A gigantic pair of wooden legs strides across the room. The feet are rough and the footwear broken, as though a poor man had walked a great distance. The legs are a strange marriage of human muscle and metallic corkscrew used to drill the earth. Whose legs are these? Gandhi’s legs, on his historic Salt March? The legs of countless migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres back to their villages during the COVID-19lockdown? The legs of sanitation workers who burrow into filthy sewage pipes and septic tanks, manually cleaning excrement, an inhuman practice that costs them their lives? The legs of Dalits and Bahujans, marching in a movement for justice that shakes the ground in our collective advance towards genuine equality? Legs mid-stride, symbolising the unceasing motion of time and life, change and progress.
The calloused feet rise up and step down into a staging area littered with the debris of nationality and independence – a dwarf Ashokan pillar, a carved outline of Nandalal Bose’s Bapu, a wooden plinth etched with a portrait of Babasaheb as the maker of the Indian Constitution, a seal depicting a horned bull from the Indus Valley, a small statue of the dancing girl from Mohenjo-daro, standing atop a wall of bricks carved with the words for “mother” in 22 official languages. A beam runs across the room, inscribed with the undeciphered script of the Harappans.
The scene is cluttered and haunting, rich with meaning yet somewhat mysterious, like the remains of a civilisation that has long collapsed and disappeared. We are reminded of the archeological site at Sarnath, where an Ashokan lion capital, broken columns, dhamma chakras and Buddha images were unearthed and haphazardly heaped together, in an unforgettable photograph from 1904-05. Half a century later, many of those material artefacts from the Mauryan period were adopted as free India’s national symbols.
The semantic complexity, exquisite craftsmanship and simultaneous presence of Gandhi and Ambedkar announce the installation as being by Riyas Komu, a sculptor, painter, artist, curator and social activist whose work I have followed for a decade. Hidden away in plain sight is the signature of one of his intellectual preoccupations: images and words of Narayana Guru (1856-1928). Of late, the thought and poetry of this religious teacher, social reformer and visionary philosopher of Kerala have imbued the art of Riyas Komu. Very much like the Mahatma (of whom he was an older contemporary), Guru was so radical in tying together religious experience and social responsibility that his ideas have the potential to revolutionise the way we connect moral values and political choices.
Komu’s new work is consistent with long-standing concerns in his artistic repertoire. He was born in 1971 in Thrissur. It was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 that propelled him out of a degree in English Literature in Calicut, to the JJ School of Art in (then) Bombay. He was a founder, along with Bose Krishnamachari, of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2011.
Komu grew up in densely multicultural Kerala, surrounded by the unique cosmopolitanism that Ashis Nandy found in old Cochin, equally comfortable with Communism and Christianity, living in the confluence (cherpu in Malayalam) of ancient Judaism, Sufi Islam and a sophisticated school of Hindu theology, Shankara’s advaita.
The artist’s father, a local Socialist leader and labour organiser, owned a matchbox factory employing carpenters, masons and painters. His native place was a hub of Gandhian village revival (“grāmoddhāraṇa”), that nurtured artisanal communities and traditional crafts. Komu carried these formative influences into his work as an artist and activist.
What worried me and many of Komu’s admirers was the setting of his current installation: a group show at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, titled “Jana Shakti”, organised to mark 100 episodes of the prime minister’s radio program, “Mann ki Baat”. Each of the 12 prominent contemporary artists was given a theme from the broadcasts, which are also perennial topics in development discourse: water, agriculture, aviation and space technology, environment and forests, faith and rituals, international affairs, sports and fitness, public health etc.
These anodyne bureaucratic subjects, like the charges of union ministries and government departments, hardly promise to inspire great art. Nor is it clear why the artists, known for their liberal views, critical stances and secular politics agreed to amplify the policies of a rightwing administration, and worse, legitimise the platform of a leader already prone to excessive self-regard.
Mumbai-based artist Atul Dodiya has spent decades making artworks centred around Gandhi, often based on vintage photographs and iconic portraits of the Mahatma. At the NGMA, he has a small piece showing a mother-and-child, that he describes in a short video accompanying the work as something he made during the pandemic, confined to his house or studio.
If this is supposed to illustrate the theme of Covid, it does so by showing care within the intimate embrace of family, without any indication of the public health emergency raging all around the space of the home. It certainly says nothing whatsoever about the government’s strategies, inadequate as they were, in managing the nation-wide disaster precipitated by the Coronavirus throughout 2020-2021, into 2022.
Dodiya did not come to Delhi for the prime minister’s visit to “Jana Shakti”, and consequently does not figure in any of the photographs, TV coverage or video footage showing the prime minister talking to the artists, admiring the artworks, or touring the galleries.
Assamese artist Ashim Purkayastha has a series of portraits of farmers, headlined “Indian Agriculture”. In his video, he explains that he has been collecting images of farmers in his native Assam, often using old postage stamps, archival land records and other historical sources from the early years after independence, when Nehru placed a strong emphasis on developing agriculture as the backbone of the Indian economy. He describes how he tries to imagine a plough hitting the ground and carving a furrow through the soil, as he works with his spatula and canvas, or makes etchings and woodcuts. There’s a force that encounters resistance from a surface – one must cut through that.
Farmers are exposed to the elements, beholden to the weather, and mostly unable to rise out of poverty. The earth, the skies, the state, the population, all can be generous to them but more often are indifferent, implacable or downright punitive. We cannot survive without the farmer, whose survival we have stopped caring about.
