Balwan, by Kausik Mukhopadhyay

Kausik grew up and went to art school at a time when the established status quo was anti-Dada, anti-Duchamp, and anti-Abstraction. The degeneracy and disdain that these art movements were regarded with fostered a pushback in the minds of artists like Kausik. Stifled by the expressly descriptive mode of representation, he recounts conversations with fellow artist Tushar Jog, he attempted to wrangle with the conceptual ideas that Duchamp bought out in his Readymades, questioning the role of the hand of the artist, of the role of the installation, and other fundamental questions on the nature of art. And it is with this in mind, that Kausik picks the two soldiers that waltz around the piece, directionless, and without any agency. The “badly-made GI Joe” toys, as Kausik describes them, remind the viewer that children, too, are playing with Weapons of Mass Destruction, conspiring to make war, not love.

However, Duchamp’s works still glossed over and idealised the struggles of life. Kausik’s Balwan is a pushback against the idealisation and fetishisation of violence and war. He tells TMAC, “The Mughal miniatures were violent as well. We were never really free of violence.” And in a way, Kausik is right. A lot of the underlying tension in representations of the Hindu epics and the painting tradition of the martial Rajputs indicate impending violence. For Kausik, this glorification of violence is abhorrent, and the attempt to represent war as glory is a blot on the conscience of the artist.

Behind the creation of Balwan is a commentary on consumerism as it manifests itself in the art world. Kausik is fully aware of the traditions of the artists that came before him, and while mentioning Warhol, reminds one of the nature of the buyer. The art world is a market, where demand meets supply, and Kausik believes that “art is (now) a thing to satisfy your customer.” The reductivism that marks Kausik’s works is different, for it is meant to be homely, not to be consumerist. This is also why Kausik’s installations are not meant to last, and the materials are recycled into other installations. The ephemeral nature of Kausik’s art is a recognition of the commercialisation of art, for if art no longer exists, it cannot be sold. Ranjit Hoskote’s catalogue essay for an exhibition that marked Kausik’s return to the art world reads:

Adopting a DIY aesthetic as he does, Mukhopadhyay turns his back on the kind of high finish that has been de rigueur in much postcolonial Indian art. However, the rough edges are deceptive; his bricolage embodies a sophisticated play with multiple historical horizons.

Kausik’s fellow professor at KRVIA, where he teaches, Sonal Sundararajan, writes about his work:

This is the sort of meta story that hovers over the table, like a spectral ghost. Of a time of such fleeting obsolescence that barely have you been able to call something your own, that another comes to replace it.  The detritus of a time of a perpetual present, of a time of ‘nostalgia for only the present’ piles up higher and higher – in the shops in chor bazaar, in the scrap markets, in the landfills, in attics and cupboards.  Perhaps in all the exiled and discarded objects lying at the margins lie the repressed desires of the home and the city.

 

One of the most pressing questions that the use of discarded articles raises for the viewer is about the nature of memory. Is our memory of war dictated as much by what is not told through generations and through cultural and historical archives? Kausik would seem to agree with this proposition. The fleeting nature of memory, and its inherent inconsistency is highlighted by putting two soldiers who waltz around in the water, with no idea of they are truly doing, stuck in an animated suspension. Are they truly the Balwans that the piece is titled after?

The piece is titled Balwan, which means strong and hearty in Hindi. But by choosing a word that has a presence in both Urdu and Hindi, languages spoken across the Indian subcontinent, Kausik ties this piece back to the Indo-Pakistan conflict. The piece, therefore has cross-border significance. Deprived of any indicator of nationality, Kausik’s piece portrays the universality of war, built carefully behind a façade of crudeness and simplicity. Sometimes, the soldiers are in conflict with each other, and sometimes they aim into abstraction with something. The piece presents this to remind viewers of the recent nature of the Partition, for we still retain significant aspects of culture that the Indian subcontinent espoused. The conflict between the two, is therefore portrayed as fratricidal. Alluding to his Mannerist predecessors, Kausik’s title is also emblazoned on the outer wall of the tub in which the sculpture is contained, reading “Balwan size.” Is one form of bravery better and bigger than any other?

With Kausik’s piece, I find myself wrangling with the question of agency. There is always the question of responsibility in war, for who is truly responsible for the horrors of war, we do not know, and probably will never know. This again brings up the question, Is art inherently political? For Kausik, the forms that constitute art are most definitely political. It is what the artist chooses to do with these forms is what influences the nature of the end product. Art, as Kausik sees it, has the potential to bring about social change, and it is with this in mind that Kausik crafts a narrative through a piece that lives as we breathe.

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