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Between the playful and the political

A crossover genre with multiple influences, performance art continues to be intriguing, strange and full of surprises as it increasingly occupies more space in the arts arena in the country. Often immersive, amusing and rooted in radical acts, performance art is still considered relatively nascent in the Indian contemporary art scene. It eludes definition and sometimes baffles the public, leaving them wondering about what can really be called art. It also indicates the changing relationship between the spectator and artist into a participative and interactive one, going beyond gallery spaces and seeking new venues.

Challenging conventions

At a recent event in Delhi, the first performance art work of the Shalini Passi Art Foundation, curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, was hosted at the home of the founder – Shalini Passi, over lunch. A gathering of guests waited and watched as the banner switched, declaring: Lunch is Cancelled. After a short while, accompanied by a band of servers, performance artist Mithu Sen marched out of the house, announcing instructions in gibberish. All were dressed in uniforms matched with a protective pet cone around the neck. The host’s pet, a black pug, was also part of the procession, elaborately adorned with ornaments and settled in a baby carriage. As an act of ‘radical hospitality’, the servers settled at the table and proceeded to feed themselves awkwardly through the cones, while the guests watched.

Artist Mithu Sen

“For me, it is important to poke and disturb conventional power structures in my performances,” reflects the artist, “the concept of radical hospitality exposes the relationship between the host and guests as one that is farcical and stems from the power dynamic at play.” Radical hospitality has emerged as a powerful trope in Sen’s work over the years. It initially sparked up as a theme at a residency in New York where she invited people to visit her while she was making art, put up the show in her apartment and disappeared on the opening day, squarely challenging the institution of hospitality and the artifice it involves.

For Lunch is Cancelled, Sen noticed that the dog is an important member of the Passi household, and decided to use the dog collar as a metaphor for the irony of social relationships. “It is not just lunch that is cancelled, but the guest-host relationship, tolerance level, and hospitality all get troubled in the performance. The human beings at the table attempt to eat with a dog collar, foregoing their table manners, and the irony is that the collar is actually used to prevent dogs from eating!”

Sen’s works include paintings, performance art, and installations, exploring themes around social and cultural identities. Though an accomplished poet, Sen has chosen to use ‘non-language’ as a powerful and recurring tool in her performance works. “The act of un-languaging is a way for me to undo myself and avoid being bracketed into a system or identity. People don’t understand what I am saying, but I am still engaging people and challenging them to look at meaning in various ways.”

Radical moves

The innate ambiguity of what has alternately been termed performance art, conceptual art, and live art, is a characteristic feature of the genre. The absence of a specific structure and the ability to move across artistic medium has made performance art an open yet challenging experience to engage with. Emphasising the intense experience of the live presence of the artist, Sen reflects, “The body is where physical life and identities are experienced. In performance, there is a risk, and there is freedom.” Moving away from structures of the visual art gallery, performance art has emerged as a radical practice of pain, protest, and politics in a post-studio scenario. “It is a medium where the artist can be critical of the art market and also elude it,” says Sen.

On the other hand, unlike the narrative structures of drama and theatre, the unpredictability of performance largely lies in its aversion to script and rehearsal. Improvisation and participation emerge as pivotal elements leading a performance work. Renowned performance artist Inder Salim says, “Performance art is a term that keeps on revealing but does not tell us exactly what it is. It is open to different interpretations – constantly opening up to newer possibilities and ideas. It is never a single, monochromatic brush stroke. Performance art can be seen as a haze, mixing different dust, through which we see a fraction; a state where we constantly confuse ourselves.”

The artist adopted his performance pseudonym ‘Inder Salim’ to reflect a hybrid cultural identity. He uses the term ‘harkat’ for his performance art pieces. The term literally means ‘act’ or ‘escapade’. He points out that the term is culture-specific, it adds up to indicate a “little action, something mischievous, an act that has the potential to dislodge, that can outwit, that can arrive at an intervention, pass by silently or in an unpredictable way.” The artist’s interpretation focuses on the two cornerstones of performance art—play and politics.

Moving the audience

Performance art seeks to effectively transform the dynamics between the artist and the audience. From passive viewers in an art gallery or spectators in a theatre show, the audience become active participants or collaborators in most performance art works. The works are usually engaging, interactive, often meant to disturb people to come out of their comfort zones to think, act and explore their own mind.

