The Vizha: a river to the sea

3553FA83-F341-4369-9BB5-79911150DAB8You could say that the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha began on the day when Carnatic musician TM Krishna walked into the offices of the environmental activist Vettiver collective and talked about a festival in an unexpected place. Or you could say it started 11 years ago, with Nityanand Jayaraman and the Vettiver Collective’s own Justice Rocks events. Or maybe you have to go back to when a young man, Vizha organiser K Saravanan, was persuaded by his teacher that turtle eggs mattered. What becomes clear from talking to the organisers, villagers, artists, volunteers (not mutually exclusive groups) is that the festival can mean different things to different people, because it is not a stand alone art event, but embedded in a network of aspirations, actions and campaigns along the Chennai beaches.

What surprised us most was the formal inventiveness of the music and dance performances, and the political content of songs and narratives. Not because we assumed naivety, but because we expected the politics to be in the curation of the combined events, rather than integral to each ‘number’. Instead, even within each individual piece, there  was often a deliberate meeting – even clashing – of old with new, elite with popular, Tamil with North Indian and so on. The result seemed a truly inclusive event that appears to be making some concrete differences to the two villages Urur and Olcott, by making their concerns more visible. Literally concrete. One of them is a slip road.

However, it’s important to recognise that two nights of festival and a beach cleanup does not accomplish this by itself. For one thing, Saravanan describes the  Vizha  as a sequence of events, like a river, beginning its course last August, flowing through the railway station, bus routes and fish market to reach the festival on the shore. For another, it sits alongside other, ongoing attempts to map and defend the use of the ‘commons’, the beaches that are the fishermen’s livelihood.

It was fun. Let’s not forget to say that. Sitting or standing in the warm breeze from the sea, the scent of jasmine from the girls’ hair, the taste of fried chilli and hot tea, the coloured lights and glowing costumes and the sounds of the drums… the senses overwhelmed but not exhausted. And the beautiful moment when a flock of flamingos filled the evening sky. These are moments when you feel glad to be alive. Let’s not forget that, too.

Aliens, children and macaques

Yesterday and today we met with the other two artists – Lawei Bem Bem and Smitha Cariappa

Bem Bem is interested in the ways in which science fiction readers may consume stories of alien invasion and similar encounters with the strange and uncanny, yet may not consider their own relationship to the ‘alien’ or to alienation. Her performance will connect these ideas.

Bem Bem had lots of other ideas, too, and this makes us aware, again, that all the artists may develop this work in new ways after we have left. We look forward to checking in with them again, as projects develop, and hope to catch up with them again next year, during the final phase of this network.

Smitha is interested in visiting a peripheral area of Bengaluru, where in recent years, children have planted saplings around a lake. She wonders what those children think about it now.

Anne raised a question about work on the contested semi-rural fringes of the city, wondering whether it becomes too easy  to label all urbanisation destructive. Are children likely to repeat a simplistic narrative that the ideal landscape is a pastoral one? How does performance reach for a more complex sense of the paradoxes and balances of urban change? Smitha’s work takes place in an area where she feels there is a successful balance – at least for the moment.

Besides these discussions, we have also been talking to Anne Fenk, mentioned above, who has arrived to represent the MOD institute. MOD will be curating a dinner for discussion with some other Bangalore artists, and will be looking at Shiva shrines on the periphery and the performance and spaces of the Shivatratri festival on 13th February.

As these were a lot of meetings, the picture is not of a meeting, or at least not a human one. There are many bonnet macaques on campus. Anindya was with us when we saw a whole troupe of them yesterday, pointed out their variations in status and told us a little about their social order. Each one has its own face, recognisable as an individual. Each one has its particular ‘bonnet’, some lopsided, some tufty, some torn. These peripheral beings paused to be fed by the security guard, before toddling through the archway of the local creche.

macaques.

