Thursday, October 10, 2019

Icarus Searching for His Land: Waswo and R.Vijay Strike Again



(Waswo X Waswo and R.Vijay pic courtesy Open Magazine)

‘Like a Leaf in Autumn’ is the latest exhibition by Waswo X Waswo and R.Vijay at the Gallery Espace, New Delhi. Perhaps, these two artists make the most successful duo in Indian art scene. They have not flown too far away from the ground and also not too close to the sun. Hence, their output as well as success has been steady all these while. Unlike the other duos in the Indian art scene, Waswo-Vijay does not indulge in authorial ambiguity that makes the style definite and recognizable while the roles are merged to become one. Waswo-Vijay duo comes together to create a solid body of works but defines their roles separately; R.Vijay as the visual executor (of course after much deliberations and angry take offs) and Waswo as the conceptualizer cum director. Together they make a perfect combination.

‘It Never Works the Way You Think’ is a work from this show, which I believe captures the crux of the argument that Waswo as an Evil Orientalist has been forwarding ever since he decided to make India his first or second home depending on the season that he prefers to be in Udaipur. The argument is simple: Can an artist from the other shores be an Indian artist? Can an artist do away with locational adjectives that qualify his name whenever it is mentioned in the land’s history as well as art history? We have had Nicholas Roerich and Svetoslave Roerich from Russia who almost became Indians as they chose to live in the foothills of Himalaya. We have had Elizabeth Sass Brunner and Mary Sass Brunner the mother-daughter duo from Hungary living very much in Delhi. They still hold their locational honorifics. Perhaps they wanted to be known as Indian artists. Waswo, a Milwaukee-ian, an exceptionally different provincial American who however knows his Duchampian tricks to be right in the middle of the things but doing things well instead of playing chess with nude models, but yes definitely capturing the hopeful visitors into images meant to be eternal thereby giving them some lease of posthumous life, must also be wishing to be known as an Indian artist. But the conflict is felt even when he naturalizes himself with the history, politics and living surroundings of the place.


(It Never Works the Way You Think by Waswo and Vijay)

This conflict is given visual embodiment in the constant presence of a Bisleri bottle, a brand of bottled drinking water which initially had become emblematic to the Westerners’ mistrust in the basics of India, meaning drinking water and breathing air. In his works, we see a plastic bottle inconspicuously lying around making its presence too strong to be inconspicuous. Also the hat and the red polka dotted neck tie. The man is either relaxing or reading, or he is simply trying to be someone who is not himself. And all the other times he is running behind invisible butterflies like a serious lepidopterist turning the very chase an occupation in itself. As we do not see any butterflies per se, we have to understand that the artist is in a wild goose chase within the wild but without the goose anywhere in the vicinity. But this absurdity of a chase has deeper meaning when I see it in the abovementioned conflict; of being in one place and belonging there completely. Ruskin Bond, just because of his white skin despite his natural citizenship in India, being an Anglo-Indian but more Indian and rooted than any Himachali, still faces this issue of belongingness; Waswo can find some solace in Bond, not James, but Ruskin.

‘It Never Works the Way You Think’ is an epiphany; a title that reveals all his revelations. It does not happen in that way dear, he pats himself and says. But the painting has something more to say. This is the tale of Icarus; the son of Daedalus, the master craftsman. They were under captivity in a tower and by looking at the eagles, they thought of escaping from there by sticking feathers to their hands, making workable wings. They were defying science (don’t ask from where they got wax for sticking the feathers. There is no question in the story) and Daedalus had only one advice for his son; do not venture too close to the sun for the fear of wax melting. But sons are always sons before they become fathers. They rebel; and upon defying his father’s words, Icarus flew quite close to the Sun and the wax melted and he came dropping like a stone to meet his watery bier. We see the surrogate Waswo, painted by R.Vijay landing on his nose in the vast ocean. This is the perennial fear of the artist himself; do not go too close to the sun where you think everyone got a place and there is hope for everyone. India is a tilted place still when Waswo looks at it in terms of his own belongingness. I do not insist that Waswo agrees with it.


