Thursday, 10 May 2012

Art: Altaf and Navjot ~ Leaning left, painting right

 (I did this interview in Bangalore in 1997)

IT SEEMED like a puzzle to begin with. Jigsaw-like groups of small canvases linked thematically, titled Workers or The Landscape or Behind the Curtain or The Life-death and so on. A maze of picture-sentences, their alphabets in constant evolution. It made sense, until the eye stopped at blank, black spaces at random corners. Was this part of the artist’s spatial overview, we wondered. Or had certain works been left behind at the recent showing at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, where a massive single wall had been crammed with ‘works in small format,’ over 200 of them, like a never-ending pan shot or a panoramic roll of thoughts, not an everyday art show?

“It’s just that some of those smaller works were sold at the Jehangir. And the buyers didn’t want to wait until the show travelled from there to Delhi (in late February) and then back,” explains Altaf, the Marxist thinker as artist, whose works were recently on view at the Sakshi Gallery in Bangalore. And he laughs. A sound that ripples through the air. Through the exhibition space and into the ether beyond.

For ideas permeating the ether warm Altaf’s world. As does the parry and thrust of dialectics. Both come naturally to Altaf and Navjot, coupled together by art and marriage, committed to the path of leftist doctrine, following its dictates in both their personal and artistic lives. They have worked with Ekta as artists grouped against communalism in the riot-torn Bombay of 1993, shown their work to aid the Latur earthquake victims, been active with the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust and youth groups like Proyom (Progressive Youth Movement), a cultural group which had students and teachers from various colleges and universities, including artists, writers and poets to raise questions concerning political and cultural issues in the early 1970s and to mobilize the youth. They took their work to schools, colleges and slums through Proyom.

In a bid to demystify the elitist world of contemporary art, Altaf ~ who studied art in London in the early 1960s ~ has taught art and done landmark projects with the socially disadvantaged children of the New Habib High School in Bombay’s Bhendi Bazaar, including a ‘History of India through the Arts,’ covering 1,000 paintings in 1982. Equally committed to exploring new horizons, Navjot ~ a product of the Sir J J School of Art in Bombay ~ has been involved with various similar activities and will soon be interacting  with Adivasi artists working in wood at Kondagaon in the Bastar district of central India to question and understand the stereotypical notions of art and craft. Later, their creative output will be exhibited side by side, to be viewed as contemporary, at both informal and gallery spaces.

Painting by Altaf
Navjot is sparkling and spontaneous, willing to engage herself with activities to cast aside social shackles. Softly but firmly, she makes her point. Altaf, gentle and affable, is defined by his ideological stances, accepting obvious contradictions as reality.

What does their leftist ideology mean to them? How does it shape them? At what cost? Has it affected their artistic success? A freewheeling recent conversation while they were in Bangalore offers an overview of this artistic puzzle. Here are excerpts from the interaction:

There is a popular notion of artists as faraway creatures, quietly at work in their studios. But artists are an intrinsic part of society, aren’t they?

Altaf: Any artist working today has to be a part of the reality they are interacting with. After all, they are interpreting imagery that is based on a part of their environment. It would be terrible if the artist was isolated from this reality. Initially, I react in a very subjective way when I’m trying to interpret that onto my canvas. Later, I try as far as possible to objectify that reality so that I can communicate with a much larger audience.

Art by Navjot

Navjot: Artists are intellectuals.  Their political positions are reflected in their works and actions. They like to associate themselves with thinkers from other disciplines. The common man may feel that artists are above the masses, but they are a part of it. They cannot close themselves in ivory towers to create if they choose to take positions, to side with the marginalized and neglected sections of society.

How does that apply in terms of real life events and your work?

Navjot: Consciously, I attempt to make statements about issues and events that affect the progressive political perspective, both as a social and creative being. As I have said earlier, a creative person with a conscious political stand does not want to escape certain responsibilities, and constantly tries to speak through his or her work.

After the 1993 riots, this myth or belief about Bombay being a cosmopolitan city was shattered. Rightwing fundamentalists instigated the riots and then, under the guise of communal tension, builders and the underworld took advantage to grab prime land by destroying certain slums and the properties of the minority community who had been living in the city for generations. I believe it is only when people speak critically about such events that it makes a difference.

