"I Will Not Lose Faith in the Indian Judiciary and Democracy."

"TJ split into three, like Ashoka's Lions, spitting bullets and fire. Not sure if it works for someone who doesn't know a) Gandhi was shot thrice, b) symbolism of the lions (basic plank of RW is restoring power, courage, pride & confidence to the supposed flaccid state of majority pop), c) the animosity between RW and Gandhi. Obv not a concern for Indian viewer, but does it travel? Also, animation is pretty tacky. But TJ so nice and articulate. Cares so deeply that when he's explaining, you feel almost petty for paying attention to things like bad animation. Also, FINALLY a good-looking and FIT Indian artist."

Those are from the notes I made after meeting Tushar Joag for the first time, sometime in the mid-2000s, after seeing his video piece, "Three Bullets for Gandhi". After a few more descriptions of other works, I wrote this:

"1998-2000: Residency at Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. At the end, on open day when curators etc see works, TJ shut his studio and destroyed everything he’d made. —> Frustrated with commercialism of art world. Came back to India and destroyed EVERYTHING he’d made over some 10 years. EVERYTHING. Even documentation. Turned to activism. Yrs later, baby steps back into art world. … Everyone makes a point to mention how much he 'cares' about what he does. Makes you wonder just how little other Ind contemp artists ‘care’ if TJ doing so is worth underlining."

A few years later, in 2011, I went to see Right to Dissent, a show organised in support of Dr. Binayak Sen, who had been accused of sedition (apparently providing medical treatment in tribal areas of Chhattisgarh counts as working against the state), arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment by a sessions court in 2010. Much of it was forgettable, but not all of it. Here's what I wrote about Joag’s performance/ endurance piece, which involved him incarcerating himself for six days in the gallery:

"He’s holed up at the end of a corridor. You can barely see him because the fourth 'wall' is a mesh of string, which gives it a cocoon effect. Inside, Joag is writing out one line repeatedly: 'I will not lose faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy'. A couple of exercise books are kept outside, should visitors want to help him out by writing the line for him. Outside the cocoon is a reasonably cheesy butterfly made up of words like equality and democracy (just in case you didn’t get the metaphor).

Joag will be cutting himself loose on May 30, I think. The starting point of Right to Dissent is this piece by Joag. He’s been wanting to do this since Dr. Binayak Sen was arrested, I think, and he essentially got the artists who have taken part in the show to give works and add some star power to it. When I was there, Joag’s son (or at least a kid who calls him 'Baba') had come to visit. He peered in through the little slit in the string wall and chatted with Joag. Then he was dragged away by his mum (must be Sharmila Samant of the amazing bottlecap sari fame. Rockstar woman). 'I want to see Baba,' the kid wailed. His mother patiently told him Baba was working. 'You can’t see him now. He can’t come out,' she said.

'But why can’t he come out?' the kid asked.

'Because he’s working. Does Baba come and disturb you when you’re doing your homework?' she asked.

The kid paused for a moment and then said, 'Yes.'

It was quite, quite heartbreaking. I stuck around and wrote three pages of that one line in a notebook and while writing, I couldn’t help wondering at Joag’s convictions and the futility of all this. As wonderful as it is to see someone who is as idealistic as Joag, it’s also disheartening to face the cold hard reality that initiatives like this are barely noticed."

I spent much of yesterday wondering why I felt such a crushing sense of sadness upon hearing that Tushar Joag, 52, passed away on December 18, following a heart attack. Reading these old notes, I think I understand what I’m feeling. It’s the sadness of knowing that we’ve lost someone we need combined with the unanswered question of whether we really cherished him enough as a culture and a collective.

There’s a stereotype of an artist: This person should have their head in the clouds, not care about money, be passionate and idealistic, stand up to oppression and use their aesthetics like a political force that stands for truth, beauty and integrity. In reality, there are few who fit this mould, but Joag was one who came very, very close (another artist is Navjot Altaf, who has a retrospective on display at NGMA Mumbai at the moment). I have no idea whether Joag’s work will be considered lucrative and/ or important 50 years from now, but his work is sharply relevant and worth celebrating today. He didn’t command the most money, flex influence or break auction records with his art, which ostensibly makes him a minor figure in the Indian art scene. But as both teacher and practicing interventionist, Tushar Joag was the kind of artist we need in India today — someone who could resist with grace, resilience, sophistication and a sense of humour.

Most artists are trying to make a living, like other worker bees. Some are privileged, pragmatic and adept at playing power games. The ones who try to speak truth to power, who take it upon themselves to challenge oppressive authorities, they usually cause at least ripples of disturbance. Depending on who they challenge, they grow in stature (eg. Ai Weiwei). In India, the contemporary artists whose work we see in galleries tend to be viscerally committed to making art that is conceptual and universal — usually because this makes them more relatable and saleable outside India — often to the point of self-indulgence. These are the people we talk about and their voices are the ones we project. Don’t get me wrong, I love a thing of beauty as much as (if not more than) the next person and I have a deep appreciation of the restorative powers of escapism. But when I look at the art that’s being showcased in Indian galleries I know of, I can’t help but feel a sticky smear of despair that our artists’ response appears to be to turn the other cheek to reality. Our society is being clawed by divisive politics, we’re surrounded by different kinds of propaganda, there is discontent everywhere and the country feels like a tinderbox that could explode any minute — but you’d never guess any of this from contemporary Indian art. In the rare instances when a work is informed by politics or idealism, it’s usually so intricately layered and camouflaged that you need spidey sense to get a whiff of it. Even pop art seems to be more responsive to the real world than the visual arts scene.