(Starry Night by Waswo and Vijay)

My belief on this interpretation deepens when I see the free standing severed wing, like in a no man’s land/space in between (neither here nor there, the liminal space, perhaps an accursed space, which in India is a called the Trishanku Swarga, which is a heaven and hell at once. It is heaven because of the spatial buoyancy and it is hell because it is without roots. Having no roots is hell. That is what all the immigrants feel and suffer. That's why Ambedkar told Gandhi, ‘I don’t have a country.’), reminding the informed viewer of the violated wing of Jatayu, the mighty bird that had tried to prevent the abduction of Sita. In fact, the wing comes from Raja Ravi Varma’s imagination, where interestingly both the abductor and the savior remain hanging in the space and the poignant moment shows three different rasas, of pity, valor and ferocity. Waswo removes all those and emblematizes the wing with no space or a safe space in nowhere, and implies that even without a space that wing could belong to the collective imagination of the people because it belongs to the memory of the land. Waswo however is not a complainant; he sees the hope of his rescue in an approaching boat which surprisingly has a sail in the form of a wing. A boat with a winged sail comes directly from the imaginations of hade, the nether world which is aspiring to be hell but not yet one and there are philosophers for the oarsmen in the boat. Hence, definitely Waswo has a chance of being there in the subaltern if not subterranean discourse of art in India.


(An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus by Surendran Nair)

Waswo reminds one and all that it does not work the way you think; it is not fatalistic like an Indian or Russian imagination where the providential decisions, as in the Grecian interference of Godheads in the local human affairs thwart the human aspirations. It is a pragmatic view of things for Waswo. Man proposes God disposes is not the case; not even the Tolstoyesque ‘God Sees the Truth but Waits’. There is no god to see the truth or to dislodge the schemes. But man made physical circumstances always collapse the attempts and efforts. Waswo had seen it in Kochi when he had come to participate in a Biennale collateral where his efforts to get his works back home were questioned by the unionized laborers to which Waswo’s response was nothing but dropping the artefacts and destroying them. So here he becomes a destroyer than a maker, a master of destruction in the ultimate efforts to keep the personal destiny in hand than letting it go to the hands of the muscled strangers or political gods. But it is good to remind oneself that things do not happen as we think. But it gives hopes to one and all to strive for it. And more importantly, it is one Icarus reference in Indian art after the controversial work by Surendran Nair titled ‘An Actor Rehearsing the Interior Monologue of Icarus’ where we see Icarus standing on the top of the Asokan Pillar waiting to launch himself into space while he sees seagulls flying off to their homes. Here in Waswo we see the parrots coming directly out of the miniature aesthetics and flying home happily to the folios. I have been talking about Waswo all the way but let me tell you whenever I talk about Waswo in this show’s context I am talking about R.Vijay too.

JohnyML




Monday, October 7, 2019

Siksha: The Manual of Delhi’s Educational Success





(Manish Sisodia, Delhi's Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister with school children)

Shiksha means Education. Manish Sisodia is Delhi’s education minister. When Aam Admi Party came to power in 2015, the condition of Delhi schools was abysmal. Private schools were minting money in the name of quality education and other facilities. But they have been functioning like extortion rackets than educational institutions. Private schools in Delhi and the NCR literally looted the parents. Things changed when Manish Sisodia, himself the son of a teacher, took over the education minister.

Allocating one of third of the budget for education was the first step that the AAP took when it came to power. With social and educational sector activism experience to back them up, the leaders of the AAP thought it was important to focus on the educational quality of Delhi schools apart from providing basic facilities like water and electricity for controlled rates. Qualitative changes that the AAP government brought about in Delhi’s public life have become the focus of the international agencies and education sector is one such field that got phenomenal make over not only in terms of infrastructure but also in terms of teaching practice.


(Sisodia's book 'Shiksha' is released by former President Pranab Mukherjee and Arvind Keijirwal, Delhi CM) 

Sisodia made some surprise visits to the schools run by the Delhi Government and found that they were the most neglected field in the whole state. Taking many agencies, primarily the principals and teachers into confidence, Sisodia and his team undertook a mammoth task which they have completed successfully within years and now even the international educational agencies visit Delhi schools to find out how they are run effectively and how they have brought educational brilliance out of the children especially from those who come from the weaker sections in the society.

Infrastructural development with world class furniture, classrooms, buildings, toilets and so on complimented with the making the temporary teachers permanent or brining their salary scale at par with the permanent teachers and giving more economic power to the principals changed the functioning of the schools. Teachers as well as students and their parents found a new purpose in education. Today there is a steep rise in the number of students getting admitted to the government schools in Delhi, making the private schools rethink about their fee structure, educational facilities and above all the managerial arrogance.


