Exhibition, 18-20th April, 2018

We are pleased to present an exhibition of our fieldwork in February as part of the annual conference of the British Association of South Asian Studies, hosted by the Exeter South Asian Centre and College of Humanities at the University of Exeter, April 18-20, 2018.

The exhibition is entitled ‘Performing the Periphery: The Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, Chennai 2018 and Maha Shivaratri, Bengaluru, 2018.’ This exhibition documents initial fieldwork to look at the politics of performance on the peripheries of growing South Indian cities. It shows the Urur-Olcott festival as social, environmental and aesthetic intervention, and the Maha Shivaratri festival as manifested in remarkably varied ritual performance within and on the periphery of a modern metropolis. The exhibition will be in the Forum building on the afternoon and evening of the 18th, then moved to the XFi corridor for the 19th and 20th. All welcome.921810218Vizha 504bbb.jpg


Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha sound recording

This soundtrack features music from the Nagoor Sufi Trio playing together with Srikanth Bhagavathar. In a ‘musico-religious conversation’, as T M Krishna puts it, Nagoor sufi music and Namasakirtanam were on the same stage.

In this recording, however, they sing a fisher song, which the residents from the local fishing village particularly appreciate.

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Inscription Stones and Writing Histories

A reflection by Jerri after visiting the inscription stones in Allalasandra, Bangalore.


The inscription stone in Allalasandra tells a story of the city that I cannot read. An old man also looking at the stone tells us that it was written by the hand of God, just as the ten commandments were also written on stone by a divine power.

How do we write history? And whose history do we read? A stone with images and script becomes the foundation for telling the story of the city. History becomes a means to give us identity and meaning in the present – we can look at a stone and feel a sense of connection to a past where people were also creating and telling stories of their lives.

What do the inscription stones of Bangalore tell us? About its past peoples, languages, cultures, battles, landscapes? Our need for stories to give meaning to our lives makes us want the stones to speak to us in the present. History is etched into them, just as our lives are inscribed on our bodies, chiseled into the fabric of who we are, and how we tell our stories to the world. Our loves, tragedies, creations, and habitual patterns are furrowed into us over time.

Touching the stone, I feel a connection to the heart of the city, and the foundation of what the city has become.

But I cannot read what it says.

Dinner at 1 Shanti Road

Networking dinner invite

Last night Anne curated a dinner gathering of artists Dimple Shah, Deepak Srinivasan, Umesh Maddanahali, Saskia Groneberg and Shabari Rao. From the project, Cathy, Jerri, Sumitra and Anne herself joined the conversation. We asked everyone the question above, and then discussed their responses, and their work in relation to the city. The conversation touched on whether or not it is useful to identify performance art as distinct from other kinds of performance; the fragmentation and forgetting of small actions; the possibility of creating new ways of experiencing, but also the possibility of documenting and giving a platform for under-represented voices.

We heard about Umesh’s Sisyphean tyre rolling, Deepak’s performance as Draupadi, Shabari’s enquiry into our relationships with our own bodies, Dimple’s gathering of diverse stories of the city, Saskia’s photographs of plants and construction sites and much more.

As might be expected, we did not confirm a neat answer to our questions, but hopefully initiated some new conversations.

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.