Artistic Interventions

At a recent gathering of art-lovers and intellectuals a well-known art historian was tracing the overall evolution of images in the works of a senior artist and during the discussion that followed certain key issues surfaced –these are my take on those. 1. When and how does an artist respond to the world around him or her and how do these get represented in the work? 2. What is contemporary for a thinking artist of the present? 3. Can we consider the long time any artist (read painter and sculptor) spends with his work as a mark of his or her seniority in terms of artistic maturity (which would mark his work off as significant and deserving critical appreciation?) I look upon these questions as very relevant.
Any thinking artist is certainly bound to respond to his or her times and this would happen either consciously or unconsciously. Aesthetic experience as almost anyone would know is connected to space and time simultaneously despite its interior or self-reflexive aspect. In the context of colonial India and a fast modernizing (read urbanizing and industrializing) Europe the contemporary was conditioned by proximity and locale; cultural interpolation and interiorization was a matter of individual taste, exposure and talent. Even if any artist chose to be isolated and work in a closed field history and ideology would certainly seep in. With the evolution of mass media and later electronic media, cultural and artistic space-time also has been altered tremendously. In postcolonial India the intellectual artist has broadened his/her perspective and learned to sharpen the artistic tools in terms of language and metaphor of the times. From pre-modern, through the modern and the postmodern, the Indian artist’s journey has been certainly one that has been integrative and collaborative. Vis-a-vis European art movements the artists of our own times have been exposed and over exposed; at the same time many have turned their inner views toward their own homes and locales. Tradition and talent have contributed a great deal toward these openings and exposures. Now with the coming in of internet, the electronic media and the consequent social media, artistic space appears to have collapsed. Several artists are struggling with the question of what is contemporary for them. Does one speak and respond only to one’s own immediate environment or should one react in equal measure to the vast open world outside? The politics of the present seems to tease one’s sensibilities. The edges of the world seem to have shrunk and ideas and thoughts from miles beyond the globe appear to be pasted on the walls in our own homes. It is a collage of cultures that figure as the contemporary Indian artist’s writing on the walls. The global and the local have become equally palpable and relevant. The contemporary is thus spaced out of all proportions looming large and larger. Sometimes it is visually deranged and complex. Thus the artist’s task also has become equally complex in measure and meaning. Each artist needs to interrogate his/her space and culture, see it terms of the times and history and explore his/her own artistic space. In a similar scale the language of art also has taken severe ballast. Themes techniques, images and articulation have changed considerably. The working Indian artist of our times cannot thus choose to remain a hermit in isolation. The present calls for intimacy with the past and future and so does the space within that mingles with the space out there.
The earlier generation of artists who took off from the new India immediately after independence have left a clear trace of the postcolonial space—their language was rooted in the tradition of India that was multi-cultural and multi-tongued. They looked to the west for inspiration and moved closer homes for insight and vision. We had the Bengal school, the slightly urbanized taste of Mumbai based artists working in close connection with the emergent film industry and the folk , and at the same time we had the evocative metaphors churned out by the Baroda and Madras schools. Artists did have something to look forward—if it was not the ideals and dreams of an emerging nationhood it was a self-reflexive critical view of what it meant to be living in the present riddled with crises and concerns. Issues of development and human progress, the juggernaut of industrialized monstrosity of a technological present, the fast depleting green of the human environment, ecological disasters, and over and above everything even after the terrible holocaust of world wars and massive revolutions, the terror that humans can unleash on one another in pursuit of false ideologies and blind beliefs – all these add on to the language of metaphors that the Indian artist of the present depicts. In fact there is hardly any choice in living in the present. Having said this I have also attempted to answer the second issue of what it is to be contemporary and relevant. The artist has to consciously or unconsciously unroll his or her subjectivity on to the palette of his or her times and recover a collective history.
Now to take a closer look at the third point raised at the beginning. Yes, I believe that once a senior artist has shown considerable proof of having lived through his/her times in self-reflexive proximity to his/her people and nature then I guess his/her works need to be looked upon with a little more reverence. It might enlighten the spectator obviously. There need not be any linear continuity or congruity of imagery that the works generate, nor does it require that the artist be transparent in his/her language to all in equal measure. Complex times require complex imagery and equally complex language. One cannot insist that the artist of the present use water color on handmade paper or oils on canvas in a conventional manner, nor need the artist resort to a series of sketches or under-paintings to create an original work of art in our times. Innumerable experiments and explorations have been resorted to by innumerable multi-skilled artists in our own times and earlier that a work of art and its ontology are being constantly interrogated at every possible juncture. Collage and installations anti-art and whatever-you-name-it have broken new and newer wood. Art of the present despite all these still enjoys that strange tinge of creativity that human imagination endows it with. The artist of the present can be a lone wayfarer or a face in the crowd. Great art still moves the genuine art lover, doesn’t it?

From my Preface to Strategies and Methods (2019)

Relocating Textual Meaning

The time has come when I choose to step out of the University that I loved so much. Not that I do not love my chosen profession any the less, nor do I bear any ill feeling toward my beloved office room, the class rooms, the corridors, the coffee shops, the large open campus with lots of greenery within full view of the sea, and the thousands of students who have sat and listened to my lectures and discussed and debated over various issues of culture and literature.  I cherish the memories of each minute well spent amidst all those, and yet I have made up my mind to leave in almost mid-career. The reasons are many: personal and otherwise. I still recall fondly my very first class more than three decades down the line.  It is not unusual to think of thirty years as comprising a whole generation. I have taught many now. But in my heart of hearts I bear some deep regrets and misgivings. For one, the university system is not the same now as I have been used to, and the world outside (as it most naturally, should) has changed considerably and is now on the verge of transforming itself into something I can hardly recognise, or perhaps, better to say, it has already metamorphosed itself into something unrecognizable. I am a product of the last century with its deep commitment toward intellectuality and academics. Our world in general was reflected in books and periodicals and not through google maps and the cyberspace as it is now. But of course that’s something inevitable in our fast changing world defined by technology and electronics. Nevertheless what is certainly most difficult to comprehend is the ubiquitous presence of market economics.

