This is a small note on my life. Some of my friends at least must be curious about my absence from the blogosphere. Many might have even forgotten me. Nothing stands permanently. Physical presences vanish into thin air, memories turn their tone into darker and duller ones, pictures fade, digital images get buried as more and more images find their place over them. Like we live on the dead bodies of others with grinning skeleton below our feet and we are unaware and happy about it, life goes on. Hence, this note of mine is insignificant to the level of being drab. Yet, I understand somewhere, someone near a window, below the sky, shut out from the madness of life, under the table lamp, must be sitting and staring at the compass and map of a nowhere land where one has not gone and one does not know whether one would be ever able to go. For that one, the invisible reader, I submit this note. Read on kindly.
Life is beautiful. Photographs do not lie. That’s what we believe. But cynical ones amongst us have different opinion about it. They say life is beautiful and yet…They say in those photographs we look cheery and peppy but….True, there are no permanent states of satisfaction and happiness. I feel the opposite of happiness and satisfaction are not sorrow and dissatisfaction. I think, it is anxiety and restlessness. When we experience a moment of joy, we expect a moment of fall; a fall into the depths of despair. We do not expect joy but we expect something gloomy and brooding. But that is a state of mind. Some are gifted with this permanent elation and a common sense of denial. They live happily ever after. As a writer and political activist, my life is in a mess. But somehow, in that messiness there is an order; an order that helps me understand the secrets of life. That is fascinating and painful at the same time.
(Mao by Andy Warhol)
Some friends ask me whether I have permanently left art and criticism. I am indelibly touched by their compassion and concern. I tell them politely what I do is art and art criticism. It is just a zonal and perspective shift that has occurred in me. I have been actively looking at what artists have been doing all these years. My interest in the art of politics was born out of my interest in history, which surprisingly I never had in my college days. History, I used to think as something that burdens human mind and cognitive faculties. Dates and data used to fill me with disgust and horror. But the moment I left college, I realized that there was much in history that I did not understand while I was in there. The problem was not with history but with college and the person that I had been in college. Then came the politics of art. It was disheartening. Soon I realized that none in the art scene had feet of steel, bronze or gold. Everyone was having that of not even solid clay but mulch, the filthy mulch. Still I clung on to my hope of redeeming myself from within that crowd. It was fruitful an effort. Then I saw a lot of political art. In India, whatever comes in the name of political art is nothing but the art of adjustment. It is art of negotiation. It is art of power. I have never seen any murkier art than something called political art in India.
Disappointed I turned to history for my solace and it has been on for more than a decade. My personal library which is currently located in Delhi would tell you how eclectic I was in my effort to survive in the world of letters and criticism for there was no anchor other than the contemporary political history to pit against the contemporary art history. I was writing contemporary art history and I was sucking out of the contemporary political history for my energy. I realized sooner than later that I could not have gone on like that forever. Today, I see Indian art dying out, losing vigor and draining itself of its life sap. Recently I attended an art camp. I inaugurated that national camp. I started my speech saying that when someone invites you to inaugurate something or as a chief guest in the function, your days of rebellion are numbered. You dissent has been co-opted and you are a subsumed entity. While it remains the truth there is some fun in being a chief guest; at least during those moments you are considered indisputable and whatever you say listen worthy.
(Work by Ron Mueck)
My speech was not written; it was extempore though I have been preparing this speech in my mind for the last two years; exactly speaking ever since Mr.Narendra Modi came to power in the centre. I spoke of the days of implied political emergency in the country. My trigger was just Mr.L.K.Advani. In a way I was exonerating myself from the possible attacks from the right wing forces. Advani had a different reason to talk about the incipient political emergency. I had a different one. I spoke of the yielding nature of the artists. When they are asked to sit, they are ready to bend their knees in supplication before power. When they are asked to shut up, they would even stitch their lips together. I asked them to beware of such a scenario where artists would be rendered absolutely voiceless. I asked them to speak up because it was the right time to speak up. If you do not speak up now, perhaps you would never be able to. I showed them how artists in this country are divested of their right to speak when the country faces natural calamities. When terrorists attack the country, when natural calamities affect the nation, all the representatives except the artists are asked for views and opinion. None asks for artists’ opinion. Dancers are asked, musicians are asked, writers are asked, actors are asked, but no artists. Why? One has to think. Nobody asks anything to the artists because artists have ceased to be the conscience keepers of the society. They have become co-conspirators in the acts of crime and corruption. They say, they make art and they do not know anything else. I tell them to speak up; not about their art but about their political views, their difference with the governments.
Unfortunately they become fund raisers. When there is a war, these artists do shows to raise funds for jawans. When there is a calamity they raise funds. What a ridiculous situation they have brought themselves into. One has to think about it. I asked the artists to speak up. But they misunderstood and as expected they started saying that they were not vocal the way I wanted them to be. But is there any person in this world who is not vocal when one’s freedom and dignity are at stake? When one does not have power they at least howl and thrash their legs and hands. Here, our artists remain utterly silent. In their air conditioned and dustless studios they are creating art for humanity. If anyone tells me that great artists in the history have not spoken against power, then I would like to remind them that they all have spoken. They have been even executed for speaking the truth. Artists have done great sacrifices including risking their lives to remain free and say their political views. But in India, the irony is that the artists run with the prey and hunt with the hunter.
(Art of Excess - work by Subodh Gupta)
My speech was not well received by the artists. They said they were not cut to make political speeches. Their job is to do art. I did not go to argue with them. Someone told me that one of the artists said that my opinion was quite detrimental to the art scene and he was seriously disappointed. Why one should be disappointed at all? When the fundamental rights of an individual are vandalized how can artists sleep sound? How can they create beauty when ugliness is the parameter to judge their beauty? How can they think about human redemption when they know that they are still in shackles? There is a political revolution happening in our country. It has different phases and faces. One could not subscribe to all or none. One has to subscribe to one at least. One need not wear it on his or her sleeve. But there should be some kind of protest happening somewhere so that the social thinkers and political strategists would heed to the human voices of aesthetics and the demand for sublime life. Why are the artists not doing it? I am not saying that none is doing it. Many are and I respect them. There are young artists in Delhi who are vocal against the fundamentalist moves of the central government. But there is a majority that keeps quiet. I say, we cannot create beauty in this time. We need a different artistic articulation. At present none, almost none seems to be able to do it. I know artists who have even switched medium as they find the present one so oppressive but impotent in expressing what they really want to say about the incipient emergency in our country. Some artists have started writing. Some have started doing silent campaigns. I am worried about the majority that has shifted to making godly icons as a covert strategy to survive bad times.
You may wonder how, in these days of no-art criticism, which has been feeding me for decades, I survive financially. To tell you the truth, I started teaching in a parallel tutorial college where I take English poetry and drama classes for degree students. The management pays me Rs.150/- hour. I work for five hours on alternate days. I survive on a meager income. But I am happy to be so. My reading and writing has not been affected by any of these. I do my political work and I do contribute my time and resources to the party. I do not go to teach everyday because I know if I do, the attraction to make money would finally help me to set up my own college because there is a lot of money in education sector. I resist all temptations because I need my time and my freedom. Refusing the big money from art scene is my political stance and earning to fulfill my minimum necessities is again my political positioning. I use a cycle to move around. I am not a fundamentalist of austerity. When time comes I would switch to luxury, which is good for keeping the skin smooth and mind dull. At times I crave for a dull mind. But the time is not ripe yet.