“Sir, I am from Haryana and I am proud to be a Haryanvi girl,” Meghavi Saini, Final Year MVA Art History student came up to my side at the head table, looked at the class, her friends now sitting at the other side of the hierarchy, smiled at them, turned her head and said this thing to me. I returned a smile at her and glanced at the class; everybody had a Cheshire smile on their faces and I understood that this girl had been having this one as her punch line for a long time. With a happy face I urged her to speak further. “Sir, generally when I say I am from Haryana and I am an artist or art history student, people look at me as if they heard something unnatural. They have stereotyped Haryana with some sort of physicality. Haryanvis talk with their muscles, Khap Panchayats and their SUVs. About girls they all think that we are behind the veils and are destined to be homemakers and obedient wives. But, Sir, I want to break this stereotype,” The class had gone silent and Meghavi seemed to be doing her great balancing act of walking on a tight rope of emotions. I could see her eyes fogging. Once again I looked at the class; it was comprised mostly of girls and I had only one male student in the final year (Bapan Ruidas) and rest of the four were from the first year (Nishith Mehta, Dwip Aher, Prakhar Vidyarthi and Mohammed Rafiyan) and the PhD student Jitto George was always there as a bouncing board.
Suddenly I get a déjà vu feeling; this stereotyping is very filmy; in Chak De, we had seen how the mainstream India stereotypes women from different regions of the country. How can we forget Komal Chautala from Haryana? Also we have the Phogat girls in ‘Dangal’. And each time, as somefeminist had raged in facebook, ‘why the girls needed a man to show them either their place or to elevate them to the heights of success?’ When it comes to the feminist discourses, the male agency is always pushed to the back rows where it could only play a supporting role never the parity participation. Perhaps, that is one thing that ails the Indian feminism for the time being. Meghavi is not a feminist but she is fiercely independent. When I used the phrase in some context, ‘this poor girl,’ in a light manner, she immediately corrected me saying that she was not ‘poor’ and she knew how to stand up to the situation. I felt really good and I looked at the case in hand.
Meghavi did her graduation in painting from the State University of Performing and Visual Arts, Rothak, a comparatively less known fine arts college in Haryana with state of the art facilities, huge buildings, a functional canteen, young teachers and department heads and a sprawling campus. Marketed poorly like many fine arts colleges (both in the public and private sector) in the North Indian states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab, this university does not claim any space in the hall of fame of the fine art institutions in India. Meghavi was one of the first batch students and according to her it was always a multiple fight for learning, understanding and practicing within and without the university. With wonderful parents back home, especially mother, Meghavi could finish her graduation (perhaps post graduation too) and come to the MSU, Baroda to pursue her interest in the Art History Department. What she faces today is a sort of crisis in identity (I do not want to call it identity crisis in the conventional terms because she is not confused about her identity but absolutely firm on the worth of it. But what puts her off is the way people respond to her as they come to know that she is from Haryana). She wants to do away with this outlook that Haryana girls cannot paint or learn art history. She underlines that Haryana was not about wrestling, bad politics, male chauvinism, muscle power and subdued women. (I just thought of historian Romila Thapar’s experience during her early years in career, in 1960s, when she went to the University of Kurukshetra and got really frustrated).
It is time for Meghavi to present her concept note. I am curious and so is the class. Though she does not have a prepared concept note to begin with she has a notebook in hand with full of notes, scribbles that obviously shows her deliberations during the last two days. The concept moves around how she wants to connect two spatial experiences, one in Harynana and the other in Baroda, within the experiences that the fine arts students gain in two different academies with absolutely different complexions. She takes the department of painting in her alma mater as the first case and the highly competitive, historically rich and a little bit high brow-istic painting students in the MSU. The concept comes across as a well thought out one and the class agrees. Before I embark on my ‘lecturing on the given topic’, I ask the class to grill her with their views. I ask them to consider it as a high end gallery or museum board room and you have a fresh curator for breakfast. ‘Go on,’ I prod and like tiger cubs near their mother, the students come out with small but significantly sharpened claws and teeth and they pounce at Meghavi. “How do you realize these two spatial experiences or academic experiences in one project in a space in and around the department and what could be the physical form or mode of expression that you prefer to give it?” Questions like these or variants of these come one after another.
Meghavi looks nonchalant. She goes into silence for a while and comes up with this answer—I would like to bring the works of a few fellow art students who are still in Rothak and exhibit along with the works of some of my friends in the painting department. Or rather I would present their works alone here so that those works in the new space would prove whether they could challenge or withstand the intellectual and historical aura of this institution.” The students are not really convinced. “But it would be just another display of student works,” someone pitches in. “If so I will try to present in some unconventional ways,” says Meghavi. “What are those unconventional ways?” “What are the sizes of the works?” “How do you transport them from Rothak to here in this limited time?” “Will you get permissions from that department?” “How are you going to find the display space?” Questions keep coming and each question takes the curator in Meghavi the out. She defends herself well but nobody is convinced including me for the simple reason that the works she is going to bring are going to be small format drawings which could come by courier. “Visually they are not going to work in a project,” I tell her. Besides, I ask her, as a girl why shouldn’t she think about presenting the works of the girl students from Rothak and the girl students from Baroda? Meghavi just does not want to limit it to a ‘girl experience’. She wants to say that it is not the gender but the location that is gnawing her brain for a long time.
