28.3.11

Art-mart, Akbar, Arundhati: Muzzled Nudes

Will he be muzzled? That would be precious irony. Welcome to this world of irony, then.

Freedom of expression? You can ask that again. You will recall the painting ‘Goddess of fifteen minutes’ that portrayed Arundhati Roy in the buff flanked by Osama and Mao, also in the nude. When I wrote Can nudity make a political statement? there were several questions that needed to be raised, including the artist's use of symbolism and motives. I did wonder whether the exhibition slated for March 22 at the Lalit Kala Akademi would be held as scheduled.

It turns out that the artist Pranav Prakash has been given the boot. He had got a confirmation letter that was later cancelled. There was to have been a protest by the artists and some others on March 26. The Daily Pioneer reported:

This, when despite her anti-national stance, Roy continues to enjoy Government patronage even as she and her band of rabid associates are allowed to hold anti-India conclave in the heart of the city. Ironical then that the artist who painted Roy's nude is turfed out. The artist and people from the arts fraternity are set to hold a protest against this discrimination by the academy on March 26, outside Lalit Kala Akademi.

The protest was held by a small group and the artist exhibited his work outside. He had sought a legitimate venue and was forced out in the streets. If this is seen as setting a precedent for anyone to abuse such space, then all protests are held out in the open. 

Most of the mainstream media has had little to say. A media that feeds on controversy is silent. Are they concerned about her larger role or do they think the artist is small fry and does not need to be given any attention? Then why was he allotted prestigious gallery space at all? There have been lesser known artists in recent times who have got into trouble for portraying gods in the nude or painting other explicit works.

Husain's Draupadi with dices

The media starts salivating when they find M. F. Husain's nudes. Isn't the one on Draupadi with dices a political comment on the Mahabharata? And the minute he finds a new muse who he might paint in the nude, the actress concerned is approached to make a public comment about how she respects Husain saab’s work while remaining non-committal about such a possibility. Sheer hypocrisy.

Those who know how the big galleries operate will be aware that it takes a long time to get through. Prakash had applied in 2009. As he said:

“The controversy cropped up after nude paintings of Arundhati came to the notice of the Akademi officials. The academy might have come under 'pressure'. The attitude of the officials who were earlier making me calls and keen to display my work changed overnight. I have written a letter of request to the secretary, Lalit Kala Akademi to reconsider the decision. I have made all attempts to get in touch with the officials to know the exact reason fore turning down my application.”

We do not know the nature of the pressure, but they cannot just cancel his show and allot dates to someone else. Besides, if they had a problem with a particular work, then they could have continued with the show taking that one out. Why did they not do so? Because they would have been openly caught out. 

Let us be clear about one thing: Every anti-establishment figure that gets propped up by the media, by foreign liberal sources will be coddled by the Establishment itself. I have said this often – the counter-establishment is not spotless, and it works under camouflage even to save its own image. Had the artist painted P. Chidambaram in such a manner, the Congress and perhaps other political parties too would have objected, but the upholders of freedom would be the first to rush to the artist’s defence.

The subject has maintained silence, the silence of arrogance when you abrogate the job of defending you, or better still muffling the matter, to intellectual henchmen/women. 

Akbar Padamsee’s works caused probably the first nude scandal in 1954 during his exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery. He was charged under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code for obscenity. Two of his works, Lovers No 1 and Lovers No. 2 were taken off and there was a warrant against him. In the first the couple was nude, but not in the other. The case was based not on nudity as much as on whether it excited the viewer. In both, the man has one hand over the woman’s breast but the judge noted rather kindly that their facial expressions were “calm and devoid of any glamour”!

Padamsee's reclining nude
Two days ago, the artist’s 1960 untitled reclining nude fetched $1,426,500 (Rs 6.3 crore) at a Sotheby's sale in New York. He is part of the group that broke tradition and in quite a few interviews I did with him, the topic of nude art did come up. I have to recall from memory until I manage to trace the piece, but he had said that it wasn’t the specific shapeliness of the body; he might be inspired by a rather thin woman who is just the beginning of his own exploration. This was a period he used monochromes, although his series of ‘Heads’ continued the tradition. On his choice he has said: “Grey is without prejudice; it does not discriminate between object and space.”

