Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Indian South Explodes Aesthetically at the NGMA, New Delhi

(Dhwani se Shabd aur Chinh at NGMA, New Delhi, display view)

(My article in Indian Express Malayalam Weekly. This article questioned why KCS Panicker was excluded from the Golden Jubilee celebration of Indian Independence held the NGMA in 1998)

When I look at the exhibition ‘Dhvani Se Shabd aur Chinh’, with the works of a large number of artists from the Indian South culled out from the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, my memories go back to an exhibition at the same venue around nineteen years back. The name of the show was ‘Indian Contemporary Art: A Post-Independence View’ and was put together by Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery and the NGMA. The occasion was the golden jubilee celebrations of India’s independence. I was shocked to see that there were no works of KCS Panicker who had singlehandedly established an art movement as well as an art village (Neo-Tantric Art and the Cholamandal Artists Village respectively) in this show. I approached the director of the Vadehra Art Gallery, Mr.Arun Vadehra and according to him the absence of Panicker was due to ‘circumstantial factors’. With some amount of journalistic fervour and moral agitation as an art critic hailing from Indian South, I approached the then director of the NGMA (I remember it was Anjali Sen) and asked why KCS Panicker’s works were absent in a historical show like that. They informed that other than giving the gallery space, the NGMA had nothing to do with the exhibition. In my article written in the same year (1998) in the Malayalam Vaarika from the Indian Express Group, I had discussed how the ‘Brahminical’ North wanted to suppress the ‘Dravidian’ South and its modern art history.

(work by Jankiram from the show)

Today, ‘Dhvani se Shabd aur Chinh’, almost after twenty years corrects the historical faults that the NGMA had done during the golden jubilee celebrations of India’s independence. The National Gallery has a vast collection, mostly untouched by the in house as well as invited curators. Somehow during the last sixteen years when Mr.Rajeev Lochan was the Director of the NGMA, all the retrospectives were about the Bengal School. I cannot complain because those retrospectives were mammoth in size and deep in curatorial thoughts and presentation. But it had often raised the question in the minds of many people why there were no other retrospectives than the so called artists accepted by the mainstream modern and contemporary art history of India. Jitish Kallat’s was the last one to happen and we had Subodh Gupta and Anish Kapoor in the previous years. While it is always good to have such exhibitions which are to be ‘block buster’ and ‘chart buster’ shows, in the case of the National Gallery it has been a fact that what used to get burst was the expectation levels of the organisers. During the last sixteen years when Mr.Lochan was in chair the foot fall was bare minimum. But with the new Director General, Adwaita Gadanayak (despite all the ideological burden that he has to carry whether he wants it or not), the National Gallery seems to be on its way to make certain corrections (so far definitely not in the usual BJP way) and of late the ‘aam’ artists in Delhi have started crossing the threshold of the NGMA, which has been an extremely elite and English speaking domain for more than quarter of a century.

(display view)

The present show has a rich representation of the Indian South artists though the emphasis is on the ‘Madras School’. The presence of the works of KG Subramanyan, A.Ramachandran, Ravinder Reddy and so on have helped to push the boundaries of the Madras School or the Cholamandal aesthetics. At the same time, the in house curatorial attempts fail on this count because they couldn’t cull out many other major artists from Indian South from the NGMA collection. But if we look at the show as a dominant ‘Madras School’ show, then definitely it is an interesting show and a must watch exhibition. The curatorial team of the National Gallery has taken great pains and efforts to create additional structures to define spaces and establish niches and pedestals to raise the works to greater visibility and some sort of divinity. The works of late Nandagopal are displayed with elegance and exclusivity as the innate themes of the works demand. So many works that were functioning almost like garden sculptures in the lawns of the National Gallery are cleaned and brought into the gallery. Imagine, most of works spread in the lawns unattended and uncared for have been the works of the artists from the Indian South. Once they are in the gallery, we get a chance to see them in their art historical context.

(work by Nandagopal)

Some rare paintings of KCS Panicker, Jayapala Panicker, KV Haridasan, AP Santhanraj, P.Gopinath, C.Douglas, J.Sultan Ali, Janakiram, Ramanujam and so on are on display. Each historical exhibition like this tells us that the artists did their best work when there was no market or they were not heavily depending on their works to eke out their living. The very history and philosophy of the Cholamandal Artist Village inform us that the artists were not thinking about making money out of their creative works but from the works that they created in terms of craft but never compromising their aesthetical profundity. Cholamandal thus created a benchmark for the artists and taught them how they could survive when there were no takers for their art; not even the state patronage. But some egalitarian souls were in the advisory boards and purchasing committees of the national cultural establishments and they were instrumental in getting those works collected even when there was no private patronage for them. So today we have a rich collection of the works done by the artists from the Indian South in the establishments like NGMA. The difference is that while the so called Brahminical art historians who led the scene (like Geeta Kapur, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and so on) tried to suppress these works, the ideological Brahmins find no problem in showcasing them. The shift from Amrita Shergil and Family to KCS Panicker and the Indian South art really shows a paradigmatic shift in the art historical discourse in India.

