The Thirteenth Place
A recent book on artist Navjot Altaf delves deeper into not just her life and work but addresses, examines and records the the artist’s intuitive ability to respond to the urgencies of the times, and her dealings with art as a form of political engagement
Navjot Altaf, Nancy Adajania
The Thirteenth Place: Positionality as Critique
in the Art of Navjot Altaf by Mumbai-based cultural theorist and curator Nancy Adajania is not a mere compendium on the artist Navjot Altaf’s work and practice but explores, in detail, the cultural history of the Left as well as the feminist movement through a critical lens, positioning the artist’s work within a larger context of the politics of the subaltern, and her work with the many indigenous artists residing in Bastar, Chhatisgarh.
Khorshed Deboo: The Thirteenth Place is not simply a monograph on the artist Navjot Altaf, but locates her work and practice within a larger political and social discourse, from the 1970s through the 1990s and beyond, and situates it within the segments of Leftist politics, Marxism, as well as feminist history. How did the idea of producing the publication in collaboration with Navjot, in context with these discursive tropes, come about? Does the author then also become an interlocutor?
Nancy Adajania: Navjot and I were born exactly 22 years apart – we share our birthday, 15 December. And yet, although she belongs to the generation before mine, we found ourselves in the same great churning of ideologies and ideas in the late-1980s – she as an artist of Leftist convictions, and I as a college student absorbing the diversity of Marxist thought, both political as well as aesthetic, including the writings of Gramsci, Althusser, D D Kosambi, Raymond Williams, Tom Bottomore, Tony Bennett, Arnold Hauser, Ernst Fischer, Eric Hobsbawm, John Berger, and Stuart Hall.
Although we were in different phases of our lives and of our relationship with the Left, both Navjot and I were coming to terms with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withering away of the Soviet Union, and the opening up of a future that was both post-socialist and post-capitalist. The period between 1989 and 1992 was one of great uncertainty in India, both because of the impact of these global events – often glibly summarised as ‘globalisation’ – and our own political catastrophes, involving the Ayodhya crisis of 6 December 1992, the riots that followed, and the terror attacks of early 1993. Through the 1990s, also, there was an efflorescence
of writing – and reading. Urvashi Butalia, Ramchandra Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Homi K. Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, and a number of other stellar figures were publishing their work. The writings of emerging cultural theorists and Western feminists were becoming available and were circulating among linked circles in Bombay, Delhi, and elsewhere. It was an intellectually exciting time, with many lively discussions. While I was doing my research for The
Thirteenth Place, I realised that Navjot and I had been reading some of the same books in the same period.
In this profound sense, our lives and preoccupations have been closely intertwined. I was very fortunate to write about an artist whose concerns intersected with mine. One of the aims of the book is to bear witness to this entanglement of generations. Over the many years that Navjot and I have known each other, we have engaged closely with similar if not identical issues – the crafts and the craftsperson, the vexed relationship between art and politics, the predicament of the woman artist, the potential for collaboration between people who do not share the same class or educational assumptions, and so forth.
Having said all this, I must clarify that The
Thirteenth Place, as a textual production, is not a collaboration. In the book, I address Navjot’s complex and multidimensional practice, while also working through my own intellectual biography and long-standing preoccupations as a researcher, theorist and curator – attending to the contexts that we share, and some that I inherit from her generation. Along the way, I have retrieved lost histories. For the very first time, for instance, you will read, in The Thirteenth
Place, an elaborate analysis of PROYOM, the progressive youth movement with far-Left sympathies, with which Navjot was associated in the 1970s. You will also find region-sensitive accounts of what Marxism and feminism came to mean in India, and how they unfolded – not as universally executable programs delivered by RedEx, but worked through and laboured over, re-imagined, in our own specific context. However, Navjot and I did collaborate on the design and the production of the book. We both wanted the publication to be of a modest size – we definitely did not want an oversized coffee-table book – to reflect our values and temperaments. At the same time, we wanted the reader to enjoy the granularity of Navjot’s images, so we bled the images to the edges, as well as pointed up her strategies of blurring and layering. We indulged each other! She allowed me my endless footnotes citing not only a diversity of sources but also disciplines that lay outside the field of conventional art history. This book is different from many other artist monographs, in that it reveals the intellectual biographies of both the artist and the author. This was possible because of Navjot, her boundless curiosity and her respect for authorial agency.
And so, this book can be read and enjoyed by art historians, students of cultural studies, of anthropology, feminism, as well as of activism. I have always seen myself as a participant and interlocutor contributing to the existing debates in the art world or initiating a debate where none existed. How is the discourse of contemporary art legitimised? What gets canonised and what is suppressed? Who authorises what is contemporary, what is art and what is nonart? What do we find when we push back the horizons of the contemporary? How do we
differentiate between political art which can be transformative and that which is mere political kitsch dressed up with rhetorical flourish? My very first essay in the field of the visual arts, published in the late 1990s, was a critique of the arts-crafts divide that relegates the work of the craftsperson to the bottom of the pyramid of value. It featured, along with a contextual history of the crafts, the works of Navjot and her artist-colleague Shantibai, who was based in Bastar. So from the very beginning, I had, in Geeta Kapur’s words, declared my ‘partisanship’, whether I was writing on subaltern art or Leftleaning or feminist art practice. KD: You have known Navjot, and engaged with her work, for close to two decades. With the accrual of conversations and shared experiences, was the idea of a book always in the offing? Did the book change with time?