(Manish Sisodia in a class room at a Government School)

‘Shiksha’ is a book by Manish Sisodia and he collates his experiences as the education minister of Delhi in the book without giving too much stress on his personality; instead he presents the tricks and magic of changing the educational scenario with the help of the teachers, parents, ministers and bureaucrats. The collective efforts have brought in finer and commendable results. He also speaks of the AAP Government’s will power and willingness to facilitate the changes. One of the first changes apart making more budgetary allocation was creating School Management Committees for the welfare of the schools. Also the schools were advised to appoint Estate Managers who were responsible for the regular upkeep of the infrastructure. Parent Teachers Meet became a regular feature and whenever children needed emotional and intellectual counselling, it was immediately given. Mentor teachers were selected from among the teachers who volunteered to serve the educational scenario in the state and also teachers’ delegations were taken to the foreign countries to get a firsthand experience on the teaching standards. Teachers with specific purpose in their lives and dignity given to them in their career gained confidence and their involvement became pivotal in the success story of Delhi schools.


(A Swimming Pool in a Government School in Delhi)

The book ‘Shiksha’ is a must read manual for all the teachers and educationists and bureaucrats who really want to facilitate positive changes in the field. This book is written with hard data and experiential narratives blended in the right proportions. Manish Sisodia, the author has kept his ministerial power under check and has presented himself more like a benevolent activist who has some sort of executive power in his hands. However, he says how his plants at times get thwarted by the bureaucratic hurdles, especially when it comes to the allocation of funds. Cutting down corruption in the education field is one of the reasons that made the success feasible in Delhi’s educational domain. Even for the general readers this book has got some light to offer.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Gauri Dancers: When Waswo, the Artist Triumphs over Waswo, the Archivist


(Waswo X Waswo and Rajesh Soni. Pic. Firstpost.com)


‘Gauri Dancers’ is an artist’s photographic retake made into a book apart from limited edition prints of the same, on a traditional religious performance art confined within the Mewar region of Rajasthan and the book is also a well-researched documentation of the same. Udaipur based artist, Waswo X.Waswo is the prime mover of this book and he has not only taken the photographs as his artistic output but also has contributed a very pivotal dialogic text that sets the tone and tenor of the aesthetic decisions behind each photograph. Apart from the artist himself, he has his long term collaborator Rajesh Soni who hails from a family of traditional hand-colorists on black and white photographs, now perhaps a redundant art form but amply revived by conceptual photographic practitioners like Waswo, and Pramod Kumar G, a researcher on photography as a medium of art and documentation and a publisher and archivist, who in introduces this book in a crisp academic note. And finally the main text (that is almost a sub-text or a meta-text of/for the photographic images) is written by Sonika Soni, an art historian and researcher who has been interested in the Gauri Dance/rs as she hails from the same region where this dance is practiced.

Despite the claim of having centuries-long tradition and practice, Gauri Dance which is also known as Gavri Dance is a limited art form not in its expressive faculties but in its geographical confinement. Perhaps, it’s limited reach and fame is the major reason that has goaded Waswo to work with the practitioners of this rare rural art form though he disputes his possible role in this project as a documentarian or an anthropologist. Waswo assumes different personalities in his verbal essay (as a preface to the visual essay that makes the main body of the book) of which he identifies more with the ‘artist’ incarnation than the ‘anthropologist’ or the invisible ‘narrator’ who makes all of them speak. These disembodied voices appear as a representational conflict within the text and the questionable agency that activates the events inside and outside the book. The apparent conflict is manifested in the dialogue between the artist Waswo and the anthropologist Waswo. Sometimes, there is also an archivist Waswo. Ironically, the artist Waswo is constantly questioned by the other counterpart selves calling him an ‘anthropologist with no research or an archivist no responsibility.’


(Gauri Dancers by Waswo, Book Cover)

The accusation coming from the anthropologist self of Waswo and the apparent danger of not having enough research should have intrinsic reasons in Waswo, the personality and artist whose ‘outsider’ status has been self-problematized for a long time in his works done together with Rajesh Soni, R.Vijay and other assistants and also in the graphic novel, ‘Evil Orientalist.’ Waswo has been living in India nearly for two decades and has more or less naturalized his avuncular status among the villagers in Udaipur, still some questions arise from certain quarters regarding his worth and authenticity as an ‘Indian’ who could comment on the ‘Indian’ things. Waswo besides being an artist has been handling this tender question quite skillfully ever since it was put to him in various occasions. Hence, in ‘Gauri Dances’ Waswo the artist says that it is neither the anthropologists nor the archivist sees Gauri Dance but the artistic eyes, which goes beyond all kinds of extraneous value judgements and stick to the aesthetic finesse of form and performance.