In this particular painting, despite her voluptuousness the lady appears lifeless. She could be a patient on an operating table or a corpse in the morgue or a drug-overdosed sleeping woman. As an artist who is also a thinker, his works are not random brush strokes. There is a method and dynamics, even if not overtly so. The very lack of discrimination through is chosen colour reveals what he was seeking to convey. Perhaps, there uniformity; maybe he was looking for the woman’s approval, since her face is turned towards him. On a larger canvas, this too is political – the politics of artistic endeavour and of the body.

What are people revolted by in the naked body? We turn our faces away when we see young girls and women at the traffic lights with little clothes, torn and tattered. It too works on our guilt. None of his models was identifiable, although they might well have been people he knew. It could have been a partner, a housemaid, a nude model, a fellow artist or a writer.

The problem is, therefore, not with identifiable figures, but with how we look at the human form. One may extend the argument and say that since advertising exploits women for product-selling, the huge price he commanded for this painting is also a form of exploitation. How then do we see the works of an Amrita Shergill who painted her own body in different moods to convey varied aspects of the female persona? What about poetry that titillates? And what about writings who sensationalise to market issues as just over-the-counter awareness pills?

10 comments:

  1. Why did no one comment on this one? Rhetorical query. So let me share an email exchange:

    Can the reason for rejecting the piece of Arundhati, Obama and Mao (what a combination !) -- in the buff -- be simply that it was substandard, or offensive, somehow ? A substandard piece can also offend one's sensibilities, just by being an eyesore. Why should I (or anyone for that matter) spend time and money to go see something that I dislike ?

    There is always the possibility of ulterior motives, but maybe it should come after simpler options must be rejected.


    My Reply:

    The Lalit Kala Akademi had already been booked by the artist. If the gallery found this particular painting distasteful or not aesthetic enough - ridiculous that they find ONE painting not upto standard - then they need not have spiked the whole exhibition.

    How does a person know they dislike something unless they see it? It is usually only those who have some interest in art who visit these galleries, despite entry being free. Besides, no one is being forced to take a look at them.

    Now, are there any other simpler options to explain and if it is all that simple then why did the Akademi not just come out and say it found the painting distasteful? A gallery that is booked two years ago chickens out for a man who is considered a minor artist - simple? It is not a question of ulterior motives, which seem to cause a huge problem for a certain stripe of liberals in their cocoons, but the cause and effect. I find the silence stunning.

    Thank you for at least saying something!

    - - -

    And thank you blog readers for reading this :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Farzana,
    Trying to eliminate another "simpler possibility" . Nothing so far , from the publicly available information, indicates State "coddling" with Ms. Roy. Or otherwise, if you prefer the reverse co-opting. That said, in matters of artistic freedom (to use a "place-holder" phrase) the governments world over have a good history of behaving awkawardly. Our own included. A related situation is already running with Gandhi Book. In case of Ms. Roy painting to sum up the action...... By allowing the painting to be exhibited the government doesn't want to be seen as abetting "Anti Ms. Roy" sentiment. Plus the artist is probably not influential enough to create a stir on being thrown out of "Kala Akademi" venue. So it helps and becomes well manageable.
    Oh, and btw, did we notice how nicely and conveniently the whole thing about Ms. Roy is un-folding in the public discourse ? Well, as about Ms. Roy and not the issues. So very well deflecting from the issues raised. Convenient, isn't it ?
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.
    p.s. : Have a Nice remaining weekend and even Nicer "Gudhi Padawa".

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fantastic, Mahesh. A government that everyone was crying hoarse was gunning for her decides to not abet ‘anti’ sentiment? By whom? What is there to manage if the artist is not influential and a nobody? What impact can this have? I mean it is the state against her in the popular imagination. How can you suggest lack of coddling when there is virtually no commentary or even detailed reportage available? There really is no pre-emptive frenzy about sedition charges kind of stuff. Right?

    Oh, and btw, did we notice how nicely and conveniently the whole thing about Ms. Roy is un-folding in the public discourse ? Well, as about Ms. Roy and not the issues. So very well deflecting from the issues raised. Convenient, isn't it?

    I suppose you are addressing me, too. You might choose not to say so, but I understand implications and I am ready to stand up for it. Of course, if some people choose to dismiss an artist painting her as being too insignificant to take on the establishment then the discourse will be about the person ‘raising’ issues that have already been raised by the people affected by those issues and have been in the public domain for years. And if at all it is most convenient (and a win-win situation) then it is for the person in the ‘line of fire’. Strangely, this martyrdom is not for the one who has expressed (painted) an opinion but for the ‘freedom of expression upholder’ about whom it was expressed. Clearly, it is not only governments that behave awkwardly.

