Against the Obvious

Why the Raqs Media Collective's practice is more than the sum of its parts

For The House of Everything and Nothing (2013), Raqs utilised an abandoned double-storey house on Delhi’s Lodhi Road. UMANG BHATTACHARYA
01 May, 2013

IF YOU DROVE DOWN THE LEAFY LODHI ROAD, just south of central Delhi, on a February or March evening this year and were attentive to your surroundings, you might have been rewarded with an unusual sight. Nestled in the row of bungalows facing the road was an abandoned double-storey house from whose front wall narrow strips of cement had been chiseled off to fashion straight and curved lines running across it in no particular pattern, and occasionally crossing each other. Some of these hollowed-out lines had red LED string lights embedded in them, making them glow softly.

Through the bare windows of an empty room on the ground floor, the word ‘HOUSE’ was visible, emblazoned on the opposite wall in large block letters and lit brightly like a neon advertising sign. If you wandered in, you would have found a room at the back that had ‘EVERY’ and ‘THING’ similarly affixed to two of the walls. Through a gaping hole in the middle of the ceiling of this room, you could see ‘NO’ shining brightly on the wall of the one above.

Public art is not new to Delhi, but The House of Everything and Nothing (2013) stood out for its quirkiness and an almost offhand choice of location. That a passerby could, without any warning, stumble upon this spectacle, was an affirmation that the city is open, forward-looking and comfortable with bold experiments in art. That the work was commissioned to be unveiled on the eve of the annual India Art Fair, which draws visitors and art professionals from all over the world, was a reminder of the city’s standing in the world of contemporary art.

Aptly, the three-member team who created the work—Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Jeebesh Bagchi, who call themselves the Raqs Media Collective (or Raqs, for short)—identify themselves as Dilliwallahs, rooted in the city of their births, the place from where they gaze out into the world. “This is our axis; this is our location,” as Sengupta said to me.

Like a lot of art made by Raqs, House relied on text and used an unconventional mix of materials. Working with a building, however, was new for the group. Describing the work to me a week before it was completed, Narula had likened their efforts to tattooing. “It’s about the skin of a surface, the skin of a building,” she told me in their roomy, sunlit studio above a narrow lane in the ‘urban village’ of Shahpur Jat. The idea was to emphasise the surface, and not the structure itself. “Can it make you think of things besides the building?” she said.

Three days before House opened, I was at the site with Narula, Sengupta and Bagchi. It was about 9 pm on a cold night. Metal scaffolding hugged a section of the front wall and workers milled about. Preparations appeared to be at a preliminary stage, but the three artists were relaxed as they took stock and issued instructions. “It’s looking good,” I heard Narula remark. “Exactly as we wanted it to look.”

In 2012, the trio had marked the 20th anniversary of Raqs’ formation—creating elaborate installations had become routine for them. In 2011, for example, they made a floating sign, 13 metres wide and rising two metres above the water, in the Baltic Sea off the coast of Finland’s Turku archipelago. Made of mirror-finish stainless steel and visible to ships and boats passing at a distance, it read “More Salt in Your Tears”. It was an allusion to the fluctuating levels of salinity in the seawater around Turku, which threatened the fragile marine ecosystem of the region.

Three days after my first visit, House had been transformed. There were more glowing lines on the front and back walls, and the word-signs were in their places. A smart bar stood on the front lawns, and faux-antique round tables and chairs had been set up in rooms on both floors, in preparation for a dinner party hosted by the foundation that had commissioned the work. The table linen, fine dining silverware and loaded buffet tables were impeccably arranged. Young men in waiters’ uniforms, who found the setting, especially the ceiling with the big hole, fascinating, were busy taking photos with their mobile-phone cameras before the guests started arriving.

Soon, the art crowd from Delhi and elsewhere—in full strength because of the India Art Fair—began trickling in. People made appreciative noises about the display, but the evening was mostly about socialising. The Raqs trio declared that they were happy with the way the house looked.

A young designer observed that presenting art in old, dilapidated settings was a dated concept. The young lady he was addressing replied that the work was making her think. She said she had climbed up to the roof of the house and saw small holes punched into it. “I thought ‘hole’ and then I thought ‘whole’, with a ‘w’,” she said. (The holes in the roof, as well as the big hole in the room inside, were the legacy of an earlier project by artist Asim Waqif.)

