Saturday, 1 May 1999

Sthalapuranagalu I Curatorial essay I exhibition of public site specific art curated by the artist I May 1999 Bangalore


At the end of the millennium, Bangalore seemed to illustrate the Third World cliché of a small town breaking out with sudden violence into a metropolis. Piles of rubble, dug up roads, real estate mafias, crime: an indescribable chaos, seemingly shapeless, with incessant destruction and never-ending construction - everything half-built, half-conceived, careering along with a ruthless brashness …  but full of vitality. 

I wondered if we as artists then, could intervene to break the mind numbing exhaustion of negotiating this city: to somehow excavate its histories, its memories and its associations, to experience an exhilaration of the senses and to pin down images in the fragmented and amorphous quality of life here - not in a flaccid, sentimental way, but with critical thought and study, by talking about things in the strong sensual language of art, with all the rawness of the direct physical encounter-

The title of the show Sthalapuranagalu, which translates from the Kannada to mean Place Legends, usually refers to the tales woven around holy sites in a vivid and popular style. At the end of 1998, I thought of working on a project with three artists whose work interested me for their performative and interactive qualities, to make large public installations which would converse with three symbolic places in the city. The sites we chose were the Ulsoor Lake in the Cantonment area, the Statue of Queen Victoria at Mahatma Gandhi Road and the Samudaya House at Basavangudi, all important markers of different histories. The actual process of organizing the show, making the works and getting the funding would also be way of understanding the working of the city.

We met every Friday evening at five o’clock over a period of six months at the Ravindra Kalakshetra canteen to discuss ideas over coffee. During that time the artists were making sketches, researching the history of each site and trying to negotiate the labyrinthine bureaucracy for permissions.

The Kalakshetra canteen itself has been a legendary adda for Kannada writers, theatre people and intellectuals. In the early 80s, theatre director Prasanna had introduced me to Dr. UR Ananthamurthy, Ramachandra Sharma, BV Karanth, DR Nagaraj and Ki Ram Nagaraja,  who used to meet there in the evenings before moving on for a drink [‘gundu’] at Mobo’s around the corner or the Press Club at Cubbon Park. When  JC Road was made one way in the 90s, the adda somehow fell apart.

I spent an evening with economist Narendra Pani, making notes during a long conversation about Bangalore’s history…

“...…Bangalore was originally a military town and a textile producing and trading centre dealing with cotton and silk. The main city used to stretch from Tipu’s fort at the South to the present Majestic area, which had a main street called Doddapete or the Big Market,  with streets leading from it named after the occupation of the different castes living there, or the goods they sold, like Aralepet [Cottonpet] or Balepet [for bangles ] -  the Muslim communities were also part of this. Each caste had its own policing system, as well as a system for the area as a whole - and  the immigrants like the Rajputs who were connected with the textile trade, or the Thigalas, Tamil market gardeners, were absorbed into the Kannada speaking local culture -

- It  was also a strategic military centre, and the first metal encased rockets in the world were made in Tipu Sultan’s time in Kankanhall near the city - in fact during the Mysore Wars in the late 18th century, Mysore could be considered  more technically advanced than the British army in many ways -

…During the 3rd Mysore War, Cornwallis had come down to India after losing to Washington in America. He found that he could not make a deal with Tipu in Mysore, as Tipu was already allied with the French. Mysore had already trounced the British and pushed them back to Fort St George in the first two Mysore Wars. Since the East India Company was bankrupt, Cornwallis raised an army of local mercenaries and personally led the war during the Battle for Bangalore. Bangalore was defeated in 1792, after which the Company decided to move back, taking two of Tipu’s sons as hostages and giving back to Tipu part of his kingdom, now known as Old Mysore. In the 4th Mysore War, Tipu was killed and the British won…

The British now wanted a part of India which was not under the East India Company but directly under the Crown, so they set up an army cantonment at Bangalore in 1807. The Cantonment stretched from Ulsoor Lake with Kempe Gowda’s tower as the highest point with the present MEG area as the heart of it. The Cubbon Park divided the Old City and the Cantonment. To make the area completely separate and to isolate it from the Mysore State, they cut it off culturally, legally and economically from the rest of Bangalore, so much so that it did not need physical walls. This was done at various levels - the entire population of the Cantonment was brought in from outside the state, mainly Tamilians and Telugus, and the official language was made Tamil. The legal system was completely different - since the Cantonment came directly under the Crown, legal cases went straight to London.