(display view)

Till recently V.Viswanathan’s works were not really ‘looked at’ by the Indian art movers and shakers. Then one day he was picked up by the Nature Morte and the Kiran Nadar Museum; then his fate changed. How does this happen? This kind of picking up of artists who are physically frail with failing health for promotion by the art market shows how inhuman their approach is; age and the imminent death of any artist with a considerable period of work/ing history help the auction houses to add yet another vintage artist in their lot. So here is an artist who has worked for more than fifty years, hasn’t enjoyed real success in terms of fame and money, but with a gigantic oeuvre is a treasure mine to be dug into. Now they could create new stories and histories around him/her and give birth to a new golden goose. But Viswanathan’s works done in late 1960s are precious gems and a good number of them are in the collection of the NGMA, which is decently displayed in this exhibition. So are the works of SG Vasudev and P.Gopinath. Unfortunately there is no list of artists or an illustrated catalogue, which is a must for these kinds of historical exhibitions. There is a small take away pamphlet which does not have much to offer. So I am not able to do justice to all the artists either. There are so many sculptors and painters from Indian South in this show who are no longer even mentioned in any kind of modern art history in India. I wish I had all the names for ready reference in my hand. What I could tell you at this juncture is to go and see the show. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Every Good Thing Has to Come to an End: Curating in Baroda Concludes (XII)

This is the last article in the series that I have been writing during the last twelve days on the curatorial projects realized by the cub curators in Baroda. For me, the project, ‘Magic of Making’ was an exceptional experience because it gave me an opportunity to work with a set of very vibrant students at the Fine Arts Faculty, MSU, Baroda. When I commenced my lectures on 11th September 2017, I had no clue about the direction that this module would take. But towards the end of my lecture on the first day itself I could understand that here was an interesting and interested lot of students who were enthusiastic about realising certain curatorial projects of and on their own. For the students the phrase ‘curatorial practice’ did not ring in any surprises which had done to me as a student quarter of a century back in the same faculty. Today students are familiar with various kinds of curatorial practices though they do not have any hands on experience in it. To my surprise I found at least a couple of students who were directly or indirectly involved in curatorial practice elsewhere. I did not find students were approaching the lectures with some kind of anxiety or scepticism. In this series of articles I have explained how the students developed their projects and curated them successfully. What I could say as a preamble to a concluding article is that today I stand more benefitted by my interactions with these students than they are. My students may dispute it but I am extremely thankful to them for surprising not only me but the department and the faculty as a whole with the enthusiasm and determination to realize their projects.

There were eighteen curatorial projects in total of which I have written in detail only about ten projects. I would have continued in the same vein had those other projects been by the first year MVA students. The reason why I do not want to write about the projects done by the first year students is this that they have one more year to go in the faculty and as a teacher if I give them a sort of high praise perhaps it would go directly into their heads and it would proved detrimental to the guide who would go there to initiate them into the final year module of curatorial practice. If they believe that whatever they have done in this year along with the final year students are good enough to be passed off as rounded curatorial projects, then their chances of working on much developed and mature concepts in the next year would be less. I do not put them into the self congratulatory mode not because that is a sort of ego checking mechanism but also because the projects that the junior students have taken up to realize this year were not conceptually mature in fact. When I was in the class I did not put them through the rigour that I had forced on to the senior students mainly because I knew for sure that those projects were just a warming up exercise for the next year. Whether it is me who would teach them next year or another teacher with another methodology, it is imperative for them to have a very fresh approach in the next year. They should never feel that they have done their best and they ‘know’ it.

Ryan Bhegra, Dhara Mayavat, Leticia Alvares, Hiral Patel
The biggest folly that a (cub) curator could commit is his/her belief in a singular model and in a time tested method. A curator is a person (a facilitator, a mediator, an ideologue, a collaborator, a co-creator and a creator in him/herself) who is presented with newer challenges every day. He/she has to face a new artist, a new work of an established artist whose style and method are well known but the one in your hands is entirely different and you need a different approach altogether, new space, new context, new understanding, new infrastructure, new bureaucracy and so on. So a curator cannot insist that ‘I am so and so, therefore I would be doing like this only.’ Such a person would be an utter failure. Similarly, a cub curator him/herself believes that he/she has done something in twelve days and has got appreciation from seniors, scholars and well wishers therefore he/she could curate a project in no time is definitely digging his/her professional grave, ‘professionally’. Always remember that what a curator has done within the campus is a campus project and not a ‘real’ one out in the world where you have to have a series of encounters with unsympathetic elements in the art scene. Overconfidence could finish your confidence itself in the real world. Another important what all the cub curators should remember is this: what you have done in the campus is one of the modules out of the many other modules that you study. Having done a curatorial project does not assure you any place automatically in the curators’ world elsewhere. Out of the twenty or twenty four students, all are not expected to become ‘curators’ even if they have done the module very well. It all depends on the choice that the students make. There are a number of avenues opened by the art history education; curatorial practice is one of them. And mind you, there is no money in it until you become a big name in the scene.

