How we brought an urban settlement from Mumbai alive at Kochi Muziris Biennale

Samooha: a collective reflects on its art work at the event.

 |  6-minute read |   23-12-2016
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Among the many conversations I’ve had about housing and urban culture in Mumbai, I recall one in particular quite vividly. Santosh Thorat, a housing activist was talking to me about the role of protest and direct action in his own life and in that of his settlement. He ended his conversation with his customary salutation, zindabad!

Zindabad recalls revolutionary change and the destruction of a system before rebuilding. But Santosh explained that in Sathenagar, the large, informal settlement in northeast Mumbai where he lived, they had transformed the meaning of the word to always refer to the phrase that lies at its heart – jo zinda hai, woh abaad ho – meaning let she who is alive, be happy and prosperous.

In recent years, Santosh and others in Sathenagar have been reflecting on what makes their struggle to remain in the city meaningful, that makes life prosperous, beyond achieving the specific goals of the movement such as secure housing and infrastructure.

Our artistic collective, Samooha, is rooted in these reflections, bringing together the knowledge and practice of many different disciplines to speak to this question. We came together in early 2016 at the invitation of Sudarshan Shetty, the curator of the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

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Our project imagines the city itself as a studio - as an actor within the work of art and as an element that enables the work of art to emerge as such. 

Sathenagar became a central focus of our project to imagine an installation for the Biennale after several conversations with Santosh and others from the neighbourhood, discussing interpretations of key terms like Zindabad, watching short films conceived and directed by Santosh, listening to the philosophical and devotional songs performed by some of Sathenagar’s oldest residents, watching the young men and women of a local theatre troupe called Swapna Kala Manch, setting up interactions between a studio photographer from Sathenagar and a professional artist-photographer and being enchanted by the performances of young men and women devoting themselves to the popular dance form called lavani.

Sathenagar is named after the celebrated Dalit writer, poet and social activist Annabhau Sathe and its residents – largely from Dalit and Muslim backgrounds – share the struggles of Mumbai’s many self-built communities. Influenced in part by Annabhau’s role in Sathenagar’s creation, many of its residents also share a heightened sense of cultural inheritance and its potential to transform communities.

Sathenagar is not only a morphological organisation of space and structures, reflecting social norms and urban policies but also a place of dense social interaction, where notions of public and private blur into the proximate interactions between people, structures, infrastructures and other forms of life to create specific cultural experiences based on an active awareness of heritage and provenance.

Itself an informal and interdisciplinary collective of architects, writers and social activists, Samooha took its time to develop a focus, in keeping with the spirit of multiplicity at play in the curatorial vision for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

Over the course of the year, we began to focus on tracing flows of cultural practice in urban India, coming at the project with different skills, concepts and tool kits.Based on this intensive and long term collaboration situated in and around Sathenagar, Samooha has built an interactive installation, modelling the intersecting public, private and performance spaces in Sathenagar in Fort Kochi.

This space is animated with video, photo and graphic content produced by artists from Sathenagar, in collaboration with Samooha.

Drawing on ethnographic research about informal urban cultures, our project imagines the city itself as a studio - as an actor within the work of art and as an element that enables the work of art to emerge as such.

Representing the spatial conditions of Sathenagar through the language of architecture and its social conditions through narrative, performance and images, Samooha’s installation weaves these conditions, under which art is created, into the fabric of the artistic works presented on the stage of the Biennale.

Our programme thus connects a stage mirroring the spatial and social conditions of Sathenagar with images, narratives and performances produced by and with artists from Sathenagar.

Together, these programmes activate a residual public space in Fort Kochi, occupying and layering the site with a community’s archive, and inviting Kochi’s public to do the same at this public site.

Knowing that there are a wide range of situations and contexts in which art and artistic expressions are created and shared, we wished to examine the potential of perforating the boundaries of the élite, commercial worlds of the studio-gallery-museum complex with popular artistic practices, with the least possible mediation.

While Mumbai’s informal communities are always available to the gaze of the privileged, we observed they rarely occupy the most privileged stages as protagonists themselves.

The intention was not to create a museum-like programme to display the talents of a single community but to allow a community’s public expression, long trapped in specific forms of public discourse around protest and rights, to take flight on another, more universally visible stage.

We named our project "On Stage: Sathenagar Here" to bring visibility both to the community as author and to the concept of the stage, which operates on multiple levels to support the community as author.

Our other challenge was how to communicate this idea with the artists of Sathenagar, to bring the idea of the Biennale to Sathenagar without mediating or transforming their practices radically for presentation at the Biennale, to keep the context of the city’s effects on Sathenagar alive in their artistic creations.

The process of negotiating across these radically different cultures and contexts of creation also produced its own fractures that we continue to navigate beyond the Biennale. Samooha’s approach was to actively avoid a didactic attitude to creativity in contexts where the call for social justice and activism are pronounced practices, but that meant that we had to engage in process that gestated slowly, evolved, changed course and converged around a set of presentations and objects through a slow process of consensus and negotiation.

We continue this process throughout the 108 days of the Biennale, producing new video content, adding short set pieces of drama and rehearsing lavani performances, all tied together by the philosophy, poetry and political vision of Annabhau Sathe.

These ephemeral performances, images and narratives come alive within the architectural set that we have created in Kochi, but unlike other artistic media, some of this work may only live on as a trace, a residue of the interactions it provokes.

Samooha is thus also examining the meaning of its own contribution as a work of art.

Could this exploration of being together in a process of performance and self-expression itself stand in for the work of art, within the context of an international Biennale?

If you wish to know more about Samooha, click here.

Writer

Vyjayanthi Rao Venuturupalli Vyjayanthi Rao Venuturupalli @vyjayanthirao

Cultural anthropologist who received her PhD from the University of Chicago. She is the Director of Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research, a non-profit research and design think-tank in New York and teaches at the City College of New York. Recently became part of an interdisciplinary artistic collective called Samooha.

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