Purkayastha’s faces and bodies, despite their stylised appearance, manage to convey the hardship and labor of the farmer’s life, the thankless nature of his or her toil. They also have a verisimilitude under the veneer of a near-abstract form – indeed, the artist insists that almost all of the portraits are based on real people, whether in the past or in the present, including in the communities around him.
Although it isn’t stated anywhere in the exhibition, one cannot help but wonder if the huge farmers’ protests in the second term of the BJP-led government , following the devastating economic fallout of demonetisation on the rural and informal sectors of the Indian economy, are not the real subject of Purkayastha’s paintings.
Other featured artists too – Madhvi and Manu Parekh, Jiten Thukral and Sumir Tagra (who go by Thukral and Tagra), Manjunath Kamath, G.R. Iranna and Vibha Galhotra, for example, do not stray noticeably from their trademark styles. What’s jarring is the curation by Alka Pande, which gives prominence to the prime minister’s radio show and inserts numerous quotes from his broadcasts all over the exhibition space.
In much of the display text there is also an attempt, albeit somewhat erratic and ineffective, to connect the artworks to state policy or the ideas of Modi himself. However, his role in providing inspiration to individual artists on specific themes is not intrinsically clear at all. The quotes and blurbs can be ignored altogether, with no loss to one’s understanding of the art that is on display.
On the one hand, these are issues that affect us all as Indian citizens. Any artist, then, whether famous or obscure, gifted or mediocre, is quite justified in taking them up. On the other hand, many of the artworks precede the exhibition and have obviously been chosen because they could be construed as illustrating this or that topic. However, they were not necessarily intended to do so when they were originally conceived or made. (Press reports suggest that all works displayed were especially commissioned, but that is in fact not the case).
The heavy hand of the curator Alka Pande and the loud voice of her protagonist Modi do not sit well on what is otherwise at least as interesting and as mixed as any other group show of contemporary Indian art one might see at a venue like the NGMA or the nearby Bikaner House. The short film of the prime minister visiting the show that was circulated on social media seems designed more to project him as a patron and connoisseur of quality art, rather than to give prominence to the idea of “Jana Shakti” (people’s power), or recognition to the artists and their work.
There can be no doubt that major progressive artists of an earlier generation who were associated with the left, like Gulammohammed Sheikh, the late Bhupen Khakhar or the recently deceased Vivan Sundaram would absolutely never consent to being part of such a show, whatever the pressure or inducements. But at the same time, in an era dominated by the Hindu Right, the art world in India is in severe crisis, just like intellectual life and academia. (This is true of Bollywood and the world of Indian cinema as well, but that is a separate story).
Public institutions are in a state of collapse, and most will not recover. Private capital enters the institutional space with strings attached, usually (though not always) those that tend to tie individuals strongly to the incumbent dispensation and its preferred ideology. Freedom of expression is severely curtailed.
The leadership of museums, archives, libraries, universities, art academies and other cultural bodies has gone out of the hands of practitioners and experts and been given instead to bureaucrats with brief terms in office and no stakes in the institutions they head. Such postings were not unknown under previous administrations, but today they have become the norm rather than the exception.
Networks of patronage lead back to the ruling party rather than providing support to genuine talent of whatever political persuasion. The demand,sometimes almost a diktat, to wear one’s saffron credentials on one’s sleeve has utterly compromised creative autonomy.
The “Jana Shakti” show then has to be seen in conjunction with the recent inauguration of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai–a private venture, but sponsored by capitalists known to be exceptionally close to the government–and the new parliament building in Delhi designed, like the rest of the Central Vista redevelopment in the capital, by architect Ahmedabad-based Bimal Patel, at the behest of the prime minister. All these are, in different ways, signs of the times.
These developments indicate the alarming state of democratic freedoms and the erosion of the diversity of opinion in India. Individual artists, curators, critics and viewers have to navigate a complex terrain, criss-crossed with incoherent vectors of politics, aesthetics and ethics. Without continuous vigilance and careful calibration, it would be impossible to continue producing, evaluating, appreciating and consuming art in an inimical, not to say hostile, cultural climate.
Riyas Komu renders the theme of the “Swachh Bharat” campaign to build toilets, stop open defecation, and end the terrible and anachronistic practice of manual scavenging with his unmistakable signature. We find a replica of Gandhi’s spectacles inside a glass case covering a receptacle that could be a latrine. We stumble across the disturbing and distorted face of a sanitation worker sticking out of a manhole. We see engraved on a wooden tablet, reminiscent of an Ashokan edict, the fighting words of Ambedkar declaring battle for the “reclamation of human personality”, as well Gandhi’s uncompromising dictum: “Everyone must be his own scavenger”.
This is how the artist wrests the message back from the realm of official propaganda and reinstates it firmly in the moral universe of India’s Constitution and the founding values of the republic. Komu reminds us that the metaphors of the journey, of purification, of non-violence and of dignity are more than mere electoral promises of a political party or the self-serving optics of a powerful politician.
I entered the space of “Jana Shakti” feeling anxious and alarmed that several contemporary artists had bought into majoritarian ideology or bowed to an authoritarian state. But Komu, in the very first room of Jaipur House, stood the exhibition’s agenda on its head.
“Excavate cultural memories. Join this stride. Be your own scavenger.” Here are the fundamental grounds of our nationhood and the goals towards which we strive, legs and feet in incessant motion. The immortal mantra of the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, urging us to walk, to keep on walking, and Gandhi’s singular endeavour to cleanse the self of every trace of violence – these remain sovereign: caraiveti, caraiveti.
The banalities issuing from the radio splash like mud, and are washed away into oblivion.
Ananya Vajpeyi is an Indian academic and writer.