Saturday, February 28, 2015

If Nudity is Performance Art then All of Us are Performance Artists: Samudra Kajal Saikia

(Samudra Kajal Saikia)

Samudra Kajal Saikia just does not look like a controversial man. Though there is a lot of theatre in his life, he does not dress up like one of those theatre personalities whom we see around Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai or the National School of Drama in Delhi. They walk around in costumes because they want to get into the skin of the character they would be playing soon. They just want to feel natural in what they are going to be. In this slow transformation of self, they look distinct, aloof and secretly adorable. Samudra, however, does not feel that he needs to be wearing costumes look like a theatre personality. He dresses himself up like just like any other young man in Delhi. In the street you may miss him. But the confidence that he exudes cannot be missed. He is not outspoken by nature but when he speaks there is an element of outspokenness in it. His subtle outbursts, like the crack of a pod in distant tree, could cause spread some sort of mild tremors around in the cultural scene where he too operates and his views could be controversial. Samudra claims himself to be a shy and reticent young man, who just does not like to party or socialise. “I do not want to go to attend so many things in this city because the travelling between home and destination is tedious. I like to be at my desk, researching and developing ideas and I find the real journey is there,” Samudra tells me.

We are at the Lalit Kala Akademy canteen in Delhi. I am already late by forty five minutes. I do not like people waiting for me, nor do I like to wait for people, so I apologize to him profusely. “There is a huge show going on here,” he points at the Lalit Kala Akademy Galleries. “I spent the time there,” he says without any impatience in his voice. I too had seen the show a day before; the 56th National Exhibition conducted by Lalit Kala Akademy. It claims to be the best selection of artists from across the country done by a few eminent personalities as jury members. But when you go through the works, you wonder, whether the selectors have carefully avoided all the good works that have been produced in India or they were looking for the medium range of works. Except a few the rest of the works looks too mediocre to be claimed as nation’s pride. The floors are filled with sculptures and some of them without pedestals, hence to watch them one has to literally go down on one’s knees. Have you heard of bringing a viewer down on his knees by the sheer force of aesthetics? Then it is here in this show. You may even have to crawl to see some works. And to make things worse, there is no cataloguing or documentation; not even a press release. The benchmark for art and art expositions that the Lalit Kala Akademy has created year after year is exceptional in a negative sense. It really does not reflect the Modi Mantra, “Make in India”.

Samudra comes out as a fragile but agile man. His hair line has gone up from the left side of his forehead and the straight hair falls across the right side. Like his general quirkiness that he privately enjoys doing, he has some kind of a ‘fashion statement’ in the frame of his spectacles. The legs of the frame are a mix of pink and red and that colour streak sticks out from his personality which is otherwise generally carefully toned down. When he speaks, one could hear the accent of the North East. I am not sure whether I should look at Samudra as a Sartre-an mode or a Brecht mode. He looks serious and absurd at the same time. “That’s why I call myself Kankhova,” says Samudra. Kankhova in Assamese language means ‘Ear Eater or one who eats the ear.’ In the mainland an ear eater is a person who unnecessarily nags. But in Samudra’s tales Ear Eater is a demon who is featured in folklore and lullabies. Mothers in the North East tell their naughty kids as they are put to sleep that if they do not sleep quickly ‘Kankhova’ would come and eat them. Kids sleep off instantly. This character also comes in the Vaishnava literature in Assam. Krishna in one of his conquests kills one demon called Kankhova. Samudra feels that there is a clear effort to appropriate this pagan demon into the mainstream narratives of Vaishnavism by connecting him with Krishna. “Kankhova, therefore is impish and ambiguous at the same time,” Samudra says. “He is a bit nonsensical too.” Absurdity comes natural to Samudra and his liking for Brecht via Badal Sarkar also justifies his choice of a nickname or his ‘fake’ name. Samudra plays up ambiguity, ambivalence and absurdity not only in his character but also in his performance and theatre works.

Samudra’s name in Delhi’s art scene or in the Indian art scene is now familiar as he has been accepted as one of the pioneering performance artists in the country who does not only performance but also research on performance art as a genre of creative expression. Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) awarded him in 2010 and the same foundation in collaboration with the Ila Dalmia Foundation gave him a research grant in 2012. He is now almost completing the first phase of his research and is ready to face the world with his research findings. But there is a problem and that is posed by Samudra unto himself. Who am I, a performance artist or a theatre artist? Am I an artist or art historian? Am I a performance practitioner or a pedagogue interested in research? “At times I feel that I can jump from one end to another just like a monkey. I do not belong to this and I belong to that but I belong to everywhere. This is freedom at the same time a problem,” thinks Samudra. However, his family’s occupation and his origin in that particular family would prove that Samudra has always been a theatre personality than any other aforementioned roles that he has been playing so far. “But theatre is not an end in itself,” asserts Samudra.

Born on 29th September 1979 in Bishwanath Chariali in Assam, Samudra Kajal Saikia grew up in an environment of theatre activities. His family has been traditional percussionists. Though born and brought up in a rural setting, his family’s pro-active role in the village culture and his father’s (Nagen Saikia) role as a well know contemporary playwright and theatre activist helped Samudra develop an interest culture in general and theatre in particular at a very early age itself. “I was the youngest one in the family so there was no pressure to pursue something very particular. I was free to move around and experiment with so many forms of art and instruments,” remembers Samudra. After schooling, Samudra went to Tezpur, the district headquarters and joined in a college as a English Literature graduate student. In 2000, after his graduation, he went to Santiniketan, ‘to see the place’ in his words. “I had come across Santiniketan in literary works of great writers including Nilmony Phukan. I thought that was one place that I should visit. So I went to Santiniketan in 2000 and did not go back home. That means, I became a student there,” Samudra smiles. Santiniketan is a place for eclectic experiments and it has always been like that. Though there is strict and regimented structure in education, it has been open to the ideas from elsewhere, as envisioned by Rabindranath Tagore, its founder. “Perhaps, I liked this openness of Santiniketan and I joined there as graduate student in Art History,” says Samudra.

Why art history? Samudra has an interesting answer for that question: “If I joined the painting department, the sculpture department would not have allowed me to do something there. If I had joined sculpture, the printmaking department would not have allowed me to enter their space and work. So I thought if I joined art history, every department would allow a ‘future’ art historian to dabble with their medium. In that sense, I worked in all other departments except in my own department. I would say I was one of the students in that batch who did exceptionally below expectations.” Samudra’s experiments with the education style there in Santiniketan enabled him to cut across disciplines and gain the confidence of other makers of culture, both students and teachers and established artists living in the same place. This had given him a lot of confidence to think about a theatre that was not theatre in the conventional sense but not too much away from the logic of a form called theatre where time and space made some mutual negotiations. The result of that enquiry led him to establish the now popular ‘Disposable Theatre.’

‘Disposable Theatre’, when it was established in 2003, Samudra had a very specific agenda in his mind, which he had even written down as a form of propaganda. Though it was meant to be circulated around, as propaganda material generally does, Samudra held it close to him and he became the sole reader of those points mentioned in it. Slowly he started believing in it. Today, he says that he is still guided by those principles and ideas. According to him Disposable Theatre aspires for setting up theatre which is absolutely against the mainstream national/istic theatre. It is not just against the traditional proscenium theatre culture or its form and structure; but it is against the very ideology of linking up time and space in a given frame. For him, time and space are ephemeral in theatre. And if they are ephemeral why should there be illusionism at all? “I feel that when time and space are temporal within the given context of performance and as it cannot be repeated in the same way somewhere else, each performance has uniqueness in itself. Hence, I think each performance, however rehearsed it would be and it should be, has an one time value. It cannot be repeated. It is a philosophical positioning. So instead of bringing attention to the narrative, my idea through this theatre is to get all the attention towards the narration, which is variable each time it is performed,” Samudra summarizes the theory of his Disposable Theatre.

