Issue #42, 2012
Scene

“The Opposition Is To Our Indifference.“ Arches In Trade, Art And Socialism Between India And Eastern Europe.
An Interview with Sumesh Sharma by Mihaela Brebenel

Sumesh Sharmais a curator with the Clark House Initiative. His practice is informed by cultural perspectives of political and economic history. Histories of communities in India, language religion and politics in Francophone Africa, and immigrant identities in Europe form part of his research. He was part of the second edition of the Gwangju Biennale International Curators Programme 2010 in South Korea and the first ICI Intensive in Bombay. In 2012 he curated Arranging Chairs for Ai Weiwei, an exhibition at Clark House, Canary in a Coal Mine – Prabhakar Pachpute, Visas Revisited – Amol Patil, solo projects at Clark House and I C U JEST at
Mandalay Hall, a collateral exhibition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
Proletariat Aesthetics, which explores the idea of an informed aesthetic
in art that arises from a communist past and Zones d’Attentes – Zied Ben Romdhane, that discusses the aftermaths of the Arab Spring.

 

Clark House Initiative, Bombay is a curatorial practice about a place, which in sharing a junction with two museums and a cinema, mirrors the fiction of what these spaces could be. Clark House was once an office of pharmaceutical research, an antiques store, and
the shipping office of the Thakur Shipping Company that had links to countries in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Japan. Curatorial interventions in the space hope to continue, differently, this history of internationalism, experiment and research. It was established in 2010 as a curatorial collaborative concerned with ideas of freedom.

I met Sumesh Sharma and Zasha Colah in Cochin, in the first weeks of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, when a short conversation revealed fascinating histories arching from the very place we were in India and all the way to Romania. Some of these histories we tried to further discuss after a special screening of Irina Botea’s Auditions for
a Revolution
(2006) and Mona Vătămanu and țorin Tudor’s The Trial (2004)at Mandalay Hall, in Cochin. Others, we explored through
a long conversation in one of the former trading houses situated
in the centre of this special port-city.

 

Film and the Communist Reading Rooms

Mihaela BrebenelπWhen thinking how to frame this conversation, I realized that the questions will come in layers. And these layers are not separate, they interconnect. Therefore, I think we will be dipping in and out of topics as we go along. Maybe start with this link between the history of moving image and the socialist cultural heritage of Cochin.

Sumesh Sharma∫Cinema came to India about a century ago. And it took on a very popular format. But in some places, you see people like Satyajit Ray.He starts off in Calcutta with a very interesting avant-garde practice. A similar kind of practice begins in Kerala. And why does this practice actually begin? You are always wondering because these are directors who were discussing vernacular subjects, like the caste system, the rights of women. So, there’s a guy called John Abraham. He is an avant-garde director and he was based in Fort Cochin for some time. Not many people know of him but he made really interesting films that were avant-garde and entirely critical but they also found an audience. And he would fund these films through a kind of crowd-funding, where he would go
to villages and collect money.

πHow did you come to know of this practice?

∫When I was doing my thesis, I was speaking to a lot of artists here and they always spoke about this moving image collective, called the Odessa Collective1, that had a very profound effect on
the fine arts and in a sense, on movie practices. I asked where did it come from. Apparently, it came from this idea of reading books.
A lot of young people, when in school, came across comics, or literature that was being subsidized and sold by the Communist Party for people to be indoctrinated with this kind of communist propaganda. But what it gave them, was access to Leo Tolstoy and to many writers from around the world, like Maxim Gorky. But they also had access to many books with images, which weren’t that popular then in India.

πLet’s talk more about this moving image history. You told me John Abraham, together with Odessa Collective made a film, actually a street performance, that led to the making of the film Game of Dogs.That was in 1984. It was a presence in the streets and a performance out in the streets. We are discussing now how this kind
of public event happening in the 1980s was connected to a strong reading culture, one which informed much of the artistic practices. But what is left now and what makes a link to communism – the only thing I could observe first, just by exploring the streets of Cochin – are the reading rooms. Of course, it is very easy to take just that one link and imagine you can unpack a lot of histories from it, but if you link these conversations, what is interesting to me is the idea of the audience which steps in. There seems to be a certain publicness
to these spaces, which resonates with these histories of collaborative production.

∫When you talk about John Abraham’s idea of production, I really understand it in the sense that he is not forcing the audience to be
a part of his project. I’m sure he went and explained to them what he was doing and they became a part of his film. He didn’t have to build an elaborate set. And when you talk about the reading room, what is interesting is that screenings would be organized there as well.

