Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Folktale

This is not really a story of how the Hornbill Public Art Festival came to be; but it is a good story. And, like all good stories, there is a lesson to be learnt at the end. Boka (how that name came about to be is another story) was waiting in Sikkim for a very famous artist from Bangladesh. Now, the story does not really start at the Sikkim check post, but we will enter the story from here.

Boka might as well have been waiting for Godot. Mehboob ur Rehman was stuck at the Sikkim border check post because he had been given the wrong visa by the Indian government. Bangladeshis need a special restricted visa to enter Sikkim, and Mehboob had a normal visa. So, he was stuck at the Sikkim border check post for two days, unable to participate in ‘Blooming Sikkim’- the Public Art Festival at Gangtok which Boka was curating.

Boka went to meet Mehboob at the check post and there were no words for their incredulity at the situation, as it became murkier by the hour, entangled in bureaucratic protocol. And, out of these unspoken words, was born a story. A story of borders. The border between India and Bangladesh. And, people whose lives are divided by these borders. Though one side is no different from the other. So, they set out to find the people to whom this story belonged. And, they came across a village in Meghalaya called Ichamati. Whose brothers live on one side and fathers on the other. They decided to share this story with everyone through the medium of art, in the second month of next year. While that story waits to be heard, this one ends.

I know I promised you a moral to the story. But, this is not a Jataka tale where the moral is spelt out for you in caps and bold formatting. It is a post-modern folk tale set in neo-liberal times where the meaning is open ended, deliberately distorted and needs to be construed

Wednesday, December 14, 2011



AIM: To purify dirty water and make it fit for consumption for Christians, Hindus and Muslims

METHOD: Traditional filtration process

APPARATUS: Three traditional Naga earthen pots- one filled with coal, the second with sand and the third with gravel; Tripartite division at the bottom with a separate tap for each religion

CONCLUSION: _______________________________

Monday, December 5, 2011


A local taxi, with strangely a yellow star on its front,  skids to an almost stop. The door has been slid open even before the van stops and it is already accelerating before I am completely seated. The powerful smell of paint assails my senses and before I can catch my breath, we are at our next stop. A black gate. I fumble for my camera. Bad move. Before I remove the lens cover, there is already a strange orange symbol on the gate. Next stop. I am better prepared, armed with my camera. The compound wall of a government office. My inbred urban discipline groans, looking around to see if anyone’s going to stop us. Before people start gathering, we are gone. A church wall. Garbage box. Traffic signal junction. People invite us to paint inside their houses. What is it they ask? I don’t know…Rock..Star? Why don’t you ask the artist? ‘Speak up!’, he quips and we are on our way again

Monday, November 28, 2011

K-Pop in Nagaland

Korea is a very small country in terms of its geographic extent... but if one were to measure the size of its cultural territory, it covers mainland China, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Nepal and more recently, parts of north east India- specifically Nagaland. Young Nagas are dressing in the latest Korean street fashion and sporting the hair dos of their Korean pop idols. CDs and DVDs of Korean movies are selling by the dozen in its markets and Korean words are casually tossed around in conversations. Commonly referred to as K-Pop, the musical genre is now also a popular subculture with its style and fashion derived from diabetically sweet and catchy tunes sung by cute, virginal idol groups dressed in bright candy colors.

This peculiar product of our increasingly globalized world may seem surprising given the absence of any historical exchange between the two seemingly distant, disparate parts of the world- now linked through You Tube, Facebook, Twitter and most significantly, the Arirang TV Channel. The phenomenon has been ushered in within the last decade with the airing of this popular Korean TV Channel, coinciding with the ban on Bollywood films and Hindi channels in Manipur by the Revolutionary People’s Front in September 2000. The videos and movies offer an alternate reality with beautiful, happy boys and girls frolicking around, far removed from the hardships and political turmoil the Naga youth live through. At the same time, they can identify with the Korean idols due to the closeness of their features when compared to Bollywood and Hollywood actors. In the light of the tensions and distrust that mark Nagaland’s relation with the Indian government, a style of dressing which is distinctly different from the ‘Indian’ way of dressing also became a statement of expressing this difference and establishing a separate identity. 

