Friday, April 29, 2016

A Brief History of the Performance Artist Shantanu Lodh and His Times

(Shantanu Lodh)

I just could not read what must be going on in his mind by the looks in his eyes. They stare at me like two shiny black silver beads. Those are the eyes of Shantanu Lodh who has been bedridden paralyzed since October 2015 after a road accident.

Last week, Indian Express newspaper told us that Shantanu was on the road to recovery. The photograph accompanying the news bit was an old one but it suddenly gave us a new hope. He would struggle back to normalcy; we would see the good old Shantanu Lodh who paused each sentence with a typical Bengali ‘eh’.

Rare are such friends like Roy Thomas, a contemporary artist, former colleague of Shantanu in the Mira Model School where this trio ‘Atul Bhalla-Roy Thomas-Shantanu Lodh’ taught in late 1990s, who would stick to a friend in any dire situation. Roy Thomas has been visiting Shantanu in the GB Pant Hospital in Delhi and also in Alwar, Rajasthan where Shantanu is currently being rehabilitated at the Sapna Foundation.

Who is Shantanu Lodh, many youngsters and senior generation artists may ask. Ten years is not that a long period, yet many must have already forgotten him because after a scandalous and curiosity evoking performance at Khoj in Delhi in 2005 Shantanu almost went in missing partly due to familial issues and partly by choice. In January 2012, Shantanu participated in an exhibition, after much coaxing and cajoling, curated by me at the Delhi’s Gallery Ragini and was titled ‘A4 Arple’. A suitable reminder of Shantanu’s daredevilry in art I exhibited his works next to the ceiling.

Shantanu did not come to the exhibition opening. 

(Shantanu Lodh at the Sapna Foundation, Alwar)

Almost two decades back, much before the officially sanctioned, authorized and publicly celebrated ‘aesthetics of vandalism’ or street art pieces started appearing on the walls of Delhi, in the Kalkaji-Okhla-Alaknanda belt people spotted the presence of certain illegible symbolic presentations and started wondering who could have been the person behind. Those who knew art history understood they looked something like the works of AR Penck, the German artist. Banksy was unheard of then. Qualifications and nicknames like ‘space occupier’ were not even mentioned anywhere. But someone was stealthily occupying the walls of Delhi.

A senior artist, who was living in that area one day, asked me over for a drink and there she introduced the artist behind the mysterious paintings on the Delhi walls. A fat, large eyed and somewhat potbellied young person with thinning hair and fleshy lips was there at the drawing room who reminded me of the young Diego Riviera, the legendary Mexican muralist. He was Shantanu Lodh. We became friends. The senior artist was patronizing him.

After a couple of weeks, when I met her again in the absence of the young artist, she told me, “He could be the next Krishnakumar.” I smiled.

For the beginners I should say who Krishnakumar was. K.P.Krishnakumar was one of the students in the first batches came out of the Trivandrum Fine Arts College in mid 1970s. A young, sturdy and stout Krishnakumar had the charisma to be a natural leader and in his times he led a pack of artists. Then he went to Santiniketan, an unlikely place for him, studied there, worked there, got into a few scandals and came to Baroda in mid 1980s to officially found the then nascent ‘Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association’, which is known in its short form, the Radical Group.
Historians and the members of the erstwhile Radical group are still at each others’ necks when it comes to pinpointing the circumstances that led to the formation of the Group and also to the anointing of K.P.Krishnakumar as the leader of the Radical Group. This group, in their manifesto declared that the artists of the group stood against the ‘retrogressive aesthetics’ prevalent in the Indian art of that time. The retrogressive aesthetics that the group members referring to was that of M.F.Husain, Raza, Souza and of their ilk.

The poetic justice was finally done when Krishnakumar, KM Madhusoodhanan and NN Rimzon (though not strictly a Radical Group member but a sympathizer) who could fit together in ‘Pond Near the Field’, a five persons show in the Kiran Nadar Museum that collects a vast number of ‘retrogressive’ artists and their ‘retrogressive aesthetics’ which the Radicals stood against. Time is the great leveler, if not money would, don’t worry.

