Not under Great Law, not under Sacred Law



  Curated by Navjot Altaf

October 23 – December 15, 2016


Authoring Post-epic Narratives:
Shantibai and Rajkumar Address the World 

Nancy Adajania

“The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’

We live in the aftermath of the epic. The only way to approach the great universals – truth, beauty, wisdom – in a vexatious age, apparently, is through the micro-narrative, the little story, the intimate glimpse. And yet, these post-epic forms can articulate the courage and determination of their authors, especially when they have been able to claim authorial agency for the first time, by breaking through socially legislated codes of who may speak, how they may speak, and who they may address. In the wooden sculptures, paintings and photographs made over half a decade by Shantibai and Rajkumar, two exceptional artists from Bastar, we find the expression of an emancipatory energy. Marginalised by a feudal society and for years barely recognised by a metropolitan and Western-dictated art history, Shantibai and Rajkumar have reclaimed their biographies from an exploitative system that alienates people like themselves, who belong to the tribal community, from their land, their labour, their livelihood, and indeed, even their ability to lead a life of their choice.

This assertion of the right to reclaim one’s own biography imparts a distinctive quality of animation to the work of these two practitioners, as they narrate their quest as artists and as citizens. They have borrowed the form of the pillar from the carved memorial pillars or Maria Khambhas, which have traditionally communicated the hagiographic narratives of the elite within the tribal community. But Shantibai and Rajkumar’s wooden sculptures are not memorials to the past. Rather, they are testimonies to the burning present. Theirs is a history of the Now told from a subaltern perspective. Here, they relate the plight of a people caught in the crossfire between Maoists fighting an armed revolution in their name and a heavily militarized State that treats its own people as collateral damage while fighting its enemies. They refer, also, to the State’s collusion with multinational corporations to profit from a forest belt rich in minerals.

Both for Shantibai and Rajkumar, their political and aesthetic quests are braided together. In a diary note about one of his carved pillars, Rajkumar points to a transition in the sculpted tale, which shifts from a scene showing the people’s resistance against the Tatas, who are forcing them to sell their land, to a moment when “after these discussions, we go to see the Maria Khambhas”, to research these artefacts. Both these artists began as apprentices and assistants working with a master craftsperson doing commissioned work. The transition in their lives and art was catalyzed by the artist Navjot Altaf, who has lovingly curated the present show, appropriately titling it, ‘Not under great law. Not under sacred law” at The Guild, Alibaug.

In the course of a collaboration that began in the late 1990s, Navjot has championed their practice. Together, they have built the Dialogue Centre in Kondagaon, Bastar, where they conduct their respective studio practices and also host discussions on the political economy of art, on the marginalization of gender, and other pressing political and ecological urgencies of the day. Shantibai and Rajkumar have engaged in a slow but sure process of political socialization. In the process, we see that they have had to contend with critically important questions of equity, representation and justice. What does it mean to be excluded from the conversation of the mainstream art world? And by corollary, what does it mean to live in a country that treats its tribal communities as expendable citizens, who can be shot, raped and robbed with impunity.

Carving  Tears

Shantibai’s artistic journey has been one of quiet resilience. She has transformed herself from someone who was only allowed to carve out figures drawn by her late husband, the master craftsperson Raituram, to becoming an artist in her own right. Her sculptures express a deep empathy for women and children. She sculpted the trauma of a woman raped by the police in Bastar by depicting her as a sacrificial goat. During her research into this specific outrage, Shantibai found out that, “The police laughed at the woman and her parents and told them to go home, else they will rape her again.” This columnar synoptic narrative is made up of many interlocking episodes, but it is the detail that strikes us. Shantibai depicts the raped woman’s tears as furrows in her cheeks; this could well stand in the great artistic tradition of the lachrymae, the holy tears.

Blood is not thicker than water

The autodidact’s hard-won wisdom and humility have shaped Shantibai’s sculptural language. She is deeply committed to the act of learning and sharing knowledge through the workshops she conducts at the Dialogue Centre. Children often occupy a liminal condition in her sculptures, being shown in the process of becoming gods or goddesses. The figure of the child is carved as a tender caress, but this nurturing quality should not be read simply as a mothering impulse. Along with Rajkumar and the other artists at the centre, Shantibai has produced a community that does not have a name. Some relationships are not reducible to family, kinship or census records. They are produced through the gesture of art, a provisional, ever-renewed and -renewing gesture. 

The Museum of Guns

Rajkumar’s sculptures are more expressionistic in tone and full of zest. He invents forms spontaneously, such as the masked figures with holes for eyes, to portray Maoists hiding from the police. Or he might show the bunched-up hands of the oppressed as a rope of firecrackers about to burst. He asserts his subjectivity with the words: “As an artist I believe...” One of his sculptures proposes that the representatives of various countries should come together and find a solution to the violence that has wracked Bastar. He believes that weapons should be banned, that they should be collected and donated to a museum. The pinnacle of a traditional Maria Khambha is where the soul finds its release – at the top of his sculpture, Rajkumar carves a stack of guns. By replacing the soul-bird with an armistice, he secularises the sacred convention with a here-and-now urgency. Release is here and possible, if only we have the patience to listen to those who are never heard.

The Aborted Prayer

Intersecting temporalities characterize Rajkumar’s sculptures. The topical political narrative of rapacious multinationals poisoning the land is crossed here with the reserves of folk wisdom. A demonstration on sustainable agricultural practices – such as the artisanally pounded neem fertilizer – finds place in the sculpted narrative, as does the divinatory impulse to predict the rains by reading the signs of nature. And the caveat of the Anthropocene age is symbolized through an old-style well brimming with water, as against its contemporary avatar carved as a bottomless pit. Rajkumar’s bold and even melodramatic figuration instructs and edifies by turns. The destruction of the honeycomb, the dying birds and animals culminate in an apocalyptic present. As the teaching story or upadesh gradually metamorphoses into abstraction, we ask: “Is this a cloud of pollution on the top of the sculpture. Or is it a contemporary chimera, one that still does not bear a name in the evolving collective mythos of its makers?” 

