Thursday, October 28, 2010

Preamble to Sandarbh 2010

(the Sandarbh Nature Art Workshop 2010 Participants with Somu Desai)

 (Looking for appropriate sites to start the site specific works)

At Luhari forest resort in Silvassa, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, UT, a set of young artists are seen charged with a new experience. They are here for Sandarbh Nature Workshop, this year held away from its regular platform at Partapur in Rajasthan. The artists have come from different parts of India, most of them participating in such a workshop for the first time in their creative life. The age group ranges from 21 to 46 and if anybody asks for gender balance, yes here they are, nine women artists and seven male artists. And many more volunteers. This time artist Somu Desai has taken the helm at his hands. Silvaasa is his home turf and he plays it well here.

(Mrugdha Joshi, Somu Desai, Paribartana Mohanty and JohnyML at the Luhari Forest Resort)

Silvaasa is strip of land with saal and teak forests. From the city centre, where the houses of administration are located, drive around ten kilometers towards south you reach Luhari, the village where the forest resort is located. Around it there is a thick reserve forest fenced all the way to protect the villages scattered around, from the attack of wild animals. These are backward villages with one primary school and one health care centre. The villagers till the land and do some agriculture. Most of them subsist on the forest produce.

 (Art Critic Abhijit Tamhane addressing the workshop members at Luhari)
Though, the Luhari forest resort is a ‘resort’ by name, people from the villages around come in the campus quite often to collect twigs and fallen wood. Lovers from the city once in a while come here to have some private moments. During the weekends, families from the nearby town come here to do picnic. There is a rock bed, lawn and garden, and there are six cottages, a dormitory and a kitchen. The cottages are raised on false tree shapes to give the impression of tree houses. The lower level of the cottages is used as shelters by picnic teams.

(At Luhari Leopard Sanctury)
Sandarbh Nature Workshop started here on 20th November 2010. During the day time artists trek the interiors of the villages and find locations for their works. Some of them have already started their works. Some have already finished their site specific works and yet another group is on their way to do newer works in newer sites.

  (Warming up with a session of portraiture)
During evenings, the artists congregate under the cottages and do slide presentations. A few artists are contemplating performances. Art critic and writer Abhijit Tamhane had visited the workshop in one of the initial days. Not only had he initiated a dialogue on public performance and public art but also he has done one site specific work; I would read it as an act for collapsing the hierarchical structure within the public art creations in our country.

(A slide presentation is on at night)
I am here today. My idea is to write about the works, interview the artists and generate a fruitful dialogue on site specific art and the role of public art in the discourse of ‘public/art’.
 (A Trip to Dudhni)
I will be posting detailed writings on individual artists, their works and the dialogue that they have generated through their works in the coming few days. Watch out my blog for updates on Sandarbh.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Revathy’s Story- Man’s Journey to Woman

I hate closed spaces. I have claustrophobia. Whenever I am in an elevator, my eyes are always on the alarm button. If anything happens…I don’t think of singing ‘mere jeevan saathi…’ as if I were the Vasu of Ek Duje Keliye, if I am caught in an elevator with a beautiful and willing girl. Even a Bobby cannot cajole me into a room that does not have a chabi.

Jokes apart, think about someone who has to live in someone else’s body. We have seen such scenarios in the Hollywood flicks like Face Off. We have seen Shankaracharya entering into a king’s body to enjoy carnal pleasures. But what about a woman who is trapped in a man’s body or vice versa?

‘The Truth About Me’, the autobiography of A.Revathi translated from Tamil into English by V.Geetha is the testimony of a woman who was caught in a man’s body. And the first person narrative tells you about the trials and tribulations of a young boy who wanted to be a woman. And he did become a she. And the price she paid for it?

Revathi was born as Doraiswamy in a middle class family. From childhood onwards he wanted to become a girl. He wore girl’s clothes whenever he got an opportunity to do so, he did all chores that a girl generally does at home. A sibling of three brothers and one sister, Doraiswamy’s ‘fancies’ were taken for childhood vagaries. But Doraiswamy was pining to escape from a body that had trapped the girl in him.

