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Perspectives on Ambedkarian Aesthetics and Social Movements

A Conversation between Prof. Y. S. Alone and Artist Anupam Roy
Yashadatta Alone and Anupam Roy

Abstract

This contribution proposes to restitute a conversation organized between the art historian and professor at JNU, Yashadatta Alone, and the practicing artist Anupam Roy. These two protagonists discuss constitutive characteristics of artistic activism in South Asia, and focus on four main thematics: the impact of the concept of “Brahmanical Modernity,” how it has contributed to the constitution of the history of Modern Art in India, as well as its persistence in writing an artistic contemporaneity in India; the investment of established political parties, especially the Communist Party of India (CPI) and other political parties, in Dalit artistic activism; the emergence of an “Ambedkarian aesthetics” and possible ways of showing an engaged Dalit art within the structures of the Indian art market (private galleries and government venues); and whether the advent of Dalit art allows for the emergence of new artistic practices, as well as new places to exhibit artistic productions. This is a discussion between two friends and colleagues belonging to two different generations but sharing a long-term involvement with art activism in their own writings and art productions.

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The Interview

1This exchange brings together an art historian and a contemporary artist in order to foreground the constitutive characteristic of artistic activism in South Asia, i.e. a strong intermeshing between theory (both aesthetic and political) and practice (both social and artistic). Yashadatta Alone is an established art historian, who has taught, formulated and disseminated critical concepts such as what he refers to as “Brahmanical Modernity,” “Ambedkarian Aesthetics,” and “aesthetics of inhibition.” Anupam Roy is a contemporary artist whose production has positioned him as a voice of people’s movements. This role provides an interesting extension to the complexity and diversity of possible positions that are located at the interface between thought and action, vis-à-vis artistic activism including its ideological formulations. This conversation began with an online meeting, which provided a framework within which it was possible to address the main concerns of these two protagonists with regard to critical thought and action in its artistic expressions. From this exchange emerged questions that each of the two authors addressed to the other, mainly relating to interrogations that challenge dominant narratives that prevail in the discourse of modernity, and the very political conditions of the artist’s production in the contemporary world. From the accurate question of Ambedkarian aesthetics (and its critical frameworks) that emerged as an ideological opposition to Brahmanical modernity in India, to considerations around the historical narrative that prevails in modern Indian art, and the becoming of modern and contemporary art practices, the conversation points to how alternative practices have become a possibility or, more, a necessity for many actors involved in thinking and making political art or artistic activism today.

Anupam Roy (AR)’s Questions to Y. S. Alone (YSA)

AR: Your approach to the history of modern and contemporary art in India gives pride of place to what you call the “Non-Brahmanical” interpretation framework. Could you tell us a little more about this concept and the impact it has had on the construction of the history of art to date?

  • 1 Prof Umesh Bagade’s work in Marathi reveals that the cafe culture in Mumbai started as part of the (...)
  • 2 We can cite here the productions of the Bengal School, from the beginning of the 20th century. In p (...)
  • 3 Sumathi Ramaswamy (2009) "The Mahatma as Muse: An Image Essay on Gandhi in Popular Indian Visual Im (...)
  • 4 Tantric abstraction, also known as Neo-Tantric art (L.P. Sihare), is a movement that developed main (...)

YSA: The canonical discourse on artistic modernity has been a problematic one in India. Both exogenous (colonial) and endogenous (Brahminic) systems of interpretation have produced an interpretation of society shaped by considerations on the supremacy of race, caste and hierarchy in which some citizens have had secondary status. The interpretation of the past and of traditions was also largely dominated by ideas of the “divine” and the “sacred,” paving the way for Brahmanical cultural nationalism. This interpretation expresses itself in several ways with regard to society. As a matter of fact, the cafe culture in Mumbai began as a place for caste outings, as has been discussed by Prof. Umesh Bagade.1 However, advocates of modernity promoted such practices of café culture without dismantling the concomitant social structures. Anything that was advocated as modern was blended with the caste practices. The adoption of formalism as a crucial principle in articulating modernist pictorial space relegated the creation of visual space, form, and textural surface to the sole criteria dominating artistic practice. As an extension of this movement, “revivalism” has produced an expression of Indianness in modern artistic practices, whose themes and subjects are largely rooted in the Brahmanical tradition of myths and epics but with a modernist pictorial language.2 Gandhian ideas strongly advocated the depiction of a highly romantic vision of rural India as a place representing an inclusive and peaceful society.3 In later times, abstraction became integrated into Indian modernist experiments, giving rise to Tantric abstraction,4 and Brahmanical philosophy invented a justification for it. Thus, modernity in Indian art remained closely associated with Brahmanical modernity.

The “non-Brahmanical interpretation framework” represents a shift in scholarly perspectives, invested in history, art, or cultural studies. In the sphere of art, the most emblematic contributions are certainly expressed in the representation of the Santhal Tribe by the prominent sculptor Ramkinkar Baij (1906–1978). By representing these subjects with a sense of dignity and realism, he challenged the prevailing elitism and Brahmanical hegemony in art. In addition to renewing the representations associated with marginalized groups, the sculptor also levelled sharp criticism at the country’s progressive ideals and their leading representatives, as in the sculpture of Gandhi represented with his right foot placed on a human skull, suggesting that he became Mahatma by stepping on people.

As for the political cartoonist Chittoprasad Bhattacharya (1915–1978), who was particularly active from the late 1930s to the 1970s, he played a key role in capturing and critiquing the socio-economic disparities and injustices of his time. His productions sought to call attention to the struggles of the working class and peasants, among other disenfranchised communities. By satirizing and exposing flaws and injustices, he contributed to a broader discourse that questioned traditional hierarchies and power dynamics. His documentation of the Bengal Famine of 1943, made up of a series of sketches capturing the devastating impact of the famine on the lives of ordinary people, paved the way for an art strongly oriented towards visual evidence of the resistance to oppressive structures. These accounts, among others, tend to reverse a dominant art framework that still balks at questioning social conflict and politics.

AR: Could you tell us more about your critical views on the construction of the dominant narrative that has been structuring the conceptions of modern art in India?