My idea of the university had always been as a selective space where the student and teacher sat together in a spirit of inquiry, and where knowledge itself was produced. That was more of a counter-culture where the young at heart could vibe with each other, talk, debate, disagree and fight and when the time came to step out into the world be ready and alert armed with a loving heart and a sharper brain. Research meant a way of life and one felt that the dictum publish or perish was yet meaningful in a healthy competitive manner.  Professional jealousy notwithstanding, life with in the university walls meant a noble pursuit of knowledge that mattered. The system of administration was only there to ensure its safety, maintain its integrity facilitate its functioning, and never ever to impair the stream or lay a spanner on the wheels. When all is said thus, I should consider my-self extremely lucky to have enjoyed the unbridled freedom of intellectual exploration wherever I had taught be it in a college in Kerala, in south India or in a University or elsewhere in the country. My brief spell in BITS Pilani, and later as a Fellow in Teen Murti, New Delhi, and as an Associate in IIAS, Shimla, and even overseas, as a Fulbright visiting Professor in the University of Nevada at Reno– all had favoured me with the requisite atmosphere of liberal thinking and work. There was no time to regret and yearn for lost opportunities. But now, I more than empathise with William Wordsworth:

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

            By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.





Research, the very idea of Education, the present day classroom practices, systems of administration and curriculum, all have undergone veritable changes. Nowadays, education and employability have become synonymous! The serious study of language and literature has petered into mere acquisition of soft skills.

Primarily, research in the present day is not committed pursuit of knowledge any more as it used to be. In terms of the administrative measures, the autonomy of the supervisor and the freedom of the researcher are not there anymore. Of course, as with all fields of study in the academies, the pursuit of a PhD degree has also become a sort of societal ritual. If in those days a BA or an MA meant that the student armed with the degree is expected to know so much; now a days, any casual conversation with a Ph.D holder is bound to leave you disappointed and totally disgusted with life! He or she knows apparently next to nothing, least of all his or her field.  One wonders how these people are endowed with such higher degree diplomas of education! There is a tremendous amount of dilution these days; everything is diluted. This could be a sort of democratic effect too. When education has lost its dearness it peters down to mere purposeless exercise, intellectual or whatever! Let us dole it out to all in equal measure! Democratic spirit is certainly most welcome! That joy in the widest commonality spread! But when it is accompanied with mere washing down that is another matter altogether! Now, higher educational centres of excellence like Universities are vying with each other to endow Doctorate degrees on film stars, slogan writers and politicians! They call it “Honorary” degrees! In fact it is a sort of self-promotional strategy where the person in the market limelight would in turn shower some grace on the educational centre!

That such a situation happens could be on account of several reasons. But prime among them is the commercialisation of all values. The market has come into rule us and we are asked to cater to the public at large. Educational machinery is nothing but a tool to cater to the society’s needs of employability. The present day catch phrase of education as a skill acquisition says it all. When higher education peters down to mere equipping of a student with employability skills just to get along in the world of everyday affairs, the entire purpose of schools colleges and universities is misplaced alike. From the womb to the tomb the individual is thus monitored to remain confined to the professed purposes of a society. Adaptability rather than the ability for critical thinking and interrogation is thus the order of the day. Vocation is not the end of it all! For the aspiring graduate there appear but two choices: either become a medical practitioner or an engineer!  The situation of the teacher of English in our Universities is also something quite complex. Indeed the fate of the entire segment of humanities in the Universities is equally complex.

Fairly recently Terry Eagleton wrote in the Guardian:

Are the humanities about to disappear from our universities? The question is absurd. It would be like asking whether alcohol is about to disappear from pubs, or egoism from Hollywood. Just as there cannot be a pub without alcohol, so there cannot be a university without the humanities. If history, philosophy and so on vanish from academic life, what they leave in their wake may be a technical training facility or corporate research institute. But it will not be a university in the classical sense of the term, and it would be deceptive to call it one.

Such a feeling of intense anguish and agony might not be unknown to any self-accountable teacher of English in our midst. Are we forced to listen to the death knell of the humanities?   Are we compelled to be trapped in a technical training facility or corporate research institute?

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

In a more awakened and self-reflexive state we can realise that the critical ability or that spirit of sustained resistance to dehumanising forces of the market capitalism that a University system is supposed to foster has started tottering.  Things fall apart…

What can the teacher of English and more generally the academic in the humanities do to stop this faltering? Do we have a map of our territories to begin with? What methodologies can we resort to in order to get our bearings? These are fundamental questions. And once we have come to realise that what we are currently witnessing in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique, as pointed out by insightful thinkers, we can break new wood. Of course the road we have taken thus far has led us here and what lies ahead is accessible to us once we take stock of our supplies and get our bearings right. The primary question is: can the humanities contribute in a positive manner to our changing societies? I am not promising to provide an answer to any of these questions, but for the inquisitive reader the following pages could proffer possibilities for detailed interrogation and sometimes he or she could stumble onto possible keys to unlock these conundrums.

Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning, is thus a strategic map of reading for the beginner as well as those interested in the fate of the present day humanities. After all, this is but a primer, a basic book.

Strategies and Methods: Relocating Textual Meaning