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The political avatar of art

Riyas Komu returns with a thought-provoking series that questions our enthusiasm for militant nationalism'

‘Dhamma Swara’ from Riyas Komu’s ‘Holy Shiver’. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi
‘Dhamma Swara’ from Riyas Komu’s ‘Holy Shiver’. Photo: Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi

When a republic, founded on the constitutional principles of secularism and democracy, starts losing sight of the moral crux of its origins, it is perhaps only natural that its artists undertake the task of dispelling that amnesia. True to form, Riyas Komu, whose practice has been embedded in the vocabulary of state signs and symbols, uses a range of media in his recent solo exhibition to visually discuss what he terms the presently rising “militant enthusiasm". Edited excerpts from an interview with the artist:

How did you arrive at the show’s title, ‘Holy Shiver’?

My works for the exhibition are not based on the concepts of Austrian zoologist and ethologist Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, but the title came as a natural progression of my critical engagement with the themes explored. I didn’t start my work thinking of Holy Shiver but I came across this accidentally during the final stages of conceptualizing the exhibition and the term and concept seemed appropriate, referencing “the behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community". Lorenz talks about how this tendency physically manifests in the tingling sensation in the spine—a pre-human reflex for the raising of hair on the back of an animal as a preparatory step for a fight when confronted with an enemy.

What was your artistic methodology?

The works that form Holy Shiver are an extension of my practice. I have been working with the image (and ideas) of (Mahatma) Gandhi and (B.R.) Ambedkar for some time now. However, I am interested in exploring these not only as figments of history or as a reminder of an “ideal that we had", but in their moral and conceptual frameworks, in their aesthetics and philosophies. The Gandhi/Ambedkar juxtaposition also considers the current debates, negotiations and reconciliation arguments that are prevalent in the Indian socio-political space. For me, it’s interesting to witness how our ideas of “identity", “freedom" and “sovereignty" are shifting to accommodate the onslaught of globalization and nationalism. So these works—oil portraits, woodcuts, installations and archival prints, framed in a space, time and context—are self-explanatory. I see them as an archive of our times, however incomplete it may be.

You transfer the image and make a woodcut out of it. On the other hand, the content of these images is deeply disturbing footage, evidence of our inhumanity. One image that I can easily identify is the woodcut version of a photograph from Pablo Bartholomew’s Hindu-Sikh riot documentation. Are you looking to recontextualize images from an existing archive?

Titled Holy Shiver (2018), the woodcut series are limited-edition prints that explore some of the acts of violence in social spaces throughout the history of independent India. It explores the misuse of power by the people; to self-organize, to take the law into their own hands, to disregard constitutionally granted freedoms, and to use caste-based oppression to bolster state-sanctioned authority.

I didn’t start my work thinking of ‘Holy Shiver’ but I came across this accidentally...and the term and concept seemed appropriate, referencing ‘the behavioural tendency of willing to kill or be killed in defence of one’s own community’-

It is a continuation of the Stoned Goddesses (2013) series that also explored violence and the displacement of different times. I have been influenced by the stark, simplistic style of the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, who was fearless in critiquing the social systems of her time. She wanted her art to make an impact and be reflective of the times she lived and worked in. My woodcut series is representative of the images of public violence already in wide circulation. They create a tragic resonance between these dark chapters in Indian history. I have admired Pablo’s work and have collected some of his photographs of the 1984 riots. The image that I have used is from his archive, which I have also referred to in my Stoned Goddesses series. Pablo was very happy to share his image to be used for this series. I don’t mean to recontextualize these tragedies and give them new meaning or to add to what already has been said, but I mostly recontextualize images in my works as a form of remembrance. And this extends beyond my woodcut series.

Would you consider your show a provocation to remind audiences about their role as citizens?

The founding principles declared in the Constitution of India assert its citizens’ right to justice, equality and liberty and establish the country as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. But as Ambedkar said, “The Constitution can provide only the organs of state such as the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The factors on which the working of those organs of the state depend are the people and the political parties they will set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics." Our willingness to turn a blind eye to the state and social apparatuses that aim to subvert these freedoms (for a certain section of the populace) have now resulted in disillusionment with the way the system works. Of course, I understand that there is a fundamental disagreement on the idea of India, but this conflict of vision is precisely because the Constitution has afforded us certain freedoms, and not in spite of it.

What is your fascination with public memory?

I have always been fascinated with what we remember. Public memory is notoriously short-lived. And I think it’s a challenge to situate public memory at a time when we are oversaturated with images and when certain sections of the society are happy with the hyper-partisan news, information and images that simply conform to what they already know and believe in. So in a way, the public’s memory is the curse of the public. This is perhaps why it’s easier to erase certain symbols from history than to reinstate their intent. So yes, in a way there is the need to question public’s memory or the ways in which we (the people) remember certain histories. That’s why many works in Holy Shiver employ (or challenges the viewer to rely on) public memory to unravel momentous melancholies in time. Our current political rhetoric betrays an intense pursuit of politico-ideological legitimacy in the liberalized world. So, I believe this act of questioning has always been present in my works, be it My Father’s Balcony, Designated March By A Petrol Angel or the current show.

Holy Shiver is on view till 3 March at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi. For more information, please visit

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