Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Curator Could Fall ill: Shivani Gupta and Moving Identities: Curating in Baroda VIII

Shivani Gupta
Shivani Gupta, final year MVA Art History, MSU, Baroda has her first degree from a comparatively less known Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra. Any student who comes from such an institute carries some sort of insecurity with her, which perhaps instilled by the education in that particular institute itself. What happens in so many such institutes in India both in the public and private sectors is the way in which the teaching faculties are selected. I see it as another problem of our democracy; we stick to more or less fair rules in selecting teaching staff. Anybody who has a clerical aptitude and willingness for writing competitive tests would clear National Eligibility Test and would automatically become eligible for teaching. I am not making a blanket accusation on all the teaching staff in the universities. There are a lot of brilliant teachers with research mind and high educational principles. However, the insisting of the University Grants Commission on PhD as a basic qualification to become a ‘professor’ has brought in a lot of corruption in the field of higher education. So many ‘doctorate’ holders are now in these universities whose doctoral degrees are either spurious or bought. The other problem with educational institutions is this that once these teachers are in the system they are automatically sucked up into the power struggles and the less competent ones would get into serious politicking to protect their cushy salaries. Result is nothing but the destruction of the future of a number of young students/minds.

Though Shivani Gupta, in her approach to the subject, Art History as well as curatorial practice carries certain amount of insecurity, the moment she is freed from the clutches of the expectation of ‘performing well’ in the class, she sets herself on in the project. She has an interesting idea which she has been nursing in her mind from her Agra days. She wants to study more about the patterns that are employed in the making as well as embellishment of the Mughal architecture. Hence her curatorial project is going to be a replication of several such patterns created out of paper and the final result would be a maze of several such patterns hanging from the ceiling and changing the whole display space into an ethereal space. According to Shivani, the patterns and the shadows that they would throw on to the wall and floor could actually mesmerize the viewers. So here we have Shivani with a wonderful idea about turning a space into a ‘feeling’ but what does she exactly want to convey through that? Shivani, as she confronts the peer group in the class room/board room, feels that she needs to fine tune her project further. And I give her enough time to polish her project, come up with a good concept note and to face the class with an added confidence.

Then on days end I do not see Shivani in the class. I keep asking her fellow students and hostel mates about her and the progress of her project. They tell me that she has been going through some health issues and she would be back in class in a day or two. This is not new to me. I have seen many students just disappearing after making initial promises and a lot of flair in their responses to the projects. It is always encouraging to see students warming up to the subject and ideas pertaining to it. But then once they go out of the class either they lose interest in the whole subject or they simply grow nervous. They would think that the subject is so enormous that they are incapable of doing anything with it. Such students resort to falling ill or going home when such experimental task is at hand. I understand Shivani’s plight and I want to help her, but what could I do if she is not coming to the class. But that does not mean to that a student like Shivani is incapable of becoming a good curator. He/she could do it only when they find out projects that are suitable to them.

In any curatorial project, right from its conception one has to keep a couple of things in his/her mind. First of all, however dear the idea is the curator has to check the feasibility points. Some idea that looks so lucrative and impressive may not be as lucrative and impressive when converted into a practical project. Some projects have innate obstacles which the curator would find difficult to remove within the given time and space. There are other projects that needs a lot of ground works and logistics support which practically may be unavailable in the given time and space. In certain cases it is not just the logistical support but the very technical and aesthetic means wouldn’t be easily available in the given circumstances. It is where a curator needs to take the help of the fellow curators or students, also it is the areas where they need to push their own creative limits and let the imagination play a bit. But often when obstacles are there cub curators go numb. The best policy in those occasions is to think out of the box. I am not preaching here or I am giving you some quick fix solutions. To think out of the box does not mean that you try out some oddities and see whether they would work for you or not. Thinking out of the box is very simple (not exactly the way the motivational speakers make it)-If the plan A is not working do look for Plan B and Plan C. The most important thing is that even if you have a workable Plan A, it is always advisable to have a Plan B and C in reserve. And the boldest of moves is buying time. You could delay your project; postpone your timing and buy more time to work on it once you realize that your initial plan is not working for you the way you have conceived (one of the first year students, Prakhar Vidyarthi buys time and postpones his project towards the year end as he realizes that his initial execution strategy could flop).

Shivani comes back and we have only four days to go for the final execution of the projects. She is still clueless. I call for a ‘private meeting’ of Shivani with her close friends (cub curators). We stand in the hall way where Shivani was initially planning to execute her Mughal pattern project. She looks weak and dazed. I could see how much she longs to come up with some interesting concept and how her private ghosts are haunting her. I tell her friends to talk about her concept. Ramiya, Gangotree and Meghali put their heads together and come up with different ideas. They suggest something towards a ‘Process’ or a ‘Happening’. As Gangotree would do a process curatorial project, she tells Shivani to think in those lines. A project that would spread all over the campus and involve people and friends. I look at Shivani. I could see Meghavi getting reflected on her face but in a different way. Meghavi has been very articulate about her ‘identity crisis’ but Shivani somehow does not want to speak about it. But I know that what ails is her identity crisis. She looks around and sees her fellow students coming from the universities that have trained them to take up future courses. Shivani perhaps feels inadequate at this juncture. But she just needs to understand that she is not longer sitting in the class room of the previous institution. She is in an illustrious university like the MSU, Baroda and she is in the good company of enthusiastic fellow students/cub curators. She in fact is in a privileged position. She just needs to realise it. She needs to think about her identity now taking wings, constantly beings shaped and reshaped, always in the making, showing possibilities of taking many shapes and dwelling in different climes. The whole world is open for her.

