From the late 1960s onwards, Altaf Mohamedi had begun to engage with young academics of Leftist orientation at the University of Bombay. In the early 1970s, he and Navjot joined PROYOM, the Progressive Youth Movement founded by Dev Nathan and Kiran Kasbekar, who were influenced by Marxist philosophy and were sympathisers of the CPI (ML), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
Nathan and Kasbekar were joined by Nathan’s wife Vasanthi Raman, Jawid Laiq, who was a political correspondent with the Indian Express during the Emergency years, and Radhika Ramasubban. Nathan and Raman taught economics and sociology at the University of Bombay and Ramasubban was a PhD candidate at the sociology department at that time. PROYOM brought together people from diverse fields, not all of whom were affiliated to the party. They included students, academics, writers, journalists, filmmakers and visual artists who could, in the classic Leftist trope, ‘infiltrate the citadel of capital’: among them were members and interlocutors Navroz Mody, Narendra Panjwani, Indra Munshi, Pravin Nadkar, Katy Irani, Ritu Dewan, Mariam Dossal, Darryl D’Monte and Adil Jussawalla.
In its decade-long existence, which spanned the Emergency years, PROYOM’s members included individuals such as Kobad Ghandy and the late Anuradha Ghandy, who went on to become leading ideologues and activists of the Maoist movement. At the time of writing, Kobad is in judicial custody for his involvement in insurgent activities as a senior member of the Central Committee and Politburo of the CPI (Maoist). Anuradha, also a senior Maoist leader, passed away in 2008, having made significant contributions to the Naxalite, trade union, Dalit and adivasi women’s movements. By rejecting the simple equation of caste with class, an orthodox Indian Communist fallacy, she stressed the importance of fighting caste oppression well before caste became a critical issue in Indian politics following the anti-Mandal agitation of 1990, during which upper-caste students protested against the reservation of jobs for candidates from the Other Back- ward Castes (OBCs) in universities and government institutions.
Pravin Nadkar, who became secretary of PROYOM midway through the Emergency, asserts that its aim was to promote “a scientific, democratic, nationalistic and anti-imperialist education accessible to everyone.” The academics, Nathan and Raman, lectured on “the politics of underdevelopment” and the need to stage a revolution to overthrow the semi-feudal political structures of society, in various colleges in Bombay. Inspired by the student revolts of 1968 in Western Europe, with their apparatus of strikes, teach-ins and sit-ins, they even set up an alternative university during the summer vacation. Their aim was to sensitise youth to workers and peasants’ struggles in India and in the world at large.
The genesis of PROYOM can be traced back to a series of events that rippled out from the Naxalbari uprising of 1967, a ‘militant peasant uprising’ staged in northern West Bengal. Organised by a breakaway faction of the CPI (M) or Communist Party of India (Marxist), India’s major parliamentary Left-wing formation, it was led by Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal, who declared themselves in favour of a Maoist line. This group, formally self-designated as the CPI (ML), came to be known popularly as the Naxalites, after the village of Naxalbari, where they had announced their advent and first demonstrated their power. A year after the uprising, Mazumdar (1918-1972) wrote in the journal Liberation: “If the Naxalbari peasant struggle has any lesson for us, it is this: militant struggles must be carried on not for land, crops, etc., but for the seizure of state power.”
Nathan, who gave up his job as a professor of economics at Bombay University in 1973 to become a CPI (ML) activist, has observed that after the Telangana peasants’ armed struggle, 1946-1951, all the movements that fought for the oppressed conducted their protests within “the general framework of Nehru’s ‘socialism’ and planning.” The question of overthrowing a ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ State that had not delivered on its promise of ‘genuine’ development was not posed until the Naxalbari peasants’ armed struggle to seize State power in 1967. The Naxalite movement made a terrific impact on the youth. In response to the CPI (ML)’s call to build a strong peasant movement, some of the brightest minds of that generation renounced their careers and went to work in the villages.
The Naxalite movement was conceived as a two-phase revolutionary action in which a series of peasant uprisings would ‘encircle the cities’, an overture to be followed by a second phase of urban insurrection. While this vision found favour among some sections of the rural peasantry, it mainly attracted large numbers of disaffected and unemployed urban youth, intellectuals outraged by the failed promises of Independence, student activists, and elements from the lumpen-proletariat hoping to profit from the rewards of urban insurrection.
