How performance art is breaking new ground in India
'All art is an uncommitted crime' and in challenging the status quo, the Indian performance art scene is coming into its own by engaging with the dominant political discourse.
- Total Shares
In April, on the 39th day of the protest, the skulls had been lying on the side on the designated protest street at Jantar Mantar, a spectacle for everyone. There were eight of them.
Ayyakann, the 73-year-old farmer, sat in the sun debating whether on Monday, which would be the 42nd day, they would shackle themselves and be dragged on the streets in yet another performance of protest. But before that, they would drink urine and eat human excreta. Performance, he said, was needed to induce reaction. It would be ephemeral. No act would be repeated.
The farmer, who is a lawyer by education and dabbled in politics before orchestrating such protests, is aware of the subtleties and body shock value of performance art. And his tool isn’t the canvas or any material to depict the fragility of the human body and its suffering but the body itself. The body is the carrier of the trauma. So, when they had decided to stage protests at Jantar Mantar, they had scripted their performance. They had dug the graves, got the skulls and brought them over to the national capital and hung them around their necks.
Ayyakann knew about the politics of invisibility. He knew they can’t be invisible men. Dadism, an art movement that channelised hyper imagination and realism, used everyday objects. These were their tools of performance. The farmers from Tamil Nadu had mice hanging from their mouths in an almost performance like protest to show their suffering.
But who is a performance artist in India? Is such art without purpose? Is purpose important? Who is a performance artist? Is everything performance art here? Is it democratic?
Theodor Adorno famously wrote, “all art is an uncommitted crime” and in challenging the status quo, the Indian performance art scene is coming into its own by engaging with the dominant political discourse like the provocative art of Inder Salim, who once cut his little finger and put it in a laboratory flask and threw it in Yamuna, which is a declared dead river. He called this act as conversations with a dead river.
In India, which is rich with ritualistic art and performing arts, the realm of the “unexplained and fanciful” performance art is expanding with no dearth of themes like in the west where the most seminal works in the genre were inspired by migration, isolation and segregation.
It all started in 1970 in Mumbai when Baroda based artist Bhupen Khakhar began to integrate Pop and Nouveau Realiste modeled “happenings” into his artistic practice and in 1971, he staged an opening of an exhibition of his paintings by mimicking the rites of an Indian marriage procession and a governmental inauguration. He was making fun of the excessiveness of these ceremonies.
The early practitioners include Subodh Gupta, who entered the performance art scene with a video Pure (2000) where he partook in a ritual cleansing with cow dung. At the Khoj ArtistsWorkshop at Modi Nagar in 1997-98, Gupta smeared his body with clay and cow dung and lied down before the energy house that he created out of the dung cakes. Later, he became an installation artist but his years in a small town in Bihar where he was taken to watch theatre by his mother, had remained a powerful influence that catapulted him as a “thinking artist” trying to mainstream and even elevate the subaltern in his art.
Who is a performance artist then?
Joseph Beuys said every man is an artist. It is specially true in India. Beuys said he was a shaman and there was no school of performance art. It emerged from within. Like Marina Abramovich, whose 40 decades as a performance artist has produced performances where she has dealt with “true reality” says “To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake… The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real."
Performance is just the opposite: The physical and psychological cost has been great in her performances where she has allowed the public to abuse her prone body. She maintains that a powerful performance can transform the audience.
With Khoj International Artists’ Association launch in New Delhi in 1997, there was a start of an alternative institutional face to promote and showcase experimental art practices in India. It was founded by a group of artists that included Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, and Anita Dube, who is now the curator of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, along with curator Pooja Sood, its longterm Director, Khoj has been instrumental in promoting the “marginalised practices” called performance art by lending institutional and exhibition art space support.
For instance, in 2005, Delhi-based artist Manmeet Devgun along with Shantanu Lodh did a bold performance called “Hamam Mein Hum Sab Nange Hai (We are all nude in Public Bath), where both stripped themselves naked and let their bodies inscribed by others. It invited censorship but Devgun isn’t a stranger to such restrictive judgments after she decided to make her art autobiographical and remains one of the most intriguing and “brave” performance artists in the genre.
