Negotiating the terrains of contemporary art
By Diwan Manna
Publication: Catalogue of Annual Art Exhibition 2017
Organised by Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi
PUNJAB, as we all know has been a witness, host and abode of many a diverse cultural, social and political practices including many invasions over the centuries and perhaps millennia. Some of these still have their reverberations due to the complex and often intractable history of ups and downs in the ever-changing geographical landscape of this truncated land. Punjab of today has to relate with its long history from the times of Mohenjo-Daro to the present.
After the tragic events of partition of the land, the state and its people had to forgo shared artistic, poetic and spiritual heritage – cultural institutions and places that were known for their dialogical cultural practices and the richness they added to the lives of the people hailing from different communities.
Lahore, the capital of pre-partition Punjab, was known for its cultural vibrancy. After losing Lahore and its cultural institutions established over a period of time, east Punjab has been struggling to establish a new credible centre for rehabilitating even an iota of what we left behind. After Partition, except some writers and poets, most significant artists, be it musicians, singers, painters, actors...moved to Delhi and beyond, thereby creating a cultural void in this part of Punjab. Classical music Gharanas have also almost vanished from the landscape due lack of patronage or neglect. The saving grace is the strong tradition of Gurmat Sangeet, Sufi Gayaki, Harballabh Sangeet Sammellan and Bhaini Sahib which remains an integral part of the state.
There have been concerted efforts to recover the lost past by re-establishing the Government College of Art (former Mayo School of Art, Lahore) in Shimla and then Chandigarh, relocating the Gandhara collections in various museums including Government Museum, Chandigarh. Jalandhar had a possibility of emerging as a new cultural centre due to the location of All India Radio, headquarters of Punjabi print media and later on Doordarshan Kendra, but lost its way somewhere along the road.
Punjab and Punjabis are forever indebted to Dr. M S Randhawa for his contribution in establishing almost all the major institutions of Art in the state, along with many other aspects where he played a pivotal role as an administrator, scientist and a writer.
Establishment of Punjab Arts Council and the three Akademis, Fine Arts, Music and Theatre departments in various colleges and universities has been instrumental in keeping the interest in the arts somewhat alive but have failed to realize their full potential. The focus has been more on imparting education to produce teachers rather than artists. Apeejay College of Fine Art in Jalandhar is another welcome addition.
Focusing on visual arts one would notice there has not been enough introspection and reflection on the events of the past including Partition, division of the state and many other tragic happenings in the seventies, eighties and nineties. We do not have visual artists responding to the changes taking place in our eco-system. Examples of Kali Ben, Cancer Train, Drug Mafias, injecting of livestock with chemicals are sufficient for any artist to be concerned and affected. How are we addressing this huge challenge in front of us? Are we accomplices, bystanders or mirrors to the catastrophic changes taking place in our society?
The spiritual strength, knowledge, hard work and healthy lifestyle – a hallmark of Punjabi ethos is being replaced with superficial display of expensive automobiles, fashion accessories, electronic gadgets etc. There are hardly any traces of these changes in the visual language adopted by us. The need of the hour is to create an environment and build infrastructure whereby artists are encouraged to enhance their engagement with thinking through their lived experiences. We need to be informed enough to notice and reflect upon the changes taking place around us. Open discussions must be conducted to find and understand reasons for the opulence and extravagant show of wealth, connectivity and social standing, with money power taking a central place. Significance of knowledge, caring attitude and harmonious co-habitation has been relegated to the periphery. Greed, pollution of sound, noise of glitter, guns, drugs, open display of ego, is the culture we seem to imbibe and propagate. Our being immersed in all this, the real human purpose of sharing love, joy and grief has become a casualty.
Punjabis have always been open to new possibilities and new approaches to finding solutions to their puzzles, dilemmas and paradoxes. If we could do so well in new lands, new environs and find so many different ways of expressing ourselves by being so creative with our music, then why is our visual art culture lagging behind in terms of negotiating the terrains of the contemporary art scene.
We ought to invent new aesthetics of today’s culture. For this we require deep, regular and consistent engagement and effort to provide Addas for serious interactions to take place at many levels including schools, colleges, universities and other such formal and informal platforms.
