Kathputli looks and smells like scores of slums dotted across Delhi. But walk down its narrow alleyways and you will find residents with unique talents. For half a century puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers and musicians from India’s traditional performance groups have settled here. Its residents perform for guests at the city’s five-star hotels, in plush restaurants, at parties thrown by embassies and wealthy businessmen, and for audiences around the world. But they return to their windowless huts without running water and basic sanitation. This photo essay is accompanied by a poem by Himali Singh Soin, and a critical text by Sameena Siddiqui, which explores the series in the context of ‘performance’.
Performance in the Magic Slum
– Sameena Siddiqui
According to Elin Diamond¹ ‘A performance at once is an embodied act, performed by specific actors, in specific sites, and a completed event framed in time and space into the store house of memory. It oscillates between the present and the past, as both “a doing thing and a thing done”’. Within the photographic representations of Thomas Vanden Driessche, performances were performed by the various actors like jugglers, acrobats, dancers and fire eaters, in the maze of winding narrow lanes, unfinished brisk structures of the Kathputli slum in Delhi. Being a part of indigenous performative cultures and rituals, these actors unlike the traditional performers did not perform for the autonomous events and live audiences but were rather staged solely for the camera. The space of document thus becomes the only space in which performance occurred², camera’s electronic data becomes the storehouse of memory and ‘performed’ photographs as the only indexical access to reality, oscillating between the present and past as both ‘a doing thing and a thing done’. These real performances performed for the camera (which is itself part of the event), does not describe an event but rather reconstitutes it as a ‘performance’ in a different time and cultural space like an art gallery.³ This corollary between theatrical practices and documented artistic performances, creates interesting sets of questions for the photographic representations of the Kathputli performers. Can these photographic images be read as ethnographic visual representations which provide information about the different aspects of the performative cultures in India and its performers? Can it be read as their struggle to recuperate the last traces of their performative traditions within a diasporic city like Delhi? Or should we read these documented performances as ‘performance art’ in which ‘artist’ uses her body as a major conduit for artistic expressions, performs specifically for the camera gaze and second audiences? How to understand the relationship between the performance and the documentary? Thinking within the context of documentation as a substitute for ‘true’ reality and aid for memory, can documentation be performative? And assuming it can, what is the difference between performances for documentary and ideological performances of everyday life?
Here I would like to point at the pre-modern cultural traditions of the colonized societies in which dance and all sorts of performative practices, just like traditions of oral histories, were the semiotic devices of remembering one’s cultural histories, resistances and identities. In such choreographed postural performances and movements, the artist’s body becomes the site of memory⁴. Carnivals or mela were the limidinal spaces of mass participation, in which rehearsed performances were enacted to transgress, re-invent and even contest the symbolic forms via the gestures and masquerade of the performative bodies⁵. In India, mela is the transient world of spectacles, a space to collectively enter into the realm of imagination, possibilities of continuously evolving fluid identities, subjectivities, often denied by the quotidian social, political and economic conditions. Nat community performers were the inheritors of such limidinal space who roamed from village to village to perform at fairs and local gatherings. They were known for puppetry performances and acrobatic feats. Nats, historically always led a peripatetic existence⁶. Being part of the translocal/informal market circuits, they not only provided valuable entertainment services as jugglers, acrobats, dancers, fortunetellers, puppeteers, magicians, behrupiyas (masquerade performers), to their audiences but also provided villagers with their ritualistic needs, news and rumours. Mobility, transience and dislocation were the embodied senses which constituted the world of the fair entertainers. The circulation of information with their un-notified travelling movements, peripatetic existence, lack of land ownership and slippery identities were seen as a site of disturbance and threat to the ‘rule of law’ by the colonizers. Such aberrant communities were brought into the logic of colonial regime through the technologies of visibilities and accounts of ethnographic studies.
