The body of Dalit artist Asanthan was not allowed to be displayed at Kochi’s Durbar Hall courtyard owing to objection by some that it was against temple customs.

Shaken our pride in Kerala Outrage at alleged casteist remarks on artists body
news Controversy Sunday, February 04, 2018 - 12:48

In a disgraceful incident that would force the entire Kerala society to hang its head in shame, the dead body of a Dalit artist was not allowed to be displayed at the courtyard of the government-owned Durbar Hall Arts Centre in Kochi owing to objection from a group of people saying it was against temple customs.

The incident, which took place on Wednesday, has triggered major outrage with many people condemning it as a shame for the state that is known for its liberal culture.

Artist VK Mahesh, who had christened himself Asanthan, died at a private hospital following a heart attack. A painter, Asanthan was known for the odd paths he chose, including his name that means ‘one who has no peace’.

What happened on Wednesday?

The officials of the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, which owns the Durbar Hall, had made arrangements to keep Asanthan’s dead body at the courtyard for the public to pay homage.

Situated 50 m from the hall is a Shiva temple, famously known as the Ernakulathappan temple. A group of people created a ruckus in front of the hall saying that keeping the body in the line of sight of the deity was against temple customs. This was also echoed by the temple officials.

Akademi Secretary Ponniam Chandran reportedly said that the temple administration president P Rajendra Prasad and local councillor KVP Krishna Kumar, a Congressman, had met him asking that the body not be brought for display as the temple had not closed for the day.

“I tried to reason with them, but 20 minutes later, a group of miscreants rushed in and destroyed a banner announcing the artist’s sad demise. They also vandalised other materials,” he had said.

Speaking to TNM, Chandran said, “RSS people were also in the group. To make the incident serious, they had also brought three or four women with them. They were arguing that the dead body shouldn’t be taken through the front gate of the art gallery. We were making arrangements to display the body in the courtyard. After the miscreants created an issue, we called up the police. As a compromising decision suggested by the police, we then kept the body in the east portion of the gallery.”

Chandran had lodged a complaint with the Ernakulam South Police Station. “Everything is caught on the CCTV installed at the centre. We have handed over the visuals to the police,” he said.

Not the first incident

According to Chandran, this is not the first time that the miscreants have interfered in the affairs of the Akademi, a renowned centre of art where artists showcase their talent and a venue for artist gatherings.

“Months ago when we conducted a camp for transgender persons, some people came and asked us not to cook meat in the centre. These same people were there in the group who objected to keeping Asanthan’s dead body at the courtyard as well. They threatened us against cooking meat. I had told them it was not their business to interfere in Akademi affairs and that it was as inappropriate as suggesting the menu for someone’s home,” he said.

Krishna Kumar on Saturday told media that what he tried to do was to avoid any untoward incident. “I tried to avoid the situation becoming tensed,” he said.

Isolate such uncivilised people, urges CM

“The arrogance shown by certain fundamentalists in Asanthan’s case is shocking as they have insulted an artist who belongs to a backward community. They claimed that placing his dead body at the gallery would desecrate the adjacent temple. There was a deliberate effort to mislead devotees,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in a Facebook post.

“The police have booked the culprits. The government will take such incidents seriously and take stern action so such incidents are not repeated. Society should isolate such uncivilised people,” he urged.

Outrage from the community

Speaking to TNM, writer Rose Mary said, “It’s like we have gone back to decades ago. The incident has really shaken our pride in our state and its rich culture. We are used to hearing such casteist incidents in north India caused by some religious fundamentalists. The fact that it happened in Kerala is indeed shocking. I don’t know where we are heading to. I don’t know what is happening around us. I am deeply saddened and strongly condemned this.”

“The stage has almost been set to make the people outside the state to say that there is no such place which is as bad as Kerala. It may be rarest even in the history of an ordinary human being that a great artist is returning from the earth after facing such humiliation. The state will definitely be forced to pay a big price for this,” musician Shahabaz Aman said in a Facebook post.

Shahabaz Aman began his post with a statement which the artist had made earlier: ‘I have painted a picture of Govindan who kisses Siddharthan and gets enlightened. I was inspired by this story, so I decided to work on it’ – Asanthan

In a strongly-worded post on Facebook, R Kiran Babu, a journalist with News 18, said: “The dead boy should have been taken to the front of the temple itself. If possible it should have been kept in the temple courtyard. He is an artist who deserves to be lying inside the sanctum sanctorum. Who is inside the temple – Lord Shiva. Who is Lord Shiva – he is chudala madan (crematorium keeper). He does not practise untouchability towards Dalits or towards dead bodies. If any upper-class elite people have objections, the dead body should have been left there for those who would get furious seeing black-skinned people…”