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Canvases of conscience

A repository of artworks created over seven decades. bound by one common theme — concern for social and political realities

Standing tall, his body adorned with countless precious ornaments with currency notes and gold coins strewn across the floor, a blindfolded Lord Kuber is trying hard to find his way, hands outstretched.

God of wealth and the treasurer of other gods of the Hindu pantheon, Kuber rides a human vahana unlike other gods, symbolising how man has become a slave of wealth. Drawing an interesting parallel to this, ex-policeman turned a full-time artist Cop Shiva has quite creatively put the spotlight on crony capitalism and the prevalent rampant political corruption, through the Lord himself.

This bright life-size photo of Kuber is sure to grab your attention at an ongoing exhibition in the heart of the city. Titled ‘Works of Conscience’ the exhibition puts together works of art that address universal issues of social injustice, gender and political events which has been motivated by a deep-seated concern for the reality that surrounds the artists.

Each one of the works is distinctively explicit in its dissent, protest or attack. Take for instance, Shiva’s ‘Blind Gold’ series. Taking a dig at the fairly obvious corrupt ways of Indian politicians, his works explore how financial institutions and corrupt governments suck the blood out of the middle and working classes to serve their own vested interests.

“During Indian elections, every candidate promises to bring back the billions of black money syphoned out from India and hidden in foreign banks to use it for development, promises that are quickly forgotten once they get elected and become servile to that same money,” says Shiva.

Inspired by Kannada poet Da Ra Bendre’s famous poem Blind Gold first published 1933, it talks about the blind cruelty of wealth. “What was true almost a century ago during British colonial rule, is still relevant today where the large income inequality only appears to grow and the exploitation by the powerful still exists.”

Drawn from The Alkazi Collection and Art Heritage collection, Works of Conscience spans almost seven decades, starting from the 1940s to the current times created by artists of different periods who have had long and accomplished careers.

“Paintings from such a broad period allow an insight into how artists have responded to radically different historical moments in the nation’s history,” says Amal Allana, curator and director of The Art heritage gallery. “Such a perspective provides a bird’s eye view of works artists have produced to help ignite progressive social transformations.”

“While some artists have openly and boldly challenged political, sexual and aesthetic norms by raising difficult questions of identity, ethnicity, gender and equality others have been more reflective and inward,” she says.

Starting right from the time of independence, it almost creates a trajectory of the responses of the artists to their critical times and reflects their changing socio political engagements with the society.

From Chittaprosad Bhatta-charya’s work that charts out the course of India’s struggle to  the likes of Rajan Krishnan and TV Santosh. The former depicts India’s struggle for independence and the horrors of the famine of 1940s. While, the latter in Kerala made an impact on the national scene through their work from late 90s onwards. This exhibition displays it all.

Incorporating the themes of war and global terrorism, TV Santosh’s work is marked with a feeling of impending doom waiting for an atomic disaster. Heavily inspired by — and making the use of images from print media, cinema and popular culture — his realistic creations are a strong commentary on the socio-political situation in India.

“Within the country, the political situation, communal tensions and corruption deteriorates, more so post Bari Masjid. Increasingly, artists take on the role of activist, foregrounding inequalities with insistence,” says Allana.

This has been captured beautifully by photographer Karan Shreshtha whose series ‘We Exist’ (2018) brings to our attention, the plight of illegitimate children from indigenous communities fathered by army personnel who have abandoned them. The photos of these innocent children are partially erased and merged with landscape images of Nepal, which gives us a sense of their gradual disappearance. Not granted citizenship certificates, these children are rendered stateless.

Despite the diversity and distinct styles of each artist, what majorly connects it all is the predominant use of figures in each work. The human being undoubtedly remains the central subject that aids in engaging with the audience, sufficiently driving home the point.

Not just sketching portraits of individuals, the works accommodate the notability of crowds as seen in the works of Ronny Sen. Photographing the sensational Hok Kolorob movement (Let there be clamour) in 2014, Sen walked along the 1,50,000 protestors who marched down the Red Road in Calcutta, demanding justice for a sexually assaulted female student. Shot in black and white panoramic format “to give a sense of space for depicting how phenomenal it was” Sen explains, the photos taken on his phone created quite a storm on social media. They radiate a fierce energy that drew the attention of a student protest that was otherwise just restricted to Delhi.

Not just political, the exhibition follows the artist’s concerns toward gender issues as well. Retaliating against the idolised portrayal of the woman’s body in the 1970s, works of female artists like Ira Roy, Jaya Ganguly and Arpana Caur strip it bare of all its outer beauty and redefine their identities depicting their pain, suffering and emotions.

All these works stand as testimony to the concerns of these artists. To the affairs that call out to their conscience demanding a response.

As Ebrahim Alkazi said, “Art is not merely something that is talked about in school or gathered together in libraries or set upon the walls of museums – unless art can permeate and inform every moment of our basic day-to-day living, it cannot become a valid experience.”

The exhibition is on at Art Heritage Gallery till March 2.