Sheetal Rathod
It is time for me, however to say a few good words about the junior students who have done some impressive projects. I am not going to go into the details of it. But an overview of these projects would give the readers an idea about the promises that these students make for the next year. Sheetal Rathod remained a very enigmatic student throughout the concept presentations and the debates. She hardly spoke up her ideas but she finally came up with a quick fix idea, which perhaps worked well for her. Sheetal wanted to do ‘Wisdom Tree’ and the tree was developed out of a ply board which she fixed at the entrance to the foyer of the Art History department. She painted a tree like form and provided the people with the sticky notes. The audience could contribute their wisdom and slowly and steadily the ‘tree’ grew and the fruits of wisdom were hanging from it. It was a successful project by default (I saw an opposite to Chandni’s Rhetoricity which had a high dose of idea behind it) and cannot be qualified as a fully developed curatorial project. Dhara came from architecture background and she has been studying the re-adaptation of the historical buildings in and around Baroda for some time. She wanted to present the photographs of these buildings. Besides she wanted to work with a few artists who drew such architectures. Somehow she could not manage the drawings and what she could do maximum was exhibiting the photographs of the re-adapted old buildings. Curatorially speaking this project was not meeting the high expectations of the concept had offered.

Nishith Mehta 
Nishith Mehta had a very interesting concept and called it ‘Sanima/Cinema’. His idea was to develop a parallel narrative that resembled to the sentimental narratives of a typical Bollywood movie using the film posters. Only thing that stood between Nishith and the project was the dearth of original posters that really wanted to build his narratives. The time was not enough for him to run around and source posters from the rare poster collections. Hence he decided to stick to the posters available in the net and put them together into a video format and supported it with Bollywood background music (BGM) and sharply cut silences. This project would have become a museum scale project had Nishith worked on it more diligently, with more research and resource. The result was unsatisfactory though as a first step it was impressive. Abhi who goes by this first name had so many ideas and little will power to realise them. However, he put his resources together to create a wall of contemporary works’ images with a central statement made by Harold Rosenberg: “A historically ignorant art have not better claim for attention than an economist who haven’t heard of market crash.” Abhi’s basic argument in the project titled ‘P square’ was that any work of art has a referential point in history or the history of another work of art. To prove him point, he arranged a brief lecture by Dr.Jayaram Poduval on the same subject. Realized on the side wall of the art history department building this project however did not attract people due to unimpressive visual presence. That area where students this time chose for putting up their projects thinking that there would be more foot fall seemed to be jinxed in a way.

Marzanah Mimi
Marzanah Mimi from Bangladesh curated one of the most visually impressive performances/ Happening art in her project titled ‘Hues of Pride’. Mimi wanted to curate the idea of the colours of her country where each colour sari was used for expressing certain seasons and certain national festivals and celebrations. Mimi wanted to recreate the feel of her country through saris worn by the girls/models. She was sceptical about getting her models but finally she could manage around fifteen of them and did an impressive show and in due course she doubled herself up as a curator as well as a performer. Sachin Ryan did a plain ‘print making’ show with three friends of his working in the printmaking department. Three female printmaking students who worked in the same hall got Ryan’s curatorial attention and he converted their studio into an exhibition space and called the project ‘Three Printmakers’, as plain as that. This project could have been a wonderfully developed on had the curator been a bit more serious about what he was doing. Moksha Kumar had a grand idea that involved six LCD television screens, a dark room and a performance. Her concept was interesting and the project was taking shape but somehow she grew cold feet and withdrew from doing it. Finally she came up with a one time performance with a poetic enactment of a commemorative poetry on death and life. Poorvi Sultania and Gopi Shah partnered together to curate a project titled ‘How are You?’ which became a successful project with its interactive nature and playfulness. But how far it went successfully curatorially was questionable as it did not seem to elevate itself beyond a festival fair stall with some curious game. However, I should appreciate their diligence in completing all the curatorial formalities.

