Development Develops Inequality: Exploring critical thinking of Indian artists today


By Madhubani Dutta

When I learnt about Indranil Halder’s recent visit to Anant Art curated by Naya Anjor at Anant Art Gallery, Center for Contemporary Arts, Bikaner House, New Delhi, India, it delved into the creative approaches exhibited by the participating artists such as Aban Raza, Madhu Das and Vikrant Bhise. A range of questions sprawled from the notes we exchanged on the role and future of art activism in India and the vigil against ecological and socio-economic struggles that exist at different parts of the country.

With participation from twenty-nine prolific artists, the exhibition was inspired by a song by poet Faguram Yadav, who was an active member of the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha. Out of the multifaceted masterpieces and installations, we specifically talked about artist Vikrant Bhise’s brilliant coalescence of rustic and melancholic human figures – a solemn portray of struggle and pain following the death of Dr B.R Ambedkar, a leader in developing the constitution of India. And we wondered how exactly has India evolved through the 75 years of Independence with art activism?

Activism- The role of creative voices and activism in Indian art practices

The future of activism in India started many years ago; some may say it was through Satyajit Ray’s film, Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. The film highlighted two gifted musicians-turned-protestors in 1969, who used their musical talents to help the local’s uprising against injustice and totalitarianism. Some may argue, that art activism may have started even earlier with Abanindranath Tagore – the principal artist and founder of Bengal School of Art (one of the major advocates of swadeshi values in Indian arts). Dated back to the times of Amrita Sher-Gil’s practice, who is often referred to as the Frida Kahlo of India, one may also find artworks with expressive connotations on complicated relationships between India’s anti-colonial and post-colonial tensions during 1930’s and 40’s.

Indian artists across all ages and periods have been expressing protests through mediums including cinema, drama and visual arts. In the Indian city of Kolkata, one of my most cherished artworks was painted by my mother, Mandira Dutta. A trained artist from the Government Art College of Kolkata, who painted a portrait of a woman with contradicting expressions of happiness and melancholy, otherwise considered normal and obvious by the society. According to artist Atul Dodiya, there is an extreme sadness involving injustice and corruption in this world and it is best portrayed in the language of visual arts. It can significantly impact the audience and help raise questions on the political imbalances and societal inequalities.

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Another strong pioneer of realism, activism and surrealism is painter Bikash Bhattacharjee. He was influenced by artists Andrew Wyeth, Salvador Dali and Somnath Hore. He created artworks portraying socio-economic conditions of common people affected by famines, political disturbances, and peasant revolutions to name a few.

Many of his inspirations were drawn from the scenes he explored from the streets and lanes of North Kolkata neighbourhoods- Bagbazar, Chitpore, Kamartuli. His notable works comprised of portraits of women from diverse social strata who were bound by pious social customs, supressing traditions and prolonged sufferings. His recognition of injustice in the name of traditional virtues gave a voice to many creative and non-creative thinkers of the past, present and future in Indian subcontinent, even in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and technology.

Irony- The role of humanity in the age of AI and technology

Recently, while studying Swarm behaviour and Neuroaesthetics, I learnt about concepts which talk about the role of environment, collective behaviour of entities, and our aesthetic experience that impacts us. I wonder about the role of science in arts or the other way around…

Award winning New York based artist and architect Suchi Reddy created an air installation in Miami that features an abstract, carbon-neutral, tensile design emanating a feeling of harmony amidst the core of technology and advancement. Suchi started by sketches on a paper and developing them as an art infused machine learning installation.

Fascinating approach!

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The world is now pronounced as a hybrid platform incorporating wonders of digital space and somewhat debunking conventional practices across many domains. Something as simple as sketching on a paper has become digitalised for convenience. Books are constantly in competition with digital readers and now art has a new language. But do we really think that humanity and the charm experienced in traditional practices can really be erased? Technology is an emergent behaviour and at the same time life tends to aggregate. I believe, when it comes to creativity, humanity will always be in control.

Future- A concoction of past and present

Today, Indian contemporary art has progressed beyond the syllabus. It has consumed a prodigious amount of global attention and collaboration for the past few decades. And exclusive properties such as Bikern House (representing the vibrancy of Royal Rajasthan in Prince’s Park according to Sumanta K Bhowmick’s book, Princely Palaces in New Delhi) are becoming an integral part of the art activism movement.

When I went back to my conversation with Indranil Halder and revisited the role of art and awareness in India, I felt there’s a large expanse of unawareness and its conventional frameworks that clouds our society.

Even then, India has the potential to organise an art summit like The Dhaka Art Summit or DAS, one of the world’s most innovative and talked-about art events. As mentioned in John McDonald’s article in The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The world’s most unlikely art destination has created something unique’, one can clearly see how Bangladesh promoted art and activism across the global. In Australia, we talk about climate change, extinctions, and technology to further societal discussions in everyday life, however, I would also like to see forms of art activism helping to understand inequalities in India that constrict cultural unity, lack of awareness in mental health, debatable parenting practices and child abuse. Creating programs to inspire India’s 250 million youth and support diversity, inclusion and social uplifting can be the ideal constitution for the development of the nation.