While Charu Mazumdar has been retrospectively romanticised by Naxalite sympathisers, the historian Jairus Banaji reminds us that he was denounced at the time by a majority of his own party members, who disagreed with his ‘annihilationist line’. Mazumdar’s strategy of declaring landlords and state officials as ‘class enemies’ and conducting their assassinations was correctly recognised as a policy of ‘individual terrorism’, rather than a revolution based on the productive mass mobilisation of workers and peasants.
These momentous historical shifts of the late 1960s and early 1970s prompted a great intellectual ferment on campuses all over India: study circles blossomed, poems were written, revolutionary posters were produced. In one of the PROYOM pamphlets from 1972, published by Nathan, there is an announcement for a programme consisting of an exhibition, plays, poetry and films, titled ‘It is time for change’, to mark the 25th anniversary of Indian independence. The critique of the nation-state is relentless: 32 crore Indians live below subsistence income of Rs. 33 a month; 10 crore agricultural workers are landless; 20 lakh people live in slums; increased beating, molesting and killing of ‘Harijans’ and poorer sections of society; 70 percent of population still illiterate; and the list goes on.
Such was the feeling of disaffection with the existing political order that Darryl D’Monte, who had become the editor of Times Weekly at a very young age and who insists that he was only on the fringes of PROYOM, devoted a whole supplement to the Indian Left in 1973. Insurrection seemed to be a fitting reply to an iniquitous system: “We took a line criticising the CPI for its Russian leanings and the CPM for its rigidity, and took a pro-Naxal line.” The artist Vivan Sundaram, who was affiliated with the parliamentary Left party, CPI (M) – and whose illustration questioning the CPI for its Russian leanings and CPI (ML) for its pro-Chinese line was used on the weekly’s front-page – was furious at D’Monte for his pro-Naxal stand. But those were the days when artists and intellectuals believed fervently enough in something to fight passionately over it.
PROYOM’s Study Circles: Art and Ideology
At the study circles that PROYOM organised, its members read and debated a variety of theoretical texts critiquing capitalism, semi-feudalism and neo-imperialism. Apart from the classic trinity – Marx, Lenin and Mao – they read the Marxist-Leninist (ML) ideologues Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal. They also read the works of the leading ideologue of anti-colonialism, Franz Fanon, as well as Paulo Freire’s iconic Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They were fascinated by the legendary revolutionary Che Guevara, and were attracted to the emancipatory and socially oriented world-view of liberation theology, a movement that originated in the Latin American Catholic church in the 1950s and 1960s and spread internationally, its ideas articulated in Gustavo Gutierrez’s classic, A Theology of Liberation. PROYOM members also read Rajni Palme-Dutt, the theoretician of the Communist Party of Britain, the critical materialist historian Romila Thapar, the Marxist sociologist AR Desai of the University of Bombay, the Trotskyite Ernest Mandel, the theoretician of the French New Left Charles Bettelheim, the Indian non-party Marxist historian DD Kosambi, and the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
A rigorous if sometimes dogmatic historical-materialist orientation informed their study of literature, theatre and the visual arts; their aim was to use culture as a medium for raising critical and revolutionary consciousness. Among other works of Marxist art history, Navjot read Arnold Hauser’s The Social History of Art (1951) and Ernst Fischer’s The Necessity of Art (1963). Hauser’s four-volume magnum opus – a sociological analysis of art from the Stone Age to Impressionism – had replaced the Wölfflinian idealist and stylistic art historical approach with one premised on an awareness of the class struggle, the co-relationship of hierarchy and taste, and an intense attentiveness to the political underpinnings of culture. Once influential (I too read Hauser at college one and a half decades after Navjot), it is instructive that Hauser’s contribution has today been erased from major academic anthologies of art history.
An artist’s intellectual biography not only helps us understand her context better, but it also allows us to ask questions that go beyond her personal culture to look at the afterlife of art-historical ideas that were once current, but which may subsequently have lost their legitimacy. I daresay the politics of historiography in the field of art history is as interesting a subject of analysis as the periodic Communist expunging of party records. […]
[My research reveals that Hauser had an unlikely ally: Clement Greenberg, who instantly acknowledged his work in a 1951 book review. Observing that Hauser’s Social History of Art neither reduced art to sociology nor instrumentalised art to make sociological points, Greenberg noted that the study explored a “reciprocity” between art and society, which “does not completely explain either art or society. That Mr. Hauser observes this limitation without succumbing to it, that he remains both an art critic and sociologist, is one of the important reasons why he makes such an authentic as well as large contribution.” This is ironic, because Greenberg would famously become a proponent of formalism and was for the greater part of his career no friend of the Left.]
