In 1983 a New Delhi based foundation called the International Society for Traditional Arts Research  met Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha, founder of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Bombay, to undertake a rather novel dream – documenting Indian music in notation form. Working with the tools of the time, the project relied on developing an automated software. Dr. Bhabha had always wanted to translate a “Hindustani” musical piece into a written code that could communicate the vigour and improvisational nature of the style. An avid aficionado of Western Classical music he was conscious of, what he felt to be, a lack of recognition of the colloquial art in the global arena. A musical script dedicated to the form, he thought, would help address this neglect.

That music is a ‘universal language’ is a romantic notion that has endured the test of time. The over-arching belief is that music transcends linguistic barriers and can thus communicate across cultures. Yet, music is often defined by various cultural genres, each with its own unique structure and grammar. The sound created by a Violinist trained in classical European traditions is different from that of a Violinist trained in Karnatak (or ‘Carnatic’) music. An alaap is difficult to compare with a Coloratura soprano. In a discourse as vast as “Music” it is important to outline what is being included (and thus excluded) under the title of universal and just how “language” is being defined.

If the act of listening to music is comparable to listening to spoken language then perhaps musical notations maybe considered its written equivalent. In western classical traditions the aural script was created as a means of preserving and communicating how a piece sounded, pictorially. The system of notation which was eventually developed could be compared to a cipher, which gives musicians concise information about how the composer intended for a piece of music to be played. This was of course much before audio recording and playback.

Western Staff notation. International established as an indirect result of colonization, missionary activity and ethnomusicological research. In the course of the 20th C. it has become a common language among many musical cultures. Source:

In 1983 a New Delhi based foundation called the International Society for Traditional Arts Research (ISTAR) met Dr. Jamshed J. Bhabha, founder of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Bombay, to help actualize a novel dream – documenting Indian music in notation form. Working with the tools of the time, the project relied on developing an automated software. Dr. Bhabha had always wanted to translate a “Hindustani” musical piece into a written code that could communicate the vigour and improvisational nature of the style. An avid aficionado of Western Classical music he was conscious of, what he felt to be, a lack of recognition of the ‘colloquial arts’ in the global arena. A musical script dedicated to the form, he thought, would help address this neglect.

Jogiya – Mashkoor Ali Khan See the AUTRIM score at

The project which resulted out of this collaboration between ISTAR and the NCPA studied and charted raga’s (raaga), the base framework for improvisation in Indian classical music. When attempting to translate a raga for a musician trained in European classical music a raga can be held similar to a melodic mode, I discover in the course of research. Even so, it is not an express translation, which would explain why the ISTAR NCPA project took close to two decades to be realized. Intending to document Indian music Bernard Bel, James Arnold and Joep Bor, initiated the project. Through the years Dr Suvarnalata Rao and Wim van der Meer joined the team. Together they tried to give a defined framework to the archival project now called the Automated Transcription for Indian Music (AUTRIM).

“When India will have its own Beethoven, there must be a tool for him to write down and express his musical thoughts.” Dr Jamshed Bhabha Source:

At its core the AUTRIM is a manifestation of a group of people trying to understand sound via the sense of sight. Fundamentally the software extracts pitches and plots a graphic line.Thanks to digital music-player displays sound-waves have now becomes a recognizable visual to indicate sound. But are such displays helpful for a musician to read music? During a chat Dr. Rao, Research Scientist and Indian Music Programming head at the NCPA, reminds me that that music is an acoustic signal. “But when you are trying to transform it into a visual form, especially using a computer, it often gives you too much information. In a sense, things that we are not able to perceive aurally are still picked up by the machine.”

AUTRIM is not an app that can automatically transcribe music. While there is a base software that one feeds the sound into, a great amount of work went into decluttering the graphics and mediating the collated information. Consider the movie below, for instance. The human voice is depicted by a single line set against a graph which indicates scale, as opposed to a complete sound wave. While the software was able to pick out the reverb converting this into a written form involved a process similar to the auditory breakdown a dictionary explanation of how a word must be pronounced describes. A supercalifragilisticexpialidocious into suːpəkalɪfradʒɪlɪstɪkˌɛkspɪalɪˈdəʊʃəs

Ravi Shankar – Raga Ahir Bhairav See AUTRIM score at

Besides serving as a means of translating music the AUTRIM was also imagined as a means of communication. Music is an abstract entity, Dr. Rao points out “when you are not trained and some notes are sung to you, you cannot identify the note.” As a musician however it is important to understand how notes are connected and why the connection is a characteristic of the note. A musician may also need to identify one raga from another, understand how each note is played. It however takes a trained ear to understand how notes ought to be played, says Dr. Rao.  Above all the purpose behind the creation of AUTRIM was to aid the untrained ear to read music. In the absence of training it acts as a bridge, helps communicate. It does this not only by representing the sound of music as a visual, but also by attempting to get across ragas– the base framework of auditory Indian music- in a written language understood by those acquainted with classical western notations.

Pandit Bhimsen Joshi – Raga Basant See AUTRIM score at

Wim van der Meer, Chief Editor of the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society, emphasized the importance of this bridge AUTRIM offers. “Indian Music is now taught in universities and music schools around the world. Since I have been involved in the development of such programs I personally know many of the teachers and they often use AUTRIM as a basic reference for their knowledge and teaching of ragas”. It is the Music in Motion, the visual representation of the melodic movement, which is an enormous help in understanding the fine details of music, he says.

AUTRIM hinges its existence on technological development and it would be a folly to ignore how technology has impacted musical education. DR. Rao indicates that, though accessible across the world, the AUTRIM website sees a higher traffic from outside of India. Van der Meer, on the other hand, emphasized on the growing interest in Hindustani classical music in the subcontinent. It may be argued that musical writing in general has become easier since the 80’s. Even Google doc now has add-on’s such as VexTab Music Notation to help write a musical score, albeit in European scale.

Perhaps this is what marks AUTRIM’s limitation too. Its readability makes it beneficial for western theorist and musicologists, but comparatively less accessible to curious ears, looking simply to explore new sounds and forms of music. The nature of the archival project poses fundamental questions about the audience it is catering to. Would a classical Indian musician- a practitioner of the forms AUTRIM attempts to document- be able to read these scores? Even though the core discourse the AUTRIM experiment hinges on is technology its pedagogic role is undeniable. Besides converting music into image it’s significance lies also in attempting to convert a sensorial experience into a tool of learning. There are colloquial interpretations that drive certain ragas to have multiple versions. Yet, in it’s description of the Asavari, for instance, the text on the website says, “To avoid any confusion the type of Asavari – which is nowadays by far the most common…”. Perhaps a small but crucial part of the story is lost in the formalization AUTRIM effects.

Raag Desi – Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib See AUTRIM score on

With video and audio recording becoming easier to store and access online and in digital archives, why do we still need musical notions? For one, it allows orchestral symphonies, that is over a 100 instruments to play in synchronicity. But how does this translate to Indian classical performances? Perhaps it can facilitate more collaborations across musical traditions like the Cross Currents Trio- featuring Dave Holland with double bass, Zakir Hussain on the tabla and Chris Potter on a saxophone.

Or perhaps it caters simply to established norms of human communication, which requires a more tangible form of ‘reading’ to communicate.

