Saturday, December 31, 2016

The KMB way or the Bodh Gaya Biennale Way? Indian Art in 2016

(facing the future law keepers? KMB director Bose Krishnamachari with student visitors-source KMB facebook page)

So, that was 2016 for Indian art. What, I need not say for all the newspapers have done their bit of selections and filled the pages with the best of euphemism. For me it was as exciting as the absurd drama of Samuel Becket who had said ‘None comes, none goes and nothing happens, it is awful.’ But eventually the boy comes and tells the hopeless beggars that he, Godot may come tomorrow. So the hope remains. The tree that Estragon chooses to hang himself sprouts a single green leaf. Yes, there is still hope. Indian art scene was not going anywhere in 2016 though artists were going here and there, and a majority of them working as cheerleaders for the rich, powerful and the visible artists. When the last season came to a close with the closure of a few galleries, still the hope remained and everyone thought that the coming season would be great. The 2016-17 the season started with the engine of art vehicles making awkward noises of strain and fatigue by September but before something substantial could happen our Prime Minster struck a different code of demonetisation sending everyone reeling for a while and later sending each one to strategize the modes of saving the hoarded money.

Anyway things seem to have settled for the rich and the buying class though there is no surety that they are going to pump in money in terms of collecting art for aesthetics sake or investing in art for business sake. May be everyone is waiting for the magic budget to be presented in the Parliament perhaps a month earlier than usual. Indian art market has tremendous abilities to withstand the money pressures and it had shown a commendable resilience since 2009 onwards. Despite the global melt down the Indian art market could push through the walls that were coming closer and still could celebrate two KMB editions and some other large scale shows. Most of the galleries could keep their artists floating by placing them in residencies, solo exhibitions and art fairs. But Post 2015 the story is slightly different. The fatigue seen around the third edition of the KMB, if I go by the lacklustre response that it has received so far in the facebook postings by the enthusiasts, this is not just a fallout of the demonetisation. It has become clear that the curator Sudarshan Shetty has traversed into the areas that are unfamiliar to him like the Latin American poetry and the result is not so encouraging. Certain art works that the organizers had thought would become the highlights of the KMB received cold response not only from the audience but also from the press. Not a single report has come about the cartoons of the noted cartoonist E.P.Unny or the mural scale works of P.K.Sadanandan.

(Visitors at KMB venue. source KMB fb page)

Though the KMB claims to have a binding theme of ‘locations where inner visions arise’ the result so far (what I could learn from their postings in the KMB facebook page) is that there are neither visions nor inner visions. There are only peripheral visions. The reason could be the lack of expertise that KMB is facing today. The directors of this huge art initiative are artists with their own merit and stance but unfortunately they are not the scholars of the fields that they have been handling in the biennale. Sudarshan Shetty could be an acclaimed artist in the country but never it has been said anywhere before that he is a scholar of poetry, literature or critical theory. I am sure that the organisation has taken help of the researchers and scholars pertaining to the areas chosen, but the major problem of the KMB is the lack of critical leadership. This is reflected in the present Student Biennale which hardly gets any mention anywhere in the public discourse. Besides, it was reflected in the blanket cooptation of various disciplines including film, theatre and music as part of the second edition of the KMB. The first edition of it had the advantage of being the first Biennale of India and also it could bring an array of fresh artists from India as well as from abroad.

With the Government of Kerala pitching in to support the KMB with almost Six crore rupees for every edition and the support from the business magnets like Yousuf Ali who has given two crores this year, it has been categorically understood as a tourism event and even a touristic venture which would bring foreign exchange to the government coffers. On the opening day of the third Edition of the Biennale the Chief Minister of Kerala had declared that the government would build a permanent venue for the KMB. But interestingly the intelligentsia in Kerala has not asked certain disturbing questions. KMB has already absorbed the major exhibition space of the Lalit Kala Akademy, the Durbar Hall for almost six months every Biennale year. That means during this time no other artist could exhibit there. With a permanent venue for the KMB, what the CM left unsaid is that whether this space would be given to the artists of Kerala for their use when there is no KMB on or the space would be given for other commercial and industrial expos like the way they do with the Pragati Maidan halls in Delhi. Would the KMB administration allow different activities to take place in their ‘permanent’ venue is another important question. If not, wouldn’t it be a huge waste of space which in fact would be used only by an organization. For a small state like Kerala which does not have huge allocation of money and space for the promotion of culture, wouldn’t the move be an undemocratic move? Otherwise, the government should take over the KMB and let the present organization do the things on behalf of the government so that there could some kind of accountability in their activities. Otherwise the government could also consider asking the KMB to go a full scale private company with shares open in the market and government could lease out a space against a rent, which if I go by the Pragati Maidan rates, would amount for three months twenty crores. Wouldn’t that be a bigger income for the government than spending money on a private company which is not accountable either to the government or to the people?

(an exhibit from KMB source KMB fb page)

There are efforts to emulate KMB in other parts of the country. The small scale and regional Pune Biennale seems to have gone in the KMB way but it is bound to fail as the organizers do not have the will power of the KMB leadership. This year we also saw the Bodh Gaya Biennale which is unfortunately moves against the very spirit of KMB; Bodh Gaya Biennale has got neither direction nor a curatorial vision. It is simply a large scale show with so many artists. In terms of market and positioning, Bodh Gaya if at all it wants to be a Biennale should learn a few lessons from the KMB, which is obviously the market leader in the given scenario. In Goa, another ambitious venture has come up titled Serendipity. It is a larger platform for various art practices and debates. I would say so far it looks like the Coke Studio version of Indian art. Besides, the organizers have tried to leave their foot prints all over the country by making strategic collaborations. It is good for brand build up but I am not sure whether it is going to work as reliable collaterals for the organisers. The failure of collaterals could be seen with the KMB this year which are sparsely attended or talked about. It is also fortunate that artists and art organisers want to attach their names with the larger brand. Let me give a piece advice to the KMB leadership, please do not let too many collaterals to share the logo as it has become a pointer of desperation for both the parties. Another funny thing that I observed this year is the participation of the former Biennale artists in small scale shows in temporary venues. Artists like Gigi Scaria and Vivan Sundan downscaled themselves by getting into all kinds of shows and even trying to make their presence felt in Kochi. In fact people have not forgotten their works in the last KMB for the wrong reasons!

For the Indian art scene a couple of controversies are a must. To begin with, Jaipur had its share of artist bashing by a woman leader of some inconspicuous quasi-religious and political outfit, but with the timely involvement of the Police, sanity prevailed and a controversy snowballing into a national debate of nothing was averted. In Kerala we had two successive controversies regarding the cover page images of a well known literary magazine. While one was opposed by a Christian outfit the other was opposed by a Hindu outfit. Kerala could also show that a work of art could be brought down by a few phone calls. Interestingly, there was a protest against the clamping on freedom of expression which was boycotted by the same artists whose works were taken off by the magazine after threats. In this year I also saw the contradictions in terms of art criticism and art writing. A writers’ conference was organized by an editor who in her whole career has written hardly a few pages conceptualizing and directing a writing workshop for all those whose names I hardly have seen in magazines or newspapers or even in blogs. It happens only in India. But at least it happens in India. Had it been elsewhere, we would have been deprived of having these fun moments.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Gift of Magi Today

(illustration source net)

Jim looked out of his office window wistfully. He felt like an angry eagle perched on the highest branch of a nameless tree. From the fifteenth floor he observed the city below. It is just five in the evening and the sun has already gone down. In fact today the sun had not come out at all.

The lights have come alive in the streets and in front of the bars and the clubs across the street he could see youthful people in their evening best waiting for the gates to open. Like ants they moved under the lights and the clouds of dust and fog which were just hovering right in front of his eyes, a few inches away from him.

