In 2015, Asia Art Archive in India collaborated with the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA) to research possibilities for a digital archive of performance art from India, beginning with its emergence in the early 1990s through to 2010. Here, Sabih Ahmed interviews artist Samudra Kajal Saikia, who led and developed the initiative as Project Researcher.
Conceived as a pilot project that would bring together documentation of artworks from multiple sources, the following conversation addresses the motivations, methodologies, and challenges that went into this six-month long research. Material gathered in this project can be accessed on-site upon request at Asia Art Archive.
This project is part of AAA in India’s After Event: Performance Art and Its Mediations—a collaboration between Asia Art Archive in India, FICA, Serendipity Arts Trust, and HH Art Spaces—which explores how histories of performance art can be revisited today. Through multiple projects and programmes, After Event has engaged with performance art through exhibitions such as The Ground Beneath My Feet, an artist talk series Memory Acts, digitisation projects that explore the dispersed archives of early performances in the Autonomous Women’s Movement in India from the 1970s and 1908s, and artist research such as this interview and collection put together by Saikia.
Sabih Ahmed: Could you take us through how you framed the project? Why did you choose to research this period from 1990 to 2010? What were the main concerns you came in with?
Samudra Kajal Saikia: The last three decades of the twentieth century are often regarded as important for the arts for many reasons, especially in India. Indeed, one may argue that the rise of performance art in India happened in the wake of, and in many cases as a direct response to, radical changes in the political and social environment—namely the economic liberalisation of the nation in 1991, and the rise of communal violence marked by the demolition of Babri Masjid in the winter of 1992.1
The lead-up to these events were certainly not quiet transitions. In particular, the assassination of theatre practitioner and activist Safdar Hashmi, during one of his street performances in north India in 1989, led to the formation of new alliances among artists,2 and in many cases they made a point to take their work into public spaces and address political issues—with performance art playing a critical role in these articulations and expressions. 1989 was also eight-to-nine years into the Women’s Movement in India, which also had a strong performative legacy.
In the decades that followed, it felt as though some major shifts in the art field were finally settling in—a new globalised circulation of visual arts in India had already happened, and performance art had found a footing of its own. My project’s timeline finds its relevance within this framing.
Artists commonly explored certain thematics such as the body, identity, gender, sexuality, the nation state and its motifs, colonialism, globalisation, and the condition of diaspora. Along with that, performative strategies that focused on duration, action drawings, community engagement, collaborations, and role play were also mainstays among the works being produced. I knew I had to be attentive to these as I developed the project, but to refrain from using them as categories within which to frame the documentation I gathered.
The more urgent decision regarding framing such an archive was to capture the differences among performance artworks and their performative strategies. Based on this, the archival framework would have to readjust with each work of art rather than arrive at a homogenous format. Therefore, I went about selecting specific artworks that would represent that difference. I started by dividing evidence into five categories—namely, “Evidence,” where we looked primarily for images and videos of the artwork; “Memory,” where we did artist interviews about the work, the preparation process, and how the artist looks back at it today; “Anticipation,” where we looked for some earlier engagements or artworks by the artist that would have paved the way for the work in question; “Revisits,” where we focused on subsequent re-interpretations of the selected artwork into other mediums by the artist at later dates; and, lastly, “Contextual References,” which brought together spectatorial readings of the work through already published materials around that artwork, such as reviews, curatorial notes, artist’s features from art magazines, blogs, etc.
The documentation of each selected artwork was organised into these five categories, even if there were works which produced no content for some of the categories. It bears mentioning that all five categories in which the documentation was organised did not necessarily comprise a holistic view of the work. In fact, sometimes the material in some of the categories would contradict those in the other folders, since the artists’ account did not match the spectators’ account, or the documentation itself did not align with the narrative the artist shared. This was precisely the point of making these categories for me, to test a prototype for an archive of performance art that is unresolved and that finds resistance from the art form it is trying to capture.