Photography as a surveillance apparatus, throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century, played crucial role in processing, classifying, recording and structuring the visual data, according to the ideological investments made in it by the bureaucratic and colonialist expansions. Constituted within the nineteenth century discourses of positivism, psychiatry, physiognomy, criminology and aesthetics, photographic practices got typified as art of ‘truthful representations’. By its assimilation within the various political, juridical and colonial institutions, commissioned photographic surveys by the staff photographers, produced knowledge about ‘races’, ‘tribes’, native professions, cultures and their abject subjects like ‘thugs’, ‘criminals’, ‘lunatics’ etc. The desire for power, reform and control was realized through the accumulation of knowledge by not only ‘identifying’, ‘rendering’, the Other cultures i.e. the colonized natives but also by bringing various informal sections of the population under the state’s scrutiny, who would not fit into the pre-conceived notions of human landscape rooted in the categories of civilization, nation and citizenry⁷. Within India, under the colonial process of shaping subjectivities and re-constituting societal hierarchies of the colonized subjects, via the official photographic records and ethnographic texts, many nomadic communities got ‘constructed’, ‘essentialized’ and ‘eternalized’ into the fixed frames of non-citizenship. Such was the case of the Nat community wanderers in Northern India. In 1871, British colonial state, along with other Nomadic communities, declared Nat community as ‘Criminals by birth’. An act, ‘Criminal Tribes Act’, 1871, was passed by the state, in which, different generations and branches of nomadic communities were brought under the legislation. The first time Nats were documented photographically and described textually was for the colonial archival records. Within these individualized documentary photographs, ‘essential characteristics’ of the natives’ life and professions were recorded through bodily gestures, features, physical attributes, occupational tools and dresses. The camera is always an actor in the performance staged for it⁸ : the wanderers and gypsies were ushered from their performing spaces, brought into the photography studios and were frozen into the static tableaux⁹. Their acrobatic tools and performative gestures turned into the accessories and ‘essentialized’ pose for photographic images. These were the performances which were staged solely for the cameraSuch performed photographs not only complemented written ethnographic texts but ‘labelized’ and fixed Nats as a community which is ‘criminal by birth’!
Despite their attempt to ’truthfully’ capture the essential details of the Nat community, documented archival representations by the Britishers did not record the everyday kinaesthetic performances of the performers. Instead, within the circuits of modern knowledge, it reconstituted the subjects into the new visual codes via the staged studio performances, by depicting them as thugs and vagabonds. The colonial documentary photographic images were driven by their own discursive, political forms and aesthetic modes. It had the power to influence the histories, perceptions and one’s own relationship with the self. On the other hand, the contemporary documentary photographs by Thomas vanden Driessche, brings forth their everyday performative practices, performed in the slums instead in the limidinal spaces of the carnival. However, as an aid to collective memory of Nats, these bodily practices are now themselves forgotten by the community living in the migrant cities. The community now simply bears the brunt of their labelization as outlaws by the British, by not even being included in any of the recognized state categories of Schedule caste and schedule tribes¹⁰. Struggling to strive in the current times when their traditional practices have become obsolete, community members are now switching to new professions.
- Performance and cultural politics, edited by Elin Diamond, Routledge,1996.
- The performativity of the performed documentation, Philip Auslander, A journal of Performance Art, Vol.28, No.3, Sep-2006, accessed on JSTOR on 14/6/2013.
- Frazer Ward, Some relations between Conceptual and Performance Art, Art journal 56, 1996, accessed on JSTOR on 13/6/2013.
- What they came with: Carnival and the persistence of African Performers Aesthetics in the Diaspora, Esiaba Irobi, Journal of Black Studies, Vol 37, No.6, June 2007, accessed on JSTOR on 12/6/2013.
- Denotified and Nomadic tribes : A nowhere existence, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.42, No.40, Oct 6, 2007, accessed on JSTOR on 15/6/2013.
- The issue of De-notified tribes in India, Ajay Dandekar, accessed on JSTOR on 13/06/2013.
- The Coming of photography in India, Christopher Pinney, Oxford University Press, 2008.
- It is important to point, that Nat communities in Delhi, have been listed into Schedule caste categories rather than schedule tribes as no ‘tribes’ stay in urban cities. To read more on this please refer to Meena radhakrishna article, Urban denotified tribes : Competing identities and contesting citizenship.