Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Art: Khoj 2002 ~ The mind is a fertile field

Hema Upadhyay's letter to her parents sprouts in ragi

(I wrote this piece in 2002) 

Strappingh Michel Tuffery pats the tethered bull. "It tickles, does it?" he asks the large-eyed creature from a Mysore bovine sanctuary. "I won't hurt you. You're my Anna, I'm your little brother, your Thamba." Ritually tattooed from his waist to his knees, the Maori artist gently paints the bull's skinny shanks. Gradually, a tantalising red-and-black geometry emerges, while the artist and his work appear to blur into one.

"I feel visually spoilt in India," explains Wellington-based Michel, 36, at the Khoj 2002 International Artists' Workshop (October 19 to November 1) at Mysore's Le Olive Garden resort, that opened a local window into global art intersections. "Our family's from Samoa and Tahiti in the Pacific. From childhood, the cows and bulls of New Zealand have stuck in my head. But we've no respect for animals. When there's a water shortage, who suffers — the people or the bulls? To me, India seems like a Utopia for bulls."

As Michel erupts into a conceptually-motivated, masked "bull fight" on the Open Day, notions of art as painting or sculpture are collectively jettisoned. Taking off from a collage of corned beef cans blue-tacked to a wall, responding to an explosion of crackers taped to drawn bull-heads, he engages in a livewire performance that stuns the local populace. It signals a creative take-off, a careering off the beaten track, a time ripe for redefinitions.

But Michel wasn't unique among the workshop's 12 international and 12 Indian artists addressing individualistic concerns through local stimuli. In shifting the base of the high-profile, five-year-old Khoj artists' initiative from Delhi's Modinagar to the South for the first time, they engaged with "issues of new internationalism in the visual arts", according to a backgrounder. An offshoot of the Triangle Workshop in New York State in 1982, the brainchild of sculptor Sir Anthony Caro and collector Robert Loder, which resulted in the 1985 Thupelo Workshop in South Africa, Khoj represented the Indian colours of the enterprise.

What local stimuli did the artists respond to? Australia's Mandy Ridley, continuing her questioning of cultural identity through handcrafted objects, offered fluorescent plastic bags, each adorned with a contrasting rangoli cutout. Assaulted by a cacophony of Indian sounds, tantalised by alternate notions of beauty, Canadian academic and artist Gisele Amantea set up an audio piece of bathing sounds, juxtaposed against a delicate drawing of a pale hand captured between two mehndhi-rich ones. An intercultural exchange? Or donning The Other's identity? Maybe just cultural cross-dressing.

Closer home, Surekha from Bangalore struck gold at Mysore's Raju and Brothers studio. These reprints from old negatives, framed against red-bordered mirrors, unveiled the saga of the traditional jasmine braid that captures the cycle of Indian womanhood from birth to puberty, marriage and motherhood. Resonating touches in Surekha's continuing explorations of studio photography? A study blue curtain, and festivity-linked strings of blue lights.

Drawing on diaporic inspiration, Swiss-born Christoph Storz, who shuttles between Aarau and Bangalore, chose a vendor's trolley as his artistic tool after laboriously weeding a kolam-like path through a parthenium patch. "My art was homage to the local pushcart vendor," he elaborates, as marbles roll randomly on the trolley he trundles. "He sets out in the morning, not knowing which roads to follow or where his wares will sell. I was trying to explore his uncertain path."

Echoing Storz's frame of reference. Amsterdam-based and Mumbai-trained Mayura Subhedar, 29, tried to inject familiar feelings into an alien ambience by plastering a walled curve with rubbings of coconut palms and other artefacts from the resort, while studying the sway of shadowy fronds from a red oxide bench she built in. "My site-specific work relates to locating myself in a space," she explains. "I had to work my way through being a `foreigner,' so I had to jettison some baggage."

How did others cope with the workshop situation? Committed to socially-engaged practice, British artist Amy Plant treated her first Indian encounter as news by launching a tabloid, not as inquest but as inquiry. What appeared on its pages? Snippets of Khoj interludes. An interview with a local snake-catcher. A report on a burst pipe onsite. "It gave me a sense of the fabric of the place. So, I became a bit of a local myself," confesses Amy.

But, as local art students and lookers-on alike asked, did these free thinking experiments beyond the studio space constitute art? Or were they just radical departures from received notions? Such as the looped video installation by New Delhi's Ranbir Kaleka, 49, long based in London. Drawing on Mysore's Rangayana repertory theatre, he dramatised a very-Indian, quirky narrative, captured through painted wooden window frames, threaded through with appropriate Hindi film songs. "I treat video art as a democratic tool, almost like a sketch-pad, toying with ideas I've had for a while," Ranbir offers. "In India, video art still lags behind the West. It's useful to look at art within its age, time and context."

