Protest Code

Suñatā Samantā: Emptiness Equality invites you to look beyond the obvious in art to see discontent and dissent

Originally published in India Today.

Shades of Ganesha in WC/God

Scribbled on the back of a landing, positioned so that you see them as you walk down the stairs when leaving Suñatā Samantā, are two scraps of text in Hindi and in Urdu. Viewers might miss this entirely—most of the exhibition’s text is in English, with some translations and exceptions. Some may try to read the Hindi, but it is gibberish, empty of meaning (suñatā). Those who read Urdu however realise the Devanagari is backwards, meant to be read right to left, like nastaliq. It’s only by placing the Urdu reflection on an equal footing (samantā) that the words are revealed: the first two lines of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge, currently one of the touchstone anthems for protestors against the CAA and related legislation. We will see, argue the words, if we know how to look beyond what’s easy and obvious.

The exhibition, curated by publisher and author S. Anand, is characterised by this kind of dynamic; the installations, videos, paintings and sculptures are stripped of context and layered with loaded, coded veils that hide revolutionary, potentially incendiary meaning—an emptiness that leads hopefully to a kind of equality of judgement.

The first and most obvious obfuscation is that the works (most drawn from the Devi Art Foundation’s collection, with some new additions), have no accompanying information about author or medium. This can be liberating. Religious distinctions disappear, and there’s a kind of freedom from political correctness when anyone may say anything about or on behalf of anyone else. Linking some of these works to artists from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, would immediately make them more inflammatory than they already are. The casual visitor (or casual goonda) would have to do some research to find out who was behind a blown-up image of bloody meat, printed on several frames across an entire wall. Or a miniature-style painting of Krishna, kneeling at the high-heeled feet of a white woman. Or a urinal, clad in saffron velvet and mounted upside-down, with a pipe protruding like an elephant’s trunk, titled simply WC/God.

Those who do know a bit about the art world may find certain preconceptions about art and authorship challenged. The signature styles of some artists makes them immediately obvious—this could be interpreted as a kind of bravery to stand by one’s ideas, or equally as a symptom of ego or privilege, especially when placed alongside the work of craftsmen and folk artists, whose work tends to efface the author. There are also mysterious “Unknown artists” in the show’s generalised credits.

The accompanying text imposes its own layer of meaning, but obliquely. It is also uncredited, and includes quotes drawn from the words of a diverse set of writers, poets, singers and thinkers: from Ghalib to Gorakhnath, BR Ambedkar to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The text creates the exhibition’s metaphysical layout, as described in an introductory statement: “With [small figures of] Ambedkar and Buddha as two poles of awareness, this imagined stupa of decorated consciousness leans on Kabir (and the words of poets across languages and time).” The art revolves around these two literal poles, set on either side of a central staircase. The works touch myriad subjects, but always reference some form of discrimination or inequality.

At what feels like the heart of the space, in an enclosure behind the staircase, is a corner piled with a mound of crusty green matter titled ‘Manu’. Opposite it, protected in a glass box on a pedestal, is a bound copy of the Indian Constitution, all gilt and looping letters. Though “We the people” are its authors, it’s a far more imposing object, on the surface, than “Manu”. In that sense, the exhibition can be hard to access—sheathed in the aura surrounding conceptual or abstract work, without helpful, explanatory asides (fortunately, there are several curatorial walks through its run, to March 2). A little digging reveals that the unthreatening green mound actually consists of pulped copied of the Manusmriti and what appears more benign is charged with the potential to incite violence. This is the opposite of protest art—all surface meaning and slogans. But Suñatā Samantā attempts to work towards some of the same goals, perhaps on a subtler level of persuasion.

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