You will be amazed to know how active certain organizations and Bombayites were in organizing relief work for the affected. Artists joined in peace marches. SAHMAT organized a Kabirvani and street theatre. We got together to paint a 100-foot canvas at Marine Lines. It’s important that people speak their minds, rather than keeping quiet. It has happened throughout history. Intellectuals have taken up political or critical positions all over the world. Take Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, for example.

Altaf: Sartre and Beauvoir had a critical commentary, but there were other intellectuals in France at that time who felt they should not get involved in something alienated from their field. Similarly, in India, we have intellectuals who do not want to get involved in issues, though committed people do. ‘Intellectual,’ I think, is a bad word. We should say committed thinkers or artists.

Navjot: Since creative people ~ like writers, poets and painters ~ are normally self-employed, they can speak about issues more freely than those who choose to work with the establishment. But it’s not that the masses cannot take a position.

To what degree have these commitments affected your art?

Altaf: When I was studying art in London, we didn’t recognise political consciousness as part of a creative process. We thought of it as something separate, not interconnected. It was only when I started working in a factory in London after my father discontinued my allowance that I met a group of young Marxists ~ Pakistanis, Indians, Sinhalese, East Pakistanis (there was no Bangladesh then). Another student, who was secretary of the Young Communist League, influenced me a lot.

When I returned to India around 1967, there was fantastic turmoil ~ the student movement, the Naxalbari movement, political waves because young people wanted to change a lot of things. On my return, I also met some university professors and students. We had study groups and talked about the left movement in general.

I was painting, but not as much as I would have otherwise. I was confused. I was questioning the whole importance of the act of painting when the social and political situation was in such a flux. It was inevitable that my paintings showed a strong political bias ~ workers, strikes and factories; the contradictions between the management and the workers. Very graphic interpretations. I think, over the years, these have become more subtle. Besides, there are personal and social problems ~ the contradictions a person with my background faces, the alienation we feel as individuals. My art took on a more social context, but the political context has always been there. Only, now I don’t do what would be called Marxist paintings, but I do paint with a Marxist consciousness. I think another artist would tend to look at the same themes very differently.

Painting by Altaf

Navjot: At art school, we were not encouraged to associate ourselves with any political groups or to take strong positions, but my introduction to Marxist philosophy through Altaf at this stage made me aware of the function and relevance of the arts in a society. I had been brought up with the Sufi and Kabir kind of values of humanism, which speak of how to be a good human being by drawing from different religious and cultural values. But it did not really deal with caste or class issues. Marxism has taught me to question, analyse and look at situations in relation to one another.

Like Altaf said about the Marxist consciousness, within that one is constantly questioning. When one has a perspective, one has a clarity about what one wants, which helps in making decisions concerning one’s art practice as well.

In India today, there’s an open debate about art as commerce. It’s often a question of spiralling prices or which names sell. Has your ideology affected you in the art market?

Navjot: Should one say that such art does not sell because in its content it is critical of the establishment and lots of people may have problems with it? Or that works which are non-political in their content do well in the market?

Many of my paintings, which have been sold for high prices, deal critically with political issues. What does affect sales is when collectors feel that a work does not have a resale value ~ such as installation art, video art or art made of fragile or unconventional materials. It is true that many artists who have had strong political stands have had their paintings sell very well but have received little support, after making shifts in their art practices. I have been confronting this problem since I shifted to installation art.

Altaf: Artists have to deal with this contradiction because we all, after all, live in a semi-capitalistic society. We would still like to operate within an organised system, which is controlled by the very people we are critical of. So, this contradiction is part of our struggle as painters.

You are right in saying that art collecting has become a fad. Art collecting has become a social status symbol. But I’d like to believe that there are certain collectors who, in spite of paintings which they find critical of them, look at it in terms of how seriously the artist is working, how deep his commitment is, or how the artist has grown. They’re now looking at artists very differently from what they did ten years ago. That’s a positive thing among the negative things that have happened.

Negative? For instance, artists have gone into status consciousness ~ I mean all of us have ~ thus losing sight of trying to objectively evaluate ourselves. Of course, after the (much-hyped art) auctions, a completely superficial market came up. Many artists got carried away. They put artificial prices to their works, taking advantage of the situation. The young artists especially became so aware of the good market value that, though they’re very talented, their questioning was on a different level ~ like making a good catalogue, rather than the issues they needed to deal with themselves. Now that the market has settled down, I think artists will again start thinking about the issues they need to.

