Nilanjana Nandy was an artist-in-residence at Pepper House from May to July, 2018. During her residency, she created ‘Alice in a Room of One’s Own’, and ‘Cover-Uncover’, a performative intervention. Towards the end of her stay, Nilanjana shared some thoughts about her work and practice with the Kochi Biennale Foundation team.
When I came here for the Residency, I did not make any fixed plans. I just started inhabiting the space, and started with my usual processes – drawing, sketching, and reading in the library. One thing was leading to another. I started making my works on graph paper grids, because these were something given and familiar. And while I was working in my space at Pepper House, I realised that there was a grid right over me and that structure came into my work – a narrative grew from there. From the sounds of the ships, to the door frames, a lot of it features in what I drew. Everything I witnessed here is in my work.
Alice in a Room of One’s Own
My exhibition here is a collection of the instinctive works I have created in my time here. I have not dwelled as much on the personal versus the public, it is more about the mental space. When a viewer is in the room, one may encounter a few things and may miss out on a few. Any instinctive perusal of the space is welcome, we see what we want to see – and then there is a surprise encounter. It is also about how a spectator will decode, in that sense it’s a room of one’s own for everyone. There is an element of fantasy in some of the drawings, and also just memory from my walks.
A performative intervention I made during my time here (quite instinctively), had been visiting the different reading rooms or ‘Vayanshalas’ in the area. I noticed that these spaces were distinctly gendered, with mostly men sitting and reading in the space. I would go to the different rooms, and read my newspaper. It was a simple gesture, but I wanted to just occupy the space in some way. I also noticed that each Vanashala had a specific set of newspapers that reflected a school of thought. And from there I got the idea to intervene in the library at Pepper House. What happens when this accessibility to information is squattered?
In my intervention, I covered all the books in the library, in their set order, in newspaper. At a time when we are discussing the content that will be dropped from text books, and history is being mediated in conscious ways, I wanted to question the shaping of thought. For me it works on different levels. On one end I think it’s some kind of imposition on our knowledge systems, and on the other are the various human tendencies and impulses. The moment someone comes to this library, they will be very frustrated because they cannot see the titles of the books. My question is – will they make sense of this space in spite of that? How is it that we can overcome those momentary traumas in creative ways? They might also brush it off as one of the “bizarre” things artists do.
I also wanted to delve into everyday news, and the present political climate world over – this is coming primarily from my thoughts on that. However, as a visual thinker, I’m thinking about how a space gets transformed. I was thinking throughout of a British artist, Rachel Whiteread, who takes casts of negative areas. If it’s a building, she will take the negative area, and chart it to scale. There is an immediacy to the visual, because one’s training is as a visual artist. One is how you are thinking, how you are experiencing, and how aspects beyond the visual come into play.
We negotiate spaces, and their defined categories (in this case a library) in certain ways. What happens when you destabilize their expectations? What other parts of you do you access when access itself has been changed?
I am from Delhi, but went to MSU Baroda for my MFA. In the College of Art in Delhi I got a specific kind of academic training, and Baroda worked in an entirely different manner – in the way that Art History training comes together with the practice. The way a historian will think, versus the way a practitioner approaches art-making – we were made to think about the different perspectives. I finished Baroda in 2003, but during my time there we were witness to the Godhra riots. One started sensing a kind of polarization even before the event occurred, and now these terms are on our fingertips. While I’m not always expressing this experience directly, it doesn’t go away from me – these are hanging around us all the time.
I have been teaching children art for a very long time – in conventional institutional set ups especially. A lot is happening these days because there is a deeper understanding of innovation, and invariably it is the art teacher has to innovate. Art has the capacity for storytelling, and consequently experiential learning. Without even putting any pressure, it has the nature of being transmittable. When I am with children, it is absolutely by all of us making art that we realize what is possible. I’ve always been showing them art – seeing a good visual is as much learning as much as making. I’ve been bringing in a lot of art history, and contemporary systems of knowledge. How can we take the students out of the classroom? How do you make them sensitive to visuals? It’s not necessary that they will all become experts, but the sensibility that is developed with regard to approaching art is important for me. I have been doing workshops with FICA, where we have been bringing examples of contemporary art to the kids, and visits to different art spaces – galleries, museums and art neighbourhoods.
Drawing is one of the most basic indexical marks that we make. Even during explanations, we draw out our thoughts or ideas to express them better. A lot of us have a tendency to scribble on the sides, to make figures and shapes. Drawing is a way of thinking. Drawing for me, because of my academic training in painting, has a deep sense of the personal. I find that painting has a little bit of a distance. Drawing has a mark making exercise – it has its own layering. It can be storytelling, an abstract thought. Drawing has all the possibilities for note-making, for mapping. All you need is a pen and paper.