Celebrate the true meaning of freedom, say India's top artists

  • Francis H D’sa
  • Updated: Aug 14, 2015 20:31 IST
Milburn Cherian's painting, The Warrior.

When I asked five well-established Indian artists to talk to young Indians about what freedom really means, they wondered if today’s generation needs advice as it is well-equipped to handle any emergency armed as it is with the very best and the latest in technology (internet, television, mobile phone etc)... But given their experience and talent, who wouldn’t mind but a few words of wisdom by greats such as SH Raza, Baiju Parthan, Nilofer Suleman, Milburn Cherian and Jayasri Burman.

Understand your legacy

S H Raza

Who he is: Syed Haider Raza is one of India’s most compelling and sought -after modernists. Creator of the iconic bindi, he still paints at 94.

His message: In 1947 India won freedom but tragically it was partitioned. Almost all members of my family left for the newly created Pakistan, I did not. I was born in India, grew up here and I had seen Mahatma Gandhi in Mandla. India was and is my country and I could not dream of leaving it. Though later I lived in France for 60 years, I retained my citizenship of India. I now live in Delhi for the last four years or so. Every week I visit a church on Sunday, a temple and a masjid. This for me is India: not only the idea but the reality.

India is also the name of creativity and imagination. It has not only a very rich tradition of arts and literature, but also an incredible plurality of visions, styles and idioms, insights and anxieties. I feel the plurality of India is unique and its civilizationality quite unprecedented.


The youth of this great civilizational enterprise of India are the heirs of this huge pluralistic repertoire of India. Firstly, they must understand and appreciate it. It is a complex legacy. We have been modern on our own terms. The youth should not simplify or overlook the enormous complexity. There are different, even contrary, ways of looking at and exploring the human condition, ideas, arts and poetry etc. This has to be nurtured, sustained, celebrated. We are a plural people, not merely racially, socially etc but also civilizationally. We speak many languages and dialects. We practice many different religions. We write, explore, celebrate the human condition in so many diverse ways. This amazing plurality is the core of the civilizational enterprise of India over millenia. The youth today should first get themselves to understand, appreciate and explore it. Then they should in their own diverse ways celebrate, nurture and sustain it.

The youth must remember that nothing comes easy. We, the artists, had to struggle a lot when we were young. What matters ultimately is the tenacity of effort, the depth of creative imagination and the relevance of vision. Unlike us, who struggled when India was not free, they have both freedom and a democratic system. They should bring an openness to their creativity, a freedom their craft and tenacity to their aesthetics. The young should create art full of complexity and anxieties, which is rooted but open minded. It should resonate what happened before. Rooted in memory it should address the reality of our times.

Value the gift of freedom

Baiju Parthan

Who he is: Baiju Parthan is one of India’s foremost young multimedia modernists and internationally famous as the new face of modern Indian painters.

His message:

Freedom is something that is palpable yet intangible. Something that we take for granted in our democratic socio-political setup.

The real value of freedom can be experienced only when it is taken away or when it is denied and all of a sudden it becomes tangible in its absence. At a personal level I had a first-hand experience of this situation during the Indian emergency of the ’70s while I was a college student in Kerala.

The Indian Emergency was declared on June 25, 1975 - for a 21-month period, when the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, on the advice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, suspending elections and civil liberties and bestowing on her the power to rule by decree. In one stroke all the fundamental rights and legal rights of the individual citizens protected by the Constitution were suspended.


It was unlike anything we the post-independence generation had experienced. Along with that came the oppressive feeling that walls have ears.

We didn’t know whom we could trust. The sense of insecurity felt was unprecedented and on top of that the police had the power to lock you up on a whim and violate all possible human rights.

At least that is the way it appeared to all of us, along with the painful knowledge that the freedom that we all had taken for granted is such a fragile gift.

Gradually we adjusted our lives and kept going grudgingly living under the dark cloud of emergency.

Finally 21 months later when the emergency was lifted on 21st March 1977 and fresh elections declared it was such a ­celebration to be able to breathe free and experience freedom once again.

The freedom we enjoy on a daily basis is not an immutable given feature of the socio political environment.

