Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pandeymonium: Has Piyush Pandey got Blood on His Hands?

(Book cover 'Pandeymonium' by Piyush Pandey)

Five CEOs of India’s top companies and one former cricketer and commentator endorse the book, ‘Pandeymonium’, the memoirs of Piyush Pandey, one of the finest advertising personalities in the world. We should be proud of him because he is an Indian. Hailing from Rajasthan, settled in Goa and works from all over South Asia as the Chairman and Creative Director of the Advertising major, Ogilvy and Mather, Piyush Pandey has created the most delightful advertisements that includes the ads for the adhesive, Fevicol and Fevikwik, Cadbury’s, Tata Steel and many more and has earned more than 800 awards from the grand jurists of the advertisement world. Though one cannot pass a day without an Ogilvy ad playing somewhere in radio or television or pasted large over hoardings or printed on the pages of newspapers on magazines or the youtube programs that you browse on, Piyush Pandey will be remembered for his ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumahara’, an adhesive song like his Fevicol ad, that joined India as never before in the post television national mindscape. Pandey repeated the magic in his postal and railway promotional ads and also he raised the standard of tourism in several states including Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat through is advertising wizardry.

 (Amitabh Bacchan with Pandey on the book release platform)

The accolades could go on when one writes about Piyush Pandey whose works I have noticed just like any other aesthetic Indian has done before but I have kept on remembering him for a different reason. Sunil Sethi, Chetan Seth and Piyush Pandey, three stalwarts in the field of business and culture share one common thing as I noticed while seeing them regularly in the page three scene of the Newspapers. They have interesting moustaches. Sunil Sethi has an upturned white moustache. Chetan Seth also sports one such and Piyush Pandey has got a moustache that is entirely different from the others. His moustache looks like an additional fitting, rustic but mischievous, which imparts a sort of boyishness to him even at his sixtieth year. Growing up in Rajasthan might have helped him in imagining a moustache like that from the very early age itself. And he did realise one in all its lavishness which added to his presence as a human being. A cricket buff and Pandey played in the Ranji team of Rajasthan in 1970s before getting in to the field of advertising. One should also add here that Piyush Pandey has very famous siblings like Prasoon Pandey, ad film maker, creative director and writer and Ila Arun, the chole ke peeche kya hai lady of Indian movies.

(Vodafone zoozoos, from Pandey's stable)

I love to read books that are made by men and women who have made themselves. Perhaps, not all the memoirs have that quality of retelling those stories of making a man or woman interestingly the way Pandey has described his life. The reason that makes this book appealing is this that throughout the narrative he keep sufficient restrain in speaking about his own self. Instead, Pandey speaks of his surroundings, the people in his life and the works that he has done. As a team player, a lesson that he had learnt from his cricketing days, he believes that the job of a creative director is not alone and the credit of his work is also not to be taken away alone. His life is a part of many other lives and his works are also a result of the combined efforts. What you make out of this? You hear the voice of a person who has left his ego completely for the success of his work. It is at times choking to read Pandey’s narrative as it would induce some kind of self doubt in you regarding your own ego. How could one be such a team player, devoid of any fights, always smiling, encouraging his colleageues and coming out with the right thing? But Pandey gives some breathers as he points out the lows of his life which are rare and are related to work rather than his emotional life.

(Pandey's work for BJP)

Advertising is a challenging job because it is all about communication. When the target audience does not the message then advertisement is a failure. Advertisement is a notch above fine arts because a fine artist is not burdened by the need to communicate. He or she could communicate to an intelligent critic or collector who would take the message further. But advertiser has to make his product not only aesthetically appealing and simply communicating. It should not only connect emotionally but also connect intellectually. It should touch the gut of the viewer and to do that the message should come from the gut of the maker. It should be a very corporeal feeling and the same time the effect should be disembodied. While a jingle follows you everywhere, the feel of the advertisement should persist in your entire being. You don’t buy a product for the jingle but you buy it for the emotional and intellectual connect. An advertisement has something to do with your idea of life, your state of being and your aspirations. Piyus Pandey understood these rules at a very early age as he closely followed the Pabuji ki Phad, the wandering bard’s picture narratives. In this pat chitra (scroll painting) tradition of Rajasthan the bard sings the songs or narrates a story showing the picture in his scroll. An advertiser does just the same thing. He sells a story in crux, an emotion and evokes a need to be a part of the product.

Ogilvy has been famous for its positioning in the global advertising world as an agency that has never taken up a political assignment. In 2013, Ogilvy for the first time in its history signed a contract with the BJP which was going to the elections and was pitching for an absolute majority in the Indian Parliament. The brief came from the BJP think tank and it said that there should be one man oriented publicity. It was Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister candidate. Piyush Pandey with his team created so many ads that enabled the party to connect with the millions of people in India and finally achieved its electoral goal. Piyush Pandey in his characteristic style created the catch lines like, ‘Ab ki bar, modi sarkar’ and ‘Ache din aane waale hai’ (good days are coming). The catch phrases worked well. It connected with the people. The Modi image was built effectively. Pandey played a very important role in it. He used his childhood experiences to find the punch lines and as we know that he has always used his childhood memories to make the advertisement films emotionally effective and intellectually communicative.

(Tory ad by Saatchi and Saatchi, Britain)

It is here I would like to just spare a few words about the ethics in advertisement. A celebrity like Amitabh Bacchan or Sharukh Khan or anybody of their stature, before going to acting in an ad film or endorsing a particular product, takes all the necessary care including legal protection so that they could insulate themselves from the ill effects of an advertisement. Intelligent and socially committed people terminate contracts with the companies if the product that they endorse could adversely affect humanity. If so, what about the ad makers or idea makers like Piyush Pandey? By now, he knows for sure that the catch lines he has created have taken a U turn and the rule of Narendra Modi has started affecting the lives of people in a very wrong way. Right wing fundamentalism is on the rise. If so, has Pandey contributed to this situation? Can he wash off his hands by saying that he was doing his job, nothing else? We need to find some answers. Pandey is a very pleasing personality, socially committed, aesthetically polished and very driven by patriotism. He has been a good friend of Narendra Modi since his Chief Minister days in Gujarat. The Godhra issue did not deter Piyush Pandey from taking up the job of selling Gujarat brand. But it was for the state therefore passable. But working for a political party which has obvious connections with the right wing fundamentalism, cannot be just another purely career driven act, especially from a personality like Piyush Pandey.
Ogilvy under Pandey has done what Saatchi and Saatchi had done to the Tories in Britain in 1980s. When Saatchi and Saatchi came up with the line ‘Labour is not working’, the history of the Labour Party changed forever. The Conservatives under Margret Tatcher came to power and she could continue for three terms. Today, we know where Saatchi stands in the Britain’s cultural landscape. Ogilvy, in that sense, under the leadership of Piyush Pandy has changed the political visual landscape of India by ably propping Modi as the new messiah of India. Now the Modi is not the same Modi who had promised progress and development. Under his regime people are being killed for eating beef or entering temple. In this scenario would Pandey regret his decision of taking of the job for the BJP? Despite all those successes behind his career, could this one be a blot in the history of Ogilvy and that of Pandey? One could easily was off his hand by saying that he was doing a job for the party. But what about the party’s deeds that used Pandey’s intelligence to influence people? Pandey closes the chapter on his work for BJP in just six pages. May be he needs one whole books to express his guilt, if at all he feels it. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

Dogs in Art: Dog Depictions in our Society and Art

(Dog depiction on Greek Vase 5th c BC)

Dogs are the best friends of human beings. How ordinary that sentence sounds! It is also said that dogs and spouse slowly start resembling their owner. How atrocious that statement sounds! The word owner could be used in the context of a dog but what about a spouse? Ask yourself. There is a constant need to own each other and disown too. These days, dogs have become a subject of social debates. They seem to believe in a Semitic god who had told the human beings to go and multiply. In this case too dogs and human beings are alike; they obey the God to the dot. In Hindu mythology too references of dog come often. Lower caste characters are accompanied by dogs; remember Shiva appearing as Chandala (Dalit) with a pack of dogs. It was a dog who accompanied Yudhishtira to heaven for he too had done the good deeds. Also, there is a mean reference in Mahabharata where a dog ogled the love making between Dharmaputra and Draupadi. He was cursed by the elder Pandava and that’s why dogs are seen coupled in open, shamed and stoned by public. Voyeurs were given suitable punishment in myths. When Indra ogled at a sage’s wife, he grew vaginas all over his body and he had to go in hiding. Krishna was the only voyeur who was permitted to letch at women openly. But he did not have a dog to accompany him. As I cowherd Krishna must also have had a dog to follow him, I believe though references of dogs are purged from the textual and visual narratives.

