Art in museums, films, ropes and charpoys

Vartanama, Jan '17
I think I’m passing through a happy hours phase. No, not for guzzling beer or cheap Internet services; rather this is about being invigorated by the arts in all their breathtaking range, impact and the nooks and crannies where they are to be found!

First on, a work-holiday combo visit to Manipur with my partner last month threw up a discovery I couldn’t have enough of. We were on a daylong tour from Imphal to Loktak Lake and its surroundings. Given the scenic beauty and contested social environment of Manipur, the whole journey was about discovery, contemplation and nostalgia (I was travelling to Loktak Lake after nearly 10 years). But some moments stood out. En route from Sendra, one of the points from where Loktak Lake can be viewed in all its glory, to the Keibul Lamjao National Park to spot the elusive Sangai deer, our car driver suddenly asked us if we would like to see a museum.



A view of Loktak Lake. Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

A museum, where? We were a bit incredulous, but a little walk off the dusty path and climb down a gradient into an edge-of-the-lake village, and lo and behold – there was the Loktak Folklore Museum. All of two rooms, the museum is run by brothers Tongbram Amarjit and Tongbram Boyai Meetei (in the picture below) and stands adjacent to their house. It has been their labour of love, created largely with their own resources.

The museum was opened October last year and has a wide variety of displays, arranged and preserved painstakingly to offer a glimpse into the life and history of the fishing communities of Loktak Lake – their fishing equipment, utensils, paintings, traditional weapons and many more antiques. Each item had a story attached as Tongbram Boyai Meetei explained, and I made a mental note to enlist the museum as a place to return to, at least once more.



Photo credit: Pawan Dhall

Photography was not allowed inside the museum, but a website is in the making and the brothers plan to expand the museum and systematize the displays over time. The museum does not figure on any tourist catalogues as yet, but has to be a destination if you are interested in history, culture, research, or simply a little time off for quietude.

* * *

Cut to a screening of Flames of Freedom (The Ichhapur Declaration) at the ‘4th Kolkata People’s Film Festival
' (Jogesh Mime Academy, January 19-23, 2017). In this 77-minute riveting documentary by independent filmmaker Subrat Kumar Sahu, the quietude of oppression gave way to spontaneous protest. The film recorded a revolt by the Dalits, Adivasis and the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in Ichhapur village, Kalahandi district, Odisha against the feudal machinations of the Brahmins, who over two centuries deceived and usurped almost all the land owned by Dalits, Adivasis and the OBCs in the village.

This process was on even till a couple of years ago, with the government mostly looking away, denying that landlessness was still on the rise and claiming that significant ‘development’ had taken place for marginalized communities. But if what is visible in the film is to be claimed as development, then words fail me!

While watching the film I was reminded time and again of Munshi Premchand’s stories. In fact, the film brought alive and only made starker all that he wrote about – about the deviously exploitative ways of the Brahmins and other upper castes that have not gone away even after several decades of Independence and affirmative action. For anyone who cares, the film is a strong reality check on why complaints that reservations have ‘murdered merit’ in India don’t hold water – not until the dominant castes (and classes) genuinely acknowledge that it is their privileges and discrimination that undermined merit in the first place, and learn to create a level playing field for everyone right from birth, or even before that.

The Dalit, Adivasi and OBC villagers of Ichhapur, however, are not interested in waiting for such wisdom to dawn. In an unprecedented movement that began in 2015, they have ‘ostracized’ the Brahmins in the village and undertaken a complete social, economic and cultural boycott of the Brahmins. They have reclaimed the shrine of their traditional deity (Dokri Burhi or the Earth Goddess), stopped tilling the lands of the upper castes, and refused to cow down to the pressure tactics of the State. They won’t budge till the government ensures equitable redistribution of land to set right historical wrongs; and Ichhapur is likely to be only the first stop in their long march for justice. Click here to watch the film trailer.

* * *

Sandwiched between these two experiences were two others, equally diverse and refreshing. A week ago I found myself learning about kink with a motley group of about a dozen people at a workshop organized by Kinky Collective. Yes, kink can be the subject of a workshop; yes, it may seem all about violence and not to everyone’s taste; but no, it does not have to be about violation!

