[ESSAY, BOOKS] On the visual rhetoric of posters

[ESSAY, BOOKS] On the visual rhetoric of posters

This is the last post of this blog.

Bruce McComiskey, “Visual Rhetoric and the New Public Discourse”, JAC, Vol. 24, No. 1 (2004), pp. 187-206

(2) Ommen, Brett. The politics of the superficial: Visual rhetoric and the protocol of display. University of Alabama Press, 2016.

(3) Guffey, Elizabeth E. Posters: a global history. Reaktion Books, 2014.

(4) Gruber, Christiane, and Sune Haugbolle, eds.
Visual culture in the modern Middle East: Rhetoric of the image. Indiana University Press, 2013.

(5) Young, Ralph, ed.
Make Art Not War: Political Protest Posters from the Twentieth Century. NYU Press, 2016.

(6) Benson, Thomas W.
Posters for peace: Visual rhetoric and civic action. Penn State Press, 2015.

Susan Sontag, ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, in Looking Closer 3: Classic Writings on Graphic Design, ed. Michael Bierut et al. (New York, 1999)

“As the media sociologist John Thompson cautioned at an excellent event in Cambridge last week, it is dangerous to read back the characteristics of media by looking at their effects. If I understood his point correctly, the risk is that we end up ascribing causality to the media themselves which overlooks the many social and cultural factors operative beyond the platforms and the firms running then. Bad things are happening which involve social media therefore those bad things must originate with social media.”


Continue reading “[ESSAY, BOOKS] On the visual rhetoric of posters”

[THESIS, BOOK] On Secular Core of Indian Modern Art

[THESIS, BOOK] On Secular Core of Indian Modern Art

(1) Zitzewitz, Karin. The art of secularism: the cultural politics of modernist art in contemporary India. Hurst & Company Limited, 2014.

Karin Zitzewitz, “The Aesthetics of Secularism : Modernist Art and Visual Culture in India”, Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Columbia University, 2006


The thesis is a more useful text for my purposes than the book. It confirms the trajectory of Indian Modernist Art, vanguarded by the Progressives to have a Secular core (also it is crucial to note how it helps artists go up in the value chain of individual citizens, curiously, on the footsteps of Ravi Varma, the first Indian gentleman artist). That DNA is employed towards the service of SAHMAT visual activism. Rather than serving the Nehruvian State directly, it served the cause of India becoming a ‘international’ enough post-colonial nation in the world cultural stage. And thus a sovereign world of art is created (by many other means, as Zitzewitz goes at great lengths to argue) which is shattered by the Husain case. The public sphere no longer accepts the descaralization of religious icons and resacralization of them as art any more.

The lightning rod of the status of contemporary visual art in India remains the Husain case and I think rather than just heap encomiums on SAHMAT for sticking with Husain throughout or critique them for not doing enough, we should do something more scholarly. It should be fertile ground to serach the faultlines in the Cultural Secularization process which doesn’t hold against the Hindu Right onslaught. It is worth examing whether Secularization in India was possible only under Nehruvian state patronage and whether only Indian Modernist Art was the only sphere where it was successfully utilized. Also, as Zitzewitz sees the Husain lawsuit through the lenses of two earlier obscenity lawsuits against Souza and Padamsee, I should do too for my purposes.

The categorization of post-independence art Zitzewitz does – Internationalist (Secular) and Indigenist (Swaminathan-Subrahmanyam) is also fruitful for me because as Ram Rahman on behalf of SAHMAT writes, naturalist and Ravi Varma-like art is what they saw as the Hindu Right genre of visual art so they instrumentalized text-based / abstraction-based / photography-based style on SAHMAT identity designs. That mode of enquiry, as well as what the contemporary artists did to depart from their usual style to make activist-art for SAHMAT will also be looked at keenly. The ‘Hindu’ Visual Culture that was a strict no-no for SAHMAT (which gets Husain in trouble with his problematic conflation of Western Nude and Indic Apsara) lives gloriously in the Indigenist art tradition of Indian Modernist Art. Whether any artist from that camp was part of SAHMAT is also another probable mode of enquiry.


Title Image Source: http://kanikaanand.com/art-radar-asia/2017/3/15/truth-is-beauty-indian-modernist-bhupen-khakhar-at-tate-modern-london



[ESSAYS] On the contradictions of Leftist Cultural Activism

[ESSAYS] On the contradictions of Leftist Cultural Activism

(1) Bruce Robbins, “Disjoining the Left: Cultural Contradictions of Anticapitalism”, boundary 2, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 29-38

(2) Firat, Begüm Özden, and Aylin Kuryel Aylin Kuryel, eds. Cultural activism: practices, dilemmas, and possibilities. Vol. 21. Rodopi, 2011.


