There's a scandal in the stamp

Published: Sunday 15 August 2004

-- Hindu Moon in a Mughal Garden by Ashim Purkayastha Nature Morte New Delhi July 10-31, 2004

Artist Ashim Purkayastha seems to be fond of transforming innocent items of day-to-day use into items of solemn socio-political critique. In a recent exhibition, revenue and postage stamps serve the purpose well. Each exhibit mimics a sheet of stamp paper, the kind we are so used to seeing in post-offices; except one, all stamps in the sheet are then re-rendered, in a way that transforms the stamp paper into a work of art. There is method in this non-madness: if each iconically etched stamp represents an item in the State's vision of the nation, then Purkayastha defamilarises this vision, so that the stamps can be revealed for what they are -- projections, often bizarre and fantasic. His art makes truth emerge from the truth-claim; the scandal in the stamp paper is teased out.
'Revenue' An appropriate metaphor for the exhibition's intent is 'revenue'. A State relates to its people also via revenue. As in any resource-based society, access to resources equals access to wealth. The State likens itself to a policing body which taxes to protect national interests and supposedly to distribute resources equitably.

That's the theory: in practice, rural India continues to struggle to live and to earn a living. They have to protect their resources against encroachment, confiscation and unfair governance. The Union government just defeated at the polls had also done its bit -- unequally distributing wealth (like any other government) and fuelling an intimidating increase in the spate of communal violence (each government has its pet hobby-horse). All sound reasons to view, or represent, social problems with a heightened sense of urgency.

Purkayastha does exactly this. He takes an entire sheet of a single variety of stamp, leaves one stamp intact and plays with the rest. Take for instance, the piece 'Sacred Water'. The original stamp is a compliment to the government's efforts at modernising agricultural practices. It depicts a farmer working in the field even as a water pump douses the crops. In his artistic rendition Purkayastha incorporates the graphic of a temple and fills in the white spaces with ominous saffron, thereby sarcastically 'saffronising' the remainder. The pump seems to be drawing blood, the lush bush is now a burst of flames and the farmer is now lost in a bloody coat of saffron. In Hinduism, the colour represents the ideal, the pure and the virtuous. Purkayastha employs the same as a vital symbolism to say that purist Hinduism weighs dramatically on the environment, resources and people's well-being. Thus 'Sacred Water' lays a large portion of blame for the pollution of water ways on religious rites, rituals and practices: the artist's cynicism sings -- on the one hand the water is sacred, but on the other we have no regard for taking care of it, and daily abuse it for our Gods.

He plays other games in other pieces -- distorting them, replacing the stamp image with the grim face of reality. The issue, be it water, cultural purity, agriculture or peoples' power, is brilliantly articulated. In another work he replaces Ashoka's wheel of Dharma with a saffron peacock. Entitled 'Veg-Bird', it makes a mockery of what would be commended as proper social practice, utilising what is considered a celebrated national emblem.

Two works that particulary stand out are 'Sujalang Sufalang' and 'Goat Licking'. 'Sujalang Sufalang' represents the farmer who commits suicide due to crop failure, exorbitant cultivation costs and debt recovery by private moneylenders supported by state governments. His skeletal face is an apt summary of the horrific state of affairs. The piece, 'Goat Licking', ridicules the distance between government, governance and the people: a goat licking the Ashoka's wheel of Dharma.

Purkayastha's focus is really on his own struggle with official, and officious, ideals: "As an East Bengali with a father born in what is now Bangladesh, I have always been asked by right-wing interests to prove my patriotism towards India, which is absurd because my nationality is not based on a religion". His opinions are scantily clad: dressed to offend communal sensibilities.

Nature Morte is a welcome addition to the New Delhi art scene. One senses that the artists exhibiting here have finally found a place to express themselves -- uncensored -- in a market, which can otherwise be considered painfully mainstream.

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