Hangar for the Passerby

Natasha Ginwala and Rosalyn D'Mello

Partha Sarathi Behera, Barun Behera, Jyoti Ranjan Sahoo, Sujit Kumar Seth in collaboration with Paribartana Mohanty, "College Backyard," site-specific installation, 2017. Image courtesy: KNMA.

The following discussion was conducted over a series of conversations in September 2017 around the exhibition Hangar for the Passerby at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Noida, India. The interlocutors were Natasha Ginwala, an independent curator and writer, and Rosalyn D’Mello, a writer based in New Delhi.

This large-scale and elaborately researched exhibition curated by Akansha Rastogi includes both formal and informal constellations of artists, craftspeople, designers, thinkers, and performers. It highlights art historically significant collective practices and those that are overlooked within canonizing narratives of Indian modernism as well as contemporary cultural practices that break out of the white cube to act as interdisciplinary platforms across India.

Featured artistic practitioners and collectives include Anandmohan Naik, LN Tallur, College Backyard, Amitesh Grover and Arnika Ahldag, K Ramanujam, Monogobbet Society and Sanchayan Ghosh, Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, Pad.ma, Desire Machine Collective, Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Baroda Fine Arts Fair, Weavers’ Service Centre, J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Sarai Reader 09, CAMP, Santhal Family, Open Circle, KG Subramanyan, Gagan Singh, Bhule Bisre Kalakar Cooperative, Inder Salim and Shantanu Lodh, Shveta Sarda, Mochu, RV Ramani, Govind Nihalani, Paribartana Mohanty, Astitva Collective, Group 1890, Prabhakar Barwe, Nicholas Roerich, Haku Shah, Stella Kramrisch, Raqs Media Collective, Bharat Bhawan (J. Swaminathan and Akhilesh), WALA, Ram Rahman, Richard Bartholomew, Umesh Madanahalli and CAVA students, Arnawaz Vasudev, Jyoti Bhatt, Meera Mukherjee, HARKAT, Pablo Bartholomew, Calcutta Group, SAHMAT, Siddartha Chatterjee, and Anonymous.

Natasha Ginwala: The exhibition Hangar for the Passerby opens with the College Backyard project led by Paribartana Mohanty, which establishes an image of the studio in both its discarded materialism and its most productive function: a site of collective labor. One is reminded of the many collective organizations and art schools  included in this exhibition that also find themselves in proximity, such as Cholamandal Artists’ Village, Bharat Bhavan, and Sanchayan Ghosh’s initiative at Santiniketan called Monogobbet Society. In addition to generational exchange, the student-mentor relationship is particularly grounded at Santiniketan and Baroda, where it moves beyond medium specificity of an individual practice to encourage a decolonial approach to art history. It also considers the art campus within an ecological paradigm.

Curator Akansha Rastogi has chosen a transhistorical approach in which collectivity is foregrounded as an organizing principle to comprehend the work of a range of artist groups, art schools, cultural activism, and artist-led interdisciplinary research processes that unleashed an exhibition that decisively brings about new alignments among a network of practices that existed within specifically bound circumstances, such as Raqs Media Collective and Group 1890, Open Circle, Calcutta Group (considered the earliest modern artists’ group in India, begun in 1943), and SAHMAT.

Rosalyn D’Mello: “Enter into disembodiment” is the first note I made during my second visit to Hangar for the Passerby. It too was a reference to the fragmented nature of College Backyard. I actively noted down the materials the artists had listed: terra-cotta shards, skeletal casts, floor. The wall text noted, “Working laboratory of slippages and distortions incited by a series of expeditions and movements of groups of artists.” To me as a practicing writer, it felt like the artistic equivalent of process, one that wasn’t marked by individuality but was the consequence of some collective approach, or was like collective failure, the title evoking in my mind a kind of experimentation that is tainted by the blind optimism of youth, the aggressive wanting to mark one’s generation as unique by differentiating it from the one that came immediately before, or by identifying with one that is safely ensconced in the somewhat distant or also somewhat recent past, that has either received its art historical validation or got the short end of the stick as far as recognition is concerned and is therefore owed a revival.

I’m not sure, though, that I got the sense of intergenerational mentorship. I know I would have liked to have seen elements of it, or even a full-blown assertion of its relevance as an art historical fact. And even though collective labor was foregrounded through works like College Backyard, or the display of laminated pages from Rajeev Sethi’s Doing More with Less, which is an illustrative study of the existing use of space at Shadipur, the makeshift village on the outskirts of Delhi that hosts the forgotten and neglected street artists Bhule Bisre Kalakar, I think it got lost in the overabundance of narrative threads and the almost evangelical curatorial zeal to expose process. The exhibition, despite its best intentions—or perhaps this was its agenda all along—veered toward being too scholarly.

