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The Spirit Eaters and Other Curiosities

Performance art — the enfant terrible of the art world — has finally found acceptance,as proved by KhojLive 12.

Written by Dipanita Nath |
January 31, 2012 12:18:41 am

Scattered through Bihar and Uttar Pradesh is a community that eats for a living. They are called Kanthababas,and are sought out by bereaved families,who bring them home to eat so that the souls of the deceased are pleased. Growing up in Bihar,a young Subodh Gupta would watch in fascination,as Kanthababas wolfed down small mountains of food in minutes. On Friday,Gupta,now a famous artist,introduced Kanthababas as a work of art at KhojLive 12,an evening of performance art held in Delhi as part of the India Art Fair.

“Even eating is an elaborate ritual. There is chanting and bargaining; Kanthababas bargain hard with the master of the house. This is the subject of my new video art called Spirit Eaters,” explained the artist,after three Kanthababas presented their performance. In a raucous and rustic dialect,they bargained with Gupta to be paid Rs 1 lakh each to eat,but settled for a fraction of that. As they began to eat,a rapt audience of more than 600 watched. Dahi-rice,puris,sabji,half-a-dozen rasgullas,jalebis and some more dahi-rice — as the obscene amount of food disappeared,the Kanthababas created an art piece that was simultaneously brilliant and bizarre.

These “Spirit Eaters” were not the only shockers. A line-up of 12 pieces,curated by Khoj,a Delhi-based organisation,included a naked Inder Salim talking solemnly about basant ; Pushpamala N and poet Mamta Sagar dissecting the idea of Mother India; Amitesh Grover getting the audience to play a game real-time with teams in Karachi,and Vivan Sundaram presenting a model dressed in a plastic suit embellished with colourful capsules and medicines,among others.

Performance art,where artists create live pieces,unrestricted by the demands of traditional forms such as painting,music or dance,is still a new genre. “An audience of 1,200 showed up,which proves that people are curious about this form and want to explore it,” said curator Pooja Sood. While performers such as Salim and Divya Naidu — who explored isolation and emotional distress through powerful dance movements — used their own bodies to create art,KhojLive 12 also had works that made comments through music and videos. In Chhota Paisa,Rashmi Kaleka,Hans Koch and Suchet Malhotra reminded people of a time when sounds of crickets would liven up nights and mornings would be full of the cries of vendors. As the video played shots of Delhi rooftops,the sounds evoked those forgotten elements. “It was my way of remembering a time before we started shopping in departmental stores,” said Malhotra.

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Miss Dotty and Madame Potty (stage names of Divya Vibha Sharma and Rajyashree Ramamurthi respectively),on the other hand,used an edgy language to make an age-old comment on women conforming to social norms. Called Don’t be Dotty,the 20-minute dance piece showed two sides of a woman’s personality — one who tries to please everyone,and the other who suddenly discovers freedom.

The performer who was missed was Pakistan-based Ammad Tahir,who was supposed to present Sheikh Mujibur Rahman,a performance piece comprising speeches by politicians throughout Pakistan’s history. “Visa problems,” said Sood,adding that it would have been a performance to remember. It was,nonetheless,an evening nobody would forget in a hurry.

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