The sudden urge to jump down from the heights was curbed by the steam that has just formed on the thick glass wall before him and he could see his smudged reflection on the wall and beyond it the reflection of the bays with computers and sparsely people cabins lay stretched as if it was a magical land of codes, weariness, hollow laughter, fragrance of cosmetics, packed food, fountain drinks and a few hollow commands. Out there the reflection stood supported by nothing in the air, above the clogged streets, people, and anxious young crowd that waited for a long night of revelry.

“Hey Jim, come over and we have something urgent to finish,” the booming voice of the boss came through his mobile phone right at that moment when he was on Della frantically making love as if there was no tomorrow. “Each time you did it, I felt a war was raging there and you thought we would be bombed at any moment,” Della would say after each of those intense sessions of flesh enquiring the seat of soul and never finding it. “No, we are in a flight and the pilot has just said that we are going to crash, that’s how I feel,” Jim would joke while covering her with his muscled arms. She would giggle.

Today morning it was different. The boss disrupted their soul searching. By the time Jim put the phone down, what left was just sex and he continued to finish it, leaving Della wondering about what had transpired between him and the caller, while feeling the anger in the movement of his hips. The rhythm was lost and they finished the rest of the sex as if two kids at the breakfast table finishing the worst items possible under the angry watch of their mother.

“What was the call about?” running her long fingers along the channel between his shoulder muscles, Della asked. “The Regional Chief is visiting today and I need to be there at the office,” Jim said desperately. “Today is Christmas Jim...” Della felt like crying. They had planned a few things together; a drive to one of their friend’s farm house at the outskirts of the city for lunch and then to perform the secret pact they had entered in a few weeks back. After the lunch at the farm house they would go separate in their ways and only to join back at their home around nine in the night with some special surprises for each other. They had agreed upon one thing that they would never give a hint about the impending surprise.

“So, are we calling it off?” Della asked. “What are you talking about?” Irritated Jim asked. Della felt like crying. She had never seen him in such desperation. She took a deep breath and decided not to spoil the day by getting into a verbal argument with Jim, which they did quite often after a session of love making.  She used to think about it as an odd behaviour; a fight after love making. Her friend, an up class beauty who does nothing for a living but is always busy going from one shop to other checking out things and dropping into her husband’s private office to see whether everything is alright, had once told her that it is quite okay to have fights before love making because it is some sort of an appetiser. But when it came with the lovers, it is always a rule than exception that each bout of sex ended up in fights. That was a sort of revelation for Della. And she had felt a secret pride swelling up inside her as she thought of her fights with Jim after their love making. It was a sign that they were still in love.

Della however did not want to fight on that day. “I am talking about our pact, our Christmas night pact. Are we going to go for surprises?” She explained. Jim gave her a long look and did not say a word. As usual he got into the bathroom with a book in hand and she went to the balcony with a cup full of her favourite green tea. Jim got ready by nine and he went out and before leaving the drawing room, he drew Della closer to him and gave a peck at her cheek. A sense of satisfaction, love and pride came rushing into her heart and her cheeks went red. “Yes honey, we are going for our secret pact even if I have called and cancelled our dinner date with Franck in his farm house. You may take the car and leave around six and come back by nine with the surprise. I will be back sharp here by nine sharp. And remember the other part of the pact, no phone calls till we meet next.”

Jim looked at his mobile phone, a smart phone it is. It has all the features in it, except a water heater and shaver, Jim thought and he smiled. The Regional Head had left the office a few minutes back and it was already flashing seven thirty on the screen. He just clicked on the weather app and saw it was fourteen degree Celsius. Inside the heated office room, he suddenly felt a chill. Then he kept on looking at his phone and did he expect Della’s call? He felt some kind of uneasiness. The packet carrying the famous logo was sitting pretty on his table top. He looked it and smiled. “She would be shocked to see that finally she has it,” thought Jim. He looked at the phone impatiently again. Why the boss is not letting me go? The Boss had asked him to wait till an important message from the Headquarters in New York.  “Man, I do not want to take it alone. Please be with me,” wiping sweat beads from his forehead with his scented napkin, the Boss had told him a few minutes before. “We will be off for the day in a while.”

Jim put the packed in his leather bag and tidied the table top a bit. Took his spectacles and cleaned it and put it back over his eyes. The world now looked so clear. Jim smiled again looking at the bulge of the bag. He cheeks went red as he thought of the content. She is mad, he thought. Why does she want it? Some fantasies? Della is strange or all women are like this? They want things like that? Jim again smiled. He looked at the traffic app and found a long red line and he really felt irritated then. Jim checked for text messages or whatsapp messages from Della. Nothing. The girl is playing to the T, thought Jim. But still he felt uneasy.

The road was overcrowded. Revellers were already there on the road. Some of the guys in the heavy wheeled open jeeps waved at him so did the girls accompanying them. Jim signed them off with a V with fingers. Peace. The traffic was not moving. Behind the wheel he felt frozen and dead. He kept looking at the phone. It was already 8.55. And according to the GPS prompter, the sexy voice of an American unknown, he would take another twenty minutes to get back home. That means according to the country’s standards, another forty minutes.

The phone did not ring. At the apartment, Jim found no lights outside. He felt a sort of edginess. Was she trying to surprise me with something really shocking? Inside, he threw the switches on and nobody was there. Frantically he ran into the bedroom and the bathroom. Things were there as in the morning except Della. She was missing. Jim did not know what to do. He ran out, got into the lift and reached the parking lot and all the time he was trying to call her but her phone remained out of reach. After sometime, it went to the switch off mode. Jim ran back to the apartment and sunk into the sofa and he did not know what to do. He looked at the bulge in the bag and he just felt like throwing it away.

A familiar ring in the phone shook him up. He did not know for how long he was sitting there like that. Before attending the call he had glanced at the wall clock and it was already eleven thirty.
“Jim, don’t panic. We are all looking for her,” said Noddy from the other end. “She will be alright.”
Jim felt tears rolling down from his cheeks. He felt Della’s presence everywhere in the house. Jim started shivering. After some time, moaning he lay on the floor and dozed off.

A beep in the phone once again woke him up. He took a few seconds to adjust with the glare of the screen.

“Sorry Jim. Della found. Now at X-Hospital. Please rush.”

Jim did not know what he did next. He found himself at the casualty of the Hospital half an hour later. Policemen were there with his close friends- Franck, Noddy, Tara, Shiv, Ruby, Prachi and many more. Jim was led inside. He saw Della.

He also saw a clump of hair inside her left fist. And she was not breathing anymore.

(Change all the names into Indian names once you finish reading it)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Art Involving Porn, Maskara Gallery, Freedom of Expression and Demonetisation: Indicators of Art in 2016

(T.Venkanna and Abhay Maskara in a performance)

When I look back at 2016 what comes to my mind again and again are the faces of three artists namely T.Venkanna, Shine Shivan and Parag Sonarghare. These three artists had been contracted by the Maskara Gallery, Mumbai, which was closed down early this year, due to personal reasons as declared by the entrepreneur art collector Abhay Maskara who even published a book titled ‘Collecting Art’, a semi-autobiographical book which was written as a retrospection and introspection and was meant to initiate young and vibrant art collectors to test new visual treats and also tread on unchartered zones of aesthetics. Maskara Gallery, after the demise of Bodhi Gallery which had the pioneering reputation of taking risks and making the impossible possible, had also evoked a sense of wonder among the viewers with its unconventional space in the 3rd Pasta Lane in Colaba, Mumbai as well as unconventional art experiments. The artists who worked with Maskara somehow enjoyed a sort of exclusivity and were presented in art fairs as unique personalities who stood an inch above the ground either with their aloofness or with their carefully designed public personae. The fedora hat wearing Maskara was an unmistakable presence in the art crowd and I should say he used to pull a lot of strings which later got entangled all over him beyond repair.

