Johny & Mrinal

When Icarus discarded the warnings of his father Dedalus and flew towards the sun, the wax that was holding the feathers melted and he fell from the heavenly heights to the depths of earthly reality. A good parable. Whoever oversteps the fatherly warnings would have a gory death. In our myths also there is a similar story. Hanuman, the monkey god tried to fly towards the sun thinking that it was a fruit. In that attempt he got his jaws hurt and as a blessing in disguise got an identity and a name. There is something Freudian in the paternal warnings and the disavowal of sons. Sires always object their sonsí curiosity. Those who repudiate the paternal words and go for exploring the world need not necessarily be failures like Icarus. They can be successful like Jonathan Livingston the Seagull.

Now let us see Surendran Nairís controversial painting `An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarusí. We would like to give a possible and effective subversive reading of the painting that could have offended the `authoritiesí or the `right wing fascist cultural censors of Indiaí, as the grieving artists put it. Icarus is the emblamatic representation of the newly found nationalism based on the hegemonic ideology of Hindutva, valour and aggression. The Asokan Pillar with the Simha capital is the icon for a resurgent Indian nationalism in the previously mentioned terms. The Asoka Stambha itself is a phallic symbol. The other birds that fly down are those `revolutionariesí who accepted the democratic norms of nationalism. And the painter warns the aggressive nationalists, `If you fly high you are doomed. The sun of humanity and its resistance will melt your wings and you will fall.í Now Icarus is in a precarious position. He is in a Hamletian dilemma. `To fly or not to fly.í At this moment his conscience talks to itself. A very long interior monologue, `which is not necessarily outwardly expressedí (the artistís own words in Indian Express) occurs then. It is a warning. The rich red background colour too melts in the process. Does it turn into saffron? Then the irony is obvious. It is a mock- heroic enacted in multiple scenes. (Yes Surendran Nair is intending a series IE).

Had the cultural censors read the painting in this manner there could have been a logical reason for its scrapping from the show. But they will not read it in this manner. Why? because the artist is in a way helping them out of a very bad aesthetic and political turmoil. The artist is indirectly standing with the `fathersí who warn their children from flying high. The phallic symbol of the Asokan pillar is the father here. Icarus is in a dilemma. He feels a strange identification with phallic image. And we believe that ultimately Icarus will not fly. He will be there to supervise those birds that fly down there. Here the ideology of the ruling hegemony and the unintended meaning of the painting become one and the same. So why should they think other way round? But they cannot let the painting go with a doubt. Hence they brought the issue of the sacredness of the national emblems.

And see how our artists play along with the censors. They too are talking in terms of the validity and legality of an artistic image. Funnily enough no one talks of artistic freedom as such. Or do they think that artistic freedom comes only when it is done by an artist who belongs to a minority community, as in the case of M.F.Husain? Here Surendran Nair, as the name shows is a Nair, not a dalit. The grieving artists were thinking that they could have avoided a protest if the bureaucracy was willing talk. Suppose if the bureaucracy had come for a talk where these protesting artists could have placed the issue of scrapping a painting from a show by the censors?

It is reported that Mr.Vaidyanath Aiyar, the Cultural Secretary while scrapping the painting said that if the show had been erected in a private gallery the controversial painting could have been allowed to exhibit. Now he was responsible to answer if a question comes from the Government as the National Gallery of Modern Art is a public space. Do our artists still believe that the NGMA is a public space? No, it is a protected national building that houses the creative objects which are legally termed as art objects. And the entry is restricted with tickets. Though it is under the government of India it cannot be called as a public space in the theoretical and pragmatic sense. Meanwhile the private galleries do not restrict entry by tickets. Here a strange role reversal happens. The `publicí space become private and the `privateí space become public. This particular controversy should have addressed immediate questions of public and private spaces as well as art in these spaces respectively.

Unfortunately our artists think that they could solve all the problems legally. If legality is the ultimate solution for all the problems, then why you need to make art? The issues that you address in your art could be solved through a judicial intervention. Why you spent this much time in studios?

Now we stand nakedly in front of the mighty Indian bureaucracy with our legal plaints. And they laugh their hearts out. Had the issues raised by us been the artistic freedom, choice of subject, public and private space, art and bureaucracy etc, it would have been a fruitful attempt for the succeeding generations to emulate. Now we stand with all our naivity looking at the legal carrots dangled by the bureaucracy and debating whether the Asokan Pillar is a national emblem or not./ We understand that the controversial painting is sold for Rs.1 lakh. If it is true, we would like to say that this protest is meaningless. Had the artist got some kind of integrity he could have kept the work away from the eyes of the market that keeps looking for vulnerable objects. If the artists professional commitment is fulfilled then why do we protest?

When an interior monologue is taken out of the mind of the actor and reshaped for some vested interests the powerful interior monologue becomes a groupís soliloquy, a theatrical monologue, necessarily expressed to relieve oneself of the confusion and also to give the audience a chance to judge the validty of the actions of the character. This is how this protest becomes a soliloquy.


Authored and Published by JOHNY M.L MRINAL KULKARNI . Send us your responses, if any, in this address: or

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