SA: You have been invested in questions concerning the history of performance art for a number of years now. These have ranged from doing research on performance art and spectatorship when you were in college, to organising discussion forums with FICA in New Delhi, as well as testing performance art practice ideas through workshops and happenings. Could you tell us briefly about your key lines of enquiry in recent years? What new questions emerged along the way, and how have you explored them?
SKS: Being an art practitioner as well as a researcher of art history and cultural studies, I have long had an interest in the genealogy of performance art. It all began with a curiosity over the factors behind the growing interest in this medium among artists around me. For years in India, an awareness about this art form grew through practice, live witnessing, and books and photographs. Yet, we are still not clear about how to define this art form. This raises interesting questions and I believe that the diversity of approaches and the kinds of practices that performance art enfolded were at the heart of this conundrum. A question that then became important for me was, what is it that we witness when we encounter this rather undefined entity of live performance artwork? And, consequently, what is it we should witness when we encounter the archive of this art form?
What I found during the course of my research in previous years was that performance artworks in India did not have a public readily available for it in the way one speaks of communities, publics, and infrastructures that were shaped around modern theatre, music, or visual arts in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Perhaps it is because, by definition, performance art is almost always interventionist and non-conformist, constantly questioning and challenging all methods of disciplinary framing, documentation, and preservation.
Yet, in many other cases, institutions and pedagogy play a part in determining the very format where those interventions are made and how they are framed. I arrived at a conclusion that performance art is less a discipline than a “paradiscipline.” By “para,” I mean it in its multiple definitions, where the practice is “beside,” “beyond,” “resembling,” “defective,” and “misleading” to its own disciplinary formation. It claims its importance and validity in constantly searching for newer idioms and forming new and more complex languages.
Even though it can be argued that there exists little definitive work on historicising or offering a contextually specific definition of performance art in India, by the twenty-first century, the term performance art had taken shape in collective memory, spanning numerous and disparate artistic explorations in the region. I had already begun looking for archives and documentation of performance art, and based on whatever I could find, I wondered whether it was even possible to trace a genealogical order in them. How does one capture a common essence from the diverse notions, opinions, and questions around such a disarray of rather arbitrary evidences? It is with these questions that I started exploring the history of this art form—with an aim not to find a convergence of what was common in them, but how different all its manifestations were.
SA: Could you share an example of what you mean by the disarray of evidences? And how did you work with them?
SKS: There was a moment when I was discussing the place of residue of performance artworks as evidence over an email correspondence with artist Inder Salim in April 2014. He had poignantly responded to my questions, saying, “We are residues of our own behavior and thought processes at every moment in time.” To me, his words made it clear that even the residue cannot be taken as standing for the same thing among artists when enquiring into this art form. For an artist like him, memories inhabit and inscribe themselves into the body where the body itself might become a kind of living residue or evidence. For an artist like Nikhil Chopra, the photographic medium may be the prime signifier of a happening that had taken place.
These kinds of detours have pushed me to develop a research methodology carried out collectively, in dialogue with multiple voices and bodies. What came out of this understanding was a series of dialogues titled “AnecDOTes” in 2014, held in Vadehra Art Gallery Delhi, where practitioners, spectators, and enthusiasts came together to share their experiences for fifteen consecutive days. These included artists such as Manmeet Devgun, Zuleikha Chaudhuri, the WALA collective, and curators including Akansha Rastogi, and Parvez Imam among several others.3 I found that I was not alone in asking those questions around the genealogies and definitions of performance art. In fact, almost all of us who had gathered had similar questions.
Documentation that stands in for memory or acts as evidence can be a tool in shaping historical research. However, it was made clear that it cannot be regarded as the primary tool in the case of performance art, particularly when your evidence is ephemeral, and the artist often dogmatically decides to keep evidence from getting fixed onto any object or document. Memory then becomes something that is not retrieved through evidence but as a site you revisit collectively and dialogically. “AnecDOTes” emerged out of that understanding.
SA: You have outlined a wide variety of questions and approaches for mapping what could be a rather different kind of history of performance art in India. But for the project you took up with AAA and FICA, it seems to have had a sharper focus in your research. Can you tell us what your goals were when you embarked on the project?
