Nalini Malani is a pioneering video and installation artist who lives and works in Mumbai. Born in Karachi in 1946, she came to India as a refugee of the partition of India, an experience that deeply informs her art practice. We spoke with Ms. Malani at the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale about her recent work, In Search of Vanished Blood, a “video play” that melds Greek and Indian myths with the revolutionary poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz through projection, sound and hand-drawn animation. The effect is a multilayered commentary on social fracturing, gender violence and the echoes of American hegemony.
Our conversation with Ms. Malani appeared on the New York Times’ India Ink blog, which you can read here. Below is an extended version.
In your visual art, you work with a range of literary texts — poems, plays, stories. What appeals to you about the literary?
I envy writers. They work with a poverty of means, and they can write anywhere. All you need is a pen and paper, or a little laptop. Also, the different types of formats, from biography to autobiography, travelogue, short story, letters to a lover… It’s amazing, the range. The background that I come from is a fairly traditional, orthodox one. When I was studying, anything that wasn’t an oil painting was a deviation. So to me it seemed that using the example of the novelist was a way of getting into other areas of art-making. The nuancing that a novelist can bring out is amazing, and I’m interested in the challenge of transforming that kind of nuance into the visual.
You call your piece, In Search of Vanished Blood, a video play — not a film. Why?
I’m very interested in theater. The theatrical moment. The liveness. But in India it’s very difficult to do theater — so I’ve found another way! To do it in video. Like a play, the whole thing is manufactured, planned from start to finish — the setting, the look. I’m not the kind of video artist who works on the street, documentary-style. I want my shoot to be like a complete theatrical blackbox.
And your ‘video play’ has a very provocative backdrop: a world map with the United States at the very center.
Yes — and it’s not a map that I sought out, it was already there, in the conference room. In China you might have China in the center, and a British company might put Greenwich at the center. But on this map you have the United States. The centrality of the US — how so many of our problems have started there, the banking system, consumerism — this is something that has interested me for a while. All the economists we have in the world who believe in capitalism have finally failed. And why have they failed us? One of the reasons is appealing to greed. The same is happening in India. We know this has failed — but it continues — and why does it go this way?
With this idea of malign circumstances reverberating outward, I’m reminded of a similar ripple effect with India’s partition, and the importance of partition in your own life and work. Partition has been called “a living wound.” Is it still?
Cutting the country on religious lines was terrible in itself, but more terrible because they left behind a tool — for further cutting, for the right-wing to do whatever they like. In 1992 the Babri Masjid was broken by hammers. And under the guise of communal problems, construction companies join hands with fascists to destroy the slums, in places where everybody was living together in complete harmony. So under any excuse this thing starts up. It’s all part of the business of greed. And it’s not about the Hindu-Muslim conflict. It’s more about greed – about destroying what’s in the way, what is standing in between me and what I want.
You work extensively with myths, many of which have been reinvented and reinterpreted numerous times. What continues to draw you to the myth?
There’s a universal truth to them. They’ve come down through generations, and there’s no one author. They’re like seeds — you plant one and so much comes out. I’m fascinated by the melding of cultures, and subsequently myths. Wendy Doniger has done a comparative study between Hindu and Greek myths and there are so many similarities. People forget that the whole army of Alexander the Great stayed behind! The Greeks could not fit into the Hindu caste hierarchy so they chose to become Buddhist. And an Indo-Hellenic Buddha came about! For the moment my obsession is Cassandra, the Cassandra myths. Because she had the prophecy to see the future. And just like Cassandra we have Sehdev in the Mahabarat. He knew the future but he needed to be asked. If no one asked him, he would seethe inside. He was powerless. Which is what’s going on now. It’s like we’re cursed — we can see, we know what’s going to happen, but we’re frozen.
What is your approach, or strategy, in bringing potent social and political issues into your artistic work?
Well first it is a passion, and an emotion, that draws me to something. If something strikes me, then I think about the strategy in representing it. But I like to work in several layers. The first layer is beauty — so the audience is attracted, seduced. It’s a kind of anti-Brechtian point of view. It is the door that beckons you in. But having brought you in, there are other pages that I hope will unfurl and open. And then finally I’d like someone to say, Oh, the horror of it. Like in the Heart of Darkness. The horror.
Friedrich Schiller – the German playwright and poet – writes that “All art is dedicated to joy.” What do you think?
At one level yes, I would love to believe that. It’s a good utopian idea. But then you have Adorno, who questioned whether after the Holocaust, there could ever be poetry. But – I don’t agree with that. There can be beauty – there is place for it. But it has to come in an organic way. You can’t strategize beauty. What is hitting me has to hit you too. An artwork is made with all of us, together. I may actually make it, but it’s the artwork, myself as the artist, and you as the viewer that is the triangulation to complete it. It’s an active thing. I find talking to you like this really wonderful, to understand what my artwork has done.
You mentioned that there are only 6 or 7 Indian female artists represented at the biennale. Even in this space for alternative ideas and critical thinking, why do we see this gender gap?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask the curators. But of course there is generally a pro-male situation in India. Look at the male to female ratio in Haryana – with female foeticide taking place. Men are actually buying brides. Sharing women and then denigrating them. But actually women are very prominent in the Indian art world. Fantastic work been done by Nilima Sheikh, Arpita Singh, Nasreen Mohamedi – they’ve been pioneers in some of the forms they’ve come up with. So I don’t know why this is the case here. It’s almost as if there’s no trust. When I came here and was looking for spaces, each time I chose a large space it was already taken, by a male artist.
So I took the world!
You’ve participated in numerous events of this kind. Is this biennale significant – for Indian art?
I’ve participated in 21 biennales! The first was Havana. I’ve lived a long life. I think it is very significant here, and very important to support this. It gives us a sense of identity beyond India, in the international world. And it’s also important for bringing a sense of the visual into India. There have been so many problems with the visual world in India – the architecture, the neglect of heritage sights – and I think it all has to do with lack of visual training, lack of training in the visual arts. So one hopes that with a biennale, with such a range of people coming in with a focus on the visual, there might be a change in what your eyes can see, and what you set your eyes upon. And education in the arts would improve.
What do you keep in your almirah?
You know what I keep in my almirah — dehumidifiers, for my equipment! Because in Bombay we have 90 percent humidity, so it starts to grow! Every starts to grow, even plastic.