 (work by T.Venkanna)

However, I should say luck is still in Maskara’s side. He was not forced to reduce the size of the gallery or was not forced to cut deals with the wives of film stars, ending up exhibiting ‘collectors’ items’ along with life style products in interior design shops. He was also saved from disgracing himself by opening his private collection and heirloom for public perusal and if need be for purchase. Distress sale could also be called ‘clearing sale’. Maskara did not take his gallery to remote islands where the rich and the affluent went for weekend revelry or retreat. What he did was just lowering the shutters, permanently. I think of the space inside which had seen inflated works, lot of pornographic images, chair assemblages and so on. One of the last exhibitions was a solo show by a young and intelligent artist, Parag Sonarghare who started off showing a lot with Delhi’s Art Konsult, then some independent performances only to land finally into the hands of Maskara with huge portraits of men with their flaccid genitals hanging helplessly and staring at the faces of the audience. Parag was a painterly version of Britain’s Ron Mueck who does large scale super real sculptures (Parag even wanted to do even my portrait. Portrait of an art critic with a dick, perhaps, which I politely discouraged by postponing the acceptance of that offer) and it did bring some eyeballs to Parag. I was sceptical about his adventurism and had a word with him too regarding this but he was convinced of what he was doing and he would do in the coming few years.

(Parag Sonarghare)

Demonetization struck and Maskara was not there in the business to take the hit. He had already taken a different trajectory in his life which I appreciate because any person in this world has the right to change the track of their business, interest and even the identity. One could even turn oneself into a new personality. Nothing is permanent in the world, so is somebody’s personality or commitment to certain discipline. To put it in other words anybody could do anything and I wouldn’t even wonder if former directors of galleries becoming private art consultants or even turning to interior designers, yoga instructors or chefs. Dig deep, you would see all of them here in our own Indian art scene. And I am sure demonetization, after the initial scrambling through the commotion, has not affected the galleries that much. It is a waiting period and once the Rs.2000 currencies are well in place as hard cash, things would restart with the same dispassionate reverence for the country’s economy and a deep sense of nationalism. But what about the artists whose careers have been either lost or left halfway by the galleries like Maskara Gallery? May be many galleries would again support their artists if the market stabilizes after the next budget. But how the artists of those closed down galleries would be placed in the market? I am sure none is going to die. Everyone will find some way to survive; they may be even adopted by the other galleries.

 (a work by Parag Sonarghare)

I am not sure about these three artists namely T.Venkanna, Shine Shivan and Parag Sonarghare. T.Venkanna has been painting pornographic images for a long time and has been well supported by Maskara. His works are not shown in the public galleries or in the places where they could be seen by the general public and god forbid, some people take an objection to the kind of aesthetics. Who is going to support this artist? Same is the case with Parag Sonarghare. If an issue of nudity is charged against him, who is going to stand by him and extol his aesthetics? Let me make it very clear that I am not going to raise my voice on behalf of the artists who do pornography or extreme nudes. It is not that I hate nude painting, but I am doubtful whether these artists would have gone aggressively on nudity and pornography had there been no support like an impresario like Abhay Maskara. Tomorrow, if their art is questioned by the uninitiated public, I am sure not a single gallerist in this country is going to stand by them. They can now disprove me. I also say that not a single art critic including the usual suspects in this country would stand up for these artists. Why? Before answering that let me speak a few words about Shine Shivan. A humble boy from Faridabad is made to act like a queer from Warhol factory, all by Abhay Maskara. I try hard to remember his works and what I remember are some cock and hen feathers. Shine Shivan’s art is killed by Abhay Maskara.

(Shine Shivan with his works)

Why T.Venkanna and Parag Sonarghare would not be supported by the other gallerists and art critics? The reason is that their art was not pushed into the general art market where the Gaitondes, Tyeb Mehtas, Razas, Dodiyas and Kallats are collected. Their works are collected either by the gallerist himself or him standing guarantee for the artists and made the collectors to hold the works for a certain period of time. I am not privy to the business details of the Maskara Gallery. But my experience tells me that this couldn’t be otherwise. The gallery consortium functioning from South Mumbai would not hold these artists up because all of them have got already their hands full with repeatedly failing bad strategies. I do not think they would be able to pick up the works of T.Venkanna and Parag Sonarghare. Inside the highly guarded premises of the Maskara gallery, the works of both these artists were safe and debatable. But once they come into the public domain, they are going to be questioned for their bad aesthetics. Of course, their careers could be floated by pushing them into the residency circuit which some back office manipulations could help to happen and I am sure it is already happening. But what would happen after that? Where will be Shine Sivan? Manoor Ali could scrap through with his chair installations because his idea was not to shock people but to try some conceptual aesthetics.

(Shine Shivan with his work)

These three artists could survive in the market only by changing their aesthetics. T.Venkanna cannot go on doing pornography and we cannot keep on supporting his art in the name of freedom of expression. In fact, Francis Newton Souza’s art at times amounts to pornography and only because there is a strong market support his works, he remains in the bandwagon of Picasso and De Kooning. Lucien Freud had done some interesting male nudes, but Parag’s is definitely not that. Freedom of expression is a tired slogan, I think. How long are you going to do some art and when there is a problem you expect people would come up to support you? Some people may think that at the end of this year, 2016 I am taking a U turn on my critical stance. But it is true that when there is a problem with certain artists, the so called secularists are not there to voice their concern. When there are some artists who get into trouble even the political parties rush to save them. That cannot happen anymore. Why should artists do pornography in the name of art and expect the critics to rush in to support them when they get into trouble with the public? Treat it as a law and order issue by the artists and the gallerists. Let the law of the land take its course. To sum up my views, I would say, T.Venkanna, Parag Sonarghare and Shine Sivan have to wake up and think and also tell themselves again and again that freedom of expression does not begin and end with nudity. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Some Portraits: An Exhibition in Photoink, Catch it if you Can!

(FN Souza by Richard Bartholomew, not in the show, for representational purpose only)

In India bad exhibitions often take place in mainstream venues and the good ones in remote and extremely guarded avenues. ‘Some Portraits’ is a good show being held at Photoink, a gallery remotely located, may be for an art critic like me who prefers to walk to the galleries. Tucked away inside the Green Avenue, opposite the upmarket Vasantkunj but with strangely downmarket roads with ample amount of traffic chaos thrown in for effect, finding out this gallery for a walker like me is a real task and the credit of taking me there goes to the google map. It is a pity that you have to look into the google map to find out a place which is within three kilometres where you live. But once inside, the gallery has a good array of portrait photographs which many an art enthusiast has seen published here and there or exhibited in other shows. However, seeing the moderately sized photographs done in pigment prints with the familiar protagonists in the grand drama of Indian art ‘living’ within the frames, exuding their livelier and youthful selves from close quarters within a fortified gallery is an experience in itself, as the otherwise intimidating surroundings eased by the friendly accosting of the gallery executive.

(GR Santosh by Pablo Bartholomew)

As the name implies it is a show of portraits taken by photography artists namely Pablo Bartholomew, Richard Bartholomew, Madan Mahatta, Sadanand Menon, Ram Rahman, Ketaki Sheth and Sooni Taraporevala. The subjects of these pictures are in the meditative best and the presence of the photographer seems to have not affected them at all. These pictures also give a very pivotal clue in understanding the portrait photographs which are not done with a ‘heavy purpose’ of documenting. There is no sense of intrusion and penetrative gaze in these photographs which itself is a visual forensic evidence for the non-intrusive nature of the photographer. He/she is a friend of the subject and the mutuality of ‘neglect’ that they share during the time of clicking also underlines the mutuality of their interest. The clicker and the clicked are bound by the moment of clicking, if I use the jargon of structural linguistics. Interestingly, the clicking which is a sort of signifying act desperately tries to fix the meaning of the clicked exactly the clicker has found during the time of clicking. While signifier and signified are conjoined in the sign which is, according to the structural linguists, in a flux, the clicked in a portrait remains a constant signifying both his/her past and future and the moment of clicking becomes an accidental decisive moment.