SKS: My attempt in this project was to identify works that have exemplified the diversity of performance art in India. As performance art was never an art form that artists pursued with a sole focus in their careers the way painters or sculptors did in the twentieth century, I was clear that entire artist biographies or artist archives would not suffice in understanding the genealogy of this medium. In fact, most artists who took to performance art continued to be immersed in multiple other formats of art making, which means that a different nomadic kind of format of historicising this art form would be required. Instead of working through artist biographies, around a coherent body of work the methodology would require jumping from one body of work to another and from one artist to another.
Gathering documentation of performances from the 1990s is not easy since so little of it is to be found. There were some artists for whom the photo-documentation was built into their performances, which were staged for a camera as much as for a live spectator. Artists like Pushpamala N. and Nikhil Chopra figure in this way. However, there are also artists who were ideologically against keeping any trace or documentation of their live works, so that there will always be a privileging of the time specificity and site specificity of the act with little or no mediation. Sushil Kumar was someone opposed to any documentation in photographic or other audio-visual formats. In such cases, I was bound to investigate other secondary sources, along with the artists’ and spectators’ oral accounts, which helped place the performances within a wider context.
Lastly, since all the artists in my research were practitioners who identified with the visual arts, most of them would revisit their performance artworks at a later date through their visual arts practice and would translate the performance artwork or its documentation into another medium of expression. For example, Inder Salim revisited his Yamuna Project with a series of performative photographs, poetry, blog posts, and verbal dialogue. This multiplicity of evidentiary forms made the project more interesting because it did not treat the widely accepted forms of evidence at face value, but questioned the very conceptual methods that lie behind documentation. Archiving performance art brought the focus back to the archive itself. This has led me to understand the afterlife of an event in a very different way.
SA: Could you tell us what guided the selection of performance artworks for this project? Can you take us through the works and what you found important in them in light of the concerns you’ve outlined so far?
SKS: One important selection criteria for me was to identify artists who have been committed to performance and performativity in their practice. Selecting works with that criteria as an entry point allowed me to narrow in on specific works in their oeuvre that point to very specific approaches they developed with the medium.
We are aware that artists such as Rummana Hussain and Shantanu-Manmeet were already doing performance artworks in 1995. While Rummana’s practice entailed many other mediums of expression, Living on the Margins became a hallmark of a different kind of performativity relating to the artists’ own body and its relationship to the times. In this performance work, she slowly walked around an open courtyard in the National Centre for Performing Arts with ankle bells on her feet and a papaya cut in half, gaping out in her hands. As Jyoti Dhar recounts in her essay, “[M]any of those around her—some of whom later testified to never having witnessed anything like this in India before—watched with a mixture of rapture and bewilderment, uncertain as to what Hussain would do next.”4 Hussain paced for half an hour with her mouth wide open but emitted no sound, as if there were screams that had been muted or silenced. Eventually, Hussain invited the small gathering to splatter gheru and indigo powder onto the floor. “As they joined her, it was implicit that they had not only embraced this participatory gesture, but also this novel work.”5 Very little documentation of this performance exists and there was no material residue of it either.
The works by Ratnabali Kant, who borrowed elements from her everyday life to create performances, came to be regarded as “installation performance,” while Anita Dube recounts that she started performing almost impulsively while thinking about gender and class, leading to a work where she transformed herself into a character named Noor Muhammad. A certain feminist approach to the body punctuates the history of performance art, and Hussain’s performance right at the very outset emphasised the silencing of this body and its history. The fraught relationship of performance art with art history and forms of historicising might be an apt reminder about the complexity of this art form and its archive (or the lack thereof).
Accommodating the body as an alternative medium to making art, putting the body through extreme conditions, intervening in a public space—it took time for all these aspects to be recognised within a lexicon of performance art here. So the uniqueness of the circumstances, the distinctness of practice from others around the time, and historical timing were important parameters by which I selected works. Let me outline some of the works as a way to illustrate my point.
