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The great Indian novel will never be written

We’ll never have path-breaking experimental art forms here because we have lost sight of the nature of the creative process. Pratik Kanjilal writes.

india Updated: Jun 17, 2011 23:38 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

On Thursday, the incisive Serbian-born artist Viktor Mitic unveiled a portrait of Amitabh Bachchan in Toronto. So? The Big B must be a fairly familiar figure in desi-infested Toronto. What interests me is another recent work by Mitic, a portrait of the Great G — Mahatma Gandhi.

It’s drawn with bullet holes. Real holes, made with a real gun and live ammunition. Apparently, a dealer had told Mitic that his art needed to be more “penetrating”. The artist, who had seen military service in Serbia, took it literally. He grabbed an automatic rifle and let rip at canvas.

Is that high calibre art or just a big bore? I’m in no position to judge. My artist friends think I’m a philistine in need of mercy killing. But I do know that Gandhi’s bullet-riddled portrait made me uneasy. I also know that Mitic targets people who actually fell to bullets, like John Lennon and JFK.

But to see an extraordinary pacifist sketched with gunfire was cringe-making.

But here’s something else I know: you should pay no attention to my sentiments. You should not attack this artist in distant Toronto, armed with banners, slogans, ration and pani. We have made fools of ourselves by listening to anyone who yowls that their sentiments have been hurt.

Colonial authors — we would call them analysts now — had dismissed us as an extraordinarily sentimental race. In the 21st century, we have done everything in our power to validate their diagnosis.

Until the passing of MF Husain, I didn’t really understand how stupid we looked. I’m not talking about concern for the obvious moral and ethical deficit, the lack of political courage that the Husain episode represents. I’m talking about just plain shame, which we Indians are extraordinarily sensitive to.

Sometimes, I think we have huge glands unknown to medical science, copiously secreting sentimentality and shame. They make us do peculiar things.

In Husain’s case, our shame glands seem to have been suppressed, with particularly peculiar results. In Pakistan, after the torture and murder of the journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, the government amiably permitted hacks to bear arms.

Since the State could not protect them, they should protect themselves. In India, we’ve done no better for artists, except that we haven’t allowed them to arm themselves like Mitic. Is that shameful, or am I just sentimental?

The Husain affair was about the suppression of oil on canvas, a medium largely restricted to the circuit of connoisseurs. Visual art can shock immediately, but the written word casts a longer shadow, especially when it is adapted for the screen. Even in our ban-happy nation, it can alter the present, rewrite history and prophecy forth.

When it is written in a widely understood tongue — Hindi or English — it is accessible and assailable everywhere.

This means that the great Indian novel will never be written. No great experimental work like Ulysses will come out of India. We can never freely evaluate our contending pasts or our possible futures.

Because somewhere down the line, we lost sight of the basic nature of the creative arts. Like rifleman Viktor Mitic, every creative writer and artist draws first and answers the critics afterwards. That’s what makes art useful.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine. The views expressed by the author are personal)