‘Build your cities on the slopes of the Vesuvius!’
– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.
…And populate the slopes of your bodies with cities of your ardour.
I believe channelling such effects of rebellion, born in the aftermath of the World Wars, ‘modernism’ was ingenerated from a people angry, hungry and thirsty in every way imaginable. At a time when the state replaced the church, and as Nietzsche said, ‘whatever was well said was being believed’, artists, thinkers and academics began to find ways to express beyond just articulation, to find new beliefs through a common medium that was a relatively stable base for them in a world of quaking turbulence, the anchor we sink to hold onto for eternal survival – our own bodies. But, from Futurists to Viennese Actionists, from Surrealism to Dadaism, from every ‘ist’ to every ‘ism’, we have been intricately charting trajectories of reconnaissance and bodied effects of histories, white-washed. Following a compass only pointing in one direction: the West.
On August 15, 1947, a plundered, assaulted, and exhausted nation spliced open, left bare and called ‘India’, was meant to awaken to a ‘heaven of freedom’ they had been robbed of. But the carcasses of the days, weeks, years following, have still been critically plagued by poverty, mass illiteracy, gender, caste and class discrimination, homophobia, corruption, greed and every other symptom of attempting to shake out of the forced coma of colonisation. A somnambulist nation, it was trembling due to its sore scars from partition, and newly woven political disarray in the period of 1947-70. So, when it came to art and reclaiming their bodies within it, at that time, India’s artists were still searching for a language to slip into, away from the worn canon of relative conventionality.
Even reclamation often finds a way to erase as much as it claims to rebuild or rescue. As is with the first and second waves of feminism, the prominent absence of the discussions of intersectionality and inclusion further pushed the dialogue into the singular, patriarchal narrative we try our best to swim away from. Is this recurring current of comfort within the unjust so magnetic that the thunderous oars of our thighs, seated in our bodied voices and othered truths can’t seem to paddle us towards all-encompassing shores?
Audre Lorde, in her lecture titled, ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’, addresses that line of questioning too:
‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.’
Within that complex cultural context and institutionalisation of modern art making in the 60s in independent India, artist Bhupen Khakhar – till then a simple, working accountant -moulded a dialect that single-handedly managed to impregnate the country with a new script of art historical contexts and institutional critique. In 1970, he began injecting small acts of irregularity and disruption into the mundane repetition of the local poetics of art, still so limited in its vocabulary. In a show that year, with his oil paintings hung on the walls of the gallery space, he designed invitations – cloaked with the format of the highly decorated cards distributed before elaborate Indian weddings or ceremonious religious events. At the opening of the show, his circle of contemporaries, friends and inspirations- became his audience, the subjects of his paintings and fellow performers– all at once.
On February 18,1970, artists like Gulammohammed Sheikh, M. F. Hussain and others became identities slicked onto the linguistics of the canvases in the gallery space, while also turning into active participants diluting and mocking the high-brow art hegemonies slowly being cemented by those very institutions. It was said to be all the clatter, chaos and grandiosity of an Indian wedding taking place. Khakhar played the role of the groom and the other artists – his ecstatic procession. Through this poorly attended, criticised, unacknowledged (but layered) ritual, celebration and intervention, he managed to impregnate the Indian art scene with a body-language that had not tingled the taste buds of art galleries, journalists, critics, and historians yet.
Curator Beth Citron writes of his influences from ‘Kaprow, the Nouveaux Réalistes, Warhol, and others, each of whom in different ways had attempted to blur the boundary between artist-actor and viewer-spectator,’ which is clear and re-enacted in his deeply personal yet openly public revisions of those ideologies. ‘Khakhar took a position against the dichotomous designation of aesthetic attitudes, as, for example, between avant-garde and kitsch,’ writes seminal art critic, historian and Khakhar’s contemporary in the 1960’s and 70’s, Geeta Kapur. Referencing Clement Greenberg’s seminal essay- Avant-Garde and Kitsch (1939), of those chartered binaries on one hand and observing Khakhar’s doings and undoings on the other, she aptly plots his self, and artist-self, at a melting confluence of dualities.
As a closeted homosexual man at that time; unmarried, see-sawing with these threads of references of academic, formal art history and critique, and the heteronormative spectacle/popular attraction of sanctimonious religious or political rituals- his body inevitably forms the epicentre of this spinning charkha.