(Krishen Khanna by Richard Bartholomew)

Portrait photography is an interesting genre of photography art because the artist is always interested in the extraordinary nature of the portrayed. This extraordinariness could either come from the arresting features of the portrayed even if he/she is insignificant the larger narrative of events. Perhaps, when a portrait becomes a part, not independent in itself, of a narrative, the negligence of the portrayed subject transforms to become a central character in the future understanding of the narrative and in turn the subject of the portrait him/herself. That’s where a portrait photograph gains autonomy as separated from the verbal narrative surrounding it in the first place. Photographers are interested in people not only for their insignificance but also for their importance. Photography shares a common space with both short story and novel in this aspect that it shares with cinema, theatre and journalism as understood commonly. A short story or a novel pursues the lives of a few people almost blurring the other characters even if they are a part of the narrative frame and in the sequential takes, a photographer like a story writer or a novelist, makes it imperative to vivify the locales where the protagonists of these portraits are located. The time-space coordinate or unity that is mostly observed in novels and stories though is not maintained by portrait photographers, with their pursuance of a subject for a considerable time with disparate lags in between, almost unconsciously attempts the same time-space unity in the photographs taken in different times at different locations.

(Chandralekha by Sadanand Menon)

This unity is what we see in the portraits exhibited here in the Photoink gallery. Late Richard Bartholomew, a diehard art critic and photography artist leads the pack with his extremely truthful portraits of the artists like Manjit Bawa, M.F.Husain, J.Swaminathan, Nasreen Mohammedi and so on. Bartholomew Sr., has been a relentless critic of the art of his time with no malice intended even while pointing out the fault-lines of his own close artist pals. These photographs show how sensitive a man he was as not single picture portrays the artists in a trivial or frivolous moment. I believe frivolity of images without losing their aesthetical integrity is a forte of Bartholomew Jr, that’s Pablo Bartholomew. Though Pablo has developed a career of his own with hallmark subjects, documentary verve and experimental inclination, this present set of portraits shows that how greatly the father has influenced the son, which is not a bad thing at all. You could see the works of Pablo only with a smile on your lips as you tend to go back and forth comparing lights and forms portrayed in the works of Richard.

(Behram Contractor aka Busybee by Sooni Taraporevala)

As I mentioned before, portrait photography could also be called as ‘access’ photography. You can take photographs only of those people in their private domains with who you share a close relationship or friendship. The photographers featured here seem to have this access to the artists who have become the subjects of these pictures. The only exception that we see in the whole show is Ram Rahman whose photographs feature artists outside their private domains (though we have some examples from Sooni Taraporevala and Madan Mahatta). The access could be very personal when it comes to an existing artist-model relationship where the model becomes a thing of worship and adoration for the artist, which we see in the lone portrait of the late danseuse Chandralekha by her production collaborator and companion, Sadananda Menon. Though Menon has taken innumerable photographs of Chandralekha (the enlarged digital version of a few from the repertoire were exhibited in Delhi recently), we have only one portrait in the whole show here, which looked a bit forced inclusion though it does not go contrary to the concept of the show that casually calls itself, ‘Some Portraits’. Ketaki Seth and Sooni Taraporevala also make use of this access to a larger extent and are presented through a sort of genre photographs that include two communities, the artist community and the Parsi community which make interesting overlaps.  Madan Mahatta, who is less celebrated as a photography artist but a photography entrepreneur, is represented with his portrait of three architects in Delhi seen within their creative surroundings.

(Bhupen Khakkar by Ram Rahman)

‘Some Portraits’ is an interesting exhibition that reaffirms my belief in photographs as miniatures that demand private perusal from the close quarters. Perhaps, those artists who attempt huge prints of photographs for effect should think of making them moderate in size and in folio forms so that people could see them displayed either on walls or in albums. Any work of art that induces a sense of solitude in you is a good work of art for artistic contemplation starts where company ends and solitude begins. A photograph is a bench in the grave yard. Sit and watch, you feel very good. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

Killing Image by Over-Display: A Case Story from Photosphere 2016

(Bandeep Singh's works displayed at the IHC as part of the Photosphere 2016)

What happens when some good photographic works and some clever digital works of art are put together in a haphazard display that spreads around the spacious and inviting courtyard of Delhi’s India Habitat Centre? Yes, you get Photosphere 2016. I am sure the organizers of this show including the artistic director who has given an unimaginative name like ‘Panchtatva’ to the project would not take my opening sentence with any amount of leniency, but I cannot help saying it. It was when the Delhi Photo Festival, a sort of photo biennale initiated by Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna came to the courtyard and plazas around it in the IHC, for the first time in Delhi perhaps people including the curators understood the possibilities of such outdoor display strategies and the photographs that had been otherwise given display spaces in the lobbies of the IHC’s moderate towers came out to welcome the viewers with their visual flair. Delhi Photo Festival did not last there for more than two editions and it slowly migrated to a much more open space at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) with its third edition in 2015. In the IHC, the DPF had adopted an exotic display technique; using most unconventional frames, structures and props to hold the pictures up and it had worked with the curatorial approaches.

Blind imitation of a brand could produce something similar but never the same. That is what is exactly happens with the Photosphere 2016 despite all those good photographs displayed there. The display frames are atrociously kitsch and the ambience creation a bit loud. Oscillating between a carnival space and a high serious museum plaza, the Photosphere as a whole looks a bit overdone like some bridal make up that has gone horribly wrong. Before I get into what attracted me best and what I think generally about photography as a creative medium, let me tell you how conceptual presentations and the overdoing of it could mar the aesthetic quality of a series of works of art. To know it first hand, you should look at the works of Shraddha Borawake who has presented lens based mixed media works in collaboration with a ceramic artist. The large laminated prints are propped on structures and are supported by too many ceramic pieces that, we should understand stand for earth, migration etc, etc. The more I look at it the more I feel the naivety of not only the works but also the whole display. Luckily, Bandeep Singh, one of the mentors and an acclaimed creative photographer who has maximized the possibilities of female body and earthen pot visually in his previous photographic works, this time have exhibited his works on Kolkata low life along the river front (a bit tired subject) on the plaza. The black and white prints have the modern classic quality as established by Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai.

(Work by Sunil KR)

One of the best series that you could see here is done by Sunil KR, a Kochi based photographer, who under the mentoring of the noted archivist and photography artist Aditya Arya, has documented the dying ponds in different parts of Kerala. Ponds, local water bodies had been the hub of daily human activities in the villages once upon a time and today with the changes in social life they have been discarded. The choking of such ponds not only near the places of worship but also in the vicinity of the human habitats is a visual pointer of the changes in social life; from the community living to isolated living, in urban spaces and apartments, even in independent plots with well made houses where one gets running water either by the water department or from the overhead tanks. The ponds have been now claimed by now three forcers; land, weeds and anti-social elements. There are land-reclamations for the so called development and with these erstwhile ponds and agricultural fields are now turning into housing complexes. Most of the ponds are now filled with weeds and some of them left are the locations for antisocial activities. Sunil’s eyes not only see the degradation of these ponds but also he sees how they these same ponds had been segregated for the use of different castes and classes.

