The art of dissent in India

Art & Culture

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How should we respond to the crises in society? Nivedita N finds an art gallery which has been asking – and answering – just this question.

India is uncomfortable with the idea of dissent. Despite being a democratic country, our voices are carefully curated. And with so many ethnic and religious groups present in our society, it is easy to find someone who might take offence. We therefore must find ways to stand up for our beliefs in more subtle ways. 

While the common man or woman, many of whom have turned into self-acclaimed activists, raises his or her feeble voice on social media, a few noted artists have found their own original and powerful way to speak out. An example of this has been two art exhibitions in the sprawling city of Hyderabad, one now over, the other ongoing. 

Before After, Chandrashekar Koteshwar

Both of them, in their own way, are a response to the many problems India is now facing. The first, which concluded in March, explored various forms of dissatisfaction with the state of our society. The second, currently running, adopts the policy ‘you have to laugh or else you’ll cry’.

But let’s start with the former. Different mediums. Different artists. One exhibition: Maadhyam. Curated by Shrishti Art Gallery, tucked away in a lane in Jubilee Hills, in our city. Hyderabad is a cushion for warmth and preserving cultural identity, though now it is also going through a period of political turmoil.

Let me introduce you to the artists, whose artwork left me speechless while, at the same time, helping me shape my own voice of expression. They hail from various cities of our culturally vibrant nation and have exotic names like Ajaysingh Bhadoriya, Bibhu Nath, Chandrashekar Koteshwar, Devesh Upadhyay, Gangadhar Mukinapalliniga, Insha Manzoor, Moumita Das, Richa Arya, Sayantan Samanta … Their very names speak of the ethnic diversity of my country. India is a patchwork quilt made up of many pieces, with a wide range of socio-political situations and these artists, who come from different regions, are spokespeople of this diversity.  

Many of the exhibitions seemed inoffensive enough and merely celebrated diverse facets of the rich tapestry of Indian life. This was a reminder to me that dissent does not have to be an expression of universal dissatisfaction.

Indeed, dissent is more effective when it also recognises what is positive.

Jharoka, Ajaysingh Bhadoriya

Among these more positive works were those of Ajaysingh Bhadoriya, who uses clay, terracotta, and stoneware to represent ancient architectural monuments. Then there was Bibhu Nath whose artwork mimics culture, natural heritage, and socio-cultural activities from his village. He uses paper due to its malleable nature.

India is its people but also its soil, stones and trees. India is its past as much as its present. Its history and resources are crying out against its current state. 

As you walk through the gallery, which is hidden away in a quiet lane filled with trees, the calmness settles in. But there is something unsettling about the artwork as it addresses the ever-changing political landscape of our land. 

In India the cow is the most politicised animal. And the past decade has seen how it has led to deaths among the meat-eating populace. Bhibu Nath has represented this in stoneware with the dialogue between the cow and other animals such as a dog, an ever more pampered creature as India’s middle class grows, and the donkey, as a symbol of burdensome work. 

However, his flagship work is the representation of water, a symbol of holiness and purity in India, which is being commercialised and so made ever less available to poor people. He uses depictions of the deities to represent the yin and yang of water. While water is being worshipped in villages, it is being commercialised in cities. 

Ethical Conversations IV, Bhibu Nath

What is alluring is the representation of the Crow, from the popular tale “The Thirsty Crow”, where the animal changes its colour from black to white when it moves to the city. Might this hint at the hypocrisy which accompanies so much of urban life in this land, whereby a black scavenging bird tries to appear white in the metropolis? 

Other pieces of art included works using semi-broken artefacts fused to make a whole piece, as a representation of feminism. Is this the Indian woman, broken in so many ways by centuries of repression but still, in her brokenness, helping to make India whole with her unique contribution?

Richa Arya’s work expresses how feminist ideas haven’t even touched the part of northern India she comes from. A needle and a thread, a sewing machine, a pair of scissors, moulded on an aluminum sheet, are instruments she uses to express how womanhood is perceived in her region. The lack of choice and the stress on patriarchy are evident with staunchly defined roles, even today. 

She believes that there is beauty in pain too and this is represented in the Sanitary Napkin etched with flowers. Talking about menstruation is still a taboo in parts of the country and one cannot forget the way a sanitary napkin is purchased in many places rolled in a newspaper and a black plastic bag. 

A few artists chose to express the simmering tension present in our country in their works on the frivolity of life, and especially the discrepancy between thought and action.

Devesh Upadhyay sees his art as a form of therapy and he brings out the child-like in people through his work. “Human behaviour, emotion and actions always triggered me to create and I want to bring that feeling into my work”, he says.

For him ceramics were a medium he moved naturally into as there were 15 to 20 kilograms of clay available in his college, where they broke the easily available mud pots to create human faces. “I feel this medium has all those things which are essential for our body and life like earth (clay), water, air and fire and it gives a very natural effect to the work.” The breaking of those pots to create faces could be a metaphor of human brokenness and the brokenness of my country. Yet still the profound humanity of its people can shine through.

Despite art’s subjectivity, I could hear clearly the voices of these artists and their need to express their dissent through artwork that took form in physical objects. Art has become a way for them to speak out: to express the greatness of India but also its contradictions. 

The connection between the local materials they found available in their respective regions and the more national subjects they choose to speak of gives them a means to voice their discontent with all that is holding India back. Their artworks do not cry out vocally but they do show a silent strength which in these times we have seen growing. 

But let’s turn briefly to the second exhibition, Licence to Laugh, which runs till June 13, also at Shrishti Art Gallery. 

With the gross mismanagement of Covid in my country, there is a sense of melancholy in the air and what better way to dispel the gloom than by humour and focusing on the need to be calm and balanced?

The exhibition, though more varied in its use of interactive art and mixed media, made me think of the tradition of Thangyat satirical poetry in Myanmar, one of our neighbours which is itself experiencing a period of violent dissent. This exhibition is like Thangyat but in a more plastic form. 

As the exhibition’s curator Lina Vincent puts it: “The intention of this curatorial plan was to penetrate the malaise that blanketed everything, by seeking out artists whose work employed a lens of humour and satire to contextualise life/reality.” Or, put more simply, the afore-mentioned option – ‘laugh or you’ll cry’.

For example, one of the exhibitors, Tushar Waghela, talks bleakly of how he sees the current world situation. “The earth I find myself in,” he says, “as an uprooted and alienated human, is pervaded by terror and treachery. Its axis has crumbled and it rotates randomly in boundless space. Norms have lost sanctity, violation and violence are the now accepted forms of civilised behaviour. It’s a journey towards a universe that defies both morality and immorality. Of deracinated people without a past or a future. People who stare at a seemingly ephemeral but endless present.” Not a cheerful analysis!

And yet precisely finding himself in such a context, he can then affirm: “Living in this time I want to create art which gives joys, passions, childlike innocence with all the vibrant colours of life and love.”

Farhad Hussain uses humour and sarcasm to explore middle-class urban lifestyles, with all their posturing. Indeed, Lina Vincent sees ‘humour, in all its forms, as a weapon, even in the darkest of times’.

Do we fight against the malaise in our society or do we laugh at it? Do we protest politically or plastically? Whatever the answer to these questions, what I like about these exhibitions in my home city – in this humble, local gallery in Hyderabad, far away from the great artistic centres of Europe, far even from Delhi and Mumbai – is the sense that there is as much to celebrate as to protest against.

For all that is dark in India, there is a lot that is bright, and the artefacts and works on display in these exhibitions point to this, if only by the vivid colours and the wide range of materials they employ.

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