For one-and-a-half hours, starting at 7.30pm on July 25, conscientious pedestrians using the subway to cross the Dhobi Talao junction will encounter a robed being traversing its winding tunnels, occasionally playing a didgeridoo. We’re not quite sure what message this curious creature bears. More critically, neither does the artist Sahej Rahal, who will transform into this other-worldly beast for a performance titled Bhramana II. “At the moment, it’s a little nebulous for me,” he said. Rahal will don an elaborate white hooded robe, a costume he has stitched himself, and will carry a staff, and a didgeridoo constructed from discarded objects.
Bhramana II – the title means “to wander” in Sanskrit – is the second in a series of performances planned in public places through which the 24-year-old artist hopes to weave stories out of the encounters and intersections between the characters he creates and the city and its inhabitants. “I view my body of work as a growing narrative that draws upon mythical beings from different cultures, and brings them into a dialogue with the present,” Rahal writes in his artist statement. “Within the narrative, these beings perform absurd acts in derelict corners of the city, transforming them into liminal sites of ritual.”
In order to engender varied connections in the minds of his audience, Rahal makes costumes that utilise elements which connote wideranging historical markers. The flowing white robe could hark back to the druids of Celtic Europe or even the present-day Haj pilgrims and Jain monks. “They are ahistorical in a way,” Rahal noted. “You can’t pinpoint where they come from.”
For Bhramana, his first performance in the series that took place in February, Rahal took over the Bandra skywalk, wearing a robe made by basting patches of discarded cloth. He covered his head and torso with a piece of fake fur and held a staff fashioned from tree branches. The performance was not widely publicised, and apart from friends, some of whom were documenting the act, Rahal’s audience comprised commuters and urchins. “The children came really close to look under and see if there really was someone inside or not,” recalled Rahal. “This improvised nature of the performance makes it interesting. I build on the situations and play with them. At the skywalk, I turned into a pied piper leading this troupe of children”.
Both Bhramana and Bhramana II take place in zones of commute. The locations turn into metaphorical passageways that facilitate the journey of Rahal’s characters – from their world to ours. Once here, they wander, undertaking a pilgrimage of sorts. Rahal has come a long way too – the young artist has received the Inlaks Fine Art Award for 2012 and has found support from Chatterjee & Lal gallery for his present performance.
The idea of time travel strongly permeates through Rahal’s present series as well as his older works, many of which exist only on video. Rahal’s practice straddles these two directions, of live work and lens-based work. In a video titled Katabasis, Rahal is dressed in fur and seen going down an elevator (title of the work which denotes a descent). “The lift is a vessel in which time stands still,” said Rahal. “You’re not doing anything but just waiting to be transported.”
Indeed, many of Rahal’s characters are performing mundane acts. Walking, playing a musical instrument, or as in the previous artwork, standing in an elevator. But it is the careful creation of their costumes in conjunction with their gestures and actions that scrambles the order of reality, imbibing his creations with the potency of belonging to another world. “I should probably talk about the fact that I draw a lot from artists like Joseph Beuys,” explained Rahal. “He saw the artist as shaman. Art had the potential of mythmaking. He saw it as an alchemical, magical activity.”
Another influence on Rahal’s work is performance artist Nikhil Chopra, who taught at Rachana Sansad where Rahal acquired a bachelor’s degree in painting. Chopra’s practice places an emphasis on costume, where the transformation and evolution of characters is manifested through their garments. Often, they wander through their environments while developing their roles. “I’m definitely building on top of that,” said Rahal. “What really got me thinking is the way Nikhil [Chopra] uses the idea of walking in a performance, and the idea of walking itself. When you think about the labyrinth, you think about the Platonic discourse where you walk and you talk, as opposed to when you are meditating when there is a stillness of thought as well. Also, in Nikhil’s performances the idea of meaning is constructed, it is put together in a cohesive personal narrative. I’m trying to bring more chaos to make the narrative more fluid.”
By Zeenat Nagree on July 20 2012 7.06am