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Bombay from the Ground Up, Performance Included

Tejal Shah, still from Between the Waves, 2012

Tejal Shah, still from Between the Waves, 2012. Five-channel color and black-and-white video installation with sound, 85 minutes. Courtesy the artist and Project 88, Mumbai

Myriad forms of public expression, action, and acting out are very much a part of this culture’s DNA.

Tushar Joag, Hypohydro Hyperhighrise, 2011

Tushar Joag, Hypohydro Hyperhighrise, 2011. Public performance. Courtesy Mohile Parikh Center for the Arts and Art Oxygen, Mumbai

As a curator new to Mumbai, I found the metropolis thriving, fascinating—and sometimes maddening. There is a tight-knit contemporary art community in the city that has become accustomed to international curators swooping in and out like the ubiquitous Bombay crows. They flit around the city, alighting briefly to snap up morsels of sustenance. Yet no bird’s-eye view, colleague’s description, or online research could substitute for sustained experience on the ground. I arrived in India for a sabbatical of sorts in September 2010, and my method of acclimating was to call as many artists as possible right away, to find out what they were up to and who was most interesting. Within about six months, I had founded a contemporary art exhibition space known as the Mumbai Art Room, a small nonprofit that provides a platform for artistic experimentation.

My first impression of the Bombay art scene was simplistic. I observed an abiding preference for painting and sculpture, built on a solid foundation of local modernism that was established in the late 1960s and early ’70s. But looking closer, I realized that performance, photography, video, and social practice were also quite healthy in a communal atmosphere characterized by mutual respect, open discourse, and experimentation. Performance art, it seems to me, is particularly strong; there is a lot brewing, and the vibe is infectiously positive. A couple of caveats, however: both public and private funding for the arts is grossly inadequate, and right-wing Hindu extremism is a constant potential source of swift censorship and draconian repression.

One of the two artworks I want to discuss here, though made in India, would likely be shut down in a heartbeat if it were shown in public in Mumbai. It is a 2012 video installation by Mumbai artist Tejal Shah, who self-identifies as multidisciplinary, feminist, queer, and political. Titled Between the Waves, this multi-channel work was exhibited at Documenta 13 and features Shah and others as fictitious creatures—“humanimals”—cavorting and engaging in various activities, some of them explicitly erotic. It is a strange, beautiful, and imaginative work, but also one that pushes uncomfortably at the boundaries of societal expectations around transgender identity, sexuality, and narrative form. Between the Waves garnered a decidedly mixed critical response, and Shah herself has described the work as “awkward” and “unbounded.” Shah is a bold and innovative artist, yet she is also vulnerable and in need of critical affirmation at a time when, mid-career, she cannot expect broad local support.

The second artist I want to spotlight, Tushar Joag, has little in common with Shah except for a use of innovative performative methods to address politically charged subject matter. Joag again and again probes the problematic and inequitable development of land in Mumbai in particular, and in India in general. He cannot stomach the greed, unfair distribution of basic resources, and resulting displacements of disenfranchised citizens. In Hypohydro Hyperhighrise, 2011, for example, a project that was commissioned as a part of a series of public art interventions throughout Mumbai, he presents a simultaneously entertaining and incisive scenario. For this work, Joag hired a troupe of boys and young men to form a 20-foot-tall human pyramid and water fountain. The pyramid component of this acrobatic stunt referenced a familiar annual religious tradition celebrating the Hindu god Krishna. Joag cleverly repurposed the action to refer instead to inadequate planning around the skyscraper apartment buildings that have sprouted throughout this densely populated city, and the water shortages that have resulted from it. The message was dead serious, while the atmosphere was quasi-carnivalesque. Curious crowds gathered wherever the work was performed.

All over this country, one bumps into street processions, public acts of political activism, folk performances, and religious rituals. Within the more circumscribed field of contemporary art, performance has been nurtured for over a decade by KHOJ International Artists’ Association in New Delhi, and more recently by Mohile Parikh Center and Art Oxygen in Mumbai. Even when new works are too sensitive to present locally, they still manage to resonate in the international art scene. Myriad forms of public expression, action, and acting out are very much a part of this culture’s DNA—in the world’s largest democratic country, they simply cannot be suppressed.

Susan Hapgood is a curator and Founding Director of the Mumbai Art Room and a Senior Advisor to ICI.

How can artists working with controversial subjects or methods best fight censorship?