art world

In the sculptures of these two artists, you can see the burning tragedy of Bastar

Shantibai and Rajkumar’s works are testimonies to the plight of a people caught in a crossfire.

  “The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”  

— Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’

We live in the aftermath of the epic. The only way to approach the great universals – truth, beauty, wisdom – in a vexatious age, apparently, is through the micro-narrative, the little story, the intimate glimpse. And yet, these post-epic forms can articulate the courage and determination of their authors, especially when they have been able to claim authorial agency for the first time, by breaking through socially legislated codes of who may speak, how they may speak, and who they may address.

In the wooden sculptures, paintings and photographs made over half a decade by Shantibai and Rajkumar, two exceptional artists from Bastar in Chhattisgarh, we find the expression of an emancipatory energy. Marginalised by a feudal society and for years barely recognised by a metropolitan and Western-dictated art history, Shantibai and Rajkumar have reclaimed their biographies from an exploitative system that alienates people like themselves, who belong to the tribal community, from their land, their labour, their livelihood, and indeed, even their ability to lead a life of their choice.

This assertion of the right to reclaim one’s own biography imparts a distinctive quality of animation to the work of these two practitioners, as they narrate their quest as artists and as citizens. They have borrowed the form of the pillar from the carved memorial pillars or Maria Khambhas, which have traditionally communicated the hagiographic narratives of the elite within the tribal community. But Shantibai and Rajkumar’s wooden sculptures are not memorials to the past. Rather, they are testimonies to the burning present. Theirs is a history of the Now told from a subaltern perspective. Here, they relate the plight of a people caught in the crossfire between Maoists fighting an armed revolution in their name and a heavily militarised State that treats its own people as collateral damage while fighting its enemies. They refer, also, to the State’s collusion with multinational corporations to profit from a forest belt rich in minerals.

Detail of Rajkumar's sculpture
Detail of Rajkumar's sculpture

Both for Shantibai and Rajkumar, their political and aesthetic quests are braided together. In a diary note about one of his carved pillars, Rajkumar points to a transition in the sculpted tale, which shifts from a scene showing the people’s resistance against the Tatas, who are forcing them to sell their land, to a moment when “after these discussions, we go to see the Maria Khambhas”, to research these artefacts. Both these artists began as apprentices and assistants working with a master craftsperson, doing commissioned work. The transition in their lives and art was catalysed by the artist Navjot Altaf, who has lovingly curated the present show, appropriately titling it, “Not under great law. Not under sacred law” at The Guild in Alibaug, near Mumbai.

In the course of a collaboration that began in the late 1990s, Altaf has championed their practice. Together, they have built the Dialogue Centre in Kondagaon, Bastar, where they conduct their respective studio practices and also host discussions on the political economy of art, on the marginalisation of gender, and other pressing political and ecological urgencies of the day.

Shantibai and Rajkumar have engaged in a slow but sure process of political socialisation. In the process, we see that they have had to contend with critically important questions of equity, representation and justice. What does it mean to be excluded from the conversation of the mainstream art world? And by corollary, what does it mean to live in a country that treats its tribal communities as expendable citizens, who can be shot, raped and robbed with impunity?

Rajkumar's sculpture details
Rajkumar's sculpture details

Carving tears

Shantibai’s artistic journey has been one of quiet resilience. She has transformed herself from someone who was only allowed to carve out figures drawn by her late husband, the master craftsperson Raituram, to becoming an artist in her own right. Her sculptures express a deep empathy for women and children. She sculpted the trauma of a woman raped by the police in Bastar by depicting her as a sacrificial goat. During her research into this specific outrage, Shantibai found out that “the police laughed at the woman and her parents and told them to go home, else they will rape her again”. This columnar synoptic narrative is made up of many interlocking episodes, but it is the detail that strikes us. Shantibai depicts the raped woman’s tears as furrows in her cheeks; this could well stand in the great artistic tradition of the lachrymae, the holy tears.

Shantibai's sulptures
Shantibai's sulptures

Blood is not thicker than water

The autodidact’s hard-won wisdom and humility have shaped Shantibai’s sculptural language. She is deeply committed to the act of learning and sharing knowledge through the workshops she conducts at the Dialogue Centre. Children often occupy a liminal condition in her sculptures, being shown in the process of becoming gods or goddesses. The figure of the child is carved as a tender caress, but this nurturing quality should not be read simply as a mothering impulse. Along with Rajkumar and the other artists at the centre, Shantibai has produced a community that does not have a name. Some relationships are not reducible to family, kinship or census records. They are produced through the gesture of art, a provisional, ever-renewed and -renewing gesture.

