indian culture & women but is also misleading today’s youth,” complained Tiwari.

Let’s face it. The nation’s image is no laughing matter and arguably, Tiwari is doing his bit for the nation much like the Bengali gent in PVR Mumbai’s social service ad, who collects discarded Indian flags and sounds like he was dropped on his head as a baby. Coming back to our national image, last month it was reported that the number of foreign tourists coming to India grew by only four percent. Why? Because women tourists don’t feel it’s safe to travel in India after the growing incidents of rape and molestation against locals as well as foreigners. It appears approximately 30 percent of total foreign tourists are women, and this significant percentage seems to be skipping India entirely.

Now what if the few foreign women who are planning to visit India end up watching AIB Knockout? Some may want to see if they can catch an AIB show during their holiday, but surely the truly good women will feel outraged by the sexist humour and cancel their tickets? And yes, of course it would be far more constructive to actually raise awareness about women’s issues and help improve the law and order situation so that everyone feels and actually is more secure, but that’s hard work and takes time. Outrage is so much easier and it’s good for the soul — with one written complaint, you feel like you’re doing something, for women, the nation, our millenia-old culture, the universe. And then you can go back to organising the next mata ki chowki.

Considering the fact that Tiwari is acting in national interest, I think the rest of us should take the torch from him and continue his campaign against those who say offensive rubbish. For instance, there’s Baba Ramdev, India’s bearded motormouth, best known for possessing a stomach that can roil like a waterbed and making millions out of people’s ignorance. According to Ramdev, homosexuality is a disease for which he has a yoga-flavoured fix and AIDS is curable. All it takes is some deep breathing and “herbal medicine” manufactured and sold by properties owned by Ramdev. This is not a joke. It’s a serious claim made by a man who was nominated for the third highest civilian award in India. One of the pills being sold at Ramdev’s outlets is a fertility pill named Putrajeevak Beej, which translates to “the seed that creates a son”. For reasons best known to Ramdev, the pill isn’t called Santanjeevak Beej (santan meaning child) or Putrijeevak Beej (putri meaning daughter).

Perhaps it’s the beard and squinty-eyed stare that lends gravitas to his utterances, but that Baba Ramdev, with his distasteful and unscientific claims, numerous criminal cases and hateful opinions, is considered worthy of the Padma Bhushan is infinitely more damaging to India’s image than any comedic routine.

As far as saying outrageous things in public, AIB have a long way to go before they can even hope to give competition to our politicians. Remember the former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar? His response to a drought-hit farmer going on hunger strike and demanding water was, “He has been fasting for the last 55 days. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it? If there is no water to drink, even urination is not possible.” That, incidentally, was Pawar cracking a joke. Suddenly, AIB Knockout, abuse-flecked as it may be, seems almost comfortingly good-natured, doesn’t it? While on the subject of farmers in Maharashtra, the current state government has cleared field trials for genetically modified crops. If you want a joke about helping Indian farmers, this move is it. GM seeds are expensive, destroy the soil and effectively shackle the farmer to the big corporation, but that’s ok. The national image is intact, so presumably we’re not supposed to care.

If you’re really looking for statements made in public that damage the clean image of India, there’s much, much more. Here’s a sample. In a bid to make people feel protected, TMC’s Tapas Pal said at a rally that the party’s “boys” will go and rape women at his command. Speaking of which, who can forget Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadavdismissing rape as a “boys will be boys” mistake? Or Pravin Togadia of the VHP, who recommended forcibly evicting Muslims and taking over their property. “Go with stones, tyres and tomatoes to his office,” urged Togadia. “There is nothing wrong in it. Killers of Rajiv Gandhi have not been hanged … there is nothing to fear and the case will go on.”

As far as Brahman Ekta Seva Sanstha vs Karan Johar, Arjun Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and AIB is concerned, the good news is that the state government of Maharashtra appears be aware that there are more pressing matters on its agenda than English stand up comedy. In an interview to Mumbai Mirror, the cultural affairs minister Vinod Tawde made it quite clear that he doesn’t really care what was said in the roast as long as the event had all the necessary permissions. However, this probe into whether AIB Knockout had its paperwork in order is separate from the inquiry that the police is required to undertake since Tiwari has lodged a formal complaint with them.

Still, if the likes of Amit Shah can get away with an apology after being accused of hate speech and Niranjana Jyoti can become a minister after calling non-Hindus “haramzaadon” (bastards), the targets of Tiwari’s outrage should be fine. To quote Togadia, “there is nothing to fear and the case will go on.”

Ah, the bringers of mirth that are Firstpost commenters…

I wrote this on the business of “ghar wapsi“, which is the term for the Hindu right in UP has coined for mass conversions of Muslims and Christians.

And here’s why I love the people who leave comments on Firstpost: they are immensely entertaining. Obviously the Hindutva brigade is not amused at my attempt at keeping tongue in cheek, but this is a rather glorious comment to leave on a piece about the cause, validity and effect of Hindu conversion ceremonies.

Bengalis are also by nature anarchic and not amenable to discipline because of their laziness and aversion to work. Notice how few Bengalis are in the Military. Anarchism and lack of respect for all authority is another cause of Leftism.

And finally, Bengali women generally dominate Bengali men and are full of ideas of liberlo – feminism. Another route to leftism and criticism of everything under the sun.

I rather like this word, liberlo-feminism. Maybe I’ll put it on a T-shirt.