Poorvi Sultania and Gopi Shah

Moksha Kumar
Any curatorial project owes its success at least twenty five percent to the background players. They may not be seen in the final display of the project works or they may not even have a direct hand in the curatorial idea but their curatorial inputs are invaluable. We could call them assistant curators who perhaps could grow into curators of their rights in future. I had four students who did a lot for the other cub curators but could not or did not do their projects. Mohammed Rafiyan from Sri Lanka was one student who strongly believed that he was not prepared to do a curatorial module. I did not want to force him either for I knew well that unpreparedness is a part of dislocation and readjustment. He was taking his time to adjust with the new educational system, language and so many other components. But Rafiyan soon grew into one of the most reliable curatorial assistants and his contribution was there in every project that the other cub curators did. So was the case of Dwip Aher, who had a wonderful idea but I discouraged him from doing it. Dwip’s curatorial idea involved a sort of an enactment of a very uncomfortable scene where I also should have been a willing partner without the knowledge of the rest of the class. He wanted to secretly register the reactions of the other students and see whether it could explain his ideas on social justice and humanity. But somehow, so many tender human emotions were involved in it (as he discussed with me privately I could not say no or say yes either) and I did not want to risk anything. Dwip, however gracefully repositioned himself as a curatorial assistant and helped most of the cub curators in realising their project.

Dwip Aher

Prajakta Bhogle Gaekwad

Mohamed Rafiyan

Prakhar Vidyarthi had a project in hand and also he knew how to go about it. The project was a about the ‘idea of space’ and how different people ‘materialized it’ when they were asked to do so. As a student with a background in architecture, he knew what he wanted to do. But in the discussion table itself the other curators shot him down saying that his project would not make a visually impressive one. Prakhar went back and did some ground work for a couple of days and came back and accepted before the class that they were right. So now he would be doing a much scaled up project within three months within the campus. Prajakta Bhogle Gaekwad is another first year student though had a project in her hand but took a backstage player’s position willingly. As a designer and graphic artist with experience in advertising, Prajakta took the responsibility of styling the curatorial projects and giving them an identity through colour coding and a sort of branding. She worked efficiently to design the invitation cards and posters, besides making a common format for printing concept and curatorial notes separately. She took up the responsibility of inviting the chief guest and the press and got a good coverage for the event/s which otherwise would have been passed off as a college affair. I should also congratulate Dr. Jayaram Poduval for giving freehand to me and to my students and supporting it throughout especially in overcoming bureaucratic hurdles in obtaining permissions and releasing a modest students’ fund. Ravi Kadam, the assistant in the department was throughout there do the important errands including the logistics and lighting. Jitto George, Shubhankar, Father Antony and Tarushikha, the PhD students and aspirants were there with their angelic presence instilling confidence and cheerfulness in all. To put it in nutshell, it was a wonderful experience of teaching and learning.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Female Body in Performance as a Curatorial Project: Madhubanti Chanda. Curating in Baroda XI

Madhubanti Chanda 
Madhubanti Chanda, final year MVA Art History, MSU Baroda is an accomplished Bharatanatyam exponent with so many performances to her credit. A graduate in BA Hon. in History from the Lady Shree Ram College, New Delhi, when it comes to the curatorial project, Madhubanti cannot think anything but dance, that means a performing body in space, not really meant to be opened for the audience to take the position that they want to but to manipulate their position vis a vis her performing body, a reversal of the proscenium theatre or temple courtyard stages where Bharatanatyam is often performed. The project she has in hand is titled ‘Nazariya’- A Way of Looking perhaps. Once again she would like to contradict the ways of seeing. In the concept that she presents before the class room/board room, Madhubanti explains how she wants to make use of the space as a neutral entity made available to the body in performance but to arrest the audience movement in certain ways so that the performing body could be completely in control of the audience not by its ability to move the finer feelings among the audience but by its authority over their gazes. Here is the core of her project. According to Madhubanti, she wants to re-present the age old Devadasi system, though which is obsolete now, has its stigma attached even to the modern performing bodies of the Bharatanatyam dancers, if not overtly, covertly. In her concept note she delineates how the Devadasi system, giving away of girls as God’s servants, who would later become accomplished singers and dancers not only servicing the Gods but also the people who wield godly power in the world.

Devdasi Parmpara or system had its pros and cons. There used to be tremendous exploitation of women in this field at the same time the exponents in the field had high reputation as fine artistes. They often became consorts of the rich and feudal patrons, paving way to the collapse of the safe family system and also it had given a false aura of being the incubator of high end prostitution. Whatever be the reason the Devdasis, reputed dancers and singers were looked down upon by the society as a sort of decorated ‘sex workers’ and from the polite societies it became a shrill demand for the abolishing of the Devdasi system. Immediately after the Independence of the country, some of the conservative legislators moved against the Devdasi system and in one stroke of legislation, exactly the British had rendered several tribes into criminal tribes, made Devdasi system a criminal offence. The sudden fall from grace affected the dancers and singers and it took many years of efforts from the modern exponents of Bharatnatyam like Balasaraswati and later by Rukmini Arundale to regain the lost glory for this dance form. The body of the performer/dancer was considered a polluted body and in her curated performance Madhubanti wants to focus on the idea of ‘pollution’ and how the stigma is held proudly by the contemporary dancers like late Chandralekha in whose stage appearance each performance becomes a cleansing act not only of the imagined body of the dancers but also the ‘polluted’ minds of the public/audience.

