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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Remains of the Day

In the 1970s, a Left movement in Bombay brought young artists and intellectuals together. In a few years, it burnt out. An artist looks back on how it shaped her.

Written by Dipti Nagpaul D'souza | Mumbai |
Updated: March 20, 2016 12:00:14 am
Navjot Altaf (left) and Nancy Adajania. (Express photo Tashi Tobgyal) Navjot Altaf (left) and Nancy Adajania. (Express photo Tashi Tobgyal)

A fist, tightly closed. On its left, the word ‘Lalkaar’ written in a running hand. Together, they create the masthead of a magazine that hasn’t been in circulation for nearly three decades. Only a handful of copies exist today, perhaps stowed away in old trunks or lofts in the residences of Mumbai’s left-wing activists from the 1970s. The image is one of artist Navjot Altaf’s unseen works.

The Thirteenth Place, art historian Nancy Adajania’s monograph on Altaf, published by Mumbai’s The Guild art gallery, was released in February. It isn’t merely an inquiry into the 67-year-old artist’s work but also explores the cultural history of the Left and feminist movement. It is, perhaps, also the first detailed account of a forgotten youth movement of that time, the Progressive Youth Movement or Proyom.

Altaf, who is known for her wooden sculptures and multimedia works, has been living between Bastar and Mumbai since 1996, collaborating with artists trained in rural traditions of wood and bell metal sculptures. As Adajania says in the prelude: “Certain questions had haunted her since her youthful phase as a leftist cultural artist: can individuals belonging to different class and ethnic backgrounds communicate, work together, create a political solidarity, and produce shared cultural meanings?”

Proyom was a cultural movement of sympathisers and members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) or CPI (ML). Altaf’s introduction to the group was through late artist Altaf Mohamedi, whom she met at JJ School of Arts as a student, and later married. In 1972, they both became part of the group, founded by academicians Kiran Kasbekar and Dev Nathan. Activists Anuradha and Kobad Gandhy, Nathan’s wife Vasanthi Raman, activist Navroz Mody, writer Mariam Dossal, former journalist Darryl D’Monte and poet Adil Jussawalla, were among other members.

“Not all of us were members of the CPI (ML) or even agreed with the violence of the Naxal movement,” says Altaf, who made posters, pamphlets and art. “But two decades had passed since Independence and the Nehruvian dream was far from achieved. It is for the want of social justice that many of us became part of Proyom.”

Some of Altaf’s work addressed not only the social issues faced by India but also other parts of the world. A watercolour paper poster from 1974, reprinted in Adajania’s book, has a war-crazed American soldier running away from a military cemetery. Another is an image of Uncle Sam choking on Vietnam. “Some posters were anti-capitalist, others spoke against casteism,” says Altaf. They would put them up across the city at night. Lalkaar was Proyom’s mouthpiece, meant to reach out to the student community by highlighting issues faced by people across the country. The cover from December 1973 is a piece titled ‘Who says Students Cannot Unite?’.

The collective was important to the time because it gave voice to the increasing disillusionment and frustration experienced by the common man. More importantly, it shaped the works of the artistes who were part of the movement, be it Altaf, Jussawalla or thespian Pravin Nadkar, who even today, continues to use street theatre as a means of communication through Navnirman Sanskrutik Manch.

Nevertheless, the movement is now largely undocumented and forgotten. While archiving was never the focus, Adajania adds that the clampdown on members during the Emergency further led to the destruction of all material. “The publications and posters from this period that appear in my book are very rare, and are being reproduced here for the first time. Dev Nathan was arrested and tortured for his association with the CPI (ML) and other comrades were being closely watched. Although Proyom saw a decline in membership during the Emergency, Altaf and other members continued to raise funds, by organising concerts or selling drawings and posters, to support those who had gone underground,” she says.

Adajania says another reason is the disillusionment of several members with communism. “While interacting with former members, I realised that they had become uncomfortable with its lack of internal democracy. If ideology pre-determines everything and the only role of the members of a group is to apply it uncritically, there is very little place for individual agency,” she says.

The Left movement viewed art only as a means of propaganda, says Altaf, refusing to acknowledge artists as artist-activists or allowing them to partake in decision-making. That is what made her question the hierarchy. However, she adds that she wasn’t disillusioned by the Marxist philosophy “because I understand that it allows one the right to reject also”. “And we rejected Charu Mazumdar’s violence.”

While Marxism remains the base of her ideas, Altaf’s works today are far more influenced by the feminist movement of the 1980s. After coming in contact with activists such as Chaya Dattar and gaining exposure to international feminist artists such as Judie Chicago, Altaf started seeking her own voice. This, followed by her visit to Bastar in 1996, made her give up a successful career in Mumbai. “I went to Bastar to study the memorial pillars carved out of wood. There, I met my colleagues Rajkumar and Shantibai,” says Altaf, who has worked with the artists and others in an effort to bridge the gap between “craft” and “art”. “All of them have a day job — Rajkumar in a wood factory and Shantibai in a brick kiln — and pursue art as passion. Just because they don’t belong to the upper class makes their work ‘labour’ and ‘craft’ while mine is ‘art’?” she quips.

While she continues to be a solo artist, Altaf has worked on Pila Gudi, a play house, and Dialogue Centre, among other public buildings along with her colleagues from Bastar, collaborating with them not only in design but also construction. “Navjot doesn’t merely belong to the geneaology of artists such as KG Subramanyan and J Swaminathan,” says Adajania. “At the Samvad annual symposium I attended in 2007, I realised the Dialogue Centre is a space that allows each stakeholder, including a villager that will benefit from the public art, a student, a government official, the tribal artist, to sit at the same table.”

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