Saturday, 13 August 2011

My Inverted Rainbow

–Utkarsh Amitabh

My grandmother introduced me to the world of colors when I was in second grade. Every afternoon she sat by my side and together we colored the newspaper cartoons with color pastels. Soon after that, she read out my favorite folk tales and put me to sleep before I went out to play. Grandma tells me that as a kid, I loved painting the apple blue, the forest red and the sky green.

I distinctly remember having a big diamond shaped prism. I would sit by the window, let the sunlight pass through it, and jump in joy as the spectrum of colors inverted on the lavender wall in the living room. I felt thrilled on having inverted the rainbow. This was my rainbow – I had reversed the order, and there was no compulsion to set it “right”. Creative distortions fascinated me and the little twists and turns empowered me somehow.

When I look back, I can connect the dots backwards and see how my life today is an extension of my “inverted rainbow”- different colors manifesting in different forms and patterns. I have always tried mapping my own journey and choosing my own destinations. From a Mechanical Engineer to a Theater Activist, from a Management Consultant to a Civil Debater! I have treaded a sinuous path. My “inverted rainbow” has not only been a creative space without external terms and conditions, but also my guiding star that has kept me aware and connected to the wide world of private and public breakdowns.

Born in a family of artists and writers, all ears to the ongoing discussions on the questions of freedom and commitment, I have come to realize that art as a means of expression has been the fuel to man’s creative and emancipatory quests, and it does better without dictums and dictates. An artist’s world is an inspiredworld of charged imagination and it absolutely has no room for authoritarian interventions.

When MF Hussain’s portrait, “Mother India” created a huge furor, I was naturally taken aback and there rose a desire to explore the dynamics between the art object, the critic and the cynic. As strange as it

sounds, despite being an ardent Hussain admirer, I had never taken time out to carefully analyze and interpret his work.

It was on June 9, my birthday, three years back that I finally got a chance to strike a personal chord with the much-hyped portrait of “Mother India” at the Raza Foundation Cultural Week. In every way it was my “first time”, my first rendezvous. With a hint of nervousness and a dash of excitement I gave the potrait a fleeting glance. I did not want to come across too strong to begin with. One look and I was swept off my feet at the subtle interplay of different shades of red. It appeared like a woman shaped jigsaw puzzle coming together as Mother India – half supine, half awakened, naked like truth and masked with wounds – a total study in contrast, taking care of all the friendly contradictions in our multifaceted culture: the white spinning wheel flashing in the heart of the revolutionary red, the Himalayas leaping up to the skies and the ocean kissing the depth of the earth, the rising sun and the sinking ship. The monk at the back drop symbolized the peace and tranquility that forms the backbone of the existence in India, but the way it had been placed at the backdrop subtly said a lot. The creative tension had been vividly described – a blood-bathed country shining in all its hidden splendors.

Hussain’s portrayal of Mother India had labeled him as a traitor. The fundamentalists chose to focus their attention on the much talked-about “nudity” of the portrait and I on the hope and optimism it brought to life.

Hussain was banished from India soon after, but I do not want to discuss the political ramifications or the aftermath of this particular action. The larger question to me was to understand the importance of artistic freedom. It must be increasingly stifling for the creatively predisposed to have an external agency evaluate their artistic merit. How can whims, fancies and fascist tendencies be allowed to rule the roost?

Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and Taslima Nasreen’s “Lajja” had also suffered huge cultural censorship in the form of infamous Fatwas (Death Warrants against free speech). I just don’t understand ‘WHY’. It is this ‘WHY’ that seems to perplex me as I try and delve more into the question of cultural censorship. Why don’t they let a painter paint and a writer write? What are they scared of? Their own images reflected in the work of art? Imposing a set of restrictions or guidelines is like placing a huge question mark on the identity of the artist. Every artist has a story to tell. The medium could be different, but the underlying idea is to share a story with the wider world, be it a huge political satire on the functioning of the administration or the life at the bottom of the societal pyramid, or something abstract like dots of black, brown and pink.

Last summer I was bag-packing in the mountains. After a week of blissful reflection at Old Manali, I slipped off for a day to Kasol, a wonderland tucked in the picturesque Parvati Valley. Kasol is a place where you are unlikely to meet anyone you know. It is a place where “spiritual orphans” from across the globe come together for an artsy cultural exchange – reading, dancing, chanting, singing, painting, viewing and blending in with the cultural charisma of the place. Through a sheer stroke of good fortune I ran into a long- lost friend from school – Shayanna. I was surprised to a state of shock on seeing her. It had been 7 years since the school prom. Many things had changed but she had not. She was still the maverick art aficionadopainting away to glory. She took me to “Smoke on Graffiti”. “This cottage is my child”, she said. It was dim and cold, and there were a couple of people sitting by the fire. The entire place, from the walls to the ceiling, was covered with small handmade pencil posters. Frankly, I could not understand their artistic significance, but I stood amazed by the effect they created. We spent the evening over cups of Jamaican Cappucino and butter spread Grechka, and shared the tales of the time flown by. She told me how and why she had chosen Kasol for her small art café. She told me what those small pencil posters symbolized and how constant moral legislation by the authorities at her college, Aseema School of Art, had forced her to literally go into hiding. This brought me closer to my larger question – Authorities do feel threatened with unfettered artwork, but what is there in a piece of art that disturbs their peace and tries their patience?

As Shayyana sat narrating her insightful journey from Art Academia to this art exile, I could immediately relate it to my theater group’s tete-a-tete with certain “nationalist” forces. We were preparing to screen a play on the life of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It was not a play to hail Jinnah, the leader or disparage Jinnah, the person. It was simply another perspective on the table – another lens to view the historical developments of India. No strings attached, no political ramifications! We tried so hard but could not stage the play.

The question at hand urges us to explore a fine balance, an equipoise between creative identity and an apt cultural narrative. We are all a part of this cultural narrative – Shayyana as she paints, I as I explore and you as you read.

The world today is a playground of multiple perspectives. Imagine a round table conference to deliberate something global and each representative saying the same thing. It would be dull and boring, and most importantly, lead to a retrogressive world which is smug with the present, and refuses to move forward. My “inverted rainbow” will allow reason, context and reflection the gift of a fresh chance. It will empower the artist, the thinker and the creator to give reason a new meaning without the fear of subjugation. When I sat with my Grandma and painted, I felt so secure, so at ease. My blue apple, my green sky and my “inverted rainbow” demanded no explanation. How I wish that artists across the world feel as liberated and secure as I felt with my Grandma.

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