The performance with Lodh, who she married and later divorced, is one of the most pivotal in the performance art scene in India.
Lodh, who called himself “Art Maharaj” was one of the pioneers of performance art. Many years ago, at Mira Model School, on a Sunday afternoon did a performance for his mother. He stood before the tank with dark fish cut off a few curly locks from his hair, which he placed on the tank and put a few strands into the water before pushing his hands in the water and the fish attacked him and he began to bleed. The blood was dropped on the hair. Nothing was explained but the erotic undertones could be referenced.
From live events to video or photo documentation, which was what Pushpamala N, born in Bangalore in 1956, and called “the most entertaining artist-iconoclast of contemporary Indian art” did with Untitled from the Photo-Romance Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996–8) that depict the artist posing in the atypical style of Bollywood and also, highly reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s self-portraits, the performance artscene in India in now more mature with artists trained in visual arts taking it up to express everything from personal to political in public and private spaces breaking boundaries between the artist and the individual and depicting the everyday with the emphasis on “felt experience” in this temporary art as opposed to theatre’s “black box” identity where one plays somebody else.
Mithu Sen, who is one of India’s most well-known artists says she was always performing.
“My idea of performance is about my constant idea of living life. Performance is when you enact something. I feel that whatever we are doing in life, we are performing. A microsecond before we do anything, our brain is planning for us to perform that part. Even now as you are posing questions and I am answering, we are preparing ourselves to deliver our words. In that way, I feel everything we do is a form of performance — as a drawer, a sculptor, as a singer, or as a poet. What is the need to separate everything so dramatically? Cannot it be about being absorbed in a way of life?” she says.
"Performance is like another level of vulnerability to put your own body out there in a public situation, subject to the unexpectedness of audience interaction, absorbing the energy of the people who are present. It is an action together: art and life. When memories and timing are no longer separated, when they are marching with each other, when they are happening at one time and my consciousness is naming it at one point in time, that’s performance…"
She is trying to “undefine” everything, including performance art.
With the emergence of performance art festivals across the country like in Bangalore and Kolkata and now in Goa with Nikhil Chopra trying to give it more visibility, performance art is India continues to be political, absurd and a crossover of many forms. That’s what makes it interesting and intriguing. In terms of a pure definition of a festival, Kolkata International Performance Art Festival over the last five years remains the only performance art festival in the subcontinent.
However, the performance art event scene is spreading. Over the years many public performance events have happened in Bangalore. Two years ago Morni hills residency started a Performance art biennale, but that could not sustain.
Salim did a big one off festival called Art Karavan and in 2008 there was a mamoth Khoj live and a parallel protest festival.
At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that concluded early this year, there was a lot of emphasis on performance art and poetry. Nine out of 97 artists from 31 countries performed, including Abhishek Hazra, Anamika Haksar, Camille Norment, Kalakshetra Manipur, Lundahl & Seitl, Zuleikha Chaudhari, Padmini Chettur, Miller Puckette and John Tilbury (he never really made it to Kochi to perform, but they had programmed a performance).
Although it could be free of site, it is not free of context and the country’s unique positioning in history and as a cauldron of conflicting ideas and past baggage are being channelised by the artists who are trying to express the great churning through their works. Here, we take a look at some of the artists who have dedicated themselves to this ephemeral genre that promises freedom from medium.
We curate five performance artists who are leading the charge...
Nikhil Chopra, 44
"He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth"
On the wall of a former tavern in Athens, he drew an open, timeless sea with clay and then set off on the road with a tent on a 28-day sojourn into East Europe Drawing a Line Through Landscape, a performance for Documenta 14. Nikhil Chopra, who is often hailed as an alchemist who bends time with his performances that combine different mediums, is India’s most intriguing performance artist whose durational performances are known for their intensity.
In the tent that he pitched through the villages, forests and towns, the landscapes painted on to the canvas were almost an ellipsis. The paintings he made during this symbolic journey reversing the perspective of the viewer as an outsider and his representation as part of his performance, were stitched together in one long panorama and presented at an abandoned underground station in Kassel. The artist worked with the privilege of unknowing.