(work by Monica Tiwari)

What happens to the families that include women, children and old people, of those migrant labourers who are left behind to fend for themselves in the most inclement weathers and hostile environments? Monica Tiwari, a young photographer mentored by Bandeep Singh takes her camera to the Sunderbans in West Bengal, one of the wettest spaces on earth with full of marshy lands and rivers. The camera is sympathetic and the gendered subjectivity of the artistic is successful in registering the poignant moments in the lives of the children and women. One of the images that captures the attention of the viewer is that of a woman carrying her children in waist deep water to the school. The joy in her eyes not only in delivering the material care and shouldering the burden literally with utmost care but also in becoming the object/subject of interest of the photographer who is of her own gender, a woman is so palpable in the work. So strong is the apprehension and sort of hopelessness in the eyes of the woman who again stands breast deep in water and looking for some fish to catch. This project is a successful one but only thing that I felt while watching it was the unnecessary sonic effect that has been added to the place of exhibition. The nocturnal sounds of the invisible creatures that live in and around marshy lands do create a sense of eeriness but it kills the intense silence that would have helped watching those strong images.

One of the mentors and noted photography artist and designer, Parthiv Shah, has pitched in with a video-digital-photography project in which he speaks subtly of the environmental issues but adding a few flying polythene packets flying around like wanderers and intruders in restricted spaces. He uses the static images of the historical sites and digitally adds the plastic covers flying in. Each video that lasts for a minute each (together three of them) is an intelligent way of telling how pollutants fly into our historical memories/existence and interestingly caused by our own doings. It reminds us of one thing smartly that these polythene covers do not come into our frames voluntarily nor automatically. They are caused by us. Slightly disparate an installation on the floor of the same projection black cube propped up in the backyard of the IHC is eye catching because of the illumination given to it. Three tin chests/boxes used by the migrant labourers to carry their belongings are lit from inside to illuminate the surface so that we get a feeling of looking into a treasure chest but what we witness is a humble man’s insignificant belongings. Ashim Ghosh’s digital animation and interactive installations look interesting but aesthetically they remain as only interesting as the government projects presentations. May be that is a subtle way of replicating the government strategy by the artist to convey his own ideas but somehow I remained insulated to such an experiment.

 (when display strategies fail)

While witnessing this photographic project, what gnawing my mind was the utter inadequacy of the images to stand as images; the loss of autonomy of the photograph-ic/ed images. As seen both in the Delhi Photo Festival and the Photosphere 2016, photographic images stand with a lot of verbal and supportive paraphernalia, which in fact was not a necessity at the outset of the photographic advents in the late 19th century. The photographic visual stood on their own supported by the albums general introductions or by the little anecdotes below the album pages. They also stood independently as large framed images on the walls of private rooms and museum galleries. With their migration into the pages of the printed magazines and newspapers, they added to the readerly value of the literature that accompanied it or in turn added to the visual value of the literature itself. Even if they were a part of the literature, photographs often had a certain amount of autonomy. Ironically, today all the efforts are to separate images from the texts and give them autonomy but unfortunately, each image or series needs a sort of verbal narrative in order to hold the various visual elements in the frame together. Is it because that everyone is an image maker today and each image that demands distinction needs an explanation in terms of verbal introduction and contextualisation. In that case, if we reverse the process of viewing, that means if we take the photographic works away from the walls, and bring them back to albums and other methods of display, can they stand alone? I remember the makeshift display in specially created furniture appendages by Dayanita Singh and the book format produced by many a photographer.

One cannot buy a book of photography, book on photography and a photographic album by an artist today because it is damn expensive. Why do they price the photography books so high? Is it because the print quality is so high and good papers are used in production? I believe it is an artificially created value addition: you make a highly sophisticated volume of photography book and price it as if it were a limited edition portfolio. If that is the case there is a predetermination from the publication houses that the common lot that read literature need not buy photography albums thus produced. This is against the very grain of printing technology/philosophy on which the photographic prints are based. I think that make photography an autonomous art, it should be given the album quality back; that means people should be able to buy albums for affordable prices so that they could look at them in leisure. How do we make a photography artist distinct and worth watching when everyone is taking photographs. That’s where the value additions come into play. They should be exhibited not like carnival kitsch but in normal terms and conditions where an image could be seen independently. And then the viewers should be able to buy the copies of the books in affordable prices. While the capitalist market takes the autonomy of images away by making the prints expensive, the same market makes neutralizing efforts by providing everyone with a camera. So we have special photography making by the photography artists and counter photography making by the unintentional artists who wield a smart phone. But so long as we call photography an art form, then it should be given the status of an art form independent of a large text and context.    

Sunday, December 11, 2016

One Year of Hema and Chintan Upadhyay’s Life Elsewhere

(an enduring image: Chintan and Hema Upadhyay)

Last year this time she was alive. She would meet with her violent death a few hours later. Nobody can predict when death knocks on the door. Some of us walk into it. Perhaps, each day and each moment we are walking into it. Hema Upadhyay (1972-2015) was not expecting her death that day. She was there at the villain’s den, a fabricating unit in Mumbai, with her advocate, Harish Bhambani, a fatherly figure for her, and was planning to get some documents from Vidyadhar Rajbhar, the killer who has been absconding since then, to move against her estranged husband Chintan Upadhyay, who is currently in jail for the alleged conspiracy that led to the artist’s and her advocate’s tragic deaths. On 22nd of this month, Chintan Updhyay completes one year in a jail in Thane, Maharashtra. As a friend of both Hema and Chintan, I miss them. People say, Chintan would bounce back and I hope he could after clearing all the doubts if not from the minds of the people, at least from his own conscience. However, Hema wouldn’t come back. But who knows she has already been reborn in another form, in another place, with another destiny completely oblivious of what she had undergone in her previous birth.

I am no judge of people. None is a judge of none. Hence, it is futile to think about the deeds that both Hema and Chintan had done during their lives together. A cursory look at their lives together is fascinating for many because any couple who have fallen in love with each other during their student days and have decided to live together thinking that they are made for each other must find their life and the apparent success that they reaped together and separately in the material world as well as in the Indian art scene have to do something with their own lives then and now. Hema was a Baroda girl, urbane, suave, outgoing, intelligent, good looking, English speaking and caring. Chintan was the quintessential village teenager (in their courting days in the college), uncouth, stranger to urban ways, non-English speaking and a sort of loner. The same old story, of all those young couples who fall in love when they are students. We do not hear an urbane boy falling in love with an unrefined girl in a college. If at all that happens, the setting should not be a college, instead a village where the boy reaches there as a city bred and English educated youngster in the role of a doctor or a saviour of some sort; a reformer in denim clothes.

(Hema Upadhyay)

After their education, both Hema and Chintan moved to Mumbai to find a foothold in the art scene. Hema was not that ‘pallu’ pulling and ‘roti’ making type of girl who would sit at home and let her man to toil all day to bring food to the family table. For some time, in the beginning, Chintan worked as a gallery assistant and Hema too might have done something to make their life worthwhile together. Much before Chintan could make it in the art scene, Hema, by becoming the ‘bahu’ of the Upadhyay family and changing her name from Hema Hirani to Hema Upadhyay, found her success in the art scene in 2000 (just within two years after they moved to Mumbai) as she was declared the Triennale Award Winner. Allegations of favouritism were thick in the air but the work that Hema had presented was impressive, perhaps for the Indian standards of art practice, and could show the possibilities of her pursuing an international art language and predictably she was picked up by the major galleries like Bodhi (now defunct) and later by Chemould Prescott Gallery in Mumbai.

Though comparisons between the growth rates of couple artists anywhere in the world would starkly reveal some sort of imbalance not only because of familial gender disparities that operate within the domestic front but also because of the patronage that one of the couple gets from the galleries. Take any artist couple in India, the balance always tilted; when the tilt is accepted or rather maintained for the perpetuation of the families that they have created together they remain as a couple. The case of Hema and Chintan was not different. While Hema’s break came through the Triennale and then via reputed galleries, Chintan got his break in the Ashish Balram Nagpal Gallery in Mumbai in 2003 with his exhibition, ‘Commemorative Stamps’. What we see is a huge tussle between the artist-couple for social acceptance. Hema was a natural swimmer in the safe waters of the art market ocean while Chintan remained a ‘trouble kid’ constantly searching for not only aesthetic acceptance but also intellectual acceptance by the elite academic section of the art market.