    The issue here is about freedom of expression, which is dismissed by you as a “place-holder phrase” rather tellingly in this case, and the fact that there is not only silence by the establishment but even opinion makers. The Gandhi book has different dimensions and if it can be assumed that the government is coddling him (a bit weird), then you have disparate sorts of establishment doing so.

    Kindly be clear about the issues that are being ignored when Ms Roy has risen above the discourse herself - can we say she was abetting the establishment with her 'put me in jail etc...' stances? When was the last you heard about the Narmada Bachao Andolan ‘issue’?

    For those who truly care about issues they won't go away irrespective of who is jumping from one platform to another. So no one is deflecting from the issue and right now it is an exhibition that has been given the boot because of the subject of one painting. From the artist's point of view, this is an issue - he was not expecting everyone to agree and has not gone into clarifications about being misquoted, misrepresented. And, hello, he too has become the subject. Look how we are deflecting from the issue now.

    On an unrelated to your comment note, it is wonderful that all of a sudden some people are concerned about aesthetics. Really.

    PS: I am wondering whether I should watch an issue-based film on TV today or Band Baaja Baraat. Since the timings don’t clash, I will manage both. Heck, one can get coddled both ways….

    ReplyDelete
  4. ...and yes, have a good Sunday and week ahead. And good wishes for a new beginning on Gudi Padwa.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Farzana,
    You said :
    "Fantastic, Mahesh. A government that everyone was crying hoarse was gunning for her decides to not abet ‘anti’ sentiment? By whom? What is there to manage if the artist is not influential and a nobody? What impact can this have? I mean it is the state against her in the popular imagination. "
    I have said :
    "By allowing the painting to be exhibited the government doesn't want to be seen as abetting "Anti Ms. Roy" sentiment."
    Do we see the difference at all that "doesn't want to be being seen" is different from covert actions ?
    And furthermore, why do I get the feeling that I should've been more explicit in my response in clarifying about not being a establishment spokesperson and rather hinting at the cynical establishmentarian thinking.
    You said :
    "How can you suggest lack of coddling when there is virtually no commentary or even detailed reportage available? There really is no pre-emptive frenzy about sedition charges kind of stuff. Right?"
    Where is the evidence of "coddling" here ? Just because there is a "MSM silence" (Mianstream Media Silence) about Ms. Roy - are you interpreting it to be coddling ? Knowing your depth of understanding you cannot be so shallow in your conclusions, so what is that makes you hint at "coddling" ? Care to explain ?
    You said :
    "I suppose you are addressing me, too. You might choose not to say so, but I understand implications and I am ready to stand up for it. "
    Wonderful. You and this blog were the last thing on my mind when I commented thus. Given our past interactions - which were pretty brutally frank in expressing dis-agreements , why would I need to be subtle ? Over and above it if you still think you are being implicated as part of Ms. Roy brigade - well, feel free to address those whom you think are dragging you in "pro/anti Ms. Roy" debate. It ain't me, though.
    You said :
    "The issue here is about freedom of expression, which is dismissed by you as a “place-holder phrase” rather tellingly in this case, and the fact that there is not only silence by the establishment but even opinion makers."
    Thanks for educating me . In case you have chosen to forget here is your earlier article (http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/2011/03/can-nudity-make-political-statement.html) with my own comments. I am curious which of my statements in this and our earlier discussion prompted you to educate me thus ?
    Finally - You said :
    "On an unrelated to your comment note, it is wonderful that all of a sudden some people are concerned about aesthetics. Really. "
    What aesthetics ? I can't make out difference between political maps and modern Art and yet you hint about my interest in asthetics. Which of my statements hinted at it ? Just asking.
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Mahesh:

    We are on for another ‘heated’ argument. In 2 parts:

    -1-

    You said :
    "Fantastic, Mahesh. A government that everyone was crying hoarse was gunning for her decides to not abet ‘anti’ sentiment? By whom? What is there to manage if the artist is not influential and a nobody? What impact can this have? I mean it is the state against her in the popular imagination. "
    I have said :
    "By allowing the painting to be exhibited the government doesn't want to be seen as abetting "Anti Ms. Roy" sentiment."
    Do we see the difference at all that "doesn't want to be being seen" is different from covert actions ?