In the end, there was the sea again. The blue sea on the canvas. From sea to sea, binding the two cities via drawings on canvas. He arrived in Kassel on June 8 after a 3,000 km road ricochetting the terrains of a voyage in a physical connect between Athens and Kassel. Metaphors abound. He has aways been a traveler with the struggles of traversing unknown terrains, disparate geographies and even gender and has continued to map personal and cultural memories of places and people.
Chopra, who was born in 1974 in Kolkata, lives in Goa.
Live performance is central to his practice he works around adopting persona of these two imaginary characters - Sir Raja and Yog Raj Chitrakar, which are semi- autobiographical. Yog Raj Chopra was a landscape painter.
Nikhil’s practice as a performance artist started in 2002 in an apartment basement in Ohio where he was pursuing MFA from Ohio State University, USA. He pursued BFA from Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda in 1999 as well as another BFA from Maryland Institute in States.
He plays two characters - Yog Raj Chitrakar and Sir Raja. Yog Raj, a landscape painter is a character loosely based on his grandfather, who is Victorian in his sensibility, is his means to examine and represent a particular kind of post-colonial Indian subjectivity, evoking a deep nostalgia for Kashmir that became inaccessible after militancy broke out in 1989 and where nostalgia remains the most potent force for those who remain and those who left who often speak about the picnics under the Chinars and the theatres that showed Bollywood and Hollywood films.
The Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing, has travelled to Oslo, Tokyo, Venice, New York City, London, Mumbai among other places where the artist has revisited all his characters including Sir Raja. It is his way of exploring identity and existentialism by transforming the body into artwork for instance when Yog Raj Chitrakar transforms into a lady draped in fake petals and black lace thereby leading to deconstruction of gender.
Drawing a Line Through Landscape, a performance for Documenta 14 was his last durational performance earlier this year. In October 2014, Romain Loustau from Paris and Chopra and his partner Madhavi Gore set up the Heritage Hotel (HH) Art Spaces. In 2016, they moved to a 300-year-old home in Arpora to foster more collaborations witn the inaugural Serendipity Arts Festival offering them funding to invite seven international and local artists.
Inder Salim, 65
Photo: Bandeep Singh
“I recognise no dichotomy between art and protest.” - Ralph Ellison in Paris Review , 1954
At the Immigrant Cafe in Connaught Place, Inder Salim, 65, places his hand over his face. The index finger, which is cut, reveals his right eye.
“I had to amputate to see,” he says.
The cafe’s a site, too. It’s the name.
You can’t undermine the idea of present, he says.
“In performance art, there is no formula. All of us are holding back screams,” he says.
This is almost a decade after he chopped off his little finger in a secret ceremony on a hotSunday morning in 2002. He had carried a surgical knife, a bottle of Betadine, some bandage and tools of an artist like a drawing board and cameras to the Loha Pul bridge on the Yamuna river in East Delhi. He had titled the performance Dialogue With Power Plant, Shrill Across A Dead River and the act was performed with a few friends in attendance. In this act, he had grappled with the truth of his body. Memory of the pain has faded except the stump of a finger that remains.
“Extreme performance art?”
“No, I call it gentle,” Salim, who has been a performance artist for 25 years, says. “Memory is elsewhere and meaning is elsewhere.”
In that performance of which some footage remains along with the stump that he places over his eye, he was trying to construct a metaphysical bridge for transporting that part of his “being which couldn’t cross the bridge in a bus or auto-rickshaw.”
“I was crossing the river daily. I had to negotiate my relationship with the dead river,” he says. “In the entire history of the civilisation, rivers have disappeared. In only our times, we have killed a river. In that performance, the river was witness to my amputation. It was a dialogue.”
Salim remains India's most political performance artist. Consider this - in 2014 on Republic Day, Salim masturbated in front of 200 people inside Kolkata's Pathuriaghata Ghosh Bari, a 170-year-old mansion as part of the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival. He had worn his customary black pheran with holes punched into it and towards the end of the performance, he had cut his fingertips and wrote "India you have blood on your hands." There was a call for the release of political prisoners, he says.
