Every time art theorist and curator Nancy Adajania passed the subway at the railway terminal at Churchgate in Mumbai, she found her vision straying to Fotofast. The photo studio promises to transform the grubby ordinariness of everyone’s life into something exotic, using Photoshop. It could locate you in Alpine meadows, organize light blue eyes for you, anything, in fact, to give your life a virtual makeover.
Adajania’s pick from the studio’s collection was the chawl couple that wanted a photograph showing them on a yatra. They sit in a courtyard dressed and made-up for holy places, waiting to be “moved” to Badrinath or Haridwar. Adajania chose her own virtual version of the photo. She placed the couple against a green meadow and lake with bright cartoonish hot air balloons lifting off in the distance.
“We think that globalization and technology affect all cultures the same way. But the thinking of the people still remains very local. For instance, families prefer to use eyes of relatives if they choose to change their look in photos,” says Adajania.
These and other images and video films are being presented as installations at the India Now festival in London in the last week of June. Collectively labelled Building Sight, the show has been curated by Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective. It was displayed for the first time at a show titled On Difference in Stuttgart last year.
Raqs mixes various kinds of media such as films, art, photography and software material to showcase urban living and culture. This particular show deals with Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi. Hosting the curatorial show is London-based Watermans, a new media gallery that encourages British Asian and South Asian works.
The projects in Building Sight deal with art that comes off the streets and the daily lives of people in cities. “There isn’t a common theme, really, but together, they constitute a network of effects—ways of expressing what for us it is (like) to live in our cities,” says Shuddhabrata Sengupta, one of the three curators.
Ravikant and Prabhat Kumar Jha have put together Autopoesis, an eight-minute video installation derived from their article on the “poetry” inscribed on the backs of Delhi autorickshaws, trucks and buses.
“The text is superimposed on the back of the autorickshaw. In our installation, this text seems to be floating while the autorickshaws appear to be in motion,” says Ravikant, who translated the poetry into English for this installation.
The duo, in their article, refer to the works of Sadat Hasan Manto, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes and point out how “auto poetry” actually translates as urban graffiti. The poems used in the installation derive from a huge database ranging from the couplets of Tulsidas to Punjabi verse. Included are gems such as this that beguile even in their crude, unedited form: “NO NOLEG/ WITHOUT KOLEG”.
Ravikant says that his co-researcher and he are not yet finished with collecting verses off the backs of autorickshaws, and those who find the idea engaging can look forward to a book from them. However, scavenging for texts on the metal and canvas backs of the three-wheeled bugs has not been easy. “We could have got into trouble with the Delhi police many times for flouting traffic rules while chasing these verses,” he says.
Writer and film-maker Ruchir Joshi has captured an oblique image of the wild construction boom across Indian cities. His Gurgaon Giraffe shows a faint image of an excavator as a beast that turns entire hillocks, farms and villages into sleek settlements. Cinematographer Satyajit Pande’s exhibit, Manus, focuses on the links perfect strangers form in Mumbai’s overcrowded suburban trains. An image shows the hand grips on a train where unfamiliar commuters share accidental intimacy.
One departure from the urban theme is Sanjay Kak’s installation, The Dispute at the Dam Site. This video installation work is derived from his documentary film on the struggle against big dams in the Narmada valley. “The installation differs from a film in that, in the latter, the space and the setting in which one is subjected to the visual stimuli becomes equally important,” he explains.
The video captures an incident where protesting villagers take over the Maheshwar dam for a day. The district collector arrives at the site and tries to persuade the villagers to withdraw their agitation. But the protesters do not relent, and the police move in. On why he picked this five-and-a-half minute clip, he says: “It’s an instance where the rhetoric of democracy meets the reality of democracy.”
Building SightWatermans, London, 29 June to 10 September. Admission free.