YSA: After Independence, India claimed to be a sovereign and new nation. Starting in the early 1930s, the movement of nation-building became strongly anchored in the principles of hegemonic policymaking and the traditional dominance of the caste-Hindu communities and feudal lords. All the figures who were considered as builders of modernity, i.e. Gandhi, Radhakrishnan, Swami Vivekananda or Aurobindo Ghosh, were largely Vedantic. The sole advocate of transformation in 20th-century India was Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who firmly believed in achieving change through robust constitutional methods. Unfortunately, he became marginalized within the Congress narrative, and the Gandhian modernity that prevailed shifted toward exploring cultural expressions laden with revivalist undertones. The assertion of modernity was upheld by embracing the formalism of Western modernism, deliberately overlooking the social conflicts and hierarchical structure inherent in Indian society. In his book “Studies in Modern Indian Art,” Ratan Parimoo (1975) discusses the impact of Cubism on modern Indian art, aligning with the perspectives articulated by the American art historian Robert Rosenblum in his 1970 work on Cubism and twentieth-century modern art (Rosenblum 1970).

I posit that artists such as M. F. Husain, through their depiction of themes rooted in epics, mythologies, and the struggle for freedom within the Congress Party narrative, adhered to Brahmanical cultural nationalism. In contrast, artists such as Jagdish Swaminathan5 took a bold stance by integrating the work of Jaidev Baghel, a Bastar tribal artist, into contemporary art practices, and strove to incorporate principles of equality into the realm of modern art. However, numerous artists in India failed to grasp the rationale behind Swaminathan’s approach, dismissing his endeavors as emotional. They overlooked the crucial aspect that his activities were part of a Madhya Pradesh government initiative, wherein the state aimed to democratize modernity and make it accessible to its citizens. I contend that the overarching narrative of modern Indian art has revolved around the concept of the “creative genius,” as it is used in Western modernism and adhered to by collectors and patrons. This narrative has consistently aimed at perpetuating elitism within art practices. Formalistic vibrancy becomes an objective of artistic creation. Numerous artists hailing from socially backward castes, including highly skilled abstract artists, have been systematically excluded from recognition and representation. The story of the Mumbai progressives and formalists6 is told from the perspective of the achievements of the elite class, individuals who often seem disconnected from the realities of their surroundings. The exhibition Place for People (1981), curated by Geeta Kapur and shown within elite spaces, marked a historic event. The exhibition was held at Jahangir Art Gallery Mumbai (former Bombay) and Rabindra Bhavan in New Delhi (Mukherji 2022, and Jumabhoy 2023). However, critical examinations probing the intersections of art and social spaces are conspicuously absent in India. The discourse on modernity, particularly in its “social” dimension, remains unaddressed. This lacuna is evident in the silence of the elites, predominantly from the caste-Hindu community, who have not vocally opposed Brahmanical cultural nationalism. The book Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990, by historian Sonal Khullar (2015) is one of such attempts to provide critical extensions into the realm of modernism, although with some limits.

AR: In your view, what level of investment or support have established political parties, particularly left-wing entities like the Communist Party of India (CPI) or other non-Dalit political parties, provided to Dalit artistic activism?

YSA: Geeta Kapur’s When Was Modernism (2000) presents a compelling analysis of the politics of modernity, by examining the relationship between modernism and political parties, along with their respective assertions and claims. I argue that left-wing parties have not adequately addressed the issue of social modernity. It is predominantly Ambedkarite political parties that have actively engaged in addressing social modernity and sought transformative changes. The leftist groups, particularly the CPI and CPM, have consistently neglected to address the major issue of caste within their political framework. Instead, they have chosen to amalgamate caste and class, overlooking the distinctive challenges posed by caste dynamics in society. Their steadfast commitment to attribute economic factors the exclusive cause for existing caste and other discriminations, or their mobilization processes that consistently operate at the level of class unity, has resulted in a systematic bypassing of the divisions among laborers in Indian society. In his book “Annihilation of Caste,” Ambedkar (1936) not only defined caste as division of labor but also as the division of laborers. The left-wing groups consistently overlooked the dimensions related to the division of laborers. The same can also be said of the frameworks of the “post-colonial.”

The Indian People’s Theatre group, affiliated with the left-wing parties, was a well-organized collective aimed at utilizing art activism as a potent means to express political issues. The theatre brigades of the IPTA wanted to mainly address the “subalterns” (peasant world, lumpenproletariat of the city suburbs) regardless of their religious and caste affiliation. The most oppressed segment of Indian society were the Ambedkarites, and as in the constant targeting of Ambedkar by ruling authorities, his followers endured persistent violence and defamation from caste-Hindus. Gail Omvedt, in her book Dalits and the Democratic Revolution (Omvedt 2014), documented how the CPI at that time used Ambedkar’s ideas to delve a wedge between Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Ambedkarite social movements consistently employed performances and songs as tools to raise awareness for social transformation and the pursuit of a dignified life. On occasion, they also utilized the medium of illustrations and paintings to convey their messages. Due to social and economic disadvantages, the Ambedkarite section of society faced challenges in documenting their activities, as they lacked a consolidated mechanism for support and had no resources to document their activities. Dependent on public patronage for survival, they were unable to establish their own archive. Only a limited number of Ambedkarites had the opportunity to pursue art education, and their artistic consciousness was shaped by formalistic modernity. They devoted their time and energy to creating textured surfaces on canvas as part of a new wave of creativity. However, many lacked the courage or the suitable language to articulate, even through modernist means, the issues of caste oppression. The main exception has certainly been the Dalit artist Savi Sawarkar7 who bravely dared to portray caste through a series of artworks.

AR: Why do you use the term Ambedkarian aesthetics and what does it refers to?

YSA: In recent years, a handful of artists have emerged in opposition to this restricted and ghettoized modernity, engaging in social and political critiques of religiosity and challenging Brahminic hegemony. A surge of artworks is being generated by the Ambedkarian consciousness, interrogating the metanarratives of normative modernity. These artists are crafting a new visual vocabulary to address core issues, and to critique both present day and historical perspectives. What I refer to as Ambedkarian aesthetics encompasses individuals from diverse backgrounds who ardently adhere to universal humanism and principles of constitutional justice and morality.

