Lata Mani: I want to begin by thanking Sheba for giving me the privilege of living with this book for the last couple of weeks, for the chance to reflect on an extraordinary body of work, prodigious in its scope and in the scale of experimentation. Let’s start with the book. How did it come to fruition? What were some of the complexities of representing work that is so various - you have film, installation, and the moving image, the still image - in a two-dimensional form? Did you have a preconceived idea for the book or did it come into being in the process of your working with Kumkum Sangari, the editor and the designer?
Sheba Chhachhi: The primary challenge was how to present large scale installation. So much of my work is experiential, immersive, about being surrounded sensorially; translating this into the two-dimensional and linear logic of a book presented considerable difficulty.
We were very clear that we weren’t interested in making a catalogue. Rather we wished to trace the kinds of questions and concerns, the ideas that run through the works. And the ideas are recursive. They loop back over time - so this text that Suresh read in his introduction was written in 1993.1 But some of that thinking surfaces again in the early 2000s and would even resonate with work made in the middle 2000’s. How to share this recursive quality, the thinking through of ideas, of staying with certain ideas, of continuing to develop and engage more deeply with them? The third concern was about the conventional frame of the artist monograph, which tends to be quite bound to commerce as these publications are often supported by galleries. Volte gallery supported this book and I am very grateful to them for enabling its publication. But we wanted it to move out of the limited circuit of galleries, to create a book which would serve as a reference not just for my work, but because my work engages with a number of contemporary concerns, to also map those concerns through the prism of artistic practice.
It took four years and many revisions! It’s not that we had a preconceived shape in mind. Putting the material together, in itself a substantial task, suggested and produced the kinds of forms that might be appropriate. We had a fantastic team: as editor Kumkum Sangari, Sherna Dastur, film maker and designer, and Indu Chandrashekhar whose involvement in the process was way beyond the normal role of a publisher. We all worked together, often confronting differences even conflicts. It is very difficult to undertake this process with your own work. I kept thinking I would do such a good job with somebody else’s work but with your own there are certain things that you get very attached to! And here is the rest of the team saying, “no this is not so great, look at this,” and I would say, “oh no not that!” So the process was one of selection, choosing, excluding while building an experiential journey. What we have tried to do in the book is to invite the reader, the viewer, into a space where you can make these arcs of connection, where a certain sedimentation of thought can take place and where perhaps, you can plunge into both image and idea, which is why the title Arc, Silt, Dive.
LM: The idea of the recursive also relates to the way in which you work within your work. If you had to give us an arc, the conceptual arc, how might you map it? Or is it not a fair question?
SC: It is not a fair question! (laughs)
LM: As soon as I said it, I realized that it is not a fair question.
SC: I would say there are multiple arcs. And then there is the arc that you make as reader and then the arcs that we have made. To say that there is one fixed arc…
LM: No, not a fixed arc. I was thinking in terms of the conception of the book. That too I think is not a fair question because it is so layered that it would flatten what you finally achieve if you needed to respond to it when phrased in that way.
SC: Yes. Though it is not chronological it really tries to trace ideas, and also because we are building a visual experience, you are led from one image to another. Not that the images and ideas ever separate. They work together but the reasons for ‘what follows what’ come from many places not just one place.
Suresh Jayaram: I looked at it and thought it is more a web of connections.
LM: That’s a nice word. In moving away from still photography into installation you say you wanted to free the image into space. But what fascinated me about your work was the way you release it into a very expansive notion of time. And this is true of your work as a whole. Your work offers us a different way to relate to time: by historicizing but in a way that refuses containment by history. If I can share my reading - what we find in all of your work is time as an arrow, a force or energy exerting temporal momentum. But there is also time as synchronic, as archaeological, vertically layered, the past resonantly contemporary. Past and present co-exist whether as mythology or as striations of time, as the long-term, long-range movements of people, migrating birds, commodities, aesthetic practices etc. I found it very liberating because for the most part in social and cultural criticism we have worked with a very prosecutorial notion of history. Your work is not anti-historical and it is not ahistorical. It blasts open the notion of history in a way that both expands and focuses our attention. I found that very productive. Could you speak about your sense of time?