- By 1799, Mysore was given back to the Wodeyar family to rule. Wellesley, [who later became the Duke of Wellington] made his career in Mysore by leading one of the victorious flanks in the Fourth Mysore War during the assault on Srirangapatna. When the war was won, from a Colonel he was soon made Governor of Mysore -

Tipu’s Dewan Purnaiah was reinstated under the Wodeyars. But once his  term ended, the rulers became heavily indebted to the Palegars or local chieftains, resulting in the British taking direct control in 1831. In 1833, when Mark Cubbon was made Governor of Mysore, he  set about re-aligning its socio- economic structure by introducing the British administration and legal system. In urban Bangalore, Cubbon split up the old caste- based judicial, executive and policing system and so countered the powerful caste groupings in the city. Cubbon was in charge of the City, while the Cantonment still came under the Crown… 

After the 1857 War of Independence when the whole of India came under the Crown,  the British found that in both City and Cantonment areas they were completely bogged down by legal issues because of direct rule and decided to restore the Old Mysore and City areas to the Maharaja…

…In the 1850s, a British woolen manufacturer, Binny, who had set up a unit in the Cantonment, could not compete with the blankets made by free prison labour, so he lobbied for concessions with the Maharaja and was given land outside old Bangalore beyond Cottonpet. The Binny Mills was established  and labour moved there, forming settlements. However, by the turn of the century, this area was struck by the plague…

The bureaucracy then fled from the City and two areas were created to house them - the lower bureaucracy moved to Malleswaram, while Basavangudi was created for the higher bureaucracy.

Bangalore developed as the administrative centre with the Dewans ruling first from Tipu Sultan’s palace and then from the Attara Katcheri or 18 offices. When the British went for direct rule, the early Dewans were brought in from outside Mysore. This created an independent power base in Bangalore away from the capital. Local resentment against these outsiders from Kumbakonam led to early Kannada vs. Tamil battles, which were about places of origin rather than language. Later only residents of Mysore could have entry into the Civil Service -

 Around 1910, M.Visveswarayya, who was then Chief Engineer, set up the Mysore State Economic Conference, arguing for large scale state investment to provide the basis for industrial development. A modernist , his famous slogan was ‘Industrialize or Perish’. In 1912, he became the Dewan, and inspite of constant administrative interference by the British, he is known to have diverted World War I resources for local development schemes…  

The Non- Brahmin Movement, supported by the Muslims, began around this time.  As Dewan, Visveswarayya was against reservations, but the movement was supported by the Maharaja and among its leaders was his relative Kantaraj Urs. The Miller committee headed by Leslie Miller, the ‘Chief Court’ of Mysore, produced a pro-reservation report in 1917, which included Muslims and Christians, reporting directly to the Maharaja. Visveswarayya, who was completely against this, was eased out in 1918 -

Visveswarayya, against much opposition, had set up the Shivasamudram Power Station which was one of the earliest in India and which, apparently, made excellent use of gravity. In 1926, Mirza Ismail, who came from a family of Persian horse traders and had grown up with the Maharaja in the palace, was appointed Dewan. He immediately set about implementing Visveswarayya’s controversial ideas under Krishna Raja Wodeyar the IVth and the Krishna Raja Sagara dam was completed at this time. The intelligent and forward looking Maharaja had angered the bureaucracy by  allowing Harijan entry into temples. Gandhi is said to have referred to his rule as ‘Ramarajya’ when he visited Mysore in the 1930s -

When Krishna Raja Wodeyar died in the 1940s and Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar ascended the throne, it was a period of coming to terms with democracy and  the rulers were preoccupied with how to deal with the Nationalist Movement. However, there was no strong Congress movement in Mysore and though the ‘Palace Chalo’ agitation was organized by the Congress in 1942, it had no sting, and was not really against the Maharaja -

After Independence, during the Second Plan in 1955, when the government considered investing in cities with heavy public sector industries, Bangalore was the obvious choice because of Old Mysore’s  public sector tradition. Planned growth was not as much as expected in the 1960s… In the early 1970s, small scale units were set up to supply components to the public sector and this was really the highest period of growth, of population as well as real estate. In the 1980s and early 1990s Bangalore had a large working class which was highly unionized and succeeded in getting organized labour into the middle class -

At the same time, Bangalore had a long history of technical education - Visveswarayya had got the Tatas to invest in the Indian Institute of Science in 1917 and by the late 1980s and early 1990s, the large technical manpower available had created a workforce for information technology……”

Shamala:  Ulsoor lake

Bangalore was once known as Kalyananagara, the city of lakes or kalyanis. The city has a ridge and valley topography; its lakes are basically irrigated tanks to catch rain water. Like pre-historic towns, Bangalore grew around ponds and tanks which were then connected by channels or karanjis, which also watered the orchards and gardens of the city, even till the 1960s. The tank irrigation system itself is considered unique to South India. 