Doraiswamy finds similar ‘pottais’ in a hill near his village, where a few of them congregated to wear woman’s clothes and to behave like women. They stealthily traveled to other villages to participate in village festivals as women. Finally Doraiswamy decides to leave for Delhi to meet his guru. Guru trains him and then sends to Mumbai and from there he is send to Salem to do the ‘nirvanam’ (deliverance) operation.

Hijras and pottais (later they are known as Aaravanis as in Aravan’s wives) have their own hierarchies and living styles. Doraiswamy after becoming a woman assumes the name, ‘Revathi’ as someone told her that she looked like Revathi, the film actress.

Revathi has to eke out a living. None was ready to give her a job. So she started doing sex work. When you are a hooker, Police and rowdies torture you. Someone picks you up thinking that you are a woman and when he realizes that you are a hijra, they abuse you and abandon you.

Revathi craved for her family to accept her. But property was more important for the family members. She was introduced the NGO Sangama in Bangalore that works for the rights of sexual minorities and she becomes an assistant there. One of the senior activists in the NGO falls in love with her. They start living in like husband and wife. Soon the man who makes speeches on behalf of the sexual minorities proves himself equally vile and status quo-ist like any other male.

Shifting between sex work and social work, Revathi tries to live a life of her own. She craves for social acceptance. Slowly she started articulating her own life in public forums. She did a research on the lives of hijras and sexual minorities and the findings were published in Tamil. Today she is a writer and an activist of minority communities, and still works with Sangama.

While reading this book, my eyes were moistened several times. While reading those two chapters on the painful operation they underwent as a part of removing their male organs, I was feeling a gripping pain in my groins. Each time I read the tortures Revathi had to undergo at the hands of the Police, ruffians and the family members, I shed a few silent tears.

Once you read this book, you tend to re-think about the gay friends you have. I have experienced educated urban gays enticing and soliciting me in front of my wife. They get away with it as they are educated and operate in the urban ‘understanding and intellectual’ people. None calls it sexual harassment. I respect Revathis many times than those who get way with their education and intelligence.

Years ago, when I was a graduate student, I wore my mother’s sari, wore a bindi and stood before the huge mirror we had at home. I felt like a woman. I wanted to become a woman. Now I understand, how Doraiswamy might have felt it. I was not a woman trapped in a man’s body. I was masquerading. Still I felt it so strong. So think of Doraiswamy, a woman caught in a man’s body.

I think, every man should become a woman at least once in his life. And this is a must read book for all the intellectuals.

(Also read: ‘Autobiography of a Sex Worker’ by Nalini Jameela, ‘Amen’ by Sister Jesmie, ‘Through the Narrow Gate’ by Karen Armstrong and ‘Eleven Minutes’ by Paulo Coelho)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Lame Lamb of Buddha: A Tribute to A.Ayyappan, the poet.

A.Ayyappan is no more. He was 61. Ayyappan was a poet who lived in poetry, friendship and spirit. Some even said, in his veins there runs not blood but liquor. A true bohemian and anarchist, Ayyappan lived for poetry and the romanticism, which is a natural import of it.

Like a homeless wanderer, like a gypsy he traveled through the length and breadth of Kerala, inspiring the youngsters to poetry and initiating them into the wonders of bohemian life. But in the new millennium he was a living anachronism. By then, the youngsters had learned to make money out of cutting music CDs and peddling it for friends.

‘The crowd was standing on the blood of the one/ Who had been knocked down by a road accident/ My eyes were on the five rupees note/ That had flown out from the dead man’s pocket/ I took it without being noticed by anyone/ Today’s dinner could be on this/ My wife and kids must be sleeping/ With their stomachs half full,’ wrote Ayyappan in his poem titled ‘Athazham’ (Supper).

Things are prophetic and fateful, when said by a poet. Destiny reenacts, at times, the incidents recounted by a poet, in his own life. Ayyappan was found lying unconscious in Trivandrum Central Bus Stand on 21st October 2010. The police took him to general hospital where he breathed his last on 22nd October 2010.

A.Ayyappan was declared the winner of the Asan Puraskaram 2010 by the Government of Kerala. He was on his way to receive the prize. And this time, from a destitute home in Pathanapuram where he had sought shelter and solace in his declining days.

