Artists

Published by Vadehra Art Gallery, 2015-16

It is a curiosity in the art world that I, as an artist peer and friend of B.V. Suresh, should call myself the curator of his solo exhibition, Chronicles of Silence. The notion of curating comes not from selecting his works, or endorsing his works, but in facilitating this show by somewhat arm-twisting him to make these works still in his thoughts - reflecting my own preoccupations with how artists could express our feelings about the world today.

Sometimes, an artist’s work addresses directly and precisely the crises of the age that we live in. For more than a decade, B.V. Suresh has been making works marked by an artistic integrity and conceptual clarity around several concerns that many of us are grappling with, which have strangely escaped the central place and critical attention that they should have in the Indian art world. They are not documents, but poetic and metaphorical works: intense, severe and shocking in their impact.

A cacophony of sounds, images and objects hits the viewer in the stomach in this body of work ironically titled Chronicles of Silence. The silence is the “silence of the lambs” - of the majority of people in the country, strangely considered a “minority” - the farmers, the labourers, the tribals, the religious groups, or the simple and ingenious citizen next door, who live in the margins facing the violence of a grand notion of progress and development, struggling to survive.

Suresh transforms the gallery space into a spectacular if dystopian landscape of the contemporary, creating an Animal Farm of grunting and snuffling pig noises, radio speeches, kinetic machines, crashing weights, radars and laser beams. The sculpture of an albino peacock presides over the whole thing, a beautiful but blanched version of the national bird: the picture of an outsider whose body is washed by hypnotically flickering video images while bits of cotton and feathers fly around.

Mechanized cotton gins, cotton beaters, torn garden nets, and modified versions of agricultural grain separators filled with chicken feathers tumble, beat and rotate, casting great shadows on the walls. A hundred old radios placed on a bed of cotton blare forth the Mann ki Baat of the Leader, alternating with interviews of farmers. The old fashioned transistor, famously close to the farmer and historically known to broadcast agricultural programmes chatters on its own, activated by sensors, oblivious of distress. Scarecrow-like figures fitted with speakers make obscene porcine noises. A laser beam tracks the walls and objects. Brilliant landslides of cotton heaps overwhelm the white peacock repeatedly, while weights crash down with raucous shrieks. The installation pulsates like a satirical “sound and light show” about darkness.

Since more than a decade, Suresh has engaged himself in reflecting on the place of the minorities, the dispossessed and the marginalized in his paintings, videos and installations. Some of the burnt bread loaves made nine years ago in a local bakery as a poignant reference to the burning of the Best Bakery in Baroda, are preserved in resin in little glass houses and hung up with other miniature houses with landslides of florescent saffron. Aggressive projects of religious re-conversion make grotesque even the comforts of “home” and “homecoming”. Suresh as “artist-chronicler” collects and distils these memories of the unspeakable.

Like many artists in the country, Suresh comes from an artisanal family that he describes as a background of self-reliance and tinkering. His father was a tailor, his grandfather a furniture maker who also carved wood, and his uncles were farmers who had powerloom workshops. His childhood home was in an old part of Bangalore, which was at the time a sort of semi- rural vatara or mohalla surrounded by neighbours who practiced various trades. Suresh’s grandfather often made small toys and furniture for them in their home. Later, as a teacher in the Faculty of Fine arts in Baroda, he has chosen to live in a lower middle class area where people engage in different small trades and occupations. Opposite to his home lives a carpenter and a cement and paint shop owner; another neighbour runs a tractor-cum-water tanker, and next door, is a tile cutter. He has seen most of them physically building their homes from scratch. Though part of a larger suburb populated by artists, this kind of community does not exist beyond the street, he says - the class changes.

Suresh has been working in the city of Baroda/ Vadodara in the state of Gujarat, which we know as the laboratory of “Hindutva” or the ideology of a theocratic Hindu state. Shocked by the state supported pogrom against Muslims in 2002 following the death of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra station in a train compartment fire, his ruminations on the aftermath culminated in a major exhibition, Facilitating the Beast, in the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2006. Rows of charred bread loaves, invoking the mob attack on the Best Bakery when saffron mobs burnt down a Muslim bakery with its owner’s family and employees, acted as the central image in his show.