"I masturbated for the political prisoners," he says.
Salim says he could have been jailed for nudity and sedition in a performance again in Kolkata on the morning of Republic Day where he had used intestines collected from a butcher’s shop and at the chowk, he had pulled the strings of a kaftan he wore to reveal his naked body wrapped in blood and leftovers of the dead holding the radio as the prime minister gave the ceremonial speech in New Delhi and unfurled the flag.
“It was the timing,” he says. “I was exploring the existential question of who am I.”
It was called Another Republic Day. A man in the audience stepped out. It was a matter of seconds. Salim packed up. The police was called. Salim had left the site. He says he isn’t a political artist but that’s just a matter to defying labels.
It was Vito Acconci in 1971 who had hid underneath a fake floor which he had built in a New York art gallery, called the Sonnabend Gallery, where he used masturbation during performance that lasted for two weeks called the Seedbed.
As people walked over Acconci's fake floor, he said sexual fantasies that were about the audience members who were walking above him. In the1960s and 70s, the rules of performance set out three criterions - No rehearsal, No repetition, No predictable end. In Salim’s case, there is always the intensification of the here and now and an unpredictable ending.
Salim’s radical performances in a country of a million censorships are perhaps a product of his own experiences of being an eternal migrant, an unbelonged person. Every art is autobiographical. At first, Salim is reluctant to speak about a lost childhood saying it is irrelevant to his work. Born in Tral, he was adopted by a family 20km away in Brijbehara, a small village in South Kashmir, which was poor.
“That is such a big thing,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why he has chosen this cafe in front of the Delhi Metro Gate No. 1.
They lived in an old house and his father owned a small general store, which closed down. The mother would work the looms and he says it was hard work. But then, there was not enough money to even buy 250gm of meat in those days. There were no orchards, he says.
He went through abuse at school.
“Boys don’t talk about such things,” he says.
But any life is contextualised by events in the subconscious. Particularly, an artist’s.
And then, he discovered colours. He would paint alphabet A in pink and he would be ecstatic.
“What was the sensation of colour,” he says. “It was that colour has no language. What is colour? What is music? What is sound? Colour is part of the body. That’s how I began as an artist in a poor town. With colours.”
The militancy in the 1990s pushed him out of Kashmir and he came to Delhi with his wife and his little daughter and continued with his job at the Punjab National Bank.
“The situation was like “go”. You couldn’t breathe. It was war-like and it was a terrible time,” he says. “We left in 1991.”
Salim never studied art but dabbled as a painter in the beginning.
It all began with collaboration with Shantanu Lodh in a Delhi art gallery called “Hum Tum Ek Gallery Mein Band Ho” where “Your Humble Servant” was a label on the shirts of each of them as they served drinks and snacks to the audience in 1996-97.
Their self-portraits were pasted on the floor and two banners “Hum Tum Ek Gallery Mein Band Ho, Aur Chabi Kho Jaiya” and “Hum Tum Ek Kamerey Mein Band Ho, Aur Reality Bhool Jaiya” (You and me are locked in a gallery and the key gets lost & You and me are trapped in a Camera and the reality gets lost) was displayed outside the gallery.
They had been accused of hijacking the show by the curator, who was enthralled by the performance that stole the show at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Connaught Place.
In yet another 20-minute performance at Khoj called the Shit of the Other, he carried shit in his right hand (left behind by children of the homeless or labourers of the city) from Press Enclave Road to the Khoj Studio holding a candle in the other hand. In many ways, Salim is an agent provocateur when he started alone in the 1990s. Performance art or harkat, as he calls it, he says, gives him the freedom to express himself through the body, which is the life force and with found objects.
Artists have often used their bodies to shock audience. For instance, Petr Pavlensky, who is often referred to as a “living pain” artist, has sewn his mouth shut in political protest against the incarceration of Pussy Riot members, nailed his scrotum on the Red Square referring to the apathy, political indifference and fatalism of Russian society, and even cutting of his earlobe in protest against Russia’s use of forced psychiatry against dissidents. In his art, he often anticipates the state reaction, which makes it even more unpredictable. Salim is unpredictable, too.
