UNPREDICTABLE AND EXPANSIVE

Review by Bansie Vasvani
August 10, 2015

 

Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video 
Jewish Museum, New York
May 29 - June 25, 2015

Indian art historian and theorist Nancy Adajania was one of twenty-five international curators invited to present works for Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video at the Jewish Museum, New York. Currently on view, videos by Ayisha Abraham, Ranbir Kaleka, Gigi Scaria, and Sahej Rahal represent India. While Adajania points out in her introduction to the show that the videos were selected for their “unpredictability and expansiveness,” her choices also encompass a crucial sentiment in the works that is prevalent not only in art from the subcontinent but in the wider enclaves of Southeast Asia and the Middle East as well. Nostalgia and history are intertwined in the videos such that they come to play what Andrew Frost in his review “What can nostalgia bring to art,” describes as “While nostalgia is often defined as a kind of cultural malady, it can also have a positive effect when it empowers a new generation to self-awareness and realization.” 

Ayisha Abraham’s 19-minute video I saw a God dance, 2011, featuring the modernist, transsexual, Indian classical dancer Ram Gopal (1912 – 2003) who made his debut in New York in 1938, and danced extensively in the west, is made from found footage of Gopal’s life and performances. Accompanied by interviews with Kathak stalwarts Kumudhini Lakhia and Sunil Kothari, who knew Gopal personally, Abraham captures the life of a man ahead of his time, his obsession with dance, and his ability to promote an ancient Indian art form far and wide. The work’s authentic tonality and charm, derived from old footage uncluttered by the finesse of contemporary technology, communicates the innovativeness of an artist whose talent has been relegated to the archives of the past. The video’s guileless simplicity and nostalgic undertone thrusts Gopal and his indisputable flair for combing Indian dance with western configurations to the forefront. 

Historicity in Ranbir Kaleka’s Forest, 2012, manifests through the recurring site of the mythological jungle in ancient Indian texts. Bathed in lush strobes of bright yellows, oranges, and reds, a glade in the woods becomes the legendary place for gaining knowledge, shelter, sustenance, and peace with all forms of life. Through a series of choppy entrances and exits to and from the clearing, a learned man blesses a young couple, a young man climbs an emblematic ladder into a tree and disappears, a self-flagellant atones for his sins, and a library catches fire reminiscent of the destructive blazes of Nalanda and Persepolis.  Less magical and forthcoming than his animated paintings through video projections, Kaleka’s 11-minute long vision to embrace tradition and the serenity of the forest as a location for rejuvenation in contemporary times seeps through the resplendent foliage. 

For Gigi Scaria the past is violently revoked in Political Realism, 2009. In his captivating 3-minute video, two adjacent bedroom doors creek open and shut to reveal the elimination of mammoth sized statues of Stalin, Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and the twin towers at the World Trade Center, followed by an image of Delhi’s new elevated metro. Here figureheads of power and dominance are deemed redundant, only to be replaced by the lure of political capitalism.  By demolishing history in the intimacy of a home, Scaria’s satire illuminates the realities of the past and the present by literally bringing it to one’s doorstep.  

In Sahej Rahal’s Forerunner, 2013, a tale about the sudden disappearance of a sage in a 14th century Tughlaq hunting lodge in Delhi that also served as an observatory, becomes the point of departure for Rahal’s philosophical ruminations on history. Interspersed with bits from Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, the narrative, delivered through a sonorous voice-over, dwells on the cartographers in the observatory, who, fixated on mathematics and astronomy, spend 18 years stargazing. Having gradually evolved into liminal beings themselves, they survey the earth from a bird like perch resembling the NASA shuttle from where they must consider appropriate measures before returning and bracing themselves for environmental floods, earthquakes, storms, yellow fever, gas chambers, psychological warfare, guillotines and a host of other historical atrocities through the centuries. Rahal’s inventive combination of history, fiction, and science in his 12-minute video allow the viewer to evaluate ancient thought in present-day living. 

Recalling archival material becomes an important tool to present new sensations in transformative ways. Unburdened by pedagogy or regression, these generative videos might be seen as a cultural phenomena, and as vehicles to reactivate universal interest in the past--perhaps no different than the worldwide endorsement of Narendra Modi’s International Yoga Day.