Is Indian Art Political?
The thrumming power art holds over its viewers has never been a clandestine affair. Art has always meant to violently shake its audience; a splash of frigid reality breaking the illusion of order crafted since birth. The avant-garde movement took the world by a storm in the 20th century always strived to incapacitate the viewer from shunning the truth. In its simplest form, avant-garde is the rejection of prevailing art forms and styles, in extension, existing socially accepted norms. It is rebellion.
In Indian history, when Bharat was under siege by the British, artists and singers contributed fiercely for the fight of freedom, personifying the struggle on paper or rhyme. Even under stifling censorship, calls for freedom were heard through murals and songs. Upon its independence, Bharat was divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. What followed was the bloodiest migration the world has ever seen - children separated, women assaulted, families slaughtered. Current events certainly shape an artist’s creative process. When the world around is in turmoil, it’s almost an artist’s duty to hold up a mirror and show the world the monster it is. Numerous artists from pre-independent and post-independent India display the rage and sorrow surrounding Indian independence.
Not just historically, but even in the present day, art remains a primary mode of communicating satire and nihilism towards current day events. It also remains at the forefront of activism. When the Black Lives Matter movement was at its zenith in 2020, activist street art skyrocketed. Alleyways in New York, roads in Minneapolis, sidewalks in Kentucky, any space on concrete walls was used to remind the people of America how their minority have systemically suffered over decades. There was no escaping - you had to confront the blatant racism fuelled by state-owned agencies. Similarly, Feminist Art is a category that is concerned with female artists intentionally crafting their work around the Women’s Rights Movement. A visceral depiction of the female struggle, extremely gory to look at as it tackled sexism, abuse and neglect by society was imperative in forcing men to witness the painful degradation women underwent under their jurisdiction.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales via The Verge
The catalyst for art that embeds the seeds of nauseating discomfort is provocation. Without being provocative, there is no change enforced. Often prided for being ‘united in diversity’, India seems to witness several cases of religious unrest, casteism and gender violence. The anger within its citizens’ is palpable, however, contemporary Indian art seems to sparingly emulate this rage. In fact, it seems to purposefully steer clear of politics. India lacks the culture of art galleries and museums, thereby not providing pivotal opportunities for artistic exposure. However, it is mostly because artists are afraid of angering a population that vehemently defends its ideologies, no matter how flawed. Provocative art also seems to be deemed by the public, who pick and choose what is so offensive, a case of violence is required to restore respect. A prime example of this is Maqbool Fida Husain. He was accused of disrespecting Hindu goddesses by depicting them nude (something that is carved into traditional temples), leading to a court case and hiding from the public, galleries quietly putting his art away even though they were quiet supporters.
Of course, there exists those few artists whose art is avant-garde. At her solo exhibition, Anju Dodiya had a figure eating books, encapsulating the fear of censorship prevailing in the country. In 2002, artist Shilpa Gupta hung bottles brimming with red liquid on Bombay streets and trains. Labelled as ‘Blame’, Gupta wanted to comment on the state of relations between India and Pakistan. However, right before the art went live, news of the Gujarat Riots spread. The project took a whole new meaning. Projects like these jerk mindless husks of humans into the reality of their world. But Indian artists tread with barely concealed caution in an eerily silent artistic space with an audience that does not bode politics not aligning with their notions. The audience that does comprehend is largely international with a handful in India.
Shilpa Gupta’s ‘Blame’. Photo by Vadehra Art Gallery
There is a reason why in history, new dictatorship states cracked down stringent censorship laws to silence the voice of artists. As long as artistic expression remains, propaganda and acquiescing masses walk on shaky grounds. “Perhaps it is time for Indian artists and art to become less polite and more political. Perhaps it is time to abandon subtlety.” said Deepanjana Pal in her article, ‘It’s time for art to be political’ and she is right. There is a revolutionary power in materializing what most people think and push to the back of their mind. It’s up to the artist to wield this power and cause ripples in the world.