K.P.Krishnakumar committed suicide in 1989 in Kerala. That incident brought the curtains down for the Radical Group and the members took another decade to recover from the shock. Many went into hiding, some switched fields and some went into sheer cynicism and yet another lot still live like Radicals, fitting neither here nor there; living anachronisms.

The senior artist was finding another Krishnakumar in Shantanu Lodh.

What did she mean by that?

Was she saying that Shantanu could lead another ‘Radical’ movement in Indian art scene? Or Shantanu was as strong an artist as Krishnakumar? Or Shantanu will suicide at some point? Or simply he was a good boyfriend material? 

(Indian Express report)

Shantanu’s Krishnakumar phase was short lived. The way a Bengali understood Marxism and the way a North Indian middle class woman interpreted it from books were two different things. I believe that was the reason why Shantanu walked out of his first patron in Delhi. Many years later I heard that one of the reasons why Manmeet, his estranged wife and artist, walked out on him was his obsession with what he understood. A liberal Communist, Shantanu took the liberty to wake his wife up at odd hours to discuss art and revolution.

When people assume themselves as Sartre and Beauvoir, they forget that the 20th century intellectual giants too had their eating, shitting and sleeping times out of the Parisian cafes.

Whoever ejected or rejected you, you had somebody there at Mandi House in 1990s. Mandi House was the physical whatsapp group of the yesteryears, as far as the migrant artists in Delhi were concerned. You could go there, sit in the library or in the canteen and wait for your friends to come and they did. During the summer months, you could sneak into the Sahitya Academy library halls to catch a nap in the temperature controlled interiors.

I had come to Delhi in mid-90s with no acquaintances or friends. Someone had told me to go to Mandi House. I made my life in Delhi because I went to Mandi House. I met everyone there. Shantanu too went to Mandi House. And his life and art was shaped in that place.

Shantanu perhaps never wanted to become a school teacher. But to live and survive in Delhi one had to do something. Shantanu had to live here. And the best was to join a school where his friends taught. Atul Bhalla and Roy Thomas taught in the Mira Model School in Janak Puri. Shantanu got the job there as an art teacher.

These three young and emerging artists were moving in three different directions. A heavy bearded Atul Bhalla was struggling to find a language of his own through his paintings and watercolors. Roy Thomas was more like a traditionalist who painted with the severity and sincerity of a painter. He had already finished his experimental stage by making huge paintings on tarpolin. Now he was painting canvases and was sort of managing between school and studio. Shantanu was the unmarried one amongst the three and was considered to be ‘more radical than others’ and could easily move into the intellectual circles, ripples within the ripples created in Mandi House and then spread out to Max Mueller Bhavan, British Council and Santiniketan, a rich neighborhood in Delhi where some godfathers and godmothers of Indian art scene lived.

Working in the same school, drawing more or less the same salary and doing their art created a healthy competition between these three artists and I believe that it was Shantanu’s presence that created the present day Atul Bhalla and Roy Thomas. I do not intend to say that Shantanu taught them something or showed them the way. But Shantanu did show them the possibility of doing and hoping; and at times simply showing the mid-finger. Atul Bhalla grew into a conceptual artist and Roy Thomas, a fine painter. 

(Poster of performance or Performance poster of Shantanu and Manmeet)

There is an artist who lives in Old Delhi and comes to Mandi House every evening. Even today he does it. I do not know for how many decades he has been doing it. His name is Susheel Kumar. Though many of the contemporary performance artists do not remember his name as he was not pushing himself so hard to be in the mainstream and was rather very critical of it, he has to be acknowledged for his contributions to Indian Performance art scene. Susheel was the one who inspired the conceptual and performance artists in Shantanu Lodh and Inder Salim Tiku.

Susheel grew cynical to the fledgling contemporary art scene and moved around as a living critical vehicle than a doer of art before withdrawing to his own shell of silence. His pivotal performance was carrying a Buddha head in his hands and walking from the National School of Drama campus to the Lalit Kala Akademi premises in Mandi House. It did not create such cry and hue because India was still tolerant even after Babri Masjid.

