People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 06

February 08, 2004

Intellectuals Flay Cultural Vandalism


Below we reproduce the press statement issued by the artists and others who attended the press conference organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT) on January 31.


WE strongly condemn at this meeting of artists and concerned citizens the most recent attack on artists and artworks, by the vandals of VHP and Bajrang Dal, part of the Sangh Parivar, in the city of Surat.

On January 29, nearly 200 hundred people pushed into the new art gallery, set up by the Surat industrialist Praful Shah. They tore down, broke up and burnt artworks on display including two paintings by the veteran artist, the late N S Bendre, one earlier painting of M F Husain, and damaged several others in the assault. One painting of the younger artist from Kolkatta, Chittravanu Mazumdar, was forcibly taken away from the gallery.

This is one in a series of intimidatory and violent attacks on the contemporary arts, on scholarship, and on the culture and heritage of this country, as the recent attack on the Bhandarkar Research Institute in Pune, so tragically demonstrated. These are not any longer isolated instances of mindless groups but part of the very process whereby civil society and our civilisational heritage with its complex structure of spiritual relationships is being systematically communalised, vulgarised and destroyed. For this, the hate ideology being perpetrated by the Sangh Parivar and its ruling combine are squarely responsible. This has happened with crude impunity during the last decade, beginning with the demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Its most tragic consequences have been witnessed in the state of Gujarat recently where the rule of the mob seems to have open state sanction.

We would like to put forward the following propositions with regard to the immediate incident. The right of freedom of expression is not simply to be seen as artistsí prerogative and thence lampooned as an irresponsible expression of an indvidualís subjective perceptions of life and culture. It is a right vital for the imagination to flourish and produce surprising interpretations of human understanding; it is even more than that, the right of citizens in a country like India with its most enlightened constitution that guarantees the right of free expression as a constituent part of citizenship. In such a society, differences, dissent and conflict have to be faced and resolved in a democratic way distinctly different from those adopted by fascist societies. The methods of protest in an advanced democracy like ours are manifold: the non-violent heritage of protest and added to it the legal and discursive methods that distinguish a civil society such as ours from brute force and fascistic coercion.

The Garden Gallery, representing a major collection that the Shah family has built up since the last 25 years, is a gift to the city of Surat and to the people of Gujarat and may indeed be one of the very few private collections of. contemporary Indian art to be put up for public viewing. We would hope this would become an example for other such private institutions to come up to support creative endeavour in the country. But this is now being met with contempt and the persons concerned are being intimidated to accommodate to the ignorance and prejudice of the vandals and their leaders whose agenda has little to do with art, artists, culture, scholarship or indeed any form of enlightened religion.

We wish to point out that the head of the government, while he rightly disapproved of the banning of the book on Shivaji recently, had nothing to say about the vandalism on a major national institution like the Bhandarkar Research Institute. We demand that the government take a clear and strong stand against these vandals so that the recurrence of such instances and the damage they cause is stopped immediately.

Those who signed the statement included Krishen Khanna, Geeta Kapur, Geetha Hariharan, Ram Rahman, Veer Munshi, Dadi Pudamjee, Shamshad Hussain, H G Arun Kumar, Shukla Sawant, Gigi Scaria, Pooja Sood, Shantanu Lodh, Sarala Maheshwari, Maya Rao, M K Raina, Rajeev Dhawan, Nupur Kundu, Inder Salim, Sheeba Chachi, Sonia Jabbar and Chanchal Chauhan.