The Sangh Parivar has always been suspicious of the internationally known Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda - where we were students and Suresh teaches - for being a progressive, intellectually influential and secular space. There is constant surveillance and attempts to destroy this independence. The infamous Chandramohan case in 2007 dealt a body blow. A mob led by a local Bharatiya Janata Party activist invaded the art school because they claimed to be offended by a work exhibited in the final examination show by a graphic art student Chandramohan, and attacked the students. The Dean and Head of Art History who defended the students was sacked, which resulted in the effective destruction of the active Art History Department in the school. The teachers and students still work in an embattled atmosphere, forming a fragile island surrounded by censorious fascist forces.

The artist’s experience of marginalization begins with the feeling of the art community itself being the target of attack, not only by religious fundamentalists, but also in having to battle disregard in a globalizing profit driven world. His own sense of alienation and memories of his humble childhood leads him to identify with other groups relegated to the fringes. The albino peacock, pale shadow of the national bird is perhaps the artist himself, an outsider pushed to the edge of society. While the bird’s statuesque figure expresses the refined practice that he developed as an artist, he cuts off the peacock’s tail to signal the conscious disabling of that very craft.

Essentially, the problem was all about how he could discard his skills to get to the basics. That the master filmmaker Akira Kurosawacouldletgo of his meticulous craft in Dreams, to create a simple story like a folktale using a mysterious dream-like language to put together contemporary subjects of war and disaster (almost casually), was an inspiration. This was really so much to do with teaching practice, where you inculcate ways of seeing and bringing meaning to things that we see, common things. One had to prove it as an example as a teacher that making art is not one thing- it has layers of intentions, of observations.

The artistic vocabulary that he uses in Chronicles develops out of the locale that he lives in - from the different trades and professions around his home in Baroda - where people use ingenious multi-purpose machines, and a tractor can become a borewell rig and turn into a water carrier the next day. These makeshift and indigenous machines could be used for farming as well: one thing turns into another. The roughly put together structures are all familiar to people, quite different from creating a painting which is not so easily readable and which is from the artist’s private vision. His life as a teacher too, allowed him to work collaboratively with a number of his former students who live in the large artist colony in Baroda. These younger artist friends helped him to collect material (like ordering twenty cotton gins from a Muslim community in Kolkata, or looking for a hundred radios over two months at the Baroda Friday market,) assisted him to make the kinetic sculptures, and worked on designing the sound installations, besides being vocal partners in many conversations around the work.

A loosening of language and shift in form and material into a kind of extreme theatricality came after theatre director Anuradha Kapur invited him in 2004 to work collaboratively with Nilima Sheikh and Sumant Jayakrishnan on the design of a Hindi play, Navlakha, in Delhi. Given complete freedom to innovate, the artist-designers decided to make a number of props like body parts, wings, animals, plants - which were open ended and had nothing directly to do with the story of a puppeteer. They came to life and meaning when the actors used them in various ways in the rehearsals, dragging them about, eating with them, talking to them and forming relationships with them, adding a surreal richness and complexity to the work. The experience opened up a freer way of working where you could throw disparate things together to form strange new meanings.

Formally, Suresh uses two different kinds of tactics in this exhibition. In the chaos of sounds and images, there is a certain minimalistic colour scheme of white and black and saffron throughout the installation, in the collaboratively constructed objects, and in the series of small paintings called Cowshed. In contrast to these are the brilliant palettes of the videos. The artist creates these films in a solitary state, editing and designing the animations and music by himself over time, layering drawing, painting, photography and found footage. Lush and painterly, these short animation videos made in earlier years use all his artistic skills while telling harsh stories. They appear as a preamble or history to the demonic machines that populate Chronicles.