NA: At first, I was meant to contribute a long essay to a book on Navjot, which included three other contributions. Once I began to write, the essay just grew and grew. I realised that I had so much to say about Navjot’s work and its diverse contexts and histories – which are only ever given a generalist treatment – that the 10-12,000-word essay turned into a book of 65,000 words. I guess it was the right moment for it. Had I written the book ten years earlier, I would not have had the maturity or the experiential depth to approach my subject. The only problem was that the publisher wasn’t too happy with my having extended the brief. On the other hand, Navjot was extremely encouraging and confident that we would eventually find the right publisher for the book. And we did. Shalini Sawhney, the director of the Guild Art Gallery, stepped in, and there was no looking back. KD: The book serves as a veritable guide to post-independent India and its injustices; political activism; and identity politics, and is layered with comprehensive, analytical research. It straddles a long period of almost 40 years, both geographically as well as charting Navjot’s career and praxis. Could you share the research
process involved in gleaning the material? What were your primary and secondary sources of information?
NA: My academic training was in political science and filmmaking. Having immersed myself in art history independently of academia, I was never overwhelmed by the discipline or its grand narratives. Instead, I was re-reading the consensual narratives and disciplinal constraints of art history to extend its boundaries. For instance, I have looked at the longue durée of new media art in India by positioning the experimental films and the multimedia installations at world fairs in the 1960s as a prehistory to the standard reading of the emergence of new media art in the 1990s. Similarly, my work on feminist artists is set against the background of the women’s movement in India in the 1980s.
The Thirteenth Place is an art-historical study written from a politics of culture approach. As a college student, I remember being blown
away by Rustom Bharucha’s polemical stance in Theatre and the World: Performance and the
Politics of Culture, which engaged critically with the implications of inter-cultural exchange in theatre from a non-Eurocentric perspective. I guess the seed of producing our own regionally inflected historical accounts of visual arts, crafts, theatre and cinema, was planted in my mind at this time.
Apart from my extended treatment of the history of PROYOM in the 1970s, the book contains Navjot’s political posters from that period, which have not been published before. The artist’s archive inevitably becomes the first stop for mapping her journey. But the art of research is not confined to any single archive or source. I reached out to other members and supporters of PROYOM, such as Adil Jussawalla, Narendra Panjwani, Pravin Nadkar, Dev Nathan, Vasanthi Raman, Darryl D’Monte and a few others who did not want their names mentioned in the book because of the fear of being labelled as Naxalites. Very little material evidence survives from that period – such as an issue of the magazine Lalkaar, which we have reproduced in the book. Whatever did exist was destroyed during the Emergency, so that it would not fall into the hands of the authorities. Tipped off about an impending police raid by a well-wisher, Navjot and her artist-husband Altaf burnt a number of documents and hid the cyclostyle machine on which they had printed PROYOM pamphlets.
Much of my early reading on Marxism, Indian Communism and feminism was done at two libraries in south Bombay – the CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) and the Elphinstone College library. The CED was founded by activists who were involved in the Left student agitations of the 1970s. They realised that they could not just parachute into villages and start a revolution without having adequate knowledge of the political history of that region, its economy and so forth. As a college student I would skip lunch and walk to the CED. I had a ravenous appetite for books. The library was always packed with students. Not all of them were Left-leaning. Many were there
This spread: A selection of works by artist Navjot Altaf; clockwise, from top-right: A Migrant, ink on Gateway tracing paper, 22 x 18”, 1977;
Interior 4, crowquill pen and ink on paper, 22 x 28’’, 1981; Flower Seller, ink on Gateway tracing paper, 18 x 22”, 1977; Relational Sensibilities,
double monitor video installation, 9 minutes and 18 minutes, colour, loop, 2003; stills from Images of Images and
Images in Images, three video projections, 2001 This page, top: an image of the cover of the book
This spread, above, from left to right: Ingrilled 1, crowquill pen and ink on paper, 22 x 30”, 198081; Interior 1, crowquill pen and ink on paper, 1981; (Installation view) Links Destroyed and Rediscovered:
collaborative project with film makers and a classical singer. Installation with paintings, sculptures, photographs, films and music, 7 x 32 x 35 feet, Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, 1994; Politics
of Mahua Tree, saplings obtained from the Forest Department, which were later planted at five sites in Modi Nagar, Khoj International Artists’ Workshop, 1999
This page, bottom, clockwise from far left: We Were Making History: Women and
the Telangana Uprising, published by the Stree Shakti Sanghatana, 1989; Navjot’s illustration for Varg Sangarsh, 1974; SAHMAT publication, IPTA ki Yaadein, 2012;
Dugald Stermer, The Art of Revolution: 96 Posters from Cuba; Somnath Hore, Tebhaga, An Artist’s Diary and Sketchbook, Seagull, 1990; a poster of the exhibition curated by Navjot’s husband, Altaf, at New Habib High School, Bombay, 1981. The story of Indian history referencing the writings of historians such as DD Kosambi and Romila Thapar was manifested through prints and clay models made by Altaf and Navjot along with the teachers and students; another example from Stermer’s The Art of Revolution: 96 Posters from Cuba
This page, bottom: A number of theoretical texts were an important component of the study circles of the PROYOM. Moreover, Navjot’s intellectual appetite was whetted by new literature produced by feminists and subaltern historians in India, as well as by her reading of western feminists and accounts of female surrealist painters. These books almost comprised a ‘library’ of sorts for both Navjot and Nancy, as they were constantly referring to them independently, to aid their research Next spread: Layouts from the book, emphasising the art and ideology of PROYOM’s study circles; the publications that moulded Navjot’s thinking and praxis; and her art-making activity, spanning oil paintings to pen-and-ink drawings to watercolours and acrylics and later, mixed media works too. In continuing with her studio practice, she also made several posters and illustrations for PROYOM