Nalini Malani


by Ashish Rajadhyaksha


Two floors of twin glass buildings gleamed eerily as they bounced back reflected images from Nalini Malani's projectors. This was on the Mathura Road on the very edge of the city of New Delhi, the first step in the traveller's approach to the capital. As the glamorous and somewhat bewildered art crowd entered a landscaped pathway in between the sheer rectangles of glass, a motley bunch of bystanders gathered on the mounds of mud that passed for a pavement dodging state transport buses and auto rickshaws. It was difficult to escape the connection - this was where you entered Delhi, Manto's Delhi, whose migrants still uncannily evoke on a winter's dusk the history of the Partition.

Manto's Toba Tek Singh, the short story famously emblematic of all Partition narratives, had provided the basis of Nalini Malani's first major video installation (1998). There, on a sheer floor mylar surface sat twelve tin trunks spilling out the bare belongings of the refugee, cocooned inside which were video monitors. One set showed a blue sky, another a baby being born and in reverse action disappearing back into a womb. A double image on the long wall showed the graceful underbelly of an aircraft as it disgorged egg-like bombs.

Remembering Toba Tek Singh itself was not presented in Nalini Malani's extraordinary single-evening event on that winter evening in Delhi, but it was impossible to escape. On the far side, on the unfinished terrace of a building, clear to sky, as we witnessed her latest video installation, Hamletmachine (1999-2000), airliners screamed through the dusk as though to physically underscore her hallucinatory whirl of Coca Cola consumption, images of authoritarian dominance, tragedy and violence.

Nalini Malani's work with video has now become substantial enough to require us to ask new questions of the material itself: to ask whether the thickened, viscous matter that develops with slowed-down images, spilling out into spaces on the ground and in the haze of neon and pollution, might not be a new kind of art material that she has developed, and which was especially in evidence that evening. This brief essay will simply seek to investigate this material, which seems to relate to video but also seems to exist around the space of video, so to say, like the 'glitch' or the gremlin of the emptied-out image on video causing an overspill into something that is both inside and outside the frame. The image of overspill in my head is mainly one from Medeamaterial (1993) her theatrical collaboration with actress-director Alaknanda Samarth, where, on one occasion, the triple R-G-B beam of an old video projector threw a giant wavy glitch silhouetting the actress on a wall as she dressed herself in a black sequinned sari.

The single evening-long 'show' at the Apeejay Technopark continued that effect to highlight, especially, the fact that her video-derived material performs: that 'this material' is, or aspires to be, an actor, and to that extent her work is as much theatre as it is visual art. I am now referring as much to work that is in fact theatre (Medeamaterial and The Job, 1997) as work like Remembering Toba Tek Singh, Hamletmachine and Transgressions (2000), which is not explicitly theatre but seems to enter that space. Transgressions featured slowly rotating giant transparent cylinders on whom she had painted dreamlike, semi-submerged phantasy images merging with pictorial references to pat painting and popular art that come out of her long history of watercolour works. On these enormous circling tubes she beamed video projectors that threw both images and shadows on the walls behind. These walls were transparent sheets of glass which, when seen from the crowded street outside, included the spectators' shadows that were now merged into her other shadows and projections.

From outside this glass house beamed at a forty-five degree a video image of her animation work Memory: Record/Erase (1996), made originally for The Job, using the rigid rectangular grid of the wall as a screen. The beam spilled over into the smoky evening sodium street light. This expansion of theatrical space to include everything that is around it was astonishing.

Hamletmachine itself was on a different tier. The building it was in seemed to be unfinished, and the work itself was open to sky, with the occasional airplane shooting over a grey haze of dusk sky; you had to traverse a narrow metallic, slightly sci-fi stairway as though you were rising into the control towers of a heliport. There were four sets of images - three on each wall, the fourth beamed vertically on the floor on a mound of salt. Around the salt, covering the entire floor, was a bed of water. In earlier versions, shown in Fukuoka and in the Tate Modern's Century City exhibition, Nalini Malani had used flat reflecting surfaces of mylar, but here the flat water a few inches deep seemed to have an oily translucence that somehow made it a better container for the spilling images than the tin. Most importantly of all, the spectators were not inside the space as they had been in the earlier displays: they were outside, forming the fourth wall: the thing had suddenly become a performance.

