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Mocking the white sahebs and thereafter

Vandana Shukla

Through the cultural renaissance of India, especially in Bengal, artists were targeting social evils. Social satire emerged as a major theme in art, replacing the monkeys and donkeys, to tickle the laughing bone.

The caricatures of Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) place the opposites and the odd in the same frame. The Brahmins and rich Parsis and Baniyas are lampooned. Works like “Purification by Muddy Water” place tiny and timid women against a very fat Brahmin, who is towering over them-offering muddy water for their purification. Respecting women is another satire poked at the emergence of the so-called educated modern man and his hypocrisies. “Realm of the Absurd”, as the title suggests, has several such references. These works are direct, often supported by a title to make things obvious.

“Purification by Muddy Water” from the album The Realm of the Absurd (1917) by Gaganendranath Tagore, V&A South Kensington.

Chittaprosad (1915-1978) also refuses to use subtlety to blunt his political cartoons; aimed to provoke the white sahebs. He had seen and suffered the starkness of the Bengal famine under the British. A retrospective of his works, at Kochi Biennale, presented the audacity of his spirit that prompted the British to seize and destroy most of his works. His treatment of the oppressor’s stubborn refusal to see the reality, at times, borders the comic. In one of his works, the white sahebs; happy, fat and content– are shown with their packed bags going home, looking at the famished skeletal figures and a pile of skeletons, with a grin, in a manner of saying- good riddance. In another work of his, a fat-rich family is shown standing opposite a child, who too has a fat belly, but due to Kwashiorkor, a disease triggered by prolonged hunger that causes a swollen belly due to lack of nutrients in the body.

A child suffering from Kwashiorkor in Chittaprosad’s works, Telegraph India

Humour brings a subversive quality to these works. The famished men and women with their enlarged eyes and the cage of ribs that house a normal, well-fed, imaginary human being, of Chittaprosad or, the fat bellies of Gaganendranath’s cartoons; reflect refusal to submit to the existing systems—political and social.

Post-independence, the focus shifted to the emerging Indian identity and its absurdities. The target of ridicule shifted from the white saheb to the politicians, the men of power and the rich.

War Of the Relics (2012) by K.G. Subramanyan, set of 8 diptych panels, Acrylic on canvas, Sakshi Gallery.

With his witty sense of humour, K G Subramanyan created playful, witty and erotically charged pictorial fictions around the idea of India’s emerging culture and its negotiations with other dominant cultures.

Subramanyan finds it funny that in a culture in which gods feel the need to reincarnate themselves in order to save humans; the imperfections of the culture provide room for him to experiment with the icons. His works create complex reflections by juxtaposing icons of culture against the ordinary humans and animals. Placing a monkey against a Hanuman figure or an ordinary woman against Durga—to show each other as reflections—of good and evil–depicting conflicts and imperfections of human imagination in conceptualizing icons. ‘War of the relics’, a tongue in cheek comment on the similarities across cultures is another iconic work of his. Subramanyan’s treatment of the complexities of cultures and identities in pictorial narratives introduced sophistication that only humour could bring about in art.

The contradictions of the emerging modern society; the growing middle class with its confused moral compass; contemporary realities and the global aspirations of local cultures become exaggerated in some of the works of the modernists. These interplays and incongruities emphasize humour.

Bhupen Khakhar channels humour to leave subversive impressions on our sanitised moral universes. He contexualised his homosexuality to pierce through the accepted myths of history, religion and culture, with humour. In Two Men in Benares, he places two gay men, aroused sexually, in the backdrop on the holy city. In another painting; a scene of a family wedding; two men are shown holding hands, in an audacious mischief. Their hands seem to grow out of the frame of the family wedding. The wit, with which he expressed gay issues and related morality in You Can’t Please All; weaving the sacred with the profane, imaginary with the mundane, in an idiom that is both humorous and profound, his scathing satire created a landmark.

Bhupen Khakhar, Two Men in Benares, oil on canvas, 1982, Sothebys.

F N Souza’s macabre caricatures may not appear comical or humorous; a strand of irony runs through them.

Krishen Khanna revived humour in the tradition of public art. In the mural paintings on the 4000 square feet dome like space of ITC Maurya, New Delhi, he created several scenes picked from ordinary life, which are presented with a humorous twist.

Mural by Krishen Khanna at ITC Maurya, New Delhi. Courtsey Luxe Beat Magazine.

A closer look at the mural.

In a place surrounded by mourners, sitting next to a dead-body, Mulk Raj Anand, noted author and Khanna’s friend is seen discussing art and aesthetics; somebody is picking pocket out of a man going to a mosque, Geeta Kapoor, the famous art critic, is walking while someone stares at her– she is holding a book titled ‘What Ails Indian Art.’ There are sahebs and mem sahebs, riding atop elephant; a symbol of their erstwhile Raj.

Then there is the ubiquitous dhaba, where Khushwant Singh is serving tea and Mulk Raj Anand is chewing a chicken bone. Temples, mosques, yatras—pilgrimages—an integral part of Indian civilisation, people co-existing with dogs, goats, monkeys, elephants and tigers complete the slice of life. A few monkeys are mischievous, removing cap from a person’s head, also a reminder of Panchatantra tales. The artists in paleolithic period too showed animals co-existing with the humans.

Khanna also picks the oddities of human behaviour in sombre situations—a woman is shown scratching her ear outside a temple, a man is sitting beside a sleeping dog, as though watching over it.

Amit Ambalal paints parodies; striking a balance between surprise and humour. The ponder worthy anecdotes of his works are salvaged from day-to-day life, with a chuckle. A calf looks longingly at the udders while a man takes the feed— crouched inside her stomach; a tiger licks pink tulips. In a painting titled Root Canal, two cranes are shown sucking roots with their beaks; the beaks turn into drills.

Lion sticking out its tongue at the viewer, an artwork in crayons by Lalu Prasad Shaw. Courtesy Telegraph India.

Apart from his witty variations of the Bengal school’s bahus and bibis, Lalu Prasad Shaw also dares the viewers with a twist, for a chuckle. The caricatures of the bhadralok, men with a goatee and women with a ponytail, with strange nasal bones apart, in one of his works a lion is sticking out his tongue secretly laughing at the viewer who is looking at the works in seriousness. It is as if the guarding sculptures of a temple have come to life, scorning the milling crowds.

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