From Waswo’s narrative preface we come to know that it was a chance encounter with a couple of young male performers festooned with ornaments and odd and jarring clothes that made the artist aware of the existence of a group of people who did Gauri Dance. Asking around he got his answers soon from the locales and from his own assistants who did the painted backdrop sceneries for his photography projects. These boys and young men came from a region called Mewat and they performed this Gauri Dance for forty days from the very next day of the Raksha Bandhan. As it involves a religious theme (of Shiva and his consort Parvati who is also called Gauri) the performers abstain from all kinds of vices for forty days and they are fed vegetarian food by the host villages. Interestingly, the host villages are where these performers have their kith and kin through marriage ties. This indicates the closely knit tribal nature and a sort of exogamy practices prevalent among these tribes which also explains why this art form is limited within certain geographic limits.


(Gauri Dancers by Waswo)

Waswo gets interested in these dancers and decides to photograph them against the backdrop painted by his assistants. He clicks them in front of different backdrops as they present themselves in cheap but full regalia; a sort of iconography that decides the characters in the play. At one point, exasperated by the variety of actors Waswo the artist asks about the peculiarities of these characters and suddenly the anthropologist comes out from the wings and grins at Waswo; a hint at the fact that however one tries to avoid anthropological therefore sociological, political and economic meanings of an event or image, at some point they have to be addressed even by the staunchest aesthete among the artists. Rajesh Soni, later hand paints these photographs and they are presented as limited edition prints apart from this book.

I don’t know whether an exotic gaze is at work when Waswo clicks the pictures of the Gauri Dancers because in his practices either he naturalizes everything when he is not exoticizing them. He photographs artists, friends and causal visitors in his studio in certain costumes suitable to his fancies and whims of the moment. And his subjects happily oblige to get photographed (for them a way to immortality through the work of an artist) and even for the Gauri Dancers, despite their demand for a remuneration thanks to their dire materialistic conditions they too are eager and willing to get photographed by a fair skinned ‘chacha’. He turns them into icons unlike some of the other photography artists who turn their subjects to anthropological specimens as we have seen in many a documentary photography including the Gotipua Dancers from Odisha done by an artist namely Birendra Pani.


(Gauri Dancers by Waswo)

Gauri Dance is definitely rooted in folk traditions of story-telling and performance. Like the Bhopas in Rajasthan and the Patuas in Bengal and Odisha, these dancers talk, sing and perform. Though the major theme is devotional, ribaldry and humor play a major role, which interestingly is the main characteristic of most of the tribal/folk/traditional performance art. The etymology of Gauri Dance also leads us to its Brahminical roots and it was when a lower caste person (may be from Gometi or Meena caste who perform Gauri Dance in the modern times) tried to imitate it, the Brahmins lost interest in the art form and left it for the lower castes to perform it. It could be read as a handed down (even if the reason is pollution and irritation) art form, it could also be seen as a rebellion and snatching away of the right to perform by the lower castes. Even in Kerala, Ottan Thullal is said to have started when Nambiar was ridiculed by the Koothu performer. As rebellion Nambiar went on to start a counter performance involving a lot of ribaldry and humor. The myths behind the Gauri Dance are interesting; they range from the stereotypical victory of the good over evil to environmental issues, family ties to nostalgia and so on. Sonika Soni in her well researched essay delineates a range of myths and the various categories of performances. The text of Soni appears in this book more like an epilogue rather than the main text. Even if Waswo, the artist gains an affirmative victory over Waswo the anthropologist or the documenter, the book could be read even for the sake of anthropological interest and documentary purpose, obviously when you are full with its aesthetical nuances.

n  JohnyML

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference’: Book of the World Sensation Greta Thunberg



(Greta Thunberg with her new book)

A quick book could be read quickly. ‘No One is Too Small to Make a Difference’ is a quick book from Penguin and is written by none other than the latest sensation in the international environmental activism, Greta Thunberg. A sixteen year old Swedish school girl, whose sole mission is to make impassionate plea to the world leaders, businessmen, lobbyists, huge corporations and all the other select few money spinners to change themselves in order to leave the world for the future generations to leave. Thunberg says that she is motivated by hard scientific fact about environmental depletion which is going to finish the planet earth sooner than later. According to the prediction the carbon emission due to fossil fuel usage all over the world is going to set the clock of sixth mass extinction of the human species (along with the slow and steady perishing of all other species in due course of time) from 2030 if the emission levels are not brought down to 1.5  degree C, which in fact is lesser than the emission level in the pre-industrial times.