The lakes were once one of the most  beautiful features of the city.  The writer DV Gundappa, describing the visit of Prince Albert in 1889 wrote:

‘As the Royal Party got down at the Railway Station and proceeded by horse- drawn coaches toward the city, a grand sight greeted it at the Totadappa Choultry corner. The tank in front, the Dharmambudhi tank was a broad sheet of cool clear water with a float [theppa] gently gliding upon it. The float carried a party of Bharata Natyam dancers in colourful attire. As the processions turned to the East and took the tank bund, there was another delight - in the small park to the  South of the tank bund, now called the Municipal Park [the Chik Lal Bagh]. With Theppa, dancing and music to the left and Nagaswaram pipe music to the right, the Royal party should have felt as in a fairy land.’

With the growth of the city, and the introduction of piped water from the Kaveri river, the tanks no longer need to supply water or support agriculture. The streams and channels have dried up. The tank beds, once seen as damp and mosquito-ridden sites for slums, now have office buildings like the Millers Tank or rich residential suburbs like Koramangala.

The Kempe Gowda family which founded Bangalore constructed the Ulsoor lake, the temple and the village around it. The Survey of India of 1894 says that Ulsoor Lake, then known as Alasuru, extended over an area of 125 acres and was constructed during the second half of the 16th century. The  tanks needed to be regularly desilted and dredged with considerable labour. Somerset Payne, writing in 1914, has testified to the trouble taken by the British to keep the Ulsoor tank clean. He says when ‘weeds of a noxious character accumulated, it was drained and burnt…’

Shamala, who is interested in ecological and environmental issues and these in-between places of the city, wanted to reclaim the history of the lake, now toxic and dead, and create a sacred and contemplative space by using natural materials and the elements of earth, water and sky.

Her meditative, poetic sculpture made of bamboo, beeswax, rope and water hyacinth, floated in a pool of water in the middle of the large horse-shoe shaped island in the lake. The journey by boat from the clubhouse on the shore across the water and the walk around the island in the shade of its rain trees, through the rustling undergrowth of its ferns and plants, the sound of birdsong and the splashing of the water, became intermingled  with the experience of her work…

“……My work operates between the transitory ritual of making and breaking a site specific installation. It is a performance creating and gradually letting go of it. Generally, my work  assimilates the philosophy of recycling, transcendence and fragility, where the earth’s physical and atmospheric features become the medium and the subject matter -

The work is also a voyage through the process of preparation, celebration and offering, the important modes in which Indians have offered prayers to the unseen forces that control them in a peculiar way…

- I started working on water bodies after I went to Udaipur in 1997.  People  pray and bathe in the lakes and functions take place there,  but the  lakes were also extremely polluted,  sewage and waste waters flowed into them -

 I began seeing Bangalore as a city of lakes and met environmentalists like Mr Suresh Heblikar and Mr. Lakshman Rau -

Ulsoor Lake has a long connection with Bangalore, it belonged to the Kempe Gowda family. I started  studying the history of the lake and approached the army, who refused to give me permission to work on the lake - they thought it would be controversial because of the entry of newspapers and publicity. Half the lake belonged to the army, half to the Horticulture and Tourism Department -  it took me six months to get permission from the Horticulture Department!

When I went around the lake by boat, I found the largest horse-shoe shaped island the most interesting. You had to go by boat to see the work inside the island - and from that spot, you could see the whole lake…

Ulsoor lake used to be the main source of water for the area, all the lakes were inter connected  by channels. Bangalore is a wetland and lakes were constructed over the centuries. Sankey Tank was made by the British - each lake has its own history. The lake is not only a scenic spot but  important for temperature regulation and as a breathing space - it supplies water and helps in storing ground water. These values were important for me -

For the work in the gallery, I wanted to give the water back to the people in sample bottles, like the bottled mineral water that people drink , which would be unnecessary if water bodies were maintained. This sample bottle was like a museum piece, a sample of dead water, titled ‘Bihisti’ and advertised as ‘free’-  because the public only notices heavily advertised ‘products’. During 1875-77 there was a great drought in Bangalore when bihistis or water carriers sold water and saved the people. I designed a logo for the bottle, a horse shoe shaped ‘island’ with an ‘I’ in the centre - I, as in each one of us who is responsible for the spoiling of this water.

I did not want to pollute the lake further with the structure, so I used eco-friendly materials -  bamboo and coir ropes, beeswax, and the water hyacinth plants on the lake. Beeswax is a very pharmaceutical material which is used for healing. The hyacinth plant can destroy the lake but can be re-used too. In Bangladesh they re-use the plant as cattle feed and for making fabric and rope -

The bamboo  structure measured 40ft x 68 ft. It was the first time I had worked on this scale - it was worked in three parts, then tied together later. It was difficult to swim in the lake because of the highly polluted water but the Tourism Department gave me a boat so that we could work from it -

- There were three people helping me. Nandeesh, my classmate; Cheluviah, a friend who owns a truck, transported the material at low cost. He also worked on the structure and brought another friend along who volunteered to help -

