BY Prajna Desai in Interviews | 17 NOV 16

Speaking Out

An activist as well as an artist, Navjot Altaf talks about why political struggle is a process, not an event

BY Prajna Desai in Interviews | 17 NOV 16

Since the late 1980s, the work of Navjot Altaf has fuelled some of the most energetic conversations in contemporary Indian art. In 1998, despite a thriving practice of painting and sculpture, she relocated from Mumbai to Kondagaon town in the tribal region of Bastar, Chhattisgarh, central India; since then, she has produced artworks around gender, social and ecological issues. She also addresses longstanding regional conflicts and traumas: from Naxalite (guerrilla) resistance against industries that are ripping up ore-rich hills, to violence by paramilitary forces and the loss of tribal art skills. Here, she situates her artistic sensibility against the context of her membership in the 1970s of the Mumbai-based group, Progressive Youth Movement (PROYOM), while sharing some previously unpublished artworks from the period.

Prajna Desai  Your recent solo show at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai uses an architectural imaginary to map climate change and natural disaster. Did PROYOM first seed this environmental sensibility?

Navjot Altaf  I joined PROYOM in 1972. Drought and famine were raging in Ahmednagar and Osmanabad districts in Maharashtra (a state in western India). As PROYOM members, we raised money in the city and took turns making trips to Ahmednagar once a week to support students from farmer families that were hit hard. I suppose our work with PROYOM was conditioned by environmental issues without us being actively aware of it.

PD  Did the physical reality of drought stimulate any connections with art practices in those areas?

NA  What struck us most back then was how little food and work there was, and the loss of cattle. Many families sold their land against minuscule loans. Artisans suffered the most because they depended for work on farmers with land, showing how anchored to the land a potter or metalsmith is. We certainly grasped the threat that the drought posed to the synergy between land and art.    

Navjot Altaf, Poster showing armed resistance, for PROYOM, 1974-74. Courtesy: the artist

PD  How would you say land is thematized in the posters you made for pop-up exhibitions staged at colleges across Bombay (now Mumbai) in the early 1970s?

NA  PROYOM was a student group affiliated to the Communist Party of India, Marxist-Leninist (CPIM-L). Naturally, our interest lay in the right to own land and the resistance to its acquisition. PROYOM’s communist foundation also focused our attention on the Vietnam War. It radicalized our understanding of peasant struggles across the world: Africa, Latin America, China.

PD  So, land became a generalized trope?

NA  But it was also specific to our political preoccupations and exposure to the effects of drought and famine. We were, of course, assuming a broad agitational view.

PD  Do you mean in terms of a political identity that was integral to your art practice?

NA  Sort of. Altaf (my late artist husband who introduced me to PROYOM) was a student in London in the 1960s. One reference point for us was his exposure to radical printmaking workshops that were spawned in tandem with counter-cultural movements underway in the UK. He saw a number of students join the New Left movements for civil rights and nuclear disarmament. Likewise, Adil Jussawalla, a poet and group member, also shared his take on London’s agitprop culture.

PD  There’s a distinct shift of political perspective between the Vietnam posters featured in your monograph The Thirteenth Place (2015) and the concurrently-produced non-Vietnam posters you’ve shared here.

NA  The Vietnam posters present America swallowing Vietnam, offering peace by way of white doves, but sending armed soldiers.

Navjot Altaf, poster showing a African American man’s resistance against America, for PROYOM, 1974–75. Courtesy: the artist

PD  There’s a purposeful quality there. You’re highlighting capitalist interests.

NA  It’s true, they’re more polished, more complete in their thinking.

PD  And perhaps totalizing, unlike the non-Vietnam posters?

NA  To an extent. The non-Vietnam posters are pointedly about resistance by the underdog as well as my, arguably naive, ambivalence towards armed resistance. You’ll see one figure has a spear-like device for an arm. Resistance might internalize violence, but is it necessary? The idea was to draw attention to movements across the world, so I’ve shown a number of ‘types’, Chinese, Latin American, black African. It was necessary to downsize America in these.

‘PROYOM wanted to instrumentalize art. There was a deep distrust of art’s non-illustrative dimension.’

PD  The poster with three progressive panels shows political struggle as a process, rather than an event. But is there something deeper going on here?

NA  You see, PROYOM wanted to instrumentalize art. There was a deep distrust of art’s non-illustrative dimension. We (artist members) wanted to be politically effective, but not at the cost of diluting the complexity of one’s aesthetic sensibilities. As the Austrian writer Ernst Fisher wrote: ‘If Art is necessary for a man to be able to recognize and change the world […] Art is also necessary by virtue of the magic inherent in it.’

PROYOM released a quarterly Hindi paper called Lalkaar (Challenge) edited by Narendra Panjwani, then a student, now a film critic. We discussed worker and peasant identities but never our own. I also contributed artwork to another Hindi publication, Varg Sangharsh (Class Struggle) published by the Bombay-based United Trade Union Congress (UTUC). So, why was I not examining my own struggles? My work outside PROYOM was questioning certain personal silences that didn’t resonate with the group. That’s partly why I left it at a time when its energies were already slowing down.

PD  And yet, group membership can inflect one’s work. Did PROYOM’s collaborative identity set a precedent for your eventual move to Bastar, Chhattisgarh, 20 years later?

NA  PROYOM definitely exposed me to the jolting complexities of social structure. Bastar emboldened something more complex. The slow decades’ long violence there is deeply normalized, even though ecological destruction is destroying an entire system of being.

PD  You mean human consciousness?

Navjot Altaf, poster showing the internalization of armed resistance, for PROYOM, 1974–75. Courtesy: the artist

NA  Yes, including artistic traditions. One only has to think about Fischer’s view that art isn’t some optional form of entertainment, it’s a constructive part of human consciousness to recognize the dangers of what’s going on there.

PD  Following that idea, would you say that your work in Bastar exploring how aesthetics becomes impoverished also urges contemporary art discourse to reconsider what constitutes aesthetics itself?

NA  It’s complicated. I’m working on Soul, Breath, Wind (2015–ongoing), a multi channel piece that will launch in 2017. It synthesizes documentary soliloquy and experimental footage set in Chhattisgarh through a layered montage format. One character in the film says: ‘I am not poor. I am forced to feel poor.’

PD  One might take this as a double lament by someone who has lost land and with it everything – an aesthetics of life.

NA  Precisely.

Navjot Altaf  lives between Mumbai and Bastar, India. Her series of large-format photographic images of mining sites in Bastar is part of the group show ‘Why Not Ask Again: Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories’ curated by Raqs Media Collective at the 11th Shanghai Biennale, China: it runs until 12 March 2017. Her curatorial project ‘Not Under Great Law, Not Under Sacred Law’ – works by Rajkumar Korram and Shantibai – is on view at The Guild Art Gallery, Alibaug (off the coast of Mumbai), India, until 15 December.

Main image: Navjot Altaf, Anti Vietnam War poster for PROYOM, 197475. Courtesy: the artist

Parjna Desai is an art historian and curator based in Mumbai, India.