Gurpreet Singh: Exhibition of art from Indigenous communities in India raises awareness and curiosity

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      For those in Canada who might not know that India has its share of the Fourth World, an art exhibition in Surrey is worth visiting.

      Curated by Aurogeeta Das and David Szanton, Many Visions, Many Versions: Art from Indigenous Communities in India is at the Surrey Art Gallery until Sunday (March 25).

      The work reflects not only the diversity of India, but also the diversity within Indigenous communities in that country.

      Widely known as Adivasis, they make up less than nine percent of the Indian population, and are scattered in different states in the Hindu-dominated nation.

      The artists whose work is at the display belong to four tribal groups: the Warli from Maharashtra; the Pardhan Gond from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana; the Chitrakar community from West Bengal; and the Mithila community from Bihar.

      Das told the Straight that Chitrakars have a more complex identity and they are not Adivasis. In a subsequent email, she also noted that the Mithila people are also not Adavisis.

      One can find many parallels between Indigenous communities in Canada and India by carefully looking at the artworks at the exhibition. The connection to the land, nature, and oral traditions is so apparent.

      What remains missing, though, is any reflection of the tensions within the Indigenous communities of India. Barring references to common challenges like migration and social ills—such as alcoholism or HIV—any expressions about the Indian state's repression of Adivasis and the extraction industry are missing.

      The Maoist insurgency in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Telangana has captured the imagination of many filmmakers, writers, and journalists.

      Yet, the exhibition in Surrey has nothing to showcase that.

      Maoists have a big following among the Adivasis, who continue to fight back against the appropriation of their traditional lands by the mining industry. The resistance is frequently responded with state violence.

      Even otherwise, Adivasis face structural violence and discrimination at the hands of the Indian establishment and the mainstream.

      On the contrary, some of the paintings take a critical look at the Islamic extremists, such as one demonizing Osama bin Laden. One painting by Montu Chitrakar depicts the 9/11 attack, blaming bin Laden and al Qaeda.

      Some others by Venkat Raman Singh Shyam take a dig at Islamic extremists who attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008.

      Many of the paintings are influenced by Hindu deities, even though Adivasis have their independent spiritual beliefs that are different from established religions practised in India.

      Does this reflect the growing penetration of Hindu right-wing forces in Adivasi areas under current Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party government (BJP)? Hard to say, but Hindu groups have definitely intensified their campaign in the Adivasi pockets to bring tribal people into the Hindu fold.

      One series by Santosh Kumar Das raises some serious questions. Based on the Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002, the information given alongside the paintings describe the events as "riots" and partly blame Muslims for responding with violence and anger.

      The Gujarat violence started after the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. More than 50 people died in the incident, which was blamed on Islamic extremists by the BJP government in Gujarat. This occurred even though one commission of inquiry found that it was an accident.

      Following this episode, anti-Muslim violence was orchestrated all over the state by BJP supporters with the help of the police.

      India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, was the chief minister of Gujarat back then. Human rights activists and survivors continue to allege his complicity in the bloodshed, though he has consistently denied this and has never been charged.

      The work by Santosh Kumar Das is titled The Gujarat Riots Series. It was in fact an anti-Muslim pogrom, though it does show endangered Muslims and a burning mosque.

      Cocurator Aurogeeta Das says it's taken a while to for Adivasi artists to understand that their work can mobilize resistance.
      Gurpreet Singh

      The cocurator, Aurogeeta Das, does not think that this art has anything to do with the emergence of the Hindu Right or the BJP. She pointed out that the Gonds have been living with Hindus for a long time.

      “Their assimilation with the Hindus go back very long way," Das said. "They even had intermarriage with the Hindus, et cetera.

      "Similarly, the Warlis have had quite a lot of assimilation with the Hindus for at least last five decades," she continued. "They do not necessarily worship these deities, but they do depict them in their art. They have lived among the Hindus for such a long while."

      Regarding the absence of any expression about the struggles to protect their land and the over-emphasis on Islamic extremism in the paintings, Das said that this might be because the production of this art may be “consumer-driven”.

      She said she's asked herself if this might be why these groups haven’t done more of this type of work, despite using art to protest against terrorism and other global events, noting in a subsequent email that this is their prerogative.

      “They have taken a while to understand that their artistic voice can be used to mobilize their resistance or their activism in the framework of their Indigenous identity. That hasn’t yet crept in”.

      She predicted that with the Pardhan Gonds, it is going to be seen quite soon with regard to the displacement of tribal villages, especially in connection with the Narmada dam project. Among other groups, like the Hazaribagh people in Jharkhand, resistance against coal mining is expressed through their work.

      Das also said that she didn't personally write the questionable text alongside The Gujarat Riots Series of paintings.

      “But I do believe that it started with the burning of the Hindu pilgrims while they were travelling in the train and there was retaliation by the Hindus.”

      She added that the artist wanted to steer clear from pointing fingers in terms of the political framework.

      “We realize, you know, we should actually be just observers and commentators through the eyes of the artists themselves," she said. "We have relied quite heavily on the artists on accounts."

      The exhibition may not provide all the answers, but it does offer an Indigenous world view on nature and the environment, which needs to be embraced to save the earth.