2018: The year in which art was needlessly politicised
Perumal Murugan’s novel One Part Woman, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, TM Krishna’s concerts are all examples of art that wasn’t necessarily political by nature, but nevertheless got politicisedUpdated: Dec 28, 2018 11:41 IST
Earlier in December, a collective called Artists Unite! released a manifesto that promised resistance to the divisive politics that has dominated public discourse in 2018. “The emancipatory and spiritual possibilities of culture are being replaced by a language that relies solely on war cries, propaganda and the images, metaphors, visions and sounds of supremacy. The ongoing assault on culture is an attack on democracy. As artists and cultural practitioners we are and will continue to resist the politics of hate,” declared Artists Unite!, which is planning a “national convention” in February 2019.
Whatever it may achieve in the future, at present the manifesto of Artists Unite! has more than 500 signatories. Culture, dear reader, is a battleground.
In 21st century India, this is unprecedented. The political activism of the 1970s is a distant memory for most, given the way the State squashed student movements of that era and the fact that the bulk of our population is under 25. It hasn’t helped that we don’t have a sustained tradition of radical or political art. Barring a select few, most of our artists make strenuous efforts to come across as neutral. If politics or ideology informs their work, it is usually so subtle that invisible ink seems obvious in comparison. The stereotype of the artist may be that of a bohemian troublemaker, but the reality is that Indian cultural practitioners are usually docile and non-confrontational. The few who systematically challenge the establishment stand out because they are exceptions rather than the rule.
However, what we do have in India is a robust tradition of being offended. MF Husain’s paintings of Hindu goddesses, Perumal Murugan’s novel One Part Woman, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, TM Krishna’s concerts are all examples of art that wasn’t necessarily political by nature, but nevertheless got politicised. What’s become increasingly obvious is that if we want culture and entertainment rather than censorship, we’d better develop a political spine.
With electoral politics eager to use the arts to further a toxic agenda, it’s worth keeping in mind that when an ideological stand is taken mindfully, the risk of being exploited is lower. For instance, there’s no mistaking artist Navjot Altaf’s disapproval of government policies in Chhattisgarh because she articulates it clearly in her video, “Soul Breath, Wind”. Against visuals of lush naturescapes, we hear locals denounce unregulated mining and mourn the environmental damage being done in the name of development. “I am not poor,” says a resident. “I am made to feel poor.”
Her 125-minute long video, “Trail of Impunity”, offers a record of what happened before, during and after the Gujarat riots of 2002, and raises questions for the present and future. “What is the effect of hate speech on the electoral process?” asks lawyer Teesta Setalvad in the video that was made in 2014. More poetic is Altaf’s installation “Lacuna of Testimony”, which uses video projection and mirrors to mesmerising effect. Made in 2003, it shows fragmentary images of violence – armed men, burning buildings, terrified people lined up – that indicate how trauma can distort narratives.
Seeing the 100-plus works in Altaf’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art (on display in Mumbai), you get a sense of what a treasure this artist is. Ever since the 1970s, when she emerged on the Indian art scene, Altaf has fought for those who are underprivileged and raised uncomfortable questions to those in power. She’s sold her art for cheap – you could snap up one of her works for as much as Rs 25 in the mid-1970s – to make it accessible to the middle classes. In 1998, she shifted to a village in Bastar and has since worked with local artists in the area. Unfazed by tags like Samovar Naxalite (Samovar was a legendary café at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai), Altaf has remained curious, passionate and angry. Her art doesn’t compromise on either aesthetics or idealism. Whether it’s a video or a print, her command over the form is masterful. The best of her works engage you at both an emotional and intellectual level. In an art market, the value of her work is unremarkable. For a society at crossroads, however, Altaf’s art is invaluable.
Given the year began with the dark absurdity of Padmaavat being exploited for political gain, perhaps the shiniest silver lining is that we can end 2018 by raising a toast to the indomitable spirit of Altaf’s art.