Devanshi Shah is an architect and a writer with a Master’s degree in History and Critical Thinking from the Architectural Association, London and a Bachelor’s in Architecture from Mumbai. She has writen for Architectural Digest India (Digital), On Stage and the co-author and Deputy Editor of the recent architectural publication N.A.S.I.K. Project. In September 2016 she was a participant at The Utopia School, Copenhagen. She facilitated classes and working groups on architecture around the theme of Utopia’s built or imagined. She authored a mini-zine, in collaboration with the School for the ALT CHP art festival. In 2017 she partook in the Goa-based festival Story of Space. She was the Set Designer for an experiential theater production titled ‘The Floating Market’ in Delhi, a volunteer at The Goa Project 2016 and 2017, and a Curatorial Associate at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.


Underground – that which runs parallel to what is above ground – sometimes in proverbial darkness, oftentimes subversive and secretive. Think of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by African-American slaves to escape into free states with the help of those sympathetic to their cause. Think of underground parties – pop ups dotting the urban landscape, known for their last minute locations in warehouses and mills, pulsating with music, and the promise of mind-altering substances. What does the Underground mean in the context of art and art movements? So much of what is produced by artists is deeply political in nature – the origin of street art, very often produced under the cover of darkness, by artists who chose to remain anonymous; or performance art speaking out against fascist and authoritarian regimes, taking place spontaneously; fleeting in its presence so that a statement is made, with the artwork vanishing shorty after. Think of underground movements – quiet and steady, mobilizing people for or against causes through art. When we posed this theme for October, we were curious to see what ideas were evoked through the idea of the underground. These articles are in no way representational of the entire spectrum of the phrase “underground” and its association, but rather, look at different understandings of the idea. We present three varied propositions – looking at kitsch, which began as low art but is now a part of mainstream pop-culture as desi-cool; alternate spaces or “other grounds” providing legitimacy to voices that emerge from under the routine; and finally, a look at women’s protests and movements against violence in Northeast India using a multitude of “weapons” – including song, poetry and even their own bodies as sites of resistance. Read these stories through October.

Image credit: Nandita Jaishankar
Reverie & resurrection, m.v. zola | Infinite walls


Women have been witness to and recipients of the armed movements in North East India, and have struggled for decades to be the harbingers of peace. Their work in both these contexts remains primarily invisible and underground. Even though they appeal for peace and justice, they are trapped in a patriarchal whirlpool of rights and access to resources. In a recent mob lynching incident in Assam, one of the singers publicly asked why women couldn’t save the youths from the mob. In recent years, women within diverse groups like Naga Mother’s Association, Meira Paibi (women’s movements) in Manipur, women’s associations in Mizoram, women’s groups in Meghalaya and Mahila Samities in Assam have engaged in protests against violence in private and public spaces. In all these pursuits, many contemporary women’s groups like North East Network, Sisterhood Network, Bodo Women’s Justice Forum, Wing NE, Nirjaton Birodhi Oikya Mancha, The ANT and LGBTQIA groups within the institutional spaces have emerged to engage in creative ways to include the role of women in negotiating peace and social justice. They have used various creative expressions to address the context of conflict and unrest. While exploring some memorable slogans by women’s groups in North East India, I came across some striking ones, including ‘Shed No More Blood,’ a movement by Naga Mothers’ Association to stall the fights between the armed forces and Naga movement in 1994 in Mokokchung, Nagaland. Another prominent movement called for the repealing of AFSPA (Armed Force Special Powers Act) 1958 which continues to remain a draconian law in some of the North East states.
Irom Sharmila poem
In Manipur, Especially, armed forces have had an adverse impact on women compelling them to demonstrate naked in front of the Kangla Fort in Imphal in 2004 to protest the rape and killing of a woman named Thangjam Manorama Devi who was allegedly linked to an underground group. This incident stirred the consciousness of women’s groups across the country and the world, when elderly women staged a naked protest to defame army atrocities on innocent people. Writings from the region stir women’s emotions in the process, calling them to action.
18 Degrees Festival, Shillong

The 18 Degrees Festival in Shillong connected art, stories, performances and movements. On the one hand, these movements have encouraged women to take on the role of symbolic motherhood to resist violence with direct action in Manipur; however,  it has also appealed to peace in Nagaland and Assam. “We are all Manorama’s mother!” spoke the Meira Paibi women during the naked protest in front of Kangla Fort. As Teresa writes in her book Mothers of Manipur, ‘Elders do not touch a phanek [traditional Manipuri skirt] as a mark of respect. The women screamed at the soldiers, ‘If you touch our phanek, we will beat you with it instead of a stick. We will challenge your guns with a phanek.’ And every Meitei man knows what this can mean.’ Looking at more recent writings, Thingnam Anjulika Samom heralds a new #hashtag poetry series and strikes gold in connecting women, work, home and politics in Zubaan’s Centerpiece.

I remember watching a documentary where a Tangkhul woman shared her memories of weaving a mekhala design in memory of the army atrocities on women in her community.

In The Exodus is Not Over, Nandita Haksar writes about a Naga migrant worker in a metropolitan who survives extreme adversities in contemporary times. Every migrant worker whom Haksar refers to in the book is inspired by Lifesong by Shelmi Sankhil,

‘From land afar I have come
Leaving green, blue sky and cool streams all behind
I carry dreams in my heart
And live each day remembering guns and tears.’

I recall an Angami Folk Song which depicts the resilience of women who, despite pain, sorrow and  through all difficulties, continue to work for the family for its happiness and well-being. An Ao Naga warrior shawl was fashioned by women to inspire and reward heroic exploits of the men in warfare during olden days. Easterine Kire writes in her poem Kelhoukevira

‘…We’er waiting for silence to scream.
So that the guns may be silenced and fear obliterated.
A nation has been waiting fifty-seven years to be born.
The exodus is not over.
This is not the destiny of the Naga people.
What we have now is not what we want.’

Prayer Hill, Manipur is a memorial of ethnic conflict between Kuki and Naga communities

In the Naga hills post conflict movements are far more heart wrenching than the violent past. Women’s groups and individuals are expressing their realities through writing, poetry, song and street art. While understanding movements in Mizoram, V. Sawmveli  and Ashley Tellis in The Peripheral Centre write about patriarchal silencing of atrocities on women as a part of the Mizo peace process, and the reclamation of traditional proverbs that were used to oppress and belittle them, citing Lalrinawmi Ralte’s rewriting of a popular saying that devalues women as crab meat in the form of what she calls ‘Crab Theology’.They bring out an interesting insight about this “crab theology”, expressed through dance and recreate Mizo spirituality with renewed physical creativity.

In her poem ‘What Poetry Means to Ernestina in Peril’, Mona Zote writes,

‘What should poetry mean to a woman in the hills as she sits one long sloping summer evening
in Patria, Aizawl, her head crammed with contrary winds, pistolling the clever stars that seem to say:
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away…

…Poetry must be raw like a side of beef,
should drip blood, remind you of sweat
and dusty slaughter and the epidermal crunch
and the sudden bullet to the head.

