Nonika Singh talks to Sonia Khurana pioneer in ‘performative’ art form in India
Like all artists ahead of their times, Sonia Khurana’s works are not easy to comprehend. To those of us used to identifying pretty pictures with art, her ‘performative’ acts dealing with the poetics of inner experience may not ring a bell. But nothing has stopped the internationally acclaimed artist — one of the first in India to use her body and sound in visual art practice — from working in cutting edge mediums. Of Punjabi origin, she studied at the Royal College of Art, London and completed a research residency at the Amsterdam Rijksakedemie, all the time constantly challenging herself and fixed notions of art. If one moment she conceives "Lying Down on the Ground", literally doing so, for ‘Flower Carrier’ she walks with eyes focused on the tip of the flower. More recently she came up with ‘Oneiric House’, which dwells on sleep as a metaphor of different levels of consciousness. Whether employing universe as home or home as universe, her concerns go beyond the mundane to probe existential dilemmas.
Tell us something about your most recent artistic project, ‘Oneiric House’.
‘Oneiric House’ is envisioned as several installations with new and existing artwork using images, music and text. It is inhabited by a disparate cast of characters: somnolescent mother, insomniac daughter, sleep-wrestlers, sleepers, slumbers and music-makers that reside in metaphoric abodes that stretch across oceans and dry land. All of them are portrayed through performative photo series, animated objects, text, video and sound narratives. This project is about dreaming, sleeping, not sleeping and day-dreaming. It is ultimately about degeneration and regeneration. While often I propose the idea of ‘universe as home’, I now return to contemplate the ‘house as universe’.
Why the pre-occupation with sleep?
Many of my projects have been concerned with poetics of dwelling in and embodying space. Sleep too has been a parallel concern since long, only at times it’s put on the backburner.
You use your own body as a tool. Many would see this as an act of narcissism?
Isn’t self the starting point of a better understanding of the world and truth? I think obsession with self stems from being self-conscious. By situating myself in public space I am obliterating this self-consciousness. Actually through my body I am trying to internalise my experiences and exploring the world almost like a ritual. The moment you stop being aware of your body you escape self-love and ego mania.
Why did you move towards performance art?
After majoring in painting I held an exhibition of paintings in 1993 and my works sold like hot cakes. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of disquiet and didn’t want to get trapped in the comfort zone of smugness. Early success can make you complacent and I wanted to chart my journey. As I went into a self-critical and self-reflective mode I knew I couldn’t stop here and moved into other trajectories, performance art being one of them.
Was studying at the Royal Academy of Art, London, a game changer?
Yes and no. Certainly my coordinates changed and soon I found myself working with camera, music, video, text and performance. My understanding of performance art did not come from the West but was largely intuitive at a point when performance was only seen as part of theatre. Only at London I was assured that I must stay with my impulses and was on the right track and got more opportunities to experiment. However, I returned to India. I am not a very patriotic person in the sense that I don’t believe geographical boundaries define who we are. Out there the concerns didn’t feel real.
It seems philosophy has been a major influence on your work.
You could say that. I read many philosophers. Music too is a dominant force in my work. In ‘Oneiric House’, which I have envisioned as a dream house inhabited by a cast of various characters, among others includes two living musicians: one an exponent of Hindustani classical music and the other a jazz saxophonist.
What made you study at the FTTI?
To be honest, I only did a short film appreciation course there. But I love to mention it in my resume for those were the days when access to world cinema wasn’t a click away. The FTII was a window to the very best of cinema and helped me understand concepts like time duration.
You lie on the ground, walk in the streets with a flower and now you have inhabited a house… do you think India is ready for performance art?
Well, we are not a great art viewing country in the first place. Even when it comes to conventional mediums we don’t patronise arts in a big way. But we are getting there and have come a long way from the time when no gallery showed interest in my sound piece, when only not-for-profit spaces, off the market like Max Muller Bhawan or the British Council, were the ones ready to exhibit my works. Now, we have patrons like Kiran Nadar and wonderful spaces like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. However, there are not too many collectors of cutting edge works, even though new mediums are emerging from a lived situation and are easier to comprehend.
You have taken to various countries your work ‘Lying Down on the Ground’, in which you invite others to lie besides you. How have reactions varied?
In France, as I performed at their site of resistance, two policewomen arrived, only to realise it was a performance act. In the UK viewers tend to be more analytical and in Japan they are more reserved and if they come and lie down alongside they keep a safe distance. In India, responses are fraught with many contradictions.
How true is the assertion that the West is more responsive to arts?
I will give you an example. At a film festival in Amsterdam, my short film was being shown at 9.40 in the morning. I expected no one to turn up at that early hour. Yet there were not only people willing to buy a ticket for a five-minute film but enthusiastic enough to engage in a keen question-answer session. Such experiences are so encouraging and overwhelming. In India I often see the same energy and curiosity among the youth when I go to JNU.
Do you see yourself as a pioneer, a trendsetter for others, since performance art has now become an accepted stream among art practitioners?
That’s for others to judge. Yes, I think many have found the courage from my ways of working. It’s encouraging to see many women artists today engaging with their bodily selves to experience the world. But I guess it’s a double-edged sword. My art practice grew out of years of deep engagement. Today many want to jump into the deep end without knowing enough. It’s not a quest within but a desire to create a sensation or follow a trend that motivates many which is unsettling.