The recent production of Samudra’s theatre, ‘Disposable Women’ has gained wide acclaim as it innovatively presented three women characters from Assam’s folklore, history and mythology. Samudra is not prolific when it comes to his theatre productions. “I produce maximum two projects in a year. That does not mean that I am lazy or reluctant in doing real work in theatre. It may further reduced to one production in a year because I take a lot of time in research and development. While the Kahini Foundation funded ‘Disposable Women’ took four months in preparation, Samudra says that he has already taken around fourteen years to bring out a character named ‘Chitralekha’ for this production. “Chitralekha was in my mind when I was a graduate student in Tezpur. But I did not know how to go about with that character. Years of research and peer group discussions helped me to evolve.” Samudra is not a despot though in his productions he wants to hold the reign in his hands. “I prefer to select my actors and activists from various disciplines. That helps me to work with different perspectives and different crafts. I do not want to create a permanent repertoire theatre. That is not my idea,” asserts Samudra.

Though theatre is what Samudra experiments with where the actors’ work is called ‘performance’, in the field of visual culture dominated by the gallery and museum circuit, his wider charm is based on his works in the field of ‘performance art’, a separate and evolving genre in the visual art field. He came to the visual art scene with enough preparation and grit. In Santiniketan itself he had started working with students from different disciplines and was creating impromptu performances and theatre works. But it was then he heard from the peers that there was an institution called ‘M.S.University, Baroda’. “I wanted to study in Baroda because I had heard about an ongoing ego clash between Santiniketan and Baroda. They used to say that Santiniketan produced traditional art history and Baroda did contemporary theory oriented art history. I wanted to taste and test what was this theory oriented art history,” says Samudra. Has it helped? “Yes, it helped me differently. I saw a very vibrant art scene there but my focus was on interdisciplinary acts than following art history as a focused discipline. I gave my final year Viva Voce on the day Chandramohan was attached in Baroda, 9th May 2007.”

Baroda generally does not take fresh post graduates to Mumbai. They are mostly gravitated to Delhi. Samudra was not inclined to go to Mumbai either. Life before him was looking a bit challenging. Though he was brave enough to face the world, finding a supporting system was important. Help came in the form of a friend who wanted to establish an animation studio in Delhi. After working as a senior researcher for three months in the National Institute of Design, under Dr.Deepak John Mathew, Samudra came to Delhi and took the position as the Creative Director of a company he helped to found, Katputli Arts and Animation studios. He worked as a creative director for seven years from 2007 to 2014 and worked on producing and editing various short films and documentaries. Now he is a Creative Director at large in the same company. Though in 2010, Samudra got the FICA award, it was his Disposable Home project that he did in Assam which brought him to the public attention. It was huge, participator and almost became a carnival or sorts and one could not have left it unnoticed. The art scene did notice Samudra’s activities in far away Assam, but the mainland responded him immediately by giving him opportunity to exhibit his works and documentation in the Vadehra Art Gallery in 2012.

 In his path breaking performance in Assam, Samudra worked on the theme of ‘House-Home’. Home is an idea that remains in the collective and individual memories. “I am interested in spectacles. I want to see things in large scale. Disposable Houses was an idea that I wanted to execute in a large scale and the kind of public participation that I got was fabulous,” remembers Samudra. Interested in the poetry of Lalan Fakir and Kabir (the great Sufi poets), Samudra took their idea of body as home. He worked around those poems and developed poems and scripts based on the urban shifts, dislocations and diasporic movements. “We are all in a way get dislocated every time. Even if we are living in this city for decades on, though we feel that we are settled and remain the same, the city itself evolve into something else and that makes us feel that we also live in a different place. In the case of body it is like rejuvenation and ageing. Both cannot be avoided. But the memories remain. And I thought of these memories and created five Houses or house forms and pulled them along the streets in Assam. I recited some poems. The findings and results of this project was presented through a wall painted animation, illustrated book, photo documentation and process elaboration in a show at Vadehra later,” explains Samudra.

Today Samudra is at a theoretical cross road. He does not want to convert into an existential juncture for he is more or less clear about his position though the dilemma of definition catches up with him quite often. Though he is known to be performance artist in Delhi and elsewhere, he is sceptical about so many things in ‘performance art’ as a genre of art. “I do not call myself as performance artist. Except for the Pune Biennale where you invited me to do a workshop, I never called myself a performance artist. But yes, my performances have got theatre in it and theatre has got performance in it,” Samudra negotiates. “Theatre is fake, I feel at times. Every discipline has its rules. And when we consider theatre and performance art, we find a lot of grey areas in between them. One does not know when it is theatre and when it is performance. Performance is improvisational and spontaneous. Still it has a structure. So basically we need to think about it more in terms of theory than practice. It is one art form where theory and practice are inextricably interwoven.”

Today, in India, every failed artist is a performance artist, every other lazy artist is a performance artist and also every other ‘fashionable’ artist also is a performance artist. Why is this onrush to performance art? There is something suicidal about it. In mid 2000s I had seen artists rushing to do video art because that was the ‘in thing’ of that time. Today, it looks like performance. Most of the performance artists do it either turn into a very exotic act or many of them make it so trivial that it does not evoke any respect. Some of them structure the performance in such way that they look like way side magicians. There are performance artists who do it outside gallery circuit and there are artists who do it within the gallery circuit. What does Samudra think about his peer group performance artists? “I am disappointed. Most of the performance art that happen today is very superficial. It is superficial because the aspiration level of the artists behind these performances is superficial. They think that it is fashionable to be a performance artist,” opines Samudra. His opinion may not be taken well by many other performance artists in India. “Somehow visual artists are frustrated and anything that comes out of frustration will not make good art,” he presses on. “Look at the literate students, students of philosophy, theatre students, science students and so on. Are they frustrated like art students? What are these artist students looking for? Success? If success, and if they are becoming performance artists for being successful, then it is a result of frustration. They will not make good performance.”

Samudra does not attach much of an ethical value to the good and bad side of performance but he says that art of dejection cannot make anything move. However, he is appreciative of those young art students who come willingly, leaving their training behind and try to express themselves differently. According to him, when it happens willingly it looks good. When it is forced, it is quite problematic. He cites a recent example of willingness and unwillingness of performance artists in India. “Recently a few art students from the flood affected Kashmir came to Delhi to do some performance. I interacted with them and one of them told me that she wanted to get back home and practice her discipline of painting. But at the same time, the people who have been leading them around were claiming that they really wanted to do more and more performances. It is really sad, “ views Samudra. He is also sceptical about having degrees to be given away to performance art students. “One can have a degree or post graduation in performance art studies. It is like cultural studies. One could explore history of theatre, history performance, theory of performance, also one could pursue anthropology, history, mythology and political performance and so on. But you cannot give away degrees to students who do some ‘performance,’” states Samudra. He would call such a disciple a, ‘Para- Discipline’ or ‘Psuedo Discipline’.  “It is dangerous. It is idiosyncratic. Yet it could be a discipline in those terms,” Samudra says.