Sit in for peace, Guwahati

In Assam, diverse movements on language, tribal identity, peasant struggle and autonomy have been ongoing for the last five decades. But in any situation women have been at the tail end of the tunnel waving a white flag for peace. In one of her short stories, The Test, Anju Daimary deals indirectly with insurgent violence. “At the request of our leaders, we would write one-act plays or poetry with political messages during the years that the Bodo movement was going on so that they could be performed in rallies and political meetings. They might have been printed in souvenirs or journals, thereafter, but we have not compiled them,” informs Renu Bodo who was involved in the movement for almost two decades.

In Yatra by Indira Goswami (Mamoni Raisom), she said, “No guns here? It almost seems as if a soft green carpet has been laid over the land, concealing all the traces of blood.” It was her peace appeal which moved the civil society, state and underground groups to come for talks. Some women’s journeys never stop with the sudden bouts of violence, state repressions, systemic threats and public outcry. They are still weaving the bruises of women’s lives back to peace and stability through consistent community peace and livelihood initiatives. Poets like Kaberi Kachari have voiced their experiences of being a witness to the ULFA movement from close quarters. Even Arupa Patangia Kalita has flagged the subaltern women’s voices in her epic novel Felanee and also in The Musk and Other Stories.

Jogmaya Chakma’s ‘The War Dress’ engulfs her story of struggle which is felt in Tripura

“…There are diseases,
Of sabotage and pangs of uprooting.
My poet, from your body
Even for a moment
You could not take off
The war dress.”

Activisim by women against violence in Assam. Image courtesy North East Network, Protest by women against violence in Assam. Image courtesy North East Network

Mamang Dai’s ‘The Sorrow of Women’ captures women’s plight within larger movements in Arunachal Pradesh.

‘…and they are talking about escape,
About liberty, men and guns,
Ah! The urgency for survival.
But what will they do
Not knowing the sorrow of women.’

 These are just a few stories of her struggles to survive identities, ethnicity, customs and masculinity. Many are yet to be unfurled and some are buried under life-threatening prisms.

Kohima street art.
Photo credit: Alo Naro

Samhita Barooah has lived and worked in rural North East India for her doctoral studies which she completed this year. Her past work spreads across human interest issues, media and teaching social work students. She works as an independent researcher, writer and traveller.


The other day, I was wondering why a man working in the corporate sector in Delhi would choose to wear a pair of ‘moochwala’ yellow boxer shorts at home. Why would an IT professional from Bengaluru redecorate her place with a specific set of teal scooter cushion covers? How does adding a multi-coloured owl pendant to your wooden box of accessories make you feel like your sense of style is cool and quirky? After combing through Instagram for hours and discussing this with a few friends at Cyberhub Social—a cafe mimicking a chawl, on the ground floor of a 15 storied office complex—I figured that I need to start by understanding the currently booming trend of desi kitsch within the contemporary urban Indian market. It’s important to acknowledge that what was once considered B-Grade and tacky, underground artis now headlining the products by leading Indian lifestyle brands. When I use the term underground, I am talking about art that is, on the whole, not independently recognised, be it in galleries or in the commercial space. The main reason behind this is the general perception that this art is not ‘art’ enough. And according to this idea, all the kitsch art around us—the glorious interior and exterior decor of rickshaws, the incredibly beautiful truck art from the Indian subcontinent, the hand-painted signboards and posters, the upbeat songs in vernacular languages—has to be considered underground because, there’s very little possibility of them to be recognised in the art world as mainstream.

Image sourced from Delhi Magic by Deepa Krishnan

A considerable part of our perception is based on and strengthened by societal conditioning that dictates what is good and what is not. Our judgement of any cultural phenomenon is influenced by these deep-rooted, well-formed biases of high and low culture. This divide obviously has a strong association with the segregation of classes. Perhaps, that’s also the reason why the art of the ‘free man’, who has enough wealth, space and time to invest in a creative endeavour is considered to have achieved higher intellectual and artistic excellence, while the art of the ‘working man’ that has found its balance of aesthetic expression and function is considered mere utility or at most, decorative art. When the boundary between these classes is blurred, this distinction becomes difficult to make. We can easily differentiate between the characteristics of the two extremes where at one end you have all the pastels and on the other the high-contrast neons. But somewhere in the middle, on the edge of both these classes, is where the fun lies. When a meaningless kitsch expression shows the possibility of having meaning to it, the identity of it being ‘low’ begins to dilute. Kitsch is believed to be an unplanned juxtaposition of unrelated aesthetic entities, but with an appropriate context one can attach meaning, and subsequently some value to it. As the worth of art is effectively decided by the mode of its consumption, when put in an elevated setting (a setting that validates ‘art’) visually kitsch material becomes a worthy participant of the gathering. This not-so-small space is frequented by the partially-free-working-man. This group is looking for something that offers to boost their understanding of the individuality (of the free man) while appealing to their aspirational sense of aesthetics (of the working man). In a commercial setting, you frame this art with a function and it becomes a valuable, saleable product for this transitional class of consumers, I’d add, a significant part of this class, with new money and having the constant need to stand out and feel “cool”, similar to what has been described by Venkatesh Rao in his article about being Premium-mediocre.

When we focus on the context of India and Indian consumers, this reality is further layered. The Indian consumer is inherently blessed with a very joyful and colourful visual vocabulary. We have been brought up with and around this aesthetic of plurality of elements, colours and themes. This is probably why the western idea of kitsch didn’t really add up in the Indian landscape. Nevertheless, thanks to the bombardment of foreign ideologies and the influence of social media, the socially unaware and ‘yes, I’ve read about it on the internet’ Indian viewer compartmentalized a lot of this as kitschy, meaningless work and discarded it. It became something that’s not to be noticed, looked down upon and quite honestly, #memeworthy. But then, one fine day, when meaning was attached to this aesthetic, it was reclaimed as ‘being desi’. With clever exploitation of apparent national pride and effectively transposing one aesthetic onto another, suddenly, ‘Eew, so gaudy’ and ‘God! Too shiny!’ became ‘So vibrant!’ and ‘Look. At. That. Shine!’ Where all the restaurants and shops were once looking for an elegant ambience, they are now using appropriated versions of Dhaba culture and Thela aesthetics to do up their spaces. Where design once relied on negative space to create hierarchy, umpteen elements per square inch are the order of the day now. Where once less was moremore is not enough now.

I think multiple factors have caused this change in perception. The lifestyle of a generic, contemporary, urban Indian is quite interestingly driven by multiple stimuli from the agile socio-cultural global climate. The influence of impactful social media is getting stronger with every other click and like. Double taps are enforcing perceived sense of connections and the swipe right culture of ‘decide now, think later’ is adding a dash of thrill to everyday life. The constant bombardment of flashing visuals on our brains is perhaps numbing down our inherent tendency to look for and into the details. This social media driven attitude based on instant gratification is influencing the shopping choices and habits of millennials. And for Indian lifestyle brands, this provides a great opportunity to explore and take advantage of the changing consumer habits. Today, attaching the ‘desi’ tag to any product having vaguely Indian stylisations seems to justify its price because suddenly it is rooted in the Indian context. It is effectively positioned as something more quirky and youthful and hence becomes a commercial success satisfying the needs of this specific target group that enjoys watching ultra-colourful Holi videos shot in slow-mo.

