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Social engagement has always been part of my art’

Artist Nalini Malani on her ongoing retrospective at Centre Pompidou in Paris and the impact of Partition on her art and life.

Written by Vandana Kalra |
Updated: January 7, 2018 12:00:37 am
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One of India’s foremost artists, Nalini Malani has consistently worked with past traditions to comment on contemporary concerns. Her art has examined socio-economic disparities, political realities as well as gender and racial inequalities. With her 20 museum solos and almost 200 international museum group exhibitions, the veteran in the international contemporary art world has become the first Indian to have a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Divided between the ongoing exhibition in Paris, and Castello di Rivoli–Museo d’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, Italy, the retrospective comprises two complimentary exhibitions, bringing together 50 years of her work. The show is a stunning testament to her experiments with the subject and the medium — from film to camera-less photography, painting, stop motion animation, artist books, to theatre and more. The Mumbai-based artist, 71, talks about her influences and the need to break stereotypes. Excerpts:

The exhibition’s time span starts with 1969, when you were the only woman artist who was part of the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW) set up by Akbar Padamsee. What attracted you to film and photography and, later, video?
To reach a wider public, I wanted to use the same media that surrounds us daily in the 20th century. My initial works, in the late Sixties and early Seventies in these media, were looked at negatively or ignored by male colleagues at VIEW. As VIEW stopped, I had no access anymore to this expensive medium. It was only much later, with the cheaper medium of video, that I had a second chance to break out of the painting frame to reach more people.

How did you come to theatre?
I was fond of theatre from a very early age. At the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute, where I had my studio during the years at JJ School of Art, I helped the theatre director Satyadev Dubey in making posters, costumes and invites. My own production came along with my experiments with the ephemeral room-filling wall drawings for ‘City of Desires’ (Malani drew directly on the walls of Chemould Gallery in Mumbai for this), in 1991. When actor Alaknanda Samarth walked into the gallery, she immediately said: ‘This work asks for a performance’. It became a fruitful collaboration that resulted in the experimental theatre play Medeamaterial (1993), based on the work of Heiner Mueller, performed in the exhibition halls of the Max Mueller Bhavan, Bombay. This was followed by The Job in 1996, a collaboration with Anuradha Kapur.

Clockwise: Onanism, 1969, 16 mm black and white film, Nalini Malani, in front of Centre Pompidou, All We Imagine as Light, 2017.

How did the ‘video plays’, as you call your video installations, happen?
It soon became clear to me that the only way to travel with theatre productions was if I transformed them into digital theatre plays, which I started calling ‘video plays’. One of my first video plays was Hamletmachine, which travelled to 17 countries, and is now being shown at the Centre Pompidou as part of the retrospective. Hamletmachine changed so much of my way of working that we decided to make it the main image for the poster and catalogue of Part I at Pompidou.

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You were not even a year old when your family moved from Karachi to Kolkata, just before Partition. Did your family speak often of this dislocation?
All through my youth, Partition has thrown a dark shadow over my family’s life, and I would say, over our subcontinent, till today. My grandfather died a few years after Partition as he could not cope with the new situation. My family landed, dispossessed of all their belonging, as refugees in a part of the country where they did not know the culture, could not speak the language or know the food. From a well-to-do life it became a one-room apartment divided by a piece of sari.

How have you drawn on Partition to make it a part of your work? Saadat Hasan Manto also features in several of your artworks.
In 1997, 50 years after Independence, I made an artwork called Excavated Images out of a quilt cover. My grandmother had taken it during Partition like a sack which she filled in a hurry with some needful things. And yes, the artwork had paintings and images of Sadaat Hassan Manto with Toba Tek Singh (a short story on the absurdity of Partition). This became a point of departure for my first video play, Remembering Toba Tek Singh, as well, in which two young women from either side of the border, try to fold a sari, but fail.

Your earliest films at Pompidou, Still Life (1969), Onanism (1969), and Taboo (1973) are concerned with the female subject. It has been central to some of your later works. What are your views on being described as a feminist artist?
Critical social engagement has always been part of my artwork. I would not know another way of making art. Howsoever you turn it, women do not have an equal position or opportunities that men have, not in India or in any other country in the world. I became aware of this at the age of 12, when I learnt that Mill on the Floss was written by George Eliot, who took on a male name to ensure she would be taken seriously. For me, to exhibit in the world, a feminine point of view is crucial.

Throughout your career you have broken stereotypes. Is there any stereotype you feel is important to break now?
Somehow, by the turn of the century we have got ourselves into the reverse of what I would call development into a more humane society. An artist like Jasmeen Patheja with her project Blank Noise, for example, makes a great contribution in breaking old stereotypes and I am sure many young artists will be able to follow this path of cultural activism. Even at the age of 71, I feel the rebellion must go on. Not in a destructive energy, but in a more positive sense, to create awareness.

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