Senior city painter Balvinder Singh and I have been friends for over three decades. Of late, we have been friends on the Facebook. October-end I read a post by him: “No placards, no slogan shouting. I propose to have an art exhibition at Chandigarh of dumb-blank canvases to ‘speak’ against the state supported, violent, unethical, oppressive, divisive and unscientific curbing of democratic freedom. How many of you, artists, would second it and contribute signed blank canvases? We could gather, with blank canvases, at one designated place and time, Kala Bhawan or Sector 17 plaza!”
This came as a satisfying surprise because even as protests were pouring in from writers, intellectuals, historians, scientists and filmmakers: the artists were ominously silent, but for Anish Kapoor, a celebrated sculptor of Indian origin in the UK, raising his voice as strongly as writer Salman Rushdie. Well, writers have a long tradition of voicing their dissent, but artists have rarely been vocal.
Even the SAHMAT protest statement, with signatures of many leading writers of the country, issued from New Delhi was a trifle belated and not as spontaneous as from other disciplines. Here in the city there was not even a murmur from the artistic community. So in a warm reciprocation, I offered to review the blank canvases. ‘Que sera sera’ the opportunity to play an art critic with a difference never came my way.
Balvinder was not so surprised by the ‘sin of silence’, as Abraham Lincoln had called this phenomenon, when none responded to his call. For that matter none bothered to oppose or condemn the proposal. The painter says, “I asked an artist friend that why hadn’t any of our tribe come forward to join the ongoing protests against the rise of brazen intolerance in the country and this time, I was surprised by the reply!”
The bizarre reply of one painter to another was: “We are not there because no painter has yet been killed or had his face blackened.” Mind you, this was said in earnest without even a brush of sarcasm. Balvinder says: “My friend probably forgot that we remained dead silent even over Husain’s exile. No art akademi has dared even to celebrate Husain’s 100th birth anniversary that recently passed off mutely, and we all were reminded of this only by a celebratory Google doodle.”
The lone blank-canvas protestor adds that most are ignoring the fact that a comparatively small amount of protest that creative people have put forth has made the authorities that be, sit up and ponder. “Otherwise, how come a generally silent polity, even on lynching, certainly became violently vocal and brazenly branded the protests not only as ‘motivated’, ‘orchestrated’ and ‘manufactured’, but also attributed motifs to the protesters.
So he decided to walk alone and gate-crash the Chandigarh Literature Festival opening last week with his glaring white canvas bordered in black, which just had a line saying that here was a naked canvas and the onlookers could see the whatever pleasant hue that one would like to see through one’s heavily-coloured glasses. There the canvas remained by the stage elegant on its easel, but for a few times when the cold winds from the Shivalik Hills chose to blow it away now and then.