Performance Art in India

Read our feature on Indian performance art and its relation to the country's ritualistic traditions, from the Spring/Summer issue of ArtReview Asia

By Niru Ratnam

Nikhil Chopra, Yog Raj Chitrakar: Memory Drawing X (Part I, 14 min), 2010. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai Sahej Rahal, Bhramana I, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai Sahej Rahal, Bhramana I, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai Sahej Rahal, Tandav, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai Pushpamala N, Phantom Lady or Kismet (detail), 1998. Photo: Meenal Agarwal. Courtesy Nature Morte, New Delhi Pushpamala N, Phantom Lady or Kismet (detail), 1998. Photo: Meenal Agarwal. Courtesy Nature Morte, New Delhi Subodh Gupta, Pure, 1999. © Subodh Gupta. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

In February 2012, a shamanic figure appeared in a raised pedestrian walkway in Bandra, Mumbai. Dressed in a robe made from pieces of discarded cloth and a pelt of fake fur that enveloped the figure’s head, it loped around holding a staff fashioned from tree branches. Beneath the costume was artist Sahej Rahal, and the appearance of the faceless figure was his performance, Bhramana I. The location was a place of transit – the first-built walkway in a series of ‘skyways’ designed to lift middle-class commuters above the chaos of the metropolis, and Rahal wanted to introduce a moment to the passersby that was an opening to an alternative reality. Rahal has stated that his look was inspired in part by Navajo shamans, although the result could also be described as a fusion of the Jawas of Star Wars (1977) and artist Joseph Beuys in his own signature shaman guise.

The question might be: what is the status of such performance art when the performance of rituals is an ordinary and everyday phenomenon?

But Beuys’s invocation of a shaman in performances such as I Like America and America Likes Me (1974) implicitly invoked alterity through the appearance of a figure, the shaman, who is considered radically different to the norms of Western culture. Rahal’s invocation of a shaman was different. It is arguable that India is a country where performance and, in particular, the performance of rituals have long been codified and then embedded into the fabric of life. Invoking shamans, here, does not hinge quite so much on alterity. Indeed the question might be: what is the status of such performance art when the performance of rituals is an ordinary and everyday phenomenon? The response of one set of Rahal’s audience is instructive: the street urchins enthusiastically broke into spontaneous bursts of breakdancing every time he stood still – an outbreak of performance in response to performance.

Rahal’s choice of title for the series of performances is a nod to this specific Indian cultural history. The Brāhmanas are Hindu texts that detail the correct performance of ritual, with specific reference to rituals around sacrifices but also those that include new- and full-moon rites, the rites of the installation of kings, domestic rituals, temple rituals, rituals after death and so on. Another key ancient text is the Natya Shastra, a treatise on the performing arts that was written sometime between 200BC and 200AD (although it was likely to have been based on an older text). Covering theatre, dance and music, the text is wide in scope, detailing things such as stage design, stagecraft, analyses of dance forms and even the correct behaviour while watching a performance (there’s no mention of breakdancing).

Performance art in India thus comes with a context that is different to that of, say, performance art on the Lower East Side in the 1970s: one where the performative space is long-established within Indian culture, so that seeing a shaman shamble along a walkway or around a subway station (the location for Rahal’s subsequent performance Bhramana II, 2012) might not be a particularly extraordinary sight to passersby inured to everyday rituals. Indeed a significant amount of Indian performance art foregrounds this.

For example, in 1971 the Indian painter Bhupen Khakhar staged an event at the opening of one of his exhibitions, occasions that up until relatively recently in more traditional Indian galleries involved a ritual lighting of candles as part of the exhibition inauguration (private view). Khakhar was not a performance artist, he was a painter, but his aim was to critique the excess of ritual and performance in Indian civil society. Khakhar mimicked the over-the-top ceremony of a wedding procession and governmental inauguration to mock the solemnity of art. Beth Citron, a curator, wrote that ‘in transforming his artist friends like Vivan Sundaram and Nasreen Mohamedi into participants in the event, Khakhar became the first artist in India to challenge the conventional interaction between artist and audience’.