Quote from (2):

Such perspectives (Leftist Cultural Activism) are often limited in terms of practical, tactical action and engagement, and fall back into an enthusiastic, celebratory assertion of the power of laughter, or a call for new inspiring myths, radical faith, or revolutionary romanticism.”

Continue reading “[ESSAYS] On the contradictions of Leftist Cultural Activism”

[ESSAYS] On the SAHMAT support for Hussain

[ESSAYS] On the SAHMAT support for Hussain

(1) Samvartha and Sahil, “M.F. Husain: The Sufi Painter”, Indian Literature, Vol. 55, No. 3 (263) (May/June 2011), pp. 138-142

(2) Sandeep Mertia, “Understanding M F Husain & India……especially via Modernity & Obscenity” , Unpublished MA Term Paper , IIT Gandhinagar, 2011

(3) Beena Sarwar, “The MF Husain controversy: Identity, intent and the rise of militant fascism”, Nukta Art, Volume 4, Issue 2, Karachi, October 2009

(4) Jain, Kajri. “Taking and Making Offence: Husain and the Politics of Desecration.” Barefoot across the Nation: Maqbool Fida Husain and the Idea of India (2010).

None of these essays were particularly useful for my purposes. But they create a useful backdrop for thinking through how the Husain case unveils the nature of Secularism practiced by SAHMAT. The defenses for Husain throughout the controversy are (as formulated by Zitzewitz): 1) Art is a form of free speech, vandalising art is obstructing free speech; 2) There have been many historical precedents of visual artistic expressions like Husain’s ; 3) Husain is a respectable artist and renowned citizen of India, so he should be revered and his works paid attention to, if no admired, then not reviled; and 4) visual art works on a different realm than other visual images and only experts should opinionate on the same. And over all, as a citizen of a secular country, a Muslim artist has every right to reinterpret a Hindu epic visually, the court of law will refute any claims to the contrary. To which the Hindu Right’s defenses are: 1) There are limits to free speech; 2) A Muslim no matter however influential has no right to appropriate Hindu imagery to his liking as he is a member of the minority community; 3) The ‘hurt sentiment’ of the majority has more weight than the ‘right to freedom of expression of the minority’; 4) The court of law may say what they want but the court of people will decide what’s right. To this one may add that Husain for both sides was a key symbolic ground to be won (more attacks on Husain’s photos rather than Husain’s painting in the SAHMAT exhibition is rather telling) and let’s discuss how this ground was lost. The fights on the secular side was based on claims of higher knowledge and appeals to democratic institutions of the state while the fights on the Hindu Right’s side are that of popular sentiment and spontaneous violence, yet that can be interpreted easily in the terms of secularism as keeping religions away from each other and out of public space. As Mazzarella mentions in the SAHMAT volume these antagonisms are strangely mirrored: each side nursing their hurts / wearing their affects on sleeves (to Hindu / Popular, Secular / Democratic Sentiments respectively), each side denigrating / celebrating Husain for him being Muslim and citing Historical authentifications (the Secular Democrats of previous syncretic traditions and the Hindu Right of Hindu Purity and Manusmriti etc.) because both sides are circulating withing the same sets of binaries and textual legitimations. It might do well to show that the arguments of SAHMAT, even though made with a lot of supporting visual materials, are hardly visual, but built upon inherent textual logic of mainstream secularism which is so susceptible to Hindu Right appropriation.

[ESSAYS] On Public Art

[ESSAYS] On Public Art

E. H. Norman and J. M. Norman, “Community Operational Research Issues and Public Art Practice: The Art Director System”, The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 51, No. 5 (May, 2000), pp. 510-517

(2) Introduction, Lacy, Suzanne, ed. Mapping the terrain: New genre public art. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1995, pp. 19-30

(3) Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity”, October, Vol. 80 (Spring, 1997), pp. 85-110

None of these essays were useful in theorising the nature of public-ness of SAHMAT exhibitions. Except public art is inherently done for three purposes, either commemoration, or ornamentation or urban regenration. SAHMAT’s art exhibitions being ephemeral and being done for both commemoration and political activation purposes, will have more to do with theorisation of agit-prop posters (to be literature reviewed in the hundredth and last blog post of this blog). Also as a tentative answer to a question posed by an activist friend (what has been so unique behind the lack of success in visual activism in India), I propose that a self-imposed limiting mandate of posterization of activist art and more specifically the logocentricity of it is behind it. They intend to raise the viewers political consciousness enough to lead him / her to political texts and nothing more (unlike activist cinema) had something to do with this. I think I would do well to build upon this insight in the following literature reviews.


