The elephant vanishes

IN Media Practice | 22/08/2010
The censoring of art and attacks on artists like M F Husain appears to have had a chilling effect and several artists and art galleries have opted for self-censorship,
says GEORGINA MADDOX, rueing its effect on art.


(reprinted from The Indian Express, August 22, 2010)


Sometime early this year, if you gazed up at the white walls of the Saatchi Gallery in London, you would find Allah O Akbar spelt out in striking red, green, and black. If you looked very closely, you would see in it artist Jaishri Abichandani’s rage against the US war on Iraq. The words were written in elegant Kufic script, but were made of leather whips dyed in the colours of the Iraqi flag. The exhibition Allah O Akbar, which has been travelling for two years, has never been shown in India. "No one was willing to show this work in India," says the 38-year-old artist, who is based in New York. Her works on mandalas, however, have been shown without any consternation at Mumbai’s Chemould Art Gallery.

Censoring happens in violent ways in India. A painting gets torn apart. An artist is heckled. A show is forced to close down. This aggression gets bold-faced. But there is another kind of censoring that is more or less invisible to the layman. Works are discussed sotto voce by gallerists and not considered for exhibit in India, even though some of these have been displayed in the art capitals of the world.

Nalini Malani has been showing at Galerie Lelong in Paris for the past two years and her retrospective Splitting The Other has just concluded at the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, Switzerland, but she hasn’t had a solo show in India since 2006. The 64-year-old artist, who is known for her politically charged works in a range of mediums, from painting and theatre to installation and video art, draws from her experience as a Partition refugee and irreverently upends cultural stereotypes.

"There is no systemic support for an artist who makes works that challenge the system. But I have never stopped myself from making a work of art for fear of censorship," says Malani. Her video works such as Mother India — where religious iconography, including an image of a sacred cow, is played alongside scenes of violence and brutality inflicted on women— have been harsh statements on right-wing fundamentalism.

Art that comments on religious extremism and sexuality is usually the first to get discarded, and it goes either with a bang or a whimper. Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai has a committee that looks at art works and gauges not only their obscenity quotient but also whether they contain anything potentially offensive to a particular community. Katiyani Menon, director, Jehangir Art Gallery, says, "A range of people visit our gallery — from schoolchildren and housewives to art collectors. We have to keep this in mind while selecting works and artists." Many other gallery owners, when contacted, were unwilling to comment on the issue.

Delhi-based artist Mithu Sen, whose works are often comments on the soft porn industry, says, "I can’t show a lot of my work in India. At a couple of group shows in Delhi and Mumbai, the curators politely asked me if I would be happy to show a different work that is less controversial. The rejected work was an intellectual one and it showed only the upper part of the body. I did not quite see what the problem was," says Sen, who adds, "I try hard never to censor myself while making my art."

But there are others who do. Artist Tejal Shah, who works primarily on the issue of gender and sexuality, says, "Invariably there is self-censorship. I work with camerapersons and technicians who may not be sensitive to issues of homosexuality. So I begin censoring at the inception stage." She is currently planning to show her video installation Exercise in Trust in Delhi. In it, she is led blindfolded by random people across the city, while she secretly records their conversations with her. "I did this work in China and it was performed without a hitch, but in India, galleries have expressed their concern over security issues," says Shah. In other words, they didn’t wish to be held accountable for what they perceived as the artist putting herself at risk by letting herself be led around by strangers. Recently, at a talk held by FICA in Mumbai, artist Sudhir Patwardhan talked of how he had to practise censorship while travelling around small towns in Maharashtra with an exhibition that he curated, Expanding Horizons. "I featured all the big artists in the exhibition, but decided not to show the works of MF Husain because I did not want to put the work of other artists at risk. I was also worried about the works of Bhupen Khakhar, but as it turned out, we did not face any problems with his works," says Patwardhan. Husain is constantly subject to all kinds of censorship; even the India Art Summit has so far refrained from showing his works.

Husain is a high-profile victim of blatant intolerance, but the silent censorship from within the gallery circuit that denies Abichandani a wall to hang her work is the Indian art scene at its hypocritical best.


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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

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