While Indian performance artists look at west for models, even western artists are looking at the east for models. According to Samudra, both the parties are equally confused. By looking at each other for inspiration one ends up repeating the line of others and it becomes a collecting parroting of learnt by heart lines. Recently in three different performances in Delhi, Samudra interacted with the artists in three different occasions in three different locations and asked why they wanted to do it. “The answer was astonishingly similar. They all said ‘We want to express in public.’ I think they have learnt these catch words and phrases and they put everyone in confusion including themselves.” In another incident a foreign performance artist while performing got stuck at a projection device. “I found that performance a flop,” says Samudra. “Reason is only logical. Performance art, they say, involves space art, body art and performance in itself. If she was doing space art, then she was not aware of the space; she would not have got stuck at a projector. If she was doing body art, then she did not know how to manipulate her body and extricate from that embarrassment. If she was doing performance, which is spontaneous and anarchic, then the projector should not have been a problem for her. So I call it a flop piece. Anarchy is a very problematic term when you negotiate a space. This is where theory comes handy,” smiles Samudra.

Samudra Kajal Saikia is occupied with so many theoretical issues pertaining to Performance art. Though he has never shown nudity in his performances, he is sceptical about the idea of nudity. “For a few of them nudity is a form of body art. They enjoy displaying themselves. One of the artists in Delhi makes it a point that exposing private parts to the audience is a must. It is ridiculous. I would say nudity is one of the methods and mediums. People use threads, cello tape, paper, clothes, furniture and so many other things as property to do performance. Body is one of the tools, one of the props. So attaching so much of nudity does not give any importance, historical or theoretical or otherwise, to that performance. If nudity is performance art then we are all performance artists because our dignity is stripped off every day by various agencies. Performance is appropriation and negation at once. It is all about the problem of doing something,” he concludes. Samudra Kajal Saikia is a one artist to watch out for. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Know Your Surroundings: Carry Yourself Back Home

We forget to see things that are close by. Taking a vacation elsewhere, after a supposedly hectic year or so, we go to places far away from our own dwellings that have become less exciting due to over familiarity and nearness. As we land upon the new place, we start thinking how exciting these places are; look at the hills, look at the greenery, look at the apples and berries hanging from the trees, look at those villagers, how good they are, apparently they lead a very casual and carefree life. Look at the man riding a cycle and leading a herd of cattle to the grazing fields, look at that bunch of kids going to school along the dusty rural path, they all seem to be coming down directly from the heavens, their mirth has an extra cheer in it; look at those women carrying those heavy bundles of twigs on their heads, look at those young lasses balancing those pots full of water on their head and ambling along while chatting so many things. This place must be a heaven. At the other end of the road, after that right curve is our hotel; is it a four star or a five star one? Shhh...It is just a cottage? Why, didn’t you search the net for a better accommodation? Hey children, behave and take all your small baggage. Did you see those poor old men sitting around that boiler, drinking tea and smoking cheroots, how romantic, isn’t it? That’s what we generally fee when we are away from our homes and are on a vacation.

Don’t you think that all those are just illusions? The places that we visit during our vacations, whether they are in the tourist map or not, they are normal places with normal people living there. In fact, if you see it in the right perspective, there is no difference between our lives and their lives. We are troubled by so many issues that are closer to our lives. They are troubled by so many issues that are closer to their lives. The man who is riding is a cycle and leading his cattle to the grazing field is not an image from a picture postcard. He is doing a job as good as a sales executive rushing to the clients by his bike on a traffic ridden city road. The children who are treading on the dirty path do that because they do not have a better road a better school in their vicinity. Otherwise they too would have gone to schools by vans and buses; they too would have worn uniforms. If those women do not collect twigs and dried branches from the nearby woods they will not be able to heat and cook their food. The village beauties who look beautiful with their water pots walk miles to collect water because they do not have running potable water in their homes. We worry for our gas meter going down, we worry about our overhead tanks remaining dry. They worry about their choolahs and their dry buckets back at home. It is the same life everywhere different in complexion and dimension. Fundamentally they are one and the same. The only difference is in the landscape. We find the landscapes beautiful out there because urbanization has not reached there yet. We have something to contrast; we have our primordial instinct of living in forests, completely naked. Hence our inner core still bends towards nature.

Isn’t it possible to see the same beauty in our own vicinities, on a daily basis? I am not against vacationing and tourism. They are also enriching in different levels. But as we know that we cannot go for vacation every other day why can’t we make our daily lives into daily vacations? It all depends on the perspective. Once you come out of home, if you are not directly getting into a car parked at the front parking lot, you get a chance to see the pathway just outside your home. Generally we do not see this road, we see the road only the way our car sees it. We do not see our neighbourhood because we see our neighbourhood only as much as the hood of the car allows us. We have stopped looking around. We complain that the cities have become concrete jungles and we no longer listen to any birds’ chirpings. But is that true? Have you ever tried to listen to the birds’ chirpings? They do chirp in cities too. Listen carefully, you would see, vying against the honking of the vehicles, whistles of the pressure cookers, calling out of the vegetable man, the innumerable musical streaks played into the ears through headphones, you see the small little chirpings of the birds. And if you listen carefully you will hear. We have forgotten the forests, but they have not, they still carry a forest in their blood, in their wings there is still freedom written in large but invisible letters. We have forgotten the golden rules of survival, but they still polish those alphabets of freedom every night with the dust of their dreams.

 We complain that the cities are too hot or too cold. We say the air in the city is too polluted. We say we cannot see a sunrise. But again it is the question of perspective. The cities are hot or cold, true, depending on the climatic conditions of the region. But when it is cold we try to run away from it, and when it is hot we run away from it. We run away from cold by getting inside warm clothes and we run away from heat by getting into the air conditioned rooms and cars. And ironically and paradoxically we go for vacations where it is mildly hot or mildly cold. Have we ever tried to understand cold or heat in their own terms? Have we ever thought how people in the hot regions and cold regions manage themselves without complaining? We do not do because we want to escape. Tourism promotes escapism. Vacationing is a sort of escape and the tourism logos say that you should ‘escape’ to heaven. That means none of us want to face reality and we complain that we do not have any palpable reality left. Look around and see, a few old men sitting around a samovar, drinking tea and smoking beeris. It is seen in urban spaces and rural areas. Why we get excited by this scene when we are in a rural area and completely avoid looking at them when they are in our neighbourhood, just around the corner? Why we call the urban poor who carry water from a distant tap and go to their homes in shanties as the bane of urban reality?

It is the question of perspective. To tell you the truth, whatever you see during a vacation is right here under your nose. You go to a public park near your home, early in the morning, walk for a few rounds, relax on one of the park benches, sit there and concentrate on things around in a very leisurely way. Do not say that the park near your home is small or dirty. Do not say park near the posh areas of the city are more beautiful than the ones in your vicinity. The problem lies in comparison. If you do not know a better one, you will be happy with what you have. So avoid seeking the better ones and feel miserable. Saying that does not mean that one should not aspire for a better life and should be happy with whatever one has. That is not the idea discussed here. You sit on a park bench and look around. You see a lot of new things. The trees and shrubs look different from that position. The undulating lawns look so different from the way they are seen from the walkways around the park. You see a different park when you sit there. You see different trees, different plants and different flowers. Close your eyes and listen. You see hundreds of different noises produced by invisible birds sit hiding behind the leaves. Open your eyes and train your nose. You will experience a fragrance that you have never felt before. See the eastern sky, and see a rising sun. You feel so good. Then you once again close your eyes. Listening to your breathing sound. Do not attempt pranayama or yoga. Just be there and be aware of your breathing and your own core. Just look at yourself with a pair of fresh inner eyes; not the way you look at yourself in the bathroom mirror or in the selfie cameras. You are there. You find yourself. You smile at him/her. And carry him/her back home with you.  

