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Artist Nilanjana Nandy’s performance art project, ‘Cover Uncover’, questions the way we view the library

The inspiration for the project that concludes on December 9 came to Nandy when she went about visiting the reading rooms in and around Kochi.

Written by Pallavi Chattopadhyay | Updated: December 9, 2019 8:49:37 am
Max Mueller Bhavan library, Pepper House library at Fort Kochi, delhi libraries, Nilanjana Nandy From the library at Max Mueller Bhavan Photo: (Annette Jacob)

The library at Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi wears a rather distinct look. All the books, DVDs and CDs lie covered in newspapers, their titles hidden and invisible under daily news, lending no clue to its contents. Visitors and readers are met with shock and surprise as they display their unique tendencies depending on the personality they have.

As they browse through the contents of the books, painstakingly, in the absence of their covers, some give up, some patiently snail through their section of interest in literature, travel or philosophy, taking out each book at a time, and browsing through its contents.

After covering the books at Pepper House library at Fort Kochi in the same manner as she did as an artist-in-residence at a residency organised by Kochi Biennale Foundation last year, Nandy, a faculty member at Delhi’s College of Art, has covered nearly 13,000 items of the entire media in the library here.

Nandy, who completed her masters in painting from Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, questions the way we enter a library and access its diverse collection of books with her performative exercise, ‘Cover Uncover’, a part of Goethe Institut’s year-long art project ‘Five Million Incidents’.

The Gurgaon-based artist says, “What happens if one fine day, that diversity is slaughtered and it all becomes homogeneous. Now we have everything on one scale. All the titles are concealed. What happens when everything becomes uniform. We come with a set notion that we need these books. But if that space is transformed then what do we do.”

Over the last two months, a group of four to five art students have been assisting Nandy in her endeavour to cover thousands of books at the library. Speaking about the monotony of the task at hand, she says, “I am exploring the repetitive nature of this, like how some of us do the same thing every single day, and that is also how life is spent. It’s like a job.”

The inspiration for the project that concludes on December 9 came to Nandy when she went about visiting the reading rooms in and around Kochi. “The reading rooms are primarily male-dominated, where hardly any woman goes, except during meetings. But in the evening it turns into a small club with carom boards. As a performative exercise, I would visit different reading rooms every morning, and sit and read my newspaper there. Since hardly any woman went there, I was occupying the space there,” she says. Depending on which parties founded the reading rooms, the newspapers and books there echo that lineage.

She says, “I was also looking at how we look at the newspapers as a window to the world but then there the newspaper was also a kind of indoctrination.”

The reaction of the library visitors is a revelation in itself. One sees a lady walk in, and when unable to find a book of her interest, the body language makes it evident that she refuses to enter a space like this, which is not useful to her.

She points out to the librarian where she thinks the book could be, and steps back. Another child, full of patience, browses through all the titles in the children’s section. “This is intriguing to me because of the kind of patience she has at her age,” says Nandy, pointing out to yet another member, who, when unable to find a particular title, quickly ripped off one of the newspaper covers to peep at the title.

One of the viewers of this project came up to Nandy and divulged how the artist was almost undoing the Amazon and Google feed. Nandy is quick to point out, “How our way of reading, be it an article, a book or the music we listen to, the moment I look for something on the web, there is a feed that instantly comes to me, which is not my choice but that of Amazon or Google.

It’s almost like the old radios, where one keeps moving the knob in search for a particular channel, and in the process there is some noise, and suddenly there’s something. We think it is not that bad and that we can hear it for some more time.”

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