Art of Response: Performance, in the Public, on the Street
by Ranjan Kaul
In Part One of this essay, I’d discussed the drawings, paintings and political posters of some Indian artists who have responded to the recent socio-political scenario; I had in addition also commented on how some Bollywood films and regional cinema have reflected similar concerns. However, as we have seen, in the last couple of decades the visual arts have been reaching out and going beyond the confines of galleries, studios and cinema halls, and this is what I focus on in this concluding part of the essay.
As we have discussed on a few occasions on the artamour blog, there has been a growing trend in contemporary art worldwide to go outside the white cube to portray socio-political issues. In this regard, we have the example of Sir Antony Gormley, the well-known British artist and sculptor, whose work I’ve commented on earlier (Common Ground (Part One, Part Two). In 1991, Gormley created an installation titled Learning to Think (1991) using replica casts of his own body on the first floor of the City Jail of Charleston, the site of the American War of Independence, it was where the hanging and lynching of slaves once took place. In Critical Mass (1995) he made five casts of his own body, each of twelve basic body postures, and arranged for them to be tumbled down at a specific building site, the Remise – an old, long storage station in Vienna with embedded tracks that once deported Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, the venue of the most lethal of Nazi genocides. In Another Place (1997) he once again used replica casts of his own body to plant 100 figures in the sea alongside Crossby Beach in Merseyside, England -- he chose Crossby for its history of Liverpool docks where ships set sail for for slave trading and also because it was from here that Jews emigrated in the 19th century.
Left to Right: Learning to Think; Critical Mass; and Another Place
Given the diffidence of laypersons to visit galleries, such art in public spaces is highly welcome. There is a lot that is taking place among the public, on the streets, at protest sites; much of the genre of performance art, which is growing in popularity, can be seen in public spaces. Earlier on artamour, we’d shared two enlightening articles by art historian, writer and critic, Johny ML, where he’d discussed art journeys in public spaces and the public art of a Kerala group of artists called Trespassers. Here, as in Part One of the essay, I will confine my discussion to the works of some Indian artists who have created meaningful art in public spaces, and also feature art that has been in response to or taken place at protest sites.
Kulpreet Singh is a young artist based in Patiala who, since the farmer’s agitation began, has been living with the protesting farmers on Delhi’s borders. When the pandemic started to take a heavy toll, he went to the cremation grounds, which inspired his art. “The irreparable loss of lives, the anger and misery suffered by millions of people, the long queues of dead bodies waiting for last rites owing to the lack of space in crematoriums, many bodies burning on a single pyre, I’ve lived it all,” says Kulpreet. At the cremation grounds, he collected ashes of the dead, which he brought back and mixed with charcoal to create his art – he says felt impelled to retain the mortal remains as a reminder of the pain and suffering. A committed artist who lives his art, he volunteered to work in a hospital to help Covid patients.
Kulpreet as a volunteer at the hospital
Kulpreet working on canvases at the cremation ground
Distressed by the peaceful farmer protests turning violent (with sticks and stones and water cannons), be it by the protesters or the political authority, he created his series titled “Indelible Black Marks” in various sizes, formats and locations. His live performance art was his fervent appeal for peace: the black marks being grim reminders of the uncounted many who lost their lives to Covid. According to Kulpreet, these works were executed live in situ in order to “awaken the conscience of those involved”. He used a variety of mediums, including cotton cloth, black ink, sticks, stones and water cannons. Small to medium to large works were created through performances of large groups and public participation.
Indelible Black Marks
Kulpreet also participated in the Mitti Satyagraha Yatra Initiated by social activist Medha Patkar. For this community movement, soil collected in earthen pots from across India was brought together to the farmers’ protest sites at the Singhu and Ghazipur borders. Kulpreet designed two pieces of sculpture, one each at the two sites on which the pots could be hung. Placed on a pedestal, the metallic sculptures rise to the sky with simple farming symbols that could resonate with the farming community – the welcome leaves of new seasonal crops, farmers tilling the land day (sun) and night (moon).