Kink, as a form of role play where one agrees to a certain degree of committing and / or receiving violence, and some ‘unusual’ sexual acts as a means of a turn on, may seem unacceptable. But if it is based on informed mutual consent between two or more adults, or as a form of pleasuring oneself, can it be any more a violation or pathological than, say, deciding to have chocolate and not strawberry ice cream, or for two people in a relationship agreeing to wear each other’s socks and underwear?

Sure, not all kink may happen between people on an equal social, cultural or economic footing, in which case violation in the form of force or exploitation is possible. But then what about marital sex or marriage itself in India or anywhere else in the world? Or, the unsafe sex that an individual ‘agrees to’ to keep their partner happy? Beyond sex, what about the scores of social interactions we have every day with people around us – servants at home, taxi drivers on the streets, the bosses at the workplace, god men and god women on TV . . . how equal are these?

If anything, kink as a form of sexuality and a set of kinky sexual practices with its emphasis on well-defined dos and don’ts, checks and balances, and negotiation of consent (not just consent) between the individuals involved, can help one learn the value of ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’. It can teach one the importance of being conscious about one’s power and privileges, trying to not (ab)use them, and of ‘give and take’ in all spheres of life. Irrespective of who you are – male, female or transgender; queer or not; a lawyer, dentist or shopkeeper. Doesn’t this seem to have a potential for liberating oneself from shackles, including self-imposed ones?

Well, the idea of the workshop was not to put kink on a higher pedestal, but to demystify it as ‘something chhi chhi done by bad people’, an image greyer than the 50th shade created by a salacious media and word of mouth. So, a major portion of the workshop time was spent on discussing the thought and . . . don’t sneer or wince . . . the values behind kink.

The resource persons also talked about various forms of kink – BDSM, fetishes and others, and used some aesthetically made short films to explain kink and consent. And since this article is about experiencing art, to my eyes some forms of kink, say rope bondage, seem no less artistic than the depictions of sex on the walls of the Sun Temple in Konark. Both require an intimate and creative understanding of the human body (and in the case of kink also what is safe to do and what is not).

BDSM incidentally stands for ‘bondage-discipline, domination-submission, and sadism-masochism’. If those images of ‘bad things done by bad people’ come rushing back, just remember none of these is supposed to happen to you without your clear and well-considered consent! If they do, it would not be kink or art, it would be sexual abuse, and that’s not the same thing.

* * *

Last but not the least of the artistic invigorations that I must mention here is the performance of Queen-size in Kolkata on January 16-17, a choreographic questioning of the archaic and discriminatory Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code by Mandeep Raikhy. A preview of Queen-size was published earlier this month, and more may be written about it in Varta in the coming months. So suffice it to say here that, coming as it did right after the workshop on kink, this performance had me zapped! There was a strange sense of continuity between the two events, heightened somewhat by the predominance of black in a lot of visual imagery around kink, and the imaginative lighting used for Queen-size by light designer Jonathan O’ Hear – dim but evoking several possibilities.

Two men, performers Lalit Khatana and Parinay Mehra, simulated myriad forms of sexual intimacy on and around a charpoy with the audience seated right around the bed – in an art gallery room that could accommodate just about 50 people. The creaking, heaving charpoy, as much a performer, acted as the site of a protest against the moral and accusing gaze of society, media and the State (the audience in a way representative of all three).



Photo credit: Desmond Roberts

In between, media person Arnab Goswami’s voice crackled over, commenting on the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377 in December 2013. To my mind the performance was like a befitting answer to Arnab Goswami’s “the nation wants to know” line – you want to know, well here you are, this is how two men make love – deal with it!

The superbly agile Lalit Khatana and Parinay Mehra moved around skillfully to Yasuhiro Moringa’s brooding music (and to the silences in between), at times with a raw passion, at others almost like apparitions nudging the audience, insisting they were real . . . A salute here also to their stamina as they performed in 45-minute loops through nearly two and a half hours on each day. Each loop was divided into fragments, with the door being opened after every fragment for people who wanted to leave and for more people to walk in. Each of these intervals seemed integral to the show, as did the preparatory tightening of the charpoy strings by the performers before the show and their winding down actions after. Hats off to Mandeep Raikhy and team for their artistry and courage!

Main photo credit: Pawan Dhall (photograph shows a scene from the ‘4th Kolkata People’s Film Festival’).

Author Photo

Pawan Dhall

Pawan Dhall aspires to be a rainbow journalist and believes in taking a stand, even if it’s on the fence – the view is better from there!

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