In the recent wholesale turn towards a revanchist politics the world over, history has become the new battle field. For those of us in India, witness to the conversion of Mahatma Gandhi into an icon for a government initiated public cleaning drive, violent protests over the release of a quasi-historical film, and the rewriting of history textbooks to reflect the party line of the ruling National Democratic Alliance, the past is suddenly a matter of daily public discourse. In the light of such politically motivated mobilizations of history, a number of scholars, artists, film-makers and other creative individuals have tried to meet narrative with counter-narrative; qualifying uncritical fervour with the measured assessment of national subjects only too alive to the discontents of the nation-state. Riyas Komu’s new exhibition, Holy Shiver at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi, seems to form a continuum with such informal projects of an alternative history making. And the history Komu chooses to highlight is one from which little glory can be gleaned.
The title of the exhibition alludes to a concept developed by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz in his book On Aggression that describes a pre-human reflex, the stiffening of the spine say or the raising of heckles, as the expression of “a behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community.” Designating this as a kind of “military enthusiasm,” Komu found the notion germane to what he reads as the reigning political climate of tacitly endorsed public vigilantism that has led to escalating violence against minority communities. Since such violence often addresses as its object the honour of the imagined nation, Komu directs his critique towards this abstract monolith, subjecting it to a deconstructive endeavour that visibilizes the silences and omissions on which it is built. In doing so, he reveals the real loss that is threatened - the desecration of the democratic Constitution.
The exhibition opens thus with the first of a three part-installation Fear-I. The viewer is confronted with a gallery of framed pages of the illustrated Constitution. The centrally placed frontispiece is however almost obscured by a heavy thicket sprouting out of a wooden pedestal. One begins to discern the outline of the Asokan capital - a national emblem that recurs throughout the exhibition - likewise hidden in the dense rushes that have overgrown the architectural facade. A lion emerges from the thicket, as if having sprung loose from the stone capital, and lopes, its muzzle lowered to the ground, away from the abandoned structure. Komu’s lion is rendered naturalistically in contrast to the heavily stylised depiction of the Asiatic lion in the original. It is quite simply an image of wilderness finally overwhelming civilization. Elsewhere, the work Salutes shows broken terracotta fragments of the capital lying at the base of the pillar which now sports a blanched, metallic version of the same. It is as if the trappings of civilization have been worn down to reveal the cold ahuman heart of the state. In Fear-I the lion doesn’t stalk so much as crawl, its tongue dragging a disconsolate path on the sterile concrete of the gallery floor.
The Constitution is itself bifurcated into sections: the one rendered in sepia pastel hues and the other being mirror negatives of the first. The orientation of the arrangement from left to right stages a movement across legibility, the manuscripts with clear slanted calligraphy giving way to what seem like X-ray images, the script inverted and in most cases brutally abbreviated by the page being cleft in half. In another iteration of the Constitution series, Fear-II, a single page is shown at different degrees of underexposure till the last resembles nothing more than a black mass of dimly discerned shadows. Komu’s invocation of the illustrated Constitution, meticulously crafted by Nandalal Bose and his students in Santiniketan alongside the drafting of its text by the Constituent Assembly, inexorably recalls recent debates on the legacy of this foundational doctrine of the independent nation. Particularly contentious now is the idea of secularism, a tolerance for religious and cultural multiplicity that was embedded in the Constitution as an essential virtue of the new republic. Bose’s artistic vision mirrored the ideological credo of the first lawmakers, as he drew on the plural visual idioms of the subcontinent: from the Indus Valley and Ajanta motifs to Persian miniatures and Islamicate design. Komu in his own career has also paid homage to this idea of a multi-religious ethnicity in works like My Father’s Balcony (2006). In the current exhibition though, the celebratory vision of the earlier work gives way to a gnawing anxiety for the future.