During the late ‘80s, Sushil Kumar was one of the only artists to explore the body in public spaces, to work with nudity, and to make performative interventions. His Walking nude with a head of Fasting Buddha on the streets of Delhi or the Human Chain at the Khoj Artist residency in the 1990s remain among the rare examples of public interventions and participatory actions from that time. Likewise, Shantanu Lodh and Manmeet Devgun made one of their most controversial collaborative works, Hamam mein..., which was perhaps the first artwork in India where a married couple performed nude in public. Shantanu’s collaboration with his wife Manmeet (who took on the alias Mrs. Manmeet) remains significant for one of performance art’s most well-known tactics: to be provocative with the body. I approached Shantanu Lodh, Manmeet Devgun, and Sushil Kumar for this archive project, but they didn’t have any interest in recollecting their performance artworks and its ephemera. These were seminal moments I felt needed a place in the project, but access to them became next to impossible.
Artists like Nikhil Chopra drew upon their art school erudition, creating a performance that was an expansion of the repertoire of fine arts. As Shilpa Joglekar stated, “If one could see him (Nikhil), the way he started demonstrating how to draw in the classroom, you realise that drawing was always an act of performance for him."6 His seminal series, Yograj Chitrakar, draws upon existing genres of representation that included photography and plein-air painting and tableaux. Among other aspects, it shows an unfolding performance work over several iterations, enacted by a single artist figure. This was important for me to capture.
On the other hand, Suresh Kumar, who has been engaged in creating performative spaces for several years in Bangalore, expressed his disappointment in the fine arts pedagogic model in India, of the need to leave behind art school training before getting into performance art. His interventionist mode is well exemplified in his appearance as Handyman during a Samuha programme. The work entailed participation and collaboration with others, distributing the artistic agency.
Monali Meher’s Three Departures draws our attention to the condition of displacement and diaspora, and what it means to inhabit a body in exile. This work involved three different sites, and three different circumstances of execution. Smitha Cariappa’s Millet Flour series has been an ongoing work since 2004. The changing topography of Santiniketan and its communitarian life is what inspired Sanchayan Ghosh to produce community-oriented projects that included happenings, actions, and other kinds of performative gestures that focused on not the body but the local ecology. The engagement of the artist’s body is different in the case of Ghosh as he does not perform himself, but gathers a group of participants through theatrical exercises. A mode of collaboration is also present but rather disctinct in Pushpamala N.’s Motherland, where she collaborates with writer Mamata Sagar to stage a work like theatre.
In Motherland, Pushpamala N. and poet Mamta Sagar explored the idea of freedom and captivity through the work of the early Kannada woman writer and nationalist Nanjangud Thirumalamba. The half-hour performance lay at the intersection between performance art, theatre, and the classroom. Pushpamala presented herself in this work as the figure of “Mother India” while Sagar read literary references around Thirumalamba’s work. As would be apparent from the documentation that exists around this work, Motherland took the form of a staged and rather theatrical dialogue that had a frontal camera recording it.
Then there are interventions in public spaces like Finding Rocinante, where Tushar Joag biked from Mumbai to Shanghai through Tibet, encountering vastly different geopolitical conditions. Joag maintained a blog while embarking on this journey and performance. The auto-archival mode was built into the work most consciously compared to all others.
Of all the material collected in this project, Shilpa Gupta’s Speaking Wall was unique in how it forced the spectator to get physically involved and perform as part of the work while the artist was physically absent.
With these varied artworks, I wanted to show how issues around the artists’ body, modes of intervention, and ways of inhabiting spaces and time have all been so distinct among practitioners of performance art in India. I want this selection to compel researchers and my own future research to keep this plurality of form in mind when approaching the history of performance art in India, and to see what kind of history emerges thereof.
SA: Since you have been researching this area much prior to this project, what are the archives and resources that you have found most useful and accessible?
