Dented, Painted, Unbowed

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Make way for dissent A model dressed in a Gauri-Nainika outfit poses against artist Puneet Kaushik's installation
Make way for dissent A model dressed in a Gauri-Nainika outfit poses against artist Puneet Kaushik’s installation

Inspiration can come in strange shapes. In this instance, the shape of a wall infested with termites in a vacant gallery just below the Engendered Space office in Shahpur Jat, an increasingly trendy ‘urban village’ in New Delhi. Myna Mukherjee, the director of Engendered, a transnational arts and human rights organisation originally based in New York, had been contemplating an ‘art protest’ against the gangrape of a physiotherapy student in December that had moved the entire capital to fury. Mukherjee saw the rotting wall as a perfect metaphor for the violence resulting from the gender inequity rife in our society. The wall became part of an installation and around it grew an exhibition. It was titled Resist, a simple, stark summation of its intent. The exhibition became a beacon, foregrounding genderbased violence and justice. Many have followed since.

What is radical about Resist is its collaborations, its willingness to step out of the narrow confines of what we think of and recognise as ‘activist art’. The show, now travelling through three cities, includes not just painting and sculpture, but installations that feature models in designer clothing, graffiti, new media and live music. Bands include the hip hop group Desi Head Quarterz, a progressive answer to the likes of the popular rapper Honey Singh, and Space, whose distinctive mix of trip hop and ‘electronic baul’ sounds is fronted by two women, Tritha Sinha and Ritika Singh. The exhibition also features a visual open mike, the Wall of Solidarity made up of 1×1 canvases confronting male rape amongst other issues.

Mukherjee had roused some of Delhi’s best known artists to contribute for Resist, the likes of Anjolie Ela Menon, Arpana Caur, Mithu Sen, Alex Davis, Ram Rahman, Gigi Scaria and the Raqs Media Collective. Mid-career artists featured in the show included Puneet Kaushik, Satyakam Saha, Durga Kainthola and Saba Hasan. The artists were responding en masse to the collective fury that had brought ordinarily passive, even apathetic people onto the streets to face water cannons and tear gas.

“Spontaneous agitations on the street,” says Mukherjee, “are good because they demonstrate public outrage and sow seeds of dissent. It also allows a liberating outpour of discontent. However, for enduring change one has to go beyond the cowboy rhetoric of capital punishment, lynch mobs and the screaming hysteria of an ‘us versus any and all establishment’ position,” says Mukherjee. “Art can be extremely transformative and thought-provoking in resisting these. It provokes empathy, and also allows us space to think, thus enabling us to move beyond knee-jerk reactions,” she adds.

Since the shows in Delhi earlier this year, Resist has travelled to Chennai (15-19 April), where it was hosted at Forum Art Gallery in Adyar, and plans to open in Mumbai on 17 May at Gallery Beyond in the Kala Ghoda art district.

While many elements remained consistent in both Delhi and Chennai, there were works that reflected the complexities of individual cities. Specific to Delhi, for instance, was a tightrope walker dressed by the designer Anju Modi, a shutter in the background featured graffiti by the famously anonymous Daku. The Chennai edition included local artists like AV Ilango and Indian classical and contemporary dancer Anita Ratnam. Ratnam’s dance ‘workshop’, performed in front of Puneet Kaushik’s diaphanous web of parandis or hair sculptures, spoke about the traditions weaved into the hair of women. “Hair has been used to shame and contain women,” she says, “when we should really be celebrating its glorious wildness.”

In Mumbai, inevitably in this centenary year, it is popular cinema and glamour that will inject itself into the show. Monica Dogra — one half of the Mumbai-based electro rock duo Shaa’ir and Func, host of TV show The Dewarists, though still perhaps most famous for her starring role in Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat— will be part of one of the collaborative installations. “We must wage war against people’s apathy,” she says. “Art, music and cinema can stimulate emotions and force reactions that lead to change.”

Vibhuraj Kapur, the director of Gallery Beyond, believes that it’s time for artists and galleries to actively break the silence. “There has been too much censorship in the arts, which is why we often don’t see the change, but organisations like Engendered are providing a long overdue platform for some revolutionary voices.” Filmmaker Mira Nair agrees, describing Engendered as “the shot in the arm needed by the arts. It embraces the cutting edge in not just film but fashion, art music and dance.” The organisation launched its Delhi chapter with a Sufi rock concert at Delhi Pride in 2011.

For Resist, Mukherjee’s greatest coup has been involving the likes of Anjolie Ela Menon, not normally the sort of artist you’d expect at a political group show. She painted Shame, which juxtaposed snatches of nationalist poetry with the face of a forlorn Madonna-like girl caught between the grip of a paternal hand above her head and a slithering snake across her face. “The rising violence against the girl child is appalling. We are faced with tough choices — either be protected or be violated. I prefer the former,” says Menon.

Arpana Caur contributed a painting of an intrepid woman stepping out at night. “Despite her bleeding feet, cut on the knife of social injustice, the woman has chosen to step out of the confines of protection,” Caur says. Mithu Sen, known for her gender-bender art, has done a spunky onsite graffiti text with dripping pink letters to protest against being “boxed into the woman-artist category”. “I have always thought of gender as something fluid, and I hate having to be squeezed into a gender role,” she says. The designers collaborating with the artists include such boldface names as Manish Arora, Satya Paul, Gauri-Nainika and Tarun Tahiliani. Resist now boasts of having over 100 artists who’ve lent their work and name to the cause.

In a show that includes such eye-catching work as the Wall of Solidarity and Alex Davis’ Stop (from his sculpture series Dented Painted inspired by the truck art of India and making aceribic reference to foolish comments made by the President’s son after the Delhi gangrape), it is impressive that the collaborations have been so successful. For instance, Puneet Kaushik’s soft latex sculptures of jute and beads resembling carcasses were suspended above a model lying on a bed dressed in a resplendent creation by designers Gauri and Nainika. The work is accompanied by a video that captures closeups of fabric that resemble blood cells, tissues and meat. “When I made this work,” Kaushik explains, “I wanted it to say to the viewer, ‘I am not the meat that hangs in the street to be sold, I am the skin and flesh that you breathe out of.’”

Resist, its critics may argue, cannot hope to make the change it seems to want by preaching to the converted. But perhaps the show is evidence of a wider, more sweeping change. Filmmaker Onir, who is a participant in Mumbai Resist, believes that violence comes in different shades. “It’s not just physical but psychological. Those on the receiving end are not just women but other gendered bodies, people who come from a different class and minorities.” Perhaps Resist is the change it wants to see.

letters@tehelka.com

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