Salim is now working on an anthology of poems from Kashmir, a book as work of art, which will be published with actual perforation, along with poems from contemporary Kashmir. Besides he is also working on Srinagar Biennale and supporting “Not In My Name”, a protest scheduled in Delhi and several other cities across the country on June 28 against incidents of lynching of Muslims and Dalits and triggered by the killing of 15-year-old Junaid Khan who was stabbed to death in Ballabhgarh, Haryana by a mob that mocked his skull cap and called him a beef eater after an argument over train seats. The Gurgaon-based filmmaker Saba Dewan had organised it and Salim was one of the artists to perform at Jantar Mantar on the day of the protest.
As he walks out of the cafe to disappear into the metro, he takes a photo of the ground.
“Gate No 1, four tiles left to intensify the post talk between us. These are words on another plane, not mere photographs. Images talk and our eyes listen. Too many connects like in a machine… but we never can remain content with what we have or know, so we flow. Penetration of haze is inevitable so is discovery of our new self which means lost and found and lost even,” he writes.
In the distance, the rains have washed off the dust and the grime. The grey walls of the Immigrant Cafe are lit in the evening light. In the midst of arrivals and departures, in a cafe, the artist was performing the intensification of time. He called it Gate No. 1…
Manmeet Devgun, 42
Photo: Bandeep Singh
“The still must tease with the promise of a story the viewer of it itches to be told.”
– Cindy Sherman
This is how she begins the story. With the story of a blonde wig and an “almost” woman.
At Cubbon Park in Bangalore, which is considered “shady”, Almost Angela, who wears a blonde wig, sees couples in love, making out, whispering promises. She has had a breakup and with matchsticks she begins to tell her story on the ground. Words and sentences are formed. Emotions, too. This is dissection in practice.
As part of Art in Transit-Festival of Stories curated by Suresh Kumar in October 2016, she says she had invited her cousin Almost Angela.
Who is Almost Angela?
Why is her name prefixed Almost? Is it a verb, a noun?
"My alter ego," Manmeet Devgun, 42, a visual and performance artist based out of Delhi, says. "We are always 'almost' in whatever we do. I don't know if 'alter ego' is the correct term as the literal meaning of 'alter ego' is - An alter ego (Latin, "the other I") is a second self, which is believed to be distinct from a person's normal or original personality. A person who has an alter ego is said to lead a double life. Do i lead a double life? Yes and no… I lead life as myself-artist/mother and as a school teacher… For this, I chose another 'performing' person as my daughter did not travel with me to Bangalore for the performance it was a very different experience for me. The wig perhaps was a way of showing/being different than ‘Manmeet’.”
In most of her recent performances, Devgun’s daughter has been a part of the narrative.
Oxytocin is the story Almost Angela writes with matchsticks.
The story Almost Angela writes is about two lovers meeting after a two-month gap and she writes there was a lot of licking and sucking and at dawn they climaxed. There were also a lot of maybes.
"In humans, oxytocin is thought to be released during hugging, touching, and orgasm in both genders. In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and may be involved in the formation of trust between people and generosity.
Maybe they had missed that physical touch. Maybe they had still loved each other. Maybe they just missed each other’s body. Maybe it was the night. Maybe," she writes.
The lovers parted ways after sex.
“The ‘maybe’ led them to the bedroom. And onto the bed. A lot of licking and sucking. A lot of oxytocin.
‘I missed you’, he said. ‘holding you, lying next to you’.
‘Don’t say anything,’ she said. ‘Just let this night be. As if it never was. This is not happening’
They climaxed at dawn, as if the night had never happened,” the story goes on.
This is how she delves into her own psyche to understand desire, loneliness, society, etc.
There is almost a Dadaist quality to her work, which is her life falling apart, the love affairs, the assholes she met, the status of a performing single mother who has learned to train the camera to shoot herself in different moods, modes.