[ESSAYS] Dia Da Costa on Theatre Activism

[ESSAYS] Dia Da Costa on Theatre Activism

(1) Dia Da Costa, “Subjects of Struggle: theatre as space of political economy”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 4, Relocating Culture in Development and Development in Culture (2010), pp. 617-635

(2) Dia Da Costa (2012): “Learning from labour: the space and work of activist theatre”, Contemporary South Asia, 20:1, 119-133

Though (1) (and its review and the reader’s response by Rustom Bharucha of Dia Da Costa’s https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/63tqg7gp9780252040603.html) doesn’t add anything useful about JANAM and in turn about SAHMAT, (2) has a succinct summary of JANAM: (pp. 123-126 / 6-9)

Continue reading “[ESSAYS] Dia Da Costa on Theatre Activism”

[BOOK EXCERPT] Introduction of Forms

[BOOK EXCERPT] Introduction of Forms

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, rhythm, hierarchy, network. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Relevant quotes:

Along the way, our critic would most likely keep her formalism and her historicism analytically separate, drawing from close reading methods to understand the literary forms, while using historical research methods to analyze sociopolitical experience. These would seem to her to belong to separate realms and to call for different methods.(p. 1/5)

The traditionally troubling gap between the form of the literary text and its content and context dissolves. Formalist analysis turns out to be as valuable to understanding sociopolitical institutions as it is to reading literature. Forms are at work everywhere. One might object, of course, that it is a category mistake to use the aesthetic term form to describe the daily routines of a nineteenth-century school. Surely the relation between literary and social forms is just an analogy, or an identity working at too a high level of abstraction—an expansion of the word form so broad as to make it meaningless. But a brief look at the history of the term suggests otherwise. Over many centuries, form has gestured to a series of conflicting, sometimes even paradoxical meanings. Form can mean immaterial idea, as in Plato, or material shape, as in Aristotle. It can indicate essence, but it can also mean superficial trappings, such as conventions—mere forms. Form can be generalizing and abstract, or highly particular (as in the form of this thing is what makes it what it is, and if it were reorganized it would not be the same thing). Form can be cast as historical, emerging out of particular cultural and political circumstances, or it can be understood as ahistorical, transcending the specificities of history. In disciplinary terms, form can point us to visual art, music, and literature, but it belongs equally to philosophy, law, mathematics, military science, and crystallography. Even within literary studies, the vocabulary of formalism has always been a surprising kind of hodge-podge, put together from rhetoric, prosody, genre theory, structural anthropology, philology, linguistics, folklore, narratology, and semiotics….form has never belonged only to the discourse of aesthetics. It does not originate in the aesthetic, and the arts cannot lay claim to either the longest or the most far-reaching history of the term. (p. 2/6)

an attention to both aesthetic and social forms returns us to the very heterogeneity at the heart of form’s conceptual history…forms are the stuff of politics. Drawing on the work of Jacques Rancière, I define politics as a matter of distributions and arrangements.Political struggles include ongoing contests over the proper places for bodies, goods, and capacities.(p. 3/7)

Let me start by articulating five influential ideas about how forms work. These are ideas that have guided literary and cultural studies scholars over the past few decades, but they have remained largely implicit—and disconnected from one another: Continue reading “[BOOK EXCERPT] Introduction of Forms”

[BOOK] Images and Words

[BOOK] Images and Words

Images and Words: Artists Against Communalism, SAHMAT, New Delhi

Some primary observations from the catalogue of this post-Babri mobile exhibition across North-West India during 1991-1992:

(1) The images depict a binary imagination. Either the horror or the beauty that was ‘before communalism came to ruin it’ and the reign of beauty and truth it will be again if ‘communal’ horror is defeated. ‘Communalism’ is seen as a temporary cognitive failure. Only a few bad men, i.e.; ‘politicians’ are held responsible. The perpetrators are always the vague ‘they’. The material structure underneath the violence is never questioned.

(2) A naive political understanding of victimisation in the hand of ‘communalisation’. ‘A few bad men’ mode of reasoning or pious weeping at the rendering of all that is bad into all that is deemed good, a lasting shock at the ‘upside down world’ : as one of the posters proclaim – “only the innocents are deemed guilty now”. Ram Rahman’s work simply states his name, proclaiming himself as an example of ‘non-communalism’, born of an interfaith marriage.