We had to transport 20ft long bamboos ranging from very thick to very thin from Bamboo Bazaar, and then from the main boathouse to the island, which was very difficult. For tying, I first used construction workers, which didn’t work out, so Nandeesh and I retied the bamboos.  We had to work out different knots and ways of tying to make it really tight. We first started tying on the island and moved it halfway to the site in the centre of the water and worked  there. The bamboo becomes heavy in the water after a day and becomes difficult to handle…

At the same time I started casting heart- shaped beeswax forms, shaped from the balloons sold at the boat club. I used the heart as a popular symbol for caring, the structure of the sculpture came from the thread games we played with our fingers as children -

It took eight to ten days to make the work. I learnt a lot of things technically, like how to work on water. It was raining heavily during the time, it was dangerous to work on the island and we were marooned there several times. The sculpture was moored to a row of stones in  the middle of the water.

The environment was as important as the sculpture. I wanted the work to be subtle and not too dramatic - it was basically about exploring a relationship with water …

I left the sculpture in the lake for three months - the decay and growth in the work is part of it. Finally the hyacinth took over the structure; birds used to come and sit on it. The work kept changing with the wind and the rain, the beeswax hearts would be carried away to different parts of the lake, on some days the sculpure would be covered with plastic bags and debris which we had to remove……”

Ramesh Kalkur: The Victoria Statue

The statues of Bangalore have historically been centres of violent controversies.  When it was first installed in the 1980s, there was a hue and cry that the figure of the late Karnataka chief minister Kengal Hanumanthiah did not resemble him at all and that it was a dishonour to his memory. It was finally replaced and so was the statue of another late chief minister, Devaraj Urs, in front of the Vidhana Soudha, for the same reasons. It appears that the government hastily commissions these portraits on populist grounds and they are made in a hurry. However, there seems to be no real outcry when the figure has no relevance to local communal and casteist power politics, like the ungainly statues of  Nehru or Rajiv Gandhi, seen as distant national figures.

The most recurring controversies seem to concern the statues of the 14th century Veerashaiva saint Basavanna, who established the powerful Lingayat sect and the Dalit leader Ambedkar in Gulbarga in the far north of the state, where Lingayats routinely defile the Ambedkar statue, and Dalits routinely defile Basavanna. Some years ago there was an incident near Bangalore when the statue of Dr Ambedkar at the medical college campus in KG Halli was allegedly vandalised in the night by the drunken son of a state minister, who happened to be a Dalit herself from another faction. 

In Bangalore, the bronze painted fibre-glass statue of the saint-poet Basavanna at Race Course Circle, shown as a martial figure on horseback, has been  the centre of a bitter quarrel between the two factions of the Basava Samiti which commissioned the statue, which was only funded by the government. The defeated faction felt it would have been  more appropriate if he was shown as a Shivasharana or devotee worshipping the linga, or as a poet reading from a palm leaf manuscript. 

Statues map the politics of a city. For many years now, the figure of Thiruvalluvar the Tamil poet, erected near Ulsoor lake, a  predominantly Tamil area, has been wrapped up in plastic sheets like a work by Christo because of protests from Kannada nationalists. They have been demanding that in return, a statue of Sarvagna the  Kannada poet  be put up in Tamil Nadu… And while there are a plethora of colonial statues still erect, there are no statues at all of Hyder Ali or Tipu Sultan in the city, not even in Lalbagh that Hyder created. Queen Victoria and Rani Kittur Chennammma, who fought against the British in the 1857 War, are the only figures of women.

The Victoria Statue, ‘erected by public subscription’ and unveiled by Prince Albert in 1906, stands resplendently opposite the Mahatma Gandhi statue at the edge of Cubbon Park, which divides the Cantonment from the City. Strangely, the statue has not been put away in disgrace but instead occupies a prominent place in the centre, in the hub of the business district. It is at a spectacular location where three major roads of Bangalore meet. 

Ramesh Kalkur, who saw the city as defined and mapped by its statues and hoardings, which he calls ‘the urban screen’, commissioned  cinema hoarding painters to create a huge painted tableau around the figure of Victoria, in which twelve important statues of Bangalore dialogue with each other in a work he called ‘The Royal Feast’. The tableau, described as ‘a homage to the leaders’ is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the political history of the state as revealed by its own monuments and visual culture. 

Originally planned to be installed as a spectacular hoarding around Victoria, it was modified and finally exhibited in the Chitra gallery of the Kannada Bhavana because we were not permitted to use the site. However, the Kannada Bhavana building itself, housing the State Culture Department and  filled with official government portraits, became an appropriately ironical site for the work, which stretched across a whole wall of the gallery like a giant political mural. 

