The Baroda Fine Arts College Debacle and Chandramohan
It will not be hard to recall the name of Chandramohan Srilamantula. The master’s degree student of Department of Graphics at the Fine Arts College in Baroda who was jailed for displaying artworks in the faculty evaluation show which a Methodist pastor and a local BJP man found objectionable. The BJP man with his supporters vandalized the show and later filed an FIR against the student for ‘misusing religious symbols and causing religious offence and got him arrested by a nonbailable warrant. The date was 9 May 2007. One year has past after the incident in the life of democratic India. By now, everybody must have forgotten it.
However, at the heat of the moment it seemed like the democratic minded citizens of Baroda, Gujarat and India would remonstrate on the issue until they reestablish the dignity of the student and institution. The artists went for a peaceful hunger strike, arranged another campus exhibition on the erotic depiction of religious symbols from the 2500 years history of Indian art as a protest against the vandalism. The university authorities forcefully closed this exhibition and suspended the acting Dean of the Faculty Mr. Shivaji Panikkar for allowing such a vulgar show. National English language media highlighted the issue through editorials, headline news, protest articles and prime time discussions. The reaction looks genuine as it was directly related with the cliché ‘freedom of expression’. Who can deny that our media care so much for this freedom? All over India, artists and citizens came on street to voice their concern. Two committees were formed to probe the incident. One by the MS University and the other by the Governor of Gujarat. None of the reports were officially made public.
After the instigators found that, he was no more important for their cause, Chandramohan was released on bail but his results were withheld and not yet been delivered. Recently he had to file a case in the local court to get his results cleared. A broken chap, he returned to his native village in Andhra Pradesh after his release, from where one day he had traveled a long way to Baroda to realize the dreams of his artistic desires. Shivaji Panikkar is still under suspension. Eventually, nothing really changed except Baroda Fine Arts College and Chandramohan’s loss of dignity.
Lots of people had spoken about the fascistic tendencies of the present BJP regime of Gujarat. Just think of a similar incident happening in a state like West Bengal. The clamor of the society will bring the ruling party and government on its toe, strong public opinion will be reflected in the local media, known-unknown organisations will start agitation, the opposition parties will start a augmented campaign against the ruling party, the chief minister will be compelled to comment and willingly or non willingly take some action. In Gujarat, nothing of that sort happened. The society in general was deaf and mute; the local media passively supported the vandalism, with the exception of Anhad, no organisation had the guts to stage a significant protest. It is easy to be daring from the TV studio but difficult to be the same on the streets of today’s Gujarat. The opposition party Congress observed the incidence from a safe distance, because they were not sure about how much political mileage they can achieve if they lend support toward the victim. Or maybe deep in their heart, they also approved the vandal acts. The chief minister until today has not uttered a single word on the incident. As if, it was too minor an issue for him to intervene. Nobody, not even the brave and honest Indian media dared to question his and his government’s pathetic silence on the issue. In his Gujarat, there is no space left for people to survive with dignity if they disagree with the neo-national ideology of the ruling party and many righteous citizens of this prosperous state, sadly, has taken it for granted. Surely enough, Mr. Modi is an honorable man!
Chandramohan has not returned to Baroda. He knows that there will be no one there to support or defend him and even if there are any, he will be still unsafe. He was the victim from two opposite sides of the establishment. From one side the self-appointed guardians and theoreticians of Hindu culture, who reminds us of the Nazi Storm Troopers, directly victimized him. However, he was also victimized indirectly from another side; an art education system that allows its pupils to freely express their mind but do not teach them the appropriate ways to communicate it. Who are the addressee of this “free expression” so loudly promoted by the media? Our art education system had cocooned the mind of the student artists in their egoistic individual cells and was mostly successful to isolated them from their own people. The artist community in India is almost like an inaccessible sect where non-members are not entitled to enter. Common people are amassing their conceptions standing outside the closed gate of this decorated facade. There are writers and critics who can philosophize to the works of Chandramohan but who are going to listen? Without communication, freethinking is a vague concept.
We can urge endlessly on artistic freedom and obscenity, site tons of examples to support our notion and finally, almost like a ritual, say: let the people decide. Are we clear about whom this people are? If we mean the Indian mass, are they experienced and educated enough to form an opinion concerning art issues on their own? Are they aware of the art history of their own country? Do they really care for the art created by the Indian artists? Sadly, all these questions will conclude in negative.
Chandramohan’s future as an artist may not be over but is certainly doubtful. Meanwhile the artistic careers of his former classmates and teachers are in an all time high, thanks to the Indian art boom. No one has any more time to waste thinking for this unfortunate young man.