(3) So many of the cultural personalities’ allegiance to SAHMAT seems to be tied to the affect and memory of Safdar Hashmi, rather than the cause of communalism. It makes one wonder how this inheritance which should have expectedly been of JANAM, was transferred to SAHMAT and how much of this process was conscious.

(4) The words in true Nehruvian multicultural tradition were from a host of Northern, a handful of Western and only one Eastern languages with no presence of any from the South. It begs the question whether the overwhelming imagination of the secularism very Northern in its cultural essence. The sentiments expressed in most of the poems (Hindi translations are provided) are curiously uniform in nature. ‘Communalism’ is interpreted as man’s wickedness towards fellow men, visualized as mindless butcherings in a riot, and rousing the nebulous ‘goodness’ in fellow men by moral compulsion to solve the problem once and for all. While this can be celebrated as ‘Unity in Diversity’, it can also be easily interpreted as a hegemonic cultural imagination.

[ESSAYS] On the essence of Sahmat ‘Secularism’

[ESSAYS] On the essence of Sahmat ‘Secularism’

(1) “In the Name of the Secular: Cultural Interactions and Interventions”, Rustom Bharucha, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 29, No. 45/46 (Nov. 5-12, 1994),
pp. 2925-2934

(2) “Cultural Literacy and the Academic “Left””, Jeff Smith, Profession, (1988), pp. 25-28

(3) “Seminar on Secularim and the Arts: A Report”, Amol Saghar, Social Scientist, Vol. 41, No. 11/12 (November-December 2013), pp. 65-74

(4) “Perceptions and Receptions: Sachar Committee and the Secular Left”, Surinder S. Jodhka, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 42, No. 29 (Jul. 21-27, 2007), pp. 2996-2999

(5) The Theatre of the Streets, Ram Rahman, India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3/4, India: A National Culture?(WINTER 2002-SPRING 2003), pp. 140-152

(6) “Left Cultural Movement in Andhra Pradesh: 1930s to 1950s”, V. Ramakrishna, Social Scientist, Vol. 40, No. 1/2 (January–February 2012), pp. 21-30

(7) “Creativity and the Left Cultural Movement in Orissa, c. 1930–40”, Biswamoy Pati, Social Scientist, Vol. 40, No. 1/2 (January–February 2012), pp. 31-40

(8) “Left Cultural Movement in West Bengal: An Analysis”, Angshutosh Khan, Gautam Bose and Debaprasad Chakrabarti, Social Scientist, Vol. 6, No. 6/7, Special Number of West Bengal (Jan. – Feb., 1978), pp. 114-119

(1) turned out to be immensely helpful about my core argument about the nature of visual activism of SAHMAT. As argued meticulously by Rustom Bharucha that what Sahmat does is taking Nehruvian ideal of Secularism (mostly a post-Nehruvian construct to counter the post-80s rise of Hindutva) as an unquestionable monolithic ideal, disseminates it in a depoliticized form with generous visual, philosophical and ‘high culture’ doses with media savvy (the subaltern examples with auto-rickshaw drivers and Mongolpuri slum children are exceptions which proves the rule, as it will be argued in detail). In doing that, it actually jeopardises the cause it purports to promote, i.e.; anti-communalism. Culture, especially, Indian Culture is deeply context-specific and if Cultural Activism is not carefully inclusive of the community it claims to aid and not highly critical of the form it takes, it causes more harm than good. A quote from (2) (p. 28/5) will illustrate the delicacy of the job well: “An innocuous statement : “Lunch is served at twelve” can be delivered in a way that arrogantly suggests that my knowledge of lunch service is superior to yours. Or the same statement can represent a generous recognition that you have as much right to know about lunch service as I do. It can even be aimed at creating a community in which we all know that lunch is served at twelve and therefore have an opportunity to debate whether it should be served at twelve, rather than at eleven or one. Such should be our goal with cultural information in the classroom. At bottom, if we let worries about the oppressiveness of discourse and the inaccessibility of knowledge keep us from confronting the problem …, then some people will end up not getting any lunch at all.” The problem with the Nehruvian mode of SAHMAT activism is not just because it is anachronistic and elitist, it is primarily is from a Hindu consciousness, and oblivious about the same. That’s why it assumes universal comprehensibility of the ‘Narasimha’ visual motif and oblivious about the lack of irony in singing of ‘Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram’ at Ayodhya right after the Babri demolition. (3) corroborates of this limited and self-congratulatory mode of SAHMAT activism (except the clear-eyed presentation of Teesta Setalvad). (6) opens up the same questions via the response of the Indian Secular Left to Sachar Committee Report of 2006. A few relevant quotes:

Continue reading “[ESSAYS] On the essence of Sahmat ‘Secularism’”