Wednesday, 1 December 2010

TAKE - Ouevre I Issue 4 I

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady takes off from Umesh Maddanahalli’s project with donkeys in Mysore, and ruminates about donkeys in art …


The donkey is seen as a lowly animal, an ass, a beast of burden. It is neither noble like the horse nor as endearing as the dog. The donkey is actually the common man, the subaltern of the animal world: sort of foolish and unattractive, obstinate by nature, and unwilling to be cuddly and pet-like.

Umesh Maddanahalli’s recent student workshop, Name and Form in CAVA, (Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts) Mysore, looked at the donkey bench, a commonly used object for artistic study and practice, as a starting point to connect the study of art to the experience of ordinary life.  The “donkey” as we know is a bench with a resting place for a board, used in the classroom for life study, drawing and painting. It has a vaguely animal-like form with a neck and head and four legs. Umesh plays with the meaning of the object by replacing the donkey bench with real donkeys, to look again at art pedagogy and art history as it has come down to us from the 19th century and think about the “journey of art”. He questions whether it is at all important to study a chronological sequence of events, and whether the examination of the art of the past means anything to us today.

Umesh hired a group of donkeys from a village near Mysore and the project was that the students walk them back to their “home” sixty five kilometres away to a place called Santhe Saruguru, also called Kaththe or “ Donkey” Saruguru, which is well-known for breeding donkeys, which are used as pack animals and for manure, or sometimes rented out for film shootings. The group would walk through the day till sunset, stopping to cook and sleep in villages along the way, carrying some provisions along with them, but borrowing pots and pans from the villagers and cooking on rough stone and wood fire stoves made on the spot, spending nights in the village schools. The students could document the project in any medium they wanted and edit the material in any way.

A keeper brought six of the animals to CAVA, situated on the principal street of the city, Sayaji Rao Road, (named after the Baroda Maharaja who was a close friend of the Mysore king) which is the main route for the ceremonial Dasara procession.  Umesh and the troupe of thirty students started off in a straggly group with the donkeys the next morning, exciting curious attention from the public, astonished people and vehicles stopping on the crowded street and staring at them. The students were confused about what to say to bystanders; rustic people laughed and told them the donkey was Lakshmi and lucky for them. The students holding the donkeys being unused to handling them could not control them, and either the donkeys would pull them in different directions or stop mulishly, holding them all up. The journey took three days with many adventures on the way, with some of the students dropping out, but most staying till the end.

On the first day one of the donkeys which was loosely tied, escaped and vanished just outside Mysore while they were having lunch. Frantic calls were made to friends to look for it. There was a pall of gloom and though abandoning the donkey and walking on was discussed, the students sat down by the side of the road and refused to move till the animal was found. This aroused great interest on the highway and trucks and cars stopped to find out if it was a strike or satyagraha. Finally someone found it after several hours and brought it back in a tempo to great jubilation, and the donkey which had been unnamed till then, was called Gopala. It seemed that the beast, which by reports had always been a troublesome animal, had by an act of rebellion become an individual. Just two or three generations ago, the lower castes in India had no names of their own and were either called by the day of the week on which they were born, or followed the custom of naming all the children, male and female, in the family god’s name. Even having an individual name is an elite thing.

Several people from Mysore visited the group in the evenings. The CAVA Dean came with art history students, and Mysore artists like N.S. Harsha and Dwarkanath, the theatre designer for the State Repertory Rangayana, dropped in. Dwakanath’s take on the workshop was that the donkeys were just an excuse and not central to the experience. What was interesting for him was the way the students quickly divided themselves into different groups: some handling the animals, some cooking, some washing up the pots.  But finally, everything revolved around taking the donkeys back home. They got close to donkey behaviour living with them, saw how they walked, grazed, shat, slept, and their stubborn animal-ness. It was a “life study” of another kind.