From an impoverished childhood to the Padma Vibhushan, it has been a long journey for scientist Raghunath Anant Mashelkar (71). There was a time when he would study under streetlight. In spite of hardships, he touched new heights in his academic career.
Mashelkar’s mother left an indelible influence on him. "She gave me the courage to face life in adversity and taught me how to stand tall and not give up on principles. The other was my teacher, Principal Bhave. During an experiment, he held a glass till the paper caught fire. Then he turned to me and said if I could focus my energies like this, I could burn anything. That’s how I turned to science. I have learnt a lot from that one experiment and try to focus only on what I am doing," he says.
What impresses people most about him is his friendliness and willingness to discuss the craziest of ideas with a person of any age. He inspires and ignites students’ minds by his simple, unassuming ways.
A journalist recalls, "I was stranded at the Kala Akademi and had to attend his press conference. He offered me a ride in his official car till the venue. He talked in details about his plans."
Mashelkar insists on his right to make up his own mind. He demands freedom of thought and action, and does not let anything or anyone stand in his way once he has committed to his goal.
The Padma Vibhushan awardee is remarkably creative and possesses a touch of the unusual. His approach to issues is unique and he has the courage to tread away from the beaten path. He is careful about his diet and maintains an exercise regimen.
His friends often ask him how he spends his time after retirement and he takes out a 71-point list of his engagements. The list includes membership of five government committees, 14 academic engagements, 10 international commitments and 18 board memberships.
And he finds the time for everything on his plate. Apart from heading the National Innovation foundation, he is involved in innovation initiatives at the Tata Group, he says. He is also a member of the Organisation of Global Innovation Leaders. Little wonder, he has come to be recognised as the face of innovation in India.
Is there any inherent trait that holds Indians back from being innovative? Mashelkar says: "There is. It starts with our school education. Our culture and upbringing prevents us from asking questions. Our society deals with failure in a severe manner. As a culture we are opposed to risk taking. We are great followers, but not leaders. I have written about the need for irreverence in science — questioning everything you see, not taking anything for granted. You cannot create new science unless you question things. When I came in as the Director at the NCL, I created a kite-flying fund, where 1 per cent of the budget was for people to try out crazy ideas."
In post-liberalised India, Mashelkar has played an important role in shaping the country’s science and technology policies.
Having lost his legs in a train accident in 2008, life come to a standstill for 36-year-old Narinder Kumar of Kurukshetra. Confined to his bed, he was unable to move and depended on his family even for minor activities.
He managed to get two artificial legs by spending Rs 1.5 lakh after seeking help from relatives and well-wishers, but these did not fit properly, despite being repeatedly mended by the manufacturer.
However, his hopes of standing on his own one day were revived when he came in contact with the Viklang Sahayata Kendra, a free prosthetics centre run by Houston-based philanthropist Raj Aggarwal and his wife Sushma. The centre, which operates from the Red Cross Complex near Hathi Khana Mandir at Ambala cantonment, provided him with two artificial legs free of cost and he could walk again.
There are more than 13,000 such stories of hope scripted at the kendra, which was started in 2004 by Raj and Sushma.
The Jaipur Foot, a rubber-based prosthetic leg made of polyurethane, is provided free of cost at the centre. The foot became famous after the 1986 film 'Mayuri' based on the life of Sudha Chandran. An actor-dancer, Sudha lost her limb in an accident and was fitted with the Jaipur Foot that enabled her to dance again.
Raj Aggarwal, who moved out of Ambala 27 years ago, says it was during a chance visit to Bhagwan Mahavir Viklang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS), a Jaipur-based organisation, that he learnt about the Jaipur Foot designed by Ram Chander Sharma in 1968. The BMVSS was set up in 1975 at Jaipur.
The constant desire to serve humanity, coupled with the keenness evinced by BMVSS chairman DR Mehta, inspired him to set up a similar centre at Ambala in 2004. The centre is funded by Raj's family trust.
Service to humanity
Raj says the project is funded by his family trust in which he and his brothers and sisters, who are all settled abroad, contribute. The centre, which runs without any donations from outsiders, has a staff of five persons who make six to eight artificial legs every day. Vipin, an employee at the Kendra and disabled in one leg, says the satisfaction drawn from helping people stand on their feet once more was beyond words.
The centre provides on-the-spot treatment to patients who have lost one leg or both. It also provides calipers to polio victims. Crutches are given to patients according to their needs. All services are provided free of cost.
Raj says the centre was established with the aim to cater to patients in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, western parts of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Camps are held in these states, during which measurements of patients are taken during their first visit by technicians from Ambala. The prosthetics are manufactured at the Ambala centre and during the second visit, the patients are fitted with the artificial limbs.
He says the idea was to help as many disabled persons as possible. The cost of an artificial leg ranges from Rs 40,000 to Rs 1 lakh. The prosthetic legs are designed to be inexpensive, water-resistant and quick to fit, he says. Although inferior in many ways to the composite carbon fibre variant, the Jaipur Foot is cost-efficient and hence an acceptable choice for prosthesis.
Raj visits the centre about four times a year to oversee its working. The centre is being run from a two-room accommodation, which during the rains becomes a problem as there is no place for patients to sit. Despite having written several letters to the district administration, it had remained indifferent to this problem and has not even allowed them to construct a few sheds on the Red Cross Complex, he says.