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Story of a Painter with Difference: Akhlaq Ahmad

(Akhlaq Ahmad aka Sabbu Painter)

In his village in Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh, people look at him with a lot of admiration in their eyes. He has become a local hero of sort in that backward village. This once run away kid has now come back with money and fame; he has been even looking after his family and the education of his three brothers. Akhlaq Ahmad has now come to terms with such kind of admiration that he enjoys once in a while when he visits the village. But for him, the life in Delhi is still harsh and ridden with the issues of day to day survival. Akhlaq is happy that he is able to pursue the career of an artist though his kind of art is not yet appreciated by the gallery circuit, out there in the street Akhlaq art has become a craze among the people who promote street art and amongst the foreigners who look for some exotic visual stuff from India during their visit. Akhlaq Ahmad is a Delhi based painter who paints in the ‘signboard’ painting style. This article is not about his paintings but more about Akhlaq Ahmad aka Sabbu Painter and his efforts to survive in a big city like Delhi, not only as a painter but also as a dignified human being.

(work by Akhlaq Ahmad)

All the runaway kids are not lucky though many of them turn out to be achievers in real life. Children who run away from home in fact dare two things: they choose to eschew the comfort zone of family however worst the conditions there may be. Two, they choose to push their own limits. They are driven by a strange sense of enquiry. They are alchemists of sorts. It may sound very romantic considering the plights that these kids face on a daily basis in the unprotected streets both in the days and the nights. They are gold diggers and some of them do find gold. One of them is Vicky Roy, a runaway kid from West Bengal who made it big in the scene of international photography. “He is lucky and hardworking,” says Akhlaq. “I am hardworking but luck has not yet bless me,” he says with a chuckle. “May be you have not learnt the ropes,” I insist. “If you learn to market yourself, perhaps luck will smile at you too,” I say. But I am sure that Akhlaq would make it big in the coming years if he sticks to his style and shows inclination to developing concepts that go with his style. And I said before, his style is that of the signboard painters. It is too colourful, demanding attention in a crude way, but it is naive and kitschy, expressing some sort of innocence. There are deliberate puns in it and accidental mistakes; together they make the signboard painters’ style and Akhlaq is a master of it. 

(Akhlaq Ahmad with his work)

Akhlaq did not learn this style from any university though he is a post graduate in painting from the famous fine arts department of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. He learnt it from the university called life and its classrooms were the studios that made huge cinema banners and hoardings. Akhlaq was not an artist like many artists who say that they had started quite early. I remember F.N.Souza saying that he did his first drawing in his mother’s womb. In this sense he had overtaken both Raja Ravi Varma and Pablo Picasso; both of them were child prodigies and found their first canvas on the walls of their parental houses. Akhlaq accepts that when he was in the village as a high school student the maximum drawing that he did were copying some images from the science text books to the note books. “I was not blessed with drawing skills and in the village I was not even thinking of becoming an artist,” says he. It would be interesting to know how his tryst with art happened.

(a painting by Akhlaq Ahmad)

Born in 1985 on the first day of the month of January, Akhlaq was the third amongst the six children his parents had. He and his elder brother were close as there was not a huge age gap between them. They were well off as they lived in a joint family. Once the family division happened, Akhlaq’s father decided to do some farming. The boys were sent to the farm for irrigating the field. But like in stories, after playing enough with whatever was available on the way to the farm, the boys were very sleepy and they slept off under a tree. When the father came to the field, he saw his sleeping sons. Scolding, he  woke them up from their slumber and father’s ire was so much that he said that if anything went wrong with the crop they were going to face it. Hearing this Akhlaq decided to leave home. Stealing some money from home, he jumped into the first train available and reached Mumbai.

 (work by Akhlaq Ahmad)

It was in 2000. Akhlaq knew that a lot of people from his village were living in Mumbai and he had heard a lot of stories about them from the village folk. Somehow he managed to reach a place called Lal Mitti Bandra in Mumbai where his kinsmen lived. They were surprised to see him there but offered to give him work for a few days to earn some money and go back. Most of them were tea sellers and a fifteen year old Akhlaq also started selling tea and his first assignment as a tea boy was in Kamatipura, Mumbai’s red light district. “In the vicinity there was a cinema hall and its name was Alfred Cinema,” Akhlaq remembers that day fondly. It was on that day his destiny took a different turn. Next to it was a shack studio where artists made huge film hoardings. “I asked for a job and immediately I landed up in a job, which was washing and cleaning the brushes,” smiles Akhlaq. Life became a bit easier then as he started getting Twenty Five rupees per day. “It was enough for food and other expenses and I used to sleep in footpath with friends.” One day the studio owner asked him whether he could take the boards to different cinema halls and bring them back. “It was more exciting than washing and cleaning the brushes and I started getting a daily payment of Rs.300/-“ Akhlaq was very confident then to live in Mumbai.

 (a work by Akhlaq Ahmad displayed at Jaipur Literature Festival)

Somehow, Akhlaq was interested to see what is going on in the studios. It was then he got an opportunity to work in another studio. “It was a sort of poaching the helping hands from one studio by the other studio owners,” says Akhlaq. In the new studio, he was given a chance to fill in calligraphy and huge areas on the board with colour. “They did not allow beginners like us to do work on board. My initial training was to write small letters, like subtitles (Jai-Veeru Band- the king of music). The main lettering will be done by the master artist (for example Jai-Veeru Band) and the trainee will get to write only the subtitle (the king of music). Instead of board or canvas, we were given gunny bags. I used to get paid Rs.25/- for this.” Training went on for months and finally Akhlaq got promotion as a first assistant and he got the chance to paint on boards. “Once I got mastery in working on board with poster and enamel colours, one of my friends told me to go and meet Babu Bhai in Mahim, where he used to run a studio. I got a job in Babu Bhai studio as a hoarding painter and I started earning money.”

(A commissioned street art piece by Akhlaq Ahmad)

Back home, the initial irritation and anger of the parents gave way to some kind of rejoice as their run away son started sending money for the upkeep of home. Besides, he was taking interest in the studies of his younger and older siblings. Years went by and Sabbu painter became his signature as he used to be called Sabbu at home. Even then he never had any idea about Delhi or something called fine arts. “In the studio, other people used to talk about famous artists and the kind of money that they make. But I used to think that those were just exaggerated stories.” But things took a different turn for Sabbu when Babu Bhai’s daughter once asked him to accompany her to her home studio. “She was a student in Sir J.J.School of Art. Once I went inside her studio, she asked me to take off my shirt. I was aghast. I refused to do so. She laughed. She told me that she wanted to draw my body and it was how she was taught art in her college. I was not convinced and I doubted her intentions,” Akhlaq remembers. One day, this girl took him to Sir J.J.School of Art. “It was where I came to know that art could be taught in such big buildings. Babu Bhai’s daughter explained things to me. She also told me that if I passed Intermediate, I could also join the college to study art. I laughed it aside.”

(Akhlaq Ahmad- work in progress)

Mumbai was getting on his nerves and Akhlaq decided to leave the place for good. His sister’s marriage took him to Lucknow, where he approached a studio for work. “Instead of brush, they gave me a broom. They asked me to clean the studio.” Akhlaq’s dignity was questioned there. He did not want to accept that job. “For the first time in my life I uttered the word ‘artist’ with so much of confidence and I told him that I am not here to do cleaning. I am an ARTIST.” Such egos were nipped in bud in small towns. Akhlaq found himself in another studio where a benevolent gentleman told him to go to Delhi and gave him some studio addresses in Old Delhi. “I went to studios like Jolly Studio, Baba Studio and so on but they did not give me any work as they were also running out of job due to digital technique on flex boards.” Akhlaq had a different reality to face in Delhi. But there too his kinsmen from village came up with help. Many of his village men were staying in Laddo Sarai area and most of them were either ‘egg sellers’ meaning ‘omelette and bread’ makers or juice stall vendors. Some of them were paan waalas. One of his friends there suggested to start an ‘ande ki redi’ means makeshift shop for Omelettes. Akhlaq started off his Delhi life as an omelette maker.