Au hasard Balthazar (By Chance, Balthazar) the classic 1966 film directed by Robert Bresson, one of the cult figures of the French New Wave, revolves around a donkey. The film follows the lives of Marie, a shy farm girl and her donkey Balthazar through a life of callous abuse and is described as having “exquisite renderings of pain and abasement” and “compendiums of cruelty”. While some critics have seen it as a religious allegory and a spiritual tale of human suffering, others see it as an existential account of life as it is, or as Jean-Luc Goddard described it, “really the world in an hour and a half”. The donkey’s dumb pliant figure takes us through the indifference, sadism, greed, exploitation, irresponsibility and criminality of humankind, represented by the characters of the village who use it in various ways, told in an unsentimental and minimalist aesthetic style.

The donkey was the pivotal character in Kerala filmmaker John Abraham’s 1977 Tamil film Agraharathil Kazhuthai ( Donkey in a Brahmin Village), a biting satire on brahminical superstition and bigotry. The film which got the National Award, was not allowed to be screened on Doordarshan by the furious Brahmin lobby, and ignored by the press. Critiquing the caste system was an important part of the Indian New Wave cinema of the ‘70s and the filmmaker uses the device of inserting an ass into a place anxious about its ritual purity, with all its black humour. A donkey which strays into a Brahmin village, is adopted by Professor Narayan Swamy who appoints a mute girl to look after it, much to the disapproval of the entire village. It is seen as an unclean animal which pollutes the village, and when the girl’s still-born baby is found outside the temple, the donkey is blamed for it and killed. Later a series of miracles happen and the Brahmins believe that it is due to the donkey’s blessings. When they dig out the skull of the donkey to give it a ritual funeral, the fire symbolically spreads and engulfs the village in a huge conflagration, destroying everything except the professor and the mute girl. It is the Day of Judgement and only the innocents are saved.
The director John Abraham, who is remembered more as a bohemian anarchist, was a revolutionary who believed in the empowering and liberating effect of cinema and tried to create a new kind of people’s film making. He formed the Odessa Collective (named after the port in one of the most important films of all time, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, about the great Russian naval mutiny of 1905 against the officers of the Tsarist regime) which tried to change the history of film production and distribution by going to the villages and directly raising money from the people. His last film Amma Ariyan (Report to Mother), was funded by collecting one rupee each from the audience from screening Chaplin’s The Kid all over Kerala. The film once made was also released non- commercially.
Many of my Malayali artist friends like Madhusudanan used the image of the donkey  in their work in the 1980s as a symbol of oppression, possibly coming from the Christian Left. The donkey, being a creature of the desert lands, figures in many Biblical stories. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, the Messiah is described as riding on a donkey. It is a heavily loaded symbol, particularly in Christian legend, seen as a metaphor for Christ’s meekness, humility and poverty, and stands for the spiritual kingdom of god. Jesus rode into Bethlehem on a donkey as the Messiah on Palm Sunday. It appears often in Western painting: in the Flight into Egypt, as also in the manger scene at the birth of Christ when he is recognized as the Saviour, and first worshipped by the lowly animals. In earlier times it appears that riding a donkey indicated affluence as commoners at the time went on foot. Later on when the nobility begin owning horses, riding a donkey takes on the opposite meaning and becomes a sign of simplicity and sobriety. Christ pictured on a donkey came to symbolize forgiveness and peace, whereas the image of Christ mounted on a horse was seen as a sign of judgement and war.

The donkey is also a jackass, standing for a dumb and unthinking foolishness. Manjunath Kamath uses the image constantly in his work to satirically comment on the antics of men. But most famously, Bhupen Khakhar has used the Panchatantra story of the Father, the Son and the Donkey with a wicked twist for his gay “coming out” painting You Can’t Please All painted in 1982. A naked man stands on a balcony, looking down at the story unfolding below in stages like an Indian miniature painting. A father and son set out on a journey to the town to sell a donkey. On the way they meet some people who laugh at them for walking while one could ride. So the boy sits on the donkey and they go on. They meet an old man who criticizes the boy for having no respect for his father, so the son gets down and the father rides on the donkey. Further on they are mocked for the son walking when he could ride the donkey too. Finally, when both are riding the donkey, they are abused for overloading the poor animal. They then decide to tie the legs of the donkey to a pole and carry it upside down on their shoulders. While crossing a bridge on the river, the donkey struggles and falls into the water and drowns. At which, says Bhupen Khakkar, the man watching from the balcony concludes, “You can’t please everyone” and takes off his clothes.

