Friday, August 24, 2012

Pussy Riot and Art of Political Performance

What is common between performance art and political rally?

Opportunism through media gaze?!!!

Take recent two instances.
Firstly the Russian all women music band called Pussy Riot which was sentenced to jail for two years for performing a protest- art against Russian president Putin. Band argued that they have the right to express their artistic view in a democracy. Rightly so.

Secondly two major political rally performances that staged violence in the city of Mumbai within gap of 10 days ; terrorizing the city for a political motive. Both the organizing parties argued that in a democracy they have right to protest against issues close to their heart. Again Rightly so.

Who is Pussy Riot? An unknown female band came in public limelight for being jailed for two years for singing protest songs against President Putin in a Russian church. This all female member punk rock band established in 2011 conducts political protests in various parts of Russia through their music and staged art performances. Although their music is hardly to reckon with and is often called childish , amateurs and cacophonic . What Pussy riot is famous for is their bizarre ways of protest performed in public spheres. Which includes setting fires to police cars, simulating sexual acts in shopping windows , disrupting public events and finally singing protest songs in church . All their acts are documented and released in public platforms like youtube and other forums by which they generate media attention. As per wikipedia "Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, their performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties."

This is an instance of art 'performed as' politics. or what is called political art. Result today Pussy Riot is recognized world wide. All so called rich and famous are supporting the band members and their art.

Lets look at Mumbai rallies. On 11th August Raza academy called for a protest rally to register their protest against killing of Muslims in Assam and Myanmar. A well scripted event went violent after some incited speeches and the crowd went violent. The crowd who had come prepared with arsenal attacked police, media OB vans and public property. 2 Persons died and many police men got wounded.

This was act no 1.

Why I call it performance?
Here clearly and cleverly 'violence' was performed '. You may take any meaning out of it. Plight or might? whatever. There was no doubt August 11 rally in Mumbai was pure political performance.

Then comes act 2. If August 11 showed people's strength on street at 12000 people. August 21st rally drew crowds estimated to be 50,000 odd people. Organised by Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) headed by Raj Thackeray. Everything of 21st August party was a political theatre at its best. Right from police denying the permission and making it illegal gathering, then granting permission last minute. Thackeray's defiance. His quintessential dramatic speech which lasted for 20 minutes, (but had all the trappings of a bollywood entertainment of 3 hour movie. Paisa vasool) . A policeman offering rose at the end of the speech to Thackeray. Everything was scripted , performed and executed to perfection. People clapped. Skeptics vowed. As columnist Shobha Dey said it was a political master stroke, and with a class entertainment.

This is an instance of politics performed as art or theatre.

Result today MNS and its head Raj Thackeray is a powerful entity in Mumbai. Raj Thackeray has achieved his goal in shunting the top cop out of Mumbai and has sent the message to masses he is the NEW boss.

What seems common in both events is provocation as a strategy. Strategy that seems work perfectly through media. I do not intend to make any judgement by saying whether Pussy Riot deserved to be jailed or MNS chief needs to be applauded or condemned for his provocative stance. What I want to point out is the 'performative' aspect of a political and artistic practice which remain at the level of 'symbolism'. In today's media defined reality, art and politics are two sides of same coin. Both work on one principle.

Pure opportunism
Stage . Perform. Enjoy.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mumbai Diary 5: Gods of the Street-1

Image courtesy

There is a scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire. The quiz master asks Jamal the protagonist;  What does Lord Rama carry in his hands? Scene then cuts to  flashback where kids are shown playing in a dirty water tank and a group of women washing clothes nearby. One can see a mob of people approaching the slum.  Jamal's mother realizes the danger and screams at the kids to run for life. Jamal with his brother dash away not before they see their mother being hacked to death by mob off Hindus.
As they run through narrow alleys of slums they meet with a child standing in the corner painted in robin blue, hair tied in a knot raising his hand in protection. Young Jamal and his brother come face to face with lord Rama  as they run away to save their lives. Scene in the movie is very poignant and in few visuals describe the communal tensions between Hindus and Muslim during Babri Masjid riots in 92.

Presence of 'god' in midst of riot scene in a metropolitan city like Mumbai may look surreal and even 'bollywoodish'. But believe me, it is not. If there is one thing that dominates the streets of Mumbai are gods. Gods of all kinds. Gods of all religion, sects and cults. Every day some god, saint or Guru occupies already busy roads of Mumbai to parade his or her power on the streets of Mumbai showcasing the strength and popularity of his or her sect.

Here are some random examples that show some 'small gods' appearing on the streets of Mumbai.

In the midst of business district in Mumbai's fountain area I stumbled upon lord Shiva and Rama standing next to the car and blessing you for few coins. Bahurupiyas  or traditional impersonators  as they are called are part of the village landscapes who often migrate to the cities in search of jobs and living. And impersonating gods is best way they can entertain you to earn money.

But gods just don't turn up in person. They appear in every form. In stone. on sanitary tiles .  wall graffiti's. Stickers. Posters. banners you name it and a god image is omnipresent in Mumbai city like no other city.

Let me introduce you to Kumar. I met Kumar  right outside Churchgate station. As  a runaway kid, Kumar  loved  Mumbai's freedom but he could not forget his hometown of Madurai. Overtime he visited his hometown he brought a god along with him and stuck to the wall which was also his shop. He lived on the streets and conducted his business as shoeshine boy. What attracted me to his shop is his gods that were neatly perched between  colourful shoe laces.

And then you have those god posters who rub space along with film stars and other popular images.
One comes across many vendors like these who conduct their business in Fort area just around the national gallery of art.

This is Asif. Asif sells god stickers. He is a muslim boy but sells images of Hindu gods. He inherited his business from his father, who died all of sudden and left Asif the eldest of 5 children to bear  the responsibility of looking after the family. His whole business is contained in a small inverted umbrella. When I asked him why an umbrella?, his reply was "municipality staff confiscates wares of the vendor. Moment he comes to know the Municipality staff are coming he can 'shut his shop' quickly. It is simple logistic issue.

Take this migrant worker in UP. who came to city with just clothes on. Set under a tree wondering how to make a living. First thing he did was to set his gods who were just stone. Smooth river stones. Which are worshipped as  shaligramas or lord vishnu in anionic form. He began his business as barber . Today along with his barber shop he sell all paraphernalia of gods.

These are few examples of  'small gods' of 'small people' who live on the streets Mumbai. I call them small gods because the power they wield is minuscule. They are everywhere but not so visible. Like their patrons, they are trying to survive. Like their patrons most of them are migrants.

But streets of Mumbai are taken over by two major gods. Lord Krishna and Lord Ganesha. In my next blog  I would like to discuss the two major festivals Janmashtami and Ganesh Chaturthi that take over the streets of Mumbai