It is something that was earned through the struggle and sacrifice of thousands of individuals, and we all share the collective responsibility for protecting and keeping that fragile flame from being extinguished as long as we can.

Be humane, be sensitive

Nilofer Suleman

Who she is: An artist known for her ability to depict a vision of India that elicits humour and a sense of nostalgia.

Her message:

As an Indian, my greatest desire is to see that we move towards integrity, courage and sensitivity. I wish that we have more evolved leaders who are better visionaries. I wish...That we move towards gender equality. That we are more sensitive towards people’s personal choices in life.


That we care about the the animals and trees that we share our land with. That we have better civic sense and are more sensitive and socially aware. And that we have more tolerance towards all faiths. As an individual, freedom is one of my core values. In my case, I come from a family with three generation of rebels and the free spirit is what my children have inherited from me. We need to teach our youngsters that it is important to embrace freedom and it is equally important to respect the sense of responsibility that comes with it.

Bring back the values, passion

Milburn cherian

Who she is: Christian iconographic painter.

Her message:

Art today and art 500 to 600 years ago has changed so much. We can blame technology and the stresses of life today, but we have become a generation that thrives on instant gratification and instant everything.


As a Christian artist, I must acknowledge that the Church was a great contributor to art, architecture and music. As an Indian I am proud of the beauty of our temples and other monuments. The American author Bill Donohue says it very aptly, that whatever the artist of old did, they did it in the service of the Divine. That’s so true for our country also. Bill goes on to say that the artistic explosion that marks the Renaissance would not have been possible without the deeply religious convictions of the artist at that time, and I would hold that true about the artist of our country at that time also. My hope for this generation is that we bring back those values and that passion, that created this everlasting beauty of Indian art as we once knew it in its various fields. I am hopeful that the high demand for artworks today does not destroy that passion, and that we continue to strive to bring back the days when nearly every piece of art was called a masterpiece.

Let us be responsible

Jayasri Burman

Who she is: Jayasri Burman’s art is derived from the rich tradition of Hindu mythology and has carved out its own identity.

Her work: The imagery in Jayasri Burman’s work has a dream-like and lyrical quality. Inspired by Indian folk element, the works have a unique sensitivity. Her deep-rooted understanding of Indian mythology, Bengali culture and tradition does not escape her artwork – either sculptures or paintings.

Her message:

Independent India stands regally tall at 69 today. The date – August 15 – traces our victory over the socio-political subservience. Yet, we have not been able to assess its complete significance. We could not succeed in achieving the development that was expected from us. The great legacy of freedom fighters who made this ‘independence’ possible, are no longer present on the face of the earth, hence, the onus to build it anew, into a beautiful country, passes on to the citizens, and particularly so, to the youth of the nation. Youth is, as much spoken about, an attitude. It is the reality to envision a dream beyond chains. Anyone reading this article falls into that category, if you so wish to. It is beyond thinning hairlines, ageing skin and faulty eyesight. Within us (for I am actively young too), exists the fire of the new dawn, with its excitement and enthusiasm for the vast future.


Thus, my sincere prayer for the youth begins with the message to love our country and make our individual lives more meaningful so that it in effect is an able support, a pathfinder for many other families of the nation. India is an enormous treasury of invaluable art, literature and cultural heritage. We should all be proud of it and work towards promoting it worldwide with renewed zest.

We must collectively, as a nation, undertake the passion to pilot our growth in theory and in action. An overall growth encapsulates academic, vocational, and co-curricular knowledge. As oft-quoted, we should practice first what we wish for others to perform. Education will effectively contribute in the true sense having built this happy chain. Together we should be able to abandon selfishness and embrace compassion, patience and intelligence.

Primarily, in the state of current affairs that we are in, guaranteeing a safe milieu for the women is of utmost urgency. Gender education is as essential and we should look at sensitising it through more dialogues and visuals. This is my message -- one for the youth, one reading this and one back at me: Let us look at liberation with a more responsible and open approach. Let us begin the practice. Here, now. Sixty nine is fabulous!

(The writer is a Mumbai-based art critic)

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