Sree Goswami, who runs the Project 88 gallery in Mumbai—which, along with Nature Morte in Delhi and the Frith Street Gallery in London, represents Raqs—told me later that House had made her think, too. She felt that, like most works by Raqs, it had a layered quality that encouraged repeated viewing. “I’m not so fond of works where you have seen it once and you have seen the whole work right away,” she said.

IN THE TWO DECADES since they inaugurated their formal collaboration, the members of Raqs have become three of India’s most prolific and admired contemporary artists. “They have become points of reference to the contemporary practice in this part of the world,” Prateek Raja, who runs the Experimenter art gallery in Kolkata, told me. “Because their works are being shown all over the place, their viewership is broad and widespread.”

In recent years, Raqs’ influence has also been felt outside the narrow confines of the art world in India’s broader urban intellectual discourse. Especially through Sarai, the foundation they started in 2000, they have helped foster projects that support emerging artists, enable public dialogue and respond to the state of the nation’s democracy. An essay in the July/August 2009 issue of Art Asia Pacific magazine summed up their creative life thus: “As documentary filmmakers, social theorists and artists drawing on urbanism, film studies, legal theory, history, the biological sciences, postmodern literary theory, criminology, ancient philosophical and religious literature, new-media technologies, psychology and sociology—to name just a few—Raqs have thrust themselves into debates about the state of contemporary India.” Prasad Shetty, a Mumbai-based urbanist and a long-time collaborator with Raqs, felt that, over time, Raqs had become experts in creating and creatively moulding institutions. He likened it to their artwork. “They have been collapsing space, practice and artwork together,” he said.

Raqs has also developed a high profile on the international contemporary art scene, and their works have garnered an acclaim that has, according to Raja, increased the global viewer base of contemporary art from India and, more broadly, South Asia. “Because they practice across so many platforms, and because of Sarai—people coming from all parts of the world and taking back [experiences] with them—it generates new conversations, new networks,” Raja said. “You can call them a hub for different spokes.”

It was their interest in the Internet and digital technologies that led to their entry into the art world. With the founding of Sarai, they sought to create an institution that conducted a wide variety of intellectual, cultural and socially oriented activities around the ideas of new media and the city. They said they chose these foci because both were in a state of transformation. At that time, the  Internet, the nascent world of cyberspace and the dotcom boom were all capturing people’s imagination. Because of the buzz generated by their efforts at Sarai, they were invited that same year to contribute to a Delhi exhibition called, which had new media as its theme.

Raqs presented a work titled Global Village Health Manual, which they made at Sarai with the help of graphic designer Mritunjay Chatterjee. Sengupta said that it was “probably the first computer-based interface artwork in this part of the world”. Later that year, the curators of Documenta—among the most well-known exhibitions of contemporary art in the world, held once every five years, in the German town of Kassel—came to Delhi and invited Raqs to show at their next edition. Compared to Raqs, the two other artists invited to Documenta from India—filmmaker Amar Kanwar and photographer Ravi Agarwal—were veterans in their fields. Kanwar had been making films for 14 years, and Agarwal, who had been taking pictures since his boyhood, had had his first solo show eight years earlier.

At Documenta in 2002, Raqs presented a multimedia installation titled 28°28’ N / 77°15’ E: 2001–2002. An Installation on the Coordinates of Everyday Life in Delhi, which comprised video projections of, among other things, the construction and demolition of illegal residential settlements in Delhi, trains arriving at the New Delhi railway station, and a projection of a satellite map of the city. Raqs also pasted, at various points in Kassel, stickers printed with public warning signs from Delhi, which had been translated into English, German and Turkish. One sign read: “You are now entering a zero tolerance zone. Make no trouble here.”

“Documenta was a significant moment,” Sengupta told me. “We were suddenly thrown in the middle of an international contemporary art scene.” Raqs has not looked back since, making and showing art, without pause, in exhibitions, museums and galleries all over the world. In 2003 and 2005, they showed their works at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Then, in a definitive moment of recognition by the contemporary art world, they were invited to be one of the curators for the 2008 edition of Manifesta, the European biennial for contemporary art. This was a first for artists from outside of Europe.