Mitti Satyagraha Yatra project with Medha Patkar and other volunteers
Kulpreet's installation at the farmers' protest site on the Delhi border
Born in Kashmir and based in Delhi for 25 years, Inder Salim is an internationally acclaimed conceptual performance artist whose socio-political, human body centric work has few parallels. He chose to change his Kashmiri Pandit surname, Tikku, to the Muslim, Salim – a sharp statement that called for reconciliation between the two religious communities in his home state (now a truncated Union Territory) of Jammu and Kashmir.
Harking back to Manto’s iconic short story, “Toba Tek Singh”, he spoke about the absurdity of Partition and the religious divides it created. (In this regard is ironical that the Indian Prime Minister declared 14 August as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort during the recent Independence Day address. In an increasingly polarizing and divisive society, one wonders at the intent and message behind the declaration.) It is a sad commentary that Inder has felt the need to continually assert his secular identity, thus reminding people of the secular fabric on the nation.
With a wild streak of eccentricity that commands attention, his acts at times become quite problematic: he has taken to valorizing narcissistic acts that expose his naked body to allegorize the suffering of the character he plays; occasionally the act becomes so masochistic that none can approve. Sometimes playing the fool inspired by literature, sometimes the Sufi mystic, sometimes the Majnu, sometimes the citizen who’s been caged, he is unafraid to challenge the state, identifying himself with the subaltern and the oppressed. To express his concern for the environment, he created performance acts in relation to the felling of trees in Delhi or the pollution in the river Yamuna because of the effluent discharge from the thermal power plant alongside the riverbed.
Performances to protest the felling of trees in Delhi; the last seems to have drawn inspiration from the Chipko movement
He entered into a “dialogue” on the Yamuna river to protest and draw attention to the “power plant's shrill across the dead river”, as he describes it, and amputated the last digit of the little finger of his left hand to be able to “see” and later performed its visarjan (immersion) in the river. His rationale: “I had to amputate to design!”
Last week the nation saw political leaders and senior bureaucrats unfurl the national flag on Independence Day. About a decade ago, on Republic Day, 26 January 2012, during the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival, Inder arrived early morning at the public space which had a ready-made pedestal used for hoisting flags (he’d earlier placed a rod and hook at the site). For the performance, he walked in with the entrails of dead animals and waste on his body under a perforated black garment (the traditional Kashmiri phiren) with a thread passing through the hook to the rod, similar to the process of unfurling flags. He had a transistor set playing the commentary of the Republic Day celebrations from Raj Path, New Delhi. At the appropriate moment, he lifted the perforated black garment to expose his naked body underneath and picked up the transistor set. The messaging was clear: the “pomp and show” of military strength is a sham and cover-up of the naked reality. This has been his recurrent trope in other performances as well. For instance, he mounted the gun barrel of a tank (burning at the tip) like a bridegroom riding a mare with a child alongside as per custom, but here the child had been singed by the gun fire.
At the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival
Astride a tank gun barrel
In September 2013, he did a performance at Sher Kashmir Chowk, Srinagar – a counter-cultural event called “Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir” against “Ehsas'e-Kashmir” by the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir (now a truncated union territory) which had invited the world famous composer Zubin Mehta to perform at Shalimar Bagh. As Inder says, “I had the invitation card from Zubin Mehta's show, but I preferred to perform before the public. The performance began with my tearing apart the very invitation card on the stage with a clear articulation that I’ve come here to listen to the sound which belongs to the people since ‘polished’ music is often appropriated by the state.”