SC: The simultaneous coexistence of multiple temporalities is critical to my understanding of time. So, for me, the 16th century and the 21st are actually right there, present within one particular moment along with the present-ness of that moment. And this understanding manifests in the work - from drawing on pre-modern imagery and pre-modern stories, to working with digital technology or VR in bringing them all together and it argues against a diachronic, linear notion of time. A cyclical notion of time is usually opposed to a linear notion of time. But I’m not talking about the cyclical, about the circularity of time; I am talking about interconnected layers. Perhaps if one was to cut a vertical slice through a particular moment (as in an archeological site or geological drawing which reveals sedimented striations) understanding that they are all present simultaneously, one would see the layers of time that actually inhabit the particular moment.
This is really important for me in terms of how I think, how I perceive. I also believe that the way we think the social, the way we think the political needs to be altered by this kind of perception. We tend to stay within a fairly rigidly imposed linear diachronic notion of time but history itself, as we are seeing today is vulnerable to many revisions and rewritings - and who is to say what isthetruth,weareinthe ‘post-truth’ moment. (laughs) So it’s by looking at the density that coalesces around any particular moment that you move away from the simple business of this is truth and this is historical, and this is not truth, this is not historical, or this is their history and this is our history. It is a very contested terrain.
LM: Absolutely. And when we think about the notion of time in relation to the different mediums, the installation, photography…Do you think about time differently in relation to different media or is it more a kind of disposition, a perspective which is explored? To give you an example, your iconic women’s movement photographs. The women are fully present; these are not archetypal images. What is that quality that they are emitting? I was trying to find a word for it. I wouldn’t say it is energy but a kind of full-bodied present-ness and it seemed to me that there is a quality that as a philosophically oriented artist you are able to capture or intuit that our conceptual categories are not able to grasp. So I am wondering what is open to you an artist or a poet or a philosopher that may not be open or easily available to the social scientist. It is a question I am grappling with so I am asking it.
SC: I am very reluctant to think of myself as having a privileged gaze.
LM: I am not talking of privilege just of the specific.
SC: The particular then…To come back to the question of duration and medium - yes, it’s a disposition but it’s also something that develops over many years of thinking, reflecting and looking at what I myself have done. The early documentary work with women’s movement reached a point of closure for several reasons. When I began, it was very important for us to challenge conventional stereotypes of women, usually either the victim or the jeweled maharani which we saw in ads etc. But by the end of the 80s early 90s, the militant struggling woman had herself become a stereotype. I remember an incident when I had come to a demonstration a little early and there were 6 press photographers directing women to pose as if they were in my photographs (laughs). It was a very bizarre moment and I started taking photographs of the photographers for a period because that was more interesting at that moment. That realisation of contributing to creating a new stereotype moved me towards working differently.
You see, in all the passion of that work, I was also representing women who I knew very intimately, knew well, in only one aspect of their existence. I began working with 7 actually 8 fellow feminists inviting them to work collaboratively so that we could together create a representation which also went into realms of fantasy, of desire, of memory: narratives. This was a very intense experience, spending 3-4 months with each woman. It was an invitation to perform the self. We would create almost like a stage set, a mis-en-scene, a space, a gesture, objects, and props. The image was built within this kind of inter-subjective space. This ties up with challenging (what I used to call very sharply but no longer) ‘the lie of objectivity’. I was very exercised about this at that time. I felt that in dominant media representations photographs appear ‘objective’, the photograph has a history of being evidence. Its indexical nature is a paradigm that we have all absorbed. Yet one knows the deeply subjective nature of every photograph including every press photograph, including every television interview one would see. So it was very important for me to make this subjectivity explicit, to pull it out of this false idea of objectivity because it is that kind of false idea that perpetuates certain power regimes.
LM: Why are you drawing back now or reconsidering that earlier concern? Does it have something to do with the subsequent trajectory of the circulation of images in the environment in which we live?
SC: Along with this pseudo objectivity is the way the photographic image is viewed. I would see people looking at photographs as though they were flipping through a magazine, a quick consumption of images. Today we are in a highly saturated image field, populated by very diverse kinds of images. And post Photoshop the claim to truth that photography makes is severely challenged within the public domain itself. We are inundated with thousands and thousands of images every day and what changes drastically in the reception of these is the time spent in the process of viewing an image. So my desire to take the photograph off the wall, to bring it into space was seeking to change that relationship of quick consumption, to also change the body of the viewer, to bring the body of the viewer into contact with the image and thereby change viewing time.