We need to come out of this stupor of fossilized ideas and prevalent norms of what is called Punjabi culture. Simplistic interpretations of culture have also done major harm to our image and we have not made efforts to change this perception. It may not be possible for a Punjabi girl to continue weaving or embroidering phulkaris, parandis, durries in the twenty first century. Her quest for modes of expressing her aspirations and concerns is yearning to find a new idiom, with a whiff of fresh air.
We are living in the danger of a camouflaged visual culture, living on borrowed ideas, trying to own up the imposition of new aesthetics which are alien and we try to show as if it is born out of our own ethos. We are putting up a front or facade of having imbibed, understood or adopted the idiom, culture and its representations. We need to find indigenous expression for local experiences if we care to see the truthful representation of 'us' in the visual culture in and around us.
It is not always healthy to parachute ideas from other locations and cultures - the seeds of alien lands may or may not germinate in local conditions. They may seem to add value to the already existing knowledge systems, but cannot be the mainstay or alternative of our own lived experiences. Imitation should not be seen as a substitute to inspiration.
Literature on art, both original and translated in local languages, and its easy accessibility, is another area that needs our attention. Research on contemporary art and its historical roots has to be encouraged for creating a vocabulary and grammar of art which is comprehensible for all and resonates the times we live in. A language needs to be evolved which is capable of understanding and deriving meaning inherent in the art forms with all the complex thought processes involved in the creation of forms, shapes, volumes, textures, spaces, smells, sounds and movements.
Akademis need to work with departments of education and fine arts in colleges and universities by organising art workshops, art appreciation courses, lectures, exhibitions etc to create an environment for proper understanding and appreciation of the arts. Teachers need to be given training, district education officers, heads of schools/colleges need to be sensitised to allow the growth of art and encourage artistic talent among students. Scholarships and residencies should be provided to our young and talented artists to get exposure and opportunities to learn from experiences of other cultures, lands and people.
Seminars, art conclaves, dialogues between artists, art critics, art historians, curators, museum directors, gallerists, cultural theorists, poets, performers, musicians and practitioners of other art forms are needed to be organised on a regular basis. Video and audio archiving of the living traditions and vanishing art practices should be done for future references, research purposes and to seek inspiration from. The rich cultural heritage should be preserved and shared to shake the colonial hangover of inferiority complex about our heritage. We need to instill a sense of pride among our youth by taking school trips to historical monuments, museums and other such places.
Social media such as Facebook and whatsapp should be used for creating groups among communities, mohallas, colleges for educating and informing the general public.
Monographs and other literature on art and artists need to be produced and distributed all over the state. Souvenirs/ memorabilia items with images of art works need to be created for spreading awareness about art. Special toys and other such material with reproduction of art works on them should be prepared for children to get them interested and initiated into art. School notebooks could have images of art works with brief introduction to the art work and the artist.
Museum of Partition in Amritsar is an appropriately placed and well intentioned initiative. We hope the curatorial team is able to bring significant artifacts in its collection. For housing contemporary art objects, a center for contemporary art is the need of the times, either in Chandigarh or in some other major city in Punjab. Corporate heads need to be sensitized for private participation in setting up major museums and art centers in the state.
In modern times, there is a sizable population living in urban and cosmopolitan areas. The urban inhabitants should be prodded and engaged in realizing their potential and channelize their creative talents to express their experiences and concerns with modern tools of creative expression. A new term could be coined for these urban artists - urban folk art. No segment of the human species should be left untouched by art activity - young or old, rural or urban, poor or rich, able or challenged. We have a responsibility towards all.
It is clarion call upon all the Punjabis living in the state, other parts of the country and abroad - especially artists of Punjabi origin who have done well in their lives or respective disciplines by their own talent and hard work, to contribute and use their goodwill to impress upon the powers to invest in creating infrastructure for research, development, promotion and dissemination of the arts in the state.
Art is a must for the well-being of humanity.
Punjab Lalit Kala Akademi
State Academy of Art, Ministry of Culture, Government of Punjab, India