Was it Worth it? War and Violence Reflected in the Works of Indian Artists: Sunny Chandiramani

At a time when the world is witnessing a conflict, here are five works by Indian artists that remind us of the extraordinary costs of violence and war.

Art has always been an important tool for reflecting on the harsh realities of sociopolitical conflicts and how they affect the most vulnerable sections of society. Creating a non-verbal dialogue, art addresses different types of violence and human rights violations emerging from authoritarianism and state repression. At the same time, it also serves as a reminder of the painful aftermath of these conflicts and warns humankind against new disasters in the making. At a time when the world is witnessing a needless and senseless ongoing conflict, here are five works by Indian artists that remind us of the extraordinary costs of violence and war.

Untitled (Anti Bangladesh War Painting) by M.F. Husain

This untitled work is an iconic anti-war painting by India’s most prominent artist M.F. Husain. Deviating from his signature style, the artist created this painting in response to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which resulted in conflict between India and Pakistan.

Executed in the year 1972, the shrouded identities of the political masters can be deciphered as the primary adversaries – Indira Gandhi, who was India’s Prime Minister at the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was the leader of West Pakistan; and Mujibur Rehman, who was the leader of Bangladesh Resistance Movement. With a colour composition of burnt umber with strong black lines, the work emanates a brooding sense of abandonment and represents the war-torn Indian subcontinent. 

Untitled ( Tiananmen Square Scene) by M.F. Husain

Executed as an expression of his protest against the horrific mass killing, this painting by M.F. Husain conjures the scene of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that took place on June 4, 1989. In the weeks leading up to the massacre, thousands of civilians, including students, had congregated on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to call for democratic reforms in the wake of the passing away of Hu Yaobang.

Yaobang was a former Communist Party leader and became a symbol of reform due to his efforts in bringing transparency to China’s political structure. A martial law was imposed in the city when protestors refused to end the demonstrations. On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops reached Tiananmen Square and started firing indiscriminately on the protestors, which resulted in horrific bloodshed and killings. The official death toll for the massacre was never released by the Chinese government.

Growing Unrest by F. N. Souza

This is a rare creation by the eminent modernist F. N. Souza, who is famous for his landscapes and imagery of distorted human heads. Executed in the year 1991, the work gives an insight into the artist’s sociopolitical intellect and depicts human conflict in a scene of civil unrest. Unlike many of his works, the acrylic on canvas painting showcases a large gathering of people.

A figure in the foreground can be seen raising a truncheon to what seems like a group of unarmed people. It is also probable that the Crown Heights racial riot in New York was an immediate inspiration for the artist in creating this work since he was living in the city at the time.

Untitled (A Refugee Family) by B.C. Sanyal

This work comes from the oeuvre of artist B. C. Sanyal, who referred to himself as a ‘refugee artist.’ The artist was practising in Lahore before being displaced from there during the country’s partition. During this time, he witnessed the suffering of people who had to leave their homes behind, and his works often depicted the harsh realities of partition.

Taking a departure from his usual colour palette, the artist has used dark brown and white to create a feeling of despair in the emotions of his subjects whose crestfallen gazes do not meet the viewers. This work was executed in the year 1948.

German Measles: Kiefer’s Cell by Atul Dodiya

This diptych titled ‘German Measles: Kiefer’s Cell’ by artist Atul Dodiya draws inspiration from the works of German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer, whose works repeatedly made references to his country’s guilt of committing innumerable crimes against humanity in the World War II. The left panel takes a cue from a sculpture and a painting by Keifer.

The panel on the right shows an imprisoned man in iron shackles who partially looks like the artist. Behind the figure there is an English translation of an old German rhyme ‘Maikäfer Flieg!’ by Anselm Kiefer. The rhyme talks about the German invasion and destruction of Pomerania, which was a part of Poland then. The historical region is now split between Poland and Germany.

Author – Sunny Chandiramani, Vice President, AstaGuru Auction House

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