From the Pinterest board curated by Jeevan L Xavier :  

I recently took an Uber Auto to office. The autorickshaw decor was so disturbingly tacky and shiny that I immediately logged on to Netflix to continue watching Sacred Games. I didn’t bother to think why. Later in the afternoon, as I was walking towards the food court at Cyberhub, Gurgaon—a competitive playground for all things #lit and contemporary and saleable to the socially-unaware-new-age-educated-employed  audience—I was sorely tempted by the shiny and vibrant window display of the Chumbak store to take a stroll inside. Now I know why. It is here, where a clever design intervention has changed the route of the trending market. Understanding the potential of untapped art practices, taking advantage of the market gap and cashing in on the intrigue generated because of the cultural differences, these lifestyle brands are using the underground aesthetics and putting them on the pedestal. This unrepresented art, specifically packaged for a distinct target group is finding its place in the front rows of the shelves and in online shopping carts. The gap between chic minimalism and loud kitsch is being filled by cleverly designed merchandise products and collectibles. Actually these bright contrasting colours don’t want you to or expect you to think about all this. They just want you to feel empowered to own that one-of-a-kind mass produced chai-kettle that will sit on your quilted rug on top of your wood-textured coffee table because it fits just perfectly in the 1×1 Insta-square.

From website of :

There are a lot of grey spaces in this colourful composition, to be sure. Though there have been instances where genuine efforts have been made to provide appreciative exposure to these practices, one cannot ignore the fact that, in a way, this is essentially an appropriation of genuine art for commercial benefit. Irrespective, by changing the carrier of an underrepresented aesthetic from say, the exterior of a truck, to a well-designed marketable lifestyle merchandise like a coffee mug, this ever-engaging ‘art on the backseat’ is already in the driver’s seat and ready to change gears. Is it the right direction? How does it impact the social structure of modern India? Where is it ultimately headed? I guess we’ll have to hold on to our seatbelts and see. Also… who has the time to think so much anyway? If it looks desi, it must be cool!

An alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Parag Chitale works at Penguin Random House, India as a Graphic Designer. This self-made conversationalist enjoys spontaneous well-planned adventures. Apart from adding an unavoidable dose of questionable witty humour to conversations, he consciously tries to observe, understand and reflect on the beauty of the intriguing banalities of the everyday life. Absurd humour is an acquired taste. Check his Instagram here.


Our future is informed in large part by our history and our present. When we speak of the future, we hope for better things – we think of what we are leaving behind for the next generation and the legacies that we will make an imprint upon. The future is a space infused with a hope for the things that unfortunately, the present does not provide for so many – it is a dream of freedom, security, education, peace, and choices.

So much of what is created by artists today is a direct response to our current socio-political scenarios. In 2015, Sam Thorne, artistic director of Tate St. Ives, UK, and a contributing editor of frieze, invited 10 curators to envision the future of museums 25 years from now. Their responses were varied and telling, ranging from everything addressing ideas around space, commercial viability and technology. According to Abdellah Karroum, Director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha,  “Art forms evolve continuously as expression takes shape and adopts the shared languages of the time….Museums in 2040 will continue to serve as living archives and spaces for exploring art and creative expressions from other times and locations. As well as being places of memory, museums also act as arenas in which to think about how our bodies relate to space and time, how we remember the past, our relationship to elsewhere and how we project into the future.”

With this month’s edition of Write | Art | Connect (WAC), we put forth the theme of The Future to allow writers to ruminate upon the things that occupy their thoughts when they envision the future. It was interesting to see the varied responses – addressing so many similar ideas cited above – of space, technology and identity. From an exploration of the ephemerality of Cabral Yard in Kochi as a sustainable art space, to the longevity of the analogue in a digital era; from an examination of the queering of performance spaces to questioning notions of singular national identities in a multi cultural, multi lingual and nuanced global reality, WAC is pleased to present a multitude of futures for the month of August.

The future of the future will still contain the past
Time goes slowly and times goes fast …
The future of the future will still repeat today
Time goes fast and fades away…
The future of the future will still contain tonight
The passage of day the passage of light…

  •  “The Future of the Future”, Everything But The Girl

Cover image: “Run Free”, Graffiti in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Image courtesy Nandita Jaishankar


In one of his cryptic jabs, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard took a dig at Abbas Kiarostami by suggesting that his recent movies were made without a camera. Godard was implying that Kiarostami’s meaning making emanates from his status as a contemporary author, rather than from the filmed reality of the image. Godard was amongst the first prominent voices dealing with the digital as a form of thought in images. In movies like Film Socialisme (2010) and Goodbye to Language (2014), he played with the digital as a medium of expression for thought, rather than as a technological switch with budgetary implications.

Interestingly, his quarry Abbas Kiarostami embraced the digital for his swansong, 24 Frames (2017), a tribute to the photographic epiphany. In an appropriate retort to Godard’s old jab, Kiarostami turned 24 Frames into a deep meditation of space and time by animating photographs using digital techniques on either side of an instant captured in the photographic image. Be it digital or film, cinema as a medium was a work of art made with self-consciousness for both the masters, and they provide a fitting vantage point to look at the film-digital dichotomy.

Ever since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) triggered a conversion frenzy across the globe from film to digital, fuming debates around film versus digital have also surfaced everywhere. From the 2000s, the film-digital dichotomy row was dominated by discussions extrapolating the case with blatant technological determinism. The aftermath of this paradigm shift reflected in the photochemical image making industry, with major analogue camera manufacturers either phasing out cameras and film stock, or shrinking their production for a niche market.

As a result, making a movie using any variant of film stock became a cumbersome task for filmmakers worldwide, not to mention the hurdles in film projection. With major camera equipment makers like ARRI, Panavision and Aaton venturing into the digital ecosystem, and labs like Technicolor and DeLuxe reinventing themselves as service providers for digital post-production, the outcry for the death of film started echoing from every nook and corner of the industry.

As a result, making a movie using any variant of film stock became a cumbersome task for filmmakers worldwide, not to mention the hurdles in film projection. With major camera equipment makers like ARRI, Panavision and Aaton venturing into the digital ecosystem, and labs like Technicolor and DeLuxe reinventing themselves as service providers for digital post-production, the outcry for the death of film started echoing from every nook and corner of the industry.

This was backed by arguments pointing at how the digital alternative and its tools revolutionize filmmaking and film projection. Even though professionals and critics acknowledged the technical and aesthetic supremacy of film over digital, the wind was in favour of the latter, both in industrial and artistic terms. Issues like depth, contrast and image details were levelled in the following years with digital officially replacing film in all the major facets like shooting, post production, and distribution.

The initial furor about the death of film was soon replaced with an appeal for the preservation of film stock. A prophesied future of cinema foresaw movies made simply by cut and paste; Godard’s historic jab, a movie made without a camera, was becoming a reality. Artists around the globe dreamt of a free world, barring corporate ownership, intellectual property laws and copyrights.

But the transformation was monitored and driven by the same industrial and capitalist forces which abandoned film. So far, the guidelines of this historic analogue to digital transformation were drawn, defined and executed by the industry kingpins, with a focus on cementing the technical parameters rather than reshaping film stock as an alternate medium of cinematic expression. When gauged with such parameters and guidelines of digital cinema, movies made on film stock look outdated and uneconomic. The nostalgic metal cans, which safeguarded hundreds of thousands of emotions in film reels for more than ten decades withdrew into the darkest corners of abandoned warehouses.