Exhibition view, Hangar for the Passerby, showing the Open Circle installation, "Melting Pot," with photographs by Ram Rahman and pages from Rajeev Sethi’s unpublished manuscript, "Three Stones." Image courtesy: KNMA.

NG: It may be worthwhile to briefly consider the working structures and exhibition models that have been developed by artistic groups included in Hangar for the Passerby,since the “hangar” is after all a place of storage; it assembles from the trails that are set off from other places and converges these itinerant directions into a common place. The Sarai Reader 09 exhibition that was held over nine months at the Devi Art Foundation in 2012–13 finds itself quoted here. However, the key intention of that foray was to conceive a volatile generative process, where acts of live editing and interventions formed the exhibition-as-body and the journal as a collective being, where the audience too became part of its organs.

Then there are projects such as Art Karavan International, organized by Inder Salim, and Desire Machine Collective’s (Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya) Periferry, which dis-locates the artist residency and studio by assuming a buoyed presence in Assam, on the ferry MV Chandradinga along the River Brahmaputra. The ferry and the caravan become signifiers for practices that disavow the exhibition as a stationary site and its realm of finitude, toward a dispositif of radical difference, cross-disciplinary debate, and redistribution. While this exhibition seeks to accommodate these models within its fold, they seem to move beyond its grasp in continuing to mutate, such as pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive), which is an annotated source for video footage that challenges the act of spectatorship and implements a continuum of reuse of a media collection.

RD: I like your use of the verb “to unleash” as an active qualifier as to the manner in which the exhibition performs, because it also quietly registers the uncertain, flexible, yet compulsive quality that marks any encounter with a vast archive of information, that feeling of being overwhelmed by the contents, the confusion it causes, the reprogramming of one’s understanding of cause and consequence, the unpredictable manner in which events unfold across parallel-seeming timelines. It also suggests something about the very process of exhibition making as one where the curator, when he or she assumes the role of exhibition maker, isn’t necessarily always in control of the outcome. Perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, Hangar for the Passerby exposes its own curatorial process as a fleshy, still not fully constituted beast. It’s a more exciting reading, one that is more forgiving and perhaps even empathetic.

NG: Gaining centrality within this exhibition is the role of the artist as designer and educator and social agent. The many threads that associatively become tied from one realm of practice into another are arrived at through lived traditions and agonism rather than formal, art historical narrative building or a straightforward reading of “shared affinities.” For instance, there were tables designed for Bharat Bhavan’s cafeteria that became display features for textile design and artists engaging handloom production such as K.G. Subramanyan, Prabhakar Barwe, Ambadas, and Arpita Singh, among others at the Weavers’ Service Centre, with outstanding examples and reference sources from the 1960s to the 1980s in particular.

There was a refusal toward hierarchical framing of the modern versus the folkloric and instead a pursuit of what the artist-pedagogue and author K. G. Subramanyan has written about as the Arts and Crafts continuum. Another feature that revealed this commitment was a curatorial rendition of the “souvenir shop” as a conceptual anchor to reflect upon the very notion of product circulation in the museum economy. But here too, informality and collectivity became the principles to feature artists’ sketchbooks, handmade toys, printmaking folios, and ceramics that were produced for fairs and public encounters at art school campuses and at Cholamandal Artist Village, among other venues.

RD: The “souvenir shop” as an exhibit within the exhibition was strategic, and, as you say, a conceptual anchor. Souvenirs offer experiences an afterlife; whether as objects purchased or foraged, they come to encapsulate the memories that surrounded a specific encounter or visitation. They are remembrances. I found myself wishing that the exhibition Hangar for the Passerby had an afterlife beyond the physical and historical space in which it was ensconced. This could have been in the form of an essay made available, or a website that could serve as a port of return for art history enthusiasts, artists, and eager visitors alike. It could have fit, contextually, within the metaphorical domain of the souvenir shop.

Moving on, though, I want to mention here how, a few weeks ago in Delhi, at the opening of Manu Parekh’s retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Madhvi, Manu’s artist wife (who is having her own retrospective at the moment, at the DAG Modern), and their daughters, Manisha and Deepa, all wore saris made by Manu during his time at the Weavers’ Service Centre. It was a wonderful gesture, and at the party after the opening, I watched as mother and daughters posed for photos, and thought about how as you and I occupy more space within this “art world,” we too become complicit as participants in its history, sometimes purely through the act of witnessing and recording our testimonies, however casual they may seem. This is something Richard Bartholomew did as a critic-photographer; it is what also characterizes his son Pablo’s images in the show, as well as those of the photographer and curator Ram Rahman. Their photographic contributions testify to the more informal moments that are often not even footnotes in the more formally recorded and proselytized art history.

Natasha Ginwala is a curator, researcher, and writer based in Amsterdam and India.

Rosalyn D'Mello is an author and art writer based in New Delhi, India.