Around the same time as an annual exhibition by Masters students of the Faculty of Fine Arts at MSU University, Baroda, was called off due to protest over one student’s presentationanother student was sent to jail for non-appearance for a court hearing in a 2018 case that is an offshoot of a similar protest of 2007. In both cases, the BJP and affiliated groups such as the VHP led the protest.
But that’s where the similarities end. Where Srilamanthula Chandramohan, 41, had found support from faculty and fellow students, no one has spoken up for Kundan Yadav, whose artwork led to protests and hence suspension of the exhibition by students, the first being held offline in two years due to the pandemic . Yadav has been issued a notice for rustication, with show cause notices handed to five faculty members.
The FIR against Yadav was, in fact, filed by a second-year student from another campus, who stated that he learned about the said artwork and “confronted the student”.
Chandramohan, whose Masters’ degree in Visual Arts has been held up since the incident in 2007, had been on a Union government scholarship. Just months before he became the target of attacks in MSU, he had bagged the prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi award in December 2006 for a work titled ‘Remorse’.
He was the first in his family of farmers to pursue education, says Shivaji Panikkar, who had been officiating as dean in 2007 and was suspended for standing with Chandramohan and not closing the evaluation exhibition where his alleged “offending” works were displayed.
Meanwhile, MSU has not filed a complaint against the violent trespass on campus nor the assault in either the 2007 or 2022 incidents. In the latest case, the Vadodara city police suo motu filed two FIRs against 33 people — 31 of them ABVP workers – over held on May 5 and May 7 where police officials were allegedly assaulted.
Associate Professor Indrapramit Roy from the Painting Department says the one difference between the 2007 and 2022 incidents was that Yadav’s work was not on public display. “The image in question this year was not displayed to the public… The incident that occurred 15 years back was in the midst of a lot of confusion because departments were doing their own things… This time, there was security at the gate and each studio had a notice in place that assessment was in process and visitors were not allowed… I believe there is an investigation going on how the image went viral when it was strictly only at the evaluation phase.”
MSU Registrar Krishnakumar Chudasma claims the exhibition could be held after the matter has been investigated. “We have not barred them from holding the exhibition provided they maintain the decorum and follow the basic code… The Faculty is free to decide to hold the event.”
Even outside the campus, the mood is that it is better to be “safe” than sorry. A senior artist admits “the change in atmosphere for public expression”, adding: “A group of outsiders barge into a faculty with security in place and hold the university to ransom, egging on the decision-making authorities to rusticate a student… The Faculty , knowing fully well the times we are in, should have ensured that controversial artworks are protected and dealt with before they become a point of contention. It is their duty to guide the student… This entire episode is a result of tactlessness.”
Another artist based in Vadodara says: “No artist is looking to offend anyone but just expressing their imagination. But today, there is a lot of fear… People want instant justice when they feel they are wrong. One cannot argue logically with those who fan emotions… We are in times of a cultural war and it is imperative to be careful… The Faculty of Fine Arts is in the eye of the storm all the time because it is, really, the last bastion of freedom of thought. Having said that, when there are specific artworks that are evidently contentious, it is better to remove them to maintain law and order.”
Roy calls it a “self-initiated” approach for Masters’ students, instead of “approving” projects beforehand. “When a student brings to our notice his or her artwork, we give feedback and critique… We also suggest if the artwork should be shared in public or not… It is the decision of the teachers to advise… Students will make images but it can still hurt someone because art is about interpretation… it can be misinterpreted, especially by people who are not exposed to great art.”
The alleged “offending” works by Yadav included newspaper cutouts reporting crimes against women in the shape of goddesses and the Ashoka Stambh. Studying for Masters in Visual Arts, Sculpture Department, he was booked by the Vadodara police for “deliberate and malicious acts, intending to outrage religious feelings” and “uttering words, with deliberate feelings intent to wound the religious of any person”.
Chandramohan had got into trouble over his works on Goddess Durga and Jesus Christ, which were part of the annual evaluation display. He faces an FIR for “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion etc” and another for attempted murder and arson in 2018, when he allegedly set fire to the V-C’s office out of frustration over not getting his marksheet.
