Days after the Bharatiya Janata Party and some Hindutva groups alleged that paintings exhibited on the campus of Chennai’s Loyola College over the weekend had hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus, forcing the institution to take the paintings down, M Muhilan, the artist at the centre of the furore said on Wednesday that there was nothing derogatory in his art.
Muhilan’s paintings and posters, which had political and social issues as their themes, were exhibited on the sidelines of a folk festival called Veethi Virudhu Vizha (Street Award Festival) held on January 19 and 20 at Loyola College. The event had been organised by the college’s student support services, which assists Dalit students and those from other vulnerable groups.
Kaleeswaran, a coordinator with the art and literary unit of the college’s student support services, said that several artists, regardless of their ideological affiliations, had been invited to exhibit their work at the event. He said the so-called objectionable paintings had also been exhibited at Madras University in 2016. “No one protested then,” he said. “They are targeting Loyola College because it is a minority institution” run by Christians.
Both Muhilan and Kaleeswaran say they have been receiving threatening calls and messages on social media since the controversy broke.
BJP calls off protest
Members of the BJP and Hindutva groups had alleged on social media that the exhibits insulted Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Angry social media users shared photographs of some of the exhibits. One portrayed Bharat Mata in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, while others critiqued the BJP-led government’s Rafale deal and Swachch Bharat Abhiyaan.
BJP heavyweights in Tamil Nadu including Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan, National Secretary H Raja, state president Tamilisai Soundarajan criticised the college for exhibiting the paintings.
Following the uproar, Loyola College issued an apology on Monday. It said the college was: “…[D]eeply pained, saddened and anguished that the venue to conduct a cultural event, Veethi Virudhu Vizha has been misused, our illustrious and pluralistic campus was used for derogative exhibits against a particular religious group, social institution, political party and the country’s leadership”.
The BJP on Monday called off a proposed agitation against the institution.
For political gains
Muhilan told Scroll.in that the BJP and RSS was unnecesarily politicising the exhibition.
At least 34 pieces of Muhilan’s art, including cartoons, had been displayed at the college. “Every artwork depicted either a political or social issue,” he said. “There were cartoons on the re-opening of Sterlite company [in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu], to show that this government supports corporations and not the people. There were also paintings about the  Gujarat riots, caste and gender violence.”
He said since the BJP and RSS could not politicise such issues, they had cherry-picked a few other symbols to allege that he had hurt Hindu religious sentiments.
“Right-wing organisations are threatening artists unable to confront them ideologically,” he said. “This is not the first time. They have killed Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.”
This was a reference to Kannada writer MM Kalburgi who was murdered in Dharwad, Karnataka, in August 2015, and journalist Gauri Lankesh who was shot outside her home in Bengaluru in September 2017. Suspects linked to Hindutva groups have been arrested in connection with these murders.
Muhilan started work as a cartoonist for Vinavu.com, a website run by a leftist group, after graduating from a fine arts college in Chennai. He said that is where he began to learn the art of sketching political cartoons. He has been exhibiting his work since 2005 and said that Loyola College was just another exhibition space for him.
In November, BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu forced St Joseph’s College in Thiruchirapalli to call off an international seminar on “Harassment of women as registered in Tamil literature”. Party national secretary H Raja had alleged that the seminar was planned by “urban Naxals” and “Christian missionaries” to create unrest.