(Dog following Pandavs to heaven -wood engraving, Bengal, 19th century)

In art dogs come quite often. If dogs are seen in the traditional art both in the Western and the Eastern streams of it, then we can deduce that they were a constant presence in human life. Earliest references say that these wild animals from the steppe regions (with tall growing grass) started following human beings and were soon domesticated by the primitive people for various purposes including protecting their children and pack. Recent studies in man-dog relationship have come out with the finding that it was through the eye contacts that the human beings and dogs developed a trust based relationship. Human beings used to look at the dogs straight into their eyes and it released a hormone called oxytocin in their brains. This is the love hormone that developed mutual affection and trust between dogs and human beings. This love for dogs has been always shown in art right from the cave art period. It Greek vases and tombs one could see dog depictions. Since Renaissance, we see recurring depictions of dog not only in religious contexts but also in secular contexts. In Peter Brueghel’s works we see dogs replicating the sins of human beings in their various postures of fighting between each other.

 (Arnolifini Wedding. Jan Van Eyck 15th c Dutch)

Social as well as cultural sophistication brought dogs from the courtyard to the inner rooms. Predominantly used for hunting, the dogs and their difference species slowly became pets and got entry into the inner chambers of both men and women. Art also started reflecting this transition as devoted portraits of famous dogs and pets were commissioned by the royal and aristocratic patrons. Today we see innumerable photographs and videos of pet dogs even framed and kept on the show walls. Amongst the depictions of dog/s ‘the Wedding of Arnolfini’, by Jan Van Eyck in 15th century appears to be very important. Famous for his symbolism Eyck here brings a poodle at the feet of the married Arnolfini couple and it is read into as a symbol of female softness, servility and loyalty to the wedded home and husband. In the oriental art too, we see several scroll and parchment paintings and ink drawings where dogs are seen walking along with monks and mendicants.

 (Here comes Papa, Raja Ravi Varma, early 20th century)

In Modern Indian art, we see the dog for the first time in a painting by Raja Ravi Varma. Titled ‘Here comes Papa’, a Nair lady is seen holding her son at her hip and showing outside the frame perhaps where his father is seen coming. Though there is a contention about the title and the thematic, what makes this painting interesting is the presence of a dog in the frame. The painting not only shows the arrival of the patriarchy into a society where matriarchy was in vogue but also the arrival of modernity in terms social and domestic life which is connoted by the presence of a dog. Dog depictions are however not seen too strongly for a few decades till Ram Kinkar Baij made his famous sculptures, Santhal Family and Mill Call. In both these works you could see the dogs becoming an integral part of the family’s existence. Baij shows the transition of economics in these works; there is a movement from the agricultural economy to the industrial one. Dogs move with economics as the people move with it. Baij, till he died in 1980 took a special interest in animals and birds in general and dogs in particular. In 1940s during the Bengal Famine, when Somnath Hore, Chittaprasad and Zainul Abdeen went to document the famine scenes they could not avoid the presence of the struggling dogs.

 (Santal Family, Ram Kinkar Baij, 1930s)

Though it cannot be called a Shantiniketan tradition, the best dog depictions have come out of Shantinikatan. K.G.Subramanyan is the master of drawing dogs and monkeys. A.Ramachandran also has painted dogs in their ferocious and romantic forms from his 1970s dark paintings to the 1990s romantic paintings. K.S.Radhakrishnan’s Chandela Rider is one sculpture that has captured the essence of a dog’s movement which could be likened to the movement of Giocometti’s famous sculpture of a lean dog. Giacomo Balla’s ‘Dog on the Leash’ cannot be forgotten at this moment. However, the most iconic dog depiction in India is done by K.C.S.Panicker in one of his last paintings titled ‘Dog’. A dog cannot be so strong, hungry, ferocious, and at the same time represent Time as he is seen in the painting of K.C.S.Panicker. Perhaps, Malayali artists have a very special affinity for dogs. In the works of T.V.Santhosh, K.P.Reji, Ratheesh, Rajeesh, Shibu Natesan, Bhagyanathan and so on dogs appear as a recurring theme.

 (Dog, K.C.S.Panicker, mid 1970s)

There is an ongoing debate today regarding stray dogs: whether to kill them or not. Some say they should be killed. Some say they should be protected. Middleclass views on this issue are quite varied. Some of them believe that the dog saviours do it for supporting the pharmaceutical industry that produces rabbis vaccine. The protectors allege that the killers are ruthless. Maneka Gandhi, the central minister for animal welfare and herself and animal rights activist recently made a ridiculous comment saying that when a dog comes to bite one should climb on a tree. She was trolled to zero in the social media by people. We need to think more about dogs and their relationship with the society. Killing them is not a solution and letting them loose is not a solution either. Our social and environmental engineers should think about it and find a good solution.

(Dog on Leash, Giocomo Balla, 1912, Italy)

(Dog, Giocometti, 1957 )

In the meanwhile, I see a very peculiar attitude of the dog owners on a daily basis. I go for my morning walk in a very large park. People come with their dogs to stroll them. There are also a lot of stray dogs there and they are settled along the jogging path. Some of them are very playful and jovial. They go behind the well bred and well kept domestic pets and play with them. Some lenient owners allow them to have even sprint matches. While the dogs are happy with each other, I see some of the owners shooing the stray dogs away exactly they would shoo away the street kids from their own Amul babies. Yesterday I heard a man asking a stray dog in the park as it was growling at his pet dog: ‘who are you son of b***c? How dare you bark at my baby?’ You may translate it into Hindi in many different ways and spice it up with the choicest Hindi expletives. I heard it not once. Several times from several people. Then I tell myself. Man, it is not just about human beings. Dogs are also brought up in a caste system in India. But I do not know whether the dogs really care about it or not.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Freedom and Misuse of Freedom in Art

(freedom under attack)

In the times of censorship, talking about creative freedom is a risky affair. Our ministers say that writers are paper tigers. A very erudite central minister who is also a legal hawk says that writers should involve in creative things; they just should not get into the matters of politics. How foolish one could get in this subject. If creating art is not political it is nothing else. Good artists make good political art. If a work of art does not have the politics and beauty of its time, the continuum of time and its will to future, then it is not a work of art at all. It could be a decorative object, ironically timeless for the time being. There is no bad art as such. Bad art is something that deals with politics ignorantly. The politics that manifests in art is not the politics that we see in parliaments, assemblies, streets, marches and in libraries. It is the condensed, deliberated, inspired and visionary outlook of an individual who is alert, aware and divinely prophetic. Such artists are few in number and that’s why we have lesser number of good works of art. Our political art is like fruit juice in tetra packs. It clearly says ‘No fruit pulp used’. Our political art comes with the warning in small fonts: ‘Nothing political about it’. Like our artists are afraid of the word feminism, our gallerists are afraid of the word political. I have heard a gallerist telling me, “I cannot showcase that kind of art. It is too political.’ There is something Harry Potterish about it. You-know-something-that-cannot-be-defined type. It is too frightening to be taken in or discarded.