There is a moment when a curator finds her theme and form. That moment would reveal the ‘truth’ of her project. Shivani says that she could work on a project which is a process, a happening and with people’s participation. The project that finally comes up is simple. Shivani is going to curate the ‘definition of human identity’ making use of students from different places and educational backgrounds to carry the components of their identity ‘on’ them. How to go about it? The discussion brings out the solution as now the whole team of cub curators are enthusiastic about Shivani’s idea. They suggest ideas and one by one we take them, assess, discuss and discard. Finally it is agreed that Shivani would buy a few T-shirts of the same colour and use each T-shirt a vehicle to carry one word from a definition of ‘identity’. These T-shirts would be worn by different students and they would be seen in the campus in different locations, doing different things. At times two or three vehicles of identity would be together but the words on their backs would create completely different meanings. They all would be documented in different times and places. And finally they would be called for a group photograph and the whole ‘readable’ definition of identity would come out of them. That is the nativity story of ‘The Moving Identities’ by Shivani Gupta.

All the faces beam with happiness and more than that the pale face of Shivani turns pink and glowing. Her adrenaline rush is palpable and she wants to execute her project here and now! But there is a problem at hand. What is the budget? As a student, Shivani does not have a lot of money at her disposal. Here is another curatorial challenge. Depending on the length of the sentence that defines identity (as each word from it is supposed to be on the back of each T-shirt), the number of T-shirts would increase incurring a huge expenditure. Curatorial solution is simple: Go for a smaller definition. Finally Shivani comes up with a definition from the internet. It is a statement on identity by the British journalist and author, Michael Wood. He states: ‘Identity Is Never Static Always In The Making And Never Made’. So we have eleven words and including the author’s name there are thirteen words in total. That means thirteen T-shirts. (One more day to go for the final execution of the project.) Shivani could afford thirteen T-shirts. Initially she thinks of taking the help of the applied arts students to get the words written on the T-shirts. But then the cub curators as a whole solve the problem in the hostel itself. They turn a night into day and spend the whole night in making stencils of each letter from the definition and then spray paint the T-shirts with the names. Now Shivani just needs to find her volunteers to wear it.

When there is an interesting project in the campus, volunteers are aplenty. Boys and girls from different departments come forward to wear the T-shirts. Soon Shivani realizes the magnanimity of her project. She could make the whole campus to wear her T-shirts. She could make the whole city to wear T-shirts with her statements. If she had chosen an eleven word definition, she could create her own definition or she could write the whole story of her journey from Agra to Baroda (how as a student she endured and experienced the transition and found her identity) and put them on T-shirts and make people wear it. She could call a selected group of volunteers from all over the city (with the help of the students unions or the local NGOs) and congregate them in one place or disperse them into different parts, all of them wearing her T-shirts. She could make the teachers to wear her T-shirts. She could make the auto rickshaw drivers to wear those T-shirts. She could create many more moving sculptures who carry her ‘identity’. The curatorial trigger is one and Shivani is one of the happiest cub curators that I have found in the campus. The student volunteers wear these T-shirts. They are photographed on different occasions and in different locations. Also they have been brought together in one place and photographed. Finally the T-shirts are collected back and on the second day exhibited in a row at the back of the auditorium, making a full display of Shivani’s ‘Moving Identities’.

Curatorial lessons learnt: One, failure of the first few ideas is a blessing in disguise. It gives you the chance to think more and imagine more. The depression of rejection is important provided it does not drive you into madness or some serious health issues. Nothing is as important as your life. Curatorial work could stop but you need to live. And when you are alone, dejected and depressed, the most beautiful ideas would bloom in your mind. Two, always believe in the power of group discussions. As a cub curator it is imperative have group discussions and the ability to trust your friends and their friendly taunts and advices are very useful to get several doors opened. Three, trust that if there is an interesting project at your hand, people are willing to collaborate. When Shivani did this project, each wearer of the T-shirts secretly longed for them to have it for themselves after the project. Bapan Ruidas wants all the T-shirts so that he could wear them for many years to come. But Shivani has grown possessive about her project by now. She is like a tigress guarding her cubs. She wants it all for herself, not because she spent money on them but because it is her first curatorial work! Four, the moment you execute your work in certain fashion, sooner than later you understand that there are ten other ways of presenting it. But what makes that thought process possible is the presence of the one that you have done. Hence it is pivotal that you do your project first however imperfect that they would look later.  Even the best actor in the world finds his/her early acting a bit pastiche.  

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