  • 8 Alone (2024).

How does this manifest aesthetically? Inhibitions are deeply ingrained in the behavior and thinking of Indians. The aesthetics of inhibition pertains to the adherence to hegemonic thinking and the reluctance to challenge the self-accepted Brahmanical codes of operation. Brahmanical cultural nationalism consistently fostered an aesthetic of inhibition, discouraging divergent thinking and resistance against established norms in life. In contrast, Ambedkarian thinking succeeded in overcoming such inhibitions by challenging them, allowing artists to exercise their art practices to declare a liberated state of mind. To that extent, the artworks by Savi Sawarkar, J. Nandakuram but also the body of work that has been produced is representative of the overcoming of the aesthetic of inhibition. In my recently curated exhibition at Gallery OED in Kochi as well as following exhibitions at the American School on May 23 and at the American Centre New Delhi (July 13–August 12, 2023) and in a recently curated exhibition on Vikrant Bhise at Anant Art Gallery Noida, I emphasized that the term “Ambedkarian Aesthetics” defined as follow8: the term “Ambedkarian Aesthetics” is a world free from prejudices, inhibitions, and the metanarrative of hegemonic/Brahmanical modernity. Its historical trajectory is to subvert the narrative of the “given” and propose to get into a process of dismantling several inhibitions that have been nurtured over a period of time. Historical pasts, both ancient and modern, are constant reminders of ideas of contradiction that have been part of lives, including the life of works of art. For many, it is a constant engagement to kill “protected ignorance.”

  • 9 Notes from the editors: Alone argue that intellectuals who are involved in the knowledge production (...)

The artists are consciously engaging in removing “protected ignorance”9 (Alone 2017). They move away from transcendental metaphysical aesthetical practices and are involved in producing a critique through visual means, which is deeply rooted in the ethos of Ambedkarian thinking, through a commitment to constitutional democracy and inclusivity.

AR: How can “engaged Dalit art” be exhibited within the frameworks of the contemporary Indian art market, including private galleries and government spaces?

  • 10 Katherine Hacker (2014) has judiciously mapped such episodes of history.

YSA: The concept of engaged Dalit art pertains to artistic expressions originating from individuals belonging to Dalit communities in India. It fundamentally gives voice to a spirit of resistance, which echoes what Dr. Ambedkar advocated for. Only a handful of individuals from upper-caste communities have participated in such expressions, thereby contributing to a visual critique of Brahmanical traditions. In reality, the art world and art galleries are inherently exclusive, seldom deviating from this norm, which aimed to trap artists within the dreamy realm of Vedantics. The only exception to this was J. Swaminathan, who boldly included tribal artists as part of contemporary art gallery practices by showcasing them alongside modern and contemporary art practitioners at Bharat Bhavan, Bhopal.10

  • 11 Born in 1963, in Jawalban in Taluka Kaj district Beed in the state of Maharashtra, the painter J. N (...)
  • 12 The Lalit Kala Academy provides fellowships to young artists. Their selection process is solely bas (...)

There is an absence of patronage for Dalit themes and the critique of caste and religious inequalities within the art realm. Artists like Savi Sawarkar were able to pursue their artistic activities thanks to government employment, and similarly, others managed to survive by engaging in alternative occupations, a scenario which is common for the majority of visual artists. Take J. Nandkumar, for example. As long as he was making abstract paintings, the Reliance Group purchased his works. However, when he began to produce figurative works, including the well-known painting depicting “Gandhi and the Pune Pact,” Reliance chose to distance itself from him.11 The art world has elements of nepotism and the restriction of ideas to specific groups. Only in recent times has art patronage expanded to include artists who explore social critique and integrate their artworks as a commitment to democracy in India. There is a notable absence of support for artists from these communities through any policy mechanisms or even private galleries. The Lalit Kala Academy, for instance, provides fellowships to young artists, yet the selection process is entirely at the discretion of the panel, thereby potentially lacking sensitivity toward social issues.12

To this day, it remains rare for artists outside of caste-Hindu leanings to receive fellowships. This reality contradicts the fundamental principles of democracy. Artists such as Sajan Mani, Rajyashree Goody, Priyadarshi Ohole, and Amol Patil have secured art residency programs in Europe. In 2019, Prabhakar Kamble organized the residency-workshop titled Revolution and Counter-Revolution drawing inspiration from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s writings. The event brought together fifty artists at the world heritage site of Ajanta Caves. Sanjeev Sonmipare, an artist, and curator based in Mumbai, Venkataraman Divakar, an art critic and curator of Knots Collective from Baroda, and Rumi Samadhan in Mumbai have been curating shows that aim to showcase diverse artistic practices that challenge Vedantic thinking and inhibitions. Some noteworthy exhibitions include Mahad Satyagriha by Rumi Samadhan, Broken Foot by Prabhakar Kamble and Rumi Samadhan, and my recently curated show at Gallery OED Kochi titled Dismantling Aesthetics of Inhibitions: Representing Difference, which was from December 10, 2022, to January 10, 2023 along with Interrogations and Ideologies: A Quest for Equality at the American Centre New Delhi from 13 July to 12 August, and Vikrant Bhise’s solo exhibition Sense and Sensibilities: A Reflective Realisation at Anant Art Gallery from January 20 to March 20, 2024. Thanks to collective efforts, photographers are collaborating and organizing exhibitions. Documentary photography is gaining prominence, creating archives that are independent of official nationalist imaginations. Sudharak Olwe’s contributions are noteworthy, as each of his images tells a story, consistently breaking the shackles of inhibitions. Inspired by Sudharak’s work, photographers like Palani Kumar and Arun Vijai Mathavan have produced exceptional images, showcasing phenomenal social realism. I hope that the awareness of art collectors and patrons evolves, moving beyond entrenched political perspectives to reconsider the current state of affairs in the country.

AR: How do you perceive the new awareness conveyed through the collection of artworks devoted specifically to the subject of social thematic caste structure?