(Perumal Murugan who committed 'suicide' as a writer continues to live a person)

I want to talk about freedom of expression and its own limits. It is paradoxical and ironical as freedom in its core contains the limitlessness of anything and limit is a word something that forcefully curtails anything that aspires (for) freedom. Constitutionally speaking, freedom is a word that comes with so many clauses. That means, freedom gives birth to limitation also. Just like limiting anything would eventually result into the notion of being free or freedom, the idea freedom also automatically brings in the limits that one has to draw in anything and everything. Universal citizens also need to carry passports. Freedom, while exercised mentally perhaps does not engender limitations but it could be limited by a sense of overwhelming-ness or boredom. But when it is exercised out here in the material world, we have to create certain invisible limits, whether it is a very mundane act like keeping a cup on a table in a restaurant where a stranger shares an opposite chair or a work of art created within the privacy of a studio or writing desk. However, these conscious acts of self defining freedom need not necessarily be palatable to all the parties and the resultant works of art or deeds could easily offend anybody. Humour could easily invite vandalism and murder as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo early this year. In India, recounting an early tradition could force a writer to commit a literary suicide as seen in the case of Perumal Murugan.

 (intended to provoke- a painting by Akram Husain)

If freedom and its self limiting or self editing or censoring can’t assure the smooth passage of a work of art from the artist’s studio/desk to the larger community of art lovers and readers, then we should be more aware of such a situation. Freedom assured by the governments creates a climate for creativity where the artists and writers could create their works of art, project in public and generate a series of debates at times severely critical of the governments themselves. An egalitarian government only can take such critique on its stride and in the spirit of familial bonding. A country that is hailed as motherland or fatherland cannot victimise its children/citizens for talking back to the parents. When such a familial climate is poisoned with the fumes of suspicion and conspiracy freedom takes a backseat and the helms are taken over by fascists. Works of art produced in such climates will be ridden by anxiety and fear. When a work of art is produced in anxiety and fear that will be more critical of the governments. In such scenario, artists are condemned not only by the governments but also by the mobs that subscribe the state ideology uncritically. At times artists would find ways to circumvent censorship, and also overcome fear and anxiety and they will retreat to make decorative art or narratives with covert political messages. It is a fact that fascist governments always fail to read into parables and stories. That means fascist governments’ outlook on culture is skin deep. They want the obvious and palpable. They do not understand the subtle and meaningful. Hence, during the days of fascism, I as an art critic expect more and more subtle yet meaningful works of art from our artists and writers.

 (an interesting invitation from Nehru Centre, London)

In the days of fascism and the fear generated by it, it is foolishness to go for direct confrontation with it. While artists and writers could collectively object the fascist regime, it is pertinent for them to keep cool and find strategies to express their thoughts. It is a sort of aesthetic guerrilla warfare. In April this year, a group of people approached me with a plea. They wanted me to respond to a particular incident in Assam where the right wing fundamentalists had vandalised a show of a young artist Akram Husain. The problem with his show was his depiction of Lord Krishna in a bar surrounded by a group of bikini clad young women. According to the artist, it was a rasaleela scene and it was his interpretation of it in the contemporary days. The fundamentalists slapped a police case against him and the police filed an FIR. The show was dismantled. The friends who approached me wanted me to support the cause of the freedom of expression and they wanted me to support the artist, Akram Husain. I told them that the work of art in question was aesthetically poor and not done in good faith. Artists are not those people who could anything in the name of freedom. Akram should have known that our country is going through a very bad period in terms of freedom of expression and anything that touches upon the Hindu mythology should be treated subtly. Here Akram had indulged in making the obvious vulgar. While his critique stood its ground, his work did not justify the critique. It was too naive to be political. Hence, my response was this that a political artist also is driven by political awareness, social awareness and religious awareness. One cannot be separated from the other. If one is aware of all these, he or would exercise restraint in saying this bluntly. As I said before, fascism plays with the obvious and it also opposes the obvious. Akram Husain was working on his surname Husain and he thought a religious controversy would make him another star in the league of the legendary artist M.F.Husain. Akram’s freedom fell flat on its nose. Nothing is heard from him after that.

(author, political thinker, cartoonist,late OV Vijayan)

Seen in a different context but against the backdrop of freedom of expression, it is pertinent to see how we as creative people position ourselves in the society, its tradition both cultural and political, vis-a-vis our own works. Despite all that freedom we have as creative people is it possible to align our names as co-producers of a work of art with a universally acclaimed name? For example, however I deem myself as a good writer, is it possible for me to say that I am a collaborator of Orhan Pamuk or Ben Okri if I use their novels as a trigger or a model to generate a series of narratives and can I publish a book saying that I am the author of the book along with Ben Okri, especially when Ben Okri himself has not seen it or discussed or not even know about it? Late O.V.Vijayan, the great writer, political thinker and cartoonist, wrote a book in late 1980s titled ‘Kurippukal’ (Notes). In that, Vijayan portraits himself as a ‘humble historian’ who visits Shivaji, Akbar, Marx and such historical figures and enters in a direct dialogue with them. It is a book of imaginary stories but original findings and views. My question is could Vijayan have published the book claiming himself as the author along with Carl Marx or Chatrapati Shivaji? Reason tells me that it would have been ridiculous. We can get inspired, we can rework, reinterpret, re-present an existing work of art. But we cannot ever say that we are the co-authors with the original writer or artist.

(Book cover If only I were a Bird)

Though taking such liberties with an author like Rabindranath Tagore is permissible as the copyright time frame regarding his works has been over by now. Recently I received an invitation from a friend and it showed that writer-artist Aurogeeta Das, performer Anshuman Biswas along with Rabindranath Tagore having an exhibition titled ‘If only I were a Bird’ along with a book of pictures under the same title. This show will be inaugurated and the book will released on 4th November 2015 at the Nehru Centre, London. Curiosity sent me to do a little research and I found out that this is an outcome of workshop with kids in Tagore Centre where Aurogeeta Das recited and retold the stories from Tagore’s oeuvre and Anshuman Biswas interpreted them in his performance. The works of art thus produced are of birds and the exhibition is comprised of these works. The invitation as well as the book show that Aurogeeta Das and Anshuman Bishwas are exhibiting with Rabindranath Tagore. I thought it is misuse freedom. This co-authorship tells me that there should be a limit to freedom even if I was debating it at the outset of this essay. How can I use a Shakespeare play for a residency workshop, with a performer and a few youngsters and then claim the outcome as a project done myself and Shakespeare? I think artists should be humble enough to acknowledge their indebtedness to great masters and also not misuse their names for personal mileage. Ai Weiwei is given an exhibition in Melbourne along with Andy Warhol. It is a curatorial intervention. Weiwei perhaps is more relevant and popular than Warhol was. So it is justified. But what about this lady, Aurogeeta Das and Rabindranath Tagore?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Was Sunil Janah a Great Photographer? Or is it all Made Up?

(Sunil Janah 1918-2012)

History is always the slave of greatness. It is there to serve the master who is great or tipped to be one. Have you ever thought how we recognize great masters from any field? We see them, understand them and even wonder at them because they are the chosen people of history. And history is a loyal but blind servant. It fails to see other people with talent and it is so loyal to the great masters that it even casts aspersions over the other great people visiting its household. This helps us to take all the modern masters with a pinch of salt. I do not intend to say that their greatness is questionable; but I do intend to say that they are history’s darlings. How can I question the greatness of Picasso or Ram Kinkar Baij? But I should also say that they were in the right place at the right time so that history could aid them to cross over the turbulent waters of the river of Time.

(Indrani Rahman by Sunil Janah)

This line, ‘Right man in the right place at the right time’ comes repeatedly in Ram Rahman’s narrative on the three hundred odd photographs by the late photographer Sunil Janah, secured by Delhi’s art collector, Vijaya Kumar Aggarwal. This photography collection was kept in his Swaraj Art Archive in Noida and it would have remained there for long had it not been found out by chance by the photographer and activist, Ram Rahman. Though Aggarwal had not recognised the beautiful woman in one of the photographs, which he thought of displaying at his home, Ram Rahman could not have failed to recognize her. It was his mother, Indrani Rahman, who was a well known dancer and social activist. This chance finding took him to the collection of photographs and today it is a book and an exhibition, which is currently on in Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art.

