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Way beyond weird, but their thing then

Some creative souls want art to be not just an ideal of beauty (the classical approach) but to reflect life as it was lived, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: May 30, 2008 23:43 IST
Renuka Narayanan

This week, I saw an elephant at the corner of a park eating leaves off a tree. Further down, a haat glittered with mounds of stainless steel while outsize cotton innerwear flapped in the faces of a harried public. This, in ‘posh’ South Delhi. Art, nature and life don’t seem ‘separate’ in India. Even folk and classical music share the same ragas and sing about the same epic heroes. All of India is a living, morphing ‘art installation’, where the subziwala’s cart is a daily work of art just like the sari shops whose cloths fan out in bright bunches.

That’s why it’s hard for an Indian to be properly respectful about the ongoing Fluxus show at the National Gallery of Modern Art (in Mumbai in April and in Delhi till June 4) or the passing of the revolutionary American artist Robert Rauschenberg this month at age 82.

To make sense of why they were so big in the west in the 1950s and 60s, we need to recall that after World War II, the new technologies it propelled pushed for change. Artistically, this showed in the contrast between formal, ‘beautiful’ and expensive museum culture and the disposable artifacts of industrial mass-production: plastic, glass bottles, tyres, cans, plugs, TVs, radios, light bulbs. ‘High’ culture meant opera, ballet and western classical music, with everything written down on sheets and movements planned to an inch. Mass culture meant informality: Elvis, jazz, movies.

Some creative souls wanted art to be not just an ideal of beauty (the classical approach) but to reflect life as it was lived. Among them was American musician John Cage, a big influence on Robert Rauschenberg and the Fluxus artists. Cage made ‘silent scores’ with almost no sound, while Rauschenberg, between combining stuffed goat heads with street junk, made ‘empty canvases’ of white spaces in protest against formality. Since Indian music and dance allow huge personal space for interpretation, Indians were merely amused in 1964 when Cage’s ‘silent music’ was played in Delhi’s AIFACS Hall: especially when he polished a piano onstage with a wet rag for its squeaks.

Photographer Ram Rahman, who was nine then, will never forget what happened that evening. Somebody had brought in a bottle of Coke and it suddenly rolled over and went thud-thud-thud all the way to the stage, where it went ‘thump’. The Indians, who had Cage’s number by then, assumed it was part of the show and actually passed it back so it could be rolled again. Rahman, who met the artiste at dinner afterwards, says, “Cage was so thrilled, he put that sound effect into the score.”

American dancer Merce Cunningham performed to Cage’s music with sets designed by Rauschenberg. “There were these huge floor fans, about 12 of them, directed at the audience! ...It was beyond weird, it was just somewhere else,” recalls Rahman, who later lived in a New York studio close by Rauschenberg’s home.

Art scholar Jyotindra Jain, off to Paris this weekend to curate a show of tribal art, was asked back in the 60s to take Roy Lichtenstein around Gujarat. They ran into Khadri Mohammed Siddique, the famous block printer of Kutch. Siddique later said Rauschenberg experimented with cycle tyres dipped in vegetable dye. “Some wanted his autograph. But I thought my work was better.”

I rest my case.