In a recent performance at the India Art Fair, artist Amol K. Patil’s work challenged social discrimination. Curated by Sitara Chowfla, his performance involved street sweepers and other workers from Dalit communities. The artist says, “I chose to invite them because the people who do these jobs are mostly regarded as untouchable.” The participants blew soap bubbles in the open-air space, while the attendees mostly played with the bubbles without paying attention to the caste identities of the performers who were blowing the bubbles. “The performance was intended to be welcoming, extending an invitation to the bystanders to join and enjoy playing with the bubbles, at the same time it addressed issues of untouchability and social hierarchy. The art world is not just for one particular class and should encourage diversity and tolerance.”

Patil, a trained visual artist from Mumbai, decided to explore the genre of performance art after being deeply moved as a participant in a series of workshop sessions by renowned performance artist Nikhil Chopra a few years ago. He searched out the old Marathi scripts written by his late father, an activist and theatre artist, moulding them as material for his performance art work, aligning personal memories with larger political questions.

The connections between theatre and performance art are finely balanced yet divergent. While both are anchored in the live presence of the performer, drama finds its source in a script while performance art negates the idea of a rehearsed narrative altogether. Drawn into this dilemma between the two genres, Patil recalls a period when he stopped performing for a while since he was torn about his approach to the work. For him, “theatre is about story-telling, while performance art is about creating situations.” Reflecting on the process of creating a performance art work he says, “I have a basic concept and structure in mind but I never practice or rehearse my performances. The body adapts itself into different public spaces and this has to be spontaneous, it cannot be determined earlier.”

Challenging identities

Arts patron Shalini Passi on supporting performance art

Most artists believe that the ‘realness’ of performance art works can address concerns about daily life issues that we often avoid talking about as a community. Nagpur-based Shweta Bhattad is known for taking up themes related to gender violence and abuse. Her performance art work series titled Faith was staged at inconceivable venues ranging from garbage dumps and iron mines to construction sites and in-the-air hoardings. Reflecting on her work on female foeticide she says, “I did this performance for each girl child who is murdered, dumped in landfills, drains, garbage and hence I decided to do this performance in a garbage space at Nagpur in a large clear bag full of air, which was in the form of chocolate wrapping to make the statement that the female body is not a product of sale like goods or entertainment. There is ‘faith’ that one-day people will change their perception of women and this world will become a better place for a woman to live freely, with all the respect, individuality, equality that a human being deserves.” In this performance, Bhattad remained inside the bag as the perplexed bystanders were invited to watch or join her in writing the word ‘faith’ on the walls of the bag.

In another work, she revisited the image of ‘Bharat Mata’ and addressed the issue of fear that resides in a woman’s body as she moves around the city. “We need to think about why women are still so scared in public spaces in cities and the causes of gender violence. As a woman, I feel this fear in my body and I want people to think about what it would take for an Indian woman to feel fearless and free on the streets.”

The disruptive, dramatic and chronic state of confusion produced by performance art is creating new equations between the artists and viewers. The artistic explorations are led by a search for new idioms of expression that would question, challenge, and open up dialogues on politics, society, and culture.

What is the significance of performance work being the first one for the Foundation?

The Foundation is poised to articulate the avant-garde as a trope to critically look at emergent new practices within art, fashion, design, craft, architecture and jewellery. The performance perfectly fit to question the ideas with the spectrum of hospitality that disrupts the relationship between the guest and host. Therefore, Lunch is Cencelled served as a suitable opening for the Foundation and what it aspires to do.

What kind of performance art works can we look forward to at the Foundation in the future?

The whole beauty of performance art is exploring the interaction between artist and audience – then the response of the viewer becomes critical to the piece, causing it to take on unexpected new forms, which, of course, causes the audience to react further. Prior to Mithu’s performance, we revealed very little about what it would entail; it was so fun to watch the reactions of the guests as Mithu led this marching band of performers around them!

What, in your opinion, is the importance of performance art within the larger framework of contemporary art in India?

Performance is a particularly interesting subject to explore in India, given that the systematic performance of rituals is so deeply embedded in our culture. But I would say that the idea of performance as art is not yet widely understood or acknowledged. That’s not to say it’s new – Bhupen Khakhar was challenging the conventional interaction between artist and audience in the early 1970s! However, it is something that has developed on wider scale in more recent years, and I hope it will continue to do so. It was great to see performances by artists such as Amol Patil at India Art Fair; I’m so pleased the Fair used this platform to showcase more subversive and unexpected work like this.

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