(belly dancers by Sunil Janah)

Great photographers in India or in other words, the photographers whom we consider vintage today were/are lucky men who had the rare chance of handling a camera in their early days itself. In a vast country like India, the number of people who could afford a camera around hundred and fifty years back was almost nil. With the British came the proliferation of photographic equipment and interest here and it was a serious occupation for the early photographers like Raja Deen Dayal who commanded royal patronage for their works. Royal and feudal assistance was a pre-requisite for pursuing photography and only those people who could afford a camera and had the passion for developing photographs could pursue a career in it. Though amateur photography clubs were started by 1857 in India, the members were from the aristocratic families. For women, it was a pastime and like the brown skinned Indian servants assisted the men in hunting, aristocratic women were waited upon by Indian servants in their photographic expeditions. 

(Sunil Janah, Margaret Bourke-White and Rangekar in 1945)

Looking back, we could see the three sixty degree revolution happened in the use of photography as a creative and communicative medium. The erstwhile aristocratic, therefore hegemonic and hierarchic activity has now melted all its socio-cultural and economic barriers and has come handy to anybody who could afford to buy a mobile phone fitted with a camera. When Sunil Janah came to the scene in 1930s and became active since 1940s there were not too many photographic practitioners who involved in social work or politics. For Sunil Janah, it was not just a chosen vocation but a mission given to him by one his mentors, P.C. Joshi, leader of the undivided Communist Party of India. As a literature student in the Presidency College in Calcutta, Sunil Janah was not contemplating a career in photography when he was asked to document the Bengal Famine in 1943. Janah left his studies half and took the plunge in political activism as a photographer along with Chittoprasad Bhattacharya, the master printmaker and illustrator of the time. Sunil Janah after his party work in different places including Bombay and Delhi, left for Calcutta in late 1940s, disillusioned by the Communist Party, only to be attracted to the nation building efforts of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He took up the UNO’s project to photograph the tribes in the South East Asian countries.

 (Book cover of Sunil Janah)

Sunil Janah is famous for his political photographs that include the photographs taken during his communist days and the Nehruvian days. But the present body of work falls in between, a period from 1940 to 1960s. As I mentioned at the outset, this collection as a book and also an exhibition is an occasion to problematise these works done by Janah. Here Janah does not come across as a man who was really compassionate about his subjects as he had done in his activist photographs. This view however does not intend to show Janah in poor light. What makes me curious is Janah’s own choice of selecting, publishing and exhibiting a major portion of these works in 1948 itself. In 1948, he published ‘Second Creature’, predominantly comprising of the pictures of the semi-nude pictures of the Malabar women peasants (somehow he stumps Simone de Beauvoir who published Second Sex in 1949). In 1993 he came out with the ‘The Tribals of India’. Though there are other books on the works of Janah, I would like to take these two books as a backdrop to discuss this body of works currently curated and exhibited by Ram Rahman.

(photograph by Sunil Janah)

Sunil Janah was a privileged photographer on two counts. He became a photographer because he had a camera and also had trained in making photographic prints by the veteran photographer Shambhu Shaha. He decided to leave his studies and plunge into photography because he had the blessing of the party’s top leadership. Now, we cannot say that the Communist Party was a rich party as we see today. It was a party which was still in struggle with the Congress. As a party of the peasants and workers, the Communist artists were looking the life and times of these works. Poverty was the bench mark and it was a touchstone to test the humanism of any activist. Janah went headlong in documenting poverty and it was not just a documentation but loaded with ideological issues including international diplomacy and war time positioning of the party. Interestingly, immediately after the Bengal Famine, Janah seems to have been deputed to Kerala, especially in Malabar which was still a part of Madras Presidency, where he started documenting the peasant women.

(Malabar -peasant women by Sunil Janah)

The semi clad women with their upper torso completely exposed to the gaze of the photographer as well as the onlooker, could easily be seen through a feminist’s eyes and accused the artist of making incursions into their ‘bodies’. Of course there is an aspect of male gaze in these photographs but we have to ask which photograph is not the result of a gaze, male, female or the third gender. A photograph is the product of a gaze and there is no doubt about it. However, when we look at these works of Janah, we come to know that the artist was facing a no alternative situation on the one hand and an extremely enjoyable scene on the other. There was no alternative because the women peasants in Malabar (or women in Kerala in general) were not allowed to wear blouses or anything that covered their upper bodies. For a peasant, whether male or female a loin cloth was the maximum dress allowed by the society. The feudal systems operational in those days did not allow women to wear upper clothes. It was the privilege of the land lord to enjoy their ‘breasts’. Only women from the Brahmin castes were allowed to cover their upper bodies. In Malabar, all the lower castes including the Nairs were not allowed to cover their breasts. From 19th century to 1960s there were social struggles to gain right for women to cover their breasts. There used to be tax (mulakkaram- breast tax) imposed upon those who wore upper garments.

(Malabar peasant by Sunil Janah)

Seen against this backdrop, we understand that Sunil Janah was not intentionally looking at the bare breasted women for the pleasure of gaze. However, we feel the kind of relief that Janah enjoyed after documenting the pathetic scenes in Bengal famine for a long time. This part of Malabar was a welcoming respite for Janah and he seems to have revelled in this new found land of bare breasted beauties. There are two pictures that I would like to bring in for discussion because Janah makes this constant effort to edit his pictures differently, with and without certain figures, which in fact give away the ‘male’ in Janah. He more or less becomes Gaugin in Tahiti, as rightly pointed out by Ram Rahman (but in a different sense). In one of the pictures we see a group of women in their natural habitat of work. There are two women on the left side of the frame and they are fully clad in a ‘modern way’. But the gaze is upon the semi clad woman turning her gaze towards her right, showing no interest in photography. In another print, Janah edits the well dressed women on the left and focus is given completely on the semi clad woman who just does not counter gaze at the photographer. In another photograph, Janah edits the background of Kerala out and juxtaposes the nude figure with an exotic landscape and takes a final print. Here the intention of the artist is pretty much clear; more than documenting the peasant women in a communist party context, here we see a young man thoroughly enjoying the platter of breasts spread out before him. Communist affiliation in fact does not reduce anybody’s male tendencies.

(Santal boys by Sunil Janah)

Let’s take these women who are mostly willing subjects. They do not have any problem in posing semi naked because they are semi naked in their normal life. There is no other point of reference for them to feel ashamed of their semi nudity. The women who are clad in the same frame are from the Muslim community and they are as good as outcastes. The dresses that they wear are an aberration as far as the semi naked women are concerned. It is not that they peasants are unaware of the struggles around breasts and blouses going on in their land. We cannot write out the influence of communism amongst the working class and Malabar region remains to be one of the strong holds of the communist party even today. But what interests me is their happy poses, which is not intimidated by the presence of the man with a camera. Here the tension of the photographer is palpable as he monumentalize their presence as in the posters from Soviet Union (the reason Ram Rahman cites as his familiarity with the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, the legendary film makers in the revolutionary Russia), with their upturned noses and nipples; Janah struggles to hold the camera straight whereas the girls do not even acknowledges his greatness. They are natural. Here is the confrontation of two cultures; one is thoroughly informed of the urban-rural divide and ideology pertaining to male-female participation in the social progress, and the nature which is yet reluctant to receive that culture.

 (Bengal Famine by Sunil Janah)

Janah’s interest in working with the semi clad women continues to the point of obsession when he takes of the United National project to document tribals and also develops an anthropological interest in documenting the tribals in India itself. His association with the American photographer, Margarete Bourke –White who was in India for a Life Magazine assignment in 1945 and his sharing of her flash lights have become a part of the lore of both the photographers. But I would like to say that even if Janah was a communist to begin with, being a photographer he always stood at the side of power. His disillusionment with the Communist party led him to Nehru’s ‘progressive’ measures and he went on to photograph factories and dams. Was it simply a career move? Janah, as an artist, after the communist days, decided to travel with the dominant and the powerful. His experience in documenting the famine and the national leaders as well as common peasants came handy in getting assignments not only from the government of India but also from the United Nations and other international agencies. Janah was a man in the right place at the right time. The greatness of his photography is assisted by history. He became the darling of history because there were not too many to pursue the same career path at that time.