Umesh’s workshop was a miniature form of his larger idea to travel across various parts of India with a retinue of donkeys. He would welcome art students and anyone else who wanted to walk the roads of India in the company of donkeys, stopping to cook when hungry and resting when tired. “The herd of donkeys and its human companions” would visit art schools on their “rambles” and the journey would be recorded on camera. The project may not prove anything or answer any questions, or really help to discover the nature of art history or pedagogy. However, it would raise some questions. He says the premise of Name and Form lies in the last lines of a poem by Gopal Honnalgere:
for the donkey

The Phantom Lady
December 2010

Friday, 1 October 2010

Golden Dreams catalogue / pub. Gallery Chemould Mumbai / October 2001


N. Rajyalakshmi, Chief Reporter of Ideal Times, interviews the artist Pushpamala N.

NR:  Ms Pushpamala, for the last few years you have been getting photographs taken    of yourself and exhibiting them. Are you a narcissist?

PN:  No, I am a humourist! [laughs] . Bhupen Khakhar in an early 1972 catalogue had photographs of himself posing as James Bond, Mr. Universe, and a Man with a Headache- it was delightful! In fact it was turning artistic narcissism on its head! I always felt that it was a lost moment in Indian art because nobody really followed it up…

NR:  But Madam, what is the purpose of this?

PN:  The first work in which I performed, ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ was a photo-romance set in Bombay, about a masked adventurer and her search for her lost twin sister separated in childhood, who has now become a part of the underground mafia. It was shot like a thriller using real locations, with typical scenes and characters. Bombay has a place in the Indian imagination as the Great Modern Metropolis – a place of great opportunities and freedom but also of decadence and cruelty. It was a homage to the city as a centre of theatre and film, as the producer of modern fantasies.

     When I become the protagonist, I put myself into various kinds of narratives; one of them is my own story…

NR:  There are so many artists all over the world using masquerade. Isn’t it a cliché?

PN: But clichés interest me! I am using an existing form because I find it useful to work with.

     At this point of time, in my 40s, I find autobiography interesting, for instance. And there are so many eccentric aspects of modern culture around us which in fact use masquerade - like celebrations, political events, tableaus, studio photographs - that are crying out to be used as artistic raw material.

     But I find many artists in India today doing self- portraiture in different ways. Perhaps it’s something to do with the turbulent and changing times - a way of self-questioning.

NR:  Ms Pushpamala, earlier you worked mainly with poor materials like terracotta, waste paper, etc. Why are you now working with an expensive medium like photography?

PN:  Earlier, I believed that India was a poor rural country and so artists should use poor or humble materials to talk about our reality. But in fact here I am, a very metropolitan person who is a citizen of one of the highly industrialized countries in the world with a long history of modern technology. We are falling into an orientalist stereotype if we seek reality only in the pre-industrial, Ms Rajyalakshmi. The art critic Hans Mathews made an observation which I like - that because photography and film making entered India almost as soon as they were invented, they don’t carry an oppressive colonial burden for us. We have our own history of photographic image making, for instance - the early photographs painted like miniatures ignoring Western perspective, the manorathas or pilgrim souvenirs made in Nathdwara in Rajasthan using painting and collage. What interests me about the photograph is its documentary aspect - its I was there part, and the possibilities of overturning and questioning that factuality.

NR:  Your work looks very jokey and flippant. What is the point? Is it art?

PN:  Yes I like to use humour! I use it to seduce, to provoke… I like my art to work on different levels. The humour makes you relax, it’s an entry into the work. I also use references to the popular for the same reason. But this is only one aspect - my intentions are quite serious!

NR:  Madam, you are a trained and recognized sculptor. Why are you doing this kind of work?

PN:  I like the lightness and mobility of working with forms like photography, Ms Rajyalakshmi. As a student in Baroda I was formed by the Narrative Movement in the 1980s. There was a lot of interest in 19th c. hybrid arts like Company painting and early photography. This was part of an interest in all indigenous developments in art. So there was a background to this. When I was finding it difficult to use narrative and the human figure in sculpture - perhaps because of its very concreteness and realness - I found that photography creates images which float on the surface of the paper: shimmering, other worldly. And I like working as an outsider, you can break all the rules!