The discussion goes on for around one hour without reaching anywhere. The students on the other side of the head table are ferocious and out to kill. I like it because I feel that this is the killing instinct that the curators need in the boardroom discussions. If they have it and if they could stand up to the mediocrity of the gallery owners and other museum professionals, they could definitely make a difference in future. If their outspokenness mars their possibilities in surviving within the accepted hierarchies then they could definitely try something elsewhere as freelancers. I find that in India good curators are very rare or almost nil mainly because the young ones from institutions like Baroda or JNU are absorbed into the systems as salary earning managers of events. No institution allows the youngsters to put their ideas into practice. An institution like Kiran Nadar Museum seems to be doing something towards it but its elitism however dispels people more than attracting the crowd towards it. The only face saver that the KNMA could have in the long run is that it through the Shiv Nadar University’s Fine Arts Department, has been preparing their work force to further their hierarchic legacy.
If you ask about her parents, Meghavi’s eyes well up, but when challenged with questions, she smiles and takes the questions one by one and gives what she thinks as convincing answers. Finally, when the attack is sharp, logical, critical and almost annihilating, she throws up her hands and says that she needs time to think further and walks over to the other side and another ‘curator’ walks into be grilled. And by now it has become a very interesting exercise for the students and there is a lot of adrenaline rush in their acts. They don’t even break up for tea, instead they volunteer to get me sugarless tea and water (sir, anything to eat?). They have found this boardroom game which is a preamble to any good curatorial project immensely enriching and interesting. None is going to deduct their salary or sack them from job for neither is involved here. Here is a simulated idea lab where anybody could pitch in with even idea which they would remember in their future days as ‘atrocious’. Once again their claws are out and ears are up for the next prey. They have tasted the blood of curatorial practice.
Next few days Meghavi is seen participating in the discussion, literally mauling her friends at the presentation table, but she seems to be a little unresolved about her project. This curatorial bug has bitten each of them and wherever they look they see only projects and possibilities. What they need to do is to negotiate hard to make it a visual art project with some intelligent ingredients to back it up or rather instil a lot of energy into it so that it would stand on its own. Meghavi writes many concepts and rejects more than what she has written. In the meanwhile other students present their cases, some of them escape unhurt and some are brutally bruised (I will write about them in the coming episodes). Days pass by. By the time everyone is more or less ready with their projects, Meghavi finds her Eureka moment. She rushes into the class one day and does a private discussion with me and then satisfied she makes the class presentation. “Here I am, going to do a map of what you are doing and it is going to be my project or rather a project that grows as your projects take shape.” Then she explains.
Meghavi’s curatorial project, after much deliberation is called ‘Curators’ Cartography.’ Seventeen other curators are going to present their projects in seventeen different locations. And what Meghavi does is making a topographical map of the campus sticking to the actual scale and then creating a manually evolving map based on the evolution of the other projects. She places the large board in front of the campus and the first day what you see are only the class room space/ board room in curatorial parlance, noted with pictures and as each hour pass by she adds what is being taking place in other locations. She adds notes, photographs and even marks the locations depending on the foot falls. She does it using a red thread and makes a criss-crossing path, a virtual simulation of the paths that people generally take to see the projects spread out in the campus. Here, Meghavi’s is a curatorial project in progress; there are moments of stillness and moments of activation and also there are moment of people taking it for the real map without realizing that it is yet another curatorial work. Meghavi is always on the move from one place to another, documenting and coming back to put them up. She is not only a curator but also a performance artist here. Her performance itself becomes a curatorial intervention in other curatorial works.
The lesson learnt is simple: a curatorial project is all about heartburn, discarding of pet ideas, grabbing the opportunities, rising up with the occasion, making the available an advantage. But what you need is intense imagination and the ability to listen to the fellow professionals. You may be good at everything but there would be people who could tweak your ideas into perfection with their clever inputs. So when you work as a curator what you need is the ability not to be depressed by rejection. Your projects may be rejected by the board, by the funding agency, by the gallery or by the council. But you scrap it or shelve it for another day and work on another project and discuss it with your mentors and see how you could realize it. But realizing a project is not always the thing. There are unrealized projects and it happened in my curatorial workshop too (about which later). Meghavi proved that Haryana girls are not just behind the veils or they are always wrestling or playing hockey. They are also curating shows. Yes, Haryanvi girls could make art as well as curate exhibitions.