Getting admitted to the General Hospital, Trivandrum was not a new thing for Ayyappan. He used to get admitted there quite often for what he called ‘servicing’. The anarchist of all time, late film maker John Abraham used to ‘release’ Ayyappan from the hospital and together they went to the local arrack shop and later John got Ayyappan ‘re-admitted’ in the hospital. Again it is destiny’s game; Ayyappan breathed his last in the same hospital.

Ayyappan was always traveling. ‘There were two swirls in my head/Either I should rule the world/ Or I should beg for my life’, he wrote. Whenever he felt hungry, he went to any Press office and offered the editor a few poems, instant ones and got his money instantly. Ayyappan’s poems are crisp and short. Reason is that he offered ‘crisp and short’ poems for the value he got for them. He had decided to write small poems for small amounts.

And he never wrote big poems. He did not want to win an empire. He needed only small amounts to pay for the cheap drinks.

Aksharam Ayyappan; he was known like that at one point of time. Artist Shibu Natesan remembers, “Ayyappan used to come by a car, neatly dressed and sober. During those days he was editing the ‘Aksharam’ magazine. Slowly the deterioration set in his life. Perhaps, that was how he wanted to live his life.”

Ayyappan came in cars and sometimes he coaxed and cajoled the admiring youngsters to drink shops. Willing youngsters paid for his drinks as they thought the company of a poet like Ayyappan was the most fulfilling thing in their lives. Ayyappan was letting himself to be consumed by his admirers and they did not know any other way to admire him than getting him drunk and making him sing.

Kerala is full of Ayyappan-lore. Every young boy who was literally inclined and lived his life through 1970s and 80s in Kerala could not have escaped the Ayyappan influence. They all wrote poems and they all drank with Ayyappan. And today all they have a story or two to tell about Ayyappan, his poems and his life.

I too was one of those youngsters who were in the mesmerizing spell of Ayyappan’s bohemianism and poetic abilities. When I remember Ayyappan I remember a book that I had bought after a lot of hard work.

The book was ‘Changampuzha: Nakshtrangalude Sneha Bhajanam’ (Changampuzha:
The Beloved of Stars) by Prof.M.K.Sanu. Changampuzha was the Keats of Kerala; the eternal romantic who had succumbed to consumption, anarchy and love. I was carrying this book around and I too was a budding poet who had just published a few poems in magazines.

 We, the intellectual and literary aspirants used to frequent the campus of Trivandrum Public library. Ayyappan was a regular there whenever he was in Trivandrum. He saw the book and snatched it from me and said, “I will return it after reading.” I couldn’t have stopped him from snatching the book because he was a poet I had admired. And I knew it for sure that he was not going to return it.

One day, while I was showing him one of my poems published in a magazine, he gave me a dismissive look and said, ‘In Kerala, there is only one poet, that is A.Ayyappan.’

It was not arrogance and even if it was, we had taken it for his style. We enjoyed him saying that.

I used to take my beautiful girlfriend to the Public Library. Hailing from a conservative family she was unaccustomed to the ways of anarchists. I was a small time anarchist, a budding one. And you know, the girls of conservative upbringing usually fall for the anarchists because they find this anarchy so different and charming.

Ayyappan was enamored by my girl friend. He told her in a hush hush tone, ‘Darling, this guy is going to desert you. If you want to live with a poet, here he is and that’s me.’ My girl friend laughed it off. Ayyappan was not a prophet or something. But this prophesy of his turned out to be right. I had to leave her thanks to various reasons. Later she did not marry a poet. One poet is enough for one life time, she might have thought.

Today she must be remembering all those love laden words that he used to whisper into her ears in order to provoke me or to embarrass her.

Ayyappan is no more. Ayyappan was a phenomenon. And phenomena are not expected to be repeated quite often.

May his soul rest in piece.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The New Nebulizer and The Feed- Performances by Murali Cheeroth and Alok Bal

(Murali Cheeroth does his performance titled 'The New Nebulizer')

(Alok Bal does his performance titled 'The Feed')

Ravi Cavale’s Gallerie Serendip is in the outskirts of Bangaluru. From the city centre it takes almost forty minutes drive to reach there. On the way you see the new metro lines being built and the latest film posters. The suburb is now filled with high rising apartments and plush corporate buildings. And now you know why a new gallery is there. Ravi Cavale wants to create a new client base.

