'Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture' by Nancy Adajania investigates the 'other' at SAF 2019

STIR @ SAF 2019
With works from 42 artists and two major archives, the exhibition at the Serendipity Arts Festival 2019 in Goa provided a narrative to what did not confine with the popular culture.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Feb 14, 2020

Nancy Adajania curated Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture (CCCC): Alternative Histories of Indian Art, by way of a celebration of experiments and collaborations, referencing a wide variety of what sat outside the formal ‘movements’. Art history, specifically in context of postcolonial India, is told from within the confines of the art world, explains Adajania, “…it is a sequence of long-lived styles and short-lived movements, avant-garde aspirations and institutional trends, artist groups and art schools”. CCCC defines these moments and constellations that contest the canonical accounts of Indian art history from the 1950s to the present.

Krishen Khanna, from the series Birds in my Studio, black and white photographs, digital print on enhanced matte paper, c. late 1960s-early 1970s, and MF Husain, Glimpses of Mauryan Grandeur, sketch pen on paper, 1984, Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Krishen Khanna, from the series Birds in my Studio, black and white photographs, digital print on enhanced matte paper, c. late 1960s-early 1970s, and MF Husain, Glimpses of Mauryan Grandeur, sketch pen on paper, 1984, Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive Image Credit: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar, courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

Here, STIR speaks to the the curator...

Rahul Kumar (RK): You have said that this exhibition is a culmination of long years of research. What are its main preoccupations? How do you intend to take forward what you have discovered?

Nancy Adajania (NA): Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture (CCCC): Alternative Histories of Indian Art questions the dominant narrative of postcolonial Indian art, which is told from within the confines of the art world, presented as a sequence of avant-garde aspirations and institutional trends. By contrast, CCCC resurrects and creates a dynamic montage of the unknown or unrecognised histories of experimentation and collaboration in photography, film, music and transmedia experiences. To accomplish this, CCCC deliberately looks in the ‘wrong’ places, at magic shows (PC Sorcar), trade fairs (Dashrath Patel, Krishen Khanna and Ratna Fabri), architects’ marginalia (Jasbir and Rosemary Sachdev, and Charles Correa), filmmakers’ archives (Kumar Shahani), activist collectives (Patel and Sheba Chhachhi), inter-disciplinary workshops and cultural centres (Vision Exchange Workshop led by Akbar Padamsee and Uday Shankar’s Indian Cultural Centre in Almora), design schools (Patel, Chhachhi and  Dayanita Singh), and countercultural youth subcultures (Kiran David, Ram Rahman and Neel Chattopadhyaya), to produce a series of what I have called ‘pre-histories’ for India’s new media art between the 1940s and 1980s.

The four ‘Cs’ in the exhibition title display a productive spiralling motion, a sense of flux, continuity and discontinuity. CCCC is a critique of the narrow confines within which Indian art history operates. It is also an appraisal of my intellectual journey as a cultural theorist for over two decades. As for the afterlife of CCCC, we will be publishing a book based on the exhibition along with additional research material that I have gathered over the years.

Kumar Shahani, A Memoir of the Future began filming in 1983, an unfinished film | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Kumar Shahani, A Memoir of the Future began filming in 1983, an unfinished film Image Credit: Courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival and Pablo Bartholomew

RK: Why do you call the above ‘wrong’ places?

NA: The reason why I speak of ‘wrong’ places is because the dominant art-historical account has until recently practised a form of casteism where subaltern art practices go unacknowledged, or work made at trade fairs and expos is seen as tainted by commerce and entertainment.   

Thus, Krishen Khanna’s massive photo murals made in collaboration with the photographer Madan Mahatta and shown at Expo 1970 in Osaka, or Patel’s immersive nine-screen photo installation at the 1967 Montreal Fair, were seen as aberrations or ‘mistakes’, rather than as experimental leaps. Whether it was Khanna and Patel’s immersive installations or Uday Shankar’s Shankarscope from the early 1970s (a hybrid zigzag across film, dance and theatre forms), I see these as precursors to installation or performance art, which arrived on the Indian art scene only in the 1990s.

Shebha Chhachhi, staged portraits from Seven Lives and a Dream (excerpt), version 3, 1991-2019; and Om Swaha ― anti-dowry street play, photographs (digital archival prints) | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Shebha Chhachhi, staged portraits from Seven Lives and a Dream (excerpt), version 3, 1991-2019; and Om Swaha ― anti-dowry street play, photographs (digital archival prints) Image Credit: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar, courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

RK: How do you propose to narrate a new art history?

NA: I situate these lost episodes of art history, without fetishizing them, against a larger critical background of historical forces, political contingencies and aesthetic possibilities. For example, neither of Khanna’s photo murals for the Expo 1970 in Osaka merely illustrate their designated brief of glorifying the modern nation. I believe that Khanna, by turning the State-commissioned murals into a spectral and thus illegible narrative, astutely bypassed the competitive nationalisms of the Cold War period. I argue that he politicised the gesture of abstraction by inserting ambiguities into the celebratory discourse of the expo. While I was researching the 1967 Montreal Fair, for which Dashrath Patel had made an immersive photo-installation, I chanced upon an incredible artwork that has not received any recognition so far.