This book is a small collection of Thunberg’s small but powerful speeches (one could say cryptic word bombs that strike at the international conscience if there is something like that still left there) made since 2018 at various European forums including the ones in Sweden. Thunberg considers herself as someone coming from a privileged background and she and her ilk could conveniently forget the fact that the environmental depletion is irrevocably underway. But she cannot sit idle once she knew that the planet earth is about to perish. As a school girl she tried to initiate an educational strike in her school and she found cold response even from her friends and the school authorities. That did not stop Thunberg from sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament and handing out pamphlets, like an evangelist in panic mode to the people. The lone school girl’s unique protest (like the Standing Man protest) caught the attention of the environmentalist and other activists and soon her strike took root in the schools and girls stopped going to school for many weeks.


(Greta Thunberg)

Thunberg is positive about her activism; she says that if so many girls could boycott schools and that in turn evoke similar response in other parts of the world something could really change in the ‘normal’ course of thing. Thunberg’s fundamentals are clear. She says that anybody can bring about a change provided they rethink about their life and its practices. The primary concern should be the reduction of fossil fuel usage and seeking eco-friendly alternatives. For that there should be fundamental changes in the business pattern and the sole aim of it; making profit or amassing wealth in the hands of a selected few. This one-sided flow of global economy has put the whole population in the world at risk for she says that due to the carbon emission and the ensuing ecological collapse 200 species of life are being extinct on a daily basis. The picture is grim and the sight of Thunberg, this sixteen year old girl standing before the world parliament and the UN reminds one of the scene that we had witness in China’s Tiananmen Square (1989), where a young person took on the rolling military tanks stopping them on their mission to curb and kill the protestors who had been asking for freedom.

Thunberg does not say anything complex in all her ten cryptic speeches at various forums and one facebook post in which she explains to her detractors how she is not funded or backed up by lobbies or groups. According to Thunberg, we all can do something to save the planet. Nothing new about it but each one shifting the responsibility to the other person’s shoulder is as good as doing nothing towards the cause. World over there are movements and moves to reduce the emission levels but Thunberg says that there is no point in bringing the emission level ‘down’ but it is imperative to make a situation where there is no emission at all. That may sound her asking for too much. But if we heed that impossibility and try to do something towards it then we would understand that we need to change the rules of the game that we are collectively, blindly but blissfully playing these days. Thirdly, she says that we should be in a panic mode. When your house is on fire you wouldn’t say that let everything burn down and we would start afresh. But what we do is to panic and save even the most insignificant from being gutted. Panic mode is essential to change the situation as our planet is on fire. Also there are detractors who tell her that she should go back to school and study to become a scientist who could contribute more to the world. To this she gives an answer which is fascinating because she tells them that she and her friends would go back to the classroom provided if the grown-ups take to the street to hold up the cause and fight for it.


(A scene from the movie, My Name is Khan)

The crisp videos that have been proliferating in the social media for the last few days have made a universal celebrity out of Greta Thunberg as if the world was waiting for a new messiah in the horizon to appear. The younger the savior the better it looks. That’s why I feel I think she is another Malala in the making. Despite the fact that there soon would be a Thunberg industry around her (films, books, merchandise such as T-shirts, music videos, documentaries, morning time chat shows and so on. Already the second book of Thunberg is getting ready for publication which is co-authored by her whole family). But that shouldn’t be a reason for our cynical overlooking of the real facts. Changing today’s habits means changing us completely; means, if you are traveling by cars, then start using the public transport. But the governments should pitch in there to provide cool and comfortable public transport to the citizens. When you insist that people should walk or cycle to the work places, there should be pedestrian and cycle friendly tracks. That means a lot of changes in the society; that’s what exactly Thunberg telling the world. As Kumaranasan had put it; change the laws if not they are going to change you.

The more I look at Greta Thunberg the more I think about ‘My Name is Khan’ (2010) the movie directed by Karan Johar with Shah Rukh Khan in the lead. The Khan character is autistic; to be more precise, he has a condition called Asperger’s, a slightly different condition of autism. Khan in that movie goes to the United States of America and faces ostracism because he is a Muslim and is identified as one in the public especially after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. Finally after a natural calamity he manages to go to the US President, a black person, obviously Barak Obama and tells him, ‘My Name is Khan and I am not a Terrorist.’ Khan does all what he could in order to convey this message to the US President, the most powerful man of the world so that his words could be heard all over the world and if possible understood. Greta Thunberg too has the Asperger’s condition. She is insistent and she wants to be heard. United Nation’s platform was one good platform for her to reach out to the world. We are practical people so we think that nothing is possible if we go by Thunberg’s line. But something is possible if we are ready to change that is why she says again and again, None is too small to make a difference.

-          JohnyML