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Fabric of Discontent: Giving voice to the subaltern through art

New York-based artist Kiran Chandra’s ongoing solo show poses important questions about the continued incidence of farmer suicides in India. She talks to Teena Baruah about how she uses art to channel her own understanding of the political

TEENA BARUAH  19th Feb 2012

Kiran Chandra

nly when the last river has been damned; only when the last crop has been modified; only when the last mountain has been mined; only when the last person has moved to the city; only then will we find that money tastes awful, cannot be eaten and needs to be moved from the main course."

This Native American proverb serves as a personal inspiration for New York-based artist Kiran Chandra whose ongoing show 'Pro.ject 2012.01' converted Delhi's Shrine Empire gallery into a paddy field in an attempt to raise questions about farmers' suicides in India.

As you walk into the gallery, you find it wrapped in a fabric that has been printed with audio file images of interviews and conversations between Chandra and farmers and their families in Chhattisgarh last summer. The rise and fall of their voices, visualised and printed onto cotton fabrics, dramatically mimic paddy fields.

The single piece installation comprises a video, fabric, screen prints, soil, sculpture and drawing in charcoal on paper. The video is a choreographed piece of a man sitting on a stool and his head is wrapped in a turban. But the turban doesn't stop at his forehead. The length of the cloth is so unmanageable that it covers his entire body and becomes a shroud. "After the show, I can take off the fabric and sell it. I can take the soil and sell it. It decommodifies things," says Chandra.

The curatorial catalogue throws up a few tough questions. A quarter of a million farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 16 years, it reads, an average of one suicide every 30 minutes. "Farmers are burdened with debt, failed monsoons, failed crops and a failing government. As India booms and shines and globalises with one eye on China and the other on its neo-liberal agendas, what is to become of these small farmers? Why are these death tolls not affecting us, as a nation? What is this disconnect? If we open up our agriculture to the global market what will we, a nation of one billion and growing, eat?" The artist feels that there is no better place to investigate these questions than in New Delhi.

What I can do is generate a discourse. I think artists have the capacity to get people to talk and ask questions. Great literature does that and so can art.

Chandra grew up in Kolkata and currently lives in Brooklyn and teaches sculptures, surreal art and abstract at the Brooklyn Arts Council and Museum of Modern Art. She also conducts classes in videos, films, games and animation in Museum of the Moving Image in New York. She returned to the city to 'dress up' the sets in Mira Nair's Namesake and that's how she encountered the Singur-Nandigram land acquisition agitation by farmers against the proposed Tata Nano project.

Singur made her understand the rural-urban disconnect in India. "Villages feel really far away (from the cities). But at the end of the day how food is grown in India and how we consume it, or how land is being redistributed is going to affect all of us..." she says. Chandra agrees that her mentality is very urban, as she lives in an urban environment. But living between two countries has made her realise that the world is much more connected than we think. "What happened in Walled Street is affecting India right now. It's fashionable to talk about money and profit, but boring to talk about rural issues," she rues.

She closely follows talks and writings of P. Sainath, Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva and feels Peepli Live brought the issue closer to the urban audience.

For 'Pro.ject 2012.01', she interviewed a few disgruntled farmers and their families in Rajnandan village, Chhattisgarh, using Bhan Sahu ("the loudest voices on the issue") as her guide. "I didn't go there for disaster tourism. I was there to do my research and understand the issue," she clarifies. Chandra wanted her work to be evocative, accessible and steeped in reality, so her audience can contemplate the issue without being bombarded by agendas.

So is she aiming to change India's land reform policy with her installation? "What I can do is generate a discourse. I think artists have the capacity to get people to talk and ask questions. Great literature does that and so can art," she opines.

Chandra's earlier works were also mediums of reaction, anti-establishment and rebellion force. In the charcoal and ink mural called Singur, she painted William Wordsworth's lines, 'If such be nature's holy plan, Have I not reason to lament. What Man has made of Man?', over a Google image of Nandigram-Singur. She printed posters of this work, so people can put it up on their home/office walls, so the information to leave the white box of the gallery. She believes that it's not enough to sit in a gallery "and talk about an issue, to make that shift. I'd eventually like to do art in public spaces like graffiti, beyond the burst that art bubble. It frees it up from this status of artness".

For the India Art Fair, she created an installation comprising 25 Wedgewood Bakura horses (a style of pottery commissioned by Queen Victoria), three doilies that mimic lace (evoking British tea time propriety), a video of Victoria Memorial (built for the queen, but she never came to see it), overlaid with very jarring sounds of Kolkata streets. "It points to our Colonial mentality which hasn't shifted very far," she says.

Years ago, in another work, Fiction and Non fiction, she used clay pieces of women's mouths that looked like archeological shards. "I wanted to document the mouths of women who haven't had voices. They were made and documented like archeological shards..."

For Chandra, art is a way of thinking and understanding things. Many of her artworks use intervention on language. For instance, error in terror ("everyone sees terror, but when it is bookended by error, you realise that it exists in the word itself"); native with 't' crossed out reads as naive ("natives never seem to know what they are doing"); ex within sex ("who doesn't have sex with their ex? How else do you get over your old lover?"); orders in borders ("borders are generated by orders, top down ruling"); brother and other; art in mart; lack and black; error and terror; and here and there. "The last one is very telling of my experience of living between the US and India, though I'm essentially one person."

Today, when you look back, you realise that she's doing pretty much the same thing for years. The medium keeps changing – like video and installation, so she may feel that she's doing something new. But the ideas remain the same. I point it out to her and she agrees, "We have our rhythms and cadences which we follow. It's like your handwriting, try as you might, but you can't change it."

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