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Touchy-feely art

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The art installations that competed for the Skoda art prize invited the viewer to partake of them

How many people go to an art gallery to pick out a gravestone? Or use a nail-making machine that gives them some shiny new ones? Or an oldfashioned punkah to fan away their bad temper? If there were any doubts that Indian contemporary art had walked off the canvas and into the brave new world of interactive installation art, the Skoda prize show at the capital's National Gallery of Modern Art should put them to rest.

The 'do-not-touch-it's-very-expensive' attitude typical of the art world seemed to have been thrown out of the gallery window, as the soft-spoken Mumbai artist Shilpa Gupta tried to persuade visitors to take back a numbered tombstone from her untitled work that tries to remind a forgetful nation of the many - 1278 to be exact - unmarked graves in Kashmir's Kupwara district. Some happily trotted off with one, while others seemed discomfited by the idea of taking the plain marble slabs into their Italian marbled-homes. Gupta, who made it to the Skoda shortlist for her solo show Someone Else at Gallery Chemould - she lost out to LN Tallur - also displayed her library of stainless steel books. Each book bore the name of an author who hid behind a pseudonym and the reason why they did so.

From her metallic bookshelf, visitors could walk into the colourful igloo created by the Karnataka-based Srinivasa Prasad from household objects he had persuaded people from his village to part with. "I used the traditional barter system, offering other goods or cash in exchange for used household objects such as trunks and vessels, " says Prasad, who explores the idea of home in many of his works. In another work, viewers - or rather participants - have to clamber up old gunny bags to enter a nest decorated with cloth balloons and buntings. "Even this gunny bag cocoon can be a festive place. Happiness can be found anywhere, " says Prasad, who lives in Sagara village and has a studio in Bangalore.

If Prasad's works transport one to a warm place, CAMP, a four-member collective, brings you to earth with a thud. Their work titled Pal, Pal, Pal is based on the Niira Radia tapes that blew the lid off the influence of lobbyists on policy-making and exposed India's dirty underbelly. The work features wall-mounted transcripts of tapes displayed on the walls. Visitors can dial into analog telephones to choose any 'act' from the screenplay and listen to sections of the tapes. Ashok Sukumaran of CAMP says the aim is to make the listener feel like a voyeur or sorts. "The conversations were horrifying but so was the tapping. By listening in, some of the guilt rubs off. " What added to the irony was listening to the tapes in the government-run NGMA.

But did the artists edit the tapes? "We did have to choose the portions we wanted people to hear from reams of tape, " says Sukumaran. "But the conversations chosen are true transcripts though the scene settings are imaginary (such as the bit about journalist Barkha Dutt eating a sandwich before making a call). "

If the Radia tapes had everyone all hot and bothered, there was L N Tallur's ATM or Anger Therapy Machine to cool off. Tallur, who won the Rs 10 lakh Skoda Prize for a 2012 solo exhibition at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, installed a stately punkah above two seats so that angry viewers could cool their tempers with the gentle breeze. The artist, who shuttles between South Korea and India, and clearly has a sense of humour, is also showing a tile installation embedded with tiny figurines doing hatha yoga. "Hatha yogis go to extremes to prolong their life spans, while terracotta tiles get strength when they are moulded by fire, " he explains. His nail-making machine is part of a larger installation inspired by a statue sitting on a bed of nails that he saw at the Bhau Daji Lad. Viewers are invited to press a pedal and make nails. "Interactive art deepens your understanding, "he says. "It's like feeling the paper and then reading the news. "

Different materials and different mediums but what seemed to unite the artists was their creative intention not just to make work, but invite the viewer to enter and interact with it. The contemporary Indian art that the Skoda show curated by Girish Shahane gives us a glimpse of seems to have gone beyond the narrow confines of the canvas to bring to life an imaginative universe.


The Skoda prize show is on at the NGMA, Delhi. 10 am-5 pm. Open Tuesday to Sunday

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