Dada’s negations and rebellion could be seen as unsustainable and defeatist. Tristan Tzara, a Romanian Dada poet, said in 1922, “Dada draws no conclusion, no pride, no benefit. It has even stopped combating anything, in the realisation that it’s no use, that all this doesn’t matter. What interests a Dadaist is his own mode of life…”
In her studio, which is an extension of her bedroom, there is a tripod, tubes of paint, etc. When her daughter sleeps, she is all alone and that's when she takes her self-portraits. A few were part of her performance where she cuts them up and restitches them back on a curtain making up herself. Cindy Sherman, the photographer famous for self-portraits who said she did it because she knew she could push herself to the limits, is an influencer.
She is a performing mother, an artist, a woman, a lover, etc. Personal is political. Perhaps that's how one could approach her practice. She isn't interested in traditional art although she trained as a painter in Chandigarh.
Like how Sherman never tagged her art but left it to the viewers, Manmeet doesn't offer too many narratives but if you listened carefully, her poems would offer clues. It is a life we all all have encountered. As a single mother, who perhaps doesn't look like a "mother" in a posh neighbourhood of Delhi, she has undergone her isolation, shunned by families.
In the other room, her daughter Bhrishti is drawing landscapes. She refuses to fill colours. The walls are maps and histories of her childhood. In a ground floor apartment in Vasant Kunj, Devgun introduces herself as a “single performing mother.”
“It is my experience as a single mother. You try and reflect ‘what wrong did you do’ and it is about the trials and errors. What is in this body? I don’t dress like a typical mother,” she says.
It is almost her challenging the desexualisation of a woman as a mother.
Is the blonde wig still there? Yes, she says.
It was a gift from her sister. At night, when she takes self-portraits she wears the wig sometimes. It is about dressing up, playing around and then you are faced with reality. Her daughter is there in the next room.
“Each time you look into the mirror, you search for feeling,” she says. “For the last two years, I have been taking photos of myself in the night when I am all alone. I was influenced by Cindy Cherman and her use of the body, which I see as a medium.”
She is provocative, playful and perhaps her performances can be viewed as self-indulgent and her preying on these-called tragedies of her life or even accused as orchestrating them for the purpose of art, which they often are. But personal is political and Devgun is an important artist. One only has to go through the titles of her body of work - “Death of Masturbation, Female Gaze, Performing Mother, The Cocks Have Survived, I am too Huge for Love, I have got the Balls.
Channelising alter egos is nothing new in performance art. In Devgun’s case, she draws from her life experiences to create art based on her tryst with gender and feminism. She started performing in 2002 after graduating from Chandigarh Art College and finishing her master's from Jamia. Growing up in what she calls a "slow city" she spent her time daydreaming. It was a lonely childhood as they shifted to a neighborhood that only had two families.
After her 12th, she did a month of fashion design training and then took up painting as a medium. But only recently she has taken up painting after seventeen long years.
"Chandigarh is a pensional paradise. Delhi was a big exposure," she says. "I trained as a painter but my first love was photography. I always felt closer to the camera than the brush."
Around 1999-2002 through the magazine Art Forum at Lalit Kala library she became familiar with this term-Performance Art and saw the works of Santiago Sierra, Adrian Piper, Marina Abramovich, who influenced her. There was no need for a gallery or a curator and performanceart gave her a kind of freedom to express herself. Her friendship with Shantanu Lodh, who she later married and Inder Salim shaped her as a performance artist. A marriage that didn’t work, affairs that went wrong, and the loneliness and the courage to face it all is all part of her work.
In fact she said it loud and clear in 2011 in a solo show called I Don’t Need Your Help. The courage and defiance is implicit in her choices of making mistakes and then living by those. That’s her feminism, which is rare. Her art emerges from her examination of the dual roles of an artist and a mother. She isn’t a victim. Heartbreaks, desire, oxytocins, pleasure and grotesque are all part of her oeuvre. They are also part of a woman’s life as she sets out to map her desire in context of her life. She teaches art at a school in Delhi. That’s bread and butter. In her other life, she is an artist who uses her own life as a metaphor.
The video I Don’t Need Your Help starts with a close shot of Devgun uttering expletives. There is almost a counter gaze, which is resonant in her work like Female Gaze as she looks the body of a man with a pair of magnifying glasses particularly the genitals, which are observed clinically…
In the performance, she sits on a red rug and cuts several of her portraits and stitches them together to create a distorted semblance of someone who resembles her.
