A walking conversation down Avenue Road

S: Did you notice the man who walked past us just now? I came across him quite recently. He had a spread of things he was trying to sell. He is a fantastic salesman – had the crowd glued to his performance of squeezing out juice from some strange looking roots. He was selling this juice as a cure for joint pains, and others for hair growth, aphrodisiacs…

P: Was he dressed differently?

S: Oh yes, that was part of the act. He looked like he had walked out of “Kaadina Raja”, the Kannada movie I recently saw on television. He was sporting many beaded necklaces, but rather incongruously he was also wearing many ‘rudraksha’ necklaces. With so many gurus sprouting up everywhere, rudrakshas must be easier to find in the markets. His son, named Protest, was also with him, a perky young fellow- cute and brazen at the same time.

The Hakki Pikki tribe, which this man belongs to, have the strangest of names. They like the phonetics of striking notions they come across in their encounters with the urban and modern, which they are awed by and name their children after these! Do you recollect seeing the newspaper image of them protesting in Bangalore?

P: There have been quite a few agitations reported. But I remember this photograph because it was rather funny.

S: Funny?! Isn’t it a serious matter that the Yeddy government demolished their dwellings in Kengeri with the promise of building ‘pukka’ houses for them and then not do so? They must be living in makeshift tents like nomads.

P: They must be nomads anyway.

S: Yes, but they no longer live in the forests now, from where they have been evicted as well. Kengeri is a suburb of Bangalore. So they are trying to make a living off the city people, the moneyed ones. ‘Ethnic’ is a middle class fashion now, and there is a market for such things.

P: So, do they sell their wares in craft exhibitions?

S: Apart from some woven bags I haven’t come across any other craft. But I think they are crafty! They were originally skilled bird hunters, which is where their name Hakki Pikki comes from. And now they apply this skill to catch other kinds of ‘birds’! They seem to have a good market among the superstitious for the fetish objects they make, like tiger claws, elephant hair and such like.

P: How terrible! They must be responsible for much of the destruction of wildlife.

S: If they had a chance they would hunt and kill wildlife probably. But the ban on this makes them use their ‘craftiness’ to create ingenious fakes - substituting cattle horn and the furry skin of goats for tiger claws and skin – fairly realistic versions, too. Apparently they have a big market in the Middle East for these fake things. I have heard of them painting domestic cats with tiger stripes and selling them as tiger cubs in Singapore! So, many of them are well travelled.

P: I have not come across these fakes in any exhibition.

S: That’s because they don’t sell them openly- it’s a sort of ‘underground’ business. I had a tough time getting hold of tiger claws and elephant hair that I wanted to use in my show.

P: Did you have to visit them personally to procure these, then?

S: It took quite a bit of ‘craftiness’ on my own part to get what I wanted. I approached them through field-workers. My obvious ‘from the city’ appearance would have rattled them and made them suspicious. They are, after all, pursued and harassed by the law enforcers constantly. To ensure that they did not misunderstand my wanting only fakes for wanting crude, badly done ones was rather tough to communicate through an intermediary!

P: But, why this interest in fakes?

S: It all started with a closer look at this newspaper photograph I mentioned earlier. Being in close proximity to urban areas, the Hakki Pikkis most often are not too distinguishable from the present villagers. Women wear nylon sarees and the men usually wear trousers or lungis and shirts. But, for this photographed demonstration they are dressed in traditional gear.

P: We too dress in traditional clothes for special occasions.

S: Well, here there is an emphatic dressing up, a dramatized posturing of their distinct identity – of a tribal one. The intention is to project the ‘self’ in ways that would attract the attention of the ‘other’ and, I suspect, this is done with an awareness of the complexities of the social and political climate of present times. This is a political act. The banners in the background underline it, the ‘Laal Jhanda’ and Ambedkar’s images are prominent.

The ‘other’ is us, seeing, encountering mainly through the media. I am interested in this mediated encounter. I am interested in what gets projected and why and what is the imagined projection. Actually, I am interested in my own projection.

P: Do you mean how we project our idea of the tribal onto them?

S: Yes. In mainstream cinema in India the tribal are shown as a scantily clad, soot blackened lot, being mostly silly in their behaviour. They look quite bizarre because their roles are played by light-skinned, fleshy ‘extras’ stuffed into the idea of the tribal.

P: Yes. And on some bare bodies you can see a clear tonal difference between suntanned skin and that of paler parts hidden under city clothes.

S: The imaging of the tribal makes no distinction between an African Masai, a Native American, an Australian Aboriginal or a New Zealand Maori. They are made generic.

S: On the one hand I am very aware of the fact that these are individual persons in a photograph. And also that it is an image, a media image. I need to acknowledge this through what I do.

When I started reading up on the Hakki Pikkis, I found their interaction with urban society fascinating. There is cleverness, fraud, abuse and violence deployed in negotiations between both. But the State is so much more a dominant and violent force against the tribal, who hold the bow and arrow as a symbol of their resistance. The State is an aggressor and the tribal are defending their right to live, to earn enough to live, using whatever means they have to do so.