Helping her visualisation of the Heiner Muller text along were the Japanese buto dancers in her image, split into two or more images, of frontal torso, hands, and feet on the salt bed of the ground. Their own very integrated, capitivating presence gave way, as the performance moved on, into grotesque, disintegrating flamelike images, sometimes recognisable as major events of political upheaval (the Nazi concentration camps, the Bombay riots after the December 6th disaster of the destruction of the Babri mosque on Hindutva fanatics). The disintegration of the unity of the theatrical body was signalled by the high-strung, strained, tense, breathless voice of a riot victim demanding an answer to the question: I exist as you do, so why do you prevent me from existing?


Years ago, Nalini Malani's move away from her oil paintings into water-colours had permitted her to develop what could be one of the ancestors of the incandescent, flame-like figures of these videos. She had developed a rapid brush style on a whitened wash that had brought documentary effects alongside dream-phantasies. Those figures too were impermanent ones, interested in performance. It seems in retrospect that the women figures in, say Rethinking Raja Ravi Varma (1989), may have been ancestors of, and also perhaps more effective performers than, the two women dancers in Toba Tek Singh.

This may have first been in evidence in one of her very early video works, The City of Desires (1992), where her camera had tracked, panned and tilted down in recording her installation at the Gallery Chemould, Mumbai. The interest in spills had been all too evident, in the earth-colour paint with which she had coated the floor, and which was to gradually disappear as the show wore on. The materials themselves were complicated: painted, drawn, smudged and placed, on wall and floor, like the translucent horn-like plastic objects placed along the walls - the sea motif was a strong presence here, and these objects had been shown on the video through a slow tiltdown and a fog horn on the soundtrack. Importantly, in retrospect, those materials weren't only registered onto the video: they were integrated into the surface of the video image.

Being present briefly during that shoot, I recall how the flaky floor paint raised dust, some of which may have entered the U-Matic recorder and caused 'dropouts' - glitches on the image that would eventually look like black or white spots. Nalini Malani thought, jokingly, that it might actually work well with the image. This is not of course what I mean when I suggest an integration of material into video image, but the connection was rather graphically made.

My sense of what I am saying might be best made by associating, across a chasm of time, The City of Desires with her recent Transgressions. Not only is there a similarity of images, in the translucent, wavy, submerged spaces evoked by both, the presence of water and of floating nude figures, but in making the projected video image into a light source for creating shadows, Malani creates layers on layers of surfaces, images and shadows on the far walls. This means that the projected image, as it arrives on screen, now materially accrues everything that the light source passes through. The projected image passes through the translucent plastic and the painted images on that plastic the shadows thrown up and other shadows made by spectators, all observed - at Badarpur - by the street outside. The retrospective implications of this effect on her earlier video work might well make the argument best.

The connection may also work by seeing the possible continuity between The City of Desires-type work and her first animated video, Memory: Record/Erase. This video was in one sense straightforward animation, involving a still image and a static video camera, as the abstract earth colour images were painted on, gouged out (shades of the earlier 'dropouts'), sprayed with water as though a gash in the thigh spilling out water like blood. The animated images were in fact similar to ones we have begun to get familiar with all her work, from the watercolours on, till the present - splayed bodies on display, like her later mutants, submerged, in play or stilled, meditating figures. In the first instance (The City of Desires) they were in one sense painted on walls but aspiring to become video, in the second (Memory) they had become a part of the video image.