In it, she says “deranged, betrayed… try again. So what? Give up? Not me. Never, never. I don’t need your help.”
The urgency in the tenor of the voice is what is forceful.
“It is about the discomfort of being a woman,” she says. “Art was the only option for me.
A performance that she says was met with censorship and judgment was when she gave a tutorial on how to have sex with a dog in a performance called Pleasure II in 2015.
“A dog won’t tell everyone,” she says in the performance. “You can never get pregnant. I am not a weirdo. It is between you and the dog.
It is like questioning feminism - what does it mean?
“A lot of it definitely comes from personal experience. Feminism means accepting myself, being comfortable and having my own choice,” she says.
In Delhi, when she first came, she started using public transport and that’s when she became aware of her body. She started reading a lot of feminist literature at the time.
“People are feeling you up,” she says.
In one of her first installations titled “Menu for Dinner” she set up a table with a white table cloth and a yellow chair. There was steamed rice and on top of it, there were two balls with nipples. It said “Steamed breast on rice”.
Her feminism emerges from her struggles, her performances from her encounters with the society. Like in the case of the Nirbhya Rape Case, which inspired a performance called The Honour Cloud where at the NGMA in Jan 2013, she wrote “you are the honour of your family” in Hindi English and Punjabi on a 40 metre long turban and then she tied it on her head. She asked the audience if they would like to carry the weight but they refused.
One of her other most powerful performances was Revisiting – I Love you in 2015 in June in Zurich.
She was shouting the words, then humming it and the church bells started ringing. For an hour, she repeated the words and in the end she said “I don’t want to say it anymore.”
That’s a choice. A powerful one. One that pierces the silence of centuries of oppression by so-called love. Devgun, who has been jugged often for her “extreme” performances is an unrelenting artist, the one that relives Dadaism in its entirety.
In the backyard of her house in a "respectable neighborhood" of Delhi as she stubs her cigarette, she asks the maid to make juice for her daughter.
An installation of her daughter’s scribbling on the wall that she photographed and framed as an installation work with her daughter’s words “Bedroom mien such nahi hota hai” is an innocent and a heavy observation of a child. So heavy that it is stifling. But then, there is always an open sky in the backyard.
“Aren’t we performing all the time?” she says.
Currently, she is working on a series of posters to showcase statements which question issues like the male gaze, authority, abuse, set notions of society or rather confront these.
There is a poem by her in the inbox later.
“the shouts, I no longer panic
the awe has faded away
and I have made my own recipes
of hiding some and seeking some”
Sahej Rahal, 28
“I keep a watch list of individuals and beings from other realms that may be a threat to this world.”
- Doctor Strange
There is so much transformation and so much overlapping of time in his performances that it is almost like a shaman who is no longer just a storyteller but has transformed into a character, a force, a messiah, an alien and that’s when you enter the non-linear world of Shaej Rahal.
From a window in Glasgow, he can see the mountains and the landscape stretching into the horizon and then there is a break. There’s almost a submarine plant. This is the setting for his next performance. He calls it Barricadia, an almost Shakespearean utopian arcadia with boundaries. He is a character looking for this idea of a temporary place. A seeker.
Marcel Duchamp, a performance artist and a defender of Dadaism, had once said the idea is greater than the work. In no one else’s work is the idea so magnificent than in Rahal’s body of work where he collapses time and attaches no fixity to any of the stories he is telling.
The world he creates are unlabelled and yet he is political who challenges the prophetic masculine entity of a messiah who has come to fix things in the world who wanders through inter-dimensional worlds in order to save and to destroy and maybe to tell us things we must know in order to survive. Let’s say he is a narrator of ever-evolving mythologies.
“It is a temporary place. Nobody has seen the boundaries of Barricadia,” he says. “This place I am in is provocative. How do we imagine utopia?”
In Walter Benjamin’s writings, in the anticipation of the appearance of the Messiah, there might be Judaic hope, or better hopelessness, and an anticipation of collective redemption that would abolish human existence. He alludes to such concepts. The work then emerges from an intellectual interpretation of superheros and imagined worlds and the intervention of the artist takes these realms and misplaces them in history to create a story.