To evoke such memorable affect through wood, to transform steam escaping from a cup of tea into a genie-like wave, to depict a thick raindrop, or thirst that ends in certain death. It is not possible to read Rajkumar’s sculptures in their entirety, for one they are tall enough to kiss the gallery ceiling, and for another, their many micro-narratives cannot be exhausted in a single viewing. Rajkumar brings a remarkable dedication to his artistic research; both he and Shantibai have, along with Navjot, met and recorded the views of activists, political leaders and journalists, fighting against human rights violations in Bastar. Open to the views of different shades on the political spectrum, whether Communist or Gandhian, these artists are equally inspired by the CPI (Communist Party of India) leader Manish Kunjam, who has been advocating the right to ‘sva-sashan’ or  ‘self-governance’, among the adivasi communities, as well as the selfless work of the Gandhian human-rights activist Himanshu Kumar, who was branded as a Naxalite and whose ashram in Dantewada was bulldozed because he had dared to help the local community to file complaints against the police. [2] 

In a surprise move, one of the narratives, which unfolds at Himanshu Kumar’s ashram – portrayed as an oasis with mahua flowers, fluttering sparrows and children learning yoga – culminates in an empty meditation structure. Its façade resembles the railing of the famous Sanchi Stupa, which Rajkumar had visited during his study tour. In place of the dome, where the Buddha’s relics were believed to be preserved, we see a gentle wave pattern that rises and falls, a form suggestive of the children’s slides at the ashram.  

Does the empty structure at the top of the pillar signify a call to transcendence? Or are the children’s slides modern-day reliquaries of aborted prayer and thwarted hope? Or is this a shrine built on a site that the State systematically erased, although it could not purge the fragrance of love and freedom? 

Pedagogy of Pleasure

While Rajkumar’s work tends to be slightly didactic, he allows his idiosyncrasies – surrealist eruptions and expressionist flare-ups – to nuance the overwhelming rhetoricity of his voice. Shantibai’s sculptures and paintings, on the other hand, emphasise the need for a permanent pedagogical revolution, but she is not in the least pedantic. She takes her vocation as an artist very seriously, and it is through the practice of art that she secures her freedom to express herself (and helps others express themselves) against the existing hegemony, which perpetuates hierarchical subservience in the name of civilizing the tribal community.

I would like to read Shantibai’s practice, not as a ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ (to quote the Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire) [3], but as a pedagogy of pleasure. The former, however liberatory in its recognition of a dialogic education between teacher and student and in creating a critical consciousness, begins with the assumption of lack. By contrast, the latter founds itself on desire and longing. It is not as if Shantibai’s life has been free of lack – indeed, she has known lack well – but she has chosen to articulate the surplus of aesthetic delight and philosophical provocation against the litanies of lack. While Rajkumar would often talk about ‘samasyaein’ or ‘our problems’, Shantibai would speak of ‘koshish’ or ‘attempting to do something’ or ‘khushi’, the ‘happiness’ of living an artful life.

Whether it is her paintings or her sculptures, she takes pleasure in the art-making process and in travelling, conducting workshops and researching the aesthetic and the political (the camera and the recorder make a frequent appearance in her work). In her works, people are always engaging with each other and the environment – crossing the river, communing with the sky. In one of her paintings, her chappals become a talisman of mobility and flux.  

The Dancing Dots and the Blur  

We could interpret the dancing dots in Shantibai’s enthralling paintings and the tantalizing blur in Rajkumar’s photographs as cues to their adventures in intuition. The dots are not just an attractive surface pattern or a prompt to propel the narrative forward. Look at the way Shantibai offers each of her human figures an individual space, by circling them in a garland of flowing dots. Having individuated herself from playing the roles of wife and widow, she underscores the need for a dynamic togetherness. Almost echoing Kahlil Gibran, she seems to say: Let there be lacunae in our togetherness.  

And Rajkumar’s blurred photographs, a melt of colour and rhythm, defy the oppressive anthropological gaze. Members of tribal communities have always been the objects of authoritative scrutiny, subjects of representation in the accounts of those in power, administrators, researchers, and scholars. Rajkumar’s refusal to provide evidentiary details of the rituals, symbols and customs of his lifeworld is a self-liberation. He tells his own story as he wishes. As he eludes the frame, he reminds us that some things must remain penumbral, somewhat incomprehensible, so that art can work its magic. 


Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov’ in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (NY: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 87.

2. As Himanshu Kumar emphatically argued, “[the] Naxals are out to prove that the system can’t work. We are strengthening the system, bringing trust back into it by asking questions, holding it accountable. We are friends of the system — it is the system that is destroying itself from within.” Himanshu Kumar, quoted in Shoma Chaudhury’s article, ‘Death on the Margins’  in Tehelka, Issue 22, Volume 6, June 6, 2012. Rajkumar weaves the central plot of this sculpted narrative around Sonia, who was falsely accused by the police of being a Naxalite sympathizer and brutally tortured. In the sculpture, we see her being dragged by her hair, being kicked and beaten; she is shoved, with the other villagers, into a goods train that resembles the killing machines of the Holocaust. Her narrative intersects with that of Himanshu Kumar, who stands by her and helps her seek justice from a deaf-mute State.

3. See Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (NY: Bloomsbury, 2015).
















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