When did Indian artists start engaging with film, video and other media in post independent India? It is a question that has found few comprehensive answers, and to my mind, a persuasive response comes courtesy of the cultural theorist, curator and writer Nancy Adajania. In her essay ‘New Media Overtures before New Media Practices in India’, Adajania clearly states that “there could be no global history of new media art, and that the history of new media art in any local context is dependent on the technological advances and the politics of communication as they prevail in that locale”1. It is an assertion, which locates Indian artists and their interface with time based media firmly within their own social and historical experiences.
Adajania’s proposition by emphasizing the differing sets of circumstances and conditions prevalent in India that do not line up with conventional western art historical timelines creates a framework in which to appreciate the advent of video art in India through the 1990’s, (in part due to sluggish technological moves seen by the country during the Cold War), as distinct from the 1960’s video art narrative of the Americas and Europe. It also makes room for recognizing the pioneering film based experiments done by some Indian artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which were at the time never properly spoken for on the subcontinent or elsewhere, accounting for why till recently they remained largely under appreciated or dismissed as minor career deviations of little consequence.
By drawing attention to these earlier occasions, Adajania establishes “a pertinent prehistory for so-called new media art in India”2, and provides a foundation for younger generations of scholars, art historians and curators to further expand on, interpret, recast and perhaps even to enhance. As a writer who finds himself invested in similar concerns, my attempt in this post is a brief discussion of a group of films by the artist Nalini Malani that have been rediscovered, and, in a following post, I will strive to make an active contribution to the ‘prehistory’ Adajania has devised, by referring to two instants of artistic experimentation that have received scant consideration.
The Vision Exchange Workshop founded by the modern painter Akbar Padamsee in 1969 in Bombay, which lasted till 1972, is one such pivotal moment in the ‘prehistory’ Adajania sketches out. Padamsee who by the mid 1960’s had already achieved much acclaim as a painter, received a Nehru Fellowship from the Indian Government3. Instead of utilizing the Rs. 3 Lakh for his own purposes, he matched the amount, equally with his own funds and created the workshop. The initiative hosted from Padamsee’s Nepean Sea Road apartment, did not have a formal modus operandi, and included painters, printmakers, a cinematographer, an animator, a psychoanalyst, sculptors, photographers and students from the J.J. School of Art, fostering a unique atmosphere in which interdisclipinary collaboration could take place. Among the work produced, were a number of filmic projects4, the painter Gieve Patel completed a short called Chairs (now lost) about Irani cafes in the city, filmmaker Kumar Shahani made a 16mm film Obsession with a script by the psychoanalyst Udayan Patel, and Padamsee himself made two films Syzygy and Events in a Cloud Chamber.
Of the two Padamsee films no copy of Events in a Cloud Chamber, a color reversal film, is traceable. Syzygy an eleven-minute silent, black and white film, shot on 35mm (later transferred to 16mm) made in collaboration with the animator Ram Mohan has been located and digitized. It is an abstract work, inspired by Paul Klee’s pedagogical diagrams, for which Padamsee developed his own mathematical pattern, and produced 1000 drawings on transparent cell animation sheets. Each drawing composed of numbers, alphabets, abstract geometric shapes, dots, dashes, was based on a differing configuration generated by his own devised code. Syzygy is a remarkably complex work that Adajania associates with the 1960’s experiments of John Cage. When she queried Padamsee about this connection, he acknowledged that he was reading Cage’s writings at the time, and was acquainted with the work of Iannis Xenakis.
- From Building on a Prehistory: Artists' Film and New Media in India, Part 1
See also Nancy Adajania's essay on Vision Exchange Workshop