Millennium Post

Dark side of the portrait

Seppuku is a form of Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment. Part of the samurai bushido honour code, Seppuku was used either voluntarily by samurai to die with honour, rather than fall into the hands of their enemies or performed because they had brought shame to themselves. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate and aesthetically gory ritual is performed in front of spectators. It consists of plunging a short blade, traditionally a tanto, into the abdomen and 
drawing the blade from left to right, slicing open the abdomen and intestines.

It is apparent from the name and cover of Seppuku that it will be a no holds barred disrobing of the art world and its pretentious machinations. But as the idiom goes ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’

The book, written by Vinod Bhardwaj and translated by Brij Sharma, is a sting operation extraordinaire on the Delhi art world. It is searing and scathing. Sometimes while reading the book one gets pulled into the white hot rage and contempt that the writer has for the shenanigans of the art critics and other such parasitical creatures who frequent the domestic and international art circuit.

The protagonist of the novel is Pratap Narayan whose meteoric rise disturbs the established pecking order of the Delhi art world. The novel also explores the essential debate at the heart of art. Are artists supposed to just focus on making art or selling it too? The writer of this review feels compelled to liberally borrow a footballing analogy and make a slight digression.

The footballing analogy for the lay person who may not necessarily follow football: Must an artist be like Cristiano Ronaldo, a gifted footballer no doubt, but also a marketing machine without equals? Or should an artist be like Lionel Messi, a footballing genius who some argue is the greatest player of our generation but who seems to have not much appetite for marketing. Depending on who you ask, Cristiano Ronaldo may be the 
consummate professional but he is also an arrogant man with a god complex. 

This is probably what makes him appealing to a large number of people. Football fans adore and worship footballers who remind them of god. Again depending on who you ask, Lionel Messi, is a footballer's footballer. To quote a noted Barcelona football expert who runs what is arguably the most famous fan site on Barcelona, “As a player, Messi is as close to a shark as any person playing the game. Sharks just <g data-gr-id="110">swim,</g> and eat. Cut a shark open and you will find all kinds of stuff: shoes, trash, nets, flotsam. Whatever. It just goes into the mouth. Messi wants the ball. No, Messi needs the ball. Pure and simple.”

In the <g data-gr-id="98">novel</g> Pratap Narayan Rastogi is a painter from a small off the highway town which lies near Gorakhpur. One of the most searing dialogues of the novel automatically follows from this, “See if you are from Baroda, <g data-gr-id="97">J J</g> School of Art, Delhi College of Art, it’s different but if you study art in a small town and come to practise in a big city, the whole experience is very different. His surrealistic adventures make the story.”

This may be a controversial claim to <g data-gr-id="109">make</g> but perhaps artists need to be pure creatures too, especially artists. In the modern time when polemics about art is non-existent and everyone is busy patting their own backs in the art world, books like Seppuku are a searing indictment of the collective hypocrisy which pervades the art scene. It’s not uncommon in India for many wealthy billionaire wives to suddenly develop a taste in arts and 
overnight become the patron saints of art and culture. 

The book’s protagonist Pratap Narayan is a mere spectator to the larger canvas of the art scene. A canvas where ruthless betrayals and queasy compromises are the order of the day. With this <g data-gr-id="91">book</g> Vinod Bhardwaj has emerged as one of the most exciting and serious Hindi language novelists writing in English. Immensely thoughtful, precisely written and almost pain-inducing at times, Seppuku deserves a wider audience. Vinod Bhardwaj’s real talent lies in venturing into his characters’ psyches, to escape what Joseph Conrad called “the exile of utter unbelief.”

To read Vinod Bhardwaj’s tactile descriptions of the art world is to be reminded of the ability of the English language to make us revisit the world through analogy and metaphor. F N Souza and Tyeb Mehta would be proud of this book and that’s saying a lot. It’s a work of art. Read this book if you get the opportunity.
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