The Royal Feast
“……I used to go and sit at the Victoria statue in the evenings for three or four days, then started taking photographs from various angles. I come from a painting background and the first challenge was to imagine it as a three- dimensional object. Initially I thought of extending Victoria’s robe - each fold would be a section that could be opened, revealing Bangalore’s  history with images from different periods  drawn or painted on each unit. But I  thought the installation would be too complicated -

From seeing the photographs, I realized that one finger was missing from the hand of Victoria. I then met historian Janaki Nair, who gave me some reference books. She said during the anti- Dunkel Draft agitation in 1994 the statue was tarred and perhaps the finger was damaged when it was cleaned later. So I thought I would make a huge finger to show colonial dominance - especially since the statue is in the Cantonment area where the British troops were stationed -

I started working directly on the photographs with acrylic paints and photo colour,  they became images in themselves.

Later, I thought the growing finger idea was too abstract and conceptual for the site, which is at Cubbon Park where crowds of people come to visit.  I decided to use what the public calls ‘art’ to get across - so I chose banner painting. When I went searching for a concept to use banner painting, I saw Cubbon Park as one of the major picnic spots of Bangalore and  got the idea of a ‘feast’. Banner painting is  spectacular visually, the form would be familiar and acceptable and not intimidating. 

I started photographing important statues  all around  Victoria in central Bangalore.  All the statues depicted in the work are from this area - so though the historical figures were not selected by myself as the artist, they had been selected by the government and the people. The statues were taken from the area around Vidhana Soudha, City Corporation building, Race Course, Cubbon Park and Lal Bagh -

The feast then became a ‘Thithi Oota’, a Hindu ritual feast for the dead. Images of plantain leaves with forks and knives  were used for the feast. On the white table cloth are randomly silk screened images of plantain leaves and on the painted floor cloth below are sets of forks and knives as a motif or design element, to show the sort of cosmopolitan mix that is Bangalore.

The statues are of Kengal Hanumanthiah, Devaraj Urs, Dr. Ambedkar, Basavanna, Sir M. Visweswarayya, Kempe Gowda, Queen Victoria, Gandhi, Nehru, Edward IV, Chamarajendra Wodeyar, Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar and  Mark Cubbon. The background has architectural forms from Renaissance paintings, which presents elements from the typical Government buildings in the area, which is the administrative and commercial centre. I took the composition of da Vinci’s ‘ Last Supper’ as an organizing principle to arrange the different statues…

‘The Last Supper’ was interesting to me because of its characters’ different gestures and poses.  I suggested the colours to the painter in terms of visual effectiveness, they were not meant to be symbolic.  I first selected the colours and exact poses of the different statues fom my photographs and made a key collage and gave it to the banner painter Venkatesh of Vinayaka arts. He took the individual photographs from me and projected them on the canvas, which was in three parts. The centre panel with the Victoria  Statue was added on later when we didn’t get permission for the site…

I took the photographs of the plantain leaf in different sizes and it was screen printed in half tone onto the table cloth. The floor cloth was painted by the banner painters-

A  building company was maintaining the small park with the statue. Though the builders had taken permission from the City  Corporation for maintainance, the Corporation directed me to the Horticulture Department, who sent me back to the Corporation… finally I was refused permission to work there because they thought the environmentalists would protest! I also approached the Urban Arts Commission –

The original installation on site would have consisted of two panels of painted statues with six figures on each, erected  on either side of the actual statue. A projecting table-like structure would be at the level of  Victoria’s torso, covered with the table cloth with the plantain leaf motif. The floor hanging would cover the 10ft high pedestal of the statue. A sky backdrop would have been placed behind the  Victoria figure -

The original dimensions  of the work would on site would have been 34ft x 21ft -  since it had to be shown in the Chitra Gallery the height was reduced to 11ft.

The banner painting took 10 days - a line drawing is made on the photograph - this is made into a positive image, which is then projected onto the canvas for painting ……”

Srinivasa Prasad  Samudaya House

Samudaya was started in 1975, just before the Emergency was declared in the country, when  Prasanna, who had just returned from New Delhi’s  National School of Drama and other intellectuals thought about forming a new broadly left theatre group based on the lines of The Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association’ IPTA and the Kerala People’s Art Club. Amidst intense discussions that took place every day at the Central College lawns in Bangalore, the name ‘Samudaya’ which means ‘Community’ was suggested by the critic Ki Ram Nagaraja. 

The Samudaya office was at member CK Gundanna’s house in NR Colony close to where Prasanna and many of the others lived. The props and costumes were stored there, while the rehearsals took place at the National College, Basavangudi. Later, the house at Puttanna Road which was soon going to be demolished was given to them free of charge by the owner.

There were widespread debates about culture during the period of the Emergency between 1975-77. The Navya [Modernist] movement, dominant in Kannada literature and theatre had primarily aesthetic concerns in protest against the earlier Progressive Writers Movement, leading to heated discussions  about ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ versus ‘Art for Life’. This was at the height of the New Wave Film Movement and the birth of film societies showing international films. It was in this atmosphere that Samudaya quickly established branches all over the state, engaging most creative and intellectual people.

