This is not about a cow or a pig or a horse or a mule. This is not about “tolerance”, for that is mostly the prerogative of the powerful. As artists, we refuse to be “tolerated” by the powerful. This is about existing in a universe that can speak in multiple voices, even as we witness its shrinking edges closing in on us. The incidents that follow are, perhaps, a sign of the alarming certainty with which this is happening.
As a member of Sandarbh, an artists’ initiative hosting an international artists’ residency supported by the Jaipur Art Summit 2015, I was in Jaipur on the morning of November 21. At 10 am, a slightly concerned Siddhartha Kararwal called fellow artist and founding member of Sandarbh, Chintan Upadhyay. He said that two constables from the neighbouring Bajaj Nagar thana had asked him to dismantle his work, produced during the residency and on exhibit at Shilpgram, Jawahar Kala Kendra, as part of the Jaipur Art Summit.
Kararwal’s work, Bovine Divine, consisted of a styrofoam cow tied to an air balloon with a string, elevated to a height of about 50 metre. The local constabulary claimed it was responding to a complaint by a “common person” whose sentiments had been hurt at seeing the cow hanging mid-air. Upadhyay and I reached the exhibition venue and saw that the work had been uninstalled, and a harassed-looking Kararwal was attempting to explain to the cops that his work was not humiliating the cow. On the contrary, he was attempting to highlight the poor conditions of animals in urban India.
When the police insisted on removing the artwork, citing “hurt sentiments” of ordinary people, we sought to know how a sculpture that aims to create awareness about stray cows scavenging on the streets, eating plastic and choking to death could hurt someone’s sentiments. Not only did we not get a response to our query, but the police also kept repeating the same allegations to us. It was soon evident that they were not in search of reason, but a pretext. A pretext to brutally remove any thought, idea or expression that they did not endorse. It must be added here that it was equally crucial for them to produce a justification for their actions. And the first reason cited by the officer concerned was that it was alright for Kararwal’s work to be removed because it was not an artwork in the first place!
We don’t believe that defining what is art and what lies outside its purview is the sole prerogative of the artist. But then, it is not the prerogative of the police, either. Things took an even more bizarre turn as the conversation shifted from the “sentiments” of a faceless majority to the possible ways in which the work could be changed to appear more palatable to the police.
“Why don’t you remove the installation and instead make a painting and write whatever message you want on the painting,” they said. Obviously leaving no room for ambiguity, multiple interpretations and play — a frigid and unimaginative illustration of our thoughts was offered to us as an alternative form of expression. It was no longer a discussion about whether or not we have a right to express ourselves, but rather a reality-check on the diminished freedoms that we could claim as artists and the public could claim as spectators. If we think this is absurd, then we are mistaken. There is a precedent to this.
Recently, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) refused a certificate to a film, alleging it was “substandard and boring”. If CBFC members can play all-powerful film critics, then why can’t a police constable decide what kind of work artists should make and people see? Absurdity is at the core of horror. It is impossible to imagine horror without the absurd. But before horror becomes truly horrific, it must become comic, fleetingly that is.
Almost in a flash, the comic gave way to the horrific, and we found ourselves being pushed, shooed and dragged by the hair to the police van that had been waiting all this while. During the short journey to the police station, we were reminded by two constables that this is not Pakistan. We were threatened with torture because we had the audacity to ask them under what charges or sections we were being detained.
A head constable interrogated us: “So you hung a cow upside down?” We remained silent. He repeated, “So was it a dead cow or a living cow?” We said it was a plastic sculpture of a cow. Unsatisfied, he asked us again: “That’s ok, but was the cow sculpture dead or alive?” We tried to explain to him that it was beyond dead or alive because it was plastic. His curiosity dissipated.
We were left to cool our heels on a bench at the police station. (All good horror plots have their dull moments.) Meanwhile, the police realised that neither Upadhyay nor I were the makers of the controversial art work. Its maker, Kararwal, was missing. So now, before releasing us, they thought it important to take custody of both the “culprit” artist and the cow. However, as an unforgettable reminder of the link between the horrific and the comic, a dozen Hindutva activists belonging to an unknown outfit had already taken over the sculpture, performed a puja, and garlanded it. It was left on a bench at Jawahar Kala Kendra with evident signs of wear and tear. Three agonising hours into our arrest, we were released.
As the unfortunate incident unfolded, dozens of Indian and foreign artists, hundreds of audience members and participants at the summit watched shell-shocked. The artists present, the young and not-so-young, had learned a lesson in censorship and self-censorship. They had realised that we may be caught up in a debate about tolerance and intolerance but, in fact, we are a society squeezed between the horror of unbridled irrationality and the irrepressible terror of power. To borrow a phrase from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “This, my friends, is the crux of