Just as the older generation across India bemoans the loss of traditions to Western culture, many of the older Nagas fear the loss of their culture and identity to this Korean Wave. Though I have to confess this culture from the farthest east does catch on fast, with the bubblegum-popping, ice cream-slurping, carefree teens providing sweet respite after a hard day at work, given my cynical origins. My initiation began with Generation Girl (SNSD) which I would recommend as a must watch to get a generous syrupy dose of K-Pop, which should be followed with Kara, After School, Wonder Girls, to name a few girl bands. The Big Bang seems the least effeminate of the boy bands and would be my pick over others like SuperJunior, SHINee, 2PM. Though, while I was flipping through their photographs in the name of research, this gorgeous, gelled up fifteen-something from the band SS501 caught my eye, only the next day I couldn’t remember which one it was… there are always so many of them in a group...!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


From Vishal Rawlley’s balcony overlooking Hauz-i-Shamsi, we can see and hear the ‘mela’ for the weeklong festival, Phoolwalon ki Sair at Mehrauli; the lights of the not-so-giant wheel gyrating to the latest Bollywood beats. There could not have been a more apt backdrop to plunge headlong into a conversation on ‘art for the masses’ that has a sense of humor as well. With his latest artwork, the 'Magarmach' which “will bite you if you dirty the lake”, quietly floating in the darkness of the polluted waters of the Hauz, Vishal chats with Swati Janu on everything except for what he plans to do at Nagaland…

VR:       For me, the audience is the public. A mela like this is the ultimate inspiration… Sign board painter, the local literature, album covers- they define our culture and media. The art world is closed-looping within itself. Borrowed ideas are sold as art in the galleries. I feel uncomfortable in that space. I have nothing to talk to artists about. I want to talk to my neighbors. They are the people I understand. I’m a film maker…cinema, architecture, music…these are the things I understand. One of the first projects I worked on was an art film on three magicians… magic shows, circus, melas…these are dying art forms today…

SJ:       A lot of your work on Bombay Arts is on such local dying arts, such as documenting Bhojpuri music album covers, urban typography etc. Are you experimenting with kitsch as art?

VR:       What is kitsch? It is just a different perspective of looking at art. What is kitsch for you is a daily aesthetic for someone else. I call it urban folk art. It is a living, breathing culture. I wouldn’t bracket it as such... 

SJ:      However, the kind of work you are doing is not what is commonly perceived as 

VR:      It is using different media. If you are a film maker, you automatically think of the audience. More than just self- expression, for me art is about communication. Art lies in the connection with the people…it needs to be a dialogue. It cannot be static; it needs to be interactive… Media provides that communication. I believe in a very DIY, handmade approach, which involves the people. For instance, this ‘Magarmarch’ would not have been possible without the support of the people here. Even though it is a public space, it is illegal to put anything in the lake (not that it stops the people from dumping into it!) since it is an ASI protected area. But, everyone feels a part of it; from my barber to my bai, they ask me about it. Initially I received a grant for the ‘Borak’ artwork that I had floated last year. But, it drowned and we rescued it and put it back together with the help of the locals.

SJ:        Did you receive another grant for the ‘Magarmach’ this year?

VR:       No, this is out of my own initiative. As part of the Phoolwalon ki Sair mela, I had also proposed another interactive installation to the authorities. It consisted of plywood cut out hoarding of Rajnikant at which one could shoot with a Chinese laser toy. But, they didn’t show much interest and it didn’t happen…

SJ:       Very clearly your artworks do not belong inside galleries. Is this a conscious attempt to stay away from those spaces and the sale of art? 

VR:       I am not in the market of making goods of cultural consumption. My artwork can be sold if anyone is willing to buy it. It’s very easy to make… I can make another one! Many times it is a natural reaction or simple discovery. For instance, you might have seen this little animation in the porn section on Bombay Arts. Porn back then was printed because photographs could not be taken. The colors would very commonly be off in the badly printed German magazines of those times, which is what people had in the name of porn. The printing offset of blue and red ink is what I used to create a 3d effect.

