“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?