The concept is clear though the choreography is yet to take shape. Madhubanti does not want to ‘cleanse’ her body for the sake of the audience’s catharsis, on the contrary what she wants to do is to act out the cleansing process before the audience, the process neither as a self cleansing one nor as a cleansing of the audience. It is something in between where the performer’s body gains complete power and the agency of her body is snatched away from the gazing public, and the audience is rendered completely powerless even with their power to gaze is snatched away from them. Madhubanti identifies three spaces for her performance where the curatorial part is more about curating her acts as well as curating the spaces and audience response. She takes up the responsibilities of an artist and curator at once. Madhubanti has to manage space, live singers and any other partners in action if need be. In the initial presentation Madhubanti has three spaces in her mind, the famous pond right in the middle of the faculty, the old building and the sort of stage that the old building provides. Madhubanti wants to start the act at the banks of the ponds where she would start her cleansing act by pouring water (dirty water!) over her choreographed body in movement. From there she would like to move towards the old building and come out to the stage through a room which is currently used as studios by a couple of student artists. But Madhubanti is adamant on one thing: When she finishes her cleansing act, she does not want the audience to see her frontal body but the gaze should be falling from the right end of the lawn where she anticipates the public would gather. She wants the collective gaze fall on her the right side of her face.

Here is a problem, with no instructions given to the audience (as she does not intend to give any instructions) and the audience with a free will (as I said in the last article about the audience with individual ‘I’s) may not move the way the performer wants. Then there is the second problem. The girls (art students) who are working in the hexagonal room adjacent to the stage are not ready to give ‘their studio’ to Madhubanti for a few hours. I see it as a sheer case of non-cooperation, lack of sympathy and arrogance. But that is the challenge of the curator-performer. Madhubanti immediately re-works her strategy. Priyanka Kundu is already preparing her ‘Object—Icon’ project in the main central hexagonal hall of the old building. Priyanka being a great friend of Madhubanti agrees to ‘enter into a temporary collaboration’ with Madhubanti in realizing the ‘Nazariya’ project. Somehow, Madhubanti would incorporate the magical ambience created by Priyanka in her curatorial project. Her search for alternatives continues for a few more days and we see a small whirlwind of a Madhubanti moving in the campus making negotiations with different people in different levels. She keeps coming back to the board room to individual and group consultations.

Then happen the magical turn of events. As I have mentioned before, this is the Garba time. The faculty Garba is very famous in Baroda. Former students who are now nearly seventy years old, driven by nostalgia flock back to the faculty like migratory birds during these days and a huge interest has been developed around this Garba of veterans and contemporaries in the city. After the Indian festivals have been radically politicised during the last few years and the reporting of unfortunate incidents, the faculty Garba now takes place in a fortified space and the attending of it needs special passes, registrations and so on. So the workers now erect temporary fortifications using bamboos and clothes. Suddenly it becomes a blessing in disguise for Madhubanti. She could now manipulate her audience easily as they cannot surround the building from all sides. She just needs to make an illusion that the performance is going to be in the foyer of the old building. She gets into action and with three spaces available to her as different from the original plan, Madhubanti’s curatorial surprise is intact and she initially thinks of three repeated performances and finally decides to have only one focused performance on 21st morning. As the ‘cleansing’ act at the pond is now rendered obsolete, I suggest her to add the same component in another pre-recorded performance and Madhubanti being a contemporary choreographer and dancer understands the possibility of immediately.

Now, Madhubanti has the following components in her curatorial project, Nazariya: a live performance by her and a live music as background score not really as accompaniment music as in the traditional sadir. A video element in one of the side halls where we see in a hollow vacant hall, Madhubanti is seen in a choreographed act of cleansing in extremely tight contemporary dance clothes. A possible wide range of public/audience.  Priyanka Kundu’s curated space. The corridors. The portico. It’s time to start the performance. As the live music is at the portico (right at the entrance of the building that directly leads to Priyanka’s space) the audience gathers there and many of them including the chief guests take their seats in the available spaces. A new element comes into play. Another painting student comes in the costume of a traditional pujari and does some pujas and gives holy water from brass pots to the audience. The live music is on. With these two components working well a traditional temple atmosphere is automatically created. Everyone is anticipating the appearance of the performer/curator/dancer from somewhere but nobody knows from where. Suddenly, when all attention is on the music and the pujari performer, Madhubanti appears in her red Bharatnatyam costumes at the main walkway of the faculty as if she manifested there from nowhere. I could see her initial idea working perfectly. With no knowledge of her next move, the audience remains where it is and turns their gaze at her side. Lo! The collective gaze falls exactly on her right side! She moves further in slow, rhythmic and lascivious fashion with her eyes drilled into the horizon. Each time her gaze shifts it grills into a person or into a space.

