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Is Art Political?

The Italian Embassy Culture Centre's booth at the India Art Fair. Photo by Aparna Jain, via Twitter.
The Italian Embassy Culture Centre's booth at the India Art Fair. Photo by Aparna Jain, via Twitter.

1887, Beliatore village, West Bengal. A curious child was born. At the age of 16, he left home to move to modern-day Kolkata and enrolled himself in the Government College of Art. Under Abanindranath Tagore, he received a Diploma in Fine Arts. He did as his education demanded and pursued Western classical art traditions.

However, around the year 1925, he came to the morose realization that this style of art, as beautiful as it was, wasn't something his heart desired. Later that year, as he was passing by the Kalighat temple in Kolkata, adorned with bright folk paintings, it struck him. Almost like an epiphany, he realized that — this is the form of art he wanted to recreate.

Sita in Ashokavan by Jamini Roy
Sita in Ashokavan by Jamini Roy

It was not simply the appeal of Kalighat Paintings that spoke to him, it was all that he could do with it. He abandoned the traditional canvas and made his own painting surfaces out of cloth and wood. And colours out of alluvial mud, seeds, powdered rock, flowers, and indigo. Through his representations of the rural everyday life of the Bengali community, he made art accessible to all sections of people, becoming one of the most significant and influential painters of the 20th Century.

Jamini Roy
Jamini Roy

He is Jamini Roy, the man who unknowingly fueled the Modern Indian Art Movement. Shedding the entire purpose of his education and denying British academic forms of art could not have been easy, especially pre-Independence. But it was the time that called for it the most. When Indians saw a renowned artist let go of European influences to flourish in the glory of rural culture, it brought about a sense

of unity and power.

Jamini Roy's paintings don't stand out because of bright colours, tribal motifs, and long protruding eyes. They stand out for the refusal of oppression, and the abolition of inferiority.

That's what art is — a simple act of freedom.

When we make art, we make a statement about the world, and there’s very little that is apolitical about it.

Politics is not just about casting your vote every 5 years. It is about shouldering the burden of responsibility that would, someday, change the world. And disengaging from it is a luxury that not everyone can afford. Those who choose to look away, have the privilege to do so. But those who create, respond. They react.

Throughout history, artists have reacted against oppression, violence, injustice, and inequalities. They have stood up for the ones who are deliberately silenced and preferably unheard. Art challenges. It is an act of defiance. Murals mushroom on the walls around military headquarters, as thousands keep up a vigil to see a return to civilian rule. Children grow up with handmade toys and a legacy of rebelling against totalitarian governments. Because while revolution is an activity for some people, it is a lifestyle for others.

Art doesn’t always have to fuel big movements or explicitly address current events. It just needs to be humble, honest, and true.

A forbidden banner is a political statement.

So is a letter to a lover.


Aishwarya Roy is a Biotechnology post-graduate and a poet from Kolkata. The engineer in her tries to solve life problems, and the writer in her scribbles art on forbidden walls.

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