I still remember, vividly, spending many evenings, and even nights, sitting around, sipping black coffee, and discussing the social relevance of contemporary art at the Faculty of Fine Arts campus, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda. While our days were spent in classrooms discussing art and its history, the conversation would carry on through our spare time. Perhaps, somewhat idealistically, our concerns, as students, were not merely restricted to art and its history - we believed in the possibility of using art as a means to move beyond the limited art world that we inhabited. The faculty and students consciously celebrated, with equal gusto, the multivalent cultural festivals of India - ranging from Punjab’s lodi (spring festival) to Gujarat’s garba (a quasi-religious dance form). While the rest of Gujarat gyrated to the latest film songs, the festivals at the Faculty, reputed for retaining ‘traditional’ forms of celebration, attracted the local populace in quest of an ‘authentic’ cultural experience. The Faculty also held art fairs where artists and students produced low-cost works for local consumption. I remember queuing up, alongside the middle-class of Baroda, to buy works by well known-artists - Ghulam Sheikh, Bhupen Khakhar, K. G. Subramanyan - to give just a few examples. While, on one hand, the fair was a fundraising campaign for the faculty, on the other hand, spreading awareness about contemporary art and its practices was an implicit agenda. Through these various events, the faculty continually sought to engage the local population of Baroda in a productive dialogue. In the same spirit, the art community, mobilized by the Faculty, would raise funds through auctions each time Gujarat was hit by a natural calamity, for example the earthquake of 2002.
Of all these events, the Annual Display was the only time the faculty did not seek out the local population. It was an internal examination, to be seen and judged by a committee consisting of the faculty and an external jury of invited artists and art historians. At the same time, the alumni, friends, relatives, and sometimes a stray gallery owner or collector looking for ‘fresh talent’ would visit the campus. Like many alumni, I too revisited my alma mater this year during the Display. In a way, it was a homecoming after a gap of five years. Almost naively, I had assumed that ‘home’ was still as I had left it in 2002. In my mind, the recent cultural censorship of the Gujarat government - the banning of films or the attack on M. F. Husain’s installations in Ahmedabad were stray incidents that had happened ‘elsewhere’ - not at ‘home’. My Baroda was a cosmopolitan cultural heaven - a feeling that I shared with many in the art community. After all, almost everyone in India’s art world had directly, or at least indirectly, been touched, challenged, and motivated by the dynamic that was, and is, integral to the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda.
It took Niraj Jain (a Baroda-based Viswa Hindu Parishad leader), and an afternoon’s work of hooliganism, to remind us that our ‘home’ was preciously fragile - we would have to lock horns with the cultural fascism and intolerance that has today become so integral to Gujarat’s majoritarian politics in order to retain the democratic space that we had once carved out. The violence of Godhra and its aftermath should have been enough to alert us: we were up against a leviathan - the complicity of the police, administration, and the bureaucracy - that was systematically attempting to destroy any democratic counter space in Gujarat.
As the incident continues to unfold, I am left with a sense of outrage. How does one even begin to objectively understand this affront to one’s ‘home’? And, in a broader context, where does one locate intellectual liberty and the autonomy of an academic institution when democracy itself is at siege? How are we to map the anti-institutionalism of contemporary art within this/these contested terrain/s? Or, how does, or does one, negotiate artistic/intellectual compulsions within a larger social responsibility? I will not even pretend to be in a position to answer these questions - I leave this task to the reader. Taking on the role of the reporter, here I restrict myself to narrating the incidents as I saw them occur.
9 May 2007:
Business as usual. I arrived at Fine Arts to see the whole campus transformed with open-air displays, and classrooms and studios filled with examination works. The Museology Department had come alive with video projections, while the lecture hall had interactive artworks that covered its dreary walls. The juries in the various departments were huddled over exam papers while the students lounged around, drinking tea, heatedly discussing the display. I ran into many I knew - artists, critics, historians - the excitement was palpable. Little did we imagine that it would all change within a matter of a few hours.