As extreme left naxal movements spread elsewhere in India, Samudaya had to contend with the theme of the ‘rural’ and  the ‘peasant’. In the Samudaya jathas started by Prasanna, urban youth traveled all over rural Karnataka for the first time, putting up agit prop street plays while staying with the locals. On the other hand, thousands of farmers came to the city during major farmers’ agitations and rallies. Badal Sircar’s ideas of Third Theatre inspired the street play ‘Belchi’, written by CG Krishnaswamy, based on newspaper reports of  atrocities against Dalits in a Bihar village. Progressive movements in the state like the Bandaya [Rebel] and Dalit Awakening, and the People’s Science and Literacy movements grew out of Samudaya.

Just before the historic Chikmagalur elections, a poster workshop against Fascism was organized by artist RM Hadpad in Bangalore, where 10,000 posters were made by the public, for which the Kannada newspaper Prajavani gave the newsprint and the students from the Ken School of Art helped to select the best posters.

Prasanna believes that Samudaya was able to hold highly political anti-fascist street plays at the Cubbon Park Bandstand and all over Bangalore during the Emergency, because the government was naïve and there seemed to be no censorship unlike the rest of India. In the play ‘Thaayi’ based on Gorky’s ‘Mother’ directed by Prasanna in 1976, B Jayashree as the Mother walked onto the Ravindra Kalakshetra stage, waving a red flag with the slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’.

While Samudaya’s heyday was during the ‘left moment’ in the 70s, it continues to be one of India’s most important and widespread theatre movements.

Srinivasa Prasad’s work uses images and props from the company’s plays to turn the Samudaya House, its ruined outhouse and garden, into an enormous theatre set, part labyrinth, part urban playground. Built like a large construction site, its fragile, eccentric  pathways turn the rustic inside out, where the city dweller can wander about experiencing the smells and sights and sounds of a lost fantastical rural past…..

“……I had been involved with Samudaya for several years. The building was soon going to be demolished - actors used to live, rehearse and cook there. Inside the main building each room was used for a different purpose - one for sets, one for costumes, one for properties. At first I wanted to work inside the Samudaya building, but the house was full of props and there are always five or six people living there, so I decided to work outside the house. I thought of working on the terrace, but there were no stairs leading up -

So the structure first started with making steps to get to the terrace, which became a ramp … but I thought if I did the work on the terrace there would be no protection from the rain. There was an outhouse at the back, which had been a school. A few days before I started, the school shifted out and the sheet roofs were taken off. The owner wanted to demolish the building - this was an advantage for me because I could use the space freely - the owner gave me permission to work there in the meanwhile. The doors and windows were also taken out. But each classroom was a separate unit, there was no visual continuity, and they looked like galleries - I wanted to break that.  I thought  if I built a ramp on top of the rooms, there would be no problem when one looked from above - 

I started from the back of the terrace and made a ramp going down into a room. To get into the next room I made a hole in the wall - when I entered the next room,  to get out of there I built another ramp going up -  so the path was created like this. There’s a proverb about making a ladder to the sky - but I built a ladder to the underworld! This  changed the whole way of experiencing the building…

Then I felt that something live should be there. As we were building, pigeons and squirrels were running around through the paths. I went to the Sunday Market and got two pairs of hens - the hens would stand still - so then I got a cockerel which started chasing the hens. It became a big problem to catch the hens at the end of the day! But as we were chasing the hens and they were flying up and down to get away from us, I got inspired by their movements and started creating more ramps.

 We got some hay so that the hens would lay eggs. When I got the hay I thought, why not get some cows to eat the hay. I borrowed the cows from a cowshed in the next road. We agreed to keep them and feed them. It was very difficult to get the cows  to climb the ramp up to the terrace - we even thought of lifting them up with a crane. We were also scared that the cows might jump off the terrace -but I wanted the cows there because it would be visually arresting and I wanted to talk about the artificiality of living in a city.  Finally we dragged and pushed a calf up the ramp and five or six cows started following it. People on the road would suddenly hear the mooing of the cows from the terrace - they would be astonished!

The cows used to produce a lot of cowdung which we had to clean everyday. We used the cowdung to paint the walls which were too white and reflected the lamplight -

I got some sheep from a farmer friend in Tavarekere village on a Matador van. When the owner asked us what we were doing with them, we told him his sheep will come in the newspapers! One of the famous Samudaya plays was ‘Kuri’ [‘Sheep’]. I had this idea of floating the sheep in the air. I built a three storey ‘gudalu’ -machan - and put them in there, high above the ground.