“It is always fun to tell stories,” he says.
Sahej Rahal was born in Mumbai and graduated from Rachana Sansad Academy of Fine Arts and Crafts in 2011. Rahal was recently commissioned to undertake a residency at Primary, Nottingham, as part of Reimagine India and produced an exhibition called Dry Salvages based on TS Eliot’s famous poem. Like his mentor Nikhil Chopra, Rahal also bends time, in fact punctures it.
“It is like how punk rock works. They don’t resolve things but they give us a lens. These characters become shamanic kind of figures. They bring prophecy. The prophecy isn’t really important,” he says.
He plays with absurdity and the abstract and history and mythology. He travels in time. Those are his tools along with found objects and he refers to himself as a dumpster diver. The best time is early morning. He was about to get arrested once as he was rummaging through a dumpster late night in Mumbai, which is a city that has always inspired him with its contrasts.
A visual artist, he had never been good with painting. Besides, oil paint and canvas were expensive. The 28-year-old crossed over to the ambiguous art of sculpture. He’s already showcased his works in London, Rome and was the only Indian artist at the Liverpool Biennial 2016.
It began one day as he was travelling in the Bombay local and a train handle came off. He took it home. He thought there was a lot of history to it and he could play with it. That’s when he began to render the past absurd.
Then, he found a sitar under the flyover in Prabhadevi, which he brought to his studio and figured it had to be worn on the head to be played. Cities are displaced in time. He is almost an alchemist working with time and space, collapsing, squeezing and bending them. Time isn't linear. He is often a shamanic figure from a time unknown wandering mysteriously to warn or to seek as a harbinger of prophecies.
“These are objects that have been discarded, almost put away from this world. They are open to being played with. The sitar becomes an alien form and the ornaments on the sitar became eyes. I was looking for a narrative and this character came out. There is no fixity to character. These are absurd things and to invite the viewer and myself into a conversation. My work is an archaeological kind of reinhabiting,” he says.
He found church pews once in a dumpster in Kansas. They were massive (70foot) and they became pyramid structures in his installation.
“None of the stories are complete. I create situations where there is a ritual of making meaning. They could remind you things from star wars or jatak tales or just a fleeting daydream,” he says.
But he is looking for metaphysical references everywhere from Walter Benjamin to TS Eliot to Jorge Luis Borges for his meta narratives that focus on “creating this itinerary of our culture” which is dystopian, a world of objects from an archaeological dig, from across space and time.
In the 2016 Liverpool Biennale, Rahal had incorporated right wing governments, the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, and even Brexit. His is performative politics.
The worlds he creates can’t be located. I create stories because it is fun. I don’t want to give this world a name,” he says. “These things then become patchwork of affective charge.”
The objects and materials are always pretending to be something other and suggest a time-line of some kind. This becomes the activated space where he then introduces a character that wears a costume and resists all forms with a cloak, a hood, a mask, or anything to suggest “morphing”.
Everything is also part of that larger meta-narrative where the characters seem to emerge from spaces outside the real world where they aren’t singular forms. For instance, his installation at Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2015, he had created Encounters in Time' invoking the dead city/the absent city of Muziris at the Aspinwall House.
“I always try to remove myself. I am not into self-portraiture. Nor am I interested in making any particular meaning,” he says. “Magic realism should be part of this world. My characters cross over, they mutate.”
Rahal says there is no patriotism in performance art.
“I am only reclaiming and recreating rituals,” he says.
And through the window, the landscape of his next art emerges. It is the idea of the temporal that allows possibilities to free themselves of tradition, he says.
“You have pastoral landscape and you have weapons that can eat up a thousand suns,” he says.
That’s Barricadia. He is still looking for it.
Manjot Kaur, 28
Photo: Sandeep Sahdev
Photo: Sandeep Sahdev
“A direct communication will be re-established between the spectator, from the fact that the spectator, placed in middle of the action, is engulfed and physically affected by it.”
- Antonin Artaud, 1938.