This intention continues with the animated light boxes - it’s a sort of 19th century pre-cinematic device similar to magic lanterns which uses very simple means - a mechanically-moved still image which gives the illusion of a moving image. When people first look at it they think that it’s video but it’s not. It’s actually two, or more, layers with one moving layer. Immediately, people slow down, it repeats, it loops, it elicits a certain quality of attention that is very particular. So once again I’m working with that aspect - I could say that a lot of my work is simply about slowing people down. (laughs)
LM: It struck me that your art installations are contemporary shrines in a fashion, the site of a kind of secular pilgrimage. Let me explain what I mean. Pilgrimages are journeys in which one is led to ponder one’s relationship to existence or the universe in the process of moving through space/time, a process that is equally about the pilgrim as about a broader truth. A process similar to this is evident in your installation: you propose sets of relationships between elements that the viewer can discern or discover as s/he physically navigates the spatial logic of your installation and the broader truth (small t) that it proposes. Did you think of it in this way?
SC: I wouldn’t have described it that way but it does describe what I seek to do, so yes.
Suresh: I have something to add. Sheba’s show was in a museum in Bombay - The Bhau Daji Lad Museum - people come from the zoo into the space. There were two rooms where Sheba’s work was on display and everybody went inside. They just hung around there because it was magical and they came out and again dashed out back into the zoo! This is what I saw - a group of people coming in, then pausing, as you wanted them to and then dashing out.
SC: It was actually very interesting because the audience was not the usual art audience at all. It was ordinary people coming to the zoo and the curiosity, the engagement, the stopping and standing and looking for a while was very special. And then some conversations we had about things that happened sometimes which were all very good.
Suresh: Theykeptusingawordajeeb sahai! I just kept looking at these people looking at Sheba’s work.
SC: The strange or the uncanny is something that I find useful. In the sense that it works to destabilise the viewer, to shift them out of the kind of perceptual mode that they are habituated to. For a moment to feel odd or to feel strange, to feel a little different, opens up the attention in another way, it opens up another possibility. People tend to look at things, quickly extract key information which often blunts and suppresses the actual sensorial response. So if you are in an environment which is odd, for example if it is very dark and you can’t quite see and you have to take a few minutes to get your bearings in the low light that is available. Just that passage changes the embodiment of the viewer to use that word.
LM: There is actually no way to engage with your work without confronting yourself and confronting the very idea of perception. That’s what got me thinking about the idea of the installations as shrines. And then there are all these reflective surfaces and these different screens. I am intuiting this from the photographs.
I think this is a good time to think about the question of form. Would you like to take us through one of your projects and how you arrived at that form? Especially in a context where the social sciences dominate you don’t think about form, you are really always anxious about content. So the experimentation with genre is virtually non-existent. That’s a kind of freedom that you have as an artist. A lot of the artist’s work is precisely in trying to arrive at a form so if you could take us through your journey in one of your projects.
SC: I’d like to talk about Neelkanth, which is one of the works in the BDL exhibition that Suresh mentioned. Neelkanth - Poison/ Nectar is the full title of the work. It’s a large 25 x 25 foot floor-based installation. See this is the problem - do I describe the work and then talk about the process or I talk about the process first?
LM: Describe the work and then go on to how you got there maybe?
SC: I am going back to the late nineties when every time I went into the centre of town to do some errands I would come back covered with rash, with my eyes watering, in an allergic state. Every time I left Delhi and I had to return, this refrain would play in my mind, ‘poison city, poison city, I am coming back to poison city’ -- to compare that with the level of toxicity we live with today is crazy but at that point it seemed like I was living in poison. And this got me thinking about poison so I started reading alchemical texts about poison, homeopathic texts and I was very intrigued by the whole question of medicine injudiciously used turning into poison while poison judiciously used could be medicine. I continued thinking and researching - I tend to circle around things a bit, like a dog before it sits down (laughs). I keep making circles and circles, often going off on tangents, sniffing around. I research a lot. Research is very critical but my research is eclectic, it follows all sorts of streams.
I then came upon the myth of Neelkanth which was a very familiar story where the gods and the demons decide to collaborate because of their greed for immortality, for amrit, and as they churn the cosmic ocean they actually produce this terrible poison which threatens to destroy the universe. I am giving you a very short version of the story. Shiva opens his mouth and swallows the poison and his throat turns blue which is why he is called Neelkanth. His act was containment not a full transformation because even he cannot absorb all that poison. For me this became a perfect allegory for the hyper-urbanization that we were seeing. Driven by greed for a certain kind of immortality we were actually producing a terrible poison. A lot of this poison was produced by the waste that the city produces so I started going to the big landfills, the large civic garbage dumps of Delhi, Ghazipur etc.