But it’s quite different from making sculpture, where I physically made the work. Here, I am working more like an architect or a theatre or film director, the creativity is in conceiving and directing; it’s collaborative work.

Besides all this, I’m just following my instinct as an artist! I think I’m on a hot trail!

NR:  Ms Pushpamala, you seem to be interested in the past, in old things. Why this nostalgia?

PN:  No, Ms Rajyalakshmi, I’m too critical to be nostalgic or sentimental! I’m interested in history and memory. I sometimes use autobiography, nostalgia and melodrama as devices to evoke a whole range of associations, to connect in different ways to the experience of the audience. But the issues are very contemporary.

NR:  Isn’t art universal? Feminist art is like a reservation category.

PN:  Working consciously as a woman artist need not be a limitation! It can open up unexplored territories and subject matter, which can create powerful new ways of seeing and making.

A book like Women Writing in India [edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha] tries to create an alternate tradition to the mainstream literary tradition, which is enormously interesting. 

NR:  Why are you borrowing images from films? Can’t you be original?

PN:  But I am interested in stereotypes and archetypes, Ms Rajyalakshmi! And it is popular media that is creating these images. It’s not only film that interests me, but novels and songs and plays, and photography itself. These scenes and situations are like found objects - they are so recognizable and common. I like to mix up different genres and alter them, to interject my own point of view.

NR:  Will you say something about your recent work?

PN:  Sunhere Sapne [Golden Dreams] a photo-romance, is the fantasy of a middle class housewife dressed in a housecoat and her alter ego, a girl in a golden frock and a bouffant hairstyle. The work is enigmatic, there’s no real story; though each scene is evocative and together the pictures give rise to a certain feeling. I’ve used different kinds of references: the thriller, the fairy tale, the honeymoon snapshot…

I did the series in a small town near Delhi and commissioned a local studio man to hand paint the pictures. They have a sweet, old world, intimate look, though in fact the content is quite dark and the period contemporary.

Bombay Photo Studio is a set of portraits taken at the studio of Mr JH Thakker, who used to be a still photographer for Hindi Films in the 1950s and 60s. He also took photographs of the stars in his studio, experimenting with expressionist Hollywood style lighting.

There are a set of studio portraits – of a Muslim, a Hindu and a Christian woman, which are posed in the conventional way but where the subjects are veiled. With some other photographs, I’ve used images of Nayikas or heroine figures - the pining woman, the woman caught in a web of deceit. 

As a sculptor, I am also interested in the material richness of the photograph itself – the large size sepia prints on fibre paper have an intense, visceral quality-

Pushpamala N.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

TAKE - The Moderns I Issue 3 I September 2010

The Phantom Lady Strikes Again
The Phantom Lady looks at the role of the artist today and sees her as a messy archivist; as a detective looking for clues rather than a modernist hero…


Artists are like scavengers who use various kinds of references in their work, thereby creating their own archive out of disparate materials. They may in fact revive dead technologies to infuse them with new life, or experiment ferociously with the latest forms of media, or put together ordinary found objects and transform their meaning. They may accept no watertight boundaries between genres or disciplines. And the new archive finds creative connections between categories seen as opposed, mixing up high and low, central and marginal, insignificant and significant, questioning established conventions, in search for a more profound insight into what shapes our world today.

History of the Museum and the Archive
First, we have to see the public institutions of the archive and the museum as 19th century European constructs, which were created at the high point of colonialism, and closely connected to the disciplines of archeology, anthropology and ethnography. The Great Exhibitions that took place in London and Paris in the late 19th century were related phenomena, which were showcases of technology and industry as well as of colonial crafts. Native artisans were brought in from the colonial countries like India, and made to work on site making their “authentic” crafts and entertain the onlookers with exotic display.  (The real story was that paid agents got people from India who were not necessarily trained in that particular craft and made them pose in native gear.)

