The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady is appalled that the Baroda Faculty of Fine Arts is hosting the Gujarat government festival VadFest.
VADFEST, VIBRANT GUJARAT AND SHINING INDIA
The studios at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda have apparently been closed to students for the past two months to spruce up the buildings for VadFest 2015, a new arts festival started in Baroda by the Government of Gujarat to celebrate Narendra Modi’s constituency, running from 23 to 26 of January. In an unprecedented move, the students have been asked to work at home while many of the teachers in the art school are busy curating several major shows which will take place in the faculty premises. Newly furbished classrooms and manicured lawns are said to be giving the much beloved shabby old campus, once the intellectual centre of the Indian art world, a corporate look.
The Fine Arts Faculty in the MS University was set up in the 1950s as a liberal arts institute (as against the polytechnic model which had prevailed till then), which emphasized intellectual debate and studying art history as much as learning technical skills. It has since been a model for all future art schools in the country. Seen as the leading art school in India which has produced many important thinking artists and scholars, it has had a distinguished reputation for supporting the autonomy of art and education and progressive ideas in general. Constantly attacked over the years for the progressive stands, called elite because it kept away from the fundamentalist mobs, it seems to have lost its steam now. I am not sure whether this is because of fear,
coercion, opportunism or actual support from within.
The participation of the art school in this Gujarat BJP government flagship festival is shocking. My artist friends, both curators and participants, seem to have forgotten the shameful incident of the attack on Chandramohan in 2007 by the Sangh Parivar and its continuous interference and policing of the art school ever since, or their own protests against the Gujarat genocide of 2002. The 2007 incident ruined the art history department which had grown into the liveliest course in the campus, with the removal of Shivaji Panniker and some of the bright young temporary staff, leaving a vacuum in the teaching yet to be filled. The school has been growing more and more conservative over the years and riddled with internal politicking, with a few teachers bravely struggling to keep the show going. Voluntary internal censorship has already been in place for some time now with art works not being shown to students because it might offend (“ we cannot show a video with animal slaughter because it will offend Jain students”). It is ironical that the same political dispensation which has been for years trying to destroy the school, now wants to project it as an iconic institution and tourist destination.
The BJP and Sangh Parivar wings through various tactics of interference, intimidation and control have been targeting to take over and neutralize this premier institution for a long time, knowing its influence and international reputation in the art world. While the earlier strategy has been intimidation, the present strategy seems to be of inducements, perhaps of bringing back the school and campus to the forefront of attention.
Though it appears that many Indian artists seem to work ‘politically’ today addressing various issues like global economics, communalism, farmers’ suicides, environment, water, feminism and whatnot, when it actually comes to taking a political stand, their politics becomes fuzzy and naïve. This came out into the open when we called for a boycott against the Tel Aviv Museum’s India exhibition in 2011. One of the arguments used then, and being used again by some of the artists, is that one could participate in the show and critique it by making subversive work. I don’t buy that, because there is always censorship in the choosing of the artists and the art works. In 2011 a young artist who did not want to boycott the Tel Aviv show, had sent a proposal to the Israeli curators that she would make a work about the Palestine Wall, but it was rejected on the grounds that the show was about ‘Deconstructing India’ and not about critiquing Israel!
The best way to subvert this takeover of the cultural world is by refusing to be a part of it, which has been done by some prominent artists. One understands that it is a delicate situation for many in Baroda to protest against this government in the open, but a quiet refusal is possible. If well known artists refuse to show, the event will lack credibility; if they show, it will gain credibility.
Yet, many senior and prominent artists are showing in the exhibitions, thereby giving the event a weight and legitimacy that it does not deserve. Like Amitabh Bachchan, I fear my artist friends are going to play the role of brand ambassadors to give Narendra Modi’s constituency a bright, liberal, expansive, trendy look at the time of the international Vibrant Gujarat summit. But the reality is quite different: Gujarat is a tightly controlled, fascist state, which brooks no dissent or debate and has extinguished all opposition. I fear my friends are being co-opted.
‘VadFest’ is nothing but ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, a propaganda tool for the government. Some years ago, Johny M L was universally criticized (and rightly so) for naming an exhibition of young artists he curated in Baroda ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, as it was seen as endorsing Modi’s agenda. But the mood seems to be softening today with the new acceptability of the present dispensation.
Meanwhile, the forces of Mordor are gathering. The success of VadFest will lead to future festivals on an all India basis, Shining India. I hope the artist community will see through these tactics and not become collaborators. You cannot be naïve in the dark times. And you cannot be naïve again and again.
2 January 2015