  • 13 Periyanaickenpalayam, in Coimbatore District, Tamil Nadu, forced workers to accept illegal salary c (...)

YSA: Currently, a multitude of artists from both marginalized and non-excluded communities are engaging with issues such as caste discrimination, violence, anti-constitutional practices in dominant communities, challenges to political co-existence, instances of lynching, cow vigilantism, opposition to the rape of women, and the exploitation of labor. As I wrote in one of my papers (Alone 2019), the political landscape in India can be characterized by the dichotomy of Ambedkarism, advocating for transformation, and its counterpart, anti-Ambedkarism, which aligns with the status quo.13

  • 14 Let us limit ourselves here to mentioning a few names of the most renowned artists: the sculptor Ra (...)

Drawing inspiration from Dr. Ambedkar’s constitutionalism, these artists14 have forged their own visual language to give expression to the voices of the impoverished and marginalized communities, as well as to address broader societal issues, including those related to women. In their creative endeavors utilizing visual forms, these artists defy Brahmanical cultural nationalism and break free from inhibitions, embracing a fresh perspective that aligns with democratic constitutionalism. Their aesthetics stand in contrast to the speculative metaphysics practiced by other artist communities, and notably, they are not constrained by gallery directives. Dr. Ambedkar is widely embraced as an icon of modern India, reflecting a broader acceptance, as his thinking is seen as pivotal for the future. Ambedkar, a modernist, vehemently opposed hegemony and dedicated his efforts to the welfare of all members of society. Many educated individuals, seeking to break free from the constraints imposed by Brahmanical polity and cultural nationalism, are recognizing Dr. Ambedkar’s pivotal role in constitution-making and advocacy for universal rights. This line of thought forms the basis of Ambedkarian aesthetics, characterized by its absence of speculative metaphysics. This emerging mindset emphasizes political consciousness rooted in constitutional ethos and, significantly, seeks to move beyond Gandhian romanticism.

Prof. Y. S. Alone’s Questions to Anupam Roy

YSA: How is your artistic practice influenced by your participation in various social movements?

AR: I was an average student in school and art was the only subject that helped me continue studying. By the end of my bachelor’s degree, I had started participating in various socio-political movements in West Bengal, particularly after the “Nandigram Violence” in West Bengal in 2007. After completing my Bachelor’s in Painting, I came to New Delhi to work in an ad agency. Parallel to this job, I started making wall-posters at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi) for All India Students Association, which is the student wing of Communist Party of India Marxist Leninist (Liberation) (CPI ML[Liberation]). From that point onwards, my artistic journey took a different route. The milieu around me helped connect me with different ongoing political struggles. I had dedicatedly started participating in organized party politics which led me to become a fulltime party worker in West Bengal. I was basically engaged as a propaganda maker for the Party’s different mass organizations. In 2014, I started an MA course in Visual Art at B. R. Ambedkar University, Delhi, which helped me develop my critical engagement with propaganda making, following which I did a second Master’s in the UK.

And now for the past year, I have been teaching at a private university near Delhi. Along with my engagement in academia and in the art scene, I’m maintaining my association with various land-struggles in India. These political associations have led me to join an international collective, named “Locust Review” and an artists’ union named Panjeri based in West Bengal. By giving this background and looking back over the last 15 years of my practice, I can see my critical engagements continued to develop because of my association with organized politics and mass movements, the political milieu that I choose to be a part of. Such engagement helps me believe in the values of togetherness, collective endeavors, discursive politics, and dissident art.

YSA: Can you define what are the main themes, as well as the formal characteristics at work in your artistic production?

AR: The majoritarian side of the “propaganda model” supplements physical coercion with a calculated “manufacture of consent.” If the truth of contemporary reality lies in hidden over narratives of violence and corporal suffering, the ethical and political task of the propagandist is not merely to report or represent them from a comfortable outsider’s position, but to leave oneself exposed to the brutality of the world while transforming it. However, the limits of self, as well as those of art practice, and the institution’s superficial criticality have led me to rethink and interrogate other models for counterpropaganda.

In such models, the propagandist isn’t simply a tool in the hands of an organized ideology, but a fearless propagator of an unsettling truth, which no discourse can contain without undermining itself. What “I” think of as “truth,” is a product of internal contradiction of my themes I choose to paint, it is my constant quest to get engaged with subjectivities that have many social concerns. I preferred to use figurative language in swifter ways to articulate the unrestive nature of society. I am aware of the need to find new aesthetic strategies of “with-nessing” and testifying the truth. I intriguingly find myself trapped between the mutually contrary acts of violence and testifying for the truth, victimization and witnessing.

My recent engagement with content or subject matter investigates the intersectional and layered dialectical relations between “Land” and “Laborer.” My historical and philosophical attempt here is to study the “Revolutionary Subject of Change” of our time. Through connecting these two enquiries, my proposition is to construct a category called “Land-Guard.” The category is conceived in relation to a localized political subjectivization. It is also located in a historical sequence of political subjectivization that cuts across the notions of Proletariat, the Subaltern, the Bahujan, the Precariat, the Migrant or Immigrant, etc. Investigating image-making and finding a language that conceptually addresses the limits of the contemporary politics of representation, my art focuses on subaltern subjects and their precarious condition in the contemporary capitalist system. In opposition to this dominant system of representation (where the other is often demonized), I try to re-present the traces of history that account for the existence of subaltern subjects and their strategies of resistance. Self-reflectively mapping the inherent contradictions of the dominant representational system, I attempt to create an archival inventory based on what I would like to call “representational impossibilities.” This idea refers to the contradiction between my relatively privileged social identity and my understanding of the political reality of the subaltern communities. As this identity and geographical location-based contradictions make it impossible for me to capture the experience of the marginalized—the content of my artistic representations—, I fill compelled to critique the existing notions of artistic creativity and productivity, embracing my own impotentiality when it comes to being an artist in the conventional sense. The term “impotentiality,” borrowed from the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1999), refers to the “potentiality to not-be,” as different from being in a simple state of deprivation and destitution. I understand the concept through its resonances with the idea of “Brokenness” in your own writings, the notion of “fugitivity” developed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney (2013), and of “Inarticulateness” by Frantz Fanon (1961), as well as Dr. Ambedkar’s concept of the “Broken Man” (1948).

