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Agit-pop artists

One thing that has gone relatively unnoticed in the last one week’s ruckus centred around the radical agit-prop group that goes by the name of Shiv Sena is how super-effective it is in getting everyone’s attention, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2010 23:29 IST
Indrajit Hazra

One thing that has gone relatively unnoticed in the last one week’s ruckus centred around the radical agit-prop group that goes by the name of Shiv Sena is how super-effective it is in getting everyone’s attention. If Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was the finest practitioner of political performance art — fasting for a purpose, spinning a loom for high symbolism, engaging in radical non-violence against non-random acts of violence — the Balasaheb School of Performance Art has nurtured the more kitschy, visceral variety of political pop art.

The Sena’s inspiration is not, of course, Dadaist destruction. All it wants is its rightful place in the sun without having to deal with the tiresome business of democratic politics — the sure way to dilute one’s much-lovingly fashioned radical identity. The Shiv Sena, under the King Lear of Matoshree’s apprentice-son Uddhav, and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), under Balasaheb’s true successor-nephew Raj, have been fighting a brand war that two Mumbaikar Gujarati brothers would find very familiar.

During the 2009 October assembly polls, the three-year-old MNS picked up around 24 per cent of Mumbai’s votes, ahead of the Shiv Sena’s 18 per cent. Translated into number of seats, the scoreline in Mumbai read: Raj Thackeray 6, Uddhav Thackeray 4. Being urban guerrilla outfits whose existence hangs on nuisance value and sheer visibility (and thus the paucity of Shiv Sena-MNS radical action in small towns where TV coverage, at best, is low), these figures from Mumbai told the story of a property dispute that is usually played out after the patriarch is dead. Let’s just say Raj was a nephew in a hurry.

So if it was the MNS-manufactured issue of ‘Mumbai for Mumbaikars’ and ‘Marathi manoos’ that fed liberal outrage the months and weeks before — and in turn providing precious sustenance for a fledgling party with 13 legislators in a 288-member assembly — last week, it was the turn of the ‘orjinal’ Sena to pick up something, run with it and reclaim the crown of the real Boyz n the Hood.

But that’s the cause. What transfixes me are the effects. In one running delivery of velcro logic that picked up everything in its path, Balasaheb and Uddhav, the latter at last playing Bal’s Boy, brought in Shah Rukh Khan’s comment about letting Pakistani players play in the Indian Premier League and north Indians ‘squeezing out’ locals for jobs to concoct one mesmerising, goat-getting pav bhaji. A couple of days later, the Gandhi family’s ‘anti-Mumbai’ sentiments were added as a tangy garnish. The only outcome of that last bit was to make Rahul Gandhi’s jaunt to Mumbai on Friday seem like the arrival of the Red Army in 1945 Berlin.

A handful of Shiv Sainiks, weaned on wrecking a few greetings card outlets every year on Valentine’s Day (with the TV cameras rolling), went about ripping posters of Shah Rukh Khan, burning a few buses, punching a few people (with the TV cameras rolling) — and voila! — not only did we have ‘Mumbai vs India’ discussions raging all across Akhand Bharat, but the Shiv Sena’s also back again, with Uddhav finally showing some genetic spunk.

All political outfits use the media to leverage their ‘product’. But no one — not the extremely photogenic Vishwa Hindu Parishad or the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind — manage to extricate so much from so little. Similar views to the Sena on Shah Rukh’s ‘suggestion’ about Pakistani cricketers were on blogs and in living rooms; similar views on ‘Mumbai for Marathis’ are regularly heard in office canteens. But any of the two Senas air such ‘opinions’ and we’re talking about the end of Bombay.

Margaret Thatcher spoke about taking on the Irish Republican Army by starving it of the “oxygen of publicity”. I’m not saying we stop reporting or criticising the Senas’ tactics. I just think we should start giving them what their agit-pop art really deserve: 15 minutes of attention. Let the law-enforcers be taken to task if they are soft on goons — Sena or otherwise.

For I, a certified Mumbai phobe, have a sneaking suspicion that neither is Shah Rukh Khan packing his bags for Karachi (or Delhi, for that matter) nor is Mumbai returning to being a fishing village, with or without the two Senas’ help.