When I say film, I don’t simply mean 35mm film stock on the verge of extinction, but rather, the decades old process of celluloid filmmaking, which encompasses a magnificent marriage of man and machine. The harmony between human intelligence converging with creativity and mechanical precision is the soul of celluloid filmmaking. Nothing but pure black magic can match the experience in which a mysterious ray of light reflected off people and objects traveling through a camera to fall on a chemical composition, which would then reveal the same people and objects upon projection.

On the other hand, images are made as zeroes and ones, or pixels, in the digital realm and then stored in disks of varying shapes and sizes, which in turn pass through a digital editing process. They can be streamed, projected or simply played on platforms in convenient sizes and quality. Even though the whole digital process lacks the mysterious simplicity of film, it renders more possibilities for a digital artist due to its ability to transform how movies are made and consumed.

In semantic and aesthetic perspectives, the requiem for film may sound like a hyperbole. The buzz informs us about a monumental transformation and paradigm shift in technology, whereas the transformation from photochemical to digital is not merely a technology replacing its predecessor, but a relatively young art form extending its scope by adding one more medium for expressing ‘thought’.

This change brought a new set of semantic and aesthetic parameters and possibilities, which posed a question about the co-existence of two powerful media of cinema. In the earlier stages of the digital revolution, movies shot simultaneously using digital and film evoked slightly different emotional experiences from viewers. The mechanical projection of film produced higher levels of emotional repercussions, whereas the digital was less immersive.  But, most of the discourses were centered on the image as a single unit and corresponding aesthetics, rather than images as a stream of consciousness flowing through time and resulting emotional immersion in a cinematic narrative. The survival and future of film depend a great deal on this semantic aspect. The gap between perceptive differences between film and digital is closing in and technical supremacy, acceptance and flexibility of digital is almost completely established. What’s left behind is the so called grammar of cinema, whereas the digital has already created its own clichés and conventions.

Elements like collision of the shots, or montage, in film have been replaced by overlapping or superimposing digital images, which demand a new perception of multiplication, duplication and originality of an image. In film, an original negative marks the origin of the foremost visual and everything from it is a copy, whereas in digital, lines separating original and copy have vanished.

Digital also has its own patterns of evoking memories, similar to how we remember things, as a memory of a memory. When we remember something, we don’t remember an original incident, but a memory of that incident, so that the original incident functions only as a trigger for an interconnected chain of memories. As a medium of meaning-making through images, the digital constructs a vertical array of superimposed images which makes it impossible to distinguish the original image from the copies, just as it is impossible to discern the original incident from the interconnected chain of memories.

On the other hand, the celluloid relies on the horizontal stacking of images for meaning-making, which makes it possible to distinguish the original image from its copies. Both the digital and celluloid perceptions are connected with memories and meaning making in their own way, employing their own set of definitions for originals, copies and reproductions. A complex harmony between technological imperative and cinematic aesthetic can be found in both film and digital.

The history of cinema has evolved alongside the history of its medium, just as the history of painting has developed according to the chemical composition of the medium.  A medium espouses a creative process and disseminates it through poetics. With new possibilities like virtual reality start shaping the imagination of artists, there will be more additions to this spectrum. The future of film lies in its semantics, rather than in the industrial and technological supremacy of analogue over digital. That future will never belong to the film-digital dichotomy and debates, but rather, to co-existing media of the artform and visionary filmmakers who can envision a movie made without a camera.

All images from

Ragesh Dipu is an independent filmmaker and poet from Kerala. Besides making micro movies and exploring poetic expressions in nature, cinema and literature, he likes long walks, and conversations about art and culture, punctuated with coffee and cigarettes. He writes articles and columns for various online platforms in English and scribbles poetry in Malayalam at his blog


Reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ movement in the late 1980s to ‘contain’ the spectrum of identities within it, queer is an umbrella term that allows fluidity to those who want to be part of a range of identities that fall outside hetero-normativity. Like most of the world, the position that India finds itself in with regard to queerness is one of marginalisation. Also regarded as deviating from heteronormativity, the queer individual is marginalized to point of invisibility. The problem is that popular culture and mainstream art practice does not acknowledge the role played by the act of queering, in making the presence of an identity felt. I wish to make a point that queering is essentially a powerful way of normalising what is seen as deviant or against the order of nature.

Queering art practice is an effective method of addressing the problems in heteronormativity. When a performance is queered, it challenges notions of gender roles, sexuality/sexual orientation, as well as the social constructs that make heteronormativity difficult to break free from. A simple way to ‘queer’ performance would be to switch gender roles. The performance of queer is both a cultivated and instinctive form.

‘Pop’ illustration of Allauddin Khilji and his slave Mallik Kafur. Source:, Shruti Srivastava, October 2017; Still from the film Razia Sultan, Source:, Nandini Ramnath

In my opinion, the visual has always had a larger impact than any text-based artist statement or manifesto. I begin with two images as they suggest the ways in which performance creates a visual in the minds of the viewer, thereby working towards a normalization of queer desires and lives. The first image is created in the graphic narrative style, and has been doing the rounds online for some time. It alludes to the Abyssinian slave who then went on to become a general in the army of Alauddin Khilji during the 13th century. Khilji is described as a sexual deviant in some historical texts and was known to have an affinity for effeminate men. The Abyssinian slave, Malik Kafur may have been more than a servant as is suggested in this image. The scene is more elaborate in Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan. This film has Hema Malini, playing Queen Razia Sultana in a famous fantasy song sequence, “Khwab Bankar Koi Aayega”, which visually portrays Razia’s (Hema Malini) alluded sexual relationship with her female confidante, Khakun (Parveen Babi). This image also started doing the rounds a few years ago, and has been the subject of much debate.

Aravani Art Project. Source:

Apart from being subjects in works of art, queering can be art made by people identifying within the LGBTQ+ spectrum. The Aravani Art Project is a collective that has been working with street art since 2012. The work they do essentially brings the transgender community together in a creative pursuit. Beginning as a collective that works in neighbourhoods, connecting transgender people to other communities, The Aravani Art Project has become a signifier for street art in Bangalore, positioning itself as a space that provides skilled resources for street art projects. One of the aims of the collective is to reclaim the street and raise community awareness of public spaces. The public is where the transgender body performs its queerness This is symbolic space as the street is where the bodies of transgender identifying people are subjected to violence, harassment, social negligence and pressure.

Making art as a collaborative effort, specifically in the context of gender, can help unpack the politics of exclusion that the queer-identified body goes through.

Artists who work towards queering their work are essentially defying conventional ideas of ‘making’. One can see queering as resistance and therefore a leitmotif in the larger canvas of global contemporary art practice. That the queer body is problematic/disruptive/feared is something that artists should exploit. Queer activism in India has used performance and other art forms to locate the struggle of the South Asian queer body. But how does this differ from the global perception, or a Western perception of the queer body? Where does it actually begin to reflect an Indian experience of being queer? These are of course larger questions and may not be in the scope of this discussion, but we can begin by looking at art practice that has been queered to see how a narrative emerges.