YSA: Why do you think that text and image interaction is a political process and what are your observations based on your own art practices?

AR: The dynamic between text and image is not fixed; it varies in each context. In an exhibition setting, the image tends to be more open to interpretation, while the text serves as an autonomous contributor, communicating overarching thematic concerns. This comes from a dominant notion of seeing production and consumption of art as a primarily retinal activity. However, in the materials that are conceived as propaganda, such as my body of work, text is used more directly, and text and image come together to express the subject. I consistently grapple with the relationship between text and image while producing and reproducing posters, banners, festoons, wall graffiti and other forms of visual and written propaganda material for various socio-political-cultural movements. Of course, every movement is distinct—it has its own reasons, demands, location, set of actors, political narrative and visual imagery. But there are also many similarities and connections between movements across space and time, and I try to bring out these aspects in my work.

I rely on my diary to discover and record connections between movements across space and time and forge a link between research and practice. For me the journal is a place where I write down minute observations regarding the movements I’m associated with, along with relevant readings, drawings, and layouts. The process of jotting down my thoughts every day, sometimes on the same page where I had scribbled notes and layouts earlier, helps me see for myself how and in what ways my observations regarding movements are changing. I can also see how the juxtaposition of images and text over a period of time disrupts preconceived meanings and opens up a discursive space for other meanings and possibilities to emerge. Engagement with text and image also helps me engage with various media like zine, magazine, visual-text books (non-narrative, non-sequential), video (which I have begun to explore), and other forms of print/reproduction/publication related work, through which I can connect with the public. Considering all these aspects of my practice, I see the interaction between text and image as demystifying the hegemonic notion of art and its presumed aura.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Anupam Roy, Observations from Metabolic rift, 2022, Ink and graphite on Lokta Paper (Nepali handmade paper), 76 x 56 cm.

Quotation from: Saito, Kohei, and Karl Marx’s. Ecosocialism. “Capital, nature, and the unfinished critique of political economy.”

©Anupam Roy

YSA: How do you steer clear of engaging in speculative metaphysics when crafting your images, aiming to assert both a distinctiveness and a statement of your self-position as an artist?

AR: For me, an image is not a final artefact. Rather, it is a subjective exploration of my positional self-encompassing in day-to-day life, including my participation in several movements and the contradictions therein. My images document this engagement without seeking perfection. They capture the contradictions within the movement(s) as well as my own position. My subjective observations are rife with contradictions owing to the limitations of representational abilities, whereas various interpretations expose the hegemony of formal figures in the image.

The display of images also has an important aspect here. Breaking from the norm of viewing images at eye-level, I display my images in various positions and angles to ensure immediacy of response. This validates the form and allows for imperfect figures rather than solid or perfect forms of visual depiction. Furthermore, the content I develop through my observations is not limited to images alone; it constitutes a broader repository that encompasses my diary notes, photographs, research, and readings of their history, formation, and progress as well understanding political intents. The mobility of these notes amplifies the reach of my images, extending it into different spaces and time. As allies of note, images for me are not static or concrete in their format but an incomplete texture of depiction that continues to learn and un-learn.

YSA: What is the intention behind choosing a certain formalistic genre to capture the contemporary “precariousness” of the working-class body?

AR: Even a cursory glance at recent working-class struggles shows that the possibilities of building a movement remain high, where workers reside near factories or business establishments and are organized and united. For instance, the movements at the Maruti, Pricol and Sterlite factories mainly included workers who lived in the vicinity of the factories—they were not all migrant laborers. When violence broke out on the Maruti Suzuki India Limited manufacturing plant on July 18, 2012, the long-running and peaceful workers’ struggle in Manesar, Haryana, took a dramatic turn. The situation got out of control, resulting in the death of Awanish Kumar Dev, a human resources official at the firm, and hundreds of injuries. The firings that followed the anti-Sterlite protest that took place in Toothukudi, Tamil Nadu, on May 22 and 23, 2018 (also referred to as the “Thoothukudi massacre”) was one of the deadliest uprisings. The Sterlite Corporation, which operated the biggest copper-smelting factory in India, was at the center of a proposed expansion, which sparked persistent protests resulting in violence. Thirteen people were killed and 102 injured when police opened fire on the demonstrators. During the protests, several police officers were also injured. Pricol Limited, a car component manufacturer situated in Periyanaickenpalayam, in Coimbatore District, Tamil Nadu, forced workers to accept illegal salary cuts and layoffs, resulting in protests in April 2020. The COVID-19 crisis was then used as a pretext by the regional and national governments to launch covert attacks on the working class.

Yet, the mode of production has brutally fragmented the process of production into innumerable small units, and a majority of the working class is today made up of migrants who travel far away from their homes in search of work. This includes a large number of Adivasis who work as cheap labor in developmental projects, including construction of roads and factories. In other words, the working-class subject in the 21st century has become more alienated, precarious, and less likely to organize. Here I must mention that my understanding of precariousness was deeply influenced by Ambedkar’s reference to the “broken man,” and to the caste system as a division of laborers. My own subjectivity and socio-cultural location do not allow me to embody this brokenness deeply, but my engagement in various movements pushes me to see the working-class subject including migrant/immigrant workers as agents of change.

Historically, if we study Chinese and Russian visual propaganda, we find that concrete, solid forms were used to represent the working-class subject. Naturalistic idealization was employed in Socialist Realist paintings and sculptures to present workers and farmers as fearless, determined, youthful, and well-muscled. Up until the late 20th century, socialist realism was the recognized aesthetic of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in eastern Europe. Socialist realism borrowed from the earlier strings of romanticism, elevating and idealizing characters and events to shape the collective perception of the general population. A vital element of Socialist Realism was the optimistic “positive socialist hero” who overcomes all barriers or impediments. Advocated by Maxim Gorky and Andrei Zhdanov, hundreds of such “positive heroes,” typically Soviet scientists, engineers, or inventors, peasant couples were produced in accordance with this norm, and they all lacked a sense of reality. I feel that such a form is inadequate to represent the precariousness of the contemporary working-class subject. It is not possible to understand the contemporary working class by looking only at the industrial working class. Instead, we must consider different aspects such as ingrained inequality, fragmented subjectivity, precarious characters, layered identity, specific location, and other intersectional discourses.