I believe that in, first, integrating these disparate materials into the video, and, second, integrating the video image into something larger, an idea of performance in which the image acts, is a crucial development to what I think she is doing with virtual space and virtual performance. Medeamaterial, staged in the glass-fronted auditorium of Mumbai's Max Muller Bhavan, starts with a crucial iconic image. On the one side, we had Alaknanda Samarth, evoking the prostitute in a glass house beckoning to customers to enter. On the other side of the glass frontage, there was a giant neon sign showing a face, with eyes, and a brain inside the face, with two hands pierced in through the eyes and grabbing the brain.

As this image of piercing and grabbing became our metaphor for entering, we first came into a foyer full of giant Malani paintings, as Samarth dressed in a bubble-plastic gown, drew us further inside. Here, we seemed to have literally entered a networked space, as though cracking with static - two televisions on the floor, one large crescent-shaped light chain, the glitch on the wall projected to giant proportions and becoming a spotlight for the actress. The video image here, on the wall and on the televisions on the floor, was in fact an actor (it was a virtualised Jason).

There were two sets of conceptual images here, then: one presenting the video image, and the entire paraphernalia associated with electronic image distribution, as though it were a performer. (This image, of technology-as-performer, worked better than more standard use of video technology to record performance, which happened when actor Rajit Kapoor, playing Jason, appeared only on the video monitor, or more generally in Malani's 1994 video version of the play, neither of which were as effective as the theatrical presence of the technology itself). The second conceptual representation of this experience was that pierced brain: the metaphor of her performance space as a sort of neural network.

Both the sari, that Samarth drapes around herself as she is lit by the glitch, as well as the brain image, surface in the Toba Tek Singh installation. The sequinned sari is the object, of communion, of fetish and regression, as the two women wear it round them, and then roll on the ground releasing it. The egg-like foetal object that briefly becomes the spotted animated image we saw in The Job's animation, later becoming a bomb, then also becomes a pin point inside the skull of a large image of a young boy, only to mushroom and explode in slow motion.

Toba Tek Singh was the second time we entered the space of her installation. But if there is a connection between this work and Medeamaterial before it, then surely further meanings must accrue to the idea of entering the brain, of the possibility of the space of performance itself being like a giant, de-sexed mutant into which we enter. This was especially striking at the Apeejay space when we, for a change, did not "enter" the Hamletmachine installation but saw it instead as a performance, and how much sense it suddenly made.


What I have in mind is the possible connection between this 'space', of her performance, and the many 'virtual' spaces that have newly opened up with digital technology. As we increasingly spend more and more of our waking hours 'logged on', so to say, we would be ever-more alive to the fact that the cleanness of virtual space, its flowing info-highways, its gleaming sci-fi landscape might well relate to the messy, clogged composition of what is actually happening beneath, as might an architect's clean design blueprint of a planned neighbourhood relate only tangentially, as an imposition of meaning, to the reality of slums, garbage, pavement dwellers and scavengers that the blueprint inevitably leaves out. In both instances, we would be gaping at what one famous science fiction teacher called the 'desert of the real' (Morpheus, in The Matrix, 2000). In both instances, with Nalini Malani, I would like to explore the gendered nature of this divide: not as a male/female thing, but more particularly, to explore what I can only see as its de-gendering - in the first instance of the architect's virtual blueprint, of all knowledge becoming information, and all information in turn becoming a projectile; in the second, where the encounter with the 'real' leads to these savaged mutants.

One clue to this would be Nalini Malani's increasing fascination with this 'desert of the real'-type idea, most graphically shown by her interest in what ecological circles came to describe as the Bikini Island disaster, when nuclear tests carried out led to pregnant women delivering strange, disfigured, mutant children. She has substantively developed her concept of the 'Mutants' (in Body as Site, the Asia-Pacific Triennale, 1995-96), in wall-work and in installation, where she speaks of creatures, women, sexualised but de-gendered.