SKS: As I have mentioned, to find archives and resources was itself one of the most difficult challenges because of the dearth of material in public institutions around the history of performance art. On top of that, while I knew I was going to look for photographs, audio and video recordings, published writing and press clippings, and perhaps even artist diaries and notes, I kept questioning whether that would be enough. What about performance art’s resistance to the archive? How would I capture that? As I’ve mentioned previously, several practices opposed the idea of material residue in favour of ephemerality. So, whenever I met artists regarding this project, this ambiguity presented itself at the very outset. “What will be the nature of this archive?” would be the first question, followed by several others: “What kind of documentation will work for this performance artwork? Can memory inscribed into or onto a body be captured somehow as well? And where will such resources reside? What would be the most reliable source? The artist? The spectator? Or, the organisers of the event?”
A majority of these enquiries were addressed through dialogues with artists and witnesses, about memory and the archive vis-à-vis performance art. It was always interesting to hear how artists were describing what an archive of their work could be rather than what archive already exists around their works.
In cases where artists had already built a kind of documentation into their own work, it was different. For example, if you looked at Kissa-e-Noor Mahammad by Anita Dube, the work was itself a video documentation of a performance she had done. The video then becomes a documentation for my research pupose while also circulating as an artwork. It sought to portray the Noor Mohammad expressing the nine “rasas” (emotional states/flavours) that are considered as the essence of theatre, derived from the rasa theory outlined in the seminal ancient Sanskrit treatise on performance Natya. Through the character of Noor Mohammed, Dube’s work shows an individual who transforms from an amiable and affable man into an aggressive fundamentalist, a trope often deployed in popular culture as a stereotype of certain religious identities.
Inder Salim's Yamuna Project started off as a momentary improvisation, but gradually took the form of a multilayered work comprised of poems, blog posts, and revisits to the site of performance. Thus my archival strategy and the most useful resources were the accounts of the artists and witness—to discuss how memories of an event can be materialised and how revisitations can be made.
SA: Finally, in your own journey of research, what would you see yourself pursuing after this project, with regard to unpacking performance art’s history?
SKS: This year, the infamous work of Marcel Duchamp, Fountain (1917), is a hundred years old, and as a centenary celebration I am writing a series of essays in the Assamese language. This project helped me to rethink certain matters.
Also this year, Irom Sharmila, a lady in Manipur who fasted for sixteen long years at a stretch as a form of protest against state atrocities in Assam brought the fasting to an end. There were farmers from different parts of the country who came to the capital, protesting and adopting different visual methods to be visible to mainstream media. A number of protesters in Rajasthan have been digging their own graves to claim their own land. These are volatile moments today that, for me, should compel us to rethink how we see performance art not only in a genealogy of art history, but alongside these modes of gathering, performing, and claiming public spaces.
This project was conceived as a pilot project, not merely a stand in for an archive of Performance Art in India. I hope it will instigate more dialogue and unpack the positioning of performances and their archives.
Samudra Kajal Saikia is a columnist, researcher, and a practitioner of interdisciplinary art practices. After completing a MA in Art History from M.S. University of Baroda, he founded a media entertainment company in New Delhi, has been involved with curatorial and pedagogic initiatives like Regional Art, Performance and Events, and Nine Schools of Art, New Delhi. Saikia was the recipient of FICA Public Art Grant, 2010, and the Ila Dalmia FICA Research Grant, 2013.
AAA and FICA are grateful to all the artists and practitioners who contributed to this project in invaluable ways, whether through the sharing of documentation, making time for interviews and conversations, or enriching this research with their insightful perspectives.
1. Mark Tully, “Tearing down the Babri Masjid,” BBC News, December 5, 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2528025.stm
2. The founding of SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust) was one such example. As noted on by SAHMAT, “[w]riters, painters, scholars, poets, architects, photographers, designers, cultural activists and media persons formed the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust/ Committee within weeks of Safdar Hashmi’s death.” http://www.sahmat.org/aboutsahmat.html
4. Jyoti Dhar, “Prescient Provocateur: Rummana Hussain,” ArtAsiaPacific, Sep/Oct 2014, http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/90/RummanaHussain
6. Excerpt from an email exchange with the artist from 2016.