I find the expressionist form well suited to depict these contradictions. For instance, I can mention the German expressionists, who from the 1920s onwards, prioritized their inner thoughts or feelings over replicating or idealizing reality. Their work was known for its use of bold colors, expressive brushstrokes or gestural marks, and hyperbolic formal representation. However, for me, the formal treatment is not only about incorporating political urgency, but also has a utilitarian perspective. It is particularly helpful in meeting deadlines as it allows for mistakes that occur while accomplishing a work as fast as possible. Moreover, the mediums and components required to work in this form—such as black pigment, distemper, strainer and surface material like acid free paper, normal paper, rice paper or rough cloth, etc. are also easily available and mobile materials. In keeping with these aspects, most of my images are black and white, so they can be reproduced and/or be used in a multipurpose way.

YSA: How do you see the role of patronage by art galleries, particularly when an artist chooses to be political in terms of the representation of artistic practices?

AR: At the outset, let me clarify that I haven’t exhibited much in institutionalized spaces. My work was displayed at the New Museum Triennial, New York in 2018; at Project 88, Mumbai in 2019 and a very few other group shows. But my participation needs to be critiqued and clarified, especially because the art world’s practice of and the underlying processes of the art industry are part of the capitalist mode of production. The gallery—a product of history, patronage, and social status—is part of the hegemonic order owing to its nexus with capital and apparatuses of knowledge production. It allows a countercultural artist to exhibit his work only so long as the overarching structure permits. Even then, he must find agencies/groups to promote and market his work and contend with discrimination.

Figures 2 and 3

Figures 2 and 3

Anupam Roy, Labyrinth: Reflections on 21st century politics (Exhibition title), December 2017, B C Gallery, Kochi, Kerala, organized by Backyard Civilization (an artist collective) and other friends and comrades from Kerala.

Xerox prints, painted banners, posters and festoons on handwoven and rough cotton cloth, painted canvas, watercolor painting on paper pasted on cloth, charcoal drawing on paper pasted on cloth, copy painting by oil on canvas (Van Gogh’s Mangeurs de pommes de terre), video, handwritten wall text, Chinese ink drawing on uncut handmade paper and A4 xerox sheet, graphite drawings, printed posters, pinback badges, reflective tape, poster stickers, printed text, curated performative activities and discussion.

©Anupam Roy

When I engage in political discourse through my paintings and they end up on the walls of a gallery, the audience reflects on the problem as something that is external—that exists outside the gallery, which is free of all vices and prejudices; also called the “politics of elsewhere.”

Yet, I am not an outsider in this industry. I am a professional artist. However, I don’t approach art from an ethically, politically correct stance in the neoliberal gallery space. Instead, I have dealt with exhibition space differently. The idea of the space between what was possible before and what could be possible later, after a crisis or major historical event, is related to what I consider the appropriate territory for my art practice. A “crisis” can be understood as an inner struggle (thesis) and as a “historical event,” seen as an outer socio-political struggle (antithesis). The instantaneous contradiction of each (inner-struggle and outer-struggle) enables me to engage with an unpredictable and contingent outcome (synthesis) which is my body of work. If we can identify these connections and if we critically investigate our individual relationship with the “dominant mode of production” embedded in the existing social hierarchy, then we can explore our complex positionality more creatively. Once the limitations and contradictions of art practice have been mapped, the obligation is to express them with the incorporation and expression of these limits—the art must embody a state of reflexivity. My works comprise displays of chaos with no singular point of focus, and I make a conscious effort to overwhelm and dominate the viewer in terms of the presence of the excess. I also try not to place my images at the center, but rather as a backdrop. This not only decreases the centrality of the singular art object, but also creates an “excess” with respect to other engagements that provide a space for discourse. When I display my work outside gallery spaces, I try to transform the exhibitory space into a discursive place. I display images as backdrops, so they appear like mind-maps stuck on the walls of a room that elaborate an insufficient understanding of the subject of concern. I accommodate the “excess” systematically by organizing panel discussions, performances, presentations, conferences, informal debates, study circles and so on. In other words, I try to decentralize the dominant disciplinary notion of the artist and transform it into that of a facilitator or an organizer.

YSA: In a project on the de-notification of land, you have attempted to synthesize two important issues; that of the ownership of agricultural land and that of classified land, as enshrined in the Indian constitution. How do you juxtapose the two and bring together numerous works of art into a unified visual structure?

AR: My exhibition at Project 88 titled “De-notified Land”15 focused on interrogating the politics of de/notification and bringing out various contradictions and gaps in our understanding of the concept. One of my key concerns in the exhibition was to show how the concept relates to land as well as people, and how in each case, the ones impacted by de/notification are predominantly Dalits and Adivasis. For instance, the term “Denotified Tribes” refers to communities that were notified as Criminal Tribes by the colonial state. The original notification in the subcontinent in the nineteenth century criminalized entire communities, mostly located at the bottom of the caste-based social order. Police, often aided by caste elites, raided their settlements if any theft or robbery in the vicinity occurred. They assaulted men, women, and children and detained and/or arrested them on mere suspicion, often imprisoning them for long periods. This continued till 1952, when the Indian government denotified them and put in place policies and entitlements for their upliftment. But even today, nothing much has changed in their lives—they continue to be harassed and seen with suspicion by dominant castes; police still raid their settlements if thefts and assaults occur; and detain them, thus violating their basic rights and dignity.

The story of de/notification of land is similar. When the colonial state notified tracts across the country as forest land, it severely affected the livelihood and culture of Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities who resided in these areas. Whereas today, vast areas of the country that were earlier notified as sanctuaries, protected land, biodiversity hotspots or eco-sensitive areas are being denotified to make way for mines and industries that will ravage the environment. Land is leased or sold to corporates at throwaway prices, whereas the people residing there are assaulted and jailed for protesting against land acquisition in violation of existing laws. They are being forcibly evicted with little or no compensation or jobs.