Shantanu took up the threads where Susheel had left it. He collaborated with large hoarding projects in and around Mandi House and mostly the hoarding featured the pictures of both Shantanu and Inder Salim. ‘Hum Tum Ek Kamre mein Band Ho’ said one of the hoardings. It was a criticism on the galleries in India (retrogressive art!). Art was held captive in galleries; that was what they wanted to say. Inder Salim shot up to fame when he cut the tip of his finger off in a ‘secret ritual’ performed in an undeclared location which was privy only to people like Susheel. The selective leak of the chopping off of his finger spread far and wide giving a new halo to Inder Salim as a ‘legitimized’ practitioner of performance art in India. Inder and Shantanu performance together against the gallery practices when they dressed themselves up as two waiters who served wine and cheese during the gala openings of art shows.

Manmeet was happening in Shantanu’s life. 

(Shantanu and Maneet performing in Delhi)

Manmeet Devgun passed out from Jamia Millia Islamia in late 1990s. And she did not want to paint. What she carried around was a camera and photographing artists was her initial hobby. She too hung out in Mandi House.

A tough Punjabi girl falling in love with a soft Bengali boy should have come with an expiry date as it has been the case with a few other couples that I know personally.

Manmeet was a tough girl to chop off both Devgun and Lodh from her name. Shantanu helped her in liberating herself as an artist. The new millennium found them working together in a few projects that scandalized the ‘still conservative’ art community in India. The first one was the ‘Kissing in Public’ poster project done sometime in 2003. The idea was mooted and executed during a show curated by me in 2003 at the Arpana Art Gallery, Delhi. The show was titled ‘Dreams: Projects Unrealized’. Though the present crop of conceptual artists do not have a clue about the curatorial practices that prepared the ground for them was coming from me, the stalwarts of Indian art came to visit the show and went back dazed.

It was in this show Shantanu and Manmeet released their kissing poster which was later to be pasted all over Delhi. They did it and it was immediately removed or scraped by an uncaring public.
In 2004, I had grown disillusioned about Indian contemporary art and was thinking of quitting. 
Money had become the deciding factor of Indian contemporary art in that year. It continued to be the same for another seven years. I had to survive so I went to work in a Newspaper in Delhi. One day in 2005, I got a call from Shantanu inviting me to Khoj. I was working as a political journalist. 
Reluctant I went there. I saw among people, dust, smoke and the air thick with the smell of sweat and the beats of music, Shantanu and Manmeet in stark nakedness letting their bodies to be ‘vandalized’ by the viewers. You could write or painting on their bodies.

There was not an inch of space left in the bodies of Shantanu and Manmeet. I felt like crying and I was humbled. I stood there smiling at them. They came to me, looked into my eyes and we stood there saying nothing. I was just reminded of the famous performance of Marina Abromovic; she placed seventy two different torturing tools which had been used by the perpetrators of punishment all over the world. She stood naked before the crowd and asked them to torture her the way they wanted using those tools. Initially they were reluctant. But someone started; a pinching here or there. Within a few minutes Marina stood there like a ravaged land, her body bleeding all over. People rejoiced in torturing her. The context was art. And they were just participating in the ‘process’ of making a memorable piece of performance art. Though painful, Abromovic proved her point. Given a chance, any human being could be worse than the horrendous and hideous torturer in the world.
In the crowd in Khoj in 2005, I saw what Abromovic saw in Serbia in 1974. Shantanu and Maneet called their performance with this title: ‘Hamam mein Sab Nange hai, par Hamam Hai Kahan?’ (In the public bath everyone is naked but where are those public baths?) They were referring to a socio-cultural situation that decimated the beauty of openness and transparency in social life. More or less in the same time Chintan Upadhyay had also did one performance piece ‘Baar Baar Har bar Kitni Bar?” (Again and Again, Each Time and How many Time?) In this performance done in Baroda, Chintan sat nude and asked people to smear turmeric powder all over him. 

(Shantanu Lodh performing in Delhi with a German artist)

Shantanu and Manmeet started living together. His father moved in with them after Shantanu’s mother’s death. Shantanu was attached his mother and he used to think that he looked exactly like her.

In the Mira Model School, he called us a few people (around seven of us) and did a performance for his mother. Shantanu did not want to make that performance a spectacle. It was a Sunday afternoon. He had made his preparations.

