For Sajan Mani, 38, every act of writing is performative, whether it’s on paper or on the walls. As he dives into his durational performances, language turns into endless lines, and words turn into patterns.
Originally from Kerala, Mani moved to Berlin in 2016. He is currently completing a fine art residency at The Braunschweig University of Art and is a recipient of the Akademie Schloss Solitude Fellowship, Stuttgart, for 2021.
His solo show, ongoing at gallery Nome in Berlin, is a good example of the in-between space that Mani occffupies, between writing and drawing. Titled ‘Alphabet of Touch >< Overstretched Bodies and Muted Howls for Songs’, the show pulls together a personal and collective history, managing to offer a comment on India’s discriminatory caste practices as well as the brutal history between rubber production. The show opened with a performance in September, in which Mani sombrely wrote lines from the songs of Poykayil Appachan several times across the walls around a red monolithic structure. The artist speaks about the many threads running through this exhibition, right from finding a new way to archive histories to the art of resistance. Excerpts:
The “muted howls” in the title of your exhibition refers to the protest songs of Dalit activist and poet Poykayil Appachan. In what ways have Appachan’s life and writings influenced your art practice, particularly your ongoing show?
At the Dhaka Art Summit in 2016, I did #MakeinIndia, referring to Appachan’s works. I critically looked at this nationalistic idea called ‘Make in India’. Also, it raises the question of who is doing the real labour in India? In this performance, I carry a wooden plough, and of course it’s very heavy and after a certain point, my body tires and I collapse. I was testing the endurance of the body but with references going back to Appachan’s singing, when he finds skeletons in the fields and cries in deep pain. Those were of his grandparents who were used as cattle in the field, and killed. He is reenacting that pain.
In this show, it’s not just a howl but a muted howl, historically muted howls.
Hailing from a family of rubber tappers, you have seen, at close quarters, aspects of labour and economics surrounding rubber cultivation. In the catalog to your exhibition, Antony George Koothanady writes about the ambivalent role of rubber, signifying both survival and death. Why did you choose to give rubber such a central role?
One of the reasons I am talking to you today is rubber.
I am the third child of two rubber tappers. My father would wake up around 2 am and start his work and my mother would join him around 6 am. It took a full day’s intense work to create natural rubber. In the holidays, as children, we would help our parents.
Rubber’s elasticity, its smell and touch, the wind in the rubber plantations, the tree… I am looking back at this memory, my spiritual and physical connection with the tree.
I also look into the social and political history of rubber. It was indigenous knowledge from South America, looted by colonisers, replanted in Singapore and Malay, and from there it comes to Kerala, where my parents become rubber tappers. In the industrial revolution, one of the main materials was rubber. The history of rubber is a brutal one. Indigenous people were killed. To them, rubber was spiritual, rubber milk was like blood, and the tree, like life.
One of the works, I want to touch the BWO of the rubber tree, I screen printed my own body onto a natural rubber sheet, considering rubber as another body I want to touch. But I am also touching histories, the larger histories of rubber.
The stark red structure that occupies the centre of your performance appears like an iteration of the headgear that you have worn in previous pieces. Could you tell us more about it?
I grew up in Kannur, where I saw several martyr columns for Communists who were killed. These memorials were in the shape of red columns. I am also referring to theyyam, a ritualistic dance form in Malabar that happens late night and is performed by the lower castes. This is the only time that lower caste bodies become gods; other times, they are subjugated bodies. In theyyam, red and black are predominant.
I have been wearing the red column since 2016, where I did a performance at the Kampala Biennale. I rowed a red boat in this 50-hour performance called Liquidity Ar.
You have often spoken about your works resting in between the acts of drawing and writing. How did you arrive at this concept? Is this your way of using the power of the written word?
One of the reasons I became an artist is my failure to express myself through languages – this colonial language that we are speaking in now – all human languages. I am trying to find visual languages in which I could express myself.
So I am pushing the boundaries of performative drawing, and drawing itself. Dalit bodies, by Manu’s law, didn’t have the right to hear a text. So I play with the text itself, taking language as the vantage point in my artistic practice as drawing, especially at this point in India where talking a Dravidian language, like Malayalam, is a political act.
The act of writing has a significant role in the act of archiving. But I refuse to see writing as hegemonic.
Do you see this show as a lament, a resistance or a celebration?
I take Appachan’s songs as a source of political excavation, a resistance, an enquiry into other modes of archiving. When I perform these songs, I become a collective body.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines