A new show at the KNMA presents scathing socio political commentaries by four artists of modern India
These include political posters by Chittoprasad, the iconic ‘Common Man’ cartoons by R.K. Laxman, satirical verses by KG Subramanyan and lithographs by Gaganendranath Tagore
In 1917, artist Gaganendranath Tagore did a series of 16 lithographs that offered a satirical commentary on the sociopolitical transformations taking place in what was then Calcutta. Compiled in an album, titled Adbhuta Loka, or the Realm Of The Absurd, these caricatures, dripping with sarcasm, exposed the double standards of dubious priests and the anglicized “Bhadralok", or the “Hybrid Bengalis", as he used to call them.
One of the highlights from these lithographs is the depiction of the maharaja of Burdwan as this enormous figure dressed in Western attire, smoking a cigarette and talking down to a reed-thin man dressed in Indian clothes, with the words “My love of my country is as big as I am" written underneath. According to an article on the website of the Victoria And Albert Museum in London, this album was printed in small numbers and sold for ₹4. Now, one can see original lithographs and collaged pages from Adbhuta Loka at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Saket, Delhi, as part of the exhibition Common Course.
Sharing space with Tagore’s works are political posters by Chittoprasad, K.G. Subramanyan’s stinging poetics on the political drama unfolding during the Emergency and R.K. Laxman’s iconic cartoons featuring the “Common Man". Together, these 200 or so works present a unique take on 100 years of India’s history, from the colonial period to the post-independence years.
Juxtaposed against Tagore’s Adbhuta Loka is Subramanyan’s The Tale Of The Talking Face, published in 1989 by Seagull, which describes it as a “stinging parable of democracy gone wrong, narrating and illustrating the story of a princess whose autocratic rule brought nothing but suffering to her people, despite her ambition of progress for the country". In an array of 43 paper collages, blackened featureless faces play out the theatre of the absurd, accompanied by lines such as: “There were some in the king’s court whose tears were not real. They wore them on their eyes like icing on the cake."
According to Roobina Karode, KNMA director and chief curator,, these sociopolitical commentaries continue to be relevant. “They continue to put us in confrontation with our realities, and their unsettling and disturbing aspects. When you see the intense pen and ink political posters by Chittoprasad from the 1940-50s, you can imagine what the times must have been like, with British India’s repressive policies and the communal politics around Partition," she says. One extremely striking work is Tagore’s Purification By Muddy Water, which shows a priest as this rotund creature, sprinkling dirt into a jar of holy water in exchange for money.
“What really stands out in Common Course is that each artist has used a language, which is easy and familiar in order to stir the consciousness of the masses. And yet it is an uncommon way of speaking. Laxman draws attention to the most serious of issues using humour and that does the job," says Karode.
One challenge was to curate an intense display of hundreds of works, rather small in size. “In such a scenario, how does one ensure that the galleries will make it conducive for viewers to focus on these little works that are dynamite?" she elaborates. Also, by bringing the diverse set of artists together, she wanted to break hierarchies and this notion of high and low art. “One shouldn’t build boxes around artists and label them. I feel Laxman’s role is just as important as Gaganendranath’s, and his work just as effective," says Karode
Common Course is on at the KNMA (Saket), Delhi, till 25 October.