Shantibai with her paintings
Shantibai with her paintings

The museum of guns

Rajkumar’s sculptures are more expressionistic in tone and full of zest. He invents forms spontaneously, such as the masked figures with holes for eyes, to portray Maoists hiding from the police. Or he might show the bunched-up hands of the oppressed as a rope of firecrackers about to burst. He asserts his subjectivity with the words: “As an artist I believe...”

One of his sculptures proposes that the representatives of various countries should come together and find a solution to the violence that has wracked Bastar. He believes that weapons should be banned, that they should be collected and donated to a museum. The pinnacle of a traditional Maria Khambha is where the soul finds its release – at the top of his sculpture, Rajkumar carves a stack of guns. By replacing the soul-bird with an armistice, he secularises the sacred convention with a here-and-now urgency. Release is here and possible, if only we have the patience to listen to those who are never heard.

Rajkumar with his sculpture
Rajkumar with his sculpture

The aborted prayer

Open to the views of different shades on the political spectrum, whether Communist or Gandhian, these artists are equally inspired by the Communist Party of India leader Manish Kunjam, who has been advocating the right to sva-sashan or self-governance among the adivasi communities, as well as the selfless work of the Gandhian human-rights activist Himanshu Kumar, whose ashram in Dantewada was bulldozed because he had dared to help the local community file complaints against the police.

In a surprise move, one of the narratives which unfolds at Himanshu Kumar’s ashram – portrayed as an oasis with mahua flowers, fluttering sparrows and children learning yoga – culminates in an empty meditation structure. Its façade resembles the railing of the famous Sanchi Stupa, which Rajkumar had visited during his study tour. In place of the dome, where the Buddha’s relics were believed to be preserved, we see a gentle wave pattern that rises and falls, a form suggestive of the children’s slides at the ashram.

Detail from Rajkumar's sculpture
Detail from Rajkumar's sculpture

Does the empty structure at the top of the pillar signify a call to transcendence? Or are the children’s slides modern-day reliquaries of aborted prayer and thwarted hope? Or is this a shrine built on a site that the State systematically erased, although it could not purge the fragrance of love and freedom?

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Watch Ruchir's journey: A story that captures the impact of accessible technology

Accessible technology has the potential to change lives.

“Technology can be a great leveller”, affirms Ruchir Falodia, Social Media Manager, TATA CLiQ. Out of the many qualities that define Ruchir as a person, one that stands out is that he is an autodidact – a self-taught coder and lover of technology.

Ruchir’s story is one that humanises technology - it has always played the role of a supportive friend who would look beyond his visual impairment. A top ranker through school and college, Ruchir would scan course books and convert them to a format which could be read out to him (in the absence of e-books for school). He also developed a lot of his work ethos on the philosophy of Open Source software, having contributed to various open source projects. The access provided by Open Source, where users could take a source code, modify it and distribute their own versions of the program, attracted him because of the even footing it gave everyone.

That is why I like being in programming. Nobody cares if you are in a wheelchair. Whatever be your physical disability, you are equal with every other developer. If your code works, good. If it doesn’t, you’ll be told so.

— Ruchir.

Motivated by the objectivity that technology provided, Ruchir made it his career. Despite having earned degree in computer engineering and an MBA, friends and family feared his visual impairment would prove difficult to overcome in a work setting. But Ruchir, who doesn’t like quotas or the ‘special’ tag he is often labelled with, used technology to prove that differently abled persons can work on an equal footing.

As he delved deeper into the tech space, Ruchir realised that he sought to explore the human side of technology. A fan of Agatha Christie and other crime novels, he wanted to express himself through storytelling and steered his career towards branding and marketing – which he sees as another way to tell stories.

Ruchir, then, migrated to Mumbai for the next phase in his career. It was in the Maximum City that his belief in technology being the great leveller was reinforced. “The city’s infrastructure is a challenging one, Uber helped me navigate the city” says Ruchir. By using the VoiceOver features, Ruchir could call an Uber wherever he was and move around easily. He reached out to Uber to see if together they could spread the message of accessible technology. This partnership resulted in a video that captures the essence of Ruchir’s story: The World in Voices.

Play

It was important for Ruchir to get rid of the sympathetic lens through which others saw him. His story serves as a message of reassurance to other differently abled persons and abolishes some of the fears, doubts and prejudices present in families, friends, employers or colleagues.

To know more about Ruchir’s journey, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Uber and not by the Scroll editorial team.