Gallerie Serendip had done a camp in Coorg, near Mysore in April 2010. Veer Munshi, Manjunath Kamath, George Martin, Alok Bal, Nikhileswar Baruah, Farhad Husain, Reji KP, Babu Eshwar Prasad, Murali Cheeroth and Gopinath were the camp members. On 9th morning the outcome of this camp was opened at the Gallerie Serendip.

Generally, an exhibition that showcases the works done in a camp should be a not-so-exciting affair for the art lovers. But this opening was really exciting not only because the works done in the camp are above average (generally camp works prove the opposite, as you know) but also because of the two performances by Murali Cheeroth and Alok Bal.

(Audience watching Murali's performance)

Murali Cheeroth is not new to performance art. Wherever he goes, Murali performs. However this time, though he is prepared well to perform, he has not titled it. Hence, I call it, ‘The New Nebulizer’.

Murali Cheeroth clad in a pair of jeans and a corduroy jacket, with a scarf worn around the neck walks into the centre of the gallery and keeps an artificial brain on a pedestal. He tries to scream things into the brain. Then he tells the audience with a smile, ‘I am speaking to a dead brain. I am speaking to a dead brain.’

With bloodshot eyes Murali looks at the audience. Then he takes out a plastic heart and start inhaling from it. Then he tells the audience, ‘One day she came to me. She said she needed hundred rupees. She said her farmer's son’s dead body was in the mortuary. She wanted hundred rupees.’

Again Murali tries to speak to the brain. Then again he inhales from the heart. Then again he tells the audience what the woman had told him.

Then Murali tears off the brain into pieces. With a sad face he again speaks to it. Then he takes the pieces around the gallery and hands over each piece to people randomly.

He goes back to his seat and inhales again. Then with a smile he tells us, ‘It is not a heart. It is a new nebulizer’

In this crisp performance, Murali makes a retake on the famous Beuysian act of ‘How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare’. However, unlike Beuys, Murali speaks not of art, but of life and creates a link between his performance and the context of art, while the Beuys’ being the other way round. And the ultimate irony of our life, a sort of underlining our acts of cannibalizing of emotions, Murali tells us with a smile, ‘It is not a heart but just a new nebulizer.’

(Alok Bal enters the gallery in his 11 number jersey)

Alok Bal performs at his studio and in the football ground. He was a player in the Orissa State football team. But he chose a career in art. But his passion for football never died out. Even today at the age of forty one, Alok Bal plays football everyday. He runs a football club in Baroda and is called ‘XYZ Club’. And he trains slum kids there and this kids’ team has won several matches in the state clubs level. And Alok funds the team with the money he makes out of his paintings.

But this is Alok’s first performance piece in a gallery context. He has not named it. Hence I call it, ‘The Feed’.

Alok Bal in his number Eleven jersey comes out from a room behind the gallery. He dribbles a yellow football. And on his hand there is a toy.

Alok Bal had found this toy in Ahmedabad at his friend, Hindol Brahmabhatt’s studio. A pack of ten wooden hens stand in a round and peck at the middle. These hens are moved when a wooden ball suspended from the device moves.

The performance was the result of playing with it at Hindol’s studio. While playing Alok said, ‘Suresh Kalmadi and his team eating away from the Common Wealth field’.

It was simple and symbolic. Alok decided to do the performance in Bangaluru then and there.

Alok dribbles the football while walking amongst the viewers. He goes near the audience and kicks the ball towards them. Soon inside the gallery you see everyone playing football with Alok.

During the performance the intention or the meaning of the performance is not pronounced. Perhaps, this performance does not need any political reading unless someone deliberately wants it to be so.

The whole idea is of making the gallery a field, where everyone takes part in a game. They almost forget they are in a gallery. Certain pretexts are broken down and a new context is subtly established. You need not be too serious before a work of art. Approach it with an open mind and with a sporty mind, perhaps things would change for better. Art may start speaking to you.

It is interesting to see people playing football with an artist inside a gallery where his painting is hung on the wall.

What I find more interesting is the entry of Indian male artists into the domain of performance art, which is more or less ‘reserved’ for the women artists. Or it is almost taken for granted that if there is a performance piece somewhere, it would be done by a woman artist. Murali has been consistently performing in the shows, camps and gatherings though the Brahmins of the Art Caste System have not accepted these as ‘Performance’ art with a capital ‘P’. After doing his piece in the gallery, Alok’s response was simple, “I want to do more performances’. And I am sure many more are going to do so.

