Children: Seen, but
ONE has just to pick up any paper, on any day, to be convinced that the age of innocence, and goodness, must (if it was ever there) finally have departed from this earth. It is not only the extent of the crimes that one reads about: it is also their nature. There seems to be no depth below which human nature is not capable of sinking.
Take the case of crimes against children alone. Not a day passes without one getting some lurid news or the other about paedophilia, pornography involving young kids, children made to work in conditions akin to slavery. Every second day some book appears, somewhere, which reports, in graphic detail, cases of child abuse of the most unimaginable kind. A sense of shame, and outrage, descends upon one even as one reads.
It is in this context
that, as I was going through some papers, my eye lingered more than
usual upon a small catalogue of a thoughtfully mounted exhibition that
I saw at the Cornell University campus last year. Bearing the same
title that I use here – Children: Seen and not Heard – it was a
show of works – paintings, prints, photographs – from across the
globe, featuring children. I was drawn to the eye-catching detail of a
young Vaishnava acolyte’s face that appeared on the poster outside
the art museum – it is not everyday that an Indian face looms so
large on a foreign university campus – and went in, hoping to see
images of delight and innocence that one ordinarily associates with
They were there of course, introduced with brief but sensitively written notes: an elegant small bronze of the child Krishna from India ("Krishna is both god born as man, and man born as god", the catalogue said); a 17the century painting by the Italian, Bernardo Strozzi, showing ("with a sense of intimacy and grace")
the Virgin Mary as a child, being taught how to sew by her mother, Saint Anne; a Dutch etching showing a mother holding a toy doll in her arms as her daughter playfully leans over to grab it ("a timeless picture of childhood and the relationship that exists between parent and child"); and so on.
But the exhibition did not consist only of tender works such as these. There were other images, other voices: strident and disturbing. Violence and sickness, cruelty and loss, were also the things that one saw: a Frenchman’s photograph of desperately ailing and abandoned Hutu children, victims of the civil war in Rwanda ("these children are, in all probability, merely waiting to die"); Kathe Kollwitz’ celebrated etching of a woman with her dead child ("a mother, animal-like, naked, the light-coloured corpse of her dead child between her thigh bones and arms, seeks with her eyes, with her lips, with her breath, to swallow back into herself the disappearing life that once belonged in her womb"); William Gropper’s lithograph of disadvantaged black children at play, with a snapped rope hanging from a leafless limb, and a rickety plank leading up the tree trunk ("a metaphor of the goings-on in the politically dangerous McCarthy era"). There were others.
Again and again, the exhibition reminded one that no longer was there any room for treating blissful innocence as synonymous with childhood; that harshness did not lie outside the world of the child.
There were of course works in the show that simply explored, in a straight narrative manner, the dividing line between childhood and adult life, as in the symbolic change of costume by a pubescent Turkish girl, or drew attention to the African/Yoruba practice of bereaved mothers caring with great love for ere ibeji figures made of wood, as if they were real, living beings. But dark thoughts kept closing in as one moved, ruminatingly, in front of the objects on view. A brief quote from Walt Whitman cited in the catalogue – "A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;/ How could I answer the child?/ I do not know what it is any more than he." – began to appear somewhat out of place only because it had such simplicity, such innocence, shining through it.
The exhibition I am speaking of was not mounted by high-level professionals, I might add here: it was a project undertaken by students who were majoring in art history at the University. But much thought had gone into it. The careful selection of objects apart, the introductory note to the catalogue raised, in itself, interesting questions. "Why do we sometimes feel", it asked, "that images of childhood experience are inappropriate for children? Is it possible that children are an invalid audience for an exhibit about themselves?" The reference was to a very stark image that had been the subject of national discussion earlier: a photograph by the celebrated Margaret Bourke-White, showing two young boys poisoned by their German mother, before she committed suicide herself, in the wake of the surrender of the Nazi forces. Was this image more disturbing, it was being asked, than the rendering by Rembrandt of the patriarch Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, his son? In any case, was it appropriate for being shown to audiences that included children?
There are no easy answers.
I am, however, inclined – a desperate attempt at restoring some balance? – to end this piece, not on this note, but by returning to images of innocence. There is a host of them from our own setting, but two short verses come quickly to mind. One, by Surdas, the blind poet of Mathura, celebrating as always the growing up of Krishna in his foster-parents’ home, each tender moment lovingly recorded. "Jasomati man abhilaakh kare/ kab mero lal ghutarvon khele/kab tutare mukh bain jhare?" The other, a rubaa’i by Firaq Gorakhpuri, with its unusual series of images: "Lehron men khilaa kanwal nahaye jaise/dushiza-i subh gungunaaye jaise/woh lauch, woh roop, woh tarannum, woh nikhaar/baccha sote mein muskuraaye jaise".