In an interview with Nandini Nair, internationally-renowned Indian photographer, Dayanita Singh, states: “I do not let my work get preoccupied with social concerns. This much I learned very early on in my career. I made the choice to be a photographer and not an activist. I do not believe photography can change social situations.”
On the flip side, multi-media Mumbai-based artist, Riyas Komu, in an interview with Tom Felber, states: “My works are more about innocent civilian struggles than the so called “war carnage tourism”, which one can see as an emerging visual language for all media. My works revolve around all the geopolitical locations without any kind of discrimination, because I believe art is a greatest invention that is capable to balance society.”
In a (sub)continent where the excess of opulence is almost as unimaginable as the excess of poverty and human rights violations, it is no surprise that such contradictory viewpoints from two acclaimed artists should exist. The stark polarity of the minority of “haves” ruling over the majority of “have-nots” lies at the root of any feudal system (no matter if it is a democracy) and India is no exception. Internationally-acclaimed writers, such as Rohinton Mistry and Aravind Adiga, have helped bring the hypocrisy underlying Indian society to the forefront in their international bestsellers, A Fine Balance and White Tiger respectively. They have managed to portray poverty and despair with dignity. Most importantly, they have portrayed these issues with a poignancy absolved of any melodrama.
So why mention books when talking about visual art? Because books, unlike art, address issues through the unfolding of a story or the development of a character or a plot and it is this unfolding/development that is the key difference between the two. Unlike books, visual art gets to tell it only once -there are no pages to allow a character or situation to grow so that a familiar story becomes individualized and memorable. Too much of Indian art has been preoccupied with “documenting” an India that is already echoed in the panoply of media and internet images of beggar-children, downtrodden adults, and sensationalized-CNN-stylized disasters. This has led to an encoded expectancy on the part of many viewers when they look at Indian art. The expectancy of what we will see has become so familiar, it has become stereotypical.
What we don’t expect to see are Singh’s photographs of ordinary middle class families or her more recent, Blue Book series of India’s unoccupied industrial landscapes. Komu’s life-sized sculptural installations such as Watching the world spirits from the gardens of Babylon are equally surprising. One is overtly apolitical, the other political, yet both – in their “non-Indianess” – transcend borders.
Apart from their skin color and saris, Singh’s portraits of middle-class and wealthy urbanite families and friends can be almost any urbanite group which has risen through the social ranks. There are the usual “older” pieces of colonial-styled furnishings interspersed with newer pieces and trinkets of wealth and while it is tempting to interpret someone wearing a sari sitting next to a younger family member wearing a mini-skirt as “Indian” versus “Western”, it could just as easily be the older, more-reserved and traditional generation who perhaps didn’t always have wealth juxtaposed against a younger, more care-free generation born into wealth.
The same non-specificity is seen in Singh’s Blue Book series. Stark and devoid of any human activity, Singh’s interest in India’s industrial landscape is disconnected from social commentary. There are no underpaid workers to be seen, no exploited children, no overfed capitalists. There is only steel and metal and an alluring hue of blue that comes from taking shots after sunset with colour, daylight film. In Singh’s own words, the Blue Book series is about taking “a subject as sterile as industry and make it evoke an emotion.”
Unlike Singh’s work, Komu’s Watching the world spirits from the gardens of Babylon addresses the American invasion of Iraq. Carved out of wood, Komu’s “world spirits” stand like haunted soldiers. There is the allusion of wooden wagons and crutch-like cannons, wooden wagons possible signifiers for wheelchairs and crutch-like cannons signifiers for crippling destruction. Even more frightening are the brains carved on the sides of the “spirits”. This, they seem to say, is the psychological damage that war inflicts on people. More importantly, this is the psychological damage every war inflicts on every people.