SJ:      From ‘Dil Mange Mor’ in Old Delhi and ‘Legend of the Sea Lord’ in Mumbai to ‘Borak’ and now ‘Magarmach’, would you like to tell us the story of your voice-light technology?

VR:       I started as a film maker; I was working on documentary films, art films. So the story goes back to the time when it became hard to make documentary films. Bollywood was dead. Television had come in a big way. Internet had come around 1999, where you could do your own thing… my world had opened up but I could not communicate with everyone. From even my parents who don’t like to SMS- to people who can’t type. Typing and reading becomes a barrier in communication through the internet. So, what is that thing that everyone uses most commonly and easily? It is a cellphone. I came up with the idea of audio blogging for the masses- the idea of using a phone to activate things. But, the idea didn’t take off… perhaps because I am a bad entrepreneur. A server distributes calls and I was trying to eliminate that. With ‘dil mange mor’, I worked out a prototype where no computer was required, where a person could interact directly with the installation.

SJ:        What is the technology behind it?

VR:       It is very simple. It is a simple electronic device, like the lights which switch on and off by a clap. I try to use simple mechanisms I pick up from the street culture or the local toys I like to collect. 

SJ:      The ‘Borak’ you installed last year and the ‘Magarmach’ this year, to spread awareness on the polluting of the lake and to stop people from dumping in it; what has been the reaction and feedback?

VR:      Abhi bhi fenkte hai! It is a bad habit they cannot overcome. Overtime the stench is in their own backyard but like it is said, common sense isn’t all that common. We did manage to stop the sewage drains from emptying into the lake though. I met with the councillor for this and once we raised the issue, the authorities stepped in. Now the drains are connected to the municipality drain which already existed, but somehow it was the lake they were draining into all along.

SJ:        To think you had to pull out the borak from these waters…

VR:       Not just swim to save it but I have had to always swim to change the batteries on that thing as well… 

SJ:        [incredulous look]

VR:      [laughs]...and then bathe in Dettol, of course! First I tried using Christmas lights and a locally made inverter and later, even motorcycle batteries. In fact I tried installing a fountain sort of a water jet which would dance with the sound, but it would use up the batteries too quickly. Today, of course it is solar powered… [wide grin]

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Her little studio apartment at Sanskriti Foundation is drowned in the cackle of a thousand birds, the unusual calls building up to a cacophony in sudden crescendos, crashing like waves against our ear drums. Recorded at Percé, Qué in Canada, Ruth Buck intends to use these sounds at the Nagaland public art festival in December. Previously having played these sounds at a metro station at Montreal, Canada, the artist piqued the curiosity of the passersby, overlaying their regular associations of the space with new ones. Released from their origin to an urban or geographic setting where they did not belong, Ruth used the sound scapes to create new meanings, deconstructing their notions and experience of that space.

During her ongoing Prohelvetia studio residency stay in Delhi, the artist has been continually fascinated with what she is able to see and find on the ground on her walks around the city, evocative of the contrast and diversity that she thinks epitomizes India. From garbage to manicured lawns to the coolness of the stone flooring beneath her feet at a Mughal tomb, Ruth is currently working on a project where she wants to ‘hang’ pictures of the ground on the wall. Another ongoing project that hangs on the walls of her residency apartment is an artwork made of patterns formed by white and black paper she has left out in the sun, which has faded in contrasting ways in the parts she chose not to cover. 

Using light as her constant source of inspiration and expression, an artwork of hers that the artist wants to carry to Nagaland to work on with the people there, apart from her sound-scapes, is her photo-performance. Titled ‘Blind Date’- the installation, initially put up in 2003 at her residency in Canada, consisted of light boxes with ethereal pictures of the artist in different body postures, silhouetted against the light coming from behind her, hidden behind a gauze screen with only a cut-out for her face, subtly playing with light and merging the image and the shadow blurring the perception of what is reality and what is not real what is hidden and not known. Hidden behind the gauze screen, which the artist recently bought from Nehru Place and fondly shows us, would be the bodies and stories of the Nagas whose faces need to be seen, who are an inconspicuous part of the country today. It is such mediums of expression that the artist works with, where there are multiple meanings new meanings to be discovered where the result cannot be known