    The fact that the government does not want to be seen as abetting anti sentiment and the gallery did not permit a scheduled exhibition does amount to covert action. In fact, it seems overt. All this did not just happen on its own.

    The establishment is never cynical.

    You said :
    "How can you suggest lack of coddling when there is virtually no commentary or even detailed reportage available? There really is no pre-emptive frenzy about sedition charges kind of stuff. Right?"
    Where is the evidence of "coddling" here ? Just because there is a "MSM silence" (Mianstream Media Silence) about Ms. Roy - are you interpreting it to be coddling ? Knowing your depth of understanding you cannot be so shallow in your conclusions, so what is that makes you hint at "coddling" ? Care to explain ?


    The media silence, not just mainstream but also alternative, is one aspect. And you have based your "not coddled" theory without anything to fall back on. Mine is evident from the media attitude, the gallery booting out the exhibition and the government (it does have a cultural wing) being quiet. Not to speak of the lady's own silence. Where goes freedom of expression now?

    This is coddling, IMO. Period. Had the same treatment been meted out to a more regular subject most people would agree.

    (to be cont...)

    ReplyDelete
  7. -2-

    You said :
    "I suppose you are addressing me, too. You might choose not to say so, but I understand implications and I am ready to stand up for it. "
    Wonderful. You and this blog were the last thing on my mind when I commented thus. Given our past interactions - which were pretty brutally frank in expressing dis-agreements , why would I need to be subtle ? Over and above it if you still think you are being implicated as part of Ms. Roy brigade - well, feel free to address those whom you think are dragging you in "pro/anti Ms. Roy" debate. It ain't me, though.


    Mahesh, you mentioned that she has become a subject in the discourse on my blog post; since there is silence and hardly any discussion elsewhere it was natural to assume I was included. Or else, given the nature of this and the earlier discussion the post-script was not germane here. It wasn't subtle, anyway.

    I do address those who 'implicate' me directly, if they are direct, and in one sweep if they are not familiar or just hecklers. I accept it when you say you are not implicating me.

    You said :
    "The issue here is about freedom of expression, which is dismissed by you as a “place-holder phrase” rather tellingly in this case, and the fact that there is not only silence by the establishment but even opinion makers."
    Thanks for educating me . In case you have chosen to forget here is your earlier article (http://farzana-versey.blogspot.com/2011/03/can-nudity-make-political-statement.html) with my own comments. I am curious which of my statements in this and our earlier discussion prompted you to educate me thus ?


    I am not educating you. You used the phrase here and it kind of sticks out in view of this particular debate. I have not forgotten my earlier piece and your comments. You absolutely refused to see any political statement in the artwork.

    I had only alluded then to the freedom of expression that might be tested and surely it has. At the time you did not comment on this aspect.

    Finally - You said :
    "On an unrelated to your comment note, it is wonderful that all of a sudden some people are concerned about aesthetics. Really."
    What aesthetics ? I can't make out difference between political maps and modern Art and yet you hint about my interest in asthetics. Which of my statements hinted at it ? Just asking.


    "On an unrelated to your comment note" suggests that it has nothing to do with you. Aesthetics has been mentioned earlier.

    I was not certain though about your complete lack of interest in art because you did not see the political statement before. ‘Not seeing’ might indicate that you do at least realise it was not a political map at least. Just saying...

    Best,
    ~F

    PS: We are going to disagree vehemently on this, so if you want to say something more, then do so. My brutal frankness has had its time on this one.

    I wonder, though, about how shallow my deep is perceived.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Farzana,
    I will let the discussion on Ms. Roy and state let pass - with dis-agreements.
    Guess, passage of time will settle our disagreements.
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.
    p.s.: Have a Nice Weekend and good next week-start ahead.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Farzana,
    Another thing.
    Thanks for a lengthy reply. Saying this explicitly to express my gratitude (Another "Place-holder" term) for spending time and energy in a multi-part response.
    Cheers,
    Mahesh.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Mahesh:

    No sweat, quite literally. Are you grateful it's over? As for settling of disagreements, we'll need a road map - politically artistic. Thanks for being a good sport, though.

    Ravivaranchya shubhechha...

    ReplyDelete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.