Post Script:

Manjunath Kamath went and screamed at Murali’s ears after the performance, saying that ‘Now I am speaking to a live brain’.

To know more about Alok Bal’s life and times please refer to this link

(In case of not working, please cut and paste this link to your window)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Motherland: A New Mag from Over Ground Under Ground

(Motherland, the new magazine from W+K, New Delhi)

The phrase ‘to grab a bite’ connotes two things: a) you are busy and b) you are hungry.

The phrase, though not in parlance, ‘to grab a mag’ also means two things: a) you are busy and b) still you want to read.

For those who are tired of the dog eared, ravaged and never fully read paperbacks, here is a new magazine, which is hip, cool and celebrates the Indian sub-culture. And like the designed food for grabbing and biting, this magazine also helps you to grab and chew the designer/designed contents in the perfect Baconian fashion.

‘Motherland’ is the name of the magazine and it is published by one of the noted advertising firms, Wieden+Kennedy, New Delhi with V.Sunil and Annette Ekin as the creative and content editors respectively.

On the first glance the magazine gives you the impression of ‘Third Text’, a heavy duty theoretical journal edited by Rasheed Araeen from London. Motherland is no heavy duty stuff.

Motherland is all about teasers; a sort of mirror that distorts your figure. You hate it but still you want to look at it. And the more you look at your crazy reflection the more you derive fun out of it.

Reading Motherland makes you feel so. You see what you are not and what you want to be in there. It is exotic, attractive and thanks to some reason adorable.

The first issue heralds the idea of freedom. The silhouette of Gyarahmurty (Eleven Sculptures) by D.P.R.C, at one go, captures the thematic and also the title. You may see a Nargis there just behind Gandhiji. New age designers are intelligent and irreverent.

There are no sermons on freedom. Instead, in a tongue in cheek way it speaks of the behavior of the Indian middle class air traveler, who flouts all kinds of restrictions to uphold his ‘freedom’. He hates to wear seat belts and refuses to switch off mobile phones. And he has sharp elbows to edge everyone out. It should be the national sport of nudging, the author says.

Artist and researcher Ashok Sukumaran writes about surveillance systems. The transition of traditional ‘lala’s’ mirror into the state’s and voyeurs’ invisible eyes. From Ashok’s article I come to a conclusion that surveillance cameras are like Police in Bollywood movies; as Tracy Chapman sings, ‘always comes late, if they don’t at all.’ These cameras don’t prevent a calamity but it helps to solve the mystery ‘who done it?’

There is Osho, there is Bharat Sikka’s photographs. There is a beautiful feature on Tibetan exiles in India. There is Sunil Gupta’s take on the status of Gays in Delhi post Sector 377. There is a letter from jail. All together it will move you and shake you.

Motherland also tells us how a promotional feature could be presented as a scholarly take on women’s freedom. Scooty’s success in small towns, the feature eventually comes before us as the TVS Company sponsored article.

Motherland team tells us how a magazine should choose advertisements. No advertisement looks like an advertisement. They look like the core content of the magazine. May be this is a way of collapsing the editorial content and advertisement into one, leaving the reader to judge which one is better.

Art magazine editors could learn a lot from this magazine, especially in the case of choosing and presenting advertisements.

I wish all success to Motherland.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Criticize Gandhiji but Have at least Tennis Balls to Say You Did it

(Protima Bedi streaking at Juhu Beach 1974)

What is the best way to get attention in the public space? As we all wear clothes, nudity could attract a lot of attention. Protima Bedi had done streaking in Mumbai, which had created a lot of hue and cry in 1970s. I still remember a grainy black and white photograph of Protima Bedi’s back in the Illustrated Weekly (1974).

I will jot down a few more ways to get public attention: climbing an electricity tower, attempting self immolation at a public square, throwing shoes at a dignitary in a press conference, making appearance with super stars, paying up public relation agencies etc.

When I speak of making appearance with super stars, I think of the opposite; you can get publicity by doing acts of desecration on Public figure aka super stars. Attacking a religious monument comes from this mental state. Throwing a stone at a super star would definitely bring you attention.