In a tank we saw a few dark fish with sharp thorns coming out their heads. Shantanu stood before the tank. Took out a pair of scissors and cut off a few curly locks from his hair. He placed it on the tank and put a few strands into the water. Then reverently he pushed his hands inside the water in an attempt to catch the fish. First, they slipped away. Then they began to attack. Shantanu began to bleed. He took out the bleeding hands and dropped the blood on the hair and stood in silence for a few moments.

It was a performance that he did for his mother. We did not ask for the meaning. But Shantanu told us that Bengalis ate the fish that they loved.

The erotic connotation was palpable. The Oedipus angle was too profane to discuss at that moment, which however I did when he did the next performance at his home where he lived with Manmeet and his father.

(Chanchal Banga, an Indian artist based in Jersalem, Israel also had performed a ritualistic act by tonsuring himself with a coarse razor in full public view)

(Shantanu in one of his performance pieces)

Shantanu called ‘I Slapped my traditional Father’.

It is a series of photographs in which we see him in a very special tea ceremony. Here Shantanu is the son/servant with no clothes on serving his full clad father/master. The real life son standing before the real life father nude becomes blasphemous only when the father is in the advanced stage and the son is still young. Here is a Yayati moment and a lot of Oedipal complications. I have written extensively about it and you may read it in

Then Shantanu was not seen for a long time. We were looking for him. We heard that he was separated from his wife and child. As usual, wife takes all what the man has created, including children, and makes him flee. None of us was surprised as making and breaking were quite normal in the art scene.

Then I heard that Shantanu had gone in to some spiritual path. It was a very ironic course but very predictable one. A staunch materialist is the one who is prone to become a spiritualist in a given moment. The stronger materialism, the stronger is his fear to resist the spiritual calling. When the wall collapses, he just tumbles over. It happened to Shantanu. Peace is a birthright, hence I did not look at his spiritual course skeptically. As Sree Narayana Guru had once said to a Yoga practitioner, I too thought it was good for ‘fine bowel movements’. Yes, it was good for his bowel movements. Shantanu shed a few kilos and looked happy and trim. But with body mass he lost the zest for art making too. May be he was making a different art.

(Another performance by Shantanu Lodh)

Shantanu is paralyzed now and if we could believe a best friend like Roy Thomas, Shantanu is on his way back to his old self.

I believe, his very act of resisting death itself is a way of showing mid finger to the Indian contemporary art scene.

Once, I was instrumental in organizing a small camp for the ‘nange bhooke’ (naked and starving) artists of my generation in a big bureaucrat’s house in Delhi. Kaushal Sonkaria, Abhimanue VG, Mithu Sen, Shantanu Lodh, Shijo Jacob and a few others were in the camp. They were given canvases to paint.

Shantanu did his classical act. He, a la Kasimir Malevich, painted a hand showing the mid finger sign (we have it in whatsapp now) on a white surface using white paint. He went on working it for three days (we were given food packets as remuneration). From a distance it looked like a white canvas. Once you moved closer you could see the mid finger glaring back at you.

The bureaucrat came, looked at it and understood. Herself being a painter could not kick him out but kept her words for a later occasion. To my surprise, on the fourth day evening, when the dignitaries were supposed to come and see the paintings, Shantanu picked up his canvas, pressed it diagonally, creating waves across the canvas and making the wooden stretcher jut out of four corners like a badly broken human limb, kept it on the easel and walked off. The bureaucrat came and in fully fury she asked me to re-stretch it. I refused and slowly by the time the bureaucrats came Shantanu’s painting was removed from the lawn.

The irony was, after a few months, I saw the same work neatly stretched and exhibited in one of the exhibitions conducted by the ‘bureaucrat’. I think the organizer’s eye had missed the mid finger code hidden in it. I was happy to see it.

I would like to see Shantanu back. But at the same time I know that Shantanu will never be the same one.


Unknown said...

Excellent article. Harsh and sensitive at the same time.

Unknown said...

I am really sorry to hear the bad news. I will miss you dear Shantanu. It is true hopefully indian art will remember you always. Whether you're there or hear.