Now the members of the audience are in trouble. They do not know whether to move along with her or remain seated to let her finish her whatever and come to the foyer space where the ‘real’ action would take place, as they think. Madhubanti now enters the building through the steps on the side and she holds a male member of the audience and looks into his eyes; he shudders visibly. Madhubanti imposes (in a way implicates) the collective accusations against a performing body (the Devdasi body) generated by the society on to the hapless young man; I find the shuddering of his body as the shuddering of the society when it comes in direct confrontation with a powerful performing body of the Devdasi. From there Madhubanti enters the room where the video element in played. She just lingers there for a few seconds with a host of enthusiastic youngsters following her silently, with their mobile phone cameras on. Then she crosses another threshold into Priyanka’s magical space. The transcending of the spaces is very important here (both as a choreographic need and a deliberate curatorial decision); Madhubanti starts her performance in a non-space (a walk way), then she climbs the steps (as if to a stage), then she comes in ‘touch’ with the male gazer (the patron) and she crosses over to a new vacant hall where a self cleansing is virtually performed in the video and her crossing of the space becomes a sort of washing herself in the mythical Ganges. Then the other threshold to be crossed to the divine space (Dev/God’s space-Priyanka’s space) and from there she emerges to the portico. The music goes on without dominating or distracting the attention from the performance. Madhubanti wafts through the corridors (the liminal space between life and performace) and finally comes down to the earth, the portico. She bows before the pujari/priest and he blesses her (which would bring her scathing criticism during the de-briefing). She continues her dance; not really a Bharatnatyam dance but carefully crafted as well as spontaneous movements which would evoke different emotional responses among the audience and at the same time possibility of the body in performance).

Madhubanti enthrals the audience with her every enigmatic presence and she walks off into infinity or obscurity, depending on the mind of the viewer but I would say she walks into glory as it would prove that this curatorial effort has given her a lot of confidence that she would perform another ‘curated’ performance in the same space within days, this time curated by another fellow student and cub curator, Chandni Guha Roy. Madhubanti’s idea as a curator-performer is well conveyed in this project. She could push her idea of the allegedly polluted body of the performer/dancer and also the idea of cleansing without distributing pamphlets or curatorial notes. The biggest criticism however that she gets after the project presentation is regarding her re-assertion of the male dominance by accepting the blessings of the priest. But according to her, it is an act of ‘quotation’ not an act of real ‘writing’. This particular part of the act is a scripture that is meant to generate a point at its religious or social connotations. It is a quotation taken out of the dominant discourse of the Devdasi system. It is not really a celebration of the male gaze or male patron of the system. Besides, the point according to Madhubanti is the framing the very act of criminalizing the Devdasi system. It amounts to criminalizing anything fine, tender and aesthetical. Reducing the dancing body into a sexual body is the problem of the erstwhile discourse. But in the changed scenario, decriminalization of the performing female body or the female body in any performance should be done, demands Madhubanti.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, when a curator doubles herself as a performer, the responsibility increases than a curator curating the works of other artists. Two, especially when a curator-performer wants to incorporate a series of spaces with disparate meanings and connotations, larger negotiations with the space as well as performance are needed. Three, unexpected unavailability of spaces could redefine the performance/project for advantageous ends and results, so trust in your ability to move the space than the space’s innate meanings. Four, if the performance is really powerful and curiosity could be generated around it, the audience would respond to the curatorial work the way curator wants. Catching the public with different ‘I’s for temporary negotiations is the success of such projects.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Curatorial Practice as Erasure of Identity: Gangotree Dasgupta and the Impremere: Curating in Baroda X

Gangotree Dasgupta
Gangotree Dasgupta, final year MVA Art History, MSU, Baroda holds a Bachelors’ and Masters Degree in Sculpture from the Assam University, Silchar. She has higher hopes in studying art history and becoming a scholar as well as a curator. She has an interesting concept in her hand, which in fact not started as a curatorial concept but an art performance and experimental process. Gangotree, in one of her art experiments earlier had taken the impressions of the faces of a few of her friends on pieces of cloths (measuring the size of a big hand kerchief) by applying natural dyes or home-made herbal pastes on their faces, exactly the way girls did ‘facial’ in beauty parlours. When Gangotree is faced with the question of conjuring up a curatorial project, she does not look hard around for a feasible topic. She feels that she has one in her hands and just need to polish it, conceptualise it and execute it. In the presentation of her initial concept presentation before the attentive class room/board room, she forwards this idea of facial impressions as still life pictures made out of a different process with the participation of willing viewers. The facial impressions, according to her become the registration of a non-identity (as her previous experiments have proved) and in the process everyone becomes one and the same without showing much of diversified features reducing their facial identity into a seemingly clear skull form.