In his insightful essay, ‘Greenberg on Hauser: The Art Critic as Book Critic’, the art historian John O’Brian shows us that Greenberg, the cultural critic who opportunistically became a founder member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom – an affiliate of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, one of the CIA’s Cold War cultural fronts, in the late 1950s – had taken quite a different line as a book reviewer in the two previous decades. During the 1940s and 1950s, his affinity for a Trotskyite position had led him often to criticise authors for not being attentive enough to the relationship between society and culture.
Navjot was especially drawn to Ernst Fischer’s account, in The Necessity of Art, of the production of culture under Communism. Before escaping Stalin’s purges, this Austrian Communist had worked as an editor for the Comintern in Czechoslovakia and in Moscow. Navjot was intrigued by Fischer’s analysis of the connection between art and magic, and its rupture by the emergence of class society. In Fischer’s view, bounded as we now see by 1950s anthropological fashions, the communion of the tribal community in an imagined antiquity had been premised on the continuum between human, animal, plant and mineral life. This continuum forms the basis of animism and magic; it informs the work of the shaman. With the advent of class, it is broken and replaced by mechanisms of asymmetry, exploitation and alienation; art then becomes a specialised elite practice while magic dwindles to crude and primitive attempts to restore a continuum through doomed, fragmentary rituals.
During her PROYOM days, Navjot also read the novelist and proletarian revolutionary Gorky and the poet Mayakovsky, who had famously collapsed the distance between the studio and the street by declaring that “the streets are our brushes and the squares are our palettes”. In revolutionary Russia, Mayakovsky’s declamatory poetry resounded in agitprop trains, trams and posters. He was also associated with magazines such as Novy LEF (New LEF), which advocated the Russian avant-garde movement, Constructivism, where the artist as producer and propagandist for the revolution would make useful contributions to the fields of art, design, advertising and architecture. This revolutionary phase did not last long. Lenin’s New Economic Policy of 1921 (which allowed for a partial restoration of private enterprise to remedy the failure of collectivisation) and his lionisation by sycophants greatly disillusioned Mayakovsky. Gorky, who had achieved world recognition for his novel Mother, which valorised the suffering of the proletariat, was also disappointed in Lenin and his satraps, who assumed dictatorial powers and curtailed free expression. Navjot remembers reading the exchanges between Lenin and Gorky on the role of artists and intellectuals in a revolution. Their relationship had not always been adversarial; in fact Gorky could use his proximity to Lenin to intercede on behalf of writers and intellectuals who were threatened with imprisonment.
At this juncture, Navjot was soaking in everything that she read and heard. Gradually, as she processed political thought and action through her own independent thinking, a more critical filtering of contradictory perspectives on Communism or Marxist thought would take place. In the meantime, other PROYOM members, like the poet and editor Adil Jussawalla, were devising new strategies to mediate their disciplines through a Marxist perspective. At St Xavier’s College, Bombay, where he then taught English literature, for instance, Jussawalla replaced the de-historicised and formalist study of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales with a historical materialist analysis. He teased out, among other things, the implications of the recurrence of gold as an image in the narrative, linking it to economic changes in Chaucer’s epoch.
‘Beyond Pity’: Famine in Maharashtra
In 1972, a severe famine in Maharashtra brought thousands of starving farmers to Bombay as internal refugees. Jussawalla remembers seeing them at traffic signals, forced into penury but unfamiliar with the tricks of beggary, their “stony looks” setting them apart from the professional urban supplicants with their practised stories and outstretched hands. This was an unexpected face of poverty, one that the city’s denizens had not seen before. Darryl D’Monte commissioned PROYOM member Navroz Mody to write a cover story for the Times Weekly: ‘Famine isn’t a nice word: Famine and famine makers.' Mody’s article provides important testimony to the callousness of a State that could dragoon these victims of famine into back-breaking ‘relief work’ that offered them a pittance, but also promised certain death. Mody wrote: “Not far away from the hills where the Ellora caves house yesterday’s gods, several lakh men, women, and children are chipping rocks, building new shrines. ‘Relief’ work in Maharashtra has condemned peasants and labourers to the unproductive, unimaginably strenuous, and demoralising task of reducing mountains to rubble with tiny hammers. Like millions of fellow Indians across the country today, these peasants sit pounding their last ounces of energy against stubborn mountains, sculpting monuments to their destitution.” Some forty years later, not much seems to have changed.