The recollections of Moscow-based curator Viktor Misiano, who is on the Manifesta board of directors, showed just how swift Raqs’ ascendency in the world of contemporary art had been. He first met them when he was visiting Delhi in 2007. “I was so fascinated and stimulated by their intellectual intensity and intellectual horizons, that I returned inspired,” Misiano, who recommended the trio to his fellow board members, recalled over the phone.

For the 2008 Manifesta exhibition, which was spread across venues in four different cities in northern Italy, Raqs invited photographers, writers, architects, filmmakers, historians, lawyers and others, many of them from India, to present works at an old fort situated in Franzensfeste and at a disused aluminium factory in Bolzano. Arundhati Roy and the historian Shahid Amin wrote text pieces; Dayanita Singh presented wallpaper-sized photos of an aluminium factory in Uttar Pradesh; filmmaker Sanjay Kak showed a multimedia installation on the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa; and urban scholars Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty presented new ways of mapping the mill lands of Mumbai.

Impressed with Raqs’ work, the organisers invited them to become members of the Manifesta board. “We meet four times a year,” Misiano said. “Their contribution is very valuable.” (This July, the members of Raqs will spend three weeks in Moscow as guest lecturers at the summer curatorial school run by Misiano.)

Sengupta counted Manifesta as another milestone for Raqs, saying that in the span of six years, from 2002 to 2008, Raqs was able to “recalibrate” itself. “We’ve seen art from this part of the world, from Delhi or Bombay or Lahore or Karachi, becoming a significant factor in the international contemporary art conversation,” he told me. “And we shaped and participated in that.”

THE WORD ‘RAQS’—which means ‘dance’ in Urdu, Arabic and Persian—represents the state achieved by whirling dervishes when they spin themselves into a state of trance. For Narula, Sengupta and Bagchi, their whirl of activity as artists, curators, creators of institutions, lecturers and much more, induces a similar kind of mental stillness, which is required to create art. They have a name for it—‘kinetic contemplation’.

The kinetic part quickly becomes apparent to even a casual observer. In December 2012, Raqs had a solo show in Delhi. This was followed in January by the House project, discussions at the India Art Fair, and the curating of a show as part of the Sarai Reader 09 at the Devi Art Foundation. In February, they put up their video works at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and, for a month, lectured graduate students at nearby Johns Hopkins University. In March, Raqs exhibited at the Sharjah Biennale, and did what they called a ‘lecture performance’ at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US. In April they showed works in Singapore. Between May and August, they will cover Gwangju in South Korea, Tel Aviv and Herzliya in Israel, El Paso in the US, Moscow and Shanghai.

Raqs, then, has come a long way since Sengupta, Narula and Bagchi first met as classmates at the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia. After earning their master’s degrees in mass communication in 1991, they attended a film workshop at which they made a 15-minute fiction film titled Half the Night Left, the Universe to Comprehend. The idea of teaming up professionally took root around then.

At that point, all they knew was that their work together would probably be film-related. But they floated other ideas over tea and beer adda sessions—writing books, doing research, making children’s films. “We said, ‘Let us see what happens. Whatever happens, we will do it together,’” Narula recalled. “We got together because … we had things to say to each other.”

All three were born in Delhi in the second half of the 1960s, and all graduated from Delhi University. Bagchi and Sengupta said that they had a modest middle-class Delhi upbringing. Sengupta’s father began his career as a bank teller, who went on to retire as a deputy general manager, and his mother was a schoolteacher. Bagchi’s father was an accounts officer with a government-owned power distributing agency, and his mother was a housewife. Narula’s father was also a schoolteacher, whose work took him to many places. She grew up in Delhi, Rai, Meerut, Srinagar, Jakarta and the South Pacific island of Nauru.

It sounds entirely plausible that conversation brought them together. Words, spoken and written, play a big role in the wide range of Raqs’ practice. In extended conversations, all three Raqs members slip into a mix of English and Hindi. Narula speaks animatedly, Bagchi less so, and both often don’t finish their sentences. Narula’s lines can seldom keep pace with her ideas and often trail off halfway; Bagchi’s speech is often a mix of complete and incomplete sentences.