Geeta Mayor (née Sarabhai) had composed an exquisite music score for the same project (according to her daughter Pallavi Mayor, the score was made for the Montreal Fair, but she is not sure if Patel used it). I would contend that the score in itself is an important artefact because it surpasses the stereotypes related to ancient and modern India far more persuasively than the photo-installation, which was on display. Such rare archival interventions will help us read both art history and exhibition history anew from the perspective of gender. They will also help us re-examine the concept of nationalism in the era of the Cold War.

Ram Rahman and Neel Chattopadhyaya, collages by Ram Rahman (flashbacks) and Neel Chattopadhyaya’s archival material related to his band Atomic Forest and his paintings, sunboard with Cellar logo in the background | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Ram Rahman and Neel Chattopadhyaya, collages by Ram Rahman (flashbacks) and Neel Chattopadhyaya’s archival material related to his band Atomic Forest and his paintings, sunboard with Cellar logo in the background Image Credit: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar, courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

RK: In what may be termed as ‘contemporary arts’ now, can there be anything that is ‘counter-culture’?

NA: The counterculture included the anti-authoritarian civil-rights activists, feminists and environmentalists of the 1960s in the US and Europe, as well as the hippies and alternative lifestyle movements. Many Indian artists were influenced by these countercultural movements of the 1960s. For instance, Vivan Sundaram and Navjot Altaf were politicised by the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war protests. In Canada, P Mansaram, who had studied at the JJ School of Art, was in dialogue with the legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s concept of the ‘global village’, which presaged the Internet era, inspired many a psychedelic mind of the counterculture movement. In CCCC, we have exhibited a rare film collage, Mansaram’s Intersect (1967). While the countercultural moment of the 1960s may have passed, its impulse to question mainstream society continued to inform the works of some Indian artists and filmmakers well into the 1980s.

At CCCC, we are very proud to show Kiran David’s Junk (1986), a rare underground film featuring his friend, the rockstar poet Jeet Thayil. In an exhibition that brims over with experiments of various kinds – the successful ones, the ones that were lost to history and the ones that remained incomplete – David’s oneiric film stretches the film medium to its extreme until the film begins to vaporise like a shiny piece of foil quivering in an addict’s hand. A self-confessed lunatic, he has conducted some amazing experiments with the very materiality of film. He has used expired film stock, rolled the negative on the floor to disintegrate the image and upon transferring the film on U-matic, he even dampened a portion of it to generate dropouts. 

Jyoti Bhatt, Netra Yagna, Bhavnagar, 1966 | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Jyoti Bhatt, Netra Yagna, Bhavnagar, 1966 Image Credit: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar, courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

RK: New media, technology, immersive, are all rhetoric – so what may constitute avant-garde from this perspective?

NA: Most avant-garde breakthroughs in art get naturalised over time, and their subversive impulse is neutralised. That does not mean we should disregard the formative moment of experimentation. Today, new-media practitioners are not interested in the ‘newness’ of the medium or its oppositional stance towards painting. Their practices have matured and deepened over the years with an emphasis on process-oriented outcomes rather than a fixation on the medium as such.

Sheba Chhachhi, Om Swaha (feminist street play at India Gate grounds), 1981 | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Sheba Chhachhi, Om Swaha (feminist street play at India Gate grounds), 1981 Image Credit: Philippe Calia and Sunil Thakkar, courtesy of Serendipity Arts Festival

RK: The idea of communalism and nationalism, something Uday Shankar explored in Kalpana (1948), seem to be very relevant even now. Have you researched this issue across timelines?

NA: Yes. The protests against the pernicious Citizenship Amendment Act had erupted, even as I was installing the artworks in Goa in December. CCCC is punctuated by works that critique the idea of a divisive ultra-nationalism across different time frames in the history of the republic. For instance, Tyeb Mehta’s Koodal (1970), whose central crisis is the partition and (Mahatma) Gandhi’s assassination, or Sheba Chhachhi’s photographs of the feminist street play Om Swaha from the early 1980s, which bring a gendered inflection to bear upon the contested notion of citizenship. And when I placed Alif’s heart-wrenching music video Jhelumas (2016) next to Vijaya Mulay’s upbeat Ek Anek Aur Ekta (1974), produced by the Films Division, the irony of India colonising its own citizens became most glaring. While Jhelumus lays bare the psychological trauma experienced by the women of Kashmir who have faced interminable violence since the mid-1980s, Mulay’s State-sponsored pedagogy on nationalism spells out an optimistic ‘unity in diversity’ in the runup to the Emergency. After the abrogation of Article 370, Jhelumas reminds us even more poignantly of the suffering and struggle of Kashmir’s people.

Nancy Adajania | Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories of Indian Art | Nancy Adajania | Serendipity Arts Festival | STIRworld
Nancy Adajania Image Credit: Nancy Adajania

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About Author

Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar

Rahul has written for various publications and leading journals like Arts Illustrated and Mint-Lounge. He led an art venture for NDTV and was involved in its television programming. He is a Fulbright scholar and a practising artist. Rahul retired from mainstream corporate roles and as an Editor for STIR, he is responsible for curating the Art section.

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