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

Domus - - CONTENTS - Khor­shed De­boo

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

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