In a domestic experiment, perhaps there would be willing participants, but what about their role in a curatorial project that takes place in the full view of other audience? How would you display the results? How the participants or the viewers understand that those are ‘their’ prints? Where exactly are you taking the meaning of the whole project? What is ‘curatorial’ in this project? What is the possible title that you would like to give? How are you going to carry out the process? Questions are aplenty and the cub curators come out in full force. They just don’t consider that Gangotree is their dear friend and they need to be slightly lenient to her. Gangotree seems to have the answers for all of these questions as she is clear about the ways in which the project would take shape. But at present she does not know how much audience participation would happen when it is actually done within the campus. According to Gangotree, these non-identities that she is planning to get from at least fifty people in a way would underline the fundamental reality of human life- the identical nature of everyone’s face. They may look different in different regions and in different facial templates. There are different racial features reflected on the faces of people. But in this project, Gangotree would like to break down these differences and highlight the aspect of a singular identity of the human beings through the creation of non-identities.

Gangotree explains her case with the few examples of that she has already done earlier with her friends. The cub curators examine the result and they all say that the impressions look like ‘skulls’. Gangotree smiles as if she knew the catch. She explains that a beauty parlour is meant to be making people beautiful but here is a beauty parlour or a few of them in the campus which would make everyone who undergoes the process, ‘ugly’ or skull like. I tell her that the whole idea is moving towards the idea of ‘death’, a sort of memento mori used in the still life pictures as a reminder of human mortality. And also what comes to mind immediately is the famous ‘shroud of Turin’, which is believed to carry the imprint of Christ’s face as it was used during the entombment of the great man. Also, there was a time when photography was not as proliferated as today or rather scarce, in the villages when the grandees of families died, they used to take the foot prints of the dead in order to worship later, by applying sandal paste or turmeric paste on the soles. Gangotree smiles again and tells that she is aware of the Shroud of Turin. She also tells the class that as a curator-performer she does not want to take it to that direction where the Shroud of Turin stands because her project does not have any intention to attribute any ‘divinity’ to her work. Even she does not want to register the name and signature of the ‘sitter/model/participant’ on the print because she says that then the curatorial idea of making non-identities would collapse into identities, discernable by signature.

Initially Gangotree wants to set up this ‘identity destroying’ beauty parlour as a mobile one. The parlour would go where the people are! She would even employ a professional beautician to do the job. But a curator should be working out on her budget. When Gangotree does her calculations, such a set up would cost beyond her pockets so she drops the idea and decides to perform not only as a curator of the project but also as performer/artist of the project. With the outcome more or less defined, the whole fun of doing this project is ‘performing’ the act itself. Still one does not know who is going to be the participants. Once again a work or a process art in public space destined to be developed with the participation of an unpredictable public becomes important here. We have seen in Chandni Guha Roy’s project titled ‘Rhetoricity’ how the very presence of surveillance changed the behavioural patterns of the otherwise volatile public/the student community. Once again we are faced with same issue. But Gangotree keeps her fingers crossed and the cub curators assure her that if nobody is willing they would be there as her ‘identity seekers’.

Gangotree titles her project as ‘Impremere’, a French word for ‘Impressions’. Why a French word? It is a fad among the young curators to give impressive titles to their works so that they get more attention than the ordinary words would get them. It is an international phenomenon. We have different kinds of curators who select the titles that reveal their intentions and inclinations too. Some curators go for longer titles, as if they were explaining the theme of the show in the title itself. Some curators go for a single word and a subtitle, which is fair enough. There are curators who look for Latin or Greek or French names so that the projects would ‘sound’ better. There are curators they choose very mundane titles and the very ordinariness evokes some kind of curiosity. Some curators are very traditionalists; they just cannot stand even an English title. They go for Sanskrit titles. A good title, as far as curatorial projects are concerned, is a title that holds the curatorial idea intact, without straying far away from what the curator is doing. The direct the better, the simpler the better, that is the best policy one could adopt. ‘Impremere’ is not far away from Impressions though one needs to ask for the meaning or covertly Google it to know the meaning. Names of curatorial projects are as endearing and closer to heart as the names of the children that the parents prefer. For a curator, the curatorial project is like a child; it takes shape in the mind of the curator and it takes birth through his/her efforts. So the name cannot be just this or that. It shows the idea of the curator.