 ( A project work by Akhlaq Ahmad)

One of his uncles was a principal in Azad College in UP. He told him to appear for Intermediate examinations as a private student. Akhlaq suddenly remembered Babu Bhai’s daughter’s words. If he could pass intermediate exams, he could study art in a college. He did enrol as a private student and to his own surprise he passed with comfortable numbers. Akhlaq applied for BFA fine arts in Jamia Millia Islamia and he did not get through because of his ‘bad English’. “I worked on it for a year and next time I applied again and got through,” Akhlaq joined Jamia in 2008 and came out as a post graduate in 2014. But life was not easy. He was looking for some additional earning. One day, a friend of his who was running a cane juice stall asked him to paint a sign board for his trolley shop, which Akhlaq did. Suddenly, many juice sellers in Delhi wanted similar signboards for their shops. It was the turning point in Akhlaq’s life. After college hours, sharp at five o clock in the evening he ran to start his omelette shop and till ten at night he sold omelettes and then rushed to do the painting assignments in distant places. He worked till two o clock in the early morning. After catching a few hours of sleep he got back to college in the morning sharp at eight o clock. “Nobody knew how I managed my studies as they never saw me doing a job,” Akhlaq remembers.

( a project work by Akhlaq Ahmad)

Akhlaq was slowly becoming a craze amongst the juice sellers in Delhi. Everybody wanted an Akhlaq signboard. He started painting, “sometimes for thousand rupees, sometimes for three hundred rupees and sometimes for a song,” Akhlaq smiles. He could not have complained because many of them had helped him during his initial days. Now he started getting calls from totally strange people of which many were foreigners (the trend still continues). “I sign ‘sabbu artist’ and add my mobile phone number on the boards. People call me and ask me to paint signboard style paintings for them. They are all small works and people prefer to give it as exotic gifts to their friends. I started getting money and it continues even today.” As he started earning decently, Akhlaq brought his elder brother to Delhi and put him in Jamia. Today his brother is a MSc B.Ed and has appeared for the UGC’s NET examination. He also supports his younger siblings who are in tenth and eighth standard respectively. Akhlaq wants them to come to Delhi for further studies.

 (Hanif Kureshi, artist and Akhlaq's mentor)

2011 was a milestone in Akhlaq’s life. He was in the final year BFA. One day someone called him and introduced himself as ‘Hanif’. An early lone crusader for public art and street art in Delhi, Hanif Kureshi, as an advertising professional working with the brand W+K company, was looking for a person who could do hand painted typography. Hanif saw a juice stall board and he liked it instantly. He picked up the phone and called in the number painted on the board. Akhlaq picked up the call and the rest is history. Hanif liked his work instantly and started getting public commissions and international festivals for Akhlaq. With Hanif, Akhlaq travelled to England, Goa, Pune and so on to present his works in street art festivals. Hanif has also made a short film on Akhlaq. With Hanif’s introduction and the well wishers like Jaipur Literature Festival’s Sanjoy Roy and Ojas Art’s Anubhav Nath, Akhlaq became an exotic painter though he has not yet got his gallery debut. “I get project based works and also the commission works that help me going. But I aspire for gallery based exhibition too.”

(Akhlaq with a T-shirt designed by him)

Fame has not changed Sabbu the painter aka Akhlaq. “Television programs and newspaper articles, and above all the money that I send home and the support that I give to my brothers, have made the village people to grow awe and respect for me.” Some of them thought it was an easy walkover and they came over to work with Akhlaq and learn the tricks. “Once they come to know that it is not as easy as it looks, they go back.” Ram Rahman, the photography artist when he was one of the curators of the second edition of the now defunct United Art Fair invited Akhlaq to do some works there, which brought him a lot of attention. Besides he has worked in Apeejay Media Gallery in Badarpur Border, A huge property wall in Kandivili East in Mumbai and ‘IN Box Project’ in Delhi. There are many in the pipeline but his dream is to exhibit in major galleries. “I have a dream,” says Akhlaq. “Is it like becoming another M.F.Husain?” I ask keeping Husain’s training as a hoarding painter in Bombay. Akhlaq laughs. “Ram Rahman introduces me to people saying ‘here is the small Husain and big Husain in the making’ and many other people have cited this parallel. But to be frank, I do not have anything common with Husain. He was a versatile artist. I do not know whether I could claim that versatility.” Life goes on so are the aspirations of Akhlaq. He remembers an incident when Hanif came to do a promo shoot for him in the campus of Jamia. “Hanif asked me to go and sit near my friends, the contemporary painters. They were told that they were on camera. But they pushed me away saying that I was not their kind of painter. They were mocking me calling me Husain. I did not know if they were serious or it was just a prank.” Akhlaq remains silent for a moment. I feel here is an artist who could go places provided some major gallery comes forward to direct and support his works and life. Till then we could wish him all the best.  

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Gendered World of Homai Vyarawalla: Inner and Outer Lives

(Homai Vyarawalla 1913-2012)

In one of the rare footages of Films Division of India, we see a young woman jumping across the Rajpath in New Delhi where the Viceroy’s procession is on and narrowly escaping from being trampled by the mighty horses pulling the regal buggy. This fragile little female clad in a white saree has a heavy flash camera hanging around her neck. With the latest technological aid we could see that scene repeatedly in slow motion and we come to know that the woman who was making that daring effort of moving away before getting caught under the horse driven carriage is none other than India’s first woman photographer Homai Vyarawalla. Today everyone knows about her and the credit goes to Sabeen Gadihoke who had followed her religiously in Baroda where Vyarawalla was living a recluse life, and later brought a comprehensive book on her along with a documentary film. Vyarawalla passed away in 2012 and in 2010, Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts did a major retrospective of her works curated by Sabeen Gadihoke herself. It was a curtain call for her as she was forced to come out of her secluded life and once again stand in front of public attention in Delhi which once upon a time she had enjoyed and spurned at the same time.

(photo by Homai Vyarawalla)

In the retrospective, the photographic works of Vyarawalla had given us a different image about the artist herself. In these works she seems to be absolutely genderless or gendered to the extent of merging her own gender with that of her male counterparts, leaving no clues to find out whether those were taken by a woman or a man. It was a sort of a training and experience she had initially in Bombay where she was active as a young photographer in 1930s till the beginning of 1940s. Most of her works published in the public domain came under her husband’s name for the fear of people looking down upon those images as taken by some hobby woman. Her works, even then were professional enough that none questioned the artistic qualities of it. When she along with her husband Manekshaw, shifted to Delhi in 1942 to join the Publicity wig of the British War Efforts, she could not have the opportunity to address the gendered social issues. She was addressing a male world and she could not behave like August Sanders or Walker Evans with her camera. Instead, she trained her camera more like Cartier Bresson, looking for the decisive moments. And as we all know, the decisive moments in 1940s were almost all male moments. India’s Independence proved to be another watershed moment for Indian patriarchy and Vyarawalla had to go by rule than being an exception on that front.