In the Indian context, artists have to be a part of the existing social system. If you could redefine the system your way, how would you do it?

Altaf: If artists didn’t have to work under these economic pressures, we could work on a more collective basis. That would be ideal. Today, everybody is so conscious of individuality, an idea that capitalism has brought in. Yet it is impossible to really be an individual in that we all borrow, take in influences. In society, it’s inevitable that we all interact with others. The Russian thinker Plekhanov said, ‘Art can only become really universal, it can only really go down to the people, when artists disappear.’  

But it was once like that. Look at our temples, our traditional sculptures, the miniature paintings. We don’t know these artists, who worked collectively to produce great works of art. I think capitalism brought in the notion of individuality because they wanted to marketize art. Even in the West, art was initially commissioned by the church or the nobles, usually a mural done on the ceiling or the walls. It’s interesting ~ only after art became a commodity did they start making works that could be transported from one place to another.

Today, we’re trying to follow the West. Many of our art critics and historians are very impressed by them. I think it’s good to categorise; that’s why we have a bio-data in each of our catalogues. To democratize art would be the ideal way, but I think we’re leaning more and more away, becoming more individualistic, more into ourselves.

Wouldn’t the democratization of art mean its popularization to an extent? Has it worked in your lives?

Altaf: On my return from London, I had the option of working in my brother-in-law’s factory or with children. Because of my ideological commitment, I chose the second. The schools I worked with were mostly from a very poor strata, in Bombay’s Bhendi Bazaar. I tried to make my students feel the importance of art in relation to their own reality, but I don’t think I had much success. Art wasn’t really a subject they had to pass. And they had too many other problems to cope with. So, we had fun. I even played cricket with them. But they did some amazing creative work.

Later, when I returned to the same school as a project officer, not an art teacher, I did three major projects in three years. The first was the most important ~ a history of India through the arts from 5000 BC to 1947, for which I collected 1,000 paintings to show their importance visually as social, cultural and historical documents. Later, the State Education Ministry sent notice of it to all the schools in the locality and over 15,000 students saw the project.

Navjot: It’s a relevant point and we did try dealing with it in the 1970s by taking our works outside galleries through Proyom. But in the absence of any such art movement and support, it is very difficult to function on one’s own outside the gallery system, especially if one is showing paintings and sculptures. Also, since we have no real tradition of visiting galleries to see contemporary art, it becomes important to have more public spaces like the Jehangir in Bombay and Triveni in Delhi to generate interest in viewing art. 

Sculpture by Navjot

With the installation art I’m engaged with now, it is possible to move away since there is a relationship between the concept of the work and its place of production. So, no single site may be suitable for different installations by the same artist. I like the possibility of viewers’ participation in installation art. I had intended this with ‘Links Destroyed and Rediscovered,’ a collaborative work.

There’s also the issue of affordability…

Navjot: I personally dealt with this in the 1970s and 1980s. I did black-and-white drawings on Norway tracings to make silkscreen graphics. Signed prints were made available for Rs. 25 or 50 each, and students, journalists, teachers, artists could afford them. I remember buying a signed screen print by Vivan Sundaram for Rs. 5 in 1972 or 1973.

Artists still make good photographic works or xeroxed reproductions. People need to become aware that if they want a work of art, it does not really matter if it is a reproduction and not a canvas or a water-colour. I’d personally prefer to live with a good reproduction than without any work of art.

Has leftism, Marxism in particular, helped the artist community?

Navjot: Philosophy could help an artist to understand the nature of the social set-up that he or she lives in, and the function of art in its historical context. It helps one understand that nothing is static and change is inevitable. But in the context of art practice, the moment an artist problematizes his or her works, by taking risks in breaking away from the expected norms, he or she feels isolated. Philosophy can help analyze how an artist chooses to situate his or her practice. I believe that art lovers and supporters too need to educate themselves to understand the changing needs and shifts in art-making processes. Otherwise, there cannot be a parallel growth.

Has your political stance affected reviews of your work?

Navjot: Critics who understand my stance or believe in a dialogic process have been able to review my work from that perspective. Otherwise, you know what John Berger has said, ‘The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe in.’ And to look is an act of choice.

(Sunday Herald, Bangalore, 1997)


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