Around 3:30 in the afternoon, a man accompanied by a horde of media reporters and the police stormed into the campus. They headed directly to the Graphics Department and specifically to the studio where Chandramohan (a recipient of the Gujarat Lalit Kala Akademi Award, 2005–06) had displayed his M.V.A. works. There was a vague rumor across the campus - the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a right-wing political organization) had arrived. All of us rushed to the Graphics studios only to be stopped by the intruders. Before one could even protest, Chandramohan was dragged out and whisked away - to the police station, we assumed. By then, the Graphics Department had become a stage for Niraj Jain (accused for the 2002 Gujarat carnage by the Concerned Citizens Tribunal - Gujarat) to demonstrate the sheer perversity of the art produced at the Faculty of Fine Arts. Students who dared to protest were physically dragged out of the Department while Jain and his accomplices repeatedly guided the media and the police through the examination halls, each time elucidating ‘expert’ opinions on the display. Once this performance was over, Jain, accompanied by the police, combed the faculty in search of other such ‘offensive’ objects.
By then, faculty staff, who had been busy with the examination procedures and were unaware of this intrusion, had arrived on the scene. Professor Shivaji Panikkar, Head of the Department of Art History and Aesthetics and the current Acting Dean, demanded an explanation, only to be abused by Jain, while the police looked on. Ironically, although Jain’s point of contention was that the student had offended public morality by painting Hindu deities nude, his masculinist vitriolic language, liberally peppered with words like behan chod (sister-fucker) and ma chod (mother-fucker), to mention only the less-offensive abuses, made most of us cringe. The police still looked on - stopping Jain only when he tried to lunge at Professor Panikkar. Evoking M. F. Husain, Jain continued a diatribe on the need to teach the artist community a moral lesson. Over and over again, he held up Chandramohan’s fate as an example - this would happen to any student who dared Jain, the self-appointed voice of Baroda’s moral police. Did I see the police officers nod in consent?
By evening, on Jain’s insistence, Chandramohan’s works were removed, and the Graphics Department sealed by the police. Jain had also managed to convince Reverend Kant, the priest of a local Methodist Church, to lodge a complaint with the police stating that Chandramohan’s representation of Christ was extremely offensive to the Christian community of Baroda. Using Kant’s complaint as a ruse, Jain managed to give his protest a multi-religious dimension. It was not just about an offense to the Hindu community, but an affront to all religious sentiments.
The University authorities refused to protect the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Vice-Chancellor could not be reached. In desperation, the students drafted a complaint and, accompanied by the alumni, marched to the police station. Although the police accepted the complaint after much persuasion, to date it is yet to be officially registered. Chandramohan, on the other hand, was charged under sections 153A, 114, and 295 of the Indian Penal Code for ‘promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, etc., committing acts prejudicial to the harmony of the public.’ His examination works were apparently ‘offensive’ to public religious sentiments and were aimed at instigating communal riots.
In the morning, Chandramohan was produced in court and a plea for bail was made. But due to the disruption of the proceedings by a large Vishwa Hindu Parishad mob, the hearing was postponed and the student removed to the Baroda Central Jail where he remained until 14 May. We were distraught to hear that charges under sections 293A and 293B had been added to the list of Chandramohan’s offences. Yet, the Vice-Chancellor was still resolute in his stance and ordered the students and staff of the faculty to apologize to Jain and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for offending public morality. The Vice-Chancellor’s order was unanimously disobeyed.
Meanwhile, the news had spread and artists had begun to gather at the faculty to express solidarity and support. By then, the national media had also heard about the incident and, at 10 pm, Vivan Sundaram appeared live on CNN IBN protesting against the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s latest act of fascism. We huddled around the television in Shivaji’s apartment, cheering Vivan, and eating stale food that had been prepared for a farewell dinner for the graduating students - of course, that dinner never took place. Heartened by the fact that we were not alone, we resolutely struggled to devise strategies for the next day. At that point, we still had no idea that this was only the beginning of what would become a national furor.
11 May 2007:
After much discussion, and drawing from the academic curriculum of the University, the students decided to put up an exhibition in the campus, using images from the Regional Documentation Center, Department of Art History, to delineate the history of erotic imagery in both Indian and Western art. The pedagogic intention behind this exhibition was obvious, at least to all of us. Along with images of pre-modern Indian art, the students juxtaposed modern and contemporary works - both from the West and India. These images were accompanied by curatorial texts explaining the context of the production and consumption of these images. The students had imagined that this was sufficient to make their point and contextualize Chandramohan’s work within the pre-existing paradigms of Indian art. Simultaneously, the faculty, in consultation with the many artists who had come to show solidarity, prepared a press release clearly stating their position.