 (Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

However, Homai Vyarawalla was not just another photographer who held a camera like any other male photographer of her times. She was much more sensitive to her times and to her gender and also she looked at the flourishing and evolving of her gender from a vantage point of curiosity and flourish. And we get to see these images taken by Vyarawalla in 1930s and early 1940s in Bombay and Delhi in the latest show titled ‘Inner and Outer Lives- the Many World of Homai Vyarawalla’, once again curated by Sabeena Gadihoke. These images are, as far as the oeuvre of Vyarawalla is concerned, from the omitted section of her works. These are omitted at a certain point because had these photographs been the rallying point for her artistic excellence when she was first introduced as a historically relevant photographer than just another photographer, Vyarawalla would not have received that kind of acclamation that she enjoys today. Those images that gave her the credit of being a great photographer were all culled from the national or nationalist moment of pride as well as prejudice. But the images in this show come from a different grouping, which Vyarawalla herself had enjoyed taking and preserving for her own perusal and enjoyment. In fact many of these images have been ‘published’ in those days but were not understood out of the context in which those were published, especially in the popular magazines like Illustrated Weekly. These images had come to the public as life style images (taken by a man) or skill teaching images or images of good life.

(Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

The images in this show are constituted predominantly by the ones taken by Vyarawalla when she was a student at the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay. She was one of the early students who studied printmaking, design and commercial art. She was not only interested in learning skills but also documenting her fellow students, their lives and attitudes. Interestingly, at this stage, Vyarawalla comes before as a very gender conscious artist. Her models are mostly her girlfriends, they almost celebrate their short lived model status with flourish as they pose for their friend Vyarawalla. These women of 1930s look so confident and relaxed, and in their cosmopolitan looks and demeanour, we find them advanced for their times. They look like models coming out of Hollywood movies or American and British magazine. There is a reason for this look. Vyarawalla was heavily influenced by the images printed in the American magazines like LIFE, which she used to refer regularly. The influence is telling in the images. There are posed moments and purely journalistic moments. There are candid moments and affected moments in her works of that time. This is the time when Vyarawalla started to publish her works in the popular magazines under her husband’s name and later under her own name. Many of them are commissioned pictures yet many others are the labour of her love for the medium where she tries to capture the image of the Indian women, real yet not real and positively desirable.

 (Pic by Homai Vyarawalla)

Shifting to Delhi brought an end to Vyarawalla’s romance with the beauty of her girl friends and their surroundings. But by that time she reached Delhi, as a woman and as an artist she too had matured enough to forget the pangs of the easy life she had in J.J.School of Art. Though she started getting a lot of commissioned works in Delhi, she did not leave her initial interest in the lives of women in controlled spaces like in an academy or hospital or factory. She went on to visit the newly established Home Science Department of the Lady Irwin College in Delhi where young women were taught to become great home makers. The photographic series done on these Home Science students meticulously dissect the ideology of home making. Man makes house and women makes home, was the motto. Man’s structure is embellished by woman’s art. Home Science department was working on this line. Homai was fascinated to see these female students giving the final touches to the ‘practice apartment’ where they practiced the theories of home making. These apparently innocent and playful photographs are ideologically loaded and could tell us about the ways in which our society wanted to mould its urban women folk.  It was a Victorian offshoot and we do not know whether Vyarawalla was appreciative of this educational pattern or was critical of it. Or was she an impassionate documenter of events? We cannot say for sure but one thing is clear that Vyarawalla was interested in women’s education and she does not seem to be too critical of the Home making education imparted to the girls. She seems to be celebrating their activities creating tableaux of homely events, a serious version of the popular calendars that followed in the post independent years about being a good boy, good girl and so on.

 (Illustrated Weekly cover by Homai Vyarawalla)

In these selected works exhibited at the Sridharani Gallery, New Delhi, we do not see too many images of men. As Vyarawalla could access the high society in Delhi during the fag end of the British rule and that under the newly established Indian government by the Indian people, she could see a lot of changes as well as lot of continuities in life style. In these images, she has extensively taken the ‘fashion shows’ in the British Embassy. There women appear in designer clothes of those times and we could see the solemn audience sitting without much response to the ongoing fashion parade. There is a sense of ambivalence in the people who are involved in these pageants as well as the audience because the time was not good to have such revelries as India was going through the pangs of Independence or the impending independence. Women, the side characters of these political charades, in these works, look further sidelined though they look like having taken the centre stage as models and charming ladies. It is quite interesting to think that women at the J.J.School of Art and women in Delhi forming the ends of a confusing spectrum where the former shows hope and confidence while the latter shows ambivalence in achievement. These I would say are the Mahabharata moments of Homai Vyarawalla.

 (A famous picture of Nehru by Homai Vyarawalla)

The exhibition also showcases a series where a male actor is slowly transformed into a female character. This photograph is not taken when female actors were ostracised. However, male actors playing female roles were still prevalent in folk and popular theatre. In this series, a man slowly turns into a woman by adding make up and accessories and throughout this transformation, the actor does not show any excitement of being photographed. There seems to a completely empathetic relationship between the model and the photographer and in that mutuality they understand and respect each other’s presence. This series, in a different sense could herald the arrival of queer photography or photographing the queer in our visual culture context. I do not know for sure whether the model was a transgender or not, but those men who acted the roles of women always had some femininity, which remained unresolved throughout their lives without staging a ‘coming out’. Vyarawalla captures those moments and makes them the part of not only the general history of photography but the history of the queer visual culture in India. The exhibition also lays open the photographs of streets that Vyarawalla had taken both in Bombay and Delhi. These streets could be a sort of liminal space for Vyarawalla because they connote neither outside nor inside. And these are the places where we surreptitiously play out our inner and outer lives; the ultimate forms of role playing and role reversals. A must watch exhibition. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Importance and Problem of Being Tayeba Begum Lipi

(Tayeba Begum Lipi, Bangladesh artist)

Internationally acclaimed artist, Tayeba Begum Lipi could be Bangladesh’s answer to India’s Subodh Gupta. That definition is possible and viable only if we take too much pride in our nationalisms. When I look at the works of Begum Lipi at the Shrine Empire Gallery, New Delhi, in her minimal solo show titled ‘Reversal Reality’, I am reminded of our own Subodh Gupta not because her works resemble Gupta’s works or aspire to become those works by any means, the feel that exudes from those works somehow calls for drawing such a parallel. Both of them work with familiar materials and build up monumental and exaggerated structures out of them. While Gupta’s works play up some kind of domestic passivity, Begum Lipi’s works do speak of public activity. Gupta does not speak up for or against any class or gender as his works address the international audience with some sort of exoticism and eclecticism to support them. In the meanwhile Begum Lipi speaks up for the hurt class of the society; women in Bangladesh and all over the world. I think, I should leave Gupta there because he should not be a parameter to judge the works of other contemporary artists though I myself have recently used this parameter to discuss the works of another Indian artist. In that case, the promoters of that artist themselves had drawn the parallel with Gupta, but here in Begum Lipi’s case it is the feel that you get once you enter the gallery. But then it is a habit that one has to outgrow. 

(Home, two channel video projection by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

‘Reversal Reality’ is a continuation of Begum Lipi’s ongoing engagement with gender issues and the materials that could be converted into art. Belonging to a sort of Mona Hatoum school of expressions, Begum Lipi started off career in Bangladesh as a painter. Soon her interests moved from the painting materials to other possible materials that could be employed in the making of art. The move to shift mediums should be hailed as a very decisive moment in the career of many artists as that particular move in fact makes or break their careers. Many artists who do installation and assemblages or multimedia works today had been once proven to be bad at painting and sculpting. Many illustrious contemporary artists today would shy away from their former conventional medium works as those just do not reflect the kind of verve, passion or flamboyance that we see in their works today. Seen against this context, Begum Lipi’s decision to move from painting to sculpting or installation must be considered as a very positive move. Begum Lipi is known in the international art circle not only as an artist but also as an organizer and curator; she is co-founder of Britto Art Trust and was the commissioning curator for the Bangladesh Pavillion in Venice Biennale 2011. She has already got a few museum shows to her credit. And a glance at her previous works says that she deserves the accolades that she has amassed so far.

