FEATURE / REVIEW: A Conscience on Mute / Sushma Sabnis
While the world gambles with the pandemic and nature sends her own brand of wrath, some of us, frozen by the violence of it all watch with a conscience on mute as our world gets smaller and more complex than ever before. But there are a few who won’t sit still, thankfully … writes Sushma Sabnis.
“I am Santosh’s son, my father has asked me to return all the clothes taken for ironing…we are going back to our village” the boy’s voice trailed off. I took the bundle from him and asked him when they would return, the boy shot me an indignant shrug. Hastily climbing down the stairs he yelled, “the police broke our stall, we have no place to live here” I felt a pang of shame. It was the evening of 21st March, a day before the nationwide lockdown. I have not heard anything from Santosh or his 10 year old son since.
Many such narratives have become indicators of the apparent disruption of services provided by the pillars of service industry; the irreplaceable cogs in the wheels of the social, industrial and economical machinery in all cities. But as seen earlier calamities evoke eclectic responses from individuals and society as a whole. In this part of the article some more Indian artists respond to the lockdown during the ongoing pandemic situation. Some interesting aspects have surfaced.
“If this lockdown goes on for a year then my mental health and financial health will be jeopardised. Even right now I am financially challenged. And survival is a tough thing. So if it goes on for a year then I will not be in a position to support or survive as a human being. I see many suicides happening as a result of this lockdown extension for a year…” writes Delhi based artist Soumen Bhowmick known for his outspokenness on socio-political issues of the world through his art. A morbid reality emerges from his answers to the questionnaire, as he experiences complete isolation from society which is his primary muse. Without an ability to venture outside, he experiences an emotional isolation as he misses out on his interactions with people and nature. Additionally the closure of museums or libraries has challenged his art practice urging him to redefine the processes and methodology using the art materials available to him in his studio. As limiting as this may seem this could actually produce intense art works culled from the depths of human experiences.
The fear and unpredictability that the pandemic has induced has further fuelled his thought as his work usually borders on the unique style of macabre art. Socio-political commentary moor his works where the figures of wounded, distorted beings, heads with no coherence, animals and birds, and skeletal figures inhabit his vocabulary of pain. One is reminded of Peter Bruguel the Elder’s work ‘The triumph of death’ depicting the black plague as armed skeletons massacring the living, however, in Soumen’s works motifs of death appear like memento mori; reminders of the looming presence of death, an inevitability, like in the works of Jan Van Eyk, Hans Holbein in ‘The Ambassadors’ and Gustave Klimt’s ‘Death and Life’ (who actually succumbed to the Spanish flu in 1918)
In Soumen’s works death coexists with life and the suffering caused by oppression portrayed in the visages crying in pain like Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’; the cry for help, the cry of despair, the cry of hopelessness brought about by social, political injustices and existential angst. There is a loneliness which accompanies the single figures in these works, probably an attempt at articulating the depth of isolation, a physical, emotional and a mental one. In one of the iconic work, a bird perches on a human skull, long picked off its flesh, life and dignity; a stark reminder of the cyclical nature of life.
Isolation can mean different things to different people and Mumbai based artists Mallikarjun Katke and Manjusha Katke from the Po10tial team have created a mural of harmony on a wall in their home. The mural made at the beginning of the lockdown embodies a positive attitude and a cheerful message of peace, patience and perseverance. However, after two long months of isolation, Mallikarjun comes up with a video work which elucidates the feeling of claustrophobia felt in lockdowns. ‘Home Stay’ is more a performance piece where the artist records his daily chores, waking up and getting to ‘work’ by painting an entire room grey and living in it. He paints the ceiling with dark grey tones mirroring a prison cell, he works, eats and sleeps mimicking an inmate. The only window to the world outside is sealed shut, yet there is light flooding through as a beacon of hope. There is an instant where the artist is shown sitting at the edge of his bed facing the wall, motionless, and in that definitive moment the viewer stares into that abyss of an uncertain future along with the artist. A rare moment of bonding across a digital interface. This work refers to that uneasy interim state of normalcy we all are floating in at this very moment. The old familiar normal is gone, the new unfamiliar normal is undefined, as most of the world lives in some kind of a clinically dictated/induced mental purgatory, the chores become mundane rituals carried out by the body by default, over and over again. This ritual is what the artist abhors, but carries out resignedly.