To get out the old costumes from the Samudaya plays was a major project - the clothes were covered in fungus, we had to sun them. When I put them out to dry it looked like a dhobhi ghaat. I incorporated this sense of the dhobi ghaat in the final installation by hanging the costumes on the ramps.

I decided to have the show in the evening after dark. I wanted people to see the work by the light of a lantern, in the half- dark, like farmers walking around in the fields. The placement of all the elements were worked out like a chess game, or a riddle -

Some years ago, I had gone trekking in the Himalayas with an adventure club.  We used to cross gorges on rope bridges and slide down the slopes for kilometres. I always had this fantasy of letting in the audience one by one on a ramp in the dark to see a play. The ramp started off as a pathway to lead to different spaces on different levels in the work - but finally the ramp itself became the work…

It took one and a half months to create this work -  at first I got a contractor from the Bamboo Bazaar to build the ramps. After making the main paths he left demanding more money. Finally we hired the sarve poles from different contractors and started building the structure ourselves. Once we started working on it, the nature of the work changed. It was built by myself and a group of students from the Chitra Kala Parishat. The professional contractor had used sticks cut the same size to build, it was too neat - when we worked we used sticks of different sizes so we could hang the clothes and props on the bits sticking out. The fences we made on the sides made interesting and misleading shadows, creating illusions and mysterious spaces. The geometry of the architecture of the early ramps was broken by the informality of the new ramps…

Children from the neighbourhood used to play hide and seek in the structure everyday, the actors were rehearsing in the evenings…

There were heavy thunderstorms that week ~ every evening before the show opened at 7 pm, we would go around with cutting pliers, binding wire, hammer and nails, like mechanics checking the railway tracks to tighten nuts and bolts. We had used rope, twine and binding wire to tie the poles. When it rained, the rope would get tight, the twine would get soft and get cut, and the binding wire would keep shifting, so we had to keep repairing and resetting everthing. 

Electric lights and a generator were too expensive, so I used oil lamps - and the flickering light became a part of the work. The oil lamps would fill up with water and we had to pour out the water everyday and fill them again with oil - the neighbourhood children would come and help us.

I had been with Samudaya only for three or four years. I was not there during its early radical days, and I was confused about that history - so I decided not  to go into areas that I did not understand and work on the site visually using my experience as an actor and designer in their recent plays. The work is autobiographical, about the experience of growing up in rural surroundings and the alienation I felt in a modern city. I like to use all the five senses in my work - here, the five senses are joined with the five elements. There is a lot of the circus too - I like people to climb, walk around and clamber all over my work……”

The 90s in Indian art were marked by violent debates about ‘installation ‘ art - usually bitter contests between supporters of painting and those who felt that the times demanded the breaking of boundaries, and more open forms to deal with the new realities of an increasingly intolerant religious and sectarian atmosphere, and to address the problems that came with the liberalization and globalization of the economy, seen as the swamping of the small and the local.

When I was thinking of curating this exhibition of site-specific installations, this history was always present, as were the constant accusations that this temporary, impermanent art was self-indulgent, wasteful, and an empty gesture. [ At ‘an end of the millennium’ seminar in Bangalore where I spoke, a young student accused ‘installation artists ‘ of ‘being rich’ and not needing to sell work!] To go outside the art school disciplines was seen as utter licentiousness. The fear was that using the current international language was a surrender to homogenizing globalism, [ oil painting now being seen as completely indigenous ] being exacerbated by the rise of international interest in Indian art.

 The other conservative view has been that all our ritual forms are nothing but installations or performances, and that nothing is new: so trying to set up a seamless organic continuum with past traditions which tries to ignore the radical and critical content of the new work. In fact, traditional and ritual materials and forms have been deliberately used by artists to question and rework old meanings.

My own history as an artist began with my training as a sculptor in Baroda in the 1980s. My early work was greatly influenced by the Narrative painting movement, Gulam Sheikh’s interest in miniature painting, Bhupen Khakhar’s use of the popular and  KG Subrahmanian’s ideas about craft. I was deeply interested in ideas of indigenism and did figurative sculpture to link myself to the great tradition of Indian sculpture. I chose to work in terracotta as it was a ‘poor’ material and India was a ‘poor’ country and also as an ancient material using low technology. I took folk and Indian classical sculpture as my sources, argued that Indian sculpture should be based on organic rounded forms , the inner breath swelling out the body, the parts of the body metaphorically related to forms in nature. While the subject matter was taken from everyday life and experience, they were moulded to have the timeless quality of ancient sculpture. By the 1990s some of these ideas seemed more and more difficult to sustain and impossible to work with except in an ironic way. The elements of ‘Indianness’ that I had identified could not be distanced from colonial/Orientalist stereotypes and the rising Hindu fundamentalism in the country made definitions of  ‘Indianness’ itself problematic. 

