Parul Dave Mukherjee, professor and former Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University reviews Vivan Sundaram’s complex presentation 409 Ramkinkars. A graduate from Santiniketan herself, where Ramkinkar lived and worked, Mukherjee analyses the collaborative performance in the context of the avante garde, that unites the practices of both Sundaram and Ramkinker even as she critiques the many layers of art institutional practice in India.
If there is one theme that contemporary discourse on art in India has privileged in recent times, it is temporality and when the contemporary converses with temporality about the present -- that which is forever outside its grasp -- it begets the ‘untimely contemporary.’ If the modern forgot its present in a rush towards the future, the contemporary must make a detour to the past and revisit its archives, traces of history, institutions, events and reanimate them around a figure that acts as a peg for a range of experiences from the cerebral to the sensual, for the now.
Within this overwhelming archival drive, if the detour is to revisit India’s seminal modernist, Ramkinker Baij, via a collaborative project between contemporary art and contemporary theatre, the fusion can be electrifying. If representation is the inevitable mode of this art historical journey to the life and times of Ramkinker Baij, theatre brings to the fore the primacy of presence, of real time, and a frontal mode of address.
Promenade audience creates another form of dialogue between art and theatre. The slow moving spectators not only view the art works collectively but also inadvertently, by stepping into one another’s orbit of viewing, make the act of viewing itself performative. 409 Ramkinkers is a unique joint venture among the project conceptualizer, Vivan Sundaram , theatre directors Anuradha Kapur and Aditee Biswas, scenographer Deepan Sivaraman, and text and script writer, Belinder Dhanoa. Where the collaboration works most persuasively is in the interplay of the artistic representation and performative presence: While recreating sculptural assemblages after Ramkinker’s iconic works, Sundaram is attentive to the materiality of this re-inscription so that the decision to work with wood, clay, plastic or metal as well as the scale is seminal to its re-creation, that often results in a new artwork itself. Conversely, theatre’s art historical encounter with Ramkinker’s modernism induces experiments with new modes of presentation: Ramkinker’s deep passion for theatre further allows for the slippage between art and performance. However, what binds this diverse group is their common desire to speak to Ramkinker Baij, to bring him alive to the contemporary and for the contemporary.
What does this mean? How do you revisit the artist who was active during the Bengal famine, World War II, the Tebhaga movement, the Emergency, the elitism of Santiniketan, the struggle of women artists to gain visibility, the class divide between the artists and the neighbouring santhals and the perpetuating romantisization of the locale as an idyllic abode of the (male) artists’ dialogue with nature?
Again, if there is one term in the contemporary art discourse, which is used in multiple contexts, it is collaboration. At one level, one can clearly perceive a horizontal collaboration across disciplines and genres that has ensued into a spectacular event, but on the other, there is also the vertical collaboration between Ramkinker Baij and Vivan Sundaram which sets up a lineage that prompts the contemporary artist to admit- “With all the differences of age, culture and class, I passionately desire a connection with Ramkinker”. How does this desire of a metropolitan artist like Sundaram for connection with a subaltern artist like Ramkinker feature in a project that presents itself as a collective?
The 12 tableaux in Gallery 1 address this problem of representation head on. Each draws a theme from Ramkinker’s works to form a tableau. While each tableau flows into another and deepens the aesthetics of immersion, some stand out as collages juxtaposed, and thereby give away their political unconscious. I don’t know if the alienation effect is intended but the girl gymnasts who are gracefully swaying and striking poses around tubular structure, mouthing Ramkinker’s words, are juxtaposed with a male actor pounding his fingers on a typewriter above them. When these two tableaus are seen together, a gender-based division of labour holds them in relation, which is further strengthened by the adjacent tableau of men and women. An intellectual corner of three bidi puffing men in deep intellectual discussion in which Benode Bihari Mukherjee holds forth, whereas the floor space is occupied by women actors gracefully gliding from one painted boat to the other, singing and dancing. As if to problematize this divide that can irrupt as a male artist and female model/muse binary, these women too partake of the space of discourse through their rhapsody about the medium of art. The semiotics of bidi smoking, that underlies performance as a quintessential marker of a Bengali intellectual and Santiniketan ethos-- often works like a leveler across class and gender differences.
Perhaps the return to the material is another way in which contemporary makes itself presence felt in Sundaram’s Mill-Recall that turns Ramkinker’s site specific public sculpture Mill Call into a mobile, factory siren emitting and flashy light belching robotic contraption. It is perhaps here that the contemporary marks itself as the eloquence of materiality--a defining matrix through which Ramkinker’s works get refashioned.
The most challenging task handled by the choreographer of the tableaus appears to concern the representation of labour. How can the rural ambience of Santiniketan and its surrounding villages be recreated not just by the thatched huts and santhal men and women but by worlding these spaces with laboring bodies ? Of breaking stones, of dough making and winnowing grains and so on. In such representations, it is the scale that can take on a critical role and if it does not gel with exertion of the activity, it runs the risk of parodying labour.How does artistic labour represent manual labour becomes the crux of the representational dilemma.
Perhaps it is here we can place the coming together of two visualities that are at work- that of the avant garde that boldly experiments with the form, the medium and the scale of art works and the jhanki visuality -the state sanctioned, popular mode of representing regions and states of India , that is witnessed annually at the Republic Day parade on Rajpath, a few block away from the IGNCA grounds.
