By Maria Lopez:
On the 5th of December 2014 an exhibition titled W.A.R (Women Art Resistance) opened at the American Center to a packed auditorium. The show was curated by Myna Mukherjee, the director of En Gendered, and it featured several leading contemporary artists and live performances that were well-received for its cutting edge artwork and progressive statement. En Gendered— a trans-national arts and human rights organization— produced the programme in Association with the American Center and CHSJ (Center for Health & Social Justice). The intention was to present the exhibition as a cultural intervention that counters the pandemic rise of gender based violence, injustice and the marginalization of other gendered bodies.
However on the 20th morning of December 2014, a freelance news anchor posted an image of one of the paintings featured in the show with a comment ‘Artwork of Hindu Gods displayed at the American Center.’ Her tweet created a storm in a teacup.
A few hours later, there was an explosion of tweets that claimed the work was un-Indian and offensive. Comments like: “It (sic the painting) should not hurt other’s sentiments, ours is a religious society unlike Americans… intentions is immaterial, there is an honor and boundaries should not be crossed…” by handle Ejaz Al Hindi and Nikhil D who wrote “The problem with it is simple. (It’s an) incremental attempt to digest and supplant Hindu narrative with biblical…” Nikhil D further went on to claim it was an Adam and Eve creation myth fused with Hindu Gods. Predictably, many of the tweeters took umbrage because the Gods were depicted nude, while some thankfully felt that there was nothing wrong with the artwork.
Normally this would be written off as idle chatter on Twitter, however the painting and the accompanying comments came under the scrutiny of some representatives of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) that further contacted high-ranking officials at the American Center with demands that Mukherjee bring down the show. Fortunately both the curator and the American Centre stood by the exhibition and it was only brought down on the day it was due to close, which was December 22.
“It is ironic and unfortunate that an exhibition that was designed to initiate a positive dialogue should illicit a negative response,” says Mukherjee. “I woke up to hateful, irresponsible, communal dialog on the 20th morning regarding one of our paintings at the W.A.R exhibition. It is hard to understand what drives this level of proprietorship over culture. This Twitter chain just reconfirms how far our country has come from its secular, plural roots,” she says adding, “It is time we re-appropriate our own culture and religion from fundamental right-wingers.”
The work in the eye of the storm is titled Hari Hara and was created as a special commission for En Gendered by contemporary artist Balbir Krishan. The painting is neither violent nor does it titillate viewers with a key-hole view of erotica that seems to be popular in the arts these days. It is guileless and honest, placid and harmonious. The label informs us that Lord Vishnu was in his Mohini or ‘Trans’ Avatar when Shiva conjugated with him/her—their union led to the miraculous birth of Lord Ayyappa, one of the most popular Gods in South India.
It is a narrative that belongs to the footnotes of Hindu mythology, not surprising, since Ayyappa is a non-Brahmanical God. Due to the fluid and diverse nature of Hinduism there are a wide variety of beliefs and traditions associated with both Vishnu and Shiva. Such submerged myths are important in today’s climate of violence against transgendered people. This myth illustrates the fluidity of gender as imagined in the mythological past, a plural and rich mythology that is often misrepresented by current-day extremists.
“I made this painting in 2013, as a special commission on gender and social justice by En Gendered for RESIST. I am happy to see that our curator Myna Mukherjee and American Center, New Delhi, decided the show was not to be brought down, even one minute before its scheduled time,” said Krishan who has faced censure of his artwork before during his solo at the Lalit Kala Akademi in 2012 and in Hyderabad in 2013, where the curator did not stand up to right-wing threats and immediately brought the show down.
Besides Krishan’s work, W.A.R featured many powerful works by artists like Gogi Saroj Pal, Riyas Komu, Amina Ahmed, Puneet Kaushik, Alex Davis, Arun Prem, Megha Joshi and Baaraan Ijlal to name a few. Opening night had performances by Surupa Sen and Bijayini Satpathy of Nrityagram, Maya Rao and Actor Factor featuring Vaishali Chakravarty and K Suresh.