Performing queerness is also about a desire for different possibilities of bodies; a desire to dress differently, a desire to not ‘fit in’. The mark of being queer is not just in the flamboyant expression of it, but in owning your self-identified gender and sexuality, and a deep belief in what has created this identity. The desire to be seen as these identities or to make people aware of these identities is what performance is trying to do. The most important point at this time is distinguishing between what is deemed criminal, and where the moral grounds for dismissing queer as a lifestyle comes from. The largest problem the queer community faces is the violence met with being queer and owning a sexual identity.

Sharanya Ramprakash, a Bangalore-based theatre actor and director who is one of the founders of the English language theatre troupe called Dramatist Anonymous (Dramanon), has developed a play that interrogates the way the Yakshagana is performed in her work Akshayambara. Yakshagana is a traditional theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue, costume, make-up, and stage techniques with a unique style and form. This theatre style is mainly found in Tulunadu and the Malenadu region of Karnataka, India. Yakshagana is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. I am of the opinion that this work is an important instance of gender performativity, both off and on stage. Female sexuality remains a subject that has yet to gain traction. This is where a play like Akshayambara becomes significant. While it does not deal directly with sexuality it does deal with the construct of gender performance. This play is an experimental work that premiered in 2015. It uses the form of Yakshagana as well as ‘Modern’ theatrical methods that interrogate the idea of representation of the female body and consequently the notion of ownership. This play has gone one to gain critical acclaim and awards for its quality and nuance when it comes to unpacking these complex ideas.

Stills from Akshayambara, Sharanya Ramprakash and Prakash Cherkady. Source: There are also more instances today, of artists making queer performance or queering performance – for example, Mandeep Raikhy’s Queen Size speaks of queer lives in great detail, addressing the issue of Article 377 and ideas of male desire. There is an attempt to normalise what has thus far been pushed to the realm of the forbidden. When performance is queered it challenges notions of gender roles, sexuality/sexual orientation as well as social constructs that make heteronormativity difficult to break free of.  Also regarded as a deviance from heteronormativity, the queer individual is seen as something that needs to be removed.

Being queer in India, especially ‘coming out’ and being publicly queer is a dangerous position. The violence faced by queer people can be anything from non-acceptance, silence and denial, not acknowledging partners and alternative families; to micro aggressions, corrective rape, house arrest, aiding and abetting suicide or even murder. My observation is that a large number of Indian people are afraid of expressing themselves or speaking about their queerness, especially because they are subjected to violence that is legitimised by law and social standards.

When speaking about queering art practice in India, how the expression of queer identity is informed can play a significant role. The experience of the field so far is that artistic expression has remained restricted to being a parallel event alongside the various Pride marches or film festivals across the country. It has been art practice in queer spaces and not art practice that is queered. Queering is a method where the idea of heteronormativity is replaced by a queer framework. For instance the earlier example of Akshayambara has a women play a man’s role in a traditionally male dominated performance. In Queen Size, two men are seen being intimate as opposed to a man and a woman. Therefore, queering art practice is something that is a nascent genre in the art world as well.

By using performance and works of art, the idea of queerness can become normalised, which often leads to acceptance of these identities. A play that speaks of the lives of sex workers in a positive light where they are ‘people with flaws’ is a queering of performance. Where typical narratives would be of ‘removing’ oneself from the work of sex, here is a narrative that looks at their lives in a normal light and the troubles they may face. The largest problem the queer community faces is the violence met with being queer and owning a sexual identity. Added to that is the imprint of heteronormativity, subscribing to its binaries and practicing that within the community. Performance also has a significant if not central role in the Avant Garde art movements and has become a practice within the visual arts. In that respect, queering in art practice can be a great tool in the fight for rights of LGBTQ+ lives.

“To be queer is not who you are, it’s what you do, it’s your relation to dominant power, and your relation to marginality, as a place of empowerment”
– Jill Dolan

 Sumitra Sunder is a Curator and Researcher, working out of Bangalore. Her PhD project locates the past 40 years of curating and resistance in art practice, focusing on collectives in Bangalore, Karnataka and the Students’ Biennale at Kochi, Kerala. As part of her curatorial work, she has co-curated the Neralu festival in Bangalore in 2014, dedicated to Bangalore’s ecology; She is part of the team curating ‘performing the periphery’ in Bangalore ad Kochi. She has worked with several organisations in the country in various capacities and helped set up the Urban Folk Projectwhich looks at folk performance and music.  She has also written about art practice, gender and queer theory in various online and print platforms.

Editor’s Note: Both Queensize and Akshayambara will be showcased at Serendipity Arts Festival in Panaji Goa this December. For details, visit


In mid-May 2018, I attended the premiere of Sydney Dance Company’s new work – ab [intra] – choreographed by the artistic director, Rafael Bonachela. Following a prevalent custom in Australia, the evening opened with an acknowledgement of country – a protocol of showing respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which an event or meeting takes place. In Australia, with its violent colonial history of genocide of the aboriginal people, this practice attempts to bring a severely problematic past into sharp focus, insisting that it sit in the present – though it may be distinctly uncomfortable like Banquo’s ghost – so as to illuminate the paths towards better futures..

This particular acknowledgement to country came in the form of a speech by a First Nations woman. With pride, conviction, and commitment, she spoke to the packed theatre, asking us to imagine a future for Australia with “my people, your people, and our people”. It was a profoundly moving experience. The use of the phrase “our people” clearly illustrated the difference between inclusion and pluralism as choices of being in the world. Inclusion implies a central tenet or a set of beliefs, which expands to generously embrace many within its fold. But to include means to choose, therefore automatically to also exclude. To be plural implies an innate multiplicity. Choosing then becomes about preference, not power, since it is not the prerogative of gatekeepers of any sort. Of course, these are generalisations, and there are pros and cons to both – as with everything else.

I was in Australia as a participant in the Arts Leaders Programme offered by the Australia Council for the Arts. The programme makes a conscious effort to ‘include’ engagements with indigenous cultures. During our residency in north Queensland in May, we had two such experiences. The first was what was called a cultural dinner ‘on country’ (the meaning of which I will come back to later), in the middle of the mangrove forests that reminded me so much of the Sundarbans. Hosted by the Mandingalbay Yidinji people, this was a lavish affair: a traditionally inspired fusion menu complete with alcohol, a white harpist from New Zealand performing intermittently in an arbour of vegetation, and short snippets of tribal dances accompanied by running commentary. The experience left me deeply discomfited. As so-called ‘arts leaders,’ what were we endorsing? That something created for touristic entertainment was representative of authentic art and culture? That it was fine to be briefly attentive between dinner courses while we drank wine? And that it was alright for ‘them’ to be brought in to perform excerpts of their culture while the white harpist from New Zealand – as much an outsider on their lands as we were – joined us at the tables for dinner?

Snippets of traditional dances with running commentary at the Deadly Dinner. (Image courtesy Kevin du Preez)

This is an instance where the acknowledgement of Australia’s original people fell into something that it is often accused of – mere tokenistic representation, where ‘they’ are ‘included’ to assuage the white man’s guilt more than anything else. Here, ‘my people’ and ‘your people’ can never make the transition to ‘our people’. In India, we are no strangers to tokenistic representation: resorts in overly exotic locales greet guests with incense sticks, garlands, red kumkum, a spurt of drumming and bejewelled dancers; music and dance of smiling tribals presented at festivals of India in contexts that could not be more divorced from those they live in – we are masters at creating an imagined idea of India seen through hopelessly rose-tinted glasses.

