Art for rights’ sake

An exhibition at the prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai lays bare some thorny realities of the Indian society in the current politically charged environment

Art for rights’ sake

Neeta Kolhatkar

When oppression of the masses becomes intolerable, revolutions are bound to occur. In Mumbai, the premier and prestigious Jehangir Art Gallery is leading a silent revolution with a show titled “Revolution and Counter Revolution”, where 60 artists have come together and interpreted this subject, especially in today’s political environment. Right from the way the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has hijacked Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, one of the founders of the Indian Constitution to the silencing of opposition voices.

An electric device depicts a brush painting his tiny statue bhagwa (orange), while in another painting, a man is seen wiping Dr Ambedkar’s statue with his hand holding his mouth. One startling representation of current times is that of a sewing machine. A sewing machine depicts a hand holding a needle that has stitched numerous mouths together, depicting the silent censorship culture prevailing in our society today.

Explaining this concept, Prabhakar Kamble, the curator says, “All artists participating in this exhibition are engaged in democracy, rights for social justice and fighting to save the Indian Constitution. We have received good response from audience. Their definition of art and their interpretation of politics and current discourse is shown. We are committed to secularism and intervene in all systems which have become a reason for exploitation. Or against those who are exploiting our own people. Art is a non-violent tool to intervene in these systems.”

Most of the artists participating have faced exploitation in their families due to the traditions defined by upper castes or within their institutions where they have been prevented from pursuing a stream of art for belonging to lower castes. There are even women artists who have taken a bold stand to show the experiences of their families and describe the caste discrimination they still face despite being qualified artists.

Two paintings by Malvika Raj depict the lives of her forefathers and those of other backward caste groups. Even the paper used is symbolic. “This paper on which I have drawn the illustrations is made from the pulp of pages taken from the Manusmriti book. After soaking them in water for few days pulp is made and then this paper is made. Another artist who made this paper gave it to me to interpret what I feel,” says Malvika Raj, who is from Bihar. She has learnt Madhubani painting and says she has depicted people of lower caste groups wearing leather spitoons around their necks to collect their saliva as the upper caste Brahmins had even stopped them from spitting, as they were called untouchables.

“I have shown a man wearing this spitoon and dragging a dead cow in one painting. In the second painting I have shown a poor Dalit family with minimum clothes, wearing a spitoon around the neck, broom around their waist. Their mud huts. And then I burnt the paper on which I had painted, to show what I feel about discrimination and our history. I have learnt Madhubani painting for the last 10 years, but you will not see Buddha’s life and our history in this form of art. Madhubani only depicts Hindu religion. I then began painting about Buddhist history and Dr. Ambedkar’s life in the form of Madhubani. Moreover, as a Dalit painter I am not allowed to paint tantrik form of art due to my caste,” says Raj.

India’s long history of caste discrimination is one part, along with discrimination of genders and even today women have to fight for empowerment and equality. Matiri Chari, belonging to Vishwakarma, from Goa, has drawn on her mother’s saree words of late Savitribai Phule, the first lady teacher of this country. “I have used the statement of late Savitribai Phule, our country’s first teacher, ‘Awake, arise and smash the traditions- to liberate' in different languages on my mother’s saree and am playing this audio recording. The contradiction even in our modern society is that a woman is complete only after she is married, bears children and takes care of the house,” says Chari.

Another artist, Prashant Kuwar, from Nashik district has depicted his painting in black and white, that is how our history is despite efforts to change it. These are faceless artwork with Savitribai Phule on one side and Jyotiba Phule. He is shown with scales behind him, for believing in equality beginning with his wife Savitribai, the first teacher in Asia. With binoculars in one hand, for his foresight for starting equality for women right in the 18th century despite the opposition from upper castes. Savitribai and he are shown holding a book in one hand and she is surrounded by young school going girls. Instead of their faces, I have shown their sunflowers, connoting kranti (revolution), explains Kuwar.

There are rural and conceptual international artists are participating in this exhibition which has been curated by Prabhakar Kamble, with Nalanda SamajikShaikshanik Kendra and Secular Art Movement.

This exhibition was inaugurated on March 22, will be open to public till March 28, at Jehangir art gallery, Kala Ghoda, in Mumbai.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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