(Universal Super Star of Humanity - Mahatma Gandhi)

Mahatma Gandhiji is one of the biggest superstars India has ever produced. I should say Mahatma Gandhiji is a reigning super star of the world. For Apple and Monte Blanc, Gandhiji is a universal icon of ‘communication’ and ‘writing’. Marshal MacLuhan would say, medium is massage and message too.

Hence, trailing a gun at Gandhi or showering flower petals on him again and again is an international sport played by writers, artists, film makers, sociologists, cultural theorists, politicians and advertising kings.

(Think Different- Apple's appropriation of the Universal Icon Mahatma Gandhi)

So we have artists who recall Gandhiji in their works. Most of them are critical of the ways in which the image of Gandhiji is used in the public spaces. The socio-political and cultural ironies are caught by them in their works. Gandhiji is a body and icon at the same time to be deconstructed and re-constructed. Each time he is deconstructed, he throws open the possibilities of reconstruction too.

Gandhiji was not a flawless god. He was a human being that walked on the earth. Hence, critiquing him would come natural. Criticism is leveled at flawed creatures.

But any kind of critique should come with a tremendous amount historical understanding and daring. Gandhiji is a knowledge system in himself. So attacking him culturally needs another knowledge system.

(The writer in Gandhiji. Monte Blanc chooses this icon to advertise their pen)

Here is an artist in Debanjan Roy who does funny portraiture of Gandhiji. I happened to see a series of works by him in Ahmedabad, presented by Akar Prakar Gallery, Kolkata. Each work by this artist is a social and cultural offence. You may ask why I say so.

Let me answer that question. The artist presents his Gandhiji as dwarfish impish character with a stupid smile on his face. He is protected by highly armed security guards etc. Gandhiji could be seen doing different chores. The artist must be thinking it as a critical intervention on the ‘narrative’ of/on Gandhiji.

But his works are a socio cultural offence because this artist has no clue of portraiture or caricature. You can discard this argument as a formalist one. Okay, my second argument, this artist, through these caricature sculptures thinks that he is praising Gandhiji and critiquing a system. But how can you praise your mother or father by making their ugly portraits?

(work by Debanjan Roy)

Ahmedabad is one of the twelve sensitive cities where the law and order authorities say that a riot could break out on socio-religious and political lines. On the eve of this show, Ayodhya Verdict was declared but the city remained calm. This city of Gandhiji proved its allegiance with Gandhian philosophy. But somehow, the Ahmedabadians missed this show.

I believe, if there was a riot, it would have been to stop this show. But then Gandhians do not believe in rioting, right?

(R.K.Laxman's Gandhiji)

Perhaps, I am okay with an artist forwarding critique on Gandhiji because I have grown up by looking at the cartoons of Shankar, Kutty, Abu Abraham, R.K.Laxman and OV Vijayan who had severely caricatured Gandhiji. But they had a reason to do so but they were not irreverent either.

Here this artist, when a controversy came up in Bangalore, said that he was all for Gandhiji and it is his way of praising him.

(Hutch is now Vodafone. But Gandhiji is not now like this. The controversial work in Bangalore)

Come on artist, have you seen the works of the Chinese contemporary artists who have extensively critiqued Mao and his political hands through distorted portrayals? None of them said that they were praising Mao. This is a sculpture by Gao Brothers. And now you know from where our artist in question takes off. When you have a reason to caricature you stand by that. Why do you say that you love Gandhi so you make him like an imp and put a crow on his head?

(Miss Mao by Gao Brothers- China)

(Mao Jackets by Sui Jianguo)

My plea to Indian contemporary artists is this much: When you critique something or someone through your work of art, stand by it. Don’t reverse your arguments at the face of a controversy or negative approach by the state.

(an Indian does not need any explanation for this picture)

We live in a democracy that’s why artists like this are still roaming around in this country. So believe in democracy and respect it too. If you find Gandhiji is too heavy a subject, please don’t handle it. And if you are taking Gandhiji as an easy way to fame and fortune, do it, but do it with guts.

A critique is a critique. And when it is placed in the public, always be sure that you are answerable. If you are not ready to be accountable, why do you touch heavy weights like Gandhiji? Just be happy by doing watercolors of Kolkata streets.