On Inder Salim, a performance artist.

I had a great time talking to Inder Salim, a poet, sculptor and a performance artist from New Delhi. We met a few times; spoke over the phone several times. Indeed, it was invigorating experience to hear Inder for a simple reason that he performed even when he just talked! We met first time when I was working with India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore. That time, Inder was scintillating over his plans for the much talked Art Carvan, a series of performances and allied activities across Kolkata, Ranchi, Patna, Lucknow, Dehradun, Shimla, Srinagar and New Delhi. 

Next time when I saw him performing, it was an extension of his animated talk that I have had. 

It was enthralling to see Inder provoking audiences on issues of contemporary politics in India through his performance. The performance I saw was focused on Kashmir, his land of birth. I, along with Anuja Ghosalkar, Mohit Kaycee and our friends from Rafiki saw Inder Salim performing at the monthly forum of Maraa, a media and arts collective: ‘Pause: In Times of Conflict in Bangalore’. The forum enabled public dialogue on the role of creative practices in the times of conflict. 

While we were looking forward to see the performance, the trail of the events prior to Inder’s performance was shocking. 

As planned earlier, the Maraa artists were to read from Mirza Waheed’s debut novel, The Collaborator, a fictional portrayal of Kashmir. Then, a short film, ‘Hopscotch’ by a Kashmiri director Sajad Malick was to be screened followed by a discussion. However, unfortunately, the entire event was cancelled because of a threat from Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, a little known fundamentalist outfit in Bangalore. Bangalore based artists’ community condemned the Sena act and finally, Inder Salim’s 30 minutes piece, Occupy. Fall was  was co-organised by Rafiki, Alternative Law Forum and Sangama.  
Occupy. Fall  (Photo: Ashwini N, The Hindu)
Occupy. Fall was a simple but a gripping performance act and it primarily focused on the Kashmir politics. In the performance, Inder began walking slowly wearing a white burkha hiding his face and a dried leaf stuck to his forehead. He carried the Jammu and Kashmir State map with the pierced pins on it emphasising the State borders. Reminding a vaddolaga (a mode of introducing a character on stage in the Yakshagana performance tradition in Karnataka), Inder introduced the political map to audiences. Apparently, there was nothing special about the map as we had seen such map several times in our school or with a map-seller on a busy road. Slowly, as he removed the burkha and we saw his eyes highlighted by mascara and the rosy cheeks. More fun began as Inder invited audiences, arranged informally covering him in a circle, to write a word on the map to express their associate with Kashmir. Everyone wrote on the map with a marker and Inder covered it with white powder. With no words left, silence fraught with ‘meanings’ of Kashmir prevailed. Instead of stretching the hush more, Inder blew white powder. After the storm-like dust, suggestive of political whirls, all the words were visible on the map. With one more daring political act, Inder moved to audiences to give their words back to them with burkha still put on. Everyone was thrilled to see their own words with fresh view and in the context of other words. At a moment, one had a feeling that matter was closed after a word was written on the map and then covered it with powder. However, the next ‘character’ came with her own perspective only to cover and write another, thus participating in an exciting activity to “construct a removal” (Nick Kaye, “Site Specific Art, Performance, Place and Documentation, Routledge, 2000.) 

The free-entering ‘characters’ from audiences and their words with willingness of expressions didn’t allow the space to settle down. In the participatory act, Inder’s performance let audiences realise the space in practice. The realization was not in order per se but it had its own logic. An individual and her politics over Kashmir as well as the boundary-creating business governed the logic. Physicality of the site was offered in its transitive sense not in settled order since everyone offered a perspective on it. 

Inder’s artistic practice is known as conceptual or a performance art; little practiced and known outside cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata. With rigour and commitment, Inder has been trying to reach out to the larger audience outside these cities with his work, Harkat-e-Sarai in collaboration with Sarai, New Delhi. 

Performance art is not new in India, in a sense. One can call Mahatma Gandhi’s mind changing speech or his Salt March a performance art. But, we need look into performance art in the context of the new generation of artists who are shaped by the circumstances they live in. With the exposure to diverse art forms, today's young artists with their sharp political sensibilities are taking risks of combining genres or defying disciplinary boundaries of performance making. Rather than relying on the fixed spaces of proscenium or conventionally known venues for presenting their work, performance artists try out newer possibilities within the environment around him with new spaces and critical content. A public garden, sideways of a busy road, multiple expressions of digital media become sites and vocabularies to create new points of context-sensitive references of hierarchical politics, personal concerns, and historical debates. As a result, interestingly, they have been able to explore possibilities of alternative spaces, fresh content and innovative style that would amuse audiences. 

A performance artist like Inder interests me for a different reason. His work enables me to look beyond the practice of play-writing as a fixed entity in the traditional context of the playwright-centric and proscenium type theatre making. For Inder, there is no ‘text’ of pre-written speech acts. He has a concept and he works on it in creating a discourse(s) for the performance. Inder-like Performance artist moves on to exploring various possibilities of chances, uncertainties and fluidity; only to open up new vistas of representing world around him.
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