The local vernacular press did see the exhibition but soon turned hostile when they realized that neither the students nor the faculty were willing to provide any catchy, controversial, or volatile quotes. Claiming that the faculty was more cooperative with the national media apparently reputed for their anti-Gujarat bias, vernacular press reporters soon started hurling abuse at the students and staff. Interestingly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad subsequently adapted a similar rhetoric – the national media, they claim, with its ‘pseudo-secular’ leanings, has misrepresented the event.
Hindu Parishad members, who were also present at that time, added fuel to the fire. Further instigating the vernacular press, the Parishad members loudly proclaimed that pre-modern nude goddesses were a familiar sight - that today they had gathered to see nude pictures of women faculty and students . This too would become a familiar rhetoric, to be used over and over again, every time a woman - faculty, student, artist, activist, alumni - became too vocal or too visible in her protest against the Hindu right wing. This very gendered discourse of intimidation, where a vociferous and mostly-male mob would direct an attack on women protesters on the other side of the fence, co-existed, seemingly comfortably, with their ire at Chandramohan’s representation of a nude Durga (the Brahmanical goddess).
The situation grew worse by the minute and eventually the faculty was forced to lock themselves in the Department of Art History. Instead of supporting the students’ creative mode of non-violent protest, the Pro Vice Chancellor and some members of the University Syndicate arrived at the venue and demanded the closure of the exhibition. Professor Panikkar refused - lauding the students’ initiative and expressing discontent at the university’s lack of commitment to academic autonomy. On the university’s order, the exhibition was forcibly shut down and the Department of Art History sealed. By 10:00 pm that night, Professor Panikkar was suspended.
I returned to Delhi that night to join and work towards the national mobilization that had now become imperative. Over the next few days, academicians, critics, activists, artists, and art lovers launched a nationwide protest against the Gujarat government’s latest act of fascism. The battle was, and still is, being fought on many levels - emails, blogs, protest meetings, legal proceedings, petitions, press releases, and signature campaigns. The international academy took up the incident, starting a global campaign. In India, protest meetings ensued across the country and demonstrations were held in New Delhi, Thiruvannamalai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and Kochi, among other cities. Each meeting was attended by as many as two hundred supporters from all walks of life, determinedly demanding the unconditional release of Chandramohan and the re-instatement of Professor Panikkar. Simultaneously, effigies of Professor Panikkar were being burnt in Ahmedabad, and Panikkar had to go into hiding because of threats to his life.
14 May 2007:
The alumni organized a national protest at the faculty inviting the art world to come to Baroda. While protestors from Mumbai drove down to Baroda in a bus, we flew in from Delhi. Commercial galleries - Chemould in Mumbai, and Bodhi and Vadehra in Delhi, to name only a few - stepped in, expressing solidarity and supporting the protests. On the same day, Chandramohan was released on bail. Professor Panikkar’s suspension, however, was not revoked.
‘For every one of them, there are ten of us,’ said Mumbai-based artist Tushar Joag. By the afternoon, over three hundred protestors had reached Baroda. But the gates of the faculty were locked - the police allowed only those carrying university identity cards entry . It was a strategic move to isolate the Fine Arts Faculty from the protestors who had travelled all the way from Delhi and Mumbai. While the police had not raised a finger when right-wing goons had audaciously disrupted the examination display, the same officers were now zealously protecting the faculty from ‘outsiders’. We were forced to stand outside the gates of the institution that we have always claimed as our own. Inside, the students had organized another peaceful demonstration - skits, songs, posters, and sit-ins. Outside, with no access to the faculty, we formed a human chain.
By mid-afternoon, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders began to arrive - and some were even allowed to enter the Faculty –– of course without university identity cards. Gradually, the Parishad consolidated its lines. The art community and the Parishad faced each other –– one with the demand to free art, to free the academic institution from the shackles of right-wing censorship –– the other shouting ‘aaj Fine Arts ko nanga karenge’ (we will strip Fine Arts naked today). When eventually, students and the faculty decided to join us outside, we proceeded to march towards the Vice-Chancellor’s office. The police, very promptly, arrested ten students and the protestors were dispersed.
I do not know what we accomplished that day –– but our sheer numbers were certainly indicative of a commitment to what would inevitably become a long struggle. And it was heartening when we were joined by passing local people who were not in any way connected to the art world. Even threats and manhandling by the Hindu Parishad failed to dissuade them. Perhaps the idealism of our undergraduate years was not so naive after all. However, to date, Shivaji remains suspended and the case against Chandramohan still holds …
- Fri, 1 Jun 2007