πThen, the performers would have been able to see themselves
in these screenings? This is a very interesting role they played then, as on the one hand, there is the ‘static’ material in the reading rooms – text and images – which you found had an ințuence on a generation of artists in forming their practice, but also arguably had a role in raising the literacy rate in Kerala to the highest of all India states (over 90% for both male and female citizens
2). Then, there seems to be the public production and access to moving images, the reading rooms becoming a space for participation.

∫Yes, I watched a few films myself in these spaces. They used to do screenings in these reading rooms when I was young, with video cassette players.

πWhat did you watch? Can you remember?

∫I watched a film once about... it was called Vidheyan? I don’t know if it was by Adoor Gopalakrishnan or another of the movie makers in Kerala and it was a relationship between a master and his handyman. It’s a very important work and it looks at the exploitation of poor people. And this was something pretty amazing! I had come from Bombay from holidays – this must have been in around 1997 – and
in Bombay there is a certain social stratification. Culture is consumed according to your class. Here (in Kerala), I was a young man who could participate in many facets of culture and class, it wasn’t something that was inhibiting me. You know, when you’re a child, class is
a painful reality that you might have to negotiate. You might not be able to play with anyone and everyone when there is a class divide...

πCaste divide as well?

∫Yes, caste divide as well. You know, you can’t call your friends home. And people may not even date across classes in India. But in Kerala, I didn’t see even until now, the stratification of social interaction. People from various communities and spaces were enjoying the same thing. This is part of the history out here.

πWere such egalitarian spaces simply rețecting a communist ideology, you think?

∫One of John Abraham’s works is about a donkey in a Brahmin housing complex!3It’s a very Gorky title...You are talking about
the donkey in Brahmin housing society, so you are debating caste...
I have not seen the film, but I can understand what is coming out
of that, that conversation. So, they obviously weren’t looking towards Hollywood. They were looking for an alternative.

πDid a lot of political work come out of that period?

∫Yes, and that kind of society... You have to understand, people have not yet despaired of communism. They still thought that they had to build a cultural basis to that revolution, to that total take-over, you know? Then you have the Chinese-India war in 1961, which forces them to look at this alternative, which is devoid of Chinese communism and also devoid of Russian...

πThis is when the Communist Party splits into the Maoist and Marxist?

∫Yes. Then, a person like Ceaușescu becomes a very important ruler because he stands up to Russia’s invasion of Prague. And that is something my family knows as visual reminders of them being there. And it was very well sold to people in visual terms. Posters were coming in, of Jawaharlal Nehru and Ceaușescu, for example.

 

Trading Relations

πAt this point, are we discussing an extra layer, that of the trade relations?

∫An entire climate arises from this exchange of literature information linked not only to political ideology but also to trade. You had Nehru, the first prime-minister of India, who really wanted this kind of utopian socialist understanding on non-alignment. So, he started building these alliances, particularly with people like Ceaușescu, with Tito etc. But also a trade mechanism. Because, you have to understand, we had just lost a colonial power and we were trying to find friends.

πYou are talking about a period between the 1960s and 1970s?

∫1950s to 1979 roughly. The whole tea trade ran on the export
to the Soviet Union, ex-Soviet states and Eastern Europe. However, that was possible because we weren’t competing with anyone! You sent tea, and you get tractors from Romania! You sent tea, and you get arms from Ukraine! It was not that people got rich, but there was a socialist, comfortable system. And I grew up in a family that actually was a part of this trade and they were ideologically aligned to this.

πMost of this was happening from Cochin, itself a port-city?

∫Cochin was one of the prominent ports just before liberalization. If you look at India from Independence, then you have this socialist period, the liberalization period which starts after 1989 and then 1992 steps in.

πIs that when the trade stopped with the Eastern European
countries?

∫In 2000, it totally ends. It starts wearing off in 1994, the minute you have all the changes and a new economic system. When you have all the Romanian corporations coming in. The same thing happened in relationship with the Czechoslovakian companies: they stopped working with us the minute they became free because
they could buy their tea from China or elsewhere.

It’s really funny how my grandfather would say “Oh, Nicolae Ceaușescu, what a man! I went there and he removed his watch and he gave me the watch!“ And it’s very weird, as people like my grandfather had never made money in Romania. But they were always trying and trying to build a relationship. He would tell me stories. First they would send telegrams. We had a huge telex machine in Clark House.

πIn Bombay?

