A cry from the art: In the backdrop of political turmoil, Indian art turns its gaze inwards to the country's diverse folk, subjugated and alternative narratives

Indulge reports on the Serendipity Arts Festival...
A photograph from Sharbendu De's Imagined Homeland
A photograph from Sharbendu De's Imagined Homeland

As the nation erupts and boils over with protests against the new Citizen Amendment Act by the government, a larger dialogue about labels, homelands and prejudices emerges and the nation yearns and introspects about identity. In this atmosphere, the recently concluded Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa, through interdisciplinary and cross-cultural exchange brings forth and ponders the topics of identity, inclusivity and diversity in a congruent manner. Indulge spots trends and common threads that the festival had to offer. 

Scholar and noted cultural historian Jyotindra Jain, who curated shows at the fest, observes, “I agree that there is a sharp focus on identity in most of the exhibitions, which for my feeling, has certainly to do with the socio-political contexts of our times, especially that of the rise of various brands of nationalism, which create schisms between social groups and lead to violence. This aspect often finds place in contemporary artistic expressions.”

Counter arguments
The dominant narrative voices in the country are often criticised for alienation and exclusion. In this context, cultural theorist and critic Nancy Adajania curated the show, Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture. “CCCC presents a constellation of dynamic art-making practices in India from the late-1940s onwards, which have had little or nothing to do with the dominant narrative of Indian art history,” she explains to us. She adds, “CCCC  looks in the ‘wrong’ places — at magic shows, trade fairs, nightclubs, architects’ marginalia and filmmakers’ archives, activist collectives and inter-disciplinary workshops, design schools and youth subcultures, to produce a series of ‘pre-histories’ for India’s new media art between the 1940s and 1980s.” The show featured installations of the magician PC Sorcar’s use of the media of his day, Neel Chattopadhyaya’s presentation about indie rock bands in India, and screenings of 
Kiran David’s edgy underground film, Junk (1986) featuring poet Jeet Thayil, as well as Akbar Padamsee’s first film, Syzygy

Dr Jain offers an alternative and critical viewing of popular Indian imagery, and their hand in the construction of social and national identities through the exhibition titled, Image Journeys: The Conquest of the World as Picture. Speaking about this topic he says, “The exhibition will show approximately 200 images and objects, including nineteenth and twentieth century engravings, chromolithographs, oleographs, photographs, calendars, trade and product labels, postcards, film posters, textiles, and porcelain figures. 

The exhibition’s underlying concept demonstrates how the printing and mass circulation of images widely influenced the nature of belief and worship in India and eventually even acted as powerful vehicle in shaping the independence movement and the diverse ideologies of patriotism. Mass manufacture and consumption of popular imagery played a major role in the construction of cultural, social and national identities. India’s social, religious and political transformation rode on the back of this explosive image mobilisation.”

Lending wings to voices
In an attempt to define an identity that is representative of the multitudes of our cultures, giving voices to minorities in terms of caste and communities took foreground in many of the installations and workshops. Look Outside The House, curated by Sudarshan Shetty, aimed to present indigenous inventions and informal industries. The project showcased an installation by Chamar Studios, that displayed the tools of the trade used by the Dalit leather making community in India. The same project also featured sheets of text from Jugnu, which is a hand-drawn or hand-written magazine with content contributed by children from the red light areas of Muzaffarpur.

Decidedly political, the play Accidental Death of an Anarchist was performed under the series, Spotlight on the Margins, curated by Arundhati Nag. The series has the aim of dissipating normative stereotypes and hegemonic practices, foregrounding the marginal realities of the prejudiced. The play, originally written by Italian playwright Dario Fo, was performed by members of the Chhara community from Gujarat, which was classified as a denotified tribe and bore the label ‘community of thieves’.

A lens-based exhibition, Imagined Documents, flits between reality and fiction, and while they are not theme-based, they reference social or political moments. Ravi Agarwal, who curated the photography exhibition, explains, “There is free expression in all the works, and when the time is really rough, like right now, it is the most difficult thing to find a voice of expression. That’s how art works. They are also very relatable at a personal level. For example, Iranian artist Azadeh Akhlaghi’s big cinematic images could be set anywhere, at any time. Her invocations of violence in universities, could be happening in India, a few days ago.” 

One stand-out show from Imagined Documents was lens-based artist Sharbendu De’s Imagined Homeland, which documents the Lisu tribe, who live without roads, electricity, schools, doctors and phone networks in the Myanmar-Arunachal Pradesh border area. The images tell the tale of these people by harnessing mythological symbolism through the cinematic stills.

Nancy also screened Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes (1988) as part of CCCC. “I had selected the film before the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. In the light of the extreme repression and lockdown in the valley, I thought that Kaul’s film would benefit from a discourse with current Kashmiri voices that speak directly to the unfolding crisis,” she adds. Nancy also invited the band Alif to show its music video Jhelumas (2016), which alludes to the psychological trauma endured by the women of Kashmir, who had to live with persistent violence since the late-1980s. It is a loss of sensibility imposed by politics, and yet, Jhelumas articulates a new poetic sensibility of grief, instead of being diminished, she says. 

Regional inflections 
A common thread across installations, we noticed, was a defined focus on folk and hyper regional cultures, be it in music, or in ceramics, where the modern is juxtaposed with the indigenous or traditional. Curated by Vivek Menezes, the project Mundo Goa is shaped along the history of India’s Western coastline. Azulejo 2019 displayed the work of 25 Goa-based artists, who interpreted and refashioned the iconic Islamic-Iberian ceramic tradition to suit their 21st century preoccupations. Shadow Play by Anurupa Roy explored shadow puppetry and oral narratives from folk tales and mythology in India, including leather shadow puppets from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. More folk art forms like Jharkahnd’s Chhau dance and Gujarat’s Maher Raas, were also performed. The organisers stated that this year’s dance performances particularly emphasise identity as an explorative subject. “It is time that these folk forms receive their due recognition outside their state, as do the semi-classical tribal forms,” says curator and dancer Leela Samson.

The discipline of culinary arts witnessed workshops, talks and tastings, and according to the organisers, this year’s focus was on local produce and regional flavours. Restaurateur Prahlad Sukhtankar, the man behind Panaji’s The Black Sheep Bistro, offered a series of uniquely Goan culinary experiences, from a Mahua workshop to Goan bread making. Culinary Legacies, curated by chef Rahul Akerkar, was a series of workshops with some of India’s brightest, young ‘thinking’ chefs. 

“The chefs and food passionate people share their vision, to see how and where they are taking our rich legacy of cuisine, ingredients, herbs and spices — expressing them for today,” Rahul shared. Another  talk by OOO Farms highlighted their work with tribal farmers from the Sahyadri region in Maharashtra — to protect, preserve and revive India’s ancient grains.

Nancy concludes with a hope that in the coming year, artists will approach their practices with an expanded political consciousness. “In the current situation, where anybody who questions the government is considered anti-national, my show suggests that we reclaim the diverse histories ignored or repressed by the dogmas of art history on the one side, and by ultra-nationalism on the other. The  idea is not to fetishise these lost histories. It is to make them relevant to the urgencies of our times,” she sums up. 

Twitter: @anaghzzz

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