Mumbai-based artist Riyas Komu’s work, the images of which serve as the cover of this week’s issue of Outlook magazine on rewriting history, produces, conveys, and eventually confronts a parallel history of the Indian subcontinent. Komu speaks to Outlook Editor Chinki Sinha about his work, and how it relates to the project of rewriting history that the current political dispensation has been attempting since 2014.
Can you talk about the six images we have used for the cover of this week’s issue?
It’s interesting that you’ve used these woodcuts that I produced as part of my recent solo show which happened at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi. I did that show after a huge gap after multiple observations and other things while I was busy with other engagements in my career. From the beginning of my career, from 1992 onwards, I’ve been an observer of religion as a site from which all kinds of conflicts emerge. If you look at my early works, starting from Fait Accompli, that’s one project I would like to refer to the moment you think about the idea. In this particular project, there were a few prominent representations, one of which was the art in the Indian Constitution. This particular series was exactly placed around, responded to, twenty-six pages from the constitution. It was almost reflective of what we imagined, what we dreamt, in every sense, as a nation. From an artistic perspective, I make very strong connections between art in the constitution and what happens in a post-Independence India through some of our masters, what they thought about the idea of nation-building and how they worked in congruence with our early leaderships. These works which were exhibited were also titled Holy Shiver in every sense, and it starts from a sequence – from Partition to the Sikh riots and my early experiences of the Bombay riots, followed by the Bombay blasts, and then the Gujarat riots. It does eventually confront the current political climate – lynchings and other social atrocities, and how very consciously society was succumbing to fear. When you enter the gallery, I wanted you to experience this narrative of the dark history of India, juxtaposed against the Indian Constitution.
A lot of people claim that your work is very direct, that it isn’t abstract enough. Could you speak about that? Why do you adopt this particular approach? Does that make your art political? Your work conveys a parallel history of India in an incredibly chaotic time where the very notion of our collective history is muddled. What is the artist’s responsibility?
I would hate to generalize the responsibility of an artist. I have seen art being produced from different perspectives with powerful intent, and each work serves a different function. I have, through my work, extended what my parents taught me because they had grown up in a very secular and diverse cultural environment. I traveled to Bombay with that. I arrived in 1992, which was a tremendously tumultuous time and very different from what I knew. I made an oath that year to speak consistently about the idea of diversity and multiculturalism, to celebrate the human spirit and ideas of resilience. Whatever I did after that, whether it was through my art practice or other major cultural projects, all have much to do with my identity in a city like Bombay as that of a migrant. That was an expression I adopted very early on, as a youngster. That’s what I see constantly, even while I’m living in a city like Bombay. I see it as a responsibility to uphold the spirit of our constitution and morality. It is our responsibility to discuss these things. The moment pushes you to do that. You need to use those kinds of symbolisms to readdress the imaginations and aspirations our leadership has articulated to us. That’s my work is politically direct. Once you have a constitutional approach, you tend to be very direct in your discourses.
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Could you talk a little about your Gandhi images from the Holy Shiver series? A lot of your images have appeared in our issues, like the one on language and federalism respectively. Both of the aforementioned were confronting notions codified by the constitution. For us, using art is saying more than what we can in the present situation. Your cover is a very stark reminder of things that have happened, events that shaped the political discourse in the country. We have used the Gandhi images with a column about narratives and facts and how the BJP is trying to present a history of India that entirely neglects Ancient India. We used it as a very symbolic image. Could you talk about that series a little bit?
I think Gandhi has a kind of power that allows us to revisit him as a pivot in the history of India. These kinds of imaginations always pull you back because he employs truth, the idea of being with the people and identifying people as the site of gaining a different kind of spiritual strength. These are fascinating attributes. I wanted to reflect on Gandhi – I started thinking about this project in early 2014, on the idea of swaraj and satya.
The interesting thing about that project is that when I got the invitation from renowned curator Gayetri Sinha, she was doing a project called the missing pavilion inside the JNU Arts and Aesthetics department. I thought it was a very interesting moment to engage in a conversation with a very strong subject matter where Gandhi, in the work, is placed inside a crate, which reminds you of transporting goods from one place to another. Later, the work grew into a different title altogether. I re-exhibited this work in Kochi and then again at the Habitat Centre in Delhi. It traveled around for a while before I changed the title. This constant engagement with the work, the way I tried to play around with it, it’s a way to express how important these Gandhian tenets are.
After I saw a particularly dark and disturbing exhibition of yours a while ago, I asked you why you didn’t paint flowers instead. I’d like to ask you that question again.
It’s a very important time. Is there a way to link the notion of a flower to what’s going on in the country at the moment? How do you imagine the flower and the meaning of the flower. How do we talk about things as they relate to our collective history?
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