P: So, is this what the work is about?

S: I do empathize with them. But what I do with this particular image should not be read as that sympathy–for–the–downtrodden­ syndrome in all its naiveté. I am fearful of this interpretation more than of Dalit organizations or even the Hakki Pikkis responding aggressively by misreading me as an artist, a city-person, unaware or indifferent to the struggle of marginalized communities.

P: Do you think they would?

S: In the present fraught climate, it is possible. The language of contemporary art is not a familiar one to most and when its provocative and argumentative role is exercised it brings extreme responses these days. I am trying to find a way whereby both these interpretations do not surface. It is tough. I am so conscious of my presence, as someone being rooted in the urban.

P: But then, you are not concealing that position, so it should be seen as being politically correct to do what you are doing.

S: Actually, having said all this, I want to be seen doing wrong; to be a modern colonialist. I find the option of conscious ‘abuse’ of the image very compelling!

P: Surely your interest in this image is not purely theoretical?

S: True. It is the confrontation with a problem that makes me seek the theorizing of it. As an artist, the image must speak to me and then to the viewer.

P: This image is however, not yours to claim authorship.

S: No. But an image can be read in its complexity beyond its intended purpose, in this case it is newspaper reportage of a demonstration to begin with. I would like to complicate the identity of the author as well as the viewer/reader.

P: Watch out! There is a gap in the footpath in front of you.

S: Thanks.

To go on, I am therefore choosing to make this image very large, almost like a big advertisement. The people demonstrating are posturing, leaning out towards the photographer and in the space of the gallery, towards the viewer of this image. A smaller duplicate of this image, which I have overlaid as an inset would need a closer look both physically and in its reading. The drama is being re-enacted here.

There is another image in my exhibition, which was the point of departure for many of the other works. It is a small, quiet image, alone and grave. Sourced from a newspaper again, the photograph is of a young, tribal boy: a Maoist, as the subtext said. He is being held and is surrounded by army men in camouflage gear. His gaze looks out of the frame. His expression is hard to define.

P: Was it this young man who fascinated you?

S: Yes and no. I was not looking at the boy as much as at what he was seeing outside the frame. His gaze seemed to cut across the column of the newspaper at another scene printed a centimeter away. It was of two army men carrying, like a hunted animal, a dead young tribal girl with her hands and legs tied around a pole and hanging upside down from it. It is an image that is stark and horrific. But I was obsessively drawn to the image of the boy. It took me a long time however to realize that I could not be part of what he was seeing, in the way he was experiencing it and so I had no license to claim it as mine. My engagement with him and his world was through the media and as such I had to address it as a received image, to make that gap explicit.

P: You should concentrate on where you are walking!

S: Yes I should. Instead, through a painterly gesture of turning part of his gaze toward myself, I make the viewer confront his look. It is a gaze that makes me uncomfortable. The jungle around the boy turns into an army camouflage. Here, unlike the blown up image of the Hakki Pikkis, the size remains small, intimate. Anything else would have sensationalized the moment.

P: The other works I saw in your studio seem quite disparate, thematically.

S: Actually not, I realize there is a line running through it.

The doorways disjointed and hung from the ceiling and walls are no longer thresholds between two spaces, a frame for the moment of passage.

The windows hung on walls like a painting on the other hand become frustrating layers of mesh and glass to a view of the outside and from the outside to the inside. The metal grill on it that I designed, jovially depicts a sunrise or a sunset between two peaked mountains with a reflection, repeated into a pattern.

P: It reminds me of the windows of a musician’s house for example, where the window grill would have the pattern of musical instruments.

S: Exactly, that was my inspiration. At present I am using design as a conscious aesthetic element. Similarly the decorative leaf and flower motifs commonly used on gates of houses is used in the work ‘Cut Flowers’

P: The cut stems of the plants did not look quite full and healthy.

S: I am attempting an ‘offering’ of wilting and handled cut stems, most of which do not have a flower on them, but have brutally chopped metal ends. I was interested in the contrast between fragility and the hardness of unpainted, round metal rods.

P: The linearity of these rods is very close to the ropes that crisscrossed your studio.

S: In contrast to the metal, the rope is made of human hair. Like a bird, that traverses a closed room in desperation, seeking an exit, the lines mark the room and measure its physical presence. Axe heads weigh and stretch the lines of flight, each encounter with a surface, marking lengths of time. Items of clothing, like on a washing line, become embodied. The interpretation remains open, as fluid as the spaces sliced by the drawing.

P: You seem to be messing around with cowdung again after all these years.

S: This time it is mainly bull shit! I had this urge to use this material as round handmade forms. I like their crude surface especially when each, with its own unique set of markings made by piercing it with simple tools, become individual faces. An arrow I had bought several decades ago was the main tool used to make these incisions.

P: They look like groups of people when piled into cardboard cartons.

S: Families, Communities, Nations…

P: Oh! Where are we?

Sheela Gowda

November 2011