There were also live installations featuring actor/singer Monica Dogra. Dogra was dressed in a stunning beaded body suit designed by Sailex Ngairangbam, and wore a sash that read ‘Object’. She stood before the iconic painted metal sculpture by Alex Davis titled – ‘STOP’, displayed on the lawns of the American Center. “It was interesting to see that initially men entering the American Center looked at me but when I looked back at them they looked away,” says Dogra who also displayed an alternative music video, Rise Up.
Dogra’s was not the only provocative performance-art piece, there were other live installations that drew interesting responses from the art viewing audience, like Between the Altar and the Butcher, featuring artist Puneet Kaushik’s bead and latex sculptures juxtaposed against a model dressed in a stunning Gauri and Nainika creation. The atmospheric live installation evoked the two extremes between which women are often caught—that of being placed on a pedestal as a Goddess or being viewed as objects for desire and consumption.
“Politics should not affect art; that happens when people play dirty. I have shown controversial artworks in the past where I have worked with my own blood and that work wasn’t censored. This is happening because people are not thinking and just reacting. In this day and age it’s shocking,” says Kaushik, who feels that even his Altar and Butcher work could have been misinterpreted since it placed meat-like artwork next to an empty altar. “In reality there are temples next to meat markets, so I see no harm in placing the two together in an installation. Art is about living the truth and it should not be viewed otherwise,” adds Kaushik.
Amina Ahmed whose work was in the same room as Kaushik, created an interesting contrast to his shock-inducing work, with her meditative installation piece Invocations. This participatory work consisted of a ritual by the artist who created an atmosphere of reflective meditation and healing. The work engaged participants to place minute symbolic ‘seeds’ created from hand-made paper, on an intricate geometric pattern. Each seed symbolized a prayer for a person who had suffered violence. This act evoked collaborative healing.
“At a time when women’s rights are being violated all over the world, the focus should be on enabling women to feel safe. India was the place to escape to, so your voice could be heard. Now that’s changing,” says Ahmed.
Recently the atmosphere of intolerance toward artwork that pushes the envelope has been on the rise. Censoring happens in violent ways in India. A painting gets torn apart. An artist is heckled. A show is forced to close down. This aggression gets bold-faced.
In 2013, the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) protested outside the Delhi Art Gallery, titled ‘The Naked and the Nude’, that showcased a retrospective on modern nudes, by masters like F N Souza, M F Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Raja Ravi Varma. Their contention was that in an atmosphere of rapes in the city it was inappropriate to display works of nude women. Kishore Singh the curator and Ashish Anand the gallery owner, resisted the pressure to shut down the show.
Reflecting back, Singh says, “One should not be disheartened by these attempts by fringe elements to clamp down on creativity. Progressives just need a stronger voice. We should not bow down to people who do not have any idea about art or creativity and just use it to demonstrate their political clout. Certainly government institutions should not cow down and I am happy to note that no work of Husain was ever removed from the NGMA,” he concludes.
However artists like Nalini Malani believe, “There is no systemic support for an artist who makes works that challenge the system.” She adds,“Art that comments on religious extremism and sexuality is usually the first to get discarded, and it goes either with a bang or a whimper.”
En Gendered’s exhibition decidedly went out with a bang, however, putting the onus on the gallery or the curator has to shift. There has to be more public outrage about censorship in the arts, whether it is a film like PK that was recently in the news to be censored, or an art exhibition like W.A.R. Far too many Indian’s appear eager to sign away their civil liberties for a pipe dream of economic growth and this dangerous trend needs to be reflected upon and critiqued.
About the Author: Maria Lopez is a freelance art critic on a sabbatical, as she writes her book on viewing art. She lives and works in Delhi. Publications she has written for include, Elle Magazine and India Art Journal.
Also read artist Megha Joshi talk about her views on censorship and how “Simply showing an uncovered body is obscene but mindless violence is accepted”.