Sartire for a digital age

Written By kom nampultig on Minggu, 22 Maret 2015 | 08.20

If you don't look too closely it could pass off as cheesy chart art — the educational sort that once decorated school walls to illustrate good habits for boys and girls. But their captions are nowhere as edifying, and the tongue here is firmly in cheek.

Over the last few weeks, social media has been witnessing the poster battle of beliefs between the Adarsh Bhakt and the Adarsh Liberal. And both live up to their respective stereotypes — the ideal right-winger fortifies himself with gaumutra (cow's urine), is quick to seek bans on films and tops in vedic maths while his opponent discusses poverty at foreign ski slopes and supports naxals.

Before this series, there was Adarsh Balika and even before that the Bad Girl, all hilarious over-thetop representations of cliches. And it is not just subverted poster art that is going viral. Mughal and Kangra miniatures and iconic Ravi Varma paintings, too, have been used with devastating effect as familiar contexts for satire.

"They provide a frame of reference, and add depth to present-day debates by linking them to images that have withstood the test of time.

It's a secret handshake with the reader," says author and comic-book creator Samit Basu who often references existing, recognizable visual styles in his own work. "But I do it more because I love intertextuality. It's usually not overt, and the stories would work even for readers who don't see the reference."

This juxtaposition of traditional art and a contemporary context works precisely because the outcome is so unique. Take the example of Aarthi Parthasarthy's webcomic Royal Existentials.

Her comics discuss feminism, patriarchy, income inequality, violence and oppression — all through characters in vintage Indian miniature paintings. They are typically languid figures, extravagantly dressed and bejeweled in wildly opulent settings. So their millennial speech bubbles are funny as hell.

Often Parthasarathy also slyly inserts commentary on recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attack or the Peshawar school massacre without actually refererring to the incident.

She describes her own work as using "Indian vintage art and imagery to tell stories of historical (and contemporary) angst". "Some people would ask me, 'why are feminists always so angry?' And I found that strange, because most of the feminists I know are really funny people," says Parthasarathy .

While she uses images as they are, only superimposing the text, others like Adarsh Balak (and the Married Kamasutra) create new imagery using an existing style. In the first category, there's also the Tumblr account 'Ravi Varma's Women Rejecting Proposals' that has funny captions to actual paintings by the master. The contrast serves to highlight the cloyingly sweet femininity of Varma's women.

Sexism makes for a great subject for "remixed" iconic art. The Bad Girl chart (see above) became wildly popular because it played with all the tired stereotypes of the 'bold' woman who 'asks' for trouble — a topic that has huge resonance today. She smokes and drinks, can't make round rotis, has breasts etc. Created by some students of the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, it was a part of a class project on 'Visual Culture and the Vernacular.' Alison Byrnes, who teaches the course at Srishti, says: "It was an assignment to take an existing system of visual representation, analyse it, figure out what makes it an effective form of communication for its original messaging, and then subvert it to create a different type of messaging. The whole 'remixing' makes it funny and smart."

But Basu points out that this genre of art and the statements it makes may not have any longevity. "I don't think they're intended to be works that have lasting impact — for that you need to create new material, or continue with the parody over a long period of time. The intention here is immediate recognition," says Basu.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.

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