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 sons’
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 Nair’s controversial painting
`An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus’. We would like
to give a possible and effective subversive reading of the painting
that could have offended the `authorities’ or the `right wing fascist
cultural censors of India’, 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 `revolutionaries’ 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.’
Now Icarus is in a precarious position. He is in a Hamletian dilemma.
`To fly or not to fly.’ At this moment his conscience talks to itself.
A very long interior monologue, `which is not necessarily outwardly
expressed’ (the artist’s 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 `fathers’ 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 `public’ space become private and the `private’
space become public. This particular controversy should have addressed
immediate questions of public and private spaces as well as art in these
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 group’s 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.