The Phantom Lady Strikes Again I found this old unpublished essay from 1998, written after one of those hot discussions with friends, discussing many things still of interest today. Here it is, warts and all-
My friend, artist Christoph Storz has been talking frequently of questioning the artist’s position of being avant garde – as someone leading society from the front into a vision of a Utopian future. He says if imagining a technological future is one of the features of the avant garde, perhaps that vision has been taken over by computer programmers and people working in electronic media and communications – the artist maybe somewhat questioning and apart from these leaps. Perhaps then he/she can be called ‘rearguard’ or someone re-thinking, re-looking or re-assessing both the past and the present and trying to imagine a future without the hype or the clutter of tall technological claims.
I regard this rejection of the concept of the avant garde as a reaction of someone living in the western context. In the Indian context, where rights and futures are being severely contested, there is still a progressive role for the artist to play. In fact the recent violent attempts by the VHP to censor artists [Husain’s nude Saraswati, the recent nude Sita on Hanuman, the vandalism of a Dutch artist’s work in the NGMA, Delhi] has brought artists together to play an activist, progressive role in a situation of danger. We may now question a jingoistsic nationalism but I believe that we do still believe in playing a progressive nation building role, even we are dismissed by a majority of our people as elite, irrelevant or ornamental.
The ‘rearguard’ concept can have another meaning in a colonised country. We are condemned by the west to be rearguard – primitive, pre-industrial, folkloric or under-developed. Everything we produce is seen as either a poor imitation of the west, outdated, exotic or inscrutable. Funnily enough, these attributes are completely internalised by our own public in our own country: our own critics, art historians and audiences see our work in these terms.
Till the mid 1980s many of us believed in the indigenist position. As a student in Baroda, I wanted to make work out of Indian materials [terracotta] and look at folk, popular and classical Indian sculpture as inspiration for my forms. Out of this would be fashioned a new modern art that would be able to express a uniquely Indian reality.
These ideas came from Indology, this search for a uniquely Indian identity is a need from the natonalist days when we as a colonised people had to define and protect ourselves from the political and cultural onslaughts from the colonial power. Myself and many others in india began deeply questioning this position in the late 1980s which led to abandoning the premises of our earlier work and in some sense starting afresh.
There are many reasons for this rejection. One of the events that made me deeply question my romanticising the ‘folk’ was the projection of bear dancers, folk artists and street performers in the festivals of India and Apna Utsavs in the Rajiv Gandhi era, which while defining Indian culture as ‘folkloric’ exploited both artistically and materially the folk artists with the folkloric- as-authentic polemic. The notion of ‘developing’ and ‘patronising’ folk art seen as an authentic but dying expression seemed to be a middle class notion where a middle class urban educated person from a position of power and knowledge and access to financial resources played a paternalistic role to the traditional craftsman. These imperatives never seemed to come from the folk artists themselves.. When I was recently in a panel of an art funding agency many of the proposals of collaboration came from urban artists wanting to work with folk artists in order to improve a ‘dying’ art form. There were two problems in this. These folk/traditional artists of course had no way of directly applying for these funds because of their illiteracy, their rural background and their ignorance. But the middle class urban artists seemed to admit to no problems in their own practice. They wanted to solve their own crises in theatre, art etc by patronising the ‘folk’ and thereby gaining authenticity.
This had another twist recently when in an international conference in Mysore, apparently the Modernist painter Jatin Das showed only works of Indian tribal artists and proclaimed to the assembled international audience that this was the genuinely Indian art. This kind of violently self-flagellating, masochistic rejection of one’s own existence by a well known modern artist is extremely disturbing.
While the folk can be described as pre-industrial collective mass practice, there is also the problem of romanticising the popular – which is a post-industrial urban ‘folk’ art. In a recent catalogue of the exhibition of Satish Sharma’s collection of photographs from popular street studios from the streets and fairgrounds of North Indian cities, he writes an extremely polemic introduction. He claims that this popular photography is ‘truly Indian’ photography. Urban middle-class photographers and artists who are trained in art schools based on the western model have marginalised these people who are direct descendants of the miniature painters. While it is important that he retrieves this material and posits it against the glamourous photo-journalism of the India Today variety [to which he himself belongs] and thereby broadens the impoverished practice of contemporary Indian photography, there is a danger again of seeing only popular art forms as expressions of ‘real’ or authentic’ experience of a society.
This position of course is a favourite International position for looking at cultural production from non- western countries. Street art, poster art, film hoardings, commercial films, calendars are the only forms seen as authentic expression because of their mass production and distribution and use. There are several dangers in this view. One that that much of the material may neither be imaginative or interesting, or even unique, which is the case with the Satish Sharma collection. The other danger is that much of the material can be extremely politically conservative and express rather than question the status quo – which is the reason for their wide popularity. So the romantic notion that they are really are the expression of the common man, the underdog of society, the poor; and so therefore progressive and democratic, is questionable.
Since the late 1980s, the Hindu Right wing in India seems to have appropriated the Indological “Nationalist’ indigenist position which makes it difficult for any progressive artist to uncritically accept certain old notions of Indianness etc.
What then do we do? If we reject this earlier notion of Indianness are we unquestioning Internationalists? The fact is that international audiences are opening up for Indian artists in various ways – so these are very real problems that we face today. Internationalism or globalism as it is now called, raises many problems. Economically we can see ourselves as victims of concerted attacks by global economies competing to grab the market. Culturally, because of this opening up, we have suddenly become objects of great interest to Western countries who now suddenly recognise ‘modernity’, ‘contemporaneity’ and ‘urbanity’ in us. On the one hand, we may be tempted to exoticise ourselves to project a unique identity in the international art world, or accept a eurocentric, universalist, internationalist view.
However therre is a way of being specifically Indian artists without accepting the earlier indigenist position and to be open to the outside world without accepting western hegemony or definitions. Location need not be defined culturally as based on ancient heritage or folk forms but in recognising India as a political entity which is a kind of circuit that generates its own knowledges, audiences and markets. While earlier, our only way of connecting to different regions in the world was through the conduit of Europe or America, we now have the opportunity to make direct contact with the art of Asia, Africa and Latin America. We then begin to contextualise the art produced – international is certainly not universal. Even within the west, New York art is different from the art scene in the west coast, or that produced in London, Berlin or Rome- there are many arts, each is culture and situation specific.
Our work then relates to our context – the needs, the situations, the past histories and the conditions of producing art.
As we come out of an indigenist past we also recognise the need to recognise technology and new technologies and urban realities in a new way. The nationalist idea that India is a land of villages [statistics show that 40% of the population lives in cities] has turned art practitioners away from seriously looking at technology either archaic or new.
The Phantom Lady