And then there was the art of Tushar Joag — directly political, unwaveringly idealistic and despite being knowledgeable about all the things that are going wrong, strangely hopeful.

Tushar Joag was not a friend. All I knew of him is his bio and the work that was displayed in Delhi and Mumbai. I interviewed him a few times and the last time we exchanged emails is seven years ago. Here’s what I know of him. He was an alumnus of Sir JJ School of Art; he'd studied sculpture in MS University in Vadodara; and in 1998, he scored that two-year residency at Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. I remember saying something banal like "That must have been amazing" when he mentioned the residency during my first interview with him, back in the early 2000s. He’d smiled politely and said that it had been more disillusionment than inspiration.

You can hear him talk about that residency and his disgust at contemporary art’s focus on money and market in this video:

Art is defined as an expression of human creativity, which is all well and good, but the question of what is “good” or “bad” within art depends upon the functions that a society expects art to perform. These functions can range from producing beauty, crafting distractions to conveying certain morals, and the reason we need to be aware of what is expected of art is that this is what establishes a hierarchy of value and importance. When art performs functions that are highly-valued, it is good. When it fails to do so, it’s status is dubious. Remembering Tushar Joag’s art, I find myself wondering whether we think enough about what we want art and artists to do in and for our society.

Because if we look for aesthetics, technical sophistication and beauty in Joag’s projects, they aren’t extraordinary, which is why his work wouldn’t be considered great art. His pieces are usually clever and skilfully executed, but they rarely feel spectacular or strikingly novel. Take the “Shanghai Couch” — a bright red sofa that can unpack into a vending stall or collapse into a sofa, depending on what the hawker needs it to be. “There’s no law against sitting on a sofa on the sidewalk,” Joag had said with a grin when I’d asked him about it years ago, when he was in the process of making it.

Or Joag’s photos of Nissarpur, a village that the government claimed had been evacuated even though it and its people were very much unevacuated (this meant there was a very real danger of the village being submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam). For all those raised to believe government reports, this documentation is a sickening education in how lies can be passed off as fact, which is an important learning, but it isn’t necessarily art.

Or the items and pranks that he conceived as Unicell, ranging from fictional demolition notices to a handle that can be stuck outside a train, to help those spilling out of overcrowded compartments. Or mutant infrastructure like Post Box Man and Lamp Post Woman.

Aesthetically speaking, these aren’t remarkable, but they’re memorable and significant because practically nobody else in the Indian art world has consistently used art to protest or related it to our on-ground reality. Joag used his art to talk about issues repeatedly and masterfully, often using humour and the on-trend artistic style to draw the viewers’ attention. For instance, kitsch was enjoying a revival in Indian contemporary art when Joag embarked on Unicell and the artist used the comic book style of illustrations to great effect in the project. It’s not necessarily brilliant or striking aesthetics, but it is relevant — a word that we can struggle to apply to Indian contemporary art these days.

For Joag, the point of an artwork was to generate a dialogue, to raise awareness and sensitise a viewer. As an artist, he was the truth teller and the conscience keeper. He wasn’t looking to immerse you in a beautiful illusion, but shake you out of your apathetic reverie. This is the exact opposite of what most other Indian contemporary artists are seeking to do with their shows, which, in the white box of galleries, become almost an alternative reality for the viewer. It’s not surprising that his most recent project had been to collaborate on Artists Unite, a collective that had resolved to speak “for democracy, and against hate”.

This is not to suggest Joag wasn’t capable of artistic flourishes. Only an artist will take the bike he’s been riding for 53 days, from Mumbai to Shanghai, dismantle it, drown it in a trough and present that as an installation at an exhibition. It’s suitably arty and anarchic as a gesture. It was also obvious why he was doing this — the whole point of this project, which Joag titled Riding Rocinante (2011), was to highlight the enormous human cost of projects like the Sardar Sarovar and Three Gorges dams, which threatened to submerge so many villages in their wake. A wealth of blog posts, photographs and artwork emerged from this journey. With his ride being called Rocinante, Joag may also have been wryly acknowledging that his activism made him a misfit in the art world. If Don Quixote, rider of the horse Rocinante, was a man who had gone mad because he’d read too many chivalric romances, then as the rider of the bike Rocinante, Joag was arguably someone whose brain had been addled by romantic ideals of art’s ability to effect change in society.

Perhaps the craziest idea Joag had though was that he could make art for society’s sake and shake all of us out of our apathetic reverie. Then again, here I am, hundreds of words down, remembering his work, grief-struck but smiling.