"Prolixity in not alien to us in India. We are able to talk at some length." Amartya Sen, the 1999 Nobel Laureate in Economics, begins the title essay of his book 'The Argumentative Indian' (2005) with this self-reflective observation. This same ruminative tendency characterizes Raqs Media Collective, a New Delhi trio who are regularlz cast as new-media artists in the confines of an art world that often doesn't know what to make of their diverse activities examining urban life in South Asia. As documentary filmmakers, social theorists and artists drawing on urbanism, film studies, legal theory, history, the biological sciences, postmodern literary theory, criminology, ancient philosophical and religious literature, new-media technologies, psychology and sociology- to name just a few-Raqs have thrust themselves into debates about the state of contemporary India with examinations of the state’s authoritarian use of power over individuals and communities, and their postmodern readings of sacred Hindu texts.
Comprised of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, all of whom were born in the late 1960s, Raqs have pursued their research and production in the three broadly defined but interrelated fields of documentary filmmaking, collaborative research in urbanism and installations for traditional art galleries and museums. Though Raqs made their debut on the international art scene in 2002 at the prestigious art festival documenta 11, in Kassel, Germany, the collective was formed a decade earlier in New Delhi in 1992, one year after they graduated from the Mass Communications Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi’s secular Muslim university, where they studied documentary filmmaking together.
In the 1990s, the members of Raqs scraped by on small freelance productions and writing gigs, assisting filmmaker Pankaj Butalia on a documentary about Bengali widows living at an ashram in Vrindavan, a pilgrimage site in Uttar Pradesh, before receiving seed money for a documentary on the history of the Andaman Islands for India’s Channel 4. Though the film was never made, that was the moment when Bagchi, Narula and Sengupta chose to work under the name Raqs, a Persian, Arabic and Urdu word that describes, in their phrase, “the state that ‘whirling dervishes’ enter into when they whirl.” The name perfectly encapsulates the intense verbosity the collective easily slip into in their own writings, performances or in person.
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