The film opens with a shot of two closed doors, next to one another, in what is evidently a residence. They open simultaneously to the sight of a crane passing in the background, visible through the windows. As the doors shut and open repeatedly, they show a crane inside the house, dismantling public monuments from the past 20 years, — of Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Lenin. There is also a visual of the fall of the Twin Towers. The three-minute Political Realism (2009) by Delhi’s Gigi Scaria ends with the visual of a passing Metro, a symbol of rapid globalisation.
In another video, 10-minute-long Forerunner (2013), Mumbai-based Sahej Rahal transcends spaces, switching between an abandoned, decrepit building in Delhi, the observatory built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq and subsequently named Pir Ghaib — after the incident of the vanishing of a saint from the site — and archival footage by NASA of the space shuttle Endeavor. These, Rahal intersperses with visuals of his own performance as a superhero wielding the lightsaber, which eventually turns into a bird of paradise.
These two videos, distinct as they are, are part of a show titled “Sights and Sounds: India” at The Jewish Museum, New York, until June 25. It is because they are so widely different that they have been selected to be part of the show by curator Nancy Adajania. “Instead of selecting works that directly address the political as narrowly construed, I have chosen those that deal with the unpredictability and expansiveness of ‘vast narratives’ (Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin), expressed through the modes of the fabular, the rhetorical and the performative,” says Adajania.
The show, part of a series at the museum, aims to focus on Indian video art. Mumbai-based Adajania was invited by Jens Hoffman, the museum’s Deputy Director, to curate the Indian section of the “Sights and Sounds: Global Film and Video” programme. She chose to look beyond films that engage with political urgencies — a theme that a great deal of video art centres on due to its documentarian legacy — “to explore other tonalities and preoccupations within the practice”. For the same, she chose to showcase Bangalore-based Ayisha Abraham’s I Saw a God Dance (2011) and Delhi-based Ranbir Kaleka’s Forest (2012) apart from Political Realism and Forerunner.
By focussing on these experimental films, Adajania also hopes to debunk the theory that video art in India emerged in the ’90s and has largely been “responsive to the economic liberalisation and the technologies it ushered in”. “I chart this pre-history through the collaborative endeavours, experimental films and photographic experiments of Akbar Padamsee, Nalini Malani, Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain and Krishen Khanna during the late ’60s and the early ’70s, and Dashrath Patel’s trans-disciplinary practice from the ’60s to the ’80s,” she says, adding that, at the time, the art system in India was fixated on painting as the premier form, so these were seen as aberrations if they were noticed at all. “There was no critical framework or cultural context for them,” she adds.
The scene has come a long way since. Video art has evolved in many interesting directions — as video sculpture, as an inter-media interface with painting and the internet and as an extension of the documentarian tradition in a world dominated by surveillance technologies.
Scaria believes that video art did not have to chart the same course in India as in the West. “The visual language has developed and people with no history in the medium have fresh ideas to offer,” he says. Rahal concedes that the medium may not have a “market” as traditional art does but adds that the internet is playing a huge role in the wide reach of video art.