Screenshots from the YouTube video of Inder's performance at Haqeeqat-e-Kashmir
Please use the left-right arrows to navigate the slideshow
Explaining the inspiration and idea behind the performance, he adds, “To perform as ‘Kashmiri Bhand’ in a contemporary way, was at one level to test and taste the Kashmiri folk form called 'Bhand Pather' and simultaneously at another level to insert in the abstract clear political overtones in a public space.” Inder’s position on Kashmir is straightforward: with India and Pakistan unable to settle their issues and repeatedly resorting to aggression, the two religious communities have had to bear the brunt of decades of violence and misery. This was in 2013 – and this is not the space to enter into a discussion on the ongoing political developments in Kashmir. Of course, if government sources are to be believed, all is well now in J&K; however, the opposition political parties in the union territory continue to demand the revocation of Article 370.
The recent lockdown did not deter Inder from continuing to express his art in a way he knows best. Confined to his home, he took to flying flags from his rooftop in solidarity with the farmers protesting on Delhi’s borders; the women of Shaheen Bagh with their slogan borrowed from the poet Faiz, “Hum Dekhenge”; and the plight of migrants trudging miles and miles to their homes (“Walking Feet are Walking Feet”). To draw attention and empathize with those who died of Covid-19 owing to oxygen shortage, he painted his face, neck and lungs black.
Those interested to see more of Inder Salim’s work can view the slide show given below.
Please use the left-right arrows to navigate the slideshow
In mid-December 2019, students of Jamia Millia University took out a peaceful march to Parliament as a mark of protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on 11 December 2019, but were stopped by the police using batons and teargas shells. Two days later, the police entered the campus; while there are sharply conflicting versions as given in the media and by the police of what actually transpired, the students, to intensify their struggle, in January 2021 began an indefinite sit-in outside the campus.
To support the protesting students, there was a spontaneous performance rally by about 10-15 artists which Shiraz Husain of the KhwaabTanhaCollective captured on camera which, in his words, “passed like a toy train among the crowd and vanished”. Shiraz has also shared with us another image of artists from the Faculty of Jamia Fine Arts, Jamia Milia Islamia, creating street art graffiti in front of Jamia College Street and the Progressive Artists League collective.
Triggered by the repression of the protesting students of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, passage of CAA and prevention of the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), women in the neighbouring areas of Shaheen Bagh also began a peaceful, non-violent sit-in protest that lasted 101 days in the cold Delhi winter of 2019-20 and went on till the third week of March 2020 till the protesters were cleared by the Delhi Police after the announcement of the complete lockdown. Many artists, musicians and other performances joined in the lend support to the movement. In the evenings and mornings, social workers and art educators would draw with the children and take classes in temporary libraries. Being an artist himself, Shiraz too drew with the children, which were displayed on the footover bridge. The image given alongside below is another photograph by him of an effigy of sorts, which he says was rather unsettling to witness.
Kulsoom Khan and B. Ajay Sharma of In_Process Live Art Practice have also sent us images of the peaceful protest and how it spread to the streets which are given below.
Shaheen Bagh (Photos courtesy of Kulsoom Khan)
Shaheen Bagh (Photos courtesy of In_Process Live Art Practice)
Ita Mehrotra, a non-fiction comics maker, has beautifully captured a graphic street-level view of the peaceful and dignified agitation in the form of a book titled Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection. Elegantly published by Yoda Press, the book is a visual narrative of the poignant, courageous and heroic stories of the ordinary women of Shaheen Bagh, which catalyzed into a pan-Indian political movement against CAA and NRC. Mehrotra creatively depicts the inspirational story how the protest set sail and grew into a large collective movement with the refrain "Hum Dekhenge".
Cover and some inside pages from Shaheen Bagh: A Graphic Recollection by Ita Mehrotra
Images courtesy of Yoda Press and the author
In the Foreword to the book, Ghazala Jamil, an author and a JNU faculty member, expresses succinctly the courage of the women and what the movement was able to achieve, “By remaining undaunted in the face of brazen targeting, by speaking up fearlessly, by raising personal stakes, by not retracing their dissent at any cost, the sit-ins were able to unmask the true face of this regime – hateful, vindictive and ruthless.”