You are not actually allowed to enter these places and you are not allowed to photograph or video. I was with a friend who is an environmental activist and we pretended to be school teachers doing a school lesson on plastic waste. We managed to talk our way in and what I saw was really extraordinary. First of all, if you are walking on the landfill it is spongy and you kind of bounce. There is this sense of land, which is not land; it is pretending to be land but it’s actually full of gas, of methane that is trapped under the surface. And then I looked up and I saw this cowherd in classic tribhanga standing there with his stick and the knee bent grazing his cows on this garbage land. Strange whatever you call it, it was neither garbage nor land.
Further up there were communities who had put pipes in and were cooking off the methane. It was a really surreal universe. We went in and spoke to the person in-charge, the officer. I started to talk to him about these ideas about poison and the Neelkanth story and he said how old do you think I am? I looked at him and I said over 50 maybe 60. He looked very haggard. He said ‘I am 45 years old and I have been breathing this gas every day for the last ten years. This is what it has done to me, I am Neelkanth. You are looking at Neelkanth.’ This was an extraordinary moment. I’m just mentioning some of the processes that went into making the work. So to come to the final work- I wanted to raise this question of poison and nectar being deeply implicated in each other; that one could easily become the other and to raise the question of the possibility of transformation. I was far more hopeful in those days in those days than I am today.
When you walk in, you are looking down at what seems to be a cityscape, a sort of bird’s eye view, made of about 300 very slender, aluminum towers, each of them carrying an illuminated image of one of the senses. The five senses which are linked to the five elements, so sight- earth etc. And these are fragmented so it’s like a body, a sensorial body that is broken up. Yet they are connected by wires that you see very clearly looping between the towers .The whole city is rearranged in a mandala-like form. There are 4 sections, and what would traditionally be the four gates of the mandala are translites of images from the landfills, which are treated like British colonial photography, sepia-toned, quite beautiful. It takes a moment to realize what the landscape actually is. The whole work plays with what is beautiful, what is grotesque, what is poison, what is nectar - all these dualities. As you come in towards the centre - it sort of draws you in - you walk through these fragmented, illuminated images; you are looking down at a video. Initially you are aware of a kind of a visceral kind of movement, it seems perhaps internal to the body and you slowly realizethatit’samonumentalthroat on whichimages from the landfill are projected - it’s a combination of painting and projection, and the throat struggles to ingest, sometimes regurgitates, sometimes manages to swallow in this endless struggle to deal with the poison.
The aluminum towers are made from lengths of aluminum section which masons use to smooth plaster. I turned them into light-boxes using ordinary light bulbs. I think form is also to do with being inventive when you don’t have much money! You go to the local bazaar and find materials and experiment and adapt and work with them. I hope this gives you some sense of both the process and the form.
LM: One of the most marvelous things about Sheba’s work is that she often stays with a project for a long time. You can see the kind of research that she is doing. Many of these projects were several yearlong projects -- the Kashmir project and many of the things you’ve done. Something strikes me about the notion of time: you said that a conventional, diachronic, historical notion of time, industrial time is something you are setting aside but that you are not proposing a cyclical notion of time. And I think what you are proposing is what cultural theorist Paul Gilroy would call a “mid-level concept.” The black Atlantic, a concept he developed to talk about the slave trade and the relationship between Western Africa, Liverpool, the Caribbean and the US is an example of one. I think that the reason your work continues to be historically nuanced is precisely because you are not using the cyclical notion of time, but a notion of time that is graspable conceptually, map-able aesthetically, and one which allows us to enter a question without being contained by it. Does that make sense?
SC: Basically, Neelkanth tries to open a thinking space. It’s a very physical experience, in fact one grows very uncomfortable looking down at that swallowing figure, a lot of people get uncomfortable in their own throats, they think they might throw up and that discomfort exists along with the curious beauty and harmony for it is a piece that has both; hopefully this leads you to open up these questions. The work is really about trying to provoke a conversation, provoke thinking, to try and open up a slightly different way of looking at things.
LM: I’ll ask one more question and then I know you want to show a video and there are many who want to ask questions. My question is about your relationship to the women’s movement. We all claim you as one of ours, as indeed you are. But there is also a way when we look at your work, especially when we have a chance to see it all put together in this book, I think what we can see is kind of an implicit pushing of the boundaries of feminist thinking. I would actually go so far and say that this is an implicit critique of its conceptual categories. That may not be the way you see it but I was wondering how would you tell that story and why it is that your work has not caused us, I’ll implicate myself, to rethink our categories because in your work as I read it there is an implicit critique of our categories.
