Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist and curator based in Bombay. Since the late-1990s, she has written consistently on the practices of four generations of Indian women artists. She was Joint Artistic Director of the 9th Gwangju Biennale (2012) and has curated a number of exhibitions including, most recently a retrospective of five decades of Navjot’s artistic practice—'The Earth’s Heart Torn Out, Navjot Altaf: A Life in Art’, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai.
Nancy Adajania is one of the curators for the Special Projects at Serendipity Arts Festival 2019.
The Art Issue: What is your project, 'Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture' about and what is the primary inspiration behind the exhibition?
Nancy Adajania: ‘Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories in Indian Art’ is an expression of my commitment to retrieving the lost histories of Indian art, and to writing art history against the grain of received narratives. ‘CCCC’ is at once a critique of the narrow confines within which Indian art history resides, as well as a benchmarking of my intellectual journey as a cultural theorist for over more than two decades.
Over many years now, I have been researching and creating a framework for what I have called the ‘pre-history’ of new media art in India. I have charted this pre-history through the collaborative endeavours, experimental films and photographic experiments of Akbar Padamsee, Nalini Malani, Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain, F N Souza, Krishen Khanna, Nasreen Mohamedi, Rameshwar Broota, Dashrath Patel, Sheba Chhacchi, Dayanita Singh and Nina Sabnani from the 1960s to the 1980s. During the 1960s and 1970s, when many of these experiments were being conducted, the art system in India was fixated on painting as the premier form, so these were seen as aberrations if they were noticed at all. Art criticism was still obsessed with the questions of modernism, indigenism and authenticity, and had not expanded to be able to embrace such experiments. There was no critical framework or cultural context for them.
I want ‘CCCC’ to be a corrective to the modernist promotion of the cult of the single author and aesthetic autonomy; the anxiety related to collaborative activities and a segregation between the ‘pure’ fine arts and the ‘commercial’ applied arts.
This exhibition is a culmination of my research over many years, but it also opens out new research strands.
For instance, alongside the images of Dashrath Patel’s nine-screen immersive installation for the India pavilion of the Montreal Fair (1967), I will also be exhibiting the music arranged by Geeta Mayor (née Sarabhai) for this project. It is an exquisite score, eclectic in range but with an admirable coherence. I would argue that it was able to surpass the stereotypes related to ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ India far more persuasively than the photographs on display. Such rare archival interventions will help us read both art history and exhibition history anew from the perspective of gender, but also help us re-examine the concept of nationalism in the era of the Cold War.
AI: Which artists have you chosen for the exhibit and why were they selected?
NA: On the one hand, I have selected artists like Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain, Dashrath Patel, among others, who have expanded their practices to go beyond painting and work in areas of experimental photography, film and collaborate in collective activities such as the Vision Exchange Workshop led by Padamsee and supported by a State funded fellowship or State commissioned projects like the pavilions of the Montreal Fair (1967) or the Osaka Fair (1970) which Dashrath and Krishen participated in.
On the other hand, I have contributors from outside the art world, documentary filmmakers like Sukhdev, Pramod Pati, S N S Sastry, among others, who brought their unruly, countercultural energies to shake up the establishment at the Films Division of India in the sixties and seventies.
Then there is Kiran David’s Faustian film ‘Junk’ (1986) which features his friend Jeet Thayil, the Rockstar poet with the forever inflamed vein. The addict-protagonists live in dream time or an ‘oneroid’ to borrow from the title of one of Thayil’s poem. I think it is a made-up word combining ‘oneiros’ with ‘asteroid’. It also refers to a condition that combines vivid hallucinations with catatonia. I am extremely delighted to show this rarely seen underground film at the exhibition.
AI: How does CCCC fit into SAF’s broader theme of promoting inclusivity in the arts and diluting regional borders?
NA: This exhibition is both transdisciplinary and transcultural, aspects which speak to the SAF mandate. Apart from the visual arts, we have contributors from the world of dance (Uday Shankar), magic (P C Sorcar) and activism (Dashrath Patel and Sheba Chhachhi in their activist avatars) among others.
A whole range of transcultural encounters are on display at the exhibition. To name just a few: P Mansaram and Marshall McLuhan’s artistic collaboration and Geeta Mayor’s (née Sarabhai) friendship and dialogue with John Cage.
AI: Why and how is the title 'Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture' significant to the exhibition?
NA: The four CCCCs in the title display a productive circular motion, a sense of flux, continuity and discontinuity.
This exhibition explores practices that have little or nothing to do with the dominant narrative of postcolonial Indian art which is usually told from within the confines of the art world, as a sequence of avant-garde aspirations and institutional trends.
It celebrates the many alternative histories of being, doing and making together, of experiment and collaboration in photography, film and transmedia experiences, which arose from diverse locations: trade fairs, interdisciplinary workshops, activist collectives, underground film-making, design schools, and youth subcultures.
Ambitious in its scope and scale, this exhibition defines many of these artistic constellations as part of a dynamic counter-canon that contests the canonical accounts of Indian art history from the 1960s to the 1980s. It will also show how these were contributions to a counter-culture whose multi-directional energies exceeded India’s institutional and interpretive frameworks during this period.
AI: Is there anything else our readers should know about the exhibition?
NA: This exhibition does not fetishise any of the lost histories it exhibits. All artistic choices are seen against a larger critical background of historical forces, political contingencies and aesthetic possibilities.
The exhibition Counter-Canon, Counter-Culture: Alternative Histories in Indian Art will be on view at Old GIM, Ribander from 15th-22nd December, 2019
This interview was conducted as a part of The Art Issue's media collaboration with the Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019