 (work by Sunil Janah)

I would like to close this essay with the following questions that came to my mind while going through the works of Sunil Janah and curated by Ram Rahman. Had there been more photographers at that time could Janah become a celebrated photographer as we see today? Had he not been given assignments by various powerful national and international agencies, what could have been his works in those years? Hasn’t his communist affiliation and the works that he had done between 1940 and 1950 justified the later works which are fine documents but really not great photographs? The more I look at the works of Janah’s the more I become aware of his purism which he himself had accepted. What he aspired for was a clean photograph not a photograph that showed various moods within a picture. His narrative was already set and it was authorial in nature. The later works of his seem to be of less significance for critical views and their significance would be justified by the author’s name that goes with them. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Lego and Ai Weiwei: What We Indians Need to Learn from Ai Weiwei

(Ai Weiwei)

The tussle between the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Danish toy major Lego has now been blown into an international debate. Ai placed an order with the Lego for a massive amount of plastic building blocks in order to make his works of art for a forthcoming show with Late Andy Warhol in Melbourne, Australia. And the company refused to take the order saying that their products could not be used for any political purpose. Ai retaliated with an instagram post with the Lego blocks being flushed down in a commode, signed R.Mutt 2015; a direct visual quotation or reference to Duchamp’s famous readymade, Fountain, introduced into the art debates in 1917. Almost after a century, Duchamp comes back to haunt the world of art through Ai’s reactions on Lego’s official stance.

Two things are evident here. One, Ai is the most political therefore controversial artist in the world today, overshadowing the fame of Anish Kapoor, Jeff Coons and Damien Hirst. Two, the company itself has declared that their products could not be used for ‘political’ purpose. Not in the history of art ever before such a denial has come up from a manufacturer against an artist who has directly approached the company for their products. It is not that Ai has not used their products before. In 2014, in his Alcatraz Island exhibition in the US titled ‘Trace’ Ai had created 176 portraits of people from around thirty three countries, who had either imprisoned or exiled themselves due to their political stance or non-conformity with their respective governments. Like jigsaws, Ai used the building blocks to make their portraits including that of the one and only Nelson Mandela, as a recuperative or redemptive or even commemorative gesture of his own incarceration for 80 days in Chinese prison in 2011, during which his studio was bulldozed by the authorities.  

(Portrait done by Ai using Lego blocks)

Ai has never been out of news. He was in the news last month when his retrospective exhibition was opened in Royal Academy of Arts in London on 17th October 2015. This blockbuster show had changed the perspective of many art critics including the staunch critics of his personality and personal and political attitudes. He had also joined Anish Kapoor in a public procession with the London based artists, demanding shelter for the refugees from West Asia and East Europe in the rich and flourishing European countries. Hanging a grey coarse blanket over his shoulders, reminding the people and authorities of the primal man’s exodus from one hostile clime to a better one, and also reminding the greatest redeemer of history, Moses, who had asked the sea to part and succeeded in it, Ai walked in his all rawness and simplicity, attracting the world media. Today, there is only one artist in the world, whose stance on his art, life and also the politics not only of his own country, China but also of all other countries makes sense and demands policy changes. The Lego controversy should be seen and discussed in this light.

The moment this controversy broke out in the internet space via instagram on 24th October 2015, the world picked it up as a developing story and the world responded to it with the same verve that they would respond to a war crisis or another humanitarian issue, similar to the one evoked by Aylan Kurd’s dead body. Little kids came up in social media with their photographs offering Ai with their personal collection of Lego bricks. Today, Ai has said that the world’s response to this crisis is so immense and he is flooded with queries about the drop points of their Lego bricks. He told the world media that he would soon decide setting up such collection points. It is one of the most prestigious moments in world art history where an artist could wake the conscience of the world up by not going down to the diktats of a private corporate. The gesture of the artist as well as the gesture of the world is so important and the market leaders should wake up and take a note of it, so are the capitalist world leaders. The lesson is simple but strong and evocative. If people think and if they decide to boycott products then definitely they can bring the shutters down for a company. If people decide to bring the products of a company and flood the second hand market with their product, then also they could destroy a company.

 (Instagram posting of Ai)

This is people’s power. But today, the power of the people is woken up by an artist like Ai. He stands with Mahatma Gandhi who had asked the people to boycott foreign clothes. Here Ai does not ask for a boycott of Lego products. He shows his mid finger to the company literally and metaphorically. The world has responded by flooding him with Lego products. Now Lego could only resort to a legal route; that too would be to curtail artistic freedom. Lego, if at all it goes to the legal way, could only say that Ai should not use their product in his works. That is legible because Lego products are patented. But Ai could prop up another company to defeat Lego on ethical ground and take away all the Lego patrons to the new company. Ai with his avuncular presence has taken the kids and youth from all over the world to his side. In one of his videos we see two girls chancing upon him in a public place and take pictures with him. But while saying bye to each other, one of the girls tells him point blank: You look ordinary. Yes, that is the power of the common man. Ai has proved that common artist with uncommon ways of thinking too has that power of a populace.

Lego has its own reasons to deny the placing of Ai’s order. Lego as a company has been involved in several large scale projects, entertainment cities, parks and zones in China. The company has got contracts with the government of China. Ai is a ‘Ganatatra Shatru’. He is a political enemy as far as the government of China is concerned. He trashes the economically flourishing country image of China before the world. Chinese government could not stop him from being vocal despite his incarceration, confiscation of passport, movement restrictions and so on. People all over the world suddenly seem to have woken up to this artist who reminds them of the Oriental Gurus like Confucius and Lao Tzu. People recognize the image of Che, Gandhiji, Mandela, Andy Warhol and today Ai Wei Wei. In the world of corporatism it is easy to remember the faces of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as their products and ideas are in our hands. But they too will fade when new ideas and new products take over the market. But people Ai, Warhol, Che, Gandhiji, Mandela and so on do not fade because they happen only once in history. Second time if they happen they happen as Boses and Hirsts.

 (He Xie, porcelain crabs suggesting censorship by Ai Weiwei 2010)

We have to think of Ai in our times mainly because our country is going through a crisis; moral and political. We are apparently forced to believe that we live in a world of freedom. We have freedom of choice and freedom of thought. The fact is our freedom of choice is limited to the available even if the available has a vast range on display. Our freedom of thinking is also limited because our nourishment to free thinking is being controlled through various mediums. We live in an oppressive state where artists are forced to think several times whether the skin of their works even if it is in bronze or wood, need an addition cover of clothes in order to satisfy the right wing fundamentalists of all sorts. Liberals too have fundamentalists in them. Our writers are asked to shut up. They commit suicide as authors. Then they continue to live as witnesses whose tongue and limbs are chopped off. Our youngsters are asked to keep off from each other. We are no longer allowed to hold hands or kiss. Anything that liberates is clipped and caged. And this happens even before we realise that it has happened. Hence, we need to recognize Ai’s demand for justice and creative freedom. We need to respond the way world has responded. I have never been to China. I have never seen Ai or his works in real. But I do write about Ai because when I write about him I write about freedom.

Refusing working materials to an artist is like refusing food to a hungry human being. It is feudalism and patriarchy. It is fascism and despotism rolled into one. Refusing working materials to the artist is like refusing someone the freedom to walk in a public road only because he or she belongs to a particular caste or religion. Refusing working material to an artist is like refusing a sky and greenery to a woman and forcing her to kitchen. Refusing working materials to an artist is like chopping off the tongue of a singer. Refusing working materials to an artist is like imprisoning a bard for singing songs. Refusing working materials to an artist is like bombing a school full of innocent kids. Refusing working materials to an artist is like burning down a library. Refusing working materials to an artist is like beheading a girl for being beautiful. Ai Weiwei is an artist who is refused his working materials. Artists work even if they are imprisoned. Upon asking him about his possible imprisonment and his need to create art Picasso has famously said that he would paint the walls of the jail with his tongue. Ai has found his way; tongue or otherwise. But we need to learn a lot from him and stand by him.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Digging a Well in Desert: Determination and Hope of a New Art Gallery in Delhi

(Manu Narayanan- founder director of Neuhous art gallery)

Neuhous art gallery is the latest addition in the breaking and making series of gallery stories in Delhi. Fortunately, amidst the many breaking and breaking away stories, this one is about making a gallery. Neuhous is a neo-nym for New House. Located in Shahpur Jat, in the locality of the historical Siri Fort, this gallery was formally inaugurated on 24th October 2015 with a show of nine artists from all over India, culled, presented and curated by artist and art jurist, Veer Munshi. Before I go further to talk about the merit of the show titled ‘Quest of Mind’, it is pertinent to take a quick look at the gallery scene in Delhi.