SC: I would see myself very much as part of the women’s movement and I think the power of that early work is because it was from within. I was shouting slogans one moment and pointing the camera the next. Poster making, pamphlet writing, study and discussion groups, theorizing together, conducting workshops, it was a rich, dynamic, demanding involvement.
I think two things happened for me -- one was the lack of space for ambiguity. Within activism where you are addressing the state or society there is less and less room for ambiguity, for complexity. So, while our thinking and our theorizing was really getting more and more complex - I look at the nineties as a time of reflection after a very passionate activist period, where a lot of new thinking and a lot of opening up of different ways of looking at feminist thought emerged - this did not reflect in activism. Perhaps it could not. I found myself less and less interested in areas where there wasn’t enough ambiguity. So in the early years, I think the first few installations were spaces where I would try and bring women that I knew, women who were part of the basti groups, to the installation, to gallery spaces like in the Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi, to have discussions and to try and also open up that space of ambiguity in other ways within the movement.
That happened for a while and then I think the sense of this not being that relevant for a number of my activist friends began to come up. And perhaps I was getting more and more involved in certain enquiries that were seen as problematic. One of these enquiries was into women ascetics. This was an old interest, a fascination. I had encountered women ascetics in my early years long before I had joined the women’s movement and been very struck by some of these figures and by what I would call heterodox religious subcultures and women within them. In fact the first photographs I ever took were of such a woman in Ahmedabad with a borrowed camera.
I was tired of this frame of Western bourgeois feminism which I felt was an unfair category applied to the movement but yet we weren’t really looking at indigenous forms, vernacular forms. There was also the fantastic work done by Susie Tharu and K.Lalita with their recuperation of poetry and women’s writing. I was reading a lot of the poetry of women mystics and I began to go out and just hang out with women sadhus. (laughs) It wasn’t done like a research project, it was really just being together, making friends, meeting, building relationships and then a collaborative, photographic process.
This was also the time when Hindu fundamentalism was on the rise, so it was a tightrope walk. I felt that these women and these heterodox cults actually challenged mainstream Hinduism but the commitment to a narrow understanding of the secular within the progressive world and within the movement was impossible to dislodge. It was not that I was not committed to the secular. This became a complex terrain to navigate.
People started using this term “proto-feminist”. It means that you are a feminist without knowing it. (laughs) I am sorry I am being a bit nasty! It sort of implied that women who make their own choices and who were doing extremely interesting, and what I would call feminist demonstrations of their notion of Self, were somehow being relegated to an unconscious feminism, which I didn’t agree with. One of the things that was really interesting was the taking on of an androgynous look, the stripping away of all the markers of femininity as one ascetic path. There are many. And of course among the tantrics it is not so but among the Shaivites it is so. Their ‘performance of a ‘de-feminized self ‘ was like Judith Butler 101! This was embedded in the tradition, part of the spiritual path andveryapparentintherelationship that the asceticsbuilt with the photographs.
This tightrope walk continues, especially when one is referencing the pre-modern in any way. There is a huge claim being made by fundamentalists today about ‘ancient Hindu knowledge’. Whether or not we could do gene splicing or surgery or whatever from adam ka zamana (Adam’s time), there is a claim being laid to the superiority of a unitary traditional Hindu system. I think of the pre-modern, of myths, stories and images as multiple knowledge systems, which I find very rich to draw on particularly in terms of ecology and eco-philosophy. I find nuggets of eco-philosophy embedded in stories which have often been robbed of meaning today by being reduced to mechanical repletion and ritual. However, I am definitely not of the ilk of the particular ideological frame that is laying claim to the glory of ancient Indian knowledge. Neither can one abandon that field to them. I am not interested in nostalgia for a great past - I believe we need to critically appropriate valuable insights from a number of knowledge systems, including the pre-modern. So this is a complex negotiation and yes, it’s a tightrope walk. I think there are other people within the women’s movement who have also entered this kind of enquiry and exploration so it’s also important to remember that the women’s movement is not monolithic. It is diverse and has many registers.
Lata Mani is a feminist historian, cultural critic, contemplative writer and filmmaker. Her work is archived at www.latamani.com