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An Art College That Censors The Work Of Its Own Students, Are You Seeing Red Yet?

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By Siddharth Sivakumar:

On the 16th of April, an image of the notice issued by the Department of Fine Arts of the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication (University of Hyderabad) appeared on Facebook, announcing that the students have to submit their works and corresponding details in a CD to a “screening committee for reviewing and sanctioning the approval, before exhibiting them for the public viewing”. This created a stir in the artistic circles, with strong disapproval for the censoring of fine arts in India.

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This appears to be an act of caution on part of the faculty of the Department of Fine Arts, keeping in mind the unfortunate event that took place in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, where in May 2007, a student’s exhibition was vandalized by the members of the ruling political party; a student was jailed and a professor, who had stood by the student and the exhibition, punished.

Censorship in art and cultural fields is not a phenomenon of the present day; it goes back a long time in history. Take for instance Shakespeare, who had to endure rigorous censoring before he could present a play on stage. In the Indian context, artists had to abide by what was acceptable to the Emperor and the tradition he endorsed in the Mughal court. It is understandable that in the reign of monarchs there was no individual right to dissent; the person occupying the throne gave and took away from individuals what we call ‘rights’.

Whether it was Shakespeare or the court painters of the Mughal Empire, the artists always found ways to subvert the system and give voice to their artistic expressions. But ideally speaking, cultural practices and creative expressions should not have to take refuge in such subversions in a democracy.

To the surprise of many, some of the participants of the concerned batch (MFA semester IV) who have to face the screening, found such censoring acceptable. One of them told me in a personal message, “it’s just a cautious act by the faculty members…. and nothing wrong in that when one is within the academics” and went on to add, “once we are out of the campus we are all free as artists.”

However, one can’t help but wonder why such caution was necessary. It should be probed into what made the department decide suddenly to be over cautious? Was the department trying to save the students from the administration, or perhaps from the growing politics of intolerance? Or was it acting as an agent of the State machinery trying to silence the students even before they could raise their voice?

A different message appeared on Facebook on the 17th. Another student of the same batch wrote, “One of the reasons provided by the HoD in the General Body Meeting, for implementing such a screening committee was that ‘What happened in Baroda in 2007 [regarding Chandramohan’s works] should not be repeated here.As all of us know, in fact the referred incident led to the artist community and concerned citizens continuously fighting against such attacks on institutional autonomy to defend the students’ right to experiment and display their work within institutional premises. Deviating from such history, this prestigious institution is imposing self-censorship instead of protecting the rights of its students.”

This makes clear that the questions I was raising point to the same situation from two different point of views. Whatever be the intention, the act remains one that restricts and represses freedom of expression.

If Fine Arts colleges begin to censor the works of its own students, clip the wings of their imagination, then what remains is a bunch of grounded artists, whose creativity cannot inspire, initiate or contribute to a discourse. And if creativity is censored in art colleges then what would be the fate of the campus protests that use creative means to register their disagreement? Take for instance the demonstration in a couple of Universities in Kolkata and Delhi, where students protested against the taboo of menstruation with red stained sanitary pads. You can praise such protests or dismiss them as crude or disturbing, but such protests ought to exist.

Therefore, regardless of the subjects you study or the University you belong to, the censorship in the Department of Fine Arts of Sarojini Naidu School should concern you. It should also be remembered, that unlike a banned book or a censored movie, a canvass or a life-size sculpture is not downloadable.

To end on a note of optimism, such banning and imposition of censoring committees remind us of the immense power that lies in creativity, and this realization should be enough to resist such censorship.

Featured image credit: The Hindu

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