Wired from Delhi

 > Khoj LIVE '08

Essay on the first international performance art festival in India organised by Khoj International Artists' Association. New Delhi, India, 2008

Performance by Art Maharaj, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Try if you could, imagine and juxtapose Steven Cohen, white, Jewish, South African and extreme drag-queen alongside Da Motus!, a Swiss street theatre/dance ensemble performing in luminous green overalls on top of Hassan Khan, Egyptian situationist and digital sound and image artist. Then, sandwich them between Indian stage actor and Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alumnus Rehan Engineer; Maya Krishna Rao, a veteran theatre and dance practitioner who utilizes both Kathakali and stand-up comedy; and Sarnath Banerjee, an artist convert, former biochemistry major now with a Masters in Image and Communication from Goldsmith’s College and two graphic novels published by Penguin India under his belt.

 

Welcome to Khoj LIVE 08, India’s first international performance art festival!

The crowd at Gallery Espace, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

I am sure you would forgive and be quite empathetic if I say that in the beginning, I was quite skeptical of this curatorial re-mix of a performance art event. Having been a co-organizer and director of a similar event in Singapore (Future of Imagination 3 & 4) and also as a ‘performer’, I decided that it was best to surrender my doubts and celebrate the fortune of being amongst the thirty-three artists invited to the festival. Besides, I was on page fifty-two of Khoj’s impressively designed festival booklet situated as the lone ‘critic-in-residence’; in other words, I could post ‘official complaints’ later if I so desired. But what is a critic-in-residence you ask? I was advised that my principal responsibility was to attend and observe as much (if not all) of the festival proceedings as I could (including several ad-hoc presentations, forums and symposiums) and to deliver an essay for a post-festival publication; mind you, I have never really been known as a writer…

 

Organized and curated by stalwarts of Khoj International Artists’ Association as part of their tenth anniversary celebrations, Khoj LIVE 08 took place from 25 to 30 March 2008 at six different performance venues in the city of New Delhi. Along with performances that typically begin in the evenings, there were also daily daytime presentations and discussions led by associates of LIVE Arts development agency from UK. All these, took place in nine different venues, namely the Khoj Studios, the National School of Drama, Jawaharlal Nehru University, commercial galleries - Palette Art Gallery, Gallery Espace, Anant Art Centre and Vadehra Art Gallery as well as diplomatic institutions - Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institut, Max Mulluer Bhavan. I have to mention here that I was utterly impressed with the support from the partner venues, in particular the commercial galleries. Three of these galleries emptied their walls and gave full-on logistical and hospitality support for the evenings when performances took place, for both artists and audience; each time as if they were all going to make massive sales from a show of paintings by a revered artist. Alliance Francaise and Goethe Institut, Max Mulluer Bhavan was no less gracious. Alliance was turned into the official festival hub where you could easily find some of the festival artists hanging out, daily screenings of performance videos and information on day-to-day festival updates and proceedings. Meanwhile, Goethe Institut took on the closing night’s revue.

Nikhil Chopra, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Nikhil Chopra a Mumbai based artist who returned to India in 2005 after several years of studying and living in America, opened the festival at Khoj Studios. Performing from one of the ‘cubes’ at Khoj Studios, Nikhil was decked in an outfit prototypical of a respectable Victorian gentleman. As I climbed off what I suspected was either a table or a plinth for a better view within an unusually maddening crowd, Nikhil stormed out of the room with a large piece of folded brown paper tucked under his arm. I rushed and followed his tracks, moving fast outside of Khoj Studios onto the street and into slim winding alleys sandwiched by local residences. His rushed walk led us to an empty Mughal edifice, remnants of what used to be a mosque; its interiors was filled with pillars, dark, crypt-like, housing bats. Nikhil walked through it with urgency, stormed out once again, this time onto the side of a main road, eventually halting on the roof of another Mughal architectural relic. He unfolded and laid down the large piece of brown paper onto the roof floor, the paper, put together by masking tapes was about five meters long and two meters wide. He took off his suit and began drawing on the paper. After about an hour or so, the charcoal drawing made to the background of the setting sun and muezzin’s call for Maghrib prayers was of a landscape, a panoramic view of the one we were at. I was told that we were actually standing on a retentive wall of a Mughal dam, below us to the left was a noisy and perilously busy road, next to it, a large sparkling ‘globalized’ shopping mall, to our right, gigantic trucks were driving in and out, filling earth and dust into what used to be the gorge and further forward, a dwelling cluster, an old neighbourhood.

Nikhil Chopra, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Nikhil left, still in performance mode, so did I, back to the Khoj Studios. Arriving on the cramped street outside of the studio, the mood was akin to that of a religious procession. Steven Cohen was in drag, walking against Nikhil’s direction into an adjacent Khoj studio building. J C Lanquentin, a French scenographic artist whose engagements finds itself frequently embedded within communities in the African continent, was jamming the street with an eager mob of incidental audience twenty meters away via an interactive, video based work around the issue of home and relocations. The police later disrupted J C’s work as the amazing response was apparently building hazards of various kinds.

 

Well, by now, you could probably begin to better imagine the rest of the days of the festival, because within this limited space, myself (and the three hundred over audiences who witnessed each night of the festival) am resigned to leaving you in mid-air. There is a reason why the festival was dubbed LIVE

Rehan Engineer, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

As an artist, curator and witness to several other, better-established Southeast Asian performance art festivals, the Khoj experience left me ‘wired’! I dare say that Khoj LIVE 08 is a promise and premise from which performance art, although without a strong contemporary history in India, is about to change its face.

 

I shall leave you with an economic parable, which I think translates just as well for arts and culture. “At the birth of Christ, India made up a third of the global economy, China more than a quarter. History, it seems, is on China and India’s side. Their current rise is mainly just the return of the status quo.”[1]

Mehr Javed, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Steven Cohen, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Fred Koenig, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Reza Afisina, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Neha Choksi, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

Da Motus!, Khoj LIVE 08, New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

[1] David Smith, The Return of History, The Dragon and the Elephant, China, India and the New World Order, London:Profile Books Ltd, 2007, p.9

Ray Langenbach asking for directions in New Delhi, India, 2008

Image © Khai Hori

First published in Singapore Art Gallery Guide, Apr 2008