The earliest video Golden Quadrilateral (2008) is a composite of sketchy video shots and pictures: of windmills, express highway, snail, newspaper/media images of state politicians, and maggots, juxtaposed against the silhouette of a road worker. The subject is the grandiose project of building the national highway network. In Albino (2011), the white peacock first appears as a symbol of disregarded groups. Suppressed by religious fanaticism and political domination, the peacock keeps twisting its identity in its embattled existence. In the process, what comes together is a shifting series of historical phantasms- cotton ginners, weavers, images of Gandhi spinning, slaves - blurring the lines of the imaginary and the real. Re-fraction (2012) is a portrait of a boatman lost in rowing, a searchlight panning from one end to another on the wall of the Dal Lake, hearing distant sounds of the riot, gun shots, religious chants, and moving nowhere. The latest video, Retakes of the Shadow II (2013), is structured over the aftermath of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. It begins with frames focusing unrelentingly on charred bread and moving shadows of the train (both of which are references to the riots): “the work offers an entry into the nature of violence, its multiple levels and forms, its strategies and tactics and the manner in which everyday life comes to be organized in its terms”.

People are taken aback at the exhibition, finding it powerful and disturbing. The experience is like looking in at the infernal workshops of Mordor from the film series of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The writer Tolkien, in creating his fabulous world, rejects modern industrial society and extols the ideal of a simple, pre-industrial pastoral life exemplified by the Hobbit village, via European medieval imagery. B.V. Suresh however is not a pastoral romantic. His work is not a rejection of the machine or of the industrial revolution, or a retreat into an ideal pre- modern time. Technically clever himself, he is in fact interested in the machine, which could both be diabolic and exploitative, or in a simpler form illustrative of human ingenuity with tool making. He is decidedly critical of the project of retrieving a so-called golden past by the religious nationalists. Perhaps he holds the hope that economic policies in the future will be from the bottom up, developed from the creativity of the common citizen, and a society which includes and celebrates everyone.

The development of these recent works had begun with the thought of “Cotton” as an “Object / as a Material / as a Subject” that got spilled over when working on his last solo show Facilitating the Beast, which framed the dilemmas of post- 2002 Gujarat. Indeed, this process, he says, “has slowly taken a gigantic form like a cotton load set up at a warehouse against the proportions and forms of weights”. He has “woven it as a discontented metaphor” while developing his new body of works, to chronicle the lives of the vulnerable under constant surveillance and voyeurism. The history of cotton is indeed the history of the world: of its earliest craft and commodity; of trade and colonialism; of the industrial revolution and the mills of Lancashire; of slave ships and the cotton plantations of the American South; of khadi and the Indian Nationalist Movement and the boycott of Lancashire cloth. It continues today into the neo-colonialism of biotech companies and the bankruptcy and suicide of small farmers, in the Asian sweatshops of multinational clothing brands. The poetry of the weaver Kabir and blackslavemusictoo came out of this epic story. Suresh sees the cotton farmers’ crisis as symptomatic of the rejection of those at the edge of “development” who do not fit into the elite mainstream of the advantaged. His focus here is on a particular community of our society associated with cotton for many centuries, the Muslims: as cultivators, as skilled producers of cotton products, or as merchants between the two, whose identities sadly, “have been twisted beyond anyone’s imagination in the contemporary times.” Against this background, he questions whether Gandhi’s khadi movement was really a movement at all, or a strategic hijacking of this history for political mileage.

The filmmaker Kumar Shahani, who has been researching for long the civilizational and political history of cotton, writes that it is the versatility of cotton textiles that has brought them so close to speech. In the weaving of B.V. Suresh’s language, the white of the cotton is the white of the albino peacock, and the story of the marginal subject is closely bound together with them. Yet the fragility of the innocent, “the silence of the lambs”, could even become an insurgent force as illustrated in an old saying the artist likes to quote - “ the butterfly getting the better of a rogue … “

Published by Vadehra Art Gallery, 2015-16
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