Museums were seen as repositories of cultural memory, where artifacts from past civilizations like the Elgin marbles, Egyptian antiquities, Medieval illuminated manuscripts or Mughal miniatures were stored and displayed recalling a sumptuous golden age, or ethnographic objects collected to reveal the primitive stages of human civilizations. These were always great inspirations to artists and poets besides scholars, and artists were allowed to copy the works inside the museums. Copying from originals has always been a traditional way of learning.

Museums and archives are based on the nineteenth century European mania for collecting, classifying, typing and listing, which was the base of all knowledge systems of the time. The explosion of new knowledge with the contact with new cultures with trade and colonization made it imperative to sort out all the new information, and certainly the idea of hegemony was very much a part of this. Many artists have critiqued the museum and its classifications in their work, notably Fluxus artist Marcel Broodthaers.

Historically, collections and collecting have always been contentious and dynamic in meaning. There is constantly a war between the old Western empires and the former colonies about the objects they have stolen for their museums – over the Peacock Throne for instance. In India, when J. Swaminathan, artist and Director of the Bharat Bhavan Cultural Centre in Bhopal, capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which has a large tribal population, created a contemporary art museum especially for tribal art and commissioned tribals to make new work for it, it created a huge stir. The tribal collection has a separate building right next to the contemporary art collection, making a very obvious attempt to move tribal art out of its status of timelessness and anthropology into the living present.

Museums and Archives as Cultural Memory
Talking about cultural memory, on the other hand, there is the Curious Case of Ananda Coomaraswamy and his collection. At the time of Independence, when the great anti-imperialist philosopher-art historian Coomaraswamy wanted the new Indian government to fund a museum for his vast collection of South Asian art in Varanasi, the government which had other priorities took no interest, and miffed, he moved his whole collection to Boston, where it is now housed.

In recent times, we have the scandal of the sack of the Baghdad Museum during the Iraq War, when the occupying US army allowed mobs to loot priceless and irreplaceable objects. The irony is that the collection was made by British and Western archeologists in colonial times, which then became the official heritage of the Iraqi people – which was then looted again to reach Western collectors no doubt!

Again, the notion of the archive as history, and as collective cultural memory is both contentious and dynamic as in the 2004 scandal of the vandalization of the Bhandarkar Orientalist Research Institute in Pune by a group calling itself the Sambhaji Brigade, offended by a biography of Shivaji  by American academic James Laine who had researched his book there ( Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India ). Rare manuscripts and materials relating to Maharashtra were burnt and destroyed in the process. Scholars have compared this to the sack of Baghdad Museum or Sarajevo, or the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha – but perpetrated in this instance by misplaced nationalism. The stand of the Institute, the custodian of history, was very interesting. It was to call for a ban on the book, referring to Shivaji as a national “deity”, who therefore could not be historicized.

This brings me to my own current work, where I am using popular images of the young nationalist martyr Bhagat Singh. In calendar art, Bhagat Singh is shown worshipping the figure of Mother India, often portrayed like a sort of Hanuman, tearing open his chest to reveal Bharat Mata inside. The fact is that Bhagat Singh was an atheist and a Communist, but this fact will never be accepted in a “popular archive” of cultural memory.

Quoting and referencing past works is supposed to be a post- modern phenomenon in art practice, but at every “original” and innovative moment in art history, either the past or foreign images are used and recalled. Self- conscious quotation it would seem comes after the emergence of art history as a discipline and the establishment of museums, collections and archives as institutions. 

Looking at Western high culture, we see that Renaissance artists and architects in Italy actually strove to copy Greco- Roman works which they saw as an ideal, while the practicalities and demands of the new age with the inventions of new materials and technologies like oil painting, perspective drawing and the optic lens transformed their work into an expression of their age. In fact, outdated forms and technologies are particularly rich mines for the artist’s imagination.

While discussing the idea of context transforming meaning, it is interesting to look at Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote. Pierre Menard, a 20th century novelist writes a word to word replica of the original 17th century Cervantes novel Don Quixote, which, according the narrator of the story, becomes infinitely more sophisticated because it has to be read in the context of the intellectual and scientific culture of the 20th century. To quote from the story, the narrator says:

“Cervantes’ text and Menard’s are verbally identical, but the second is almost infinitely richer. (More ambiguous, his detractors will say, but ambiguity is richness.)”