The “Father of the Constitution,” B. R. Ambedkar himself, is on display in a work called Fourth World, a large wood and bronze sculpture, and again in a triptych series, Dhamma Swaraj, that merges his portrait with that of Gandhi’s. In Fourth World, two Ambedkars stand back to back like the addorsed lions of the Asokan capital. They are placed however on separate pedestals, with one considerably towering over the other. While some have interpreted this as Ambedkar turning back on himself, it is perhaps better regarded as the conflicting legacies of two popularly constructed Ambedkars. The first, rather anodyne one, as architect of India’s Constitution and accordingly feted by a national mainstream that seeks to appropriate (and contain) him in various ways. The second, as the fiery crusader of Dalit rights accused of having held up the progress of the national struggle through his intransigence on minority issues. Fourth World seems to suggest that the former, less threatening Ambedkar has considerably longer legs to stand on than his potentially disruptive alter-ego. And yet, the threat remains in the veneration that the latter continues to receive from an increasingly vocal section of minorities. In Dhamma Swaraj, Ambedkar is brought together with sometime ally, sometime opponent Gandhi in a dialectical merging of their iconic images. On either side, canvases alternately depict the faces of Gandhi and Ambedkar coming into sharper/softer focus while the central piece shows their coming together alongside the concomitant synthesis of their separate projects, “dhamma” and “swaraj.” In fact, Komu repeatedly deploys the close-up portrait to convey the rare message of communal harmony alongside the elegies for the passage of the same. Bismillah Khan and the young Muslim boy in Tragic Day Optimist speak to resistance in the face of religious extremism.
The elegies predominate however with the proliferating imagery of wilting capitals and hanging carcasses. In one work, the “fourth lion” of the Asokan capital executed in rubber, dangles from a meat hook. The solidity of sandstone gives way to a deflated elasticity malleable toall sorts of distortions; stability gives way to precarity. In another work, Hanging, the body of the executed sports holes which an Indian viewer is now accustomed to associate with pellet injuries rather than bullet wounds. In the Holy Shiver woodcut series, Indian history is re-written as the repeated convulsions of the originary violence of Partition. 1947 is marked, not by freedom, but by displacement and exile as a long line of listless refugees make their way into an uncertain future. 1984 is marked, not by the death of the prime minister, but the murder of innocent Sikhs, the iconic image of the violence provided by Pablo Bartholomew’s photograph of a half-eaten corpse. Engravings signposting the recent past show a line of victims of mob violence: Mohammad Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, Junaid Khan... Holy Shiver recalls Komu’s Stoned Goddesses series (2015) where he worked the surface of litho stones, associated with the divine imagery of Raja Ravi Varma, to explore the violent, elided histories of independent India.
Komu’s is however by no means a prelapsarian vision. There is no straightforward eulogizing of an idyllic national past. Rather, the whole idea of the nation and its ideological mobilizations is called into question. I Think Therefore I am - I & II assembles together a portrait of a young girl, an enlarged bronze replica of the famous Harappan Dancing Girl, and an elaborately carved wooden seat of state with an Asokan chakra embedded in the simulated gaddi or ceremonial cushion. The different elements are arranged in a straight line so as to fall in a direct path of vision. There is an implication here of the inevitable violence done to female bodies as they are called on to embody the cultural agenda of the nation-state. At the moment of independence, the partitioning of territories was accompanied by a corresponding apportioning of cultural heritage. The excavations being confined at the time to mainly Pakistani territory, India’s only truly magnificent acquisition was the sculpture of the bronze Dancing Girl. She is subsequently placed at the beginning of a consecrated history of the nation stretching from pre-historic to modern times. Her vastly enlarged figure here perhaps alludes to the disproportionate weight of national history that has become her cross to bear. Behind her, the figure of the young girl in Western dress and black trainer shoes is the very image of neo-liberal modernity. She is the spirit-child of the nineties, a period that witnessed the opening up of the Indian economy to drastic market reform. Separated in time and space, both women are in different ways made to signpost the acme of Indian culture and progress, much like the real women expected to uphold familial honour. The wiry frame of the Dancing Girl stretched tight forms a continuum with the meek deportment of the “modern” girl as variations on a common theme: women’s place in a national symbolic order.
In Holy Shiver, Komu does more than just stage the failed project of Indian democracy. In performing an archaeology of violence, Komu produces a counter-history of democracy. The history that is so produced forces us to ask not whether we have become communal, but rather, the more troubling question: have we ever really been secular?