Complicating anything related to a curatorial project does not limit itself to naming a project. It also goes into the very writing of concept notes, wall texts and catalogue writing (I am not talking about Gangotree here). If you write in a language which is simple and direct, people may think that the curator or writer does not know the depths of things or he/she lacks in profundity. If you use a complicate(d) language and use certain jargon which nobody understand in one go or even used only in the academic circles just to assess the users’ intellectual abilities, and never used elsewhere, everyone who tries to read it would appreciate it only because they don’t understand a thing from it. That means, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy in our academic writing which is often passed off as intelligent writing. For me, such intelligent writing is obscure writing and deliberately done so. During 1990s there used to be an argument that the complex thoughts could be expressed only in complex language. They just refused to believe that complex thoughts, if the thinking has clarity could also be written in simple, direct and expressive language. Sometime in 2005, when the noted art historian Geeta Kapur wrote a concept note for some project (I think it was a proposal for a Delhi Biennale) and circulated around via emails, I tried to read it and failed miserably. I made a counter mail saying that if someone could decipher it in simple English, I could offer my Maruti 800 car (those days I was driving one) as a reward. Nobody came forward. Interestingly, such kind hypocrisy is still prevalent in places like the Arts and Aesthetics Department of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Recently I heard a postgraduate from there debating an issue in the social media; he just does not talk to the point, instead he would quote different European theoreticians and say something else in a language which would scare the other people away. I got scared and left the debate. My policy in this matter is simple; clarity in thinking, clarity in expression. I say, all the curators should follow this policy, if they want to communicate.

Coming back to Gangotree’s project, ‘Impremere’ is a huge success. Gangotree herself goes to the market, buys raw turmeric, rose petals, beetroots, multani mitti and many other herbs, gets them ground in the mixer at the college canteen (I should say the young lady at the cash counter is not a frowning lady Shylock but a smiling sister to all the girls in the campus). She fills the paste in different bowls and places them in a table-case with glass top as used in museums. She gets the set up done in front of the auditorium- a comfy chair with a head rest, a table, fresh cool water, lot of paper napkins, a dust bin, a hair band and a large mirror for the participants and the onlookers to take a good narcissistic look. By 11.30 in the morning on 21st September 2017, Gangotree gets her first customer who seeks a beauty face lift and to erase her own beautiful self in the process and become a skull like impression. Gangotree has already tied a long cloth line between two trees. The first impression goes up there and everyone gasps. A skull. A beautiful girl has become a skull like image there. Then the word spreads. Girls rush to the spot. There is a crowd around to watch Gangotree working on the faces of willing viewers. There is more willingness than shyness, soon we see it. It is Garba time. Girls think that it is good to get a herbal facial for free. There is a long line before Gangotree. Boys are shy in the beginning. Then they too sit. The impressions increase. Gangotree is tired but she has a good adrenaline rush and she does not want to leave the spot. By six o clock in the evening still there are viewers waiting to do the impressions. Finally Gangotree calls it off. She has overshot her target. The next day the impressions would be on display.

Is it just because of the facial there is a huge participation in Gangotree’s project? This is here once again the idea of public comes to play. Public is not just a group of people with no mind of their own or rather a mind of a mob. Often we say that the public has a herd mentality and they would be promoted to do what a few members of it do. That is not the case with all kinds of public. Always a public is not mesmerised by demagoguery. The public could actually construct and deconstruct itself and find individualities within the crowd. Especially when the public gathers around a magician or an artist, within the gallery/museum or street, the willing people who decides to participate in fact establish their individuality as different from the crowd there itself. This re-individualising from within the crowd is one important part that makes the crowd carnivalesque, varied and diverse. In Gangotree’s project, each willing participant comes there to regain the individuality (unlike the ones who participated in Chandni’s project and were desperate to hide their individuality) though eventually their impressions become generic. The most interesting curatorial outcome of Gangotree’s project is that the next day, the participants come back to the spot where now there is no makeshift parlour but a display of the impressions in a triangular fashion, and look for their faces which now have gone irretrievably ghost like. But the most important human aspect that comes out is the urgency of each participant to scrutinise each impression with utmost curiosity and see first of all which one is his/her and secondly what makes his/her impression different from the other. It is a great curatorial outcome; the individual comes back to the crowd scene to see his/her trace, exactly the criminal comes back to the crime scene, magically attracted by his own deeds. Identity is a crime! Erasure of it is a sort of liberation. But between liberation and crime there is a narrow strip, which is called life. Gangotree’s project is all about that.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, a well thought out project with a trial run could prove supremely successful without throwing up any hurdles and added participation by the onlookers. Two, there may be certain real time adjustments in the location and process, but letting it happen is the curatorial flexibility. Often, when faced with a change in the original plan the curators go jittery. There is no need to do that. One could adjust with what is in hand which would bring success. In Gangotree’s case, her original plan of multiple parlour stations in different parts of the campus slowly changes into one unit moving from one place to another and finally becomes one unit parlour where the curator herself dons the garb of a beautician. Three, sticking to the original idea is important even if the execution could be tweaked as per the situation. Gangotree’s original idea is to erase identity and not to have any trace of it via name or signature. There have been several moments of temptation for her to get the images signed as senior and famous artists sit for a facial. But she could resist that and now the identities would remain only in her documentation. Four, this project could grow, ethnologically, racially, age wise, region-wise, relationship wise and so on. Gangotree seems to be all geared up to do that.