(Destination by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

However, when I look at her works at the Shrine Empire Gallery, I think that activism could sometimes produce bad art; if not bad art, loud art. The subtlety of expressions, whatever may be the size and scale of the work in question, is what makes a work of art worth desiring and worth looking. In Begum Lipi’s presentation here in the show titled ‘Reversal Reality’ that subtlety is lacking in the major works. The smaller works are exceptions to which I will come back later. The pivotal series of works that justifies the title of the show is a deliberately drawn parallel between the life of the artist and the life of a transgender personality; Anonnya. The word meaning of Anonnya is doubly important because the transgender woman in question was a boy once and he had a different name. Anonnya is a chosen name after his conversion into her and the word means ‘Unparalleled’ or unique. Anonnya is unique because she is different from the artist or from us. What catch the attention of the artist are the childhood memories. Begum Lipi and Anonnya are contemporaries and the disparities between her own experiences and Anonnya’s experiences disturb the artist. Hence, she draws a photographic parallel between their lives; how he has spent her boyhood days and how she has spent her girlhood days. And eventually we reach a two screen projection of two videos that run parallel to each other. In one of the projections we see the artist digging a grave with her own hands and in the other we see Anonnya speaking of the trials and tribulations of a transgender woman in this conservative world. The artist seems to say that social disparities have dug up a chasm between them and now only the death could level their social status. The artist makes even a pair of caskets (which is wrongly spelt ‘cascades’) made up of customized steel razor blades welded together. These coffins are going to be their final abode, which would eventually equalize them. Even in death, their memories would be hurting as the caskets are made up of razor blades.

(When the Life Began, by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

The important question that one needs to ask here is how one could elevate a documentary into a rarefied visual art work within a gallery or exhibition space. Could a two channel video projection with one channel playing a documentary and the other playing a performance make it a work of art? Or the blending should happen in the eyes of the viewer? What happens if the viewer is so familiar with this kind of queer discourse and does not give much importance to the performance part? Or what happens if someone is so brash that he/she does not want to even look at the documentary part of it? For me, a person who has read the autobiographies of transgender people like Revathy and also has seen a lot of documentaries and documentary photography on the lives of transgender people (I would like to cite the works of Abul Kalam Azad and Chinar Shah in this context), this documentary on Anonnya’s life looks quite familiar. But when seen it as being played parallel with the grave digging performance of the artist, I think that gravity of both the acts is reduced to dust. I would have taken the grave digging act to Shakespearean levels had it been looped alone. I would have taken Anonnya’s renditions of her life very serious had it been shown in a single channel projection. I have to say that Begum Lipi’s video work and the photographic works somehow fail to impress in this context.

 (Anonnya's Privacy, work by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

However, when it comes to the smaller works in this show Begum Lipi does not fail impress or surprise. A couple of works made out of gold plated brass safety pins welded together into a handbag and a pair of slip in shoes ( I really do not know what those shoes are called otherwise) are really eye catching , soothing and meaningful. They are two intimate objects that women generally use and the golden sheen is not devoid of the threat that it implies because the safety pins are sharp and are a daily tool of binding for women (that helps women not only to hold themselves together but also it becomes handy in poking back at the probing hands in crowded places). Somehow, looking at these works I am reminded of the works of Jaipur based Surendra Pal Joshi, who has made curtains and helmets out of customised steel safety pins (of which the Helmet was on display in the recently concluded India Art Fair 7th Edition in Delhi). These works of Begum Lipi look more impressive and subtle than the other feminine objects that she had ‘fabricated’ out of customized razor blades. These blades are not industrially produced useable blades, therefore I should say the ‘sharp edge’ is slightly blunt here. The real sharpness of razor edges had been on display in the works of Sunil Gawde (Sakshi Gallery) and Anant Joshi (Chemould Gallery) during the boom years. The razor curtain of Joshi and the razor garland of Gawde were really sharp and capable of bringing goose pimples to one’s skin. Begum Lipi’s razors, as they are not the original ones do not convey the sharpness as they should have been otherwise.

 (Long Walk by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

A wig made out of fine copper wires, titled ‘Wig’ is a catch of the show. One is thrown into a sort of confusion whether to see the rest of the blonde inside the wall or outside the wall. Where has the rest of the body gone, one may wonder; has she gone inside the wall or evaporated from the wall? This wig stands as an emblem to all the women both eastern and western who have been vanishing into thin air even when they are alive. Their presence is not noticed or even when it is not noticed it is done for wrong purposes. Internationally blondes are considered to be dumb sex objects and by creating a blonde wig out of copper wires, Begum Lipi not only has underlined the vanishing acts of our women but also she has taken the courage to question the western world’s stereotyping of women into blonde sex objects. In another work, by now familiar with the narratives of Begum Lipi and Anonnya, I could see the plaster/fibre cast of the faces of the artist herself and Anonnya. They are like death mask that we see in the novels of Dan Brown. One would almost look out for some inscriptions on these masks but what one sees is the blank grey of death. In the audio track that accompanies the masks play out some initiation song in Bangla which I am not able to understand.

 (The Wig, by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

The show as a whole speaks of life of Anonnya and also speaks of her death. Her slow death in the hands of the society is resonated in the life of the artist. She finds a reflection of her own self in Anonnya’s life and also finds her own death in her death. Here the death of both the protagonists is a metaphorical one. But it sharply reminds us of our own deaths. It is almost like looking at two people who have let their lives open to debate them with the sharpest tools available (as in an Abromovician act). It hurts when one sees it alone in the deepening gloom of the gallery space. I wish the Begum Lipi could have reconsidered the projection size and projection strategy of her video considering the small space of the gallery. Sometimes, small screen makes sense. Small lives definitely make sense as in the case of Anonnya but at times it needs Begum Lipi who has made it big out there in the big bad world. Anonnyas in the world seek agency of people like Begum Lipi, till they acquire their own mediums of expressions other than clapping, singing, blessing and cursing. The show is a memento mori; the good things will perish, so are the bad things, but the vignettes will remain, constantly telling us to stand and stare, if not for meaning, at least for knowing our own nothingness.

 (The Lullaby by Tayeba Begum Lipi)

The article is over. This line is just to balance this image. JohnyML

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Annihilating the Subjectivity: Sheila Makhijani and Manisha Parekh

(Only photograph available of Sheila Makhijani (second from the right front) in the net)

“I do not know how to draw a straight line, hence when I was an art student at the Delhi College of Art, I never went on to do sketching and drawing,” says Delhi based artist Sheila Makhijani. She sounds defiant at times as she answers the questions put to her by Roobina Karode, the curator of Kiran Nadar Museum in Delhi. Causing a great discomfort to both the chair and the audience, Sheila moves on saying, “For a long time I never used to title my works. Then I started asking myself what I was doing in those works. So the question ‘What’ itself became a title. And I do not remember many of the titles I have given to them,” she presses on. “That means you can re-title them,” exclaims Karode. “Perhaps, I can re-title them but I will not,” Sheila pitches in. “Why?” challenged a bit, the curator asks, “Because they already have a title,” Sheila affirms, quite naturally. I like the give and take and I like the verve with which Sheila Makhijani presents her case, or rather I would say, I like the way she refuses to speak about her works. But here is one woman artist from our times who is going to make it big in another ten years in the auction circuits and museum shows. After Zarina Hashmi, Sheila Makhijani would make it, if not in the same lines, but for her small little conceptual works, which she refuses to be called even ‘conceptual’. She may prefer them to be called ‘ineffectual drawings’ and ‘boring’ drawings eventually turning into paper sculptures.