 (curator artist Veer Munshi at Neuhous with veteran artist Manu Parekh)

The gallery scene in Delhi has been not so bright during the last few years. Hauz Khas was the destination point for the small scale galleries at one point of time because it was the upcoming fashionable market then for food, haute couture, craft, tattoo stores, simple hang out and then morning or evening walk. With ample space for parking just outside the village and a deer park, lake side and the ruins of Sultanate and Mughal time structures Hauz Khas was one of the haunting grounds for the rich and cultivated in Delhi in late 1980s and early 1990s and some of the galleries chose to operate from this village frozen in time but altered by modernity and upper middle class aspirations. With the art boom in the new millennium it became important for the startup galleries to find new avenues to set up their shops for the sheer lack of space in Hauz Khas. While the big galleries branched out to industrial areas (Okhla and Noida), small galleries migrated to another village, Lado Sarai. Located near Saket in South Delhi, Lado Sarai was a clone of Hauz Khas but with more art galleries. It was Anant Art Gallery that played the role of Columbus though it later on shifted to Noida. Then a came a series of galleries from elsewhere and roosted in the every nook and cranny of Lado Sarai. Last two years saw a spate of shutting downs of galleries here too due to the rising rents and above all the falling number of foot falls. The biggest Tuglaquian move was of Siddharth Tagore who set up around four spaces in Lado Sarai and then closed them one by one only to go back to his alma mater, Hauz Khas village.

In the days of ‘virality’, that is anything goes viral for not so explained reasons (a child falling from a bed could be one of the most watched videos for the same unknown reasons of virality) opening and closing of a gallery also could be viral. Leo Tolstoy famously opens his novel, Anna Karenina with this prophetic sentence: All happy families are alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ All gallery openings were alike but each gallery closed in its own way in Lado Sarai, I am tempted to say. The search for an alternative space is still on in Delhi. Neb Sarai was touted for this slot as the NIV Art Centre has been functioning from there for a decade. But never ending traffic jams and the lack of sophistication must be the reasons that big art shops are not attracted to this place. At this juncture if someone finds Shahput Jat attractive then the reason for it should be attributed to Delhi’s perennial need for the trendy but cheap places.

(Janarthanan's work)

Shapur Jat is another replica of Hauz Khas village. If Hauz Khas village reminds you of Georges Suerat’s pointillistic paitings, Shahpur Jat brings Georgio De Chirico’s paintings to mind. Lado Sarai has the gloominess of Edward Hopper’s works. Hauz Khas is packed and Shahpur Jat is like a film set with the shops of the local designers and their brands. It was Prima Kurien, cook, curator, consultant and cool operator in art who had played the role of Columbus in Shahpur Jat. It was in mid 1990s. She set up her gallery Art Inc at Shahpur Jat. Big names of today were small names then. Art people went there because there was Prima’s gallery. She displayed good and cutting edge art of those times; served homemade snacks and Mohan Nagar made Old Monk rum. Due to some tragedies caused by climate Prima had to shut the shop and move on in life. Surprisingly I do not know whether our art stars of today have given Prima her due for really showcasing before our Khoj, Devi Art foundation and KNMA and all came into being. Today Myna Mukherjee and team operate their ‘Engendered’ gallery for showcasing the works on third gender and alternative sexuality from Shapur Jat. Neuhous Art Gallery is the second contemporary gallery of recent times to start from this place.

 (Deepjyoti Kalita's work)

Manu Narayanan is the young entrepreneur who would like to call himself the founder director, behind Neuhous gallery. Hailing from Kerala, Manu Narayanan worked in the IT Industry as a computer engineer, generated wealth for himself before giving the industry a slip in order to pursue his passion; art. Manu is not an artist but an art lover. I do not know whether he has an eye for gold or not and I cannot doubt his intentions. If he was looking for money, then he would not have started an art gallery in these days of ‘art market’ recession (the rest of the market has come out of it). Manu came to meet me one and half year back. He came as an admirer and then later as a documentary maker. He was making a documentary on various art people; short videos about their views on art. It was a good ploy adopted by Manu to be in the good books of the artists and the art people. He relentlessly travelled to other cities to catch up with major exhibitions and to meet artists personally. He befriended a lot of young and senior artists. A year back he had decided that he would find a place in Delhi and he did find one. Mukesh Panika, after he came from the US, spent almost a year travelling and visiting shows without projecting himself as anybody and learnt the pulse of the scene and came with a big bang as the director of the Religare Art. The difference between Mukesh and Manu is this: Mukesh had Religare money to back him up but Manu has only his hard earned money. With market Mukesh went down still waiting to stage a comeback.  When there is no market for art, here is a young man, Manu Narayanan, for his sheer madness and love for art has taken the plunge. Would he make it or break himself in the process? I would like to wish him all the best and pray for all success.

 (Subir Hati's work)

‘Quest of Mind’ curated by Veer Munshi is the launching show for Manu’s gallery, Neuhous. Veer Munshi has taken an interesting curatorial line for this show. The nine artists who feature in this show are those artists who he had seen at various art award/fellowship/scholarship platforms and he had adjudged them as winners in different occasions. They are namely, Subir Hati, R.Janarthanan, Aninidita Bhattacharya, Arun KS, Deepjyoti Kalita, Dilip Chobisa, Kalidas Mhmal, Sumantra Mukherjee and Yuvan Bodhisathuvar. Subit Hati’s sculptures are the minimal but comical takes on the object orientation of the contemporary societies. His sculptures invite associative thinking but at the same time reject the possibilities of it, throwing the viewer in a sort of indecision. Interesting they are while I have suggestion to him; he should not paint what he wants to bring out through this sculptures on canvases. The canvas looks absolutely out of place. Janarthanan is an artist who makes the shape of the objects, using carefully crafted iron tapes and welding them together. Reminding the rusted sculptures of Antony Carro (and at times like a critique of Anish Kapoor) Janarthanan employs his creative thinking around the old idea that says body is a nest and soul is a bird. While I am impressed by the works, I am repelled by the explanation of it. Yuvan Bodhisathuvar uses plywood board as his surface to ‘build’ his illusionistic works using selective images from world history and contemporary popular history. Paper is his main medium and approached from different directions his works give a different feel about them. In their strong materiality too they exude the feel of their absence.

(Arun KS's work)

Arun KS has done a series of paintings which I did not quite understand though the artist explains in the catalogue as his critique on religious intolerance and his religious upbringing etc. Either me or the artist, one of us is not really in the field of comprehension. It should be me, I feel to believe so. Deepjyoti Kalita’s installation is interesting in its concept. It is a water stain on a large circular cloth fitted with a water dripping and drying system. The sexual encounter that the artist had once haunts him and the stain of water resembling a vulva dries up and again comes back in a different shape.But the artist has to see whether this idea is really conveyed through this work or not. Dilip Chobisa is always a pleasure to look at. He takes us to a world inside the familiar objects. It is a three dimensional walk into time and memories. Kalidas Mahmal uses notary papers, letters and small water colours to document and critique the lives of the young boys who lead a lazy life by becoming a part of tourism in Goa. Sumantra Mukherjee’s expressionistic work ‘Bhooka, Nanga, Pyasa’ takes us to a different time frame not only in our debate on social disparities but also in art making itself.

