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The byte of history

The byte of history
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First Published: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 08 45 PM IST

Rank and file: (from top) Sundaram and Kapur at their residence (Priyanka Parashar/Mint); Pushpamala with her installation Motherland (courtesy Pushpamala N); and a panel from The Harappa Files (court
Rank and file: (from top) Sundaram and Kapur at their residence (Priyanka Parashar/Mint); Pushpamala with her installation Motherland (courtesy Pushpamala N); and a panel from The Harappa Files (court
Updated: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 08 45 PM IST
Archiving, or the storage of documents or records, brings to mind rows upon rows of dusty file-laden shelves or, in its more up-to-date version, digital data stored in hard drives. Either way, it sounds yawn-inducingly mundane, but as Sabih Ahmed, a researcher with the Hong Kong-based Asia Art Archive (AAA) points out, we are also living in the age of information explosion. While we have embraced a truly networked and interconnected world, we also feel overwhelmed by the daily deluge of data. Three recent headline-making names could serve as good signposts of our brave new information-centric world—PR professional Niira Radia, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“There is an overproduction of data and information,” says Ahmed. “The question we have to face all the time is how will this play out in the future.” The Internet, he points out, is a suspect source of information— there is no grading for what is accurate and what isn’t.
Which is why recording and storing our present and past becomes even more vital as a discipline. “Archiving is about the custodianship of collective memory,” he says. “Who is going to gather and legitimise it? Earlier, colonial archives were the storehouse of legitimate memory; in our times memory seems to be dispersed. We don’t have any grand narratives because everyone’s got a story to tell and they have their own documents to substantiate these stories.”
Rank and file: (from top) Sundaram and Kapur at their residence (Priyanka Parashar/Mint); Pushpamala with her installation Motherland (courtesy Pushpamala N); and a panel from The Harappa Files (courtesy Sarnath Banerjee).
These questions are as relevant to the field of art as they are to any other area of knowledge. Today, archiving can be said to relate to art in two ways—one, as a discipline essential to preserving and promoting the knowledge of art practice and art history; and two, as a subject for artists to work with. An example of the first is AAA’s recently concluded project to digitize the personal archives of the noted art critic Geeta Kapur and her artist husband Vivan Sundaram. This was AAA’s first such initiative in India and according to Ahmed, who worked with Sundaram and Kapur on the project for a year, plans are afoot to digitize more personal artists’ archives—no new names have been finalized yet, he says.
A fascinating example of archiving as a subject was an art exhibition held in January at the Lalit Kala Akademi (LKA) in New Delhi. Titled Against All Odds: A Contemporary Response to the Historiography of Archiving, Collecting and Museums in India, the show displayed photographs, paintings, sculptures, installations and new media works by Sundaram and 19 other contemporary Indian artists.
Tapping into the zeitgeist is also the curious case of the Greater Harappa Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Redevelopment Committee set up by the government to conduct “a gigantic survey of the current ethnography and urban mythology of a country on the brink of great hormonal changes”.
Should anyone want to take a peek at some of the survey’s findings, all they have to do is procure a copy of Sarnath Banerjee’s new graphic novel, The Harappa Files (read the review on Page 14). It is all fictional, of course, and it has been presented as a series of government documents drawn in comic- book style.
“I see myself as…an archivist. I author my reality but I also record,” says Banerjee, likening his work to that of William Hogarth’s drawings of 18th century London and to Mario Miranda’s caricatures set in Mumbai’s Colaba district of the 1970s. Banerjee sees himself as creating a parallel, personalized version of history which comes with large dollops of artistic licence. It is his own anarchic response to, as he puts it, our “dominant foundational truths”.
This blend of fact and fantasy was also in ample evidence in Against All Odds. Arshiya Lokhandwala, the curator of the show, says the title referred to the fact that art and artists in India have survived and even thrived against all odds over the years, despite the government’s poor record of running museums, creating archives and building a public art collection.
For instance, Bose Krishnamachari’s exhibit, titled LaVA: Laboratory of Visual Arts, comprised his personal library of books and audiovisual material, lifted whole—shelves, DVD players and all—and planted on a large portion of the ground floor at the LKA. By inviting viewers to browse through his own library at a government-owned gallery, the artist was pointing out “the inadequacy of what (public resource) there is,” says Lokhandwala.
A more evocative jab at the Indian bureaucracy was Subodh Gupta’s installation in all its grimy glory—a standard-issue wooden government office cupboard full of old files and, bound to its exterior, a matching broken metal office chair, an old ceiling fan and more files. A TV screen had replaced one of the glass panes of the cupboard—playing on it were black and white shots of another decrepit office space. “Subodh was asking a question,” says Lokhandwala. “That it was situated in Delhi, and in a public realm, only made it more critical and interesting.”
Other artworks explored the deeper link between individual and collective memory, and ways in which they are preserved. Inspired by museum dioramas, artist Pushpamala N.’s tableaux titled Motherland: Where Angels Fear to Tread… was an assemblage of costumed mannequins, a figure of goddess Kali, a charkha and other reminders of nationalism presented against a colourful cloth stage backdrop. The artist described the slightly surreal work as an “archive of images of Mother India or Bharat Mata”. Lokhandwala calls it “an archive of loss and nostalgia”.
The LKA show, says Ahmed, was “artists’ interpretation of archives, the process of archiving and the form of archive as opposed to the content”. A very direct and stark comment was Sundaram’s work titled if one were to fall. Fourteen plain metal racks containing art catalogues and other material stood watch over a similar empty rack that was lying toppled over on the floor. “The idea (behind a private archive) is to inform a certain location and a historical period,” says Sundaram, “which makes it an island of data and information”.
The Sundaram/Kapur archive of modern and contemporary Indian art includes rare art exhibition catalogues and brochures spanning five decades; 35mm slides of over 4,000 artworks that include all of Sundarams’ works; Kapur’s writings and lectures; literature about events they organized and shows they curated. AAA has digitized and annotated most of it and will put it in the public domain for free access.
Sundaram says their archival material is Delhi-centred, but includes a lot of what came to Delhi from other parts of India. Something as simple as a small invitation card to an art show printed 50 years ago contains a lot of valuable ancillary information. “The visual texture informs your brain,” he points out. “The type of printing, the graphic 50 years ago… So much art history is about the visual culture; product and presentation of art. Any sensitive researcher, writer, historian (will find things) in some ephemeral material. From the detail you construct memory and history.”
The Subject of Archives, a symposium, and the launch ofAnother Life: The Digitised Personal Archive of Geeta Kapur and Vivan Sundaramwill be held at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi on 26 February. For details, log on to www.aaa.org.hk
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First Published: Fri, Feb 18 2011. 08 45 PM IST
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