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?
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Review: Excrescence

This was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Abnormal Outgrowths

Tushar Joag's "Bombay to Shanghai Post Box"

Chances are you’ve never used the word excrescence in conversation but after seeing the show titled “Excrescence”, we think it might just pop up in your social chit-chat because the art on display is thought-provoking and worth talking about. Curated by Maya Kovskaya, this group show is inviting, engaging and erudite, but not inaccessible.

“Excrescence” has works by Ashutosh Bharadwaj, Sheba Chhachhi, Han Bing, Tushar Joag, Prajakta Potnis and Wu Gaozhong. The title of the show can mean either “an abnormal outgrowth” or “a disfiguring addition”. Every work in “Excrescence” responds to this idea and fills the gallery with a silent anxiety. The most cheerful piece in the show are Tushar Joag’s drawings and the “Bombay to Shanghai Post Box” (see image). They are part of his series titled “The Unicell Project”, in which he imagined public service items like the letterbox and the lamppost as superheroes.

The idea of something rotten or toxic looking beautiful appears repeatedly. In Han Bing’s gorgeously technicolour photographs, landscapes with sylvan trees and neat homes are seen reflected upon polluted, dirty water. Prajakta Potnis’s wonderfully ominous “Still Life” photographs (see homepage image) show fruits and vegetables in a fridge but instead of being fresh, they have mysterious, icky clusters growing on their surfaces. Wu Gaozhong’s photograph of rotten organic compounds that look pretty and ethereal are excellent complements. Potnis has also done site-specific “interventions”, which you’ll miss if you don’t keep your eyes peeled. We’ll give you a hint: look very closely at and past the switchboard.

Our favourite work in “Excrescence” is Sheba Chhachhi’s fascinating interactive video, “Bhogi/Rogi”. It’s been years since Mumbai had a chance to see Delhi-based Chhachhi’s work and this one work gives you an idea of why she is considered one of contemporary art’s brightest minds. Stand in front of the video and an image of you will be projected upon the screen. See what happens to it as the images change. Made in technical collaboration with Thomas Eichorn, “Bhogi/Rogi” taps into our narcissism and fascination for technology. Your glee at seeing yourself distracts you from noticing how the idyllic image of a field of yellow mustard flowers turns into bubbling oil and then disturbing red globules. The video keeps changing, shifting from consumption to disease to violence and back to consumption. Having seen “Bhogi/Rogi”, we’re now extra dubious about genetically-modified food.

There is a handout that you can pick up once you enter the gallery and it’s a daunting document, beginning as it does with a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein and going on to salute other philosophical heavyweights like Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Keep it with you and read it after you’ve seen the show. It’ll all make sense.

List: 10 Unexpectedly Arty Raw Materials

This piece was first published in India Today.

While its appeal may not be quite as widespread as that of Bollywood, contemporary Indian art has its fans all over the world. Indian artists have been our cultural ambassadors, showcasing realities and fantasies of modern India in their works. As a toast to their inventiveness, here are 10 commonplace items that became fine art when they caught the attention of our finest artists.

1980s Enamel paint

Ask about the medium of most paintings, and you’ll be told oils or watercolours. If you’re looking atPrabhakar Barwe‘s paintings from the 1980s, however, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at synthetic enamel paint on canvas. Yes, the stuff that’s generally used on walls. Barwe thinned the gloopy enamel paint using turpentine and kerosene to make beautiful, delicate paintings in muted shades.

1995 Bindis

Indian women have adorned themselves with these cheap little stickies for decades but when Bharti Kher stuck the bindi on her sculptures and paintings, their value multiplied million-fold. Kher’s interest in the fashion accessory began in the mid-1990s. She was at a market when she noticed a stranger wearing a black bindi that reminded her of a sperm. Kher asked the woman where she’d bought the bindi, then went to that shop and bought its entire supply of serpentine bindis. It was, as Kher put it, her “supernova moment”. This year Kher became India’s top-selling female artist when one of her bindi works was sold for $1.5 million.

