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The artists featured in Chemould gallery’s ongoing show of “citizen artists" would astound the philistine and the aesthete alike. Be it Pushpamala N’s reinterpretation of Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People made in 1830, presaging the French revolution, where a female figure with a flag marches forward followed by a motley mass of people, or performance clips of Indersalim, articulating against the Death Sentence at India Gate or covering himself with an LED device that says ‘AFSPA killed’ while a Manipuri youth recites names of those who military brutality killed in the Northeast. Pushpamala is a striking, lone figure in the self-portrait with a flag in one hand and a gun in the other, her blouse open and eyes focussed back right. It is, at once, an iconic and gimmicky image (justifiably perhaps, the artist does not want it published in the media)—and a comment on modern democracy and equal rights.

Aesthetic Bind Citizen Artist: forms of address is one of the most engaging shows of political art I have seen—some of the works urging the viewer to participate in their polemics. Brilliantly curated by Geeta Kapur as part of the gallery’s celebratory series on completing 50 years, most of the works are made this year, on the broad theme of nationhood, borders and the idea of citizenship. At the very start, Madhusudanan’s short film made of damaged celluloid about a cinema projectionist, Usmanbhai, and his workshop, establishes the idea of borders, more specifically, the Partition. Accompanying the work is a poem by the artist, which describes the work: “India-Pakistan appearing through the darkness of his shop..."

Shilpa Gupta presents a collection of grave stones bearing numerals. Each number represents a nameless person from Kashmir, whose kin considers him or her dead. Is he a martyr? Is she really dead? Next to rows of the eerie stone stacks are papers meant to be filled by the viewer as a pledge to be “future caretaker" of one of these stones.

Arunkumar HG’s photo frieze of migrant labourers photographed at a junction where every day they arrive to be taken to various destinations for cheap labour, is stark and direct. He prefers to call them “toilers" rather than “labourers". “How do we identify this scene, this order, which is visible yet transient as to become invisible?" he asks.

The art collective CAMP (consisting of Zinnia Ambapadiwala, Shaina Anand and Sanjay Bhangar) presents the transcripts (in the form of a screenplay, pasted across a wall) as well as the aural theatrics of the Niira Radia tapes on a large black screen. A bench in front of the screen allows the viewer to sit and watch and listen—demanding our attention while reiterating the obvious, making us see the nexus between corporates, politicians and the media all over again.

Nationhood and iconicity repeats in Gigi Scaria’s diptych of shifting video footage of Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Tse Tung, apart from each other in ideology, but united in the importance of the peasantry in their philosophy of nationhood.

Besides other stimulating works which include a fascinating aural installation on the sleeplessness of the urban animal by Tushar Joag and a digital facsimilie of the hand imprint of a peasant by the Raqs Media Collective, a comment on the state’s identification technologies such as the UID card, there is an epochal image from the past. Ram Rahman clicked the procession of Safdar Hashmi in January, 1989, from the top of a building in a black-and-white image of heaving crowds moving with Hashmi’s dead body—the image is about the death of a revolution, and the beginning of Rahman’s activism through the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (SAHMAT).

Especially since the 1960s and 1970s, Indian artists have engaged with society and politics, having shaped their own, fluid contemporary idioms. This show is an eloquent compendium of what is possible when artists choose to be radicals—wounds they can open up or speak on behalf of bedraggled citizens whose grouses against the established order may have fallen silent.

It’s a show not just for connoisseurs; don’t miss seeing it.

Aesthetic Bind Citizen Artist: forms of address is on at Chemould Prescott Road, Queens Mansion, G Talwatkar Marg, Fort, Mumbai; till 15 November. Most works are for sale and some are for sale on request. Contact the gallery at 022-22000211

Political Animals is a fortnightly blog about the intersection of politics and art.

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