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Painting the reds black

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For a party still struggling to make sense of their Lok Sabha defeat, and staring at the toughest test of their lives in the coming assembly polls in Bengal and Kerala, their old bastions, Shuvaprassana's controversial painting showing CPM politburo members with missing left hands and crowded over a body that looks like Jyoti Basu's couldn't have come at a worse time

The imagery is stark. No wonder it has provoked India's Marxists to lodge a strong complaint with the Election Commission. The controversial painting depicts 12 men and one woman, all CPM Politburo members, sitting around a table draped with a red cloth with a corpse on it. The dead man's face resembles Jyoti Basu's, and all those around the table have their left hands missing;the CPM's 'hammer and sickle' symbol is upside down. "The painting shows confused politburo members who can't take a proper decision. One of them has died and they are trying to chart a path after his death, but they can't arrive at any decision. Their left hands are missing since they've deviated from left ideology;the expressions on their faces are hard and brutal and all of them are elderly people. This painting has a language and it reflects the popular perception about Marxists, " says Shuvaprasanna, the main behind the art. The CPM, not surprisingly, has quickly ascribed a "malicious motive" to the painting, describing it as "distasteful, defamatory and insulting".

There is another painting, part of an ongoing exhibition at a gallery in Kolkata, that shows a woman emerging out of a dark background as she plays a flute and a procession of people, some with torsos of humans but heads of cattle, others with blindfolds, follows her. The painter says many people join a movement or follow a leader, but without quite knowing why they're doing so. He clarifies that while he has been one of the primary advocates of change among Bengal's culture clan, he reserves his "inalienable right" to criticise any shortcomings or mistakes that new dispensations in Bengal may commit.

Angry CPM state secretariat member Rabin Deb says he is clear that the painting is in bad taste and highly defamatory. "Basu was a national leader and showing his body lying on a table amounts to disrespecting him, " he says. "Showing CPM leaders like Prakash Karat and Biman Bose without arms is indicative of a sick mind. " The CPM has pointed out to the Election Commission that Shuvaprasanna is close to the Trinamool Congress and is a beneficiary of the Railway ministry (he heads the Indian Railways' Passenger Amenities Committee) and, hence, a painting by him that defames the CPM amounts to helping the Trinamool while being violative of the model code of conduct.

While the CPM is livid over the first painting, the Trinamool can barely hide its glee. "This is a true depiction of the CPM politburo. As Mamata Banerjee says so often, the CPM is not a communist party at all. The CPM was left rudderless by Jyoti Basu's death. It is clutching at straws. And the CPM's 'hammer and sickle' symbol that is shown turned on its head in the painting is also an aptly symbolic depiction of the ideological crisis that has gripped the party, " says Trinamool Congress leader Subrata Mukherjee. A close aide of Mamata, who is herself a painter, said she was so delighted with this painting that she called up Shuvaprasanna to congratulate him.

"The CPM is naturally upset and angry since the painting is a correct portrayal of its decayed state, " says Trinamool MP Sougata Roy. "See the expression on the faces of the CPM leaders in the painting - they're brutal. That is how they are in real life - they're all cruel and vicious. But the CPM's complaint to the Election Commission is a sign of its growing frustration and also of its intolerance towards anything or anyone critical of the party. The complaint (to the EC) holds no water;a work of art can have nothing to do with elections. "

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