Last year he painted M.F.Husain in the nude. His reason for doing so was to protest against his use of women as objects. Thus far, Husain has painted goddesses in such a manner, goddesses that are already on temple pillars and walls in precisely such a state of undress. Regarding the artist, The Telegraph rather succinctly said that he now seems to have shed his own logic.
So, is Pranava Prakash exploiting Ms. Roy? He has called his work ‘Goddess of Fifteen Minutes of Fame’. All the reports mention that the subject “caresses herself as she enjoys a threesome with the two blood thirsty figures of history, Mao and Osama bin Laden, and a voyeur-loving skull looks over their shoulder”.
This is supposedly a political statement. Fine. But the artist is too literal and therefore even his symbolism goes wrong. Why would she caress herself if this is the happy company she keeps? Obviously, they aren’t good enough. Mao goes back to reading the book, which is unintentionally hilarious because he wrote it so did not have to read it. Anyhow, his eyes look at the ‘camera’, in a manner, so is he looking for approbation? Laden is seated looking in the opposite direction, smiling.
The artist’s explanation: “Arundhati was seen supporting ruthless Naxalites in their war against innocent Indian citizens and then she was hobnobbing with merciless Kashmiri killers who were remorseless in their act.”
This is his point of view and one does not expect a larger context always. However, if the skull (showing a “fragmented part of Jammu and Kashmir”) is supposed to convey the dead, then why would it be voyeur-loving? It would want to return as a ghost to haunt those it considers responsible for its demise.
There are other symbols:
Hammer and sickle on Mao’s underwear – “used as an excuse for the large scale killing of dissidents”. Huh? Of dissidents or by dissidents? And the CPI (M) has an ideology, whether people agree with it or not, and does not need an excuse.
A mechanical zip pasted on the corner of Arundhati's lips – “depicting how far our intellectuals are controlled and governed by their masters”. Mao and Laden? Ignorant of history or afraid of mentioning names?
Coins all over the canvas – "a metaphor for all the glitz and glamour associated with being under the limelight all the time". This does not come across. They just look like perfectly-painted grey blobs and more like coins thrown by a whistling public at a circus.
Prakash is a tad too simplistic when he says:
"Arundhati represents all the intellectuals who are selfless promoters of all sorts of causes which can give them publicity. They are dancing to the tune of publicity as a hungry monkey dances to the tune of its master for a banana."
If that is the case why did he title the painting fifteen minutes of fame when he is out to make it last much, much longer? Besides, one would imagine that a person cognisant of metaphors would have access to at least some intellectual literature in various fields and therefore not use a blanket judgement and make an individual representative of them all.
We return to the question about political art. Irrespective of disagreements with both the artist and the subject, I think a painting such as this works in quite a contrary manner to that which is intended. He will be putting it up along with a few others at the Lalit Kala Akademy. Who visits art galleries? Usually those interested in art, the elite – financial and intellectual. So, what sort of intellectualism is being rubbished? If his works are bought then may one say that it is because the buyer agrees with his politics and therefore his brush is moving to some masters’ strokes, even if they are largely invisible to the public eye?
Almost all works of art, except perhaps landscapes and still life, can be considered political if they are viewed from a certain perspective. Nudes come with their own baggage, whether they are illustrative or demonstrative. To the credit of the artist, this painting is not salacious; he is almost coy about nudity.
There can and will be objections because the artist is not only courting controversy but the controversial. Will he be muzzled? That would be precious irony. For, although Mao was known to muzzle people and Laden does not need to, Ms. Roy is a spokesperson for free expression. She has in the past, though, complained about being misquoted. Those were her words, so she had a right over them. This work is not.
Does a person have a right over personal space in how they are depicted? Yes and no. There are opinion pieces about individuals, there are seminars and public meetings held. Have there not been words more cutting uttered on the subject? Don’t newspaper cartoons parody public figures? Why, then, should a work of art draw more attention?
That itself is a political statement. It gives cult status and is a reverse form of portraiture catering to a select group. Without realising it, the artist and subject share that magnetic zip.
(c) Farzana Versey
Published in Countercurrents
Note: Should any of you wish to look at a similar subject, this time from Pakistan where Benazir Bhutto has been shown on the lap of Zia ul Haq, then read my post Art, Politics and Mockery and the discussion there.