Another key concern of the exhibition was to problematize the relationship between land and fertility. For instance, land has been equated with women’s bodies, and there exists a vast amount of visual imagery around fertility and mother goddess cults that have impacted cultural imaginations of land and land-related movements, as well as art. Yet do I really have an understanding of how land and fertility are related in different ways? Confronted with an image of a termite mound, a person from the middle class is likely to perceive a threat, given the association of termites and borers with potential damage to constructed environments. But for a person from an arid, agricultural belt such as the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra, the same image will likely signify fertility and hope since termite mounds are found only in areas where underground water is available.

Alongside addressing these concerns in the show, I also wanted to counter the misplaced primacy and emphasis on land redistribution in the country today. But further experience of and discourse on land of the past several decades shows that mere redistribution of land to lower castes and classes is not enough unless combined with a redistribution of resources. Because even when Dalits and Adivasis have a small patch of land, they are unable to access water, electricity and other resources, which they could use to set up a farm or small industry on the plot, as these resources are controlled by dominant castes.

As a visual artist, I do not merely seek to represent Adivasi and Dalit communities, but to also identify and make sense of the various contradictions affecting them. This is why I did not focus on one central contradiction vis-à-vis denotification, but tried to uncover the multitude of minor contradictions that underlay the concept, leaving the viewer free to identify the primary contradiction based on their spatio-temporal location.

YSA: Your work consciously represents figures into the large mass of dense lines, a quality that is visible mostly in the printmakers/making. Could you tell us more about this choice?

AR: My work largely comprises campaign material—such as wall graffiti, posters, and banners—for popular movements. They address the urgent need for outreach of these movements, so that more and more people become informed about them and their demands and concerns. This often means that I have to churn out artworks on very short notice, even very little factual details about the events and trends of that movement are known. The presence of a large number of popular movements around the country that are localized, fragmented and isolated from each other also means that the need for producing such artworks is constant.

My visual language, especially the use of a large mass of dense black lines on white surfaces, arises from these circumstances. Dense lines can be painted with broad brush strokes fairly quickly compared to thin lines, which is especially useful in situations of urgency. They also allow for easy correction of mistakes that are inadvertent while working under tight deadlines—although erroneous black lines cannot be covered with white as the whole patch would turn grey, they can be easily painted over with black, and their shape and orientation altered. My style, in other words, allows me to practice my inabilities.

The use of a large mass of dense lines also allows me to create large, spectacular images—necessary to attract and capture the attention of the audience in the chaotic public places where my work is mostly displayed. It is also easy to reproduce these images in various sizes in print using digital technology, which is especially useful in meeting the demands for cheaply produced campaign material such as pamphlets, handbills, booklets and so on. I admit I am inspired by the expressionist approach, especially that of the German Expressionists, wherein the painter unleashes on the canvas a violent outburst of their thoughts and emotions. But I also differ from this approach as I use paper, which is significantly cheaper and easier to transport than canvas. I also use black pigments and industrial distemper as they are cheap and easy to access. Paper, however, is fragile and unable to sustain the expressionist outburst, unlike the canvas. This forces me to transcend the violence within me when I paint, and approach it with care.

Conclusion

2This exchange between the art historian Yashadatta Alone and the artist Anupam Roy shows how the approach to artistic activism in South Asia has impacts both in the field of reflection on art, and in that of the practice of the arts.

3In light of the notion of “Brahmanical Modernity,” art history equips itself with a tool for a new introspection and a critique of artistic modernity in South Asia, by revealing and denouncing a “Brahmanical nationalism” to maneuver through the historical constructions of nationalist, progressive, popular and tribal artistic identities. So, if some are calling for a “decoloniality” of criteria in art sciences, in South Asia this “decoloniality” of knowledge seems to involve an inevitable deconstruction of what we could call “a Brahmanical monopoly.”

4The practices of activist art in South Asia are pursued to upset the traditional boundaries of the artistic world by extensively practicing the diversion, as much of images and objects as that of the text and the political slogan. The activist art of Anupam Roy is strongly influenced by the writings and the character of Ambedkar, the result is a strong porosity in the references to fine arts, crafts, and popular and tribal arts, within his production. The Ambedkarite dimension of his artistic work encourages him to be always informed about the terrain of the struggles and social protests of subaltern populations, so many characteristics that we were able to come across in the articles in this thematic issue.

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Bibliography

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Alone, Y. S. 2006. “Tradition and Practices: Cultural Confronts.” Nirukta, Journal of Art History & Aesthetics III:1–8.

Alone, Y. S. 2016. “Language Representation and Protected Ignorance.” Paper presented at the School of Art and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, September 30.

Alone, Y. S. 2017. “Caste Life Narratives, Visual Representation, and Protected Ignorance.” Biography 40(1):140–69.

Alone, Y. S. 2020. “Indian Political Space and Religion: Perspectives and Exploring Alternatives.” Pp. 204–15 in Politics and Religion in India, edited by N. Kumar. London and New York: Routledge.

Alone Y. S. 2024. “Subversion of Narrative: Constructing Social Through Pictorial Space in the Art Practices of Vikrant Bhise.” Curatorial essay pp. 6–17 in Vikrant Bhise Sense and Sensibilities: A Reflective Realisation. Anant Design Private Limited: New Delhi.

Ambedkar, B. R. [1936] 1979. “Annihilation of Caste.” Pp. 23–96 in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches. Vol. 1, compiled by V. Moon. Mumbai: Government of Maharashtra.

Ambedkar, B. R. [1948] 1990. “The Untouchables.” Pp. 233 in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches. Vol. 7, compiled by V. Moon. Mumbai Government of Maharashtra.

Bagade, Umesh. 2005. Maharshtratil Prabodhan Aani Vargajati Prabhutva. Pune: Sugava Prakashan (Marathi).

Dalmia Yashodhara, Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressive, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Presse (Originally published in French as Les Damnés de la terre, 1961, Paris: F. Maspero).

Hacker, Katherine. 2014. “A Simultaneous Validity of Co-existing Cultures.” Archives of Asian Art 64(2):191–209.