Neuhous has presented its first show and it is a challenging show for Manu. He has to continuously improvise his strategies to wade through these troubled times in art. Veer Munshi has given a very impressive curatorial push to Manu’s endeavour. Let’s hope he has a great future in Indian art scene.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Remembering Shamshad Husain (1946-2015)

(Shamshad Husain 1946-2015)

Shamshad Husain is no more. May his soul rest in peace. He has been taken ill for over a year and was residing with his sister, Raisa Husain in Mumbai. Born in 1946, Shamshad Husain carried the illustrious surname, Husain attached to his first name Shamshad, which was at once a boon and a curse. When fathers are larger than life figures, sons struggle to match up in size and quality. And with all due respect to the memories of the departed artist, Shamshad Husain, son of the eminent painter, M.F.Husain, Shamshad could never come out of the weight of the image of his father. To take a cue from the myth of Yayati, father Husain grew young as the son Husain grew old, desolate and weak both in life and work. Perhaps, he was giving the life sap to his father. When the pall death looms large over our heads, anything, a piece of myth comes handy to solace ourselves for the dead do not come to know what we think about them.

News came through a phone call. At the other end it was a stream of reminiscences about the departed soul. I raked up in my memory to know where and when I had met Shamshad first in my life. In those days, there was a gallery called Art Today, an ill-timed start up in the Indian art scene which had to down it shutters at its prime location in the heart of Delhi, Connaught Place. Had it been there it would have led the art market in India for it had everything that a contemporary market needed then; right from modern, contemporary and cutting edge art to souvenir prints signed by artists, mugs, cushions, rugs and books on art, everything unheard of in the Indian art scene till then. It was there in 1995, I met Shamshad Husain. Black pants and tucked in black shirt with conspicuous white buttons, a glass rum in hand, Shamshad Husain was there amongst his friends chatting away. We, the strugglers or youngsters or as it had gone in those days, struggling youngsters gawked at that artist who had carried the name, Husain in his own name. The knowledge was quite exciting. We were post-moderns and thoroughly irreverent in those days but we were not yet grown out of the fame and glamour of the moderns. Looking back, it is difficult to say we have ever grown out of that awe till date.

 (Shamshad Husain with one of his paintings)

Housed in the same building was and is Dhoomimal Art Gallery, one of the first galleries in Delhi with the Kumar Art Gallery in Sundar Nagar. Shamshad was a regular fix there. Slowly, we the strugglers or the struggling youngsters understood the patterns of exhibition openings. There were open invitations and there were closed invitations. Shamshad was a recipient of all kinds of invitations. He partied silently by sipping his rum slowly but steadily with his selected group of friends in all the openings. Shamshad did not discriminate the big openings and small openings. He graced all the openings with his presence. His affinity was not for the artists who exhibited in those shows. But he loved all the gallerists and peer group artists. He was boisterous at one point of time and mellowed down as years passed. The mellowing could be double ended. Success mellows people down, so is failure. It was difficult to ascertain which one had mellowed Shamshad down. But the maturity and calmness did not change his dressing style or his drinking style. He would look silently at everything, give an occasional smile and talk in hushed tones to those who come near to him to talk. But you knew Shamshad was there, as an artist and also as a guest to grace you, your art and your gallery.

Some people are like that. Their presence may not make much difference but their absence would. Shamshad belonged to this category. In most of the Delhi openings, Shamshad was a presence. For the last one year, he was missing from action. May be this missing was not felt or noticed because there was nothing much going on in our art scene. Shamshad also might not have missed much. But he would have definitely missed his Delhi which made him an artist, then a friend to many and man of utter loneliness. Shamshad studied painting in Baroda. Then he was lucky to have training in the Royal college of Art, London. He came back to India in late seventies and settled in Delhi. In 2010, in an interview given to the Times of India, he had confessed his struggles with his surname. But he was successful in growing out of the crisis as person but it is doubtful whether he ever grew out of the shadow and expectations that others had from him of his father. Shamshad painted people in groups, animated in talking. Flat and caricaturish they brought in the narratives of idle talk. Perhaps, Shamshad saw life as an idle talk; philosophical but in its realization, so mundane. He was lucky artist who could conduct thirty five solo exhibitions and gain a few awards including the Lalit Kala Akademy awards.

 (Shamshad Husian with fellow artist Amitava Das)

Friends remember that Shamshad who we knew these days was not the same Shamshad of the yester years. In Garhi studios in Delhi, in early 1980s, Shamshad filled everyone with mirth and enthusiasm. He danced, sang and made a lot of friends. His art was doing well. He was working with enthusiasm. But somewhere it struck. Each exhibition was not a conquering for him but a hurdle. The more he painted, the more he exhibited the more expectations grew. A slow lethargy crept in him. He was a painter in his labyrinth. It was early arrival of autumn in the life of a patriarch’s son. None was writing to him but to his father. He thought his love and work were coming out of the times of jaundice. People saw his works through the coloured filter of his father’s fame. Then he condemned himself to the solitude of one hundred years.

In late 1990s, to show his affinity for the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shamshad did a show commemorating the literary works. Held in Vadehra, this show had raised a new found interest in the works of Shamshad. But somehow, the market did not respond to his new series. I do not think vadehara ever tried to sell or promote his works through exclusive solo exhibitions. Shamshad also did not mind. He did not study further to leap high from the plank that he had already set with his Marquez show. He could have. He could have become the darling of the Latin American countries. But lethargy...he was in his hammock, drinking rum and coming out in the evenings to drink more rum with friends in the galleries. It was one of those days I visited him, as a young reporter in some newspaper, at his home near Gole Market. I remember the house was moderate though spacious and was absolutely bare and vacant compared to the houses of other artists. His favourite Old Monk rum was on the table and we talked for a long time though unfortunately I do not remember much of it.

 (Shamshad Husain with a photograph of his father MF Husain, in Delhi)

How would Shamshad be remembered in the coming days? Friends will definitely miss him. As I said before the galleries on the opening days of the exhibitions would feel the absence. But what about his works? Will there be an added enthusiasm for his works, to contextualize them in the modern-contemporary tradition? I think there will be, fortunately or unfortunately for the same surname. An art market that finds a perverted pleasure in cannibalism and necrophilia, definitely loves a dead artist over a living one. This will start with a retrospective of Shamshad Husain. Then a few works will come into the auction circuit. There will be an exhibition in some foreign museums. Art historians and critics including myself would overwork to put his works in context. In death, Shamshad would get what life could not give him; fame of his own. It is not wrong thing. One has to be paid his due for he has lived on this earth and worked. Our job is nothing but tracing his paths and see how deep his footprints are! As Arundhati Roy in her God of Small Things said, when a person dies, he or she leaves a hollow in the air in his shape. If you chance upon a hollow in the shape of Shamshad Husain, in one of those openings in galleries, do not feel spooked. Dead people do not go away till they are not given their due. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

They Shot with Bullets and She with a Camera: Journey of Barbara Davidson

(Barbara Davidson by Jacques Vroom)

People live in conflict zones. A conflict zone need not necessarily be a war zone, a border or a place where ethnic killing in progress. A conflict zone could be right here, right in the midst of us and right here within our families. Crisis strikes, people get hurt, injured, maimed, made immobile for life at times physically and often mentally, families disintegrate, love perishes, children get scattered, aggression finds new forms and several are the aftermaths of each conflict. Perhaps, conflict ends and peace is maintained by force or by habit. Political people and armies assure that there will be no more conflicts. But where do you bury the memories? A society in its collective existence might help itself to erase the bad memories, but the individuals remain, always reminded of the scars that the conflicts have left on them. Even the collective unconscious of the society at times brings it back, the scars and reactions of/on the conflicts that had happened sometime back, in fresh forms of violence, aggression and not the least in the forms of lethargy.