1996 Fake Eyes

You’ve seen them on statues of Hindu deities, looking kindly or angry, depending upon the deity in question and how the eyelashes and eyelids have been painted. Manufactured eyes have also been a regular feature in Anita Dube‘s art since 1996. A cluster of these unblinking synthetic eyes would spread over a wall in the gallery or encrust the surface of objects, like in the photograph C-Creature that shows hands covered with these fake eyes. Their unblinking gaze is tremendously unnerving and yet, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off them.

1999 Bottle Caps

Does Coca-Cola remind you of saris? If yes, then you’ve probably seen Sharmila Samant‘s “Handmade Saree”, a gorgeous, unwearable creation made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps. Samant made the first Handmade Saree out of 1,800 bottle caps during a year-long residency. It cleverly talks about globalisation, exploitation of labour, commodification, notions of waste and value, the opposition between readymade and custom-made, threats to handicraft traditions and homogeneity, but without getting burdened by the gravitas of polysyllabic words.

2000 Metal Shutters

Generally when shutters come clanking down, it means the shop’s shut. Unless Atul Dodiya has painted on them. Then they become fine art. Dodiya first painted shutters in 2000 when he was asked to participate in an exhibition called Century City at London’s Tate Modern. He chose shutters as his canvas because he wanted to use something that was emblematic of Mumbai’s streets but would also communicate a sense of anxiety. The shutters were perfect because they’re fixtures in shops and the sound of them coming down was one of Dodiya’s sharpest memories from the 1992 Mumbai riots. Dodiya had an entire show of his shutter paintings earlier this year.

2003 Blessings from God

Many temples, churches and mosques have websites but only at Blessed-Bandwidth.net could you download a blessing that was less divine and more fine art. In 2003, Shilpa Gupta created the website Blessed-Bandwidth.net. Visitors were invited to log in, choose a religion and then get blessings from the relevant religious authority. They could also download a certificate to prove they’d been blessed. The website was commissioned by Tate Online, the digital arm of London’s Tate Galleries, and was Gupta’s meditation upon religion and the divisive role it often plays in society.

2005 Mattresses

In 2005, Anju Dodiya exhibited her first series of paintings made on mattresses. The show was called “The Cloud Hunt”, which sounds like an aggressive form of daydreaming and explains where the mattresses fitted into Dodiya’s scheme of things. One would think the bulkiness of a mattress would make it an inelegant starting point for a painting but Dodiya transformed this sleeping apparatus into a wonderful canvas. Mattresses added a hint of three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional medium and were strangely perfect for Dodiya’s works, particularly when they explored themes of fantasy, sleep and night.

2006 Hawker Stalls and Sofas

This one’s a double whammy. In 2006, Tushar Joag came up with a brilliant contraption for hawkers being harassed into shutting shop by officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipality Corporation (BMC): theShanghai Couch. (The BMC had banned hawkers as part of its master plan to give Mumbai a makeover and turn it into Shanghai; hence the name.) The Shanghai Couch was a hawker stall that in a few swift, nifty moves could turn into a bright red couch. Because, as Joag pointed out, there wasn’t any law banning couches on Mumbai’s pavements.

2007 Rubberstamp

It’s impossible to find an Indian office that doesn’t have at least one person rubberstamping away. In Reena Saini Kallat‘s art, however, the rubberstamp is a sign of her disapproval of the state of affairs. Kallat first used rubberstamps to create portraits of missing persons in 2007. The custom-made stamps had names from missing persons written in 14 languages. Two years later, she used rubberstamps again in a series inspired by the Taj Mahal. Contrary to popular belief, there is a record of the names of the artists who worked on the monument, which Kallat discovered in an archive. She recreated some of the motifs of the Taj Mahal using rubberstamps that had the artists’ names on them.

2007 Steel Utensils

There are two places where you will almost always find steel utensils: in Indian kitchens and Subodh Gupta‘s art. Even as a moderately-successful painter, Gupta’s muse was steel kitchenware but it’s when he turned to installations that he became Indian art’s brightest star. His works have used tiffin-carriers, plates, glasses, serving spoons, bowls and every other stainless steel item you would expect to see in a middle-class Indian kitchen. Among the other items he’s turned into fine art are petroleum jelly, cowdung and the Ambassador taxi.