(an image one does not want to remember)

Once again I draw a comparison between Hema and Chintan though I do not like any kind of comparisons between people because I deem them as unique and incomparable. Hema’s art had taken an international turn with the Triennale and the after going through a series of art projects, she could establish herself as a name to be reckoned with in the South East Asian art scene, through her easy (and troubled at a later stage) flirtations with environmental, feministic, hyper-real, existential issues. From her ‘Chandelier’ with match sticks to the site specific seed planting in Bangalore to the assemblage paintings to the last solo exhibition with rice grains, Hema maintained a steady pace almost guarding her personal troubles in the domestic front without it getting reflected in her works of art. During the boom days, like any other couple in the art scene both Hema and Chintan were living a life in suitcases, hotel rooms, airport transit lounges, residencies, party hopping, socializing and so on. Nature was being drained from their life together. It became an arrangement of convenience with two people sharing a surname out of wedlock and trying their best to keep it like that as is being done by several couples in the art scene.

In the meanwhile, Chintan was looking for his honour. His works changed from their initial arrogant and erotic expressionism to somewhat suave market friendly populism; I could clearly see him moving from William De Cooning to Andy Warhol. The ‘Commemorative Stamps’ had established the shift. But Chintan was gunning for more. Hungry for fame and acceptance, Chintan subconsciously competed with Hema, his wife, and went on experimenting with his art language to find acceptance in the international art scene. In retrospect we could see Chintan was desperately showcasing his talents not only in his paintings which were lapped up by the market but also by portraying himself as a perpetual rebel. His full page advertisement in the Times of India newspaper as a pregnant man was one such effort to tell the ‘non-art’ world about his ‘pregnancy’, a metaphor that would establish his counter-womanhood vis-a-vis Hema Upadhyay, who was said to have refused a baby to Chintan. Also this advertisement said loud and clear to the world that he was about to ‘deliver’ the best. The initial success of the couple brought them together to do a collaborative work titled ‘Made in China’ (2004) in the Viart in Delhi. An impressive show however did not have the heat to fuse them together for future projects. They again separated their ways. Chintan had already forayed into performance art with his ‘Bar Bar Har Bar Kitni Bar’ in Baroda. He had created a rural art residency program, Sandarbh in 2006 and also had addressed crucial issues of female foeticide in his home state Rajasthan and legitimacy of piracy in the market of ideas.

(Hema Upadhyay)

Towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium the separation between Hema and Chitan had become a public with their divorce case and property feuds between them. The Mumbai tabloids always hungry for juicy and spicy stories in regular intervals published the micro details of their marital dispute as if the whole world was keen to know about it. In fact the constituency that was interested in their dispute was so small and was confined to Mumbai and scattered in small little gossip pockets elsewhere in the country. I am sure that these news items might have given them a sort of temporal high because only the rich and affluent got print space when they fought each other in the bedroom as well as in the court. In that sense, this couple too had reached that level of socio-economic affluence as their private life was out there for others weave yarns of their own. However, this high was not going to last. The ugly turn of events forced them to take drastic decisions that led Hema’s health going haywire adding a lot of weight, almost making her an unfamiliar person even within the art scene, and Chintan moving out of Mumbai that had brought him fame, name, richness, success and friends and settling down in Delhi.

What made this couple a wonderful one was their effort to keep their necks out of the troubled waters even when they confronted the worst things in life, obviously created all by themselves. Both Hema and Chintan worked hard and created works of art and exhibited all over the world. Chintan took a sabbatical and went abroad, doing itinerant projects in Mexico, Germany, Hungary and so on. He took a lot of pleasure in ideating visually and verbally through his facebook page as if nothing had gone wrong with his life. This was a commendable step from both of them. But none knew that things were degenerating from within. They were in fight even after living separately. He had to face another case for allegedly painting pornographic pictures on the walls of their Juhu house in order to disturb Hema. Things were losing their sanctified tragedy and were going to a sort of comedy. People, as always were interested in taking sides and slamming the other. Personally I was out of all these. I hardly visited Chintan in Delhi. He too had collected friends who could give him temporal highs. I was a misfit there. I met Hema in the Chemould in one of those days and I could not recognize her. She had put on a lot of weight and the dimpled smile had gone and in its space there was suspicious smirk that often women give to their estranged partners’ friends.

(Chintan Updhyay)

We are nobody to reverse the chain of events. The tragedy could have been averted. But the tragedy happens. That’s how the world works. I look at the pictures of both Hema and Chintan everyday as I have kept it right in front of me; the catalogue of their one and only show together, ‘Made in China’. Hema stands in the forefront. Chintan stands behind with his hands folded across his chest. The pair of glasses that he wears is normal and the shirt less flowery. He was yet to make a sartorial reinvention for himself. Hema too stands looking intently at the camera, smiling. She has a U cut white top which shows her collar bones and neck. Both of them look so simple and straight. They are there to welcome the world into their lives. Their eyes are not cunning. They have not yet learned the tricks of the world. Greed, avarice and ego have not changed their facial contours. Like Keats I too wish they remained the same forever , forever young and innocent. That’s only a wish. But the apparent reality is that Hema is no more and Chintan is in jail. Shall we learn something from this? Yes, we have a great lesson. Nothing matters for we do not exist. We are just a part of the universe, the immense and the indestructible. But we make ourselves so fragile.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jaipur Incident: Easy to Call it Intolerance, but We Need a Different Approach

(Radha Benod Sharma after being attacked in Jaipur- source net)

Suddenly we all will now speak about intolerance. In the second consecutive year once again the miscreants have hit the Jaipur Art Summit, a low key art expo which has been taking place in the illustrious Pink City, Jaipur, Rajasthan, citing obscenity in one of the paintings displayed there. If last time it was a flying cow done by a young artist Siddharth Kararwal, this time it is Radha Benod Sharma, an Indian artist who has been living in London for the last eighteen years and trying to do all what he can to help a few struggling young artists in his home state as well as in West Bengal, not only by funding their art activities but also by promoting them in the shows presented by his own organization. The allegation against Benod Sharma, the artist raised by a woman activist from the hitherto unheard of Lal Sena is based on a work  where he has painted a half nude reclining woman at the lower left foreground of the painting.

As all of us have seen it in the news channels, the alleged obscenity in the painting slowly gives way to a generic allegation about the artist who in the process of saving his painting from the aggressive woman activist ‘violating’ the modesty of an ‘Indian’ woman by pushing her away with his elbow. This blurring of the boundaries of two different allegations, one, of the aesthetical obscenity and two, the modesty of a self righteous woman, is far more dangerous than the original content and context of the said vandalism. Here we see the unfortunate scene where the artist is forced to justify his art and act (of painting as well as pushing the woman) by brining the ancient Indian aesthetical history that includes Khajuraho sculptures. It is so sad to see an artist suddenly turns into a culprit and has to stand before the media to justify his painting as well as the painterly effort.

(moral police in argument with the artist)

Today’s Indian Express reports that the woman who had not only raised the alarm but also acted upon it by taking law in her own hands is ‘missing’, that means as the heat had been turned upon her by the Rajasthan Police she went underground. The reports followed after today’s newspaper stories also say that no action has been taken against the culprits. Some of the news portals even gave the picture of the other vandalisms that had happened against Hussain’s paintings at the Gufa Gallery in Ahmadabad to illustrate the present issue in Jaipur with a definite aim to incite the feelings of the intellectual, aesthetic and the secular communities/people in the country. If we are not discerning, we would fail to see the truth. First of all we have to see that unlike Maharashtra and Gujarat where vandalisms against art had happened before, the Rajasthan administration led by the Chief Minister Vasudhararaje Sindhia reacted to the incidents immediately first by shunting out the Police men who roughed up the artists last year and then openly regretting on the unfortunate incident. This time too, Rajasthan Police instead of accusing the artist or the art summit, put the blame squarely on the woman and her outfit for taking law into her hands. This is a commendable thing that we should not fail to notice.