He was arrested on May 10 for reportedly missing two court hearings in the 2018 case, and was released on bail on May 17.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Chandramohan said: “My lawyer (Hirak Ganguly) recently passed away in a car and I am not sure what summons accidents I missed.”
MSU Joint Registrar Mayank Vyas says Chandramohan’s degree has been withheld due to a Syndicate decision of 2007, and no further action has been advised in the matter since.
A day after the protests over Yadav’s works, Chandramohan received an arrest warrant for missing hearings of the Vadodara Sessions court, where the trial is ongoing in the February 2018 case of attempt to murder and arson against him for claim setting fire to the university vice chancellor’s office, out of frustration over the MSU decision to withhold his degree. Chandramohan was arrested on May 10 for allegedly skipping hearings in April and May and released on bail on Tuesday after a neighbor stood as a guarantor. However, the release came a little too late and Chandramohan missed yet another hearing scheduled in the case on the same day.
The artist, who has been sustaining himself through commissioned artwork on his social media pages, says that the journey has been tough. “It is a long time since the incident… But the trial in the 2007 case has not yet commenced. I haven’t received a single summon till date… My degree is withheld. I have been selling my works through social media and also taking specific orders from people. It is enough to sustain days…” he says. Chandramohan stayed on in Vadodara following court restrictions on leaving Gujarat.
He does not rue the fact. “Yes, I am here mainly because of the bail conditions that I cannot leave Gujarat but I have also got used to the city now… I have not yet approached the court to be allowed to move because I am fine either way…”
Chandramohan’s controversial artworks continue to remain concealed in the hall of FFA, where they were displayed in 2007 — the door sealed with a plywood sheet, coated with off-white paint that camouflages the sheet against the wall. Just months ahead of the life-changing protest he faced, Chandramohan had bagged the prestigious Lalit Kala Akademi award during the 49th national exhibition in December 2006 for a woodcut print titled Remorse.
In fact, he also bagged the International Biennale award for another work in the Remorse series in 2009 and held his first international solo show in Bangkok, Thailand in 2010. But thereafter, he did not find many takers for his woodcut prints. Among some of his works already showcased so far is The Isolated Man — a headless picture of a man with a functional heart, and The Mask — a human figure with a face concealed behind a mask and Two beautiful hearts — a figure of a woman with two hearts.
He says, “The Bangkok show had good response… My professors and batchmates have supported my art over the years but it did not get as much interest as it could have…” But he does not regret his decision of choosing MSU for his Masters’ Degree — one which he has not yet received. Chandramohan says, “When I was selecting the college to pursue my Masters’, I had to opt between Delhi, Kolkata, and Vadodara. I was keen on learning screen printing, for which MSU was the best option… I had an MHRD scholarship and I chose Vadodara.”
Chandramohan feels lucky to have an art-lover for a landlord, who has permitted him to convert a part of the rented house as an art studio, where Chandramohan’s works are displayed on a rail system affixed to the wall – a huge table with his ongoing work spread out in hues of blue and white. Very soon, the artworks will be up for sale on his social media pages, from where he has been engaging patrons and taking up commissioned assignments — mainly Indian printmaking and woodcut prints on paper. Coming from a family of farmers and carpenters from Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh, Chandramohan was the first in the family of farmers to seek education.
His parents, who continue to live in the village are aware that he is facing legal cases. Chandramohan, who mostly lives the life of a recluse, says, “My parents do not understand much about art… They know that I paint on paper for a living. They are aware that I am facing court cases but they do not know the details. I am the youngest in the family and my older brothers work as carpenters to earn their bread… Since woodwork runs in the family, so my interest in woodcut art comes from there.”
With his next hearing scheduled on May 30, Chandramohan is now looking for an advocate. The artist says, “I have been unable to get another lawyer as most of them tell me that my case does not stand a chance… I engaged an advocate to formalise the bail proceedings after the arrest on May 10, but for the trial in the 2018 case, I am now looking for an advocate to defend me for justice.”