(all the pictures including this one are by Barbara Davidson)

However, the great force to live, the very life spirit goad people towards shinier futures and greener pastures; sometimes they achieve it right in the middle of the erstwhile conflict zones and some other times they gain it from the places where they have migrated to. That’s what exactly the Los Angeles based photojournalist from the reputed Los Angeles Times, Barbara Davidson aims to capture in her photo works. Ms.Davidson believes like a life mantra that conflicts are not something that erupts and ends with or without legal interferences or human persuasions. She firmly believes that conflict is something that grows in different forms, in memories, in collapses and in the attainment of greater life forces. The aftermath, that’s her theme for she knows for sure that as a photojournalist she cannot be everywhere to intervene and stop conflict, which is humanely impossible. What she could do is to follow the victims, the left outs of the crises and let the world know about them so that never ever such conflicts would be encouraged. It has been a huge fight for Ms.Davidson for many in the editorial boards where she used to work and even in her latest work place, Los Angeles Times, such conflicts and its outcomes are ‘normal’. In one of her notes she says that an editor, seeing her enthusiasm to file such stories told her, ‘such things happen (random shoot outs –one of the horrendous chains of incidents that shook Los Angeles for years together) that’s why they aren’t news any more.’ 

It is not just history that repeats itself as farce, conflicts too. However, Ms.Davidson was not ready to see the aftermaths of conflicts as farces that should be academically verified based on historical learnt in classrooms or in libraries or in boardrooms. It was quite a difficult to journey for her. A photojournalist can take thousands of photographs but it is seriously an issue how many of it would ever see the light of the day through the newspapers and magazines and how many of them would eventually demand a follow up either from the people or from the authorities. Ms.Davidson has been successful in getting the attention of the editors eventually and it was not in futile either. The world of journalism accepted and recognized her works and awarded with the Pulitzer Prize twice in 2006 (for spot reporting Hurricane Katrina) and in 2011 (for featuring the gang war victims in Los Angeles). In 2014 Ms.Davidson was given the ‘International Newspaper Photographer of the Year’ for the second time. Perhaps conflict is an interesting subject like salt as there is no place in the world which is devoid of conflicts. While the scale and magnanimity could vary, conflict is the theme and backdrop of our lives irrespective of the glorious histories that the countries have. Hence, her photographs on the subject of conflicts have gained more circulation now than her other works and Ms.Davidson is not apologetic about it. According to her, the more people see them the more they get sensitized.

Born in Montreal, Canada, Ms.Davidson is of Irish origin. Her grandparents migrated to Canada and she is the third generation Irish who could call herself a natural Canadian. In Delhi, when she stands in a packed narrow hall with her power point presentation, a question coming from a youngster about her privileged identity of being a white woman in the conflict zones cannot be laughed off; she fields it well. Ms.Davidson was raised in Montreal and she spent her life in poverty. Her parents did not have running water or washroom facilities. But she could see them when she was a child but money was not flowing exactly the way money in the plumbing systems was flowing. She saw her family falling apart and she was raised by her mother. She takes pride being brought up by a single parent but she says that he has never been privileged and when you are not a privileged person your skin colour does not matter. As they say it, there is a first world in every third world and a third world in every first world. A white working class person or a white person in a first world is as poor as a deprived coloured person in first or the third world. Hence, Ms.Davidson asserts that while her skin colour has given her some distinction while working in certain conflict zones predominantly populated by black or coloured people, she never feels that privilege within her. Being white is not a sin and being black is not a sin either. Perhaps, in my view, we become complexion conscious only when we attach the idea of power with complexion; mostly it is white and at times it could be black and other colours too.

The highly acclaimed series of Ms.Davidson is a series of photographs done on the incidents of random shoot outs between gangsters in Los Angeles. They simply take out gun and fire at innocent people, if they are not really fighting against each other. Gun culture has become a social menace in Los Angeles during the last one and half decade. When Ms.Davidson turned her eyes to the victims of such shoot outs, the subject had already lost its steam as the incidents had become ‘common and natural’ therefore not newsworthy. Ms.Davidson did not really want to pursue the conflict as conflict as she did not want to shoot the dangerous shoot outs like a Hollywood dame in a photographer’s guise would do. She preferred to follow the aftermath stories; how conflicts changed the course of the life of people, mostly victims, forever.  When she managed to get the works printed in the LA Times, suddenly the authorities and society woke up to the post-conflict trauma that the victims lived. There are many touching stories that Ms.Davidson has been pursuing for a long time (as she shows the photograph of a kid and tells the audience that now he has grown to her shoulder level) but the one I like most is a young black man cleaning the window screen of a car. It is obviously taken from within the car that means at that time Ms.Davidson was inside the car. The story goes like this. Cremation of the dead bodies is a very expensive affair. If the dead body has offensive and telling tattoos (showing their affiliation to the operating gangs in the area) they will not get any help while the poor victims who get caught in the cross fire and perish might get government help in their last journey to the other world. At times help comes very late. So it is a usual sight of young men cleaning windscreens of the cars at the signal junctions and collecting money for the funeral of their dead friends or relatives.

One cannot help but noticing the predominant black neighbourhoods and victims in Ms.Davidson’s photographs which are done mostly in black and white. A question is raised by a young man in the audience. He says that he does not know the politics of this black representation but would like to know why only black victims. Ms.Davidson has a very convincing answer: The Whites don’t get caught in cross fires.’ The connotation is very clear and subtle. The gangsters operate in the black neighbourhood. It has a lot to do with poverty, power, masculinity, and top it all the affinity for crime that comes out of a long history of deprivation and growing up in violent climates. Right from the homes to streets, right from the social systems to education, from social representations to familial representations the black population has been violently weaned away by force and authorities. Gun culture and the gangster culture is not just the reflection of their beastly nature but it is an outcome of their history. Unless and until this history is reread and the future course of it is altered the situations are not going to change. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) claims that the gun culture has come down considerably but legal solutions always do not help, feels Ms.Davidson. (I could not stop thinking about Will Smith, Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker, Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, John Travolta, Jamie Fox films where they play LA Cops or villains). Ms.Davidson also says that the legal and penitentiary system in Los Angeles or in the US in general is abysmal, which gets a kindergarten ‘Ooooo’ from the audience which is surprisingly comprised of the brink generation- they cannot be more latest and irreverent, intellectual and casual than this.(I really feel old and out of place. I could not see a single recognizable photography artist in the audience...strange!)

Black and white is the favourite colour scheme of Ms.Davidson and she attributes this to her fine arts training in Concordia University. She finds black and white natural. She has a tendency to work on a theme for a long time and then take a break and she feels that taking photograph is not the real thing about a photojournalist’s life. It is all about finding, recognizing and realizing the stories that need to be heard by more people and if possible seen by a lot too. She says that her photographs are anthropological to certain extent though they are not anthropological in an academic sense. I have rarely come across photographers who talk about the news value of a story and then the visual value of a photograph. An artist by training, Ms.Davidson does not bat an eyelid when she says that she is primarily a journalist and then a photographer. She explains her working method which could sound a reverse process for many hardcore photographers. She finds her story first and then looks for the right picture. Most of the photographers these days take good pictures and develop a story around it. I am not here to judge photographers in general but people have different ways of making a good image.

Ms.Davidson is in India for a month, working with the Apne Aap organization for rehabilitating young girls reclaimed from sex traffickers’ hands. Based in Bihar’s Mithila/Madhubani region, Apne Aap has been working for the young girls who are pushed into prostitution by none other than their brothers and fathers. It is happening in a country where honour killings are regularly carried out in the name of religion, caste and above all the right over women’s body. The girls from a particular community have been the victim of this ‘family tradition’. Apne Aap is about reforming that society. Ms.Davidson works with them in her sojourn in India. She shows the photographs that she has taken there in the rehabilitation centre. I feel they need more involvement and a photojournalist like Ms.Davidson cannot do a sweeping job on them. India is a conflict zone and a camera trained to any person on the road is as good as focusing on a conflict victim, irrespective of age, gender and social position. They are the victims of social oppression if not that of the attitude developed by hegemonic ideologies. India is a country where the oppressor and oppressed are the victims of power, money and caste or in the reverse order of it. Ms.Davidson will find a treasure trove in this country.