My work in the 1990s moved away into a minimalist language still using ‘poor’ materials to making directly political and didactic work, and I was very much in the centre of the debates about ‘installation art’, speaking at several seminars. However by the late 1990s, finding the language I was using too austere and spare, I began to work with performative photography, using myself as a protagonist to create contemporary stories and images critiquing and reworking female images, coming back in a strange way to my beginnings as a narrative figurative artist, but very consciously using photography as a contemporary industrial technology. It was at this time when my work was undergoing major changes, that I moved back to my home town  Bangalore after 20 years away.

The idea for the exhibition started off with my getting the Karnataka State Sculpture Akademi award in 1998. I wanted to use the award money of Rs10,000 to investigate Bangalore itself as a site, stretching the meaning of sculpture into monumental public works. Bangalore, in fact, was already  a place where artists had done  large outdoor art like US Umesh’s 4 acre Earthwork in a field outside the city. It was, in a way, to sort out my own confusions about a form that I was leaving behind, and to try to find new meaning in a place I had just come back to, a place quite different and much more complex than what I had left. The curating and organizing of Sthalapuranagalu, then, became my own art work…

The actual event took place at three locations in Bangalore between May 7-15, 1999.  In the Chitra Gallery in the Kannada Bhavana, Ramesh Kalkur’s  tableau ‘The Royal Feast’ occupied an  entire wall like a giant mural. His 15 painted photographs of the statue of Victoria were also exhibited there. Shamala had a large work  table on which she displayed her preparatory work sketches and crayon drawings, photographs of work on site  and several blue cloth bound books containing her research notes about the history of the lakes in Bangalore, with material photocopied from different reports, books and newspapers. A thousand small glass perfume bottles with the screen printed brand name ‘Bihisti’, filled with water taken from the Ulsoor Lake were displayed on the table, along with posters she had designed, advertizing ‘free water samples’ to be taken away by the visitors to the exhibition. Srinivasa Prasad had the two entrance walls full of black and white translites of himself performing at his work at the Samudaya House. 

Simultaneously, Shamala’s floating sculpture at Ulsoor Lake  and Srinivasa Prasad’s  labyrinth/ fairground at Samudaya House were open for viewing. 

What started off as a modest intervention became much more ambitious over six months of weekly meetings and discussions. The ideas had been growing, and finally, the artists and I selected the most interesting and most challenging projects.

We needed a lakh for expenses, and went in for an entirely alternate way of funding.  Friends were asked for donations and donors ranged from artists, art lovers, galleries, collectors, writers, theatre people, environmentalists, architects, film makers, academics and IT executives giving from 1000 to 10,000 rupees each. The artists’ friends worked with them for free and many people contributed free materials for the work and collected small amounts of money for them. Towards the end there was a crisis when a building company, which was to fund Ramesh Kalkur’s tableau backed out at the last minute because they feared the work on Victoria might be too controversial.

I had some interesting experiences while fund raising. When I asked the writer P Lankesh  at the Lankesh Patrike office in Basavangudi for a donation, he said very irritably that he hates monuments, that he thought that the whole of Europe would look like an anthill from space because it was so choked up with monuments, and that the Veerashaiva poets had always said that the moving spirit is more important than the still object … I had to assure him that we were only putting up temporary structures that would be dismantled after a week! 

Pushpamala N

Thanks to Madhava Prasad for the title of the show and his important suggestions and comments. 

Thanks to Ayisha Abraham, Sheela Gowda, Christoph Storz and S. Akbar Zaidi for critical comments and Aditi De for editing the essay. Ravindra Reshme for information about the statues and Gauri Lankesh of Lankesh Patrike. The first person narratives are notes of conversations with the artists.


Staging a Change- Narendra Pani- Samudaya Prakashana- 1979

Samudaya 25- ed. by CR Bhat, CK Gundanna

Samudayada Odanaatadalli- CK Gundanna

Dreams and Discontents- Water in the Cities of Bangalore by Janaki Nair. From the catalogue of the Max Mueller Bhavan Water Festival Water of the People, Water of the City- 2002


Anil Mehta
Anuradha Hegde
Ashish Rajadhyaksha
Ashwini Tandon
HA Anil Kumar
Cymroza Gallery
Mrs Chandavarkar
Gulammohammad Sheikh
Gallery Chemould
Harish Padmanabha
Jenny Pinto
P Lankesh
Lakshmi Chandrashekhar
N Marishamachar
Nalini Prabhu
Nandan Nilekani
Nandana Reddy
H L Narasinga Rao
Pattabhi Rama Reddy
Paul Fernandes
Poddar Charities
Rummana Hussain
Shreelata Rao Seshadri
K Srinivasan
A Well Wisher
Soumitro Ghosh

Arnavaz Vasudev Charities
KK Hebbar Art Foundation
Gallery Chemould
Sheela Gowda
JL Omni Serv Pvt Ltd
A Well Wisher