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Rabbit to chicken, earthen glasses to mirrors: all for art

Kuldeep Singh is a Delhi-based dancer and painter who is on a research fellowship in the US. The multifaceted artiste, dressed in a vermilion dhoti and deep blue shirt, enthralled the audience at Studio21 with his performance on compound mathematics in the Indian taal system.

As Singh performed various dance moves balanced on nine (and later eight) earthen glasses, he simultaneously engaged in a dialogue with the audience, barely stopping to take his breath. It seemed as if he was speaking aloud the inner fears and thoughts of a seasoned dancer.

“You could interpret it that way. Performance art is like a social poetry or prose, subject to the audience’s interpretation. I had thought about the content but the speech was impromptu. I am both a painter and dancer and decided to cross-fertilise them in new ideologies,” said Singh, one of the 36 artistes taking part in the Kolkata International Performance Art Festival presented by Performers Independent (Pi), in association with Studio21, on January 24 and 25.

Singh was not the only performer improvising on the spot. Rituporna Banerjee, who along with three others, put up an act focusing on Lord Krishna, Vaishnava and folk culture, said the success of performance depends a lot on “our communication with the space as well as with the audience”, so improvisation is a key factor.

“Audience reaction can make or break a performance,” agreed Inder Salim, a performance artiste for over 25 years.

The second edition of the festival in the city saw artistes coming down from Nepal, Japan, Bangladesh, Philippines and across India. The participants were invited on the basis of their previous performances and association with Pi.

As the audience moved from one room to another to catch performers in action, some like Salim, who came from Delhi, engaged the audience without any formal performance.

Salim moved around the studio with a white rabbit in his arms on Day 1. The rabbit, he said, reminded him of a famous performance piece: How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare by German artiste Joseph Beuys. “I am performing and not performing at the same time. I am reacting to a rabbit. It is my hearing device at present. Again it may not be a rabbit at all, but a dog, rat or even a cow. Everything is subject to my imagination and my audience’s reaction,” Salim explained as he nestled the rabbit fondly in his arms.

For some, this form of art helps them react to various social issues as well as personal emotions. Bangalore-based artistes and members of Live Art Lab, Dimple Shah and Smita Cariappa, were busy hunting for the right space to express their ideas.

“I prefer working on social issues. I have performed on the state of affairs post the Godhra riots and also the Delhi rape of 2012,” said Shah.

Syed Taufik Riaz’s Death of Performance Art was much appreciated. Riaz performed with a melting candle — the theme an echo of the still nascent stage of this art form.

The second day started with some real action. Dressed in a black hijab and overall, Delhi-based artiste Murari Jha swiftly climbed up a building adjacent to Studio21 with a chicken in hand. As the audience was asked to read a revolutionary verse in Hindi, the artiste explained later that his act questioned right and wrong. “It is also a piece on women’s identity. If we really know what is right and wrong, are we treating our women right?” Jha said.

An artiste couple from Chennai, Victoria Nivedita and Augustine Tilak, put up two acts. “I have already completed the first part of my act. It involved obtaining disposed objects from passers by on the streets, said Nivedita, who prefers to perform with a local audience.

Augustine performed early on the second day. His act involved removing a mirror from seven layers of newspaper. He went on to clean the mirror, making it spotless and finally shattering it. “My performance was called Looking into the Mirror. The layers of newspaper symbolised layers of my personality. The newspaper headlines were a hint to the traits that I had within me. After getting rid of the false traits and cleaning the mirror I could see my pure self in it. But when I am at my purest, I don’t need the mirror anymore. That’s when I break the glass,” explained the artiste.

Sajan Mani’s performance began right when he reached Calcutta, for the first time, along with some brick kiln workers. He pasted posters all over Calcutta, where the most prominent word was “Missing”. “My performance is all about public intervention and reaction,” he said.

Several performance artistes from Japan, including the famous Seiji Shimoda, participated in the festival. “All the artistes were thrilled to perform in such a safe and healthy environment. We look forward to more such events here,” said Manas Acharya, the curator of Studio21.