At the other end of the spectrum is the avant garde appropriation of Ramkinker’s works seen in the tableau with Mithuna sculpture. While the original Mithuna by Ramkinker12-13 inches was enlarged to life size, it ensues in a new artwork that fills out space in a different way and calls for a corporeal interaction from the spectators. In a similar vein, the multiple rubber models of a pregnant body, a motif drawn from Ramkinker’s works, enters the ludic as a little boy actor modeled on young Ramkinker/young Sundaram, plays with this maternal body exploring its contours and textures with rapt attention. While its humor is delightful, the young boy’s haptic curiosity presages Ramkinker’s leanings towards sculpture and his insistence to work from live models.
In this interplay of performance, songs, dances and the representation of art works along with the artist’s studio space (that interestingly plays with temporality by placing piles of the brochure of the current exhibition in the corners of Ramkinker’s studio) one notices the salience of light that vivifies the tableaus. One unwittingly grasps this by lingering at the site beyond the stipulated time of viewing and sees the transformation of the tableaus into dead props as soon as the lights get switched off.
But as you step outside the main building towards the lawn of the premises, the light again weaves its magic as it illuminates a Ramkinker landscape recreated scenographically through a large screen projection. Landscape, the favourite genre of Rabindranath Tagore, Benode Bihari Mukherjee and Ramkinker, enters into the contemporary through this mediatic transformation as the multiple high power lights on a grid illuminate the ground with varying intensity. The sound of recital of poetic meditations on landscape translated into Hindi and English heightens the spectacle, only to be jarred by actors impersonating the three trios posing as silhouettes against the light grid. Such literalness seems unnecessary given the poetic ambience created by sound and light through minimal technological intervention transforming the familiar environs of the IGNCA into an immersive experience.
As the promenade audience is theatrically “herded” into the Matighar, the circular ground plan of the building lends itself to the task of zeroing in on Ramkinker as an eccentric genius. Again, the dual visualities make their appearance- that of Jhanki and avant-garde on the same site. An actor impersonates Ramkinker who ‘performs sculpture making’ by slapping cement onto the armature of the Santhal Family, Ramkinker’s iconic open air public sculpture. Around the periphery, a heterotopic space is created by a band of performers, modeled upon characters from Ramkinker’s works , invoking the 1940s Bengal famine, the colonial treatment of people as animals and the Emergency, in one space.
Loud, resounding factory siren emanating from Sundaram’s delightfully avant-garde Mill Recall leads the crowd to the open-air theatre, which is readied for Dialogue. It is around 8 pm and indeed it coincides with the actors’ dinner time. Eight or nine actors start the dialogue while eating their rustic meal. It is around food that the conversation begins with Radharani or Ramkinker’s cook/model/lover expressing pride in cooking and equaling it with Ramkinker’s pride in art making. Gendered voices draw poetic analogies between sculpting and cooking, such as the need for an audience and experimentation. What cooking is to Radharani, art making is to Ramkinker; this raises the question of choice, in an institution that has a long history of male geniuses and women muses. Despite the higher enrolment of women students compared to the male students in Kalabhavana at Santiniketan, this easy naturalization of division of labour-- artistic and physical-- strikes one as odd! Particularly evident in the life-modeling scene where Radharani revels in her role as a nude model claiming to transcend the gender-divide. What strikes one as more contemporary, however, is the splitting of the role of Ramkinker among three characters, which works as a strategy to move away from a simple biographical approach.
Perhaps, the direct mode of address in the conversation scene where Benode Bihari Mukherji and Ramkinker Baij speak out their views on art needed more editing. Most striking was the bi or multiple linguality of their discourse- in Hindi, English and Oriya that compellingly captures the divide between the vernacular and the elite that continues to haunt the contemporary art world. It is in the play within the play format that brings out Ramkinker as a theatre enthusiast and riding ‘theatre’ as his third horse, even if one wonders- why Antigone- the most political of Ramkinker’s plays, was singled out for meta- theatre.
Perhaps the clearest move to redress the gender imbalance (in an institution that until recently did not have a woman faculty) is the last scene with four red bicycles that the sprightly women ride on to the stage on. (The cycle, in this context, comes across as a signifier of modernity that could co exist with a sari, a dress that did not stop women in Santiniketan from swimming or playing basket ball). It also works as an alluring theatrical prop to show women still and still moving(clever resolution of the paradox of artistic labour and physical labour) -- cycling and speaking to the audience at the same time. While men are the unmarked category and the figures of Rabindranath Tagore, Ram Kinker and Benode Bihari Mukherjee are understood by the audience through their auratic persona, these four women must declare their name and identity - as political rebel (Binodini), singer (Suchitra Mitra), art historian (Jaya Appasamy) and artists’ model (Radharani) to explain their defiant professional choices.
As the event concludes, the grand finale chorus that unfolds on the scaffolding of the main building of the IGNCA where all the actors break out into a contemporary dance is a bewildering anticlimax. If bodies dancing to catchy music on the scaffolding that is usually inhabited by laboring bodies of the underclass signals the return to the contemporary, one wonders at the framing of the contemporary - is it a quality to be acquired or a condition of being in the world?
Above all, the exhibition moves beyond Ramkinker’s biography to stage a cross-institutional encounter - the history of Santiniketan narrativised within India’s national art institution of the IGNCA via collaboration with another national institution, the National School of Drama. It takes an artist of Vivan Sundaram’s stature to occupy this multi-institutional space with ease and authority and use it as a site for his ceaseless desire for experimentation.