Sunday, October 8, 2017

When a Stubborn Curator Meets a Headstrong Artist: Sarika Kumari’s ‘Migration’. Curating in Baroda Part V

Sarika Kumari
Sarika Kumari, final year MVA Art History student at MSU, Baroda is an ideal cub curator with a lot of determination and to see her project realized by all means necessary. Perhaps, her training as painter, with a graduation and post graduation in painting from the illustrious Kalabhavana in Santiniketan, has helped her in looking at the works of other artists as much as she looks at her own works. Out of the eighteen projects that the student curators realized in the curatorial workshop, Sarika’s is one of the few projects in which the curator has worked with an artist or a few artists. Given the limited duration of the workshop, as the guide of these projects I had not insisted the curators to work with available artists, which in turn became a liberating experience for them as they could approach space without any works of art involved and negotiate it with ideas, found objects/works of art, performances and happenings. However, Sarika when she presents her concept she has clear idea about the way her project would take shape. She has found an artist from the painting department who is a final year painting student, Dipen Ujeniya and even has chosen his works. As she presents her project titled ‘Migration’, Sarika even has an idea about the space and the positioning of her idea and its artistic manifestations within that space.

The boardroom/classroom likes enthusiasm and the peer group resonates well with Sarika’s idea of ‘Migration,’ mainly because most of the students have come to Baroda after a series of dislocations from their birth places and homes, a series of staying in hostels, a series of experiences in which they found themselves both in advantageous and disadvantageous situations. Each time the face something like this, even if they do not know the vastness of the implications of the word ‘migration’ they come closer to it, with no apologies. My Chak De India team of curators has a Jharkhand/Bihar component in Sarika. She speaks Hindi, English, Bengali and I am sure a smattering of Gujarati. The issue of migration is so close to her heart not just because that she has been in a transition or in transit in various academies seeking education, but I find her identity itself is in a fluid state. Even if she does not address the fact that she has to assert her North Indian-ness coming from a so called ‘Bihar/Jharkhand’ wilderness in the places that she finds herself in, Sarika knows that the geographical location itself in many a place determines the identity of the person. From complexion to accent, from fluency to etiquette, it becomes a preoccupation of the people to get into a series of negotiation. When it is not an economic migration but for education as in the case of Sarika, she is better treated within the comparatively safer and sophisticated academic spaces of Santiniketan and Baroda, she understands that is not the case with all the migrants within the country and elsewhere. However, Sarika does not intend to address the migration that has been happening in a universal scale and has been gaining global apathy and sympathy at once.

Sarika, both her advantages as a student migrant and disadvantage as a person coming from Bihar/Jharkhand (I am not saying that it is a disadvantage in economics alone but in a socio-cultural level too as the cultural self positioning of a Bengali cannot be replicated by someone from Bihar or Jharkhand by virtue of some ‘cultural understanding’ and for example perhaps even by a Haryanvi as we have seen in the case of Meghavi Saini) has a lot of sympathy for the people who travel from different places towards economically well off places, crammed in suffocating train compartments, waiting for someone to move a bit so that they could finally land their soles on the floor of the coach, sitting precariously at the berths meant for one but now occupied by many, facing subhuman suffering near the stinking toilets as if this trip for them was a life and death issue and so on. And her project is all about capturing that plight. She has found a similar soul in Dipen Ujeniya who even if not a migrant (but a local Gujarati comfortably positioned in Baroda) has a keen interest in the ways in which migrant travel especially in over packed trains. Dipen’s works are a mixed media on large scale paper with a clear domination of dry pastels. Sudhir Patwardhan in 1980s had painted the train travellers and lazy onlookers in the railway stations. Contrary to the feel of Patwardhan’s works, Dipen’s works show the crazy speed of our times, the fight for survival and the inhuman stacking of people. It looks like a stampede coming alive. The violent movements are quite unsettling. And one could see the people clinging to the windows from inside to get a whiff of fresh air. There are people on the birth as if they were lying dead. It is a scene after a massacre. Dipen portrays each journey of a migrant as a limitless war from where hardly a few are destined to come out unscathed. Sarika likes it and she wants Dipen to be her artist. He agrees to be a part. As a part of the curatorial protocol, Sarika visits Dipen’s studio several times, discusses the minute details of her idea and display strategies with him.

Sarika is a curator who understands her strength as well as her weakness. What I notice in her is the verve in which she fights her weakness. Perhaps, she is one student who has worked on her concept several times, writing and re-writing it to perfection, of course with the help of her friends and the course guide. We have a general problem, we don’t mind the linguistic problems of the international students, but if someone from our own place commits a little bit of grammatical error, a wry smile appear in the face of the listeners. I notice some smiles here and there but soon I make my students aware that the perfection of idea comes first and language is a mere tool to put it across. If you are not going to be a poet or writer, then language is just a communication tool. Tourist guides speak many languages fluently. But they are not linguistically correct. They don’t aspire to become writers seeking a larger audience. They are just communicating with a limited number of tourists. Along the way they perfect their languages too. The question always comes to me: should the curators be good writers? Not necessary always. But along the way they need to write well. To begin with they need not break their heads over the linguistic flair. I understand in many big universities, students with lower linguistic capacities are always marginalized. Some students come back to the same language with a vengeance, perfect it and parrot the same academic parlance; listen to them carefully, all of them lack soul and maximum they become average academics. But let the students with ideas strong and colourful bloom in a certain way in the beginning and guide them through the course of language, I am sure they are going to make wonders. I had a fellow student who came from Bihar with no language at his disposal but soon understood he had wonderful ideas but no language. With sympathetic teachers around he worked both on his ideas and language and today he is one of the highly recognized art historians and writer.