A white harpist in an arbour on aboriginal land. (Image by Vikram Iyengar), A traditional smoking ceremony amongst the mangroves (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

There is, however, another way where one can yield the space to the other’s voice completely, where ownership and control are relinquished, and where deep and moving truths – not part of your own milieu – are discovered. This was very much our second experience in Queensland when we went on the Ngadiku Dreamtime Walk in Mossman Gorge. The gorge is part of the Daintree rainforest, said to be almost 200 million years old. That information in itself puts our own stunted human existence and ego in perspective! The walk through the forest paths is led by local indigenous people, who – completely and effortlessly – embody what it means to be a ‘custodian’ of the land. Our guide, Santos, through easy conversation and anecdotes about the customs and beliefs of his people, touched on areas as varied as ecology, individual and community identity, medicine, sustainable use of resources, language, art and culture, inter-community relationships, and much more. How much do you use of a natural resource in any one location? How do you align this with the changing seasons to ensure sustainability? How do you leave signs for the next community passing through? How do you read what the natural world is telling you in a myriad different ways? In a nutshell – how do you quieten yourself to listen to other voices that do not sound like yours?

Santos, our guide shows us how the indigenous community in the Daintree Forest use earth colours as identity markings (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

In India’s rush to become a ‘developed nation,’ we have consistently ignored the voices and wisdom of our aboriginal peoples, who form such an integral part of the fabric of this country. Instead, we water down environmental laws, do away with tribal land rights, and sacrifice large swathes of astonishing landscapes to questionable industrialization.

In the ancient, lush miracle of the Daintree Rainforest, generosity abounds. It explodes with a diversity of vegetation and invisible living beings, each making space for itself and for the other. The indigenous peoples here seem to have imbibed this lesson: for them, ‘my people’ and ‘your people’ segue quite naturally into ‘our people’. This multiplicity could so easily become chaos and anarchy if one did not also learn when to defer and when to lead, when to speak and when to listen, when to order and when to ask. However, to suggest that everything about aboriginal life is utopian would be wearing rose-tinted glasses once again.

Santos talks about the sword and shield made from the wood of the red cedar trees like the one behind him. (Image courtesy Vikram Iyengar)

A standout feature, though, is their connection to their land. Being ‘on country’ is a term I encountered for the first time in Australia. And the synergy between the indigenous people and the lands they inhabit is palpable. That is what makes them ideal custodians: the land and all it supports is central to community ethos and ethics of First Nations people.

First Nations: note the plural. As the sole (included?) aboriginal participant in the Arts Leaders programme vehemently pointed out at one of our residency sessions last year – Australia is not one nation, we are many nations. Again, note the ‘we’. I venture to extend this affirmation: Australia may be many nations, but could it be one country?

The two terms – though often used interchangeably – propose very different ideas. A nation’s people are united by common descent, history, language or culture. These are the (hopefully fluid) parameters of inclusion. A country is a much more amorphous idea. It is not about the people, but more about the geographical entity they connect to, inhabit and add colour to; a land that may also be home to many other peoples. A country is already about ‘our’ multiple identities.

The idea of India is an experiment that imagines a country with pluralism at its core. The Indian Constitution’s Preamble – a distillation of the values the country stands by – reminds us that ‘we’ gave ‘ourselves’ this gift. Today, there is a projected image of India that paints a shining future based on a glorious, united, monolithic past. Both are imagined. Most contrived is the idea of India as one cultural entity. This land (even before it was designated as India or Bharat) has always been many: many societies, communities, peoples, arts, languages and belief systems. There is a strength and uniqueness to this that can inspire us to imagine a fretwork of multiple, parallel, crisscrossing futures that talk and contribute to each other, rather than a single, unidirectional, linear one. These are futures that – like the arts – constantly create and recreate themselves with playful responsibility and rigour.  As a country, as individuals, as artists, as citizens, as people who make up our tapestry – do we dare go down this path?

Vikram Iyengar is a dancer-choreographer-director, performing arts researcher and writer, arts manager and curator based in Calcutta. He is co-founder of the Kathak-based performance company, Ranan and initiator of The Pickle Factory – a hub for dance and movement practice and discourse. Vikram’s work spans productions, workshops and performance collaborations; research, writing and curation projects for several arts bodies; and various organisational roles. His performance work is linked by a fundamental and continuing engagement with the kathak form and kathak-informed body. An ARThink South Asia Arts Management Fellow (2013-2014) and Global Fellow of the International Society for the Performing Arts (2017), he is one of four Asia Pacific participants in the International Arts Leaders programme run by the Australia Council for the Arts (2017-18). In 2015, Vikram was awarded the Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar by the Sangeet Natak Akademi in the field of contemporary dance.


In the monsoon, the walls of Cabral Yard are mottled with moss. Raindrops seep through the piles of withered leaves, and the dense networks of brushwood overwhelm any sign of concrete. The barks of old trees intertwine over and above the crumbling walls– the image is that of ruins, of historical time outrun by overgrowth. It is difficult to imagine that, just a little over a year before, this land had hosted a large structure that was conceived as a “space for encounters,” along with an immersive bamboo and thatch structure. The same trees gave shade to groups of visitors, as long lines trudged towards an indoor shamiana made of old saris. This plot of land, in essence, is a particular kind of model– it shifts, morphs, and transforms in cyclical ways, like the strong seasonal wind that sweeps the landscape.

Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi

The Cabral Yard, in Fort Kochi (Kerala) is named after an adventurous Portuguese sailor, Pedro Álvares Cabral, who made his way to India in the early 16th century. It is believed that his charming demeanour (and likely sharp business acumen) was welcomed by the King of Kochi, and he ended up heralding the beginning of Kochi’s colonial relationship with the Portuguese. Later taken over by the Dutch, and consequently the English, the land was acquired as a property by Aspinwall & Co. in 1904, and on it they constructed a hydraulic press for coir yarn.

As part of the last three editions of Kochi Biennale, the historical site of Cabral Yard has undergone experimental transformations in the name of sculpture, installation, and a structure that houses conversations and performances. Artists and architects have thought of models that, from the very onset, are aware of their own temporality, that blend back into the earth. Keeping in mind ecological concerns, but also the danger of placing our own mortality at the centre of narratives of the future, these explorations in the space provide alternative ways of conceiving the future. As one of the artists, Amanullah Mojadidi said himself, the idea is to apprehend and perceive not in terms of “fixed realities,” but “fluid imaginings.”

Cabral Yard in Transit

Contemporary artists extended and explored their own practice in context of the site. In 2012, Sudarshan Shetty created, I Know Nothing of the End, an installation in wood. The rust-coloured earth of Cabral Yard was dug up into shallow, empty pools, and surrounded by bare concrete walls– incomplete, in transit. Wooden stairs led to intricate wooden structures that were reminiscent of memorial monuments and cenotaphs. The entire work played on the artificiality of these architectural “monuments”, on the ways in which states of emotion become part of choreographed rituals. On the one hand is what Shetty calls the “collective act of mourning,” but on the other is the artist’s consistent rapture with the nakli, or the fake versus the absolute and concrete. The lightness of a material like wood is crucial.