 

Dance and steel; body and language

This morning, Jerri and I visited  the Balan Nambiar exhibition, ‘Sculpting in Time’, at NGMA. We’d attended the opening on Sunday, with its Mizhavu performance and flaming torches lit by a series of young student artists. It was only today, though, that I understood that this structured assemblage of torches references a similar object used in Theyyam (perhaps in Kuthu or Kuttiyattam too – I don’t know).

Alongside wonderful photographs of ritual performances, Nambiar’s sculptures render their geometry in steel. According to the text on the gallery wall, ‘The inspiration Nambiar takes from arcane practices, ritual worship and sacred objects is all too evident’. Another note comments, in relation to his interest in goddess worship, that his own sculptures are ‘clear expressions of primal femininity’. I thought they were fascinating, but they did not seem very feminine to me, with their precise, steel grids, and spiralling spikes. But perhaps this begs the question of how we expect primal feminity to be expressed.

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Later, Anindya, Sumitra, Jerri and I met with Angarika and Nihal from Maraa, and  then with Abhishek, to discuss the two commissioned works.

We explained the project and its aims; they talked us through their plans for the work, and then we talked through practicalities and questions that arose.

Maraa will be leading an audio-walk for students, based on recordings they have made with other students, reflecting on issues of gender and sexuality within city and campus spaces. An interesting question arose around our initial, but quickly questioned assumption that everything should be documented visually. Attuned through their work on the sensuality of the city (the ‘olfactory’ garbage walks, for example), Angarika commented that the issues they are approaching in this new work are often dominated by visual media coverage. Using audio walks and audio recordings is an alternative approach, that is also less intrusive to participants.

Talking to Abhishek, our longest discussion was around the way in which people would encounter his work, in which he will play the role of a market researcher for a tech company. How can they be invited to participate knowingly without destroying the tone and fiction of the work? How do performances in the street meet their audiences, and what are the ethics of this encounter? Part of this involved thinking about how the performer is positioned culturally, and thinking through the effect of this in relation to the  target audience.

These two works connect with two contested aspects of public space – the personal space of the gendered and sexualized body, and the tensions between languages in a multilingual city. Both will listen (literally) to voices that are often peripheral to the dominant conversation. Abhishek will be on the literal periphery of the city map, too, while Maraa’s work is leading towards experiments in ‘sonic mapping’, wherever it takes place. In relation to our proposed starting point of the city’s historic ‘inscription stones’, between them they raise questions not only of what and who is recorded, but also how, and in what language(s).

Preparations at NIAS

How lovely to revisit the beautiful campus at NIAS, with its cool arches and vibrant blossoms… It was, as always, such a pleasure to be there.

We got deep into the practicalities this morning, with occasional digressions to discuss questions such as –

Why is there often less emphasis on learning through artwork than teaching through it?

What are the effects of alerting people to the unexpected qualities of an area – does this tend to preserve or destroy it? Does art pave the way for gentrification, as some have suggested (here as well as elsewhere?)

How is local art entangled and engaged with politics on a wider scale? Is it possible to separate the local from the national? How do we engage with this in a non-threatening way?

How can the artworks empower the audience member, rather than making them vulnerable in public space?

And then back to more mundane issues in terms of timetabling, spaces, clarifications to be made and how many to invite.

Here we are, standing in a line, as is our custom at the end of a meeting…

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Preparations

A few days before we all meet in Bengaluru. Looking forward to meeting and hosting work by Maraa, Abhishek Hazra, Smitha Cariappa and Lawei BemBem, with more announcements to follow.

We will be heading to Chennai for the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha and spending time listening to and sharing research about performance and urban South India. More to come.

About us

The core team of researchers are:

Prof Jerri Daboo (University of Exeter); Prof Anindya Sinha, (co-investigator, NIAS); Prof Sharada Srinivasan, (co-investigator, NIAS); Sumitra Sunder (NIAS); Prof Cathy Turner, (principal investigator, University of Exeter); Sreedhar Vijayakrishnan (NIAS) and Tile Von Damm (project partner, MOD Institute).

We are joined by a wider network of scholars at NIAS, Bengaluru.