Covering yourself with animal excreta is here not primarily a subversive act, then, but one of explicitly referencing the traditional ways of rural life in Bihar

In 1999 Subodh Gupta performed Pure at a Khoj workshop in New Delhi, which explicitly invoked childhood memories of ritual. Gupta collected objects from villagers, including a hookah and a plough, and sunk them into a field that had been covered with a paste of mud and cow dung. He then anointed himself with the same paste and lay in the centre of the field in a posture known in yoga as shavasana, or the corpse pose. As a child, Gupta had been sent out to gather cowpats for ceremonies, and this series of works using cow dung specifically evoke the artist’s childhood in Bihar and everyday rituals. Gupta has stated: ‘Shit is shit, but belief changes it into something else, it becomes something holy in this part of the world.’ Covering yourself with animal excreta is here not primarily a subversive act, then, but one of explicitly referencing the traditional ways of rural life in Bihar. It is worth noting that the centrality of the piece to Gupta’s oeuvre was signalled by the positioning of a related piece, My Mother and Me (1999), at the beginning of his major solo show at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art, which opened in February this year [see exhibition reviews].

The artist Pushpamala N was one of the first of a new generation of artists to use performance during the 1990s, and her first foray into the discipline also came with a backward look at the history of performance in India, albeit in popular culture rather than rural tradition. She was fascinated with Fearless Nadia, a stuntwoman who worked in the 1930s Hindi film industry, and in particular one image of Fearless Nadia in a Zorro-like costume. Pushpamala produced a version of that image and from it generated a series of works, Untitled from the Photo-Romance Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996–8) that depict the artist posing in staged sequences that drew on Bollywood.

Chopra’s performances weave together family history and the rituals of everyday life to suggest that those rituals are not out-of-the-ordinary, but part of an ongoing way of being

India’s best-known performance artist, Nikhil Chopra, has also largely drawn on both personal and collective cultural history, assuming that the semiautobiographical subjects in durational performances where he undertakes slow, deliberate and ritualised movements, such as shaving, washing, eating and dressing, form the script. Like Gupta’s Pure, Chopra’s performances weave together family history and the rituals of everyday life to suggest that those rituals are not out-of-the-ordinary, but part of an ongoing way of being. Chopra was one of Rahal’s teachers, and the latter’s performances might be seen as continuing this concern with the enduring position of ritual and performance in Indian culture. One factor that militates against such a reading is Rahal’s invocation of the future through his references to science fiction, both in the Brahmana series and also in subsequent works such as Tandav (2012), in which, wearing robes (that again cover his head), Rahal wields a light-sabre-type construction made from fluorescent lighting tubes to create the image of a spectral figure encircled by light. A similar strategy of invoking a deliberately lo-fi future was employed by Abhisek Hazra in his work Cantordust Touring Machine, which took place as one of the artist-led tours of Art Dubai in 2011. Hazra placed a battered cardboard box over his head and used a megaphone to present a humorous, scientifically inflected (cantor dust is a multidimensional fractal figure of infinite detail) tour of the fair, one that referenced the Turing Machine.

Rahal imprisoned himself in a similarly absurd way in the video work Saras (2012), which seemed to show a disfigured, headless statue of the Hindu goddess pulsating and apparently breathing in an overly heavy manner. Rahal had wormed his way inside the body of the statue, incidentally the goddess of knowledge, music and the arts. His gentle wiggling might be understood as both an attempt to break free of the prescriptions about ritual and performance, and also, perhaps, a gentle nod towards the fact that this desire might be an impossible one in India. At any rate, artists such as Rahal and Hazra point to a future in which the task of negotiating the history of ritual is more about getting things wrong rather than following what has been prescribed by history and texts. Breakdancing might not have been the correct way to respond to a performance, but perhaps that’s the best thing about invoking such a response. 

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer issue of ArtReview Asia.