I imagine many of her video installations as creating spaces that are somehow contained by such figures, or by the spaces that such figures would contain. I am proposing here that the bombed-out deserts, like the floor of Hamletmachine as it came across in the Apeejay space, are curiously de-gendered, split, recipients of endless projectiles, and that these spaces, into which she invites spectators, might have a quality that evoke mutants that have no more subjectivity, only biology.

'From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control of the planet, about the… final appropriation of women's bodies in a masculinist orgy of war… From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point… Cyborg unities are monstrous and illegitimate; on our present political circumstances, we could hardly hope for more potent myths for resistance and recoupling' (Donna J. Haraway, 'A Cyborg Manifesto', from Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991).

What foregrounds this curiously mutant quality of her space are the two voices that most memorably emerge from it, both female voices. One of them is a voice that Nalini Malani has used since she began working with sound (Remembering Toba Tek Singh), and has used in every work since then. It's a curiously flat sing-song voice of a woman, who could actually be a child, who reads without emotion with what we would see as a convent-school accent, and which can be terrifying. The second voice is, of course, the one already mentioned, of the refugee woman from Bombay's savage communal riots of 1992-93, borrowed from Madhushree Datta's noted documentary I Live in Behrampada (1993).

In Toba Tek Singh, this voice, along with others, mixed with static fax-tone, simulates the neutrality and flatness of a television news-reader as she impersonally recites the numbed consciousness of a mad guy named Bishen Singh who was so confused by the processes of administering India's Partition that he did not know whether the land he was standing on was India or Pakistan. It is perhaps in Hamletmachine, where the text comes from Heiner Muller and then Transgressions, that establishes the link I am seeking to make with the curiously neutral, even virtualised, space inside the video image. My image of this cyborg voice, its base in virtuality, its loss of grounding, might come off best in Transgressions, whene the childlike female voice reads a little poem composed in part of nonsense rhyme, which was originally composed for the work and is perhaps worth reproducing in full:

It was the best of times
We had everything before us
We were all going direct to heaven.

Vada pav rupees 3, Airtime rupees 1.49
Nimbu pani rupees 3, Airtime rupees 1.49

Hello…can you hear me?
Of course you can hear me.
I speak Orange,
I speak Blue,
I speak your speak just like you.

Let me ask you a question.
How many square feet of land would the Japanese get in Tokyo
with what they spent on that golf course in Goa?
In Goa, Goa, Gooooaaa

And amma please send me to English school
And amma she really was no fool.

Newspaper reports of rainforest dreams
made of 70 tonnes of "renew" cream.
Avon girl on the Amazon.
Skin so soft, Hot cinnamon
"Hi honey, I'm here" she claps and calls
She'll be paid in chickens and manioc flour.
if the piranhas don't get her as she falls.

And amma please send me to English school,
And amma she really was no fool.

Vegetarian or non
What turns you on?
Clucking potatoes with chicken genes
Or tomatoes swimming where fish have been?
Here come the seeds…they’re terminator seeds
Big science watching over your food needs.

And amma please send me to English school,
And amma she really was no fool.

So la tee do
So la tee do
I do, I do,
In high heeled shoe.
I do, I do
want to be like you.
I Orange I Blue
I do I do.

Can you hear me?
Of course you can hear me.
I speak Orange, I speak Blue
I speak your speak just like you.

(Last two lines repeated many times over)

There is a common and always successful device, of a disembodied child's voice singing a meaningless song, sometimes used in films to signal terror. In Nalini Malani's recent video work, the space from which these voices emerge is also disembodied, or at least (in Hamletmachine) dismembered, evacuated of an ego, full of projectiles that keep blasting away.

The connection between this and digitisation, the link between new virtualised materials (like the video glitch) and their connection with the 'desert of the real' - the 'real world', if there is at all one left - is what makes Nalini Malani's work distinctive. Especially if, on that evening, the site of installation is seen to be as much the Technopark Media Gallery as the equally sci-fi village of Badarpur that embraces this space.

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