Nalini Malani
Interview with Nalini Malani from the iCon India Catalogue produced for the Indian show at the 51 Venice Biennale


by Johan Pijnappel

Johan Pijnappel: The history of video art in India is closely related to your experiments with this medium starting in 1991. At that time you made a video art documentary on your site-specific work called ‘City of Desires’ at the Chemould Gallery in Mumbai. What made this video an independent artwork for you?

Nalini Malani: The videos “Medeamaterial” and “City of Desires” are records of performances. I made a shooting script so that it did not attempt to replicate the work as close to the reality of its existence. ‘City of Desires’ is based on a continuous drawing done directly on the walls of Gallery Chemould in Bombay. I would be drawing as people came and went. The studio became a public arena - a place where discussions took place with the audience even as the artwork was in progress. The video begins with a written statement that this mural would be destroyed as an act of sympathy with the destruction due to neglect and vandalism of a 19th century fresco painting in Nathdwara (a place of pilgrimage for Hindus in Rajasthan). This makes the video by implication the only surviving record of that work.

Both videos are documents of ephemeral works. Theatre, especially experimental theatre in India, hardly has any support. It survives by the skin of its teeth. We had only 6 performances of “Medeamaterial” with seating for 75 people each time. 450 people saw it. But today many more claim to have seen the performance! They have seen the videos. I reckon it must have been discussed a great deal and hence became a live experience. Nobody was making such experimental works at the time.

There was a huge amount of negative criticism as well as a curious interest about the issues the work addressed. Even the form itself became a contentious issue.

JP: One of the main motivations to utilize video was that it could reach a wider audience. Have your ideas altered over the years?

NM: As a visual artist it has been very exciting for me to come out of the white cube. Working in collaboration with performance artists has brought new juxtapositions. Also showing in experimental theatres (“The Job” in 1996) - incorporating the street (“Medeamaterial”)- all of these ideas I could try out in the early nineties and here lay the possibilities of pulling in larger audiences.

In 1999 I showed my video theatre, “Remembering Toba Tek Singh” at another alternative venue: The Prince of Wales Museum in Bombay. The Museum is known for it collection of ancient Indian sculpture and miniature paintings. 3000 people visit the museum everyday and these were my audience for the ten days that the show was up. As the work was an indictment against India's underground nuclear testing there were heated discussions on the subject.

JP: You refer to yourself as a painter, but meanwhile you make theatre, video, books, neon sculptures, etc. What position does painting take in this?

NM: I paint therefore I am. But I don’t want to make this sound pompous. The language that probes other material is extended through painting. I work with de-forming the colors in video - keying them in as I would with watercolors. Or as my work in reverse painting – ‘throwing’ colors, embedding them into the supports. I am not interested in the mimetic, which is a given factor in this medium. For example, in “Hamletmachine” the colors ‘bleed ‘ into each other over the body of the protagonist. In a number of my works there is as well an overlay of hand-drawn animation. The threshold between additive and subtractive light is blurred.

JP: Your work is known for its engagement in socio-political issues but you are also interested in using the ‘seduction of beauty’ as a device.

NM: The first layering that I give to my video work must seduce the audience, draw it in, and attract enough for people to enter. I work between the scratch and graffiti (to paraphrase Heiner Mueller), or between the cathartic and the expressionistic (to paraphrase Antonin Artaud).

My video works that incorporate shadows play with the physicality of video as light. This light 'illuminates' the image but also creates a shadow image! This is where the reverse painted transparent cylinders have their interface and while rotating the video light is effaced. Thus in “Game Pieces” the horror of the nuclear bomb explosions are continually wiped out with the quirky little creatures in the cylinders.

As the device continues to fascinate I can slip in political quips and statements into the structure.

We have been through a time of intellectual and political debilitation in the past 15 years in India. Civil society is getting somewhat unhinged. We have to find strategies and subterfuges to address issues. Notwithstanding the famous statement of Adorno who remarked that "after Auschwitz there can be no art."

JP: Do you believe culture can change because of experimental art, including new media?

NM: Yes- but only if artists stick their necks out and work at creating new ambiences and environments. This is how movements like Dada and Fluxus happened.

JP: What do you try to create with the ‘retelling’ of stories in your paintings, installations and other works?

NM: In India stories from the epics are told over and over again. When people know the story there is a certain pact because they can anticipate what will come next. The Ram Lila is performed every year, for example. My idea is not only to retell the stories in a new form but also in new configurations. As an artist I have this right given to me by my ancestors. If we know and recognize the face of Shiva or Krishna it was because my artist ancestors sculpted or painted them. I want to reclaim this right, albeit in my own fashion. Recent history has shown that the concept of Hinduism is getting petrified into rigid moulds.

JP: Your new video installation for Venice is called “Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain.” In what way is the position of the female in India different from other cultures?

NM: After the caste system, one of the biggest scourges in Indian society is the lowly status of women. In the latter case there is a paradox as she can be swung up to become a goddess, made into a metaphor for the Motherland or flung down to be the dirt beneath the male foot. My work is inspired by the essay "Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain" by Veena Das*.

J P: The work is a five-projector installation that reads like an accusation against the male misuse of the female in times of political strife or war but also the current state of Indian society, which is becoming increasingly capitalistic and consumer-oriented.

NM: The artist is a witness to a memory of loss. One has to renew oneself without nostalgia. How then to militate ones way from historical sites to contemporary episodes that run in repetitively compulsive cycles?

Apart from the fact that the birth of India and Pakistan was the scene of unprecedented collective violence, one hundred thousand women from both sides of the border were forcibly abducted and raped. As Das says, "The bodies of women were metaphors for the nation, they had to bear the signs of their possession by the enemy".

The language of pain as expressed by women who suffered the violence turned into a zone of silence or the "… language having all the phonetic excess of hysteria that destroys apparent meaning. (Das)" Possession by inflicting extreme sexual violence on women has had a trajectory right up to present times. Witness Gujarat in 2002. In a sense this is a work in line with my video "Unity in Diversity" which addresses the dissolution of this very concept that India as a nation state started out with.

The language of pain as expressed by women who suffered the violence turned into a zone of silence or the "… language having all the phonetic excess of hysteria that destroys apparent meaning. (Das)" It is this form that I use in my work. Possession by inflicting extreme sexual violence on women has had a trajectory right up to present times.

JP: Is there a layering in this work that you think is difficult to understand for people who are not knowledgeable about Indian culture?

NM: The Gujarat episode is now well known. There are of course aspects that are peculiar to India but sectarian violence is certainly not our prerogative. We have seen it in Eastern Europe not so long ago.

The woman as de-gendered mutant, violated beyond imagination, has been an on going pre-occupation in my work.

The Partition led to states of mind where women wove a membrane of silence. What to do with that?! Apart from the signs that marked and scarred the body it marked language as well into another interface: hysterical speech. What caught my imagination in Das’ essay was the valence she gives to this particular scarring. The focal point of the sound and text in "Mother India" is the disjointed manner in which women have expressed, or not expressed, as articulated speech the experiences they have suffered through the trauma of Partition and subsequent sectarian violence. How then to recuperate the abject object? How to find a form for this?

*Language and Body: Transactions in the Construction of Pain by the sociologist Veena Das appears in Social Suffering edited by Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, MargaretLlock. Published by Oxford University Press India 1998

Courtesy Bose Pacia Gallery, New York

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