This year would have marked the 77th birthday of social activist and rationalist Narendra Dabholkar. In 2013, Dabholkar was murdered by two gunmen in Pune. Keeping the memory of his work and life alive is Friends of Dabholkar, a group of activists and journalists, who have put together an art exhibition called “We are on trial”.
This exhibition of paintings, sculptures and installations by current and past students of Sir JJ School of Art will run at Sir JJ School of Art at Yashwantrao Chavan Center till November 1, Dhabolkar’s birth anniversary. The 30 works on display intend to honour Dabholkar’s life, beyond his work as an anti-superstition reformist. Journalist Alka Dhupkar, one of the founding members of Friends of Dabholkar, says, “Dabholkar was looked at only as an ‘anti-Hindu activist’ but that’s not true. He was anti-superstition with regards to every religion.”
Dabholkar, a trained physician, founded the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti, through which he campaigned extensively against godmen and miracle workers who claimed to have miracle cures for ailments. His work came together in the form of the Anti-Superstition and Black Magic Ordinance, which was only passed after his murder in 2013.
At the exhibition’s opening on October 28, at which actor Naseeruddin Shah was the chief guest, visitors were able to get a more rounded picture of Dabholkar. A sculpture referred to Dabholkar’s success in his youth as a kabbadi player, for which he was awarded Maharashtra’s highest honour for a sportsperson, the Shivchhatrapati Puraskar. Dabholkar had even represented Maharashtra in kabbadi in the 1970 National Games.
Much like the visitors, the artists too learned a fair about in the course of making works for this exhibition. Shweta Urane, a postgraduate student of printmaking at Sir JJ School of Art, said that because they knew largely only about Dabholkar’s anti-superstition work, Friends of Dabholkar introduced them to more aspects of his life. Urane’s work still focuses specifically on his anti-superstition activism, showing a figure in the centre that is caught in a net of superstitious beliefs, with every possibility of these beliefs permeating through.
Other works in the exhibition use portraiture to reflect on Dabholkar as a grandparent, a son or as one of the many activists who have been murdered in India in recent years. Akshay Khatu, who studies printmaking, presented his portrait of Dabholkar composed of tiny images of his books and photographs. Khatu says he has used nearly 2,400 pieces in the making of the collage, a time-intensive process.
Dhupkar says, “Dabholkar not only opposed, but also gave action-led programmes as alternatives. If we say no to rituals, then what can we do in their place? And he never suggested anything apart from the Constitution.”
Exhibitions like these that are rooted in social activism can often slip into a message-heavy exposition with text panels, but that is not so the case with “We are on trial”. Dhupkar said that they were guided by Sir JJ School of Art faculty member, Shashikant Kakade, in ensuring that the event stay true to its original purpose as an art show.
Social activist Sunilkumar Lawate says, “Since Dhabolkar’s death, his message and his thoughts have stayed among activists. We want to bring them back to the public. This model is one of the ways we can do this.”
The work that seemed to gain a lot of interest was by Shefali Holam, a postgraduate student in murals, who has used voodoo dolls, miniature slippers and coconuts, and other talismans used as good luck and to ward off the evil eye. “I found these objects interesting. People use them for manifesting their desires but there is no scientific proof that this happens. It’s own thoughts, and not these objects, that are responsible,” she says.
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