∫In Bombay, where our space is. Where Clark House Initiative shares office space with. So, the Romanians would ask “What is the price?“ The price would be decided at say, 1 dollar. My grandfather would then go to Bucharest and it would be winter and really, really cold. They’d go into these huge meeting rooms and everyone would be sitting around a table. And obviously, for an Indian, it’s minus 25 degrees or so, it’s really, really cold! And so, they would offer them vodka. Shots, to drink! At 8.30 in the morning! And in the hotel where they were being hosted by the Romanians, there was no hot water
in the morning, the milk was frozen. So, they would say “Let’s start negotiating at 45 cents“. And the guys who would negotiate would be these really tough guys! They would come to 90 cents by the end of it, or 1 dollar. But every time, they had to go through this ritual.

And then, when they went there, my grandfather would be carrying things to give to everyone, as a gift and people would also give them gifts. If you go to my house, a lot of this history is etched in gifts.

πDo you remember any of these?

∫We had a lot of crystal that came from many of the countries, Bohemian crystal... We gifted an elephant to the Czechoslovakian government and they gave us a huge crystal bowl. From the Romanian government I remember we received a tractor, called the Roman? It was the most advanced tractor of that time. I mean,
we had it until recent. It was a huge machine.

 

On Curatorial Practice

πSo, you have these personal memories or this personal investment or simply the fact that you are using the space which was your grandfathers’ office, the space itself has all these arches, into a socialist past and trading past. I was wondering how, on the one hand, does that rețect back into your practice with Clark House, in a curatorial team with Zasha Colah, and how you work with artists?

∫Obviously, the socialist past of these nations has created the worst dictators, like Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the Czechoslovakian Republic, you had an oppressive regime and in most of the places
it was extremely difficult to deal with. As curators, Zasha and I really felt there is a real lack of internationalism in India, in the sense that now we are kind of a client state of the United States, so we replicate it a lot in our lifestyle. But in that format we stopped recognizing the difference and we became very homogeneous! And this is something somehow suffocating! And we deal in the socialist past in
a kind of want to erase it, and I don’t know what might have come if...

πWhen you say this, do you mean India (although it can be very hard to speak of India as a whole) or how we deal with the socialist past internationally?

∫Internationally also, it’s a desire for erasure, almost like a kind
of a looser-ish existence: it’s time that you now join the rest... sort of attitude.

πDealing with these issues from former communist countries in Eastern Europe and dealing with these issues in India can be different. I’m just thinking that, for example, in West Bengal the Communist Party has just a while ago stopped being in power and here in Kerala as well... It’s a very recent past and quite distinct.

∫Here is where the context comes in: the Communist Party lost the elections last year out here in Kerala. The benefits that have come from the communist rule or the socialist rule – I can’t say it’s
a really Communist Party, it’s more a communist-informed socialist party, which also recognizes a capitalist system, you know? People have moved on with this fall of communism with a kind of speed, without even knowing what has changed. They have just been herded from one room to the other, without even knowing why they have gone from a room that is not air conditioned, to a room that is air conditioned. There is no emotional transfer of this change, they just have been pushed into it in some senses.

πHow is trade still connecting to this, especially in Kerala and particularly in Cochin?

∫Even today, we are clients of a trade. We are receiving money from across the Arabian Sea, from the Gulf. You know, 4 million Malayalis work in the United Arab Emirates, so in that context trade does not really have a timeline. And now Kochi is a place where all Burmese timber is coming and getting re-stamped and exported as timber from Kerala. Do you understand how trade has taken another fashion? Even though we are now free and we are not aligning...

πThis leads us into an aspect of the exhibition I C U Jestthat Clark House Initiative curates here in Cochin, in Mandalay Hall. The exhibition deals with multiple aspects, like the trade relations India has with Burma, but also with the Indian government’s relations with the Burmese refugees, with the resistance in Burma and the guerrilla fighters, of which artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin was
a part of, in 1988.

∫A colour that you would always see in this exhibition is red.
In Burma, where an exhibition starts, a sense of group/collective comes in. And when they (the Junta) see red, they ask for the works to be pulled down because of the association with the communist movement. As you know, the Communist Party in Burma is one
of the most prominent, powerful opponents of the Junta.

πHave you envisaged this exhibition as an oppositional act – obviously you are aware of all these aspects?

∫The opposition is to our indifference. The reason we wanted
to speak about Burma is that India is indifferent to one of its largest neighbours. It’s a larger neighbour than Sri Lanka, Nepal, or Bhutan but we are involved with those nations and totally indifferent to Burma. Except for a very strong economic and military tie that
we have to the country. People on the street don’t care about it.
I’m sure, if you interview Indians about the capital of Burma, they have no clue what the name is. Nothing! They won’t have any idea
of what’s happening with Aung San Suu Kyi, who she is.