Exactly the same words take on a different meaning when read in a completely different context – in this case, time: reading a 17th century work as a work by a 20th century author, makes the meaning far more complex and subtle, according to Borges.

When collectors and traders started getting African sacred masks to France from colonies like Mali, they were a revelation to artists like Picasso, who saw in them a very different approach to reality and the human figure, than the conventions of Western realism. In the new context, the mask took on formal qualities it was unaware of. (Ironically, while the cubist style is seen as an “original” form, the African masks are doomed to ethnography, as repetitive cultural products. Their “authenticity” however, a French collector told me, depends upon their actually having been used in rituals. )

Quotation as Cultural memory / the Art work as Quotation
Quotations are not a recent phenomenon- the traditional concept of “copying” is in itself a form of quoting:  the new work is invariably different from the original. Copying creates continuity or a genre, and at the same time invariably breaks it, as in the very act of copying, changes become inevitable. The 16th century Turkish miniature painters in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red are confused by the advent of Western realism. The Master Painter blinds himself with a thin needle, so that he can “ see” better. But does this mean that he will go on copying the old works perfectly with the most delicate inflections without actually seeing them, or that he will inevitably create a new work taking from the wells of his own experience?

The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin’s monumental work about late 19th century Paris, is entirely composed of quotations. It is like a montage of views of the city, each view hitting off against the others to create an original cultural landscape of Paris, the leading European city. The book is a quest to define a civilization by putting together all the relevant and striking things about it, as an archive of found materials.

As post- colonials, we are constantly accused of “aping” and “mimicking” Western culture, denied “originality” but expected to be “authentic”. This denies us the right, as citizens of the world to make use of knowledge systems available to us, which is freely given to a Western artist, and puts us in the position of being “un-thinking”, “un- original” and “in-authentic”.

Interestingly now, with the coming of the world wide web, the archive itself becomes ephemeral, with a free- for- all access to unending images.

The Artist as Flaneur
The artist is a flaneur… who walks through the labyrinths of the city with the amused and ironical detachment of the onlooker, yet with a strong empathy which goes to the heart of the matter. Filled with understanding, playing both protagonist and audience, the artist dreams, and becomes the characters in the play.  The street as an archive, the archive as performed, acted out…

The artist plays the detective probing the mysteries of contemporary life, scrutinizing the world for clues, a narrator familiar with the secret language, the hieroglyphs of the city. The artist is a carnivorous animal, imaginatively devouring life around, both the banal and the profound; a cook, who creates a fabulous new dish from the material she takes from the real world and her own inner life.

Artists are scavengers who use varied kinds of references in their work, thereby creating their own archives. If a traditional archive in society represents an accepted order and historical value, the artist may take materials from genres that are not recognized as of archival value, or invert accepted icons and redefine the notion of a society’s dominant history.  The new archive may find creative connections between
categories seen as opposed: such as high and low, central and marginal, insignificant and significant, in search for a more profound insight into what shapes our world.

The pseudo- archive is an archive formed from the artist’s own imagination. The parade of daily experiences large and insignificant all feed into the artist’s vision. From the combination of past images and present and imagined ones, new connections and insights emerge. The artists’ subjective experiences and her remembered past life and emotions form an archive from which images are drawn. These subjective, emotionally charged images melt into the larger cultural icons. Yet all the time the artist is rooted in the present, the urge to dive into the past is to find meaning in the present and to understand the future: in short, to search for a larger civilizational meaning.

Benjamin’s Arcades Project while being nothing but a collection of quotations about Paris is a revolutionary new work. It is a new work because of the painstaking and profound research that has gone into it, the texture and piquancy of the quotations selected, in the study of the most banal of materials- shops, streets, city plans, cheap entertainments- in order to discover a panoramic understanding of a whole civilization and time.

The artist as auteur uses subtle shades and complexities to problematize the present and the past. Art historical or other cultural references from literature/ music/ cinema / theatre become alive and throb in another context or location, when the present and past are both charged with new meaning. While rejecting the modernist notion of originality and formal purity as a primal quality, the artist frees herself to be inventive, play with genres, fill her work with political and social material, and address the contemporary directly.

The Phantom Lady

September 2010