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. 

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