πWhy an exhibition on these issues in Cochin?

∫There is a very interesting internationalism, a kind of poetic nostalgia at play here. We come into Mandalay Hall and then we wonder ourselves, how is it possible that we can do this Burmese exhibition within the context of Cochin? And then we think about the idea
of refuge, Cochin being an entrepoˆt this port of trade, where everyone takes refuge. You have the Konkanis who come from Goa, after the Portuguese Inquisition, there are Christian communities who come here, Jews coming after the first demolishing of the Temple
in Jerusalem and until recent times, then the Spanish Inquisition...

Another aspect is the trade of wood from Cochin, of timber, which is being sent as Indian timber. India is going to invest a lot of money into exploiting minerals in Burma, for gas, for example. This is not going to be a comfortable subject to discuss for many people, if you were to discuss these things publicly. But India is trying to do a PR exercise: the Burmese people, we are your friends in development. Well, I saw it in Burma, we were there just to exploit and nothing more. It was nothing more or better than an elaborate plan to exploit a nation. And I really feel that we are betraying the reasons for our independence, not only from the viewpoint of freedom of speech and all that. Forget that! But, by becoming a kind of imperialistic force, you are betraying what Gandhi stood for.

πDo you think this is a reverse of the colonial past in a way? Does it have anything to do with an idea of tipping the power?

∫I don’t know. When we were in the rule of the colonial powers, we were doing the same thing. India was many states then and they were doing this, with the British, to other smaller nations, smaller states. Now, we are doing it again to smaller countries. There is
a kind of repetition in history. In some way, we were the acquisition and we have become the acquisitioners.

πThen, making shows is a political act?

∫It is a political act.

πBy context?

∫For us, the idea of the production is that of a political act. In the sense that when we are working on producing an exhibition there are many nuances and many acts that make our exhibition acceptable. A lot happens during production. For example, we involve a lot of people, out of purpose, from the neighbourhood, from the context. They come in and they suddenly take up ownership because they are helping us produce the exhibition. We go to the tin-worker, who has made Clark House’s stencil outside, and then he understands why we need it in English, Malayalam, Hindi and Urdu. There is a kind of definite, conscious, political act when we are producing.

Also, in the sense that we “produce” younger artists that work with us, who could have remained as people who we would have paid, who just did something and left, you know? But then, they have
recognizable marks throughout the project.

πYour show is a collateral event of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, advertised as India’s first biennale. How is this context in conversation with Mandalay Hall?

∫When dealing with Burma, we actually worked in many more exhibitions that were kind of visual cues and were building a context to this exhibition in the biennale. At times, we were working with,
in a sense, the modernist art history of Burma, because we felt that we had to go into a much deeper context to be able to present something like this. We can’t just jump onto the bandwagon of
a kind of political context. You know, in the past six, seven month
we have been working with various exhibitions that have to do with Burma. A lot of the works that you see in this exhibition have a kind of realistic rendition that comes from a kind of argument tradition, or in a previous exhibition you see works that are kind of an abstraction that comes from some kind of... comes from the letters, from the kind of calligraphy that you see in Burma. So, why is that? And why is performance important? Why is theatre important? And these were issues that needed some introspection into what we were dealing with. We, as curators, felt responsible because at times when we’re working with a political context – what happens is that with great ease people can piggy-back onto a situation, and support the wrong side.

πFinally, how do you feel about the ‘post-curatorial’ stance taken by the biennale, meaning there is no one star-curator of the event, but a team led by an artistic director?

∫I feel that the post-curatorial is almost a word which is being used as hubris to justify a kind of mechanism of the market and availability of resources, inability of time to really concentrate, and an over-ambitious idea of many artists. I feel that except for a few artists in the biennale, like Joseph Semah, the context of Cochin is totally forgotten in the economies of production. What really happens in the biennale is that superstar artists got a priority in installation. Also, I’ve seen so many ethnographic portraits of people in the biennale. It is shocking at one point. At times, I don’t understand what kind of ethnographic detail would I be within this context.

 

 

Notes:

1. ‑Odessa Collective was founded by John Abraham and was based on collaborative film production and distribution. It sought out to engage audiences in performing on the streets of Kerala turned sets, following a belief in the emancipatory power of cinema.

2. ‑http://www.indiaonlinepages.com/population/literacy-rate-in-india.html.

3. ‑Donkey in a Brahmin Village, 1978. Directed by John Abraham, India, Nirmithi Films.