India Today Art Awards 2019: Portrait of an artist as a warrior

he fourth edition of the India Today Art Awards in December was a celebration of the spirit of democracy, of ‘agreeing, disagreeing and discussing’. Chairman and Editor-in-Chief of the India Today Group Aroon Purie pointed out that at a time when there’s “greater policing on what we eat, how we pray, and whom we love”, these artists are the true winners because they “say things we cannot, do things we dare not, and create what we cannot envision”.

“Great democracies produce great art, autocratic states produce mere propaganda,” he said, while applauding the brave, the bold and the beautiful of the art world and appreciating a range of creative works.

It was a day of celebration for art that talked about identity crisis, of the displaced and the uprooted, of activists killed, Partition, the politics of religion, and so on. Be it the expression of womanhood or the feminist movement in Bengaluru-based N. Pushpmala’s (winner of the Performance Artist of the Year award) depiction of Kali lolling out her blood-thirsty tongue, an icon of Mother India in the nationalist struggle and Gauri Lankesh dressed as Bharat Mata cooking saaru or Rajyashri Goody’s (Emerging Artist of the Year) search for the Dalit identity in a mud kitchen-the artists here were essentially political commentators holding a mirror to today’s world.

The slain journalist Gauri Lankesh lives in the art of her friend Pushpmala. In her 45-minute live performance, Pushpmala dressed up as goddess Gauri, with four hands, two hands holding the national flag, as Lankesh was affectionately addressed as “aunty national”, and her other two hands preparing saaru. Her eyes moist and also burning with anger while talking of her friend, Pushpamala said, “Gauri loved to cook. We exchanged recipes.” More than a tribute to Lankesh, it was a comment on the manner in which voices of dissent were being muffled.

Goody is an anthropologist-turned-artist from Pune in search of the spices used in Dalit recipes. She’s digging through Dalit literature to bring out the smell and taste of Dalit delicacies that are losing out in the diktats about what we should eat and the predominance of the upper caste menu. She consciously celebrates the “sub-culture” because even today “many people continue to ignore the voices of the minority”. Her ‘Skyscape’ installation was a spectacle of caste and class politics. “I have hung 300 pairs of shoes from the ceiling, picked up from dusty roads and dingy lanes. I made the audience walk under this roof of slippers and shoes. People were looking up every now and then, so that the shoes didn’t fall on them. The impact was terrific-a claustrophobic feeling, the metaphor of having caste domination above us,” she explained. Accepting her award, she said she “was not aware that somebody was noticing” her work.

Ranjani Shettar, who won the Solo Exhibition award, dealt with the attack on nature and the shrinking space for plants, insects and animals. Her art exhibit-Seven Ponds and a Few Raindrops-was a subtle commentary on how we abuse nature. Her beehive in steel and metallic frame was a symbol of how machines are taking over all that is natural.

The Best Artistic Collaborator of the Year was awarded to Gauri Gill and her engagement with papier mâché and masks. Her Acts of Appearance-photographs of human bodies donning papier mâché masks of different animals-looked at the process of dehumanisation in today’s world. A tiger mask worn by a woman is seen sweeping the ground, an elephant checking the heart beats of a human being, and a mobile-headed man scattering peanuts-the depiction of tribal life, with a dash of black humour, in Maharashtra’s Jawhar district.

The Retrospective Award of the Year was given to Vivan Sundaram, honouring his 52 years of multifaceted career as a painter, sculptor and installation artist.

Subodh Gupta’s fetish for pots and pans and stainless steel utensils heaped on a boat in search of a home was an example of the pangs of displacement and losing one’s roots. Gupta won the Artist of the Year award.

The Collector of the Year award was won by Abhisek Poddar from Bengaluru. His collection is a mix of legends and contemporary artists-Ganesh Pyne, Tyeb Mehta and Meera Mukherjee sharing space with folk art, tribal artefacts, contemporary crafts and ethnic textile. “It feels more blessed to give than to receive,” he said in an audio visual message.

Shilpa Gupta’s For, in Her Tongue I Cannot Hide was an exhibit of sound art, comprising voices of 100 people, including Burmese writer Maung Saunkha, who was arrested in 2016.

Arshia Lokhandawala’s India Re-worlded won the Curator of the Year. Lokhandawala’s gallery in Mumbai has visuals of assassination, riots and bricks with ‘Ram’ inscribed on it, along with works by artists like Akbar Padamsee and Zaria Hashmi.

The award for the best Public Initiative of the Year went to the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur. Director-general Pooja Sood and additional director-general Anuradha Singh praised the government for allowing both creative freedom and space.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Ganesh Haloi. The veteran artist shared his experiences with the audience on landscape painting and abstract.

It was an event that reminded us of why art is important to our society. As Mr Purie said, “We need art to restore our faith in ourselves, to bear our reality, and to enable us to hope for a better future. We need art as therapy and as catharsis, as resistance and as reprieve, to tell our stories and our truths.”