PROYOM’s activists collected money for ‘relief kitchens’, which were run in rural Maharashtra for famine-affected students. Navjot visited one such relief kitchen at a youth hostel in Ahmednagar in January 1973. She was mortified by the sight of the starving and the dead. An expressionist ink drawing made on paper in 1974 dredges up the memory of a human and an animal skeleton entwined together in a fallow field: their flesh disappearing rapidly, capturing the horror of a slow death by hunger. PROYOM introduced a section of Bombay’s youth to a Maharashtra they had never known: it was during this period that the journalist Jyoti Punwani was introduced to Leftist politics by an ‘intense’ Dev Nathan and a ‘flamboyant’ Navroz Mody. She also recalls Anuradha Ghandy as a passionate student activist, “inviting Mumbai’s leading radicals to talk about the reasons for the drought, putting up posters that proclaimed ‘Beyond Pity’ and urging students to get involved with the crisis in the countryside, defending this stand against those who felt a student’s role must be limited to academics and at the most, ‘social work’.”
Navjot went through three main phases of art-making activity between the 1970s and the 1990s. First came a brief phase of making oil paintings from 1972 to 1974, after which she concentrated on making pen-and-ink drawings until 1983, followed by an exploration of watercolours and acrylics that continued until the mid-1990s. In her oils of the early 1970s, she attempted to formulate a Marxist critique of capital and the power structures that preserve the status quo. In ‘Red Hand’ (1973), the fist of exploited labour is an apparition sprung from swarming humanity, a symbol of the awakened proletariat. Greedy politicians wearing Gandhi caps make a special appearance: in ‘Our Leader’ (1972), one such coils himself around a gigantic figure personifying humanity, draining it of blood and strength. In the middle of these paintings directly addressing political reality, ‘A Break from Inside’ (1973) stands out for its subtle treatment. Immersed though it is in the brilliant red of Communism, this representation of workers marks a departure from the authorised stereotype of exploited labour. As three workers carry on a conversation, one of them sprouts wings, as if in a dream. References to Delacroix, Goya, Käthe Kollwitz and Egon Schiele, as well as to Akbar Padamsee, can be found in Navjot’s paintings and drawings of this period.
While continuing with her studio practice, Navjot would make illustrations and posters for PROYOM. Let us revisit an incunabular illustration by Navjot for PROYOM’s magazine Lalkaar, as well as a more confidently executed poster for Varg Sangarsh (‘Class Conflict’) from the early 1970s. The former, titled ‘Daughters for Sale’, appeared with an article by her friend, the sociologist Indra Munshi, on the family as an instrument of patriarchal oppression. Carrying a headload of daughters, the father is shown as a complicit actor in a system that discriminates on the basis of gender. But the illustration is not scathing in its tone; it is tender, and reminds us of Vasudev carrying the infant Krishna across the flood-swollen Yamuna in Hindu myth. The poster for Varg Sangarsh (1974), with its demand, ‘Faasi radd karo’ (‘Abolish the death sentence’), has a mottled tonality, an inky blotchiness that destabilises the theme of the hanging man, creating a mood of despondency but also of simmering anger.
PROYOM’s programmes not only sensitised Navjot to the plight of farmers impoverished by drought in Maharashtra, but also to the Vietnam War. Her posters (c. 1974) from the closing phase of the Vietnam War display acerbic humour: Uncle Sam is choking on Vietnam, having bitten off more than he can chew, and is sending out an SOS. In another of her posters, fighter planes leave the US for Vietnam while coffins fly back by the same route. Navjot favored the use of animation techniques in her posters: repetition with variation and play with scale. But she was also partial to the painterly, shaded, textured treatment, for instance, in her poster of a war-crazed American soldier running away from a military cemetery.
PROYOM made an effort to bring theory and praxis together. Its members attended study circles, but also agitated against college fee hikes and fought for concessions for students’ bus fares and advocated structural changes in the education system. Those were heady days packed with study, research and political conscientisation. Vasanthi Raman recalls how an ordinary workday would involve teaching at a South Bombay college, writing her PhD thesis, working in the slums and also participating in protests to express solidarity with the Anti-Apartheid movement, the resistance against the American neo-imperialist presence in Vietnam and Cambodia, and Iranian students agitating in Bombay against the Shah’s regime. Navjot and Altaf joined in many of these protests while continuing to develop strategies to bring art closer to the public.
This article is an excerpt from the chapter, Disputations with Marxism, in the book, The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique in the Art of Navjot Altaf, authored by cultural theorist Nancy Adajania.