My heart goes out to Radha Benode Sharma who had to face this indignity and also to the organizers of the Jaipur Art Summit. Jaipur is a city besides its historical flamboyance and related touristic attractions of late has become a brand in its own by hosting the world famous Jaipur Literature Festival. A series of small scale art and culture festivals including the Cartist Art Festival and Residency and the painting of the metro stations in the city with the tribal art of India (done by tribal artists and local artists together) have attracted more art people to the city. The artists living in the city and the galleries operating from there also have to be lauded for their efforts to make the historical Pink City more contemporary than before. But at the same time, we should not create a negative feeling about the city because a couple unfortunate incidents happened there in the same venue and within the same context. A conspiracy angle is always possible and also it is easy to connect with the right wing fundamentalism within our country.

(Moral police force proudly displaying their game of the day)

However, I would say, it is easy, yes it is easy to connect this vandalism to the right wing fundamentalism in our country. But think again. If we see the whole thing as somebody’s conspiracy to gain local fame and political mileage, then we understand that it is a one off incident, not a norm. Yes, it had happened last year too. But that does not mean that there is a pattern always. If we think calmly, we can see that the miscreants could strike only at a weaker target. If the same lady had gone to the Jaipur Literature Festival after carefully reading one of the latest releases and created a ruckus there for the obscenity/a scene involving nudity in that particular piece of literature, she would have been immediately thrown into jail because an attack on a world famous program which has already become the prestige of the state would have been scarred the reputation of the state in turn reflecting upon the inability of the authorities to curb such stray incidents. Compared to this we all know the Jaipur Art Summit is a weaker target. But attacking even a weak target like this, they know would create ripples in the country. They were looking for a cheap mileage. The miscreants would not have touched the same painting had it been in the India Art Fair in Delhi, for it also is a cash rich and powerful platform patronized by the rich and affluent of the country.

I have to say that in the city of Jaipur, people who are involved in the art scene are aware of the lurking danger. In the beginning of this year, when I was curating the Cartist project in the city, the organizer insisted that a Hanuman carrying a the hill image painted by (with no nudity, no bad implication, nothing, a popular image of Hanuman) the Mumbai based Raj More should be removed because he thought the miscreants would attack the project as a whole. Though the artistic stubbornness won in the battle of nerves with the organizer, there was a palpable tension when the car on which the image was painted, was displayed in the city. I also faced the ire of the fundamentalist of the local kind in Pune in 2015, where the head of the Pune Biennale and myself as the project director of it were heckled and the painting done by Manil-Rohit of Delhi was taken to the Sivaji Nagar Police station. Unlike in Jaipur, we became the butt of ridicule not only by the miscreants but also by the Police force. Unfortunately, the Pune Biennale organizers did not display courage to go public about it and draw people’s attention. I consoled myself and the artists by saying that the organizers had to survive in their city to which I was an outsider.

(a foreigner trying to protect the work from the moral police woman)

If I had insisted it would have become a national issue. But I did not because I knew that it was a part of the ongoing intolerance. We have not been hearing such things for a long time now. The country’s attention has turned to nationalism and other issues including the demonetisation. The incident in Jaipur should be condemned. But if we make it a part of the intolerance debate, then unnecessarily we will be giving more mileage to the miscreants than to the real issue. There should be a total sensitization in the country towards art to which there should be measures taken up by the governments irrespective of their political agenda and ideological leanings. When we hear some random woman or man judging a work of art it sounds more obscene than the obscenity that they allege the work of art in question has. Hence, there should be a model code of conduct for the Police men and the party workers of all kinds where it should be categorically said that the judgement of a work of art is to be done by the qualified people. If someone oversteps this, they should be given exemplary punishment and I am sure Indian authorities are not that bad that they couldn’t see the absurdity of such vandalisms. Let us divert our attention towards that than celebrating this issue and asking the governments to be answerable to it. Just treat it as a law and order situation and be vocal about the value of aesthetics in public life. To do that the artists themselves have to go beyond their market values. They should become philosopher kings of their own worth. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Meaning of Art and the Art of Gopikrishna: Beyond Meaning and the Works

(Life and Death of Sreedharan Gopikrishna, a painting by Gopikrishna)

How far could art make meaning and move the viewers towards those meanings? Is it possible in our times where the popular symbolisms have lost their intrinsic symbolic values and stand for what they signify and nothing more than that? Saussure must be proved wrong by now. He said, sign no longer signifies the signified and the act of signification could be flexible and be liable to open interpretation. This deconstructive linguistic approach was a great liberator though the ‘maya’ of things has been emphasized by the Indian philosophers many centuries before Saussure. Though Saussure and those who followed the post structural school of linguistics had helped liberate us from not only the domination of the textual meanings and authorial intentions but also from the socio-cultural and political texts that were mowing down those who had been in the lower rungs of the hierarchy. But today, deconstruction seems to be a failed project for the sign stands for only the sign and if anybody sees anything beyond it he/she is accused of over reading, limiting all the possibilities of inter-textualities and sub-textualities. Hence, McDonald sign is just McDonald sign and it does not reveal the subtext of homogenisation of taste via culinary colonialism via economic globalization.

Take any sign and the monolithic signified implied by it, the possible sub texts are subtle and if at all there, they are used for defining social hierarchies than creating resistive fronts, with the signs and signifieds together creating a chain of relationships, which Guy Debord called as the society of spectacles. We are right in the middle of a spectacle. From birth to death, from marriage to film release, from elected presidents to demonetisation, everything is presented and understood as a spectacle so that even the most painful event in the world could be seen passively as a spectacle, like muted display of fireworks. The latest incident that one could be reminded of is the accidental shooting of a dancing girl on the stage by a drunken reveller in a marriage party. She is seen dancing on the stage and after a few minutes we see her crumbling down into a heap that sprouts red hot blood. A homicide made into a spectacle!

(Gopikrishna, artist)

However, when it comes to art, suddenly people want to know more about the hidden meaning more out of habit than their real intention. Most of the spectators of art think that a work of art is a set of hidden meanings, as in the case of church art during the pre-Renaissance and Renaissance period both in the south and north Europe. In fact, the post Renaissance art history or rather the very discipline of art history was developed based on this esoteric aspect of the works of art, as something that hides a lot of meanings and secrets. With this habit and practice today anything that an artist presents has to have a hidden meaning, which in turn renders the work of art a symbol/sign destined to be decoded, first to understand the artistic intention and next the hidden meanings of it. Reading of hidden meanings also could be taken for the viewers’ intention to see what they want to see in it and it is absolutely a valid way of looking at it. After all, the meaning of a work of art lies with the meaning of looking. You see what you are looking for. When you fail to find it you move away from the work of art. While people take the symbolism of the world in general for the given and the associated values subconsciously, somehow, they actively demand other meanings from a work of art, and ironically, they all want the artists to tell them those meanings that they want to hear. From attributing social responsibility to political commitment, from aesthetical complexity to art historical erudition, from textual meanings to sub-textual interpretations, they want to hold the artist responsible. How is it possible?

