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Making a scene
Sawing through a finger. Wrenching an ankle. Chasing after a cow. No matter what, the show must bleed, hobble and gallop on. Artists share bizarre anecdotes that highlight the unpredictable nature of performance art.
What happens when a performance artwork or street intervention doesn't go exactly as planned? Artists end up chasing holy cows, come within an inch of being lynched by angry city residents and find out while chopping off a finger that cutting through bone is harder than it looks. We invited five contemporary artists, whose street interventions have ranged from travelling atop bulldozers to milking cows outside illegally constructed malls, to give us a behind-thescenes look at the vagaries of performing in public.
In 1994, the Mumbai-based artist Tushar Joag was deeply affected by the city-wide slum demolitions, which had displaced 90, 000 families. In order to shake the well-heeled out of their apathy, he came up with a plan. He delivered 6, 000 letters to plush residential localities informing them about a fake urban renewal scheme to transform Mumbai into the "Venice of the East". This would be achieved by setting up a network of canals originating from Powai Lake. Unfortunately, the residents' homes stood in the way of this grand vision. "The building that you currently occupy is along the route of canal_/ F24d, " stated the circular. "You will be provided alternative housing at rehabilitation sites at Virar, Dahanu, Dombivli or Vangani. "
The fake letters unleashed a panic. Residents were horrified at the thought of being packed off to transit camps on the margins of the city. Many visited Joag's website (the link was given in the letter) and wrote angry emails condemning both the scheme and - if they'd figured it out - the "prank". One disgruntled resident even filed an FIR at the Juhu police station. Joag bombarded everyone who emailed him with facts and figures about the excessive force used to evict slum dwellers, the number of houses razed and the high cost of these demolitions.
One day, while delivering circulars to the residents of a fancy Andheri building, Joag came face to face with distressed homeowners. "I was really thrilled, " he recalls. "I was doing this to create a dialogue with Bombayites about slum demolitions and here was my chance. " Joag's excitement was short-lived. As soon as he explained that this was an art intervention, the residents went berserk and Joag had to escape before he got clobbered. He still recalls one furious Sardar yelling, "If my father had read this letter he would have gotten a heart attack. "
One hot Sunday morning in 2002, Kashmiri artist Inder Salim cut off the tip of his pinky finger and threw it into the Yamuna. Donating a piece of his body was Salim's way of forging a link with the dead, polluted waterbody. There wasn't a large audience. Just two friends, who accompanied him to the river bank and filmed the performance. They had with them a surgical knife, a bottle of Betadine, a bandage, cotton, a drawing board, local anesthesia and a few video and still cameras. In a first-person account published in Open Magazine, Salim described the pain as "extreme, blinding-out memory". But he claims the experience was invaluable because it gave him an intimate knowledge of the human body.
Before the performance, Salim had inexplicably assumed that one could slice through skin, muscle and bone without much effort. "It was not so easy, " he recalls. "You have to be a surgeon to know how to cut. " His friends weren't much better prepared. "One friend was very angry, " says Salim, "He said, 'No, no it is too hard for me to witness it, I should not have come with you'. " The art world was also appalled. "Many artists stopped talking to me, " he recalls. "They said this is too much. "
When artist Uday Shanbhag, who lives in Mumbai, came across a newspaper article about an illegally constructed mall in Andheri, the name caught his eye. It was called 'Kamdhenu', after the holy cow in Hindu scripture. The name inspired Shanbhag to milk a cow in front of the mall as part of "land(of)mine", a city-wide art project. Since the area occupied by the mall was originally earmarked for public recreation, the intervention was meant to both critique the misuse of land in the city and highlight the irony of the mall's "holy" name.
Shanbhag soon zeroed in on a friendly cow near his Goregaon home. He struck a deal with the gaiwaali (owner of the cow), who agreed to lend him the animal for a thousand rupees as long as he arranged the transportation. On the day of the performance, Shanbhag arrived with a van to pick up the cow. But the animal took one look at the vehicle and charged off in the opposite direction. "The cow lady started running behind the cow and I behind the cow lady, " recalls Shanbhag. "I had less than half-an-hour to start the performance and here we were chasing the cow. "
Eventually, the gaiwaali managed to procure another animal for Shanbhag's performance. This docile creature got into the van but the artist's troubles weren't over. On reaching the mall, the gaiwaali hiked her price to Rs10, 000 as soon as she spied the art project's Italian curator filming the process. Shanbhag bargained furiously but ended up having to shell out Rs 7, 000. "All I can say is I tried to milk the cow but eventually I got milked. "
Any Mumbai artist attempting to ride atop a bulldozer from Borivali to Azad Maidan in Fort would reasonably expect to get the run-around from the Mumbai police. But artist Mansi Bhatt who wanted to comment on people's struggle to find spaces to inhabit in Mumbai found herself confronting a singular problem. The police only allowed demonstrations in Azad Maidan and they couldn't wrap their heads around how to categorize Bhatt's artwork. The fact that she planned to travel on a bulldozer and then cover herself with soil while dressed in a shimmering white robe, two-inch-high platform shoes and headgear fashioned out of a water pipe did little to clarify the situation. Bhatt recalls an inspector insisting that this could not possibly be considered a protest. "You don't have any demands and you don't even want to meet a neta, " he argued.
Eventually, Bhatt managed to pique the police inspector's curiosity enough for him to give her the go-ahead. In an unforeseen twist, however, she fractured her leg while jumping off the bulldozer. Bhatt got through the performance but by the night her leg was swollen and painful. "I needed complete bed rest for two weeks, " she recalls.
In 2011, artist Justin Ponmany was asked to create an artwork for the exhibition Right to Dissent organised in support of human rights activist Binayak Sen, who was jailed for having alleged Maoist links. Ponmany decided to set up a stall just outside the Mumbai gallery and display objects, which would draw parallels between Sen and the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. They included a postcard saying 'Free Ai Weiwei', a mug with Sen's image and cheap watches that could have been made in China.
Despite the innocuous nature of the artwork, the Mumbai police got antsy because of the Binayak Sen connection. They asked the gallery to ensure that the artwork not be placed outside and even threatened to arrest Ponmany. Except they couldn't figure out an actual law the artist was breaking so they came up with a creative solution - they threatened to arrest him under the anti-hawking act.
What would you do if you encountered a shaggy two-legged monster prowling Mumbai's Bandra skywalk? If you were ten, you'd probably run screaming in the opposite direction. And that's exactly what a group of street urchins did when they stumbled across performance artist Sahej Rahal dressed in a patchwork robe with a furry hood and carrying a staff. Since Rahal was pretending to be a mythical being performing an "absurd act" in a "derelict corner of the city", he didn't react to the cacophony. Instead, he ambled on, occasionally stopping to stare at passersby and sporadically breaking into a sprint.
After observing him from a distance, the kids decided he was harmless. They ventured closer and tried to bait Rahal with animal sounds and a few uncoordinated dance moves. When even that didn't provoke a response, they took it a step further. "They started picking up things that had fallen around and were throwing them at him like he was an animal that would react in a terrible way, " recalls photographer Niyati Upadhya, who was documenting the intervention.
At the end of the 90-minute performance, the kids asked if the act had been for a film or TV show. "We told them that he is just doing it for fun, " recalls Upadhya. "We said, 'This person goes around Bombay, dresses up and walks the streets'. They were really excited by this. "
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