Even the literature about Khakhar and his art beyond his life bleeding into the language of his paintings, his oils and watercolours finding their truth and vulnerability amongst all his references and realities, there is a dearth in mapping his body in and as the fossils of performance within modern art in India. ‘Hands are almost living beings. Only servants? Possibly. Servants, then, endowed with a vigorous free spirit, with a physiognomy. Eyeless and voiceless faces that nonetheless see and speak.’ (Focillon, Hogan and Kubler, 1942) Consider his marked palms, his short thumbs, his shallow nail beds and his flexing and folding knuckles,often conflated with or tied to his identity, stigmatised sexuality, mathematical yet creative intellect, and lack of prescribed pedigree.
Thus, critically reading Khakhar’s (accounting, speaking, playing, seeing, enacting) hands, is also, to quote writer Sayantan Mukhopadhyay, ‘heralding the possibility of institutional support for a truly international interpretation of modernism.’
Further alienated by the processes of being divided and ruled, the shovels of religious dogmatism and blind faith-driven hegemony, have been ever present within the practice of miscellaneous rituals, superstitions and sacrosanct rites populating Indian cultures. Even the heavens above India have been over-populated with 330 million gods (that we hear of) promoting devotion in over 16,000 languages and still floating in a cramped, lacking locker of (irrational) infrastructure to safely house them. Thus, as we review this growing presence and corporeality of an artist’s body within a narrow stream of modern art, it is ‘trans-corporeality’ that can truly guide us as to how to begin to gnaw at the banks and erode this fine art through coarser or excluded ‘commercial’ parallels in India and pan Asia.
‘—to disrupt Western human exceptionalism…The trans-corporeal subject is generated through and entangled with biological, technological, economic, social, political and other systems, processes, and events, at vastly different scales.’ (Braidotti, Hlavajova and Alaimo, 2018)
Through this perspective of widening our perceptions and perspectives, we must hold within us, and be held without, an ontology of all things, ideas, bodies and happenings we often brush aside as detached to our own fermented figures.
Take for example, avant-garde performance and video artist Shigeko Kubota and her ‘Vagina Painting’ in New York, 1965. Reasserting authorship over the female body’s mass distribution, consumption, sexualisation and appropriation via famed artists like Yves Klein, this paintbrush- dripping blood-red, attached to the ‘crotch of her underwear’, ‘transformed the heroic Pollockian ejaculatory painting into a specifically feminist stroke’. (Warr and Jones, pg. 62, 2012)
Every striking movement, every thrust and every flick, is as much a freestyle dance for her vagina as it is for the brush or the paint, except one of them is feeling relatively more free and powerful for the first time.
The piece and this context plainly and directly address and simplify the theme of discussion:why and how the early 20th Century became a crucial and pivotal playground for bodies revolting, rejecting, reviewing, redeeming and recessing through itself as a medium of art, for art and in the name of art. But, in this world of diverse subjectivity, there are bound to be unfamiliar lexicons we are not equipped with.
And within the clan of the Naga sadhus (naked priests) in north India, there is an uncanny cultural convergence and a delineating of the fixed narrative of what can and cannot be included in the art histories we reference for Kubota’s piece.
These holy men have a practice of knotting their genitalia to sticks, tying heavy bricks, boulders directly to it, and even lifting, pulling and performing improbable feats with it. In this world of phallic normativity, of hyper-sexualisation, author Kripa Krishnan writes about having seen these feats in person: ‘here it is not a fetish, a symbol of oppression or sexual prowess. Here, in the world of the spiritually striving, it is a repository of sacred power and ascetic control. It is an ordinary spiritual tool, shorn off its megalomania.’
And that is, in many ways, Kubota’s driving force as well. Generally swallowed through our lone interpretations of her identity- in this performance she gets to subvert and transcend this organ as her being, as her tool, as her symbol, her truth and even as an art. While her piety within this embodied revolution situates her at the mecca of art – MoMA, New York; the sadhus (priests/ saints), flock to their devotions of living life beyond the ties to this bodied world.
To quote Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings once again:
‘And if you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.’
In cutting these themes open, suturing the winding roads of a new language together, to hunt down the artist’s body in spaces beyond the usual ‘artist’ and the usual ‘body’, we find parts of us ripped, sewn, spread, clipped and opened to an abyss welcoming every possibility. In understanding- we must misunderstand, in constructing conclusions- we must dismantle hegemonies,
Through the final sting of language on this dilating and germinating body…
So, keep breathing and these words will live on.