Sarika’s project is a Janus headed one. She is not only a curator in this project but also a participant. She is not just a painter participant but a ‘conceptual artist’ participant. She also wants her viewers to be part of the total experience of her curatorial work called ‘Migration’. She wants to remind each and everyone that all of us are migrants in one or the other way. She has a very interesting metaphor for it. She, in her concept tells that the migrant people devoid of strong economic means eat and drink from the wayside eateries and mostly drink tea or carry tea in the most unhygienic way; pouring hot tea in a polythene packet and later into a paper or plastic cup. Sarika wants to take this aspect of ‘tea ceremony’ as her point of departure. She buys hundreds of fresh paper cups and small polythene pouches. She gives a few cups each to fellow curators, artists and hangers on to draw something on and into it. Sarika herself makes a lot of drawings within and outside these cups. (I too draw two or three cups). At the foyer area of the Art History Department there is a high wall created artificially using ply board painted white blocking the view of the canteen. This wall is one of the most prominent walls in the faculty almost the size of a film screen. Dipen’s works are pasted on this wall, giving the feel of chaos of the migrants. Sarika sets herself on by making fresh herbal tea and packing it in small pouches, assisted by two young boys from other departments. Then she places the cups (with drawings) in the shape of man running that she has drawn on the floor which is almost a huge platform, a proscenium theatre by default. Sarika arranges the cups in the form of the man running. And in each cup she places the tea pouches. The viewers are supposed to pick up a cup, pour the tea from the pouch into it and drink while looking at the work on the floor and the work on the wall. A little bit of migrant in you and you taste him/her. Many viewers point out that the running man’s shape reminds the police tracing of the dead bodies in the sites of accidents and murder. Sarika gets a few brownie points here. Her work has grown into the minds of the people. They have started reading it differently; curatorial pitch is one of the vantage points from where one could see many such vantage points and take a good look at the horizon and the valleys, and if need be at the sky too.

In the final count, I find, like many of Sarika’s fellow curators find it, there is disjointedness, a sort of disharmony, a crisis, a conflict, a faceoff, an imbalance and a sort of inexplicable unease between Sarika’s work on the floor and Dipen’s work/s on the wall, both curated into a singular project by Sarika herself. In the boardroom/classroom, during the post show debriefing, I raise this point and the peer group agrees that they too have felt the same. Sarika here opens up saying that there has been a conflict between herself and the chosen artist. A headstrong artist and a stubborn curator. This headstrong artist just wouldn’t listen to the curator. He thought that it was his work (was he saying that I am local guy and you are a ‘migrant’ curator?) and he knew how to put it up there. He refused, towards the final execution of the project, to accept or listen to the suggestions of the curator. Sarika was equally stubborn. She sought the help of her friends including me to make him tweak the positioning of the works a bit here and there, but never to her satisfaction. Hence, the discordance that had developed between the artist and the curator was quite palpable. That’s why I tell my students that the curatorial projects which are coming from organic beings like ‘you’ (students), they (the projects) too have organic qualities. They start growing in their own ways and if the components of it don’t agree with each other they show the discordance openly. They are not snobs. So a curatorial project should have completely harmony with all the component actors and objects.

So here are the curatorial lessons learnt: One, you could work with a lesser/humble/willing artist who would listen to you completely and agree with you as a curator with control over the project. Two, you could work with an artist who is many levels higher to you and throws challenges at you at each step. It is a pleasure to work with such artists because along the way you learn. But remember, eventually this intellectually haughty artist too would finally come around and work according to your suggestions because he/she knows that you are the ‘curator’ and he is the ‘artist’. Three, never work with an artist who denies you as a curator. Let me repeat, never work with an artist who denies you as a curator. You are okay without such artists because curator is another artist who adds a bit more to the existing works of art. Curators are those people who could position an artist who really needs positioning; not all the curators are capable of doing this, but you are. Four, when you are an artist and double up as a curator, always tell yourself that you are a curator and negotiation is your path to progression not the arrogance of your artistic side. An artist-curator should become curator-artist in the process. Five, if you are an artist as well as a trained curator, you should be sympathetic to the causes of the artists and also should know the ego levels that he/she could have. Six, when you are an artist and also a trained curator, if some other curator approaches you to invite you not as a curator but as an artist, be sympathetic to the curator because you know what a curator goes through while putting up a show. Sarika Kumari did all these but I strongly believe that her artistic self came up at times to challenge the artist self of the artist. What she did not know was to discard that artist at the final moment and to go solo. I would have given it hundred marks. But I had not told this to my students; I had not underlined their right to kick an artist when he/she becomes too arrogant (only when they are freelance curators). I had not told them that they could drop the project itself into dustbin. Nothing would happen. You always have another chance. This article is perhaps that one lesson.

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