At Khoj, the theatrical found new interpretations through H.K. Dwarkanath, a stage designer at Rangayana, and Bangalore's Babu Eshwar Prasad, known for his elemental symbolism on flat hued canvases. Realised three-dimensionally, highlighted by theatrical lighting, Babu's set-like visual metaphors quickened to life by night. Inspired by the Mysore royal family's black-and gold carriage onsite, Dwarkanath mined their palace for inspiration. The result? An array of ghost-like plaster hands, shrouded in pale netting, sprout almost organically from the grass. Could they be supplicants for royal flavours? Or merely palace hands at work?

Other works took more topical, even political, cues. Sri Lanka's Sarath Kumarasiri touched on the ongoing Cauvery water dispute through swathes of flowing terracotta and blue cotton that unrolled onto a rocky incline, swathed in recent headlines. As literal, but more provocative, was an installation by Nigeria's Jacob Jiri, who garlanded a photograph of a baby abandoned in a dustbin, footnoted by a "soiled" sanitary towel. "I was making a statement, however offensive, about population control, provoked by the streets of Mumbai and Mysore," he stresses. What of the Gujarat strike? It surfaced in Baroda-based printmaker Vijay Bagodi's tented work, where sickles assume weapon-like overtones.

Alternate voices, couched expressively? Ragi sprouts from the soil reveal a letter to her parents in Baroda from Mumbai's Hema Upadhyay, a new turn to communications networks. Stridently, her citymate Reena Saini cues her uterus-based symbolism into an engagement with national integration through locally-crafted, tricolour-hued, natural fibre shapes strewn with rusty tools that flow over the floor like a river in spate.

Malaysia's Chang Yoong Chia installed moulded figures glued to the idiot box at the base of grouped coconut palms, in a "not conscious comment on urban lifestyles. While the TV is both intimate and universal, there's less intimacy between people today."

Often, complex issues surfaced through personal contexts. These included the Nix Art Museum by Bangladesh's Mahababur Rahman, a transparent tent studded with camouflage garments and war toys, in a pacifist statement buttressed by the auteur's cycle-borne daily performances. Bangalore's Biju Jose paid tribute to his late father's unlauded mechanical engineering drawings, propped like a musical score on stands that rose and fell to the shape of the backdrop of the Chamundi Hills, with a live horse installed by flickering lamplight to enhance realisation.

Dissimilar dimensions? The beauty versus ornamentation debate was realised by Brazil-born Berlin artist Carla Guagliardi's unadorned, curved red brick walls, offering "different feelings of space, newer perspectives of the same old thing", enhancing her exploration of spaces and water properties in Brazil and Europe. Enthused by Mysorean strands, Bangalore's Smitha Cariappa visually interpreted the local silk industry, transformed into hut-like spaces embellished by rangoli, hanks of silk, and symbolic silkworm evolution. N.N. Rimzon from Thiruvananthapuram, known for his innovative installations, chose a quieter note at Khoj — a series of locally-derived, yet tentative, drawings.

On another plane, Shambhavi from New Delhi chose to extend her horizons through a startling disc of rich blues and browns, made of iron, wood, cotton cloth, acrylic, graphite and oils, hung from the rafters. A neon-studded lamp enhanced the perspective, aided by fluttering pigeons on the beams.

Perhaps the most unusual participant at Khoj 2002 was Tibetan traditional painter Penpa Yaseel, 28, from the Tashi Lhundo monastery at Bylakuppe. Sitting amidst the silken splendour of gorgeous thangkas, Penpa explains, "I was trained in this style when I was 13. I came to India in exile in 1996. I'll never tamper with our sacred paintings, but I now feel I can do any kind of painting, maybe even depict Tibetan lifestyles."

Can art remain infinitely open-ended in our questioning age? When will its borderlines with technology blur forever? Can Khoj-like camps generate global amity? These questions remain unanswered despite the questing at Khoj.

As Khoj's central coordinator Pooja Sood observed in a recent brochure, the communal enterprise that has touched over a hundred artists is "more in the nature of an impetus rather than a period of sustained reflection". Ranbir concurs, "Workshops like this can stimulate thought, though perhaps not complete execution." A germ of thought that could sprout to fruition in the future?

(The Hindu Sunday Magazine 2002)

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