Jumabhoy, Zehra. 2023. “Making Place for People?: Geeta Kapur, Secular Nationalism, and ‘Indian’ Art.” Pp. 189–224 in How Secular Is Art?: On the Politics of Art, History and Religion in South Asia, edited by T. Guha-Thakurta, and V. Zamindar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kapur, Geeta. 2000. When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practise in India. New Delhi: New Delhi: Tulika Books.

Khullar, Sonal. 2015. Worldly Affiliations: Artistic Practice, National Identity, and Modernism in India, 1930–1990. Oakland: University of California Press.

Moten, Fred. 2018. Stolen Life. Duke University Press.

Mukherji, Parul Dave. 2022. “The Making of the Baroda School: When People Become Public.” Pp. 274–97 in 20th Century Indian Art, edited by P. Mitter, P. D. Mukherji, and R. Balaram. London: Thames and Hudson.

Omvedt, Gail. 2014. Dalits and the Democratic Revolution: Dr Ambedkar and The Dalit Movement in Colonial India. New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Parimoo, Ratan. 1975. Studies in Modern Indian Art: A Collection of Essays. New Delhi: Kanak Publications.

Rosenblum, Robert. 1961. Cubism and Twentieth Century Art. New York: Harry M. Abrams.

Stefano, Harney and Fred Moten. 2013. The Undercommons Fugutive Plannings and Black Study. New York: Minor Composition.

Sumathi, Ramaswamy .2009. “The Mahatma as Muse: An Image Essay on Gandhi in Popular Indian Visual Imagination.” Pp. 236–50 in Art and Visual Culture in India (1857–2007), edited by G. Sinha. Mumbai: Marg Publications.

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Notes

1 Prof Umesh Bagade’s work in Marathi reveals that the cafe culture in Mumbai started as part of the societal outing of respective caste groups as part of the modernity project and hence all the café restaurants in Mumbai were originally caste-café restaurants (Maharashtratil Prabodhan Aani Vargajati Prabhutva, Sugava Prakashan Pune 2005, Marathi, and also see Alone. 2006).

2 We can cite here the productions of the Bengal School, from the beginning of the 20th century. In particular the paintings of Abanindranath Tagore, Kshitindranath Mazumdar and Abdur Rahman Chughtai whose content borrowed from the great Hindu epics, the Vedas and Indian history, and whose pictorial style, while claiming an influence from princely miniatures of the 17th and 18th centuries, drew on the aesthetics of Arts & Crafts and the British Pre-Raphaelite movement.

3 Sumathi Ramaswamy (2009) "The Mahatma as Muse: An Image Essay on Gandhi in Popular Indian Visual Imagination.”

4 Tantric abstraction, also known as Neo-Tantric art (L.P. Sihare), is a movement that developed mainly in the 1960s and 1970s with a conceptual and visual basis, that relied on motifs and symbols inspired from Buddhist and Hindu Tantrism. Among the famous Indian artists representative of this movement are KCS Paniker or Biren De.

5 For a short presentation of his work, see: https://www.artnet.com/artists/jagdish-swaminathan/

6 Reference to the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) consisting of artists S. H. Raza, F. N. Souza. M. F. Hussain, K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A, Gade. For discussion on PAG see Dalmia Yashodhara, Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressive, Oxford University Press, 2001.

7 See for example the exhibition depicting the work of the artist https://fac.umass.edu/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=AnUntouchable&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=. A recent article in the journal Scroll.in also delves into the work and political stance of Sawarkar: https://scroll.in/magazine/1033348/in-all-my-years-no-gallery-has-represented-me-savindra-sawarkar-on-brahmanism-in-the-arts

8 Alone (2024).

9 Notes from the editors: Alone argue that intellectuals who are involved in the knowledge production process that does not question the repressive cast structure create a discourse of protected ignorance. See Alone (2017) “Caste Life Narratives, Visual Representation, And Protected Ignorance.”

10 Katherine Hacker (2014) has judiciously mapped such episodes of history.

11 Born in 1963, in Jawalban in Taluka Kaj district Beed in the state of Maharashtra, the painter J. Nankumar began his career in 1994. He attracted the interest of the industrial group Reliance, run by businessman Anil Ambani (close to Narendra Modi and the BJP), who was interested in his abstract compositions. Reliance stopped buying his works following controversial paintings he made in the early 2000s that depicted Gandhi and Hindu goddesses.

12 The Lalit Kala Academy provides fellowships to young artists. Their selection process is solely based on the opinions of the selection panel who may not have any sensitivity towards social questions. Even these days, only certain kinds of people are getting fellowships that are directed by the government in power.

13 Periyanaickenpalayam, in Coimbatore District, Tamil Nadu, forced workers to accept illegal salary cuts and layoffs, resulting in protests (Alone Y. S. 2020).

14 Let us limit ourselves here to mentioning a few names of the most renowned artists: the sculptor Ramachandra Bandu Sasamkar and his statues of the Dalit leader Ambedkar, the designer and painter Savi Sawarkar and the painter, sculptor and performer Prabhakar Kamble.

15 See the project’s website for more information on the exhibitions: http://www.project88.in/exhibitions.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Anupam Roy, Observations from Metabolic rift, 2022, Ink and graphite on Lokta Paper (Nepali handmade paper), 76 x 56 cm.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9280/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Figures 2 and 3
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9280/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 595k
Caption Anupam Roy, Labyrinth: Reflections on 21st century politics (Exhibition title), December 2017, B C Gallery, Kochi, Kerala, organized by Backyard Civilization (an artist collective) and other friends and comrades from Kerala.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/docannexe/image/9280/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 742k
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References

Electronic reference

Yashadatta Alone and Anupam Roy, Perspectives on Ambedkarian Aesthetics and Social MovementsSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 31 | 2023, Online since 31 December 2023, connection on 18 July 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/samaj/9280; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/11vwx

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About the authors

Yashadatta Alone

Professor in Visual Studies, School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Anupam Roy

Visual artist, and Assistant Professor at the Department of Art, Media and Performance, Shiv Nadar University, SNIOE, Greater Noida

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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