Sudarshan Shetty, I Know Nothing of the End

In the same year, Amanullah Mojadidi delved into the soil in the space. In What Histories Lay Beneath Our Feet, the artist created a site of archaeological excavation– a bamboo structure with maps and tools that overlooked the dug up plot of land. In shaping the space as thus, he attempted to disturb and disrupt the idea of dominant narratives, and by unearthing in a literal sense, he wanted to show the mixed layers that compose a history. By channeling a highly politicized discipline like archaeology, Mojadidi also revealed the sense of temporality in which a sphere of knowledge-making marks a history of “facts”.

Amanullah Mojadidi, What Histories Lay Beneath Our Feet

In 2014, sculptor Valsan Koorma Kolleri engaged with this strip of land (ridden with human activity), and reconfigured it into “a tactile experiential landscape of our collective memory.” While Mojadidi’s work had been a material enactment of the act of excavation, Kolleri’s excavations were a material exploration of time. As is central to his practice, Kolleri’s initial reconnaissance was into the locally available elements that characterized this site– laterite stones, mud and clay. With these found materials, he ventured into creating a variety of sculptures with the assistance the masons of ‘Shilpapaddiam’, the art school and studio that he established in Pattiam, and ‘Clayclub,’ a collective of young architects based in Ahmedabad. Calling this collective expedition How Goes The Enemy, Kolleri created figures and objects all around the yard. Over the course of the Biennale, these sculptures were subjected to the tempestuous weather of Kerala – the lashing rains and blistering heat– eventually succumbing to their entropic demise. He participated in the chaos of the land, but then he let it be.

Valsan Koorma Kolleri, How Goes The Enemy

In 2016, Cabral Yard became a space of encounters– inviting immersion, participation and discussion.  Latvian artists Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis drew inspiration from conversations with the local populace and indigenous, sustainable construction techniques for their artwork Will-o-the-Wisp. Using tethered bamboo sticks and dried palm leaves, they constructed a dark interior space with video projections. The videos were recordings of discussions they had with a variety of people about “miracles” in their lives. The allure for the artists lay in the concept of Chir Batti or ghostly lights popular Indian lore- lights that you can never reach, that elude touch but remain in the imagination. The visitors navigated the dimly lit interiors as they listened to a legion of “very different, strange stories.” They experienced the space and atmosphere inside, and heard about the miracles, briefly, like the chir batti you see but never quite catch a hold of.

Katrina Neiburga and Andris Eglitis, Will-o-the-Wisp

The yard also became a site for critique. French artists Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe constructed a steel installation, La Vénale de Bionise which took the “illusory form of a playground attraction.” On entering, the spectator was subject to spinning cylinders that would put them into a psychedelic state– a reference to the altered ways in which Vincent Van Gogh and Antonin Artaud viewed the world. This sculpture stood “somewhere between fantasy and reality”, distinct from the landscape, and yet it combined the image of the science laboratory with the temporary circus– a space for disorder and delirium.

Sophie Dejode and Bertrand Lacombe, La Venale de Bionise

The most ambitious project in this yard (perhaps we should leave colonial ambition out of this) was Tony Joseph’s pavilion in the same year. Known for innovation, the architect-artist created a facade which housed three hundred people at a time. The structure, conceived at the level of scale, was air-conditioned, and 4,157 square feet in circumference. The idea was to make (like the art works in the Biennale) a structure that would only be in use for three months. Thus, it was put together using recycled rubble and discarded materials from the area. With a tinted roof woven together with old fabric (saris, T-shirts and the like), the interior evoked an intimacy, even as it looked like a bucolic time capsule from the outside. In the Pavilion, a number of events were staged, from intense discussions and pensive lectures to ringing music and swirling dance. And then, at the first signs of April heat, it was dismantled– as if it was never there.  Its conception as a structure that was temporal from the very beginning completely turned around the idea of sustainability.  In this vein, sustainability is not about how things can last, or how they can dig into the ground, but about how they can circulate, and the way in which they open themselves out to the core condition of materiality– the future is ephemeral.

The Pavilion by Tony Joseph

This foray into the micro-history of Cabral Yard, in itself, is an attempt at tying knots in threads that will either dissipate, dissolve or transform. The experience of this sliver of land is telling, it has passed between a number of hands, businesses and (ad)ventures, and yet every monsoon the crickets and bull-frogs dim any memory of human presence.  The story of this plot, of course, remains to be told and added to, in ways that will (hopefully) move beyond language as we know it. However, the allure in the slippery stories reveal the ravages of time, and an understanding that all of history is temporary – something that the artists channel in their formal interactions with the actual tangible foundations of the land. In many ways, the question of the future goes out of the window. All that we are left with in a world riddled with climate change and anthropocentric paranoia are these pop-ups that activate and immerse, that belong but for a brief moment, that are aware of their own transience. As the illustrious architect B.V. Doshi stated in praise of Tony Joseph’s pavilion – “How can you get that, you know? You start with nothing, and go back to nothing.”

Remnants, Cabral Yard

Cover image caption: Remnants, Cabral Yard
All images courtesy: Kochi Biennale Foundation

Samira Bose is currently the Communications Assistant at Kochi Biennale Foundation, and based out of Fort Kochi. She completed her MA in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, and BA in History from St. Stephen’s College. She was student curator for Odds & Ends, GALLERYSKE, Bangalore (2017), and worked as part of the Communications team at Oddbird Theatre & Foundation. She is interested in the intersections of contemporary art, media, and design.


All languages are made up

They are all invented – and incessantly reinvented – over time, collectively. Necessity mothers them usually, but not always. Regardless, they help meet needs, allow people to express themselves, share thoughts, communicate. Hundreds and thousands of languages are used to enable existence, culture, civilization everyday. Despite their existence and use-value though creating new languages remains an enduring human fantasy. What can new languages do that the old ones can’t? Perhaps our fascination with them has little to do with newness. Maybe it is fueled instead by our insatiable desire to say more, find ways to let others know our thoughts not just clearly but entirely.

Language is about others. It can be used to bring people in and keep people out. Nowhere is this more apparent than in writing about art. It frequently takes a rap for being exclusionary, using language as a barrier. It is impossible after all to imagine any form of contemporary art in exclusion of the deluge of texts which surround them. Exhibition literature, press releases, catalogue essays, pamphlets, journal articles, reviews, research content, books. This discourse is so far buried in coded language that one has often to toil to simply reach the art at the end of the smoke-screen.

But if words only obfuscate why write about art?

Some say that texts help make meaning in a way mere looking doesn’t. Others consider it a lazy way out of looking at art carefully. Visual information is difficult to make sense of for most, it doesn’t make it to our curriculum, we aren’t taught to encounter it.  Texts on the other hand are deciphered daily by a range of people, from school kids to sign-board painters. Processing visual data frequently involves a translation, from picture to idea, for instance. Finding meaning in a work of art through writing on the other hand needn’t involve ‘converting’ what the artist has attempted to say into words. Ever so often it involves the invention of a lexicon which can run parallel to the work of art, introducing viewers to new ways of looking. Drawing them further into the work.

This is possible because language can also open doors, make accessible, enable conversations, create communities, forge solidarity. Perhaps there is no end to inventing languages because the dream of being able to speak to others- everyone- never fades.