Image: Detail of kaavad entitled Ram your Ganga is dirty: You buy i die. All images in article courtesy Ishan Khosla.
"Why do we as humans value animals, and in some case worship them, yet do so much harm to them at the same time? Will we end up praying to depictions of dead animals as we cause mass extinction?"
These are the questions asked by a group of artists who produced a series of nine 'Kaavad-like' shrines for the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial 2021, highlighting the injustices done to animals via the gods and their vahanas.
Indeed, the human fascination and obsession with animals has existed since time immemorial. Manifested on prehistoric rock carvings and cave paintings, medieval heraldry and insignia, contemporary brands — everything from cars and clothing, to children's toys. Even the alphabet can be traced back to the hieroglyphic image of an ox which transformed into the symbol aleph or alpha, the Latin 'a'.
Image: Kiritbhai Jayantibhai Chittara and Ishan Khosla, Oonth ke muh mein jeera (Cumin in a camel's mouth: unwanted dead or alive), 2021.
Artist Ishan Khosla is influenced by the images he captures on the streets of India and his artistic practice often reflects the visual quality of his commercial work as a type and graphic designer. In this exhibition, alongside the other artists, he attempts to reconcile — on the one hand, the reverence for all creatures in ancient religions, such as Hinduism, where the vehicles of gods (vahana) and even some gods take the form of animals — with the mass decimation of animals by humans around the world. The collection of the artworks, Van Se Vanvas (exile from the forest), poignantly reminds us that while the Sanskrit term for exile, vanvas, which prominently features in the great Hindu epic, The Ramayan — where Lord Ram, Sita and Laxman are forced to retreat to the forest — today, thousands of species of animals are being forced out of their habitats by humans.
Khosla collaborated with artist working in various Indian folk and tribal arts and crafts, many of which have a tradition of richly depicting animals. Each artists was given a blank kaavad to work with. The kaavad is a portable shrine, traditionally made by the sutradhars of Bassi, Rajasthan and sold to the kaavadiya-bhats who would travel from village to village to recite stories of the great Indian epics and local folk tales. The kaavad was used as a central aspect of this work because its narrative book-like quality appealed to Khosla's graphic desgin sensibilities. instead of representing known folk tales they tell new, more pertinent stories relevant today, bringing attention to the contradiction of the reverence given to animal avatars in Hinduism and the terrible acts of cruelty against animals by humans.
Inside the kaavads, the deities and the vahanas look familiar, but something is awry. Common to all the kaavads is either the absence of — or replacement of the central god figure. In some cases the god or their vahanas are replaced by an artificial version of the original, like the plastic filled Matsya or the goddess Ganga's makkar being replaced by a luxury crocodile skin bag. In others, the vahana is missing or dead, such as the goddess Durga with her dead tiger or Momai Ma — normally seen riding a camel — traveling on a camel shaped automobile (video above).
Image: Pradyumna Kumar, Pushpa Kumar (Mithila art) and Ishan Khosla, Ram teri Ganga maili (Ram your Ganga is dirty: You buy i die) (detail), 2021.
In the artwork Who will save you from the impending flood: the only thing fishy is the lack of fish, Mastya, the fish avatar of Lord Vishnu, who saved humanity from the great flood, is juxtaposed with a sea trawler with large fishing nets, with no fish in sight. The use of Mithila art for this work was intentional due to the significance of fish as a symbol of fertility and abundance in Maithil culture, Goddess Ganga is seen drinking water from a plastic bottle and riding on a plastic crocodile boat — humourously referencing common tourist attractions in India where one finds such animal shaped boats. The artwork speaks to the devastating death of crocodiles and the pollution of the Ganges river.
Two of the kaavads were made in the tradition of mata-ni-pachedi on hand-dyed cloth by Kiritbhai Jayantibhai Chittara. The artwork of Bahuchara, the goddess who sits on a rooster (video above), commonly depicted by this community, turns her back on the systematic violence being caused to other roosters. Industrial techniques of mass-killing represent the slaughter of millions of chickens for human consumption and the culling of millions more as a result of bird flu.
In many of the kaavads stylistic tropes of branding and packaging, such as vintage label and calendar art are used to emphasis the commodification of animals, while humour, parody and exaggeration are used to draw frank attention to their mistreatment.
Image: Pradyumna Kumar, Pushpa Kumar (Mithila art) and Ishan Khosla, Ram teri Ganga maili (Ram your Ganga is dirty: You buy i die), 2021.
Where traditional kaavads use the voice of the bhaat, many of these artworks use liberal use of text in place of voice. Whether hand painted or digitally applied, many of the words are designed to be from the perspective of the animals and reference popular culture such as Hindi films and well-known proverbs. The use of film dialogue is especially important in a medium that predates cinema as a narrative device. The animals are seen as well as heard. To this end, Khosla created looped videos to be placed inside the kaavads to complement the idea that they are storytelling devices for a new age.
The artworks in the collective question what constitutes "Indian" contemporary art and what happens when one mixes different art forms to create a new visual narrative. Just as Khosla challenged himself to break away from the constraints of a commercial brief as a graphic designer, and the digital tools he's so dependent on, many of the other artists such as Anoop Sharma, Prayumna Kumar and Pushpa Kumari, were coaxed into trying lettering, comic art and other types of art "outside" of their normal purview.
Image: Anoop Sharma and Ishan Khosla, Formerly Known as the King of the Jungle, 2021.
While the challenges of painting in another style is one thing, some of the artists found the themes uncomfortable. Anoop Sharma, said that he prays to Durga ma every morning and so when he was asked to depict her tiger being killed by a shikaari (a hunter), he found that very hard to comprehend. He said that his hands shook and that he had to do the painting a couple of times. Indeed, once finished he said that it seemed he was never supposed to depict his subject as the painting appeared fragile and flecks of painting started to fall away. He understood that the work was not about disrespecting gods and goddesses, but to highlight the plight of animals.
Overall, the artists felt that the work had an important message: the contradiction of worshipping animals as gods on the one hand, and the massacre of real animals on the other. Perhaps, as one of them remarked, "there are more paintings of tigers than tigers themselves."
Text and images by Ishan Khosla
Find out more about the exhibition here: www.indianoceancrafttriennial.com
Visit Ishan Khosla's website here: https://ishankhosla.com/