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Performances Rendering ‘Collective Existence’

by Alka Chadha Harpalani

The three art performances of Inder Salim, Dimple B. Shah and Mukesh K. Zile Singh at the recently concluded Jaipur Art Summit enacted to propel greater awareness and concern for environmental degradation also mirrors the individual visions of each artist. The performances were curated by Dimple B. Shah for the Summit, which was held in association with the Vrindavan Research Institute, Braj Sanskriti Sanskaran: Yug yugeen Shri Krishna – Vyapti aur sandharbh from 7 to 11 December 2021 in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. The event included many activities like painting workshops, musical performances, folk dance, book releases, saanjhi kala, and so on.

Each of the simple, yet profound acts imbued with deep meanings are a quintessence of performance art. Unplanned and random materials, selectively picked from their personal box of experiences and observations, while personifying the artist’s intention, have aided the expressions. The acts reveal the ugly truth of deforestation with towering concrete buildings, climate change, pollution hazards and above all the insensitivity of people towards ecological concerns. The acts speak eloquently when one gets involved in the visual dialogue.

Engulfed in a black robe, Inder Salim explores the play of the subconscious mind through his performance Between Doors and Pores. The act includes an interaction with the audience – a question-answer session on art and philosophy. Sitting and intermingling with the audience becomes a part of the performance itself. He describes his concept with reference to The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Casteneda:

“The Art of Dreaming describes the steps needed to master the control and consciousness of dreams. The Toltecs of Don Juan Matus' lineage believed that there are seven barriers to awareness, which they termed `The Seven Gates of Dreaming' or obstacles to awareness. In The Art of Dreaming Castaneda describes extensively how a state called ‘Total Awareness’ can be achieved by means of dreaming by overcoming these obstacles. Four of the ‘Gates’ are discussed in The Art of Dreaming. What follows is not so much a technique in achieving lucidity, but rather the practical application of lucid dreaming. By acting in a certain way while dreaming, one can cause psychosomatic changes in one's being, including an alternate way of dying. What follows is a point-form summary of the philosophy surrounding Toltec dreaming as a way of ‘sorcery that is a return to Paradise’."

The above two photos are courtesy of the artist Dimple B. Shah and the photographer Umashankar Purohit

Dimple B. Shah’s performance, From Existentialism to Extinction – Air, Water, Land and Living Being embraces numerous layers in her act. While performing the rituals we see her with an empty lotus pond loaded with clay compost, shielded with grill and haunting polyphonic mourning sounds, and clutching a monkey sculpture. Progressively coming out and entering the second cage with rabbits; standing silently, constructing a connection with plants and animals; she then lets rabbits quietly play on her robe. All this is followed by the artist sitting on the mound of dried leaves spread over the ground. It gives goose bumps to the viewers, as they and the students sprinkle mehandi over her, symbolically signifying natural healing therapy using the organic material.

The land of Temple and land of Holy Basil Vrindhavan is the ancient Sanskrit name of the city, Vṛndāvana, which comes from its groves of vṛndā (Holy basil) and vana (a grove or forest) is also not far from clutches of Environmental crises and destruction of old trees affecting living animals and birds like peacock, birds and lot of animals like monkeys. Modern development and illegal construction of human settlements and occupation of the land has led to the disappearance of the Yamuna belt and several historical sites. The unauthorized construction of buildings and covering of river beds and expansion of human settlements have drastically affected the ecosystem of this small place and life. Both the city's environment and cultural heritage are severely affected by environmental pollution. We are still to come out of the pandemic and comprehend and deal with the crises. Water, air and land are all getting polluted. A recent picture of the Yamuna River contaminated with froth and foam went viral. This keeps repeating every year when the factories surrounding the Yamuna belt dispose of untreated contaminated chemical water to the river. Unless there is strict action taken by the government to regulate the disposing of chemicals into the river, or any other river in the country, this will keep repeating. The air quality is deteriorating in every city to the extent that it has become poisonous to breathe in and is detrimentally impacting the living conditions of all living beings. As an artist we respond to the call of nature during this critical period through our work. Artists engage with and subtly respond to the community and space through narratives and metaphoric or poetic actions,” says Dimple.

Mukesh K. Zile Singh’s performance titled Roots, Trees and Human is a thoughtful, psychological insight into the environmental issues, veiled in simplification, with the use of intriguing props that charge up the space. He is seen with his face concealed with silver foil and a tape, gripping a burnt log and dragging it across the ground, then losing his grip to cause the log to drop at a point, and then yet carrying on with considerable effort. Restless drawings of the circles with coal, leaving a black mark on the track, the lingering reverberating sounds of deep breaths and panting due to choking – they all point to the close connection between humans and nature. Through his act he highlights the disconnection between the two, and human apathy to the bitter consequences of deforestation because of the use of products that are not eco-friendly, thus creating a horrifying world for themselves to live in.

It is no wonder that trees have captured the human imagination since the beginning of time. Their strength, deeply rooted in the Earth, is an inspiration. Their trunk and branches are a wonder of nature because they stand sturdy and impenetrable most of the time, yet they can flex and sway with the wind when needed. Since the beginning of time, humans have had a sense that trees are sentient beings just like us, that they can feel pain that they bleed when they are hurt. We can feel a tree’s vibrational energy when placing our hand upon its bark. With their deep roots, trees carry significant energy from the ground. We naturally feel peace and serenity when walking in the shade of trees. Trees are considered sacred in many cultures and trees are worshiped universally by ancient peoples in every corner of the globe. As an artist, our role is to document and critically look at the socio-cultural consequences of environmental changes and find different ways to communicate this to the audience,” says Mukesh describing his act.

The three performances echo the artists’ responses and contemplation to happenings all around and their helplessness towards the environmental changes taking place. Their distinctive acts are dialogues involving the audience and bridge the gap between the artist and the viewer – they may be separate actualities but yet appear amalgamated. There is directness and simplicity in expression and the spatial thoughtfulness, openness and the visual spells they cast can be readily identified with and understood, thus creating a bond between the performer and the audience. Taken together they force the onlookers to delve deep into each performance and urges us towards a collective existence.

(All images are courtesy of the respective artists, unless mentioned otherwise)


Dr Alka Chadha Harpalani is an artist, researcher, writer, poet, and has worked as a professor. She is involved in an e-learning project by MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource and Development) at Dayalbagh University, Agra. Editor of the journal Artistic Narration (Anu Books) for over 10 years and recipient of many prestigious awards and honours, she has held and participated in many all India and international exhibitions, and published research papers and articles in renowned art journals, newspapers and magazines.


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