 (A work by Sheila Makhijani)

Somehow Sheila Makhijani’s image in my mind is closely connected with a three distinct images; one, the word image ‘Mayfair Gardens’, two, a group of impatient and vocal artists namely Subba Ghosh, Shukla Sawant, Anita Dube, Manisha Parekh, Bula Bhattacharya and the indomitable former gallerist, Prima Kurien, three, a fair girl with short hair cut, in a pair of jeans and tucked in light blue shirt, wearing a pair of thin rimmed spectacles. I have seen several works of Sheila in various shows and also had some opportunity to talk to her during late 1990s. She seemed to be reticent but smiling all the way. In Kiran Nadar Musuem, in a panel discussion organized as a part of the ongoing group show titled ‘Working Spaces around memory and perception’, curated by Karode, I see a different Sheila; she is articulate and deliciously irreverent. There seems to be a perennial desire to annihilate the artistic self from the body of the works that she as created so far. She has done a wide range of works that includes drawings, paintings, sculptures, paper sculptures and installations. However, Sheila insists that she likes to draw and does not want to know what she draws. This methodical madness of the artist has resulted into a complicated drawings which she calls as her ‘Zebras’, “though my zebras have different colours,” Shiela quips. One wonders whether she is sarcastic or serious.

 (Work by Sheila Makhijani)

Sheila is severely serious and critical about her own practice as an artist, we come to know as she talks on. In my view there is a Cinderella moment in all her drawings. The squiggling and swirling lines ultimately assume the forms of footwear of different designs. Then they implode or explode into various directions. However, the artist takes special care to keep the drawings in the focal centre of the paper. There is a series of ‘Sketchbooks’ which are drawings turning themselves into sketchbooks as the artist cuts and rearranges her drawings even by stitching them and putting them into transparent polythene sheaves. There are some impossible drawings that she folds and turns so that they become sculptures of their own merit but drawings encased in a different format. Sheila says that she is not satisfied with these works because they ‘happen’ out of the TINA factor. There is no alternative. Had there been another way of preserving her drawings, they would have become something else. Here she does not take any effort to highlight her artistic genius. She almost presents her creations as a burden out of no choice. It also sounds that if there was another chance she would have done them differently or would not have done them at all. Such kind of negation of subjectivity is so rare and it is something quite commendable as her utterances sound quite refreshing.

 (Manisha Parekh)

There at the same platform I see and hear out along with others what the Delhi based artist Manisha Parekh has got to say about her practice vis-a-vis working space and memories. In Manisha’s case too I distinctly hear her effort to depersonalize her works to the extent they become quite autonomous, without the weight of the artist’s personal memories or autobiographical twists and turns manipulating their meanings or coercing them into the minds of the viewers. It is so striking that both Manisha and Sheila deliberately avoids personal references or anecdotal narratives from their works. Manisha, for instance, brings up three instances from her creative oeuvre so far. Firstly, she presents her first Royal College of Art Annual exhibition that she had done as a student there around fifteen years back. Secondly, she speaks of the works that had helped her to think out of grids and clustering and thirdly, she underlines those works that she had done ‘in sites’. From the very beginning, Manisha also shows the tendency to avoid autobiographical narratives from her works in order to impart a graphical and abstract quality to them. Though there are glimpses of her personal memories in the earlier works, she had taken very conscious effort to abstract them. Like Sheila, Manisha too draws images, abstracting the object value of things around her and making them a part of a different kind of representation that universalize the imagery without burdening it with region, religion, nature and national specifications.

 (work by Manisha Parekh)

Depersonalization in Manisha’s works becomes interesting as she re-visits the innumerable drawings that she has done over a period of time and takes them out for some exhibition. Suddenly she realizes that those works cannot go individually. They have to go together, if not all but at least few of them. Then the selection becomes another process, which has to be done dispassionately, keeping the design aspect of aesthetical presentation in mind rather than the emotional nuances that had caused those works. A considerable amount of depersonalization happens in the selection process and also in presenting them in grids. Also Manisha, over a period of time has found out how these grid formations also could be very limiting as it would become a sort of personal statement and she would be, at some juncture, forced to find a convincing story about those grids. It was when she found out the possibility of de-gridding them and giving many of the individual images a sort of independence by transferring them into sculptures using armature and jute threads. They look like a set of magical alphabets destined to be deciphered by the audience. Manisha does not attribute any particular literary values to these abstract sculptural forms, on the contrary they appear as form on the wall with an inbuilt possibility of rearrangement at will. While the grid based works could locate and dislocate the central focus or gravity of viewing, by shifting the grids to off the centre or up and down, these sculptural images also have the ability to dislocate themselves depending on the artistic will or curatorial will.

 (A work by Manisha Parekh)

Dislocation is an interesting notion as far as the display strategies of Manisha are concerned. She prefers the appearance of the works to be determined by the available space, an idea that she had learned during the first Khoj Workshop in 1997 at Modi Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, neighbouring Delhi. The works could be brought in the middle of the backdrop and at the same time it could be ‘dislocated’ not only to highlight the presence of the work but also the presence of the backdrop itself. This was one of the instances that had given Manisha the ideas about her site specific works. Though Manisha does not claim herself to be a site specific artist, the presentation tells me that she has done some very impressive site specific works. She gets the ideas from basic forms or basic people. This also could be translated into basic principles. Manisha gets her ideas from the basic principles of life; life seen in a holistic perspective where the thingness of things are given importance than the external values attached to them. That’s why in her works one could see the daily utensils and worker’s implements getting transformed into abstract shapes and ropes and knots becoming sprouts and growths. I would say these works are strangely erotic also because the hemispherical structures could be a stand for the female principle and the animated knotted ropes could be a taken as the aspiring male principle. One of the most interesting works that Manisha has done is the ‘Lotus Pond’ made out of plywood sheets. Done in Japan, this work is a master stroke in Manisha’s works so far as it shows a lotus pond filled with lotus leaves eaten by worms. She envisioned the lotus pond she had seen in Japan during a residency as a cultural cauldron rich and healthy but eaten away by parasitic creatures leaving the leaves porous. Light and shadows play a very important role in this work.

 (A work by Manisha Parekh)

My aim of writing this article was to point out how some interesting women artists of our times deliberately take an anti-narrative stance and almost annihilate their own subjectivity within the works of art they create by completely removing the autobiographical references. In a feminist context, autobiography is one of the crucial components that breaths liveliness into those otherwise staid works of art. Avoiding autobiography and also not resorting to the conventional abstract visual language, these artists in their works initiate an interesting dialogue regarding works of art and woman’s subjectivity. Should woman’s subjectivity always be connected to their personal narratives? Can women artists not have a stake in the languages that transcend race, gender, nationality and geography? Why should women artists always resort to the very highlighting of their personal life in order to claim a space within the intellectual and public domain? Can they not assert their individuality by questioning and doubting their own creativity and play up some sort of ambivalence in order to understand the creative process as well as their creative role in the general zone of creativity? Looking at the works of Sheila Makhijani and Manisha Parekh, I believe that it is possible and it is not always necessary to do feminist breast beating in order to be out there as artists of name and fame. That does not mean that these artists do not have gender dignity and gender politics. The very idea of challenging the norms of expectation from a woman artist by annihilating such an oppressed subjectivity is all about being gender conscious and political; a woman’s subjectivity as a gendered subject as well as a political subject need not necessarily be worn in their sleeves, they seem to say. But then it is a personal choice and as an art critic I like their choice.