I am not talking about those artists who work with a sense of meaning making, with social and political commitments and project based thinking etc. I am talking about those artists who make art because they cannot do anything else in the world. They are born to make art. Most of the time, I think that the real artists and really creative people are those beings who are born to this earth with a sort of curse and destiny. They are people with wings but without its physical manifestations on their shoulders. They are constantly high and in a flight. But the people who move around on the earth willingly submitting to the gravity of the earth do not understand the pleasure of such flights. So they want the artists to make them understand the pleasure of flight which is impossible. As the poet says, to experience that love, either the star should come down to the tip of this grass blade or the grass blade should grow to the galaxies so that it could touch the star. Both are impossible in the physical plane. Love could be mutually remunerated and reciprocated only when it is allowed to grow mystically. Then the star and grass blade could meet. When the viewers grow mystical qualities then only they could understand the qualities of a work of art, the meaning of it and the artist him/herself. Real artists or creative people are like Hijras or eunuchs. They are caught in a different body which is capable enough to dance but unable to interpret the meaning of that dance. They can only say that let us also live here on the earth.

(The Worm Inspector by Gopikrishna)

Gopikrishna is one such artist who tells the world please let me live (jeevikkaan vidu). An artist who silently walks on the earth without hurting anybody either by his life or by his work, however finds that people want meanings out of his works and they read what they want and that becomes point of attack for him. There are stark nude figures in Gopikrishna’s works; those are all his own nudes. The characters that appear in his works as if they were a personal mythology or legend or even a private folklore (which impossible apparently but is possible when that folklore is shared by the folks within his own mental realm) are involved in various activities as ‘seen’ by the artist and most of them are starkly naked. Gopikrishna remembers how he was questioned by several of his viewers and even some reputed curators in India asking him why there were so many male nudes. The artist told them at that time that why this question was never asked to those male artists who always paint female nudes? How is that the female nude is an acceptable norm of art and its accepted history, especially when it is painted by the male artists? Gopikrishna says that when a man paints his own nude or a woman paints her own nude then the society suddenly become morally rigid. According me it is the society’s (that means, the people’s) perennial fear to face themselves and see their own nudes out their own display.

Seeing a nude of a female done by a male artist is palatable for the male audience because her body has been objectified or reduced to a sexual object, which the patriarchal norms have accepted. Ironically, conditioned by these values, even women do not take much of an offence when they see female nudes in art. But a woman painting her own nude is always seen with suspicion. Either she is taken for being morally loose or a destroyer of the social norms; both should be kept away from the mainstream thinking. I am sure that is why many of the Indian woman artists still resist painting their own nudes or the nudes of the other women. However, when it comes to a male painting his own nude, suddenly, there is a total discomfiture among the viewers because they think that this male nudity should be transcended into symbolic appearances as in several phallic structures within the pictorial frame or even the male body itself should be seen as an active sexual body which does not need symbolic means to express. Hence, denuding the male body by a male artist could be seen as an act of not only self aggression but also an aggression towards the society which the polite societies would reject or would look at with some sort of disgust and disbelief, that’s what exactly happened with the works of Gopikrishna.

(Swamy Vaidyar Padam by Gopikrishna)

The male nudes in the works of Gopikrishna are not simply conjured up by the artist in order to shock the society. According to him, human beings are primordial creatures no different from any other beings on the earth. But human beings thanks to their wilful adoption of greed and avarice made clothes, grabbed power and subjugated many. While living in the midst of these systematic societies that accept grabbing, looting and disadvantaging all the other creatures including the nature, Gopikrishna sees the visions of the primordial beings who are interested in the lives of worms and small creatures. Here, the artist is not talking about dispossession and migration to cultures that are strange, instead he talking about a returning to the roots of our own causes; that lies in the primary beings of the earth including the worms. A sensitive human being could see what Gopikrishna is trying to speak to himself through a painting titled ‘the Worm Inspector’. Though the word inspector is something that makes a direct linkage to the society that we live in where everything is inspected closely by the authorities, what we see here in this painting is the curiosity of the people who look at the amazing world of the worms that we often forget to see or even avoid to look at.

Human beings are self centred. I am sure that a bit of selfishness is important for those people who still hold on to the self. Selfish people are tolerable people so long as they grab only what they want. The moment they gather more than they need they become human beings! This gathering is based on ego and also the ego is boosted by the gathering abilities. To increase the abilities to gather, one has to use either intellectual power or physical power. Once you exert physical or intellectual power you start to have a hierarchic society. Ego, the big word that remains invisible in every human being. It manifests in clothes, in hairstyles, in cars, houses, properties and so on. Here is a painting by Gopikrishna, interestingly titled ‘Swamy Vaidyar Padam’. It is an old village barbershop seen. There people like stags are waiting for to be groomed and pruned. The Vaidyar, the barber, is detached yet he has this bliss of rendering people free of their wools/hairs and egos. The people here are happy because they have come to shed it; it shows a willingness to enter into a space that would render you egoless. Vaidyar like god keeps doing his work. And look at the one who goes out with all his hairs shed. How happy he is! The egoless state of being. He has an umbrella in his hand and I am sure he is going to leave that too sooner than later.

(Madonna and Christ by Gopikrishna)

Christian themes come again and again to Gopikrishna may be because they are symbolically rich and he need not interpret it for all those who are familiar with the theological themes which is considered to be universal. However, I do not think that Gopikrishna paints Christian themes because he is hugely drawn towards its philosophy. But what apparently make him turn again and again to the Christian symbolism is the sufferings of Christ. Whether the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has helped in establishing a tolerant and loving society without ego and hierarchies is a disputable fact. But what I like about Gopikrishna’s adherence at times to the Christian themes is his liking for the human suffering for further sublimation. Here we have two works by Gopikrishna; one is titled ‘Madonna and Christ’ and the other one is ‘Planting Christ’. Nowhere in the world one could see the Christian themes painted with such freshness and empathy because Gopikrishna does not see himself different from the son of god who chose cross to throne. In Madonna and Child, Gopikrishna reverses the order of caring into the order of crucifying. One could interpret it in hundred different ways; but I would like to stick to this image and its clarity. Maximum I would say, before anybody could crucify Christ and it should be done by his mother, not once, everyday. Gopikrishna paints his autobiography perhaps, because the Christ is he himself. In ‘Planting Christ’, we do not see Jesus Christ being descended from the cross but we see a dispassionate primordial man (the surrogate of the artist) cutting Jesus into several pieces and planting him hoping that one day there would be many Christs in the world. The scene is gory and unpalatable; but truth is always unpalatable.

(Planting Christ/The Gardener by Gopikrishna)

Those people who take the world and its symbolism easily and ask the artists to explain what they have been doing is given the right kind of answer by Gopikrishna in his painting titled ‘Life and Death of Sreedharan Gopikrishna’. Is there any mission that an artist could take up in this life? Is there any social commitment for the artists above than others? Is there any special message an artist could convey to the world through his works? I do not think none of the above is possible because the human beings in the world are led by their own beliefs. They are not going to change their ways either by seeing a work of art or looking at the life of an artist. What they could maximum do is to look at the work of art and if they are receptive enough they could undergo a sea change. I see the chances of such changes rare and far in between. Hence, there is no question of asking the same to Gopikrishna and asking him to explain himself. He cannot be, like many other artists whom I know, anything than this. Eventually an artist like him is sitting on the hourglass as the times runs by. The kaal (time and death in Indian philosophy) is there in the form of a serpent, remind the physical death of the artist. But he need not panic. What is he? He is just a few colours and a brush, and like a Mughal Emperor, he could be seated at the top of the world, doing nothing but paint because he is just a few colours and a brush. If anybody in the world thinks that they are more than what they are, then all of them should look at this painting. Gopikrishna, like a hijra tells the world, I am like this and in my stark nudity, I am just a few colours and a brush. I do not have any other existence. Let me live the life that I want. The beauty of Gopikrishna’s paintings is this; they do not lead you to anywhere. It leads you to yourself. Art does not have too many inner meanings other than the pleasure of the artist who makes it and the pleasure of the one who sees it. Meaning lies in the beholder’s mind. When the mind is ready open the meanings the meanings come out. When the mind is shut the painting remains as it is. When the mind is done away with the painting too disappears; why painting alone, the painter, the world and the one who writes it too. Bliss.