The lockdown has effected numerous agrarian communities globally in the worst possible way. As the world health organisations brace for a future with severe food shortages, in our own country the crops are lying rotting in the fields or pest (swarms of locusts) have infested fields and destroyed entire ripe harvests. Adding to this is the scorching summer which dries up the potable water sources. Farming communities are predicting the worst famine like situation in the near future. Farmer struggles are not new in the country especially in Maharastra where the farmers marched into metro cities and the capital demanding help from the governing agencies which remain blind to their plight. A conscientious artist of our times, Mumbai based Devidas Agase has been very carefully documenting the misfortunes of the farmers and the working classes. In lockdown times, a wall at home becomes a mural portraying multi-limbed puppet-like protagonists. He believes complete isolation from the rest of the world is impossible in a mobile phone / internet age and hence the lockdown does not pose an absolute confinement kind of situation for him.
The isolation has made him realise that the ‘outside’ is itself a huge inspiration for an artist and is probably a new perspective gained during lockdown. He seems optimistic about control of the pandemic, but believes that it might be very difficult to survive as an artist economically if this lockdown extends for a year or more. Having said that he feels such a dire situation too would be inspirational to an artist like him. In his works one would find the ubiquitous narratives one witnesses in the world. The circled out queues of masked people outside local shops, the masked medical practitioners, the sanitation workers in masks and gloves, the marching farmers and entire families of migrant workers walking barefoot with their bundled up belongings and lives, braving every weather and inhuman acts by the law enforcers. Though the puppet figures may seem to bring out a slight comical side of a stark tragedy of our times, they also subtly expose the criminal neglect and lack of political will by authorities in governance.
The virus has shifted focus from the holy survival basics of food-water-shelter to the trinity of sanitisers, face masks and hand gloves. Never has there ever been a more demand for these chemical and physical barriers since the virus began its irreverent, deadly waltz across tectonic plates, lines of control and air spaces. Terms like social media and social distancing have become two sides of a coin for human survival. Kolkata based artist Suvanwita Saha hones a sharp lens on these colourful masks plastered on human faces and the even more colourful torchbearers of consumerism, the food magnates, who claim to be economically hit yet manage to elbow their way back into fast evaporating market share. She anoints the face masks with specific logos which have become unforgettable in these times; those of the online food and grocery suppliers, like Amazon, Zomato, KFC, Swiggy etc. These logos are indicators of the functioning outfits which deliver the goods at the gates of the consumers, albeit under strict hygienic guidelines which they apparently follow. The delivery staff of these goods risks more than just their bodies being infected, most of the time these people are working under duress at bare minimum pay, just to be able to afford food for themselves and their own families. Somehow this gets sidelined and overlooked even when the sealed boxes of groceries are being hoarded by the able consumers.
This ironic ‘passive activity’ during a world lockdown, is what Suvanwita’s work hints at. The injustice lies in the fact that the many legged monster of consumerism still has a limited reach while the masses who can barely afford a meal, languish in starvation. Suvanwita mocks these social scavengers of a barren landscape trying to exploit all rungs of the social structures to keep their businesses ongoing. On one of the masks are numerous unmarked dead bodies wrapped in white cloth as a reminder of the brutality of the pandemic and the starvation caused by the mismanagement and corruption of resources by the governing agencies which favour the rich over the poor. Poverty is not just humiliating, it is soul crushing and that emotion is what Suvanwita aims to resurrect in her polemic lockdown works.
Social distancing has helped reduce the spread of the virus, but it has also become a platform for socio-political, religious and economical segregations. While segregations could be neutralised with time, one could briefly revisit the original ‘normal’ way in memories of our lives before lockdown happened; the public meetings, the hangouts with friends or the act of being able to simply touch another being without morbid fear of contamination. Mumbai based artist Hema Mhatre from the Po10tial group, is known for her sensitive portrayals of people in groups. Her depictions are of women, men and children sitting, conversing after a long day. In doing so, Hema retrieves the essence of family/community and the various occasions of groups of people going through something as sinister as isolation. In answer to the questionnaire, she reiterates that the lockdown could be an opportunity to hone her art practice and thoughts, as she paints a large mural of five figures as seen from the top angle on a wall at home. The socially distanced forms are shown at leisure, appearing to be in quiet conversation and even optimistic about their lives. This work talks about the mundane, the chores, the rituals, the consistent, that could help tide over difficult times. There is a quiet resilience in this work which veils the inner strength and sanity required to tide over isolation, anxiety and uncertainty of the times and it is portrayed in the relaxed poses of the forms. Hema’s optimistic approach reflects in her belief that if the lockdown would extend, she, like the millions in the world would learn to cope and survive.
Artists are a sensitive lot and it is quite evident from the way these five have been managing and coping with their individual situations while expressing their observations in their works. While the world gambles with the pandemic, conflicting views combat propaganda live on our own virtual windows; good samaritans beat down greedy opportunists, and nature sends her own wrath periodically as religious zealots rush to reclaim spaces for cementing of fanatic values. Some of us like the empty white fringes on a filled in page, watch with a conscience on mute as our world gets a lot smaller and more complex than ever before.
Images Courtesy: The artists.