In one of my recent blogs, I’d talked of the need to bridge the divide between “Society and the Visual Arts”. Subhendu Sarkar is a Kolkata-based artist who has been able to achieve this in large measure with a new vocabulary and language that he calls “Wordtoons”. As he says, the concept is not new: formation of alphabet characters in all languages have been developed from hieroglyphics, as seen for example in Egyptian civilization. What Subhendu does is to bring back these images, as it were, by doing graphic drawings around a given word or term. He performs his art live, spontaneously, among lay public. He first asks the members of his audience to suggest a word, or even write it on his drawing sheet; thereafter, he swiftly transforms the word into a highly imaginative graphic interpretation, often of the contemporary socio-political scenario. Not unexpectedly, his extempore art has won great appreciation and attracted huge crowds.
Subendu Sarkar creating Wordtoons
Video courtesy of Subendhu Sarkar
Interview of Subhendu Sarkar by Soumen Bhomick for Art Keeper
Video courtesy of the artist and Art Keeper channel on YouTube
The Artists Unite! Movement was a nationwide protest in March 2019 where artists across many genres came together in the same weekend across 13 India cities across India to stand up for democracy and against oppression and the politics of hate. In Delhi, the venue chosen was the grounds of the Red Fort. The monument made for a very relevant and dramatic and relevant backdrop since it is from the ramparts of the Red Fort that the Prime Minister addresses the nation on Independence Day.
Aadit Basu, a young artist who is trained as an architect, was one of the 300 artists and musicians who participated in this unique protest. His performance art called Ek Nagrik was a combination of site-specific installation art using some props and political activism using text (which he wrote in collaboration with Mudita Chauhan-Mubayi, who runs her own knowledge solutions company Quizcraft Global). The idea behind the five-sided, mirror-head was to portray him as a faceless, nameless, anonymous citizen and yet with a shared and distinct identity - an identity that can be assumed by the person who sees his/her own reflection. The performance installation pointed to several pertinent socio-political concerns affecting the common Indian citizen.
EK Nagrik texts by Aadit Basu and Mudita Chauhan-Mubayi
In this two-part essay, we have seen how the ever-changing socio-political environment has influenced some artists and impelled them to often take dissenting positions to raise our collective conscience. At a deeper level such influences can be when not only the content of art but also its forms are changed. For instance, among the four finalists of 2019’s Turner Prize (which was shared at the instance of the artists), was the artist Abu Hamdan, who worked with “ear-witness” accounts narrated by those oppressed by the Syrian regime to create a library of sound effects to recreate a horrific jail. Another example is that of Inder Salim, as we have seen in this essay, taking to flying flags from his rooftop owing to lockdown restrictions.
Changes in the structure of art patronage, the social strata and community the artist belongs to, and the publics for which the art is intended can equally have a significant impact on the form, content and features of art. And when collectors, gallerists and art critics – and in the case of films, distributors – begin to call the shots, such an influence can be rather disturbing. This sadly is seen far more in India as compared to what we see of contemporary art practice in the rest of the world. Indubitably, innovation, creativity and self-expression should be the driving force for art practice, but I do believe that there is an equally urgent need in our country to create more meaningful art and reset art discourses that have greater social relevance. Then alone will we be able to come anywhere close to bridging the current chasm between art and society.
(Cover image: Kulpreet Singh during a performance at the cremation grounds)
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Kulpreet Singh, Inder Salim, Aadit Basu and Subhendu Sarkar for sharing their artworks and discussing their work with me. I’m equally grateful to Aakshat Sinha for reaching out to Kulsoom Khan, Shiraz Husain (KhwaabTanhaCollective) and B Ajay Sharma (In_Process Live Art Practice), who very kindly shared their photographs with us for this essay. I would like to thank the publishers of Yoda Press who readily gave permission to share images from their nonfiction graphic book on Shaheen Bagh authored by Ita Mehrotra.
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
His art can be viewed on www.ranjankaul.com