Sengupta mentioned that, in the course of a day, they constantly email each other, even when the three of them are in the same room. One reason they do this is to maintain a record of the thoughts, ideas and plans they share. The sheer number of emails they exchange amongst themselves and with others, as well as the density of their online activity, vividly comes through in Noise Into Signal (2012), a set of four black-and-white prints that were on display at their solo show at the Nature Morte gallery. The four framed prints featured a dense mesh of hair-thin white lines that streaked, curved and looped across a black background, representing electronic impulses crisscrossing between computers. (The work was priced at Rs 10 lakh per set; two sets were sold at the India Art Fair.)

Noise Into Signal (2012) represented the Internet traffic between the three laptops of members of Raqs, and the world. COURTESY NATURE MORTE / RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE

As the accompanying note explained:

Noise Into Signal renders fragments of a pattern based on a reading and analysis of the internet traffic and communicative exchanges between the three laptop computers of the protagonists of the Raqs Media Collective and the world on a given day.

The idea of establishing a formal collective and working under a registered name arose because the three wanted to apply for grants as a team. And the first grant that the Raqs Media Collective received was awarded in 1993 by the British television broadcaster, Channel 4, to make a documentary film on the Andaman Islands. The research and preparation for making the film, which they titled Black Waters, proved to be a formative experience.

Up until the mid-19th century, the hunter-gatherer societies inhabiting the Andamans remained largely untouched. Then, the colonial British rulers of India decided to establish a penal settlement there, which led to people from mainland India coming and settling on the islands. The next 100 years saw British rule, the building of the infamous Cellular Jail, World War II and the Japanese occupation, and finally, rule under independent India. As Narula put it, the island archipelago witnessed the history of mankind, from the hunting-gathering stage to the advanced industrial society of the 20th century, in a compressed 100-year span.

The grant was a breakthrough for Raqs. With the money they received, they rented a three-bedroom apartment in the east Delhi locality of Patparganj, which served as their residence and office. “Channel 4 gave us the confidence—and nine to ten months—to just think about one project,” Bagchi said. They went to London, where they spent a lot of time in libraries and archives. In the summer of 1993, they accompanied old political prisoners who were going back to the Andamans with their families on a memory trip.

As it happened, the person who had given them the grant left Channel 4 and the project was dropped. The Raqs team remained mostly unfazed. “We were too young to work with disappointment,” Bagchi told me. “A lot of our work in the last 10-15 years comes from the excitement and research [of] that time.”

One example of that is a digital animation project that was shown at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi in 2011. Two overlapping images of a human palm print were projected onto a large screen, the palm in front counting numbers on the fingers, like a schoolchild, with the aid of the thumb.

The accompanying note, now available on the Raqs website, explained that in 1858, a colonial British official had made an impression of the palm of an Indian man and then sent it to London, where it had featured prominently in the birth of the field of fingerprinting. Lines from the note are typical of Raqs’s style of writing, which tends to be poetic and evocative but also oblique and allusive. The arithmetic puns are both playful and ironic.

In every sum figured by power, a remainder haunts the calculation. Not everything adds up. A people are never equal to a listing of their bodies. They are something more and something less than a population. Counting counter to the reasons of state, Raj Konai, a peasant from nineteenth century Bengal, the owner of the floating trace of a disembodied hand indexed in a distant archive, persists in his arithmetic.

The ghostly handprint stood out in a group show that had many superlative works. It was akin to witnessing a 150-year-old artefact being disinterred and brought back to life. The title of the work, Untold Intimacy of Digits, was also an ironic reference to the Indian government’s Unique Identification Database (UID) project that aims to create a biometric database of every citizen.

Untold Intimacy of Digits (2011) featured the palm print of an Indian man, made in 1858 by a British colonial official. COURTESY FRITH STREET GALLERY / RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE

In this and many other works, Raqs hark back to history directly by weaving figures, episodes and nomenclature from Indian history, philosophy and mythology. “They are very knowledgeable about their own cultural past,” said art historian Parul Dave Mukherjee, who is currently Dean of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. “[This] gives them a conceptual mobility. [They] move forwards and backwards in time, with a wide variety of references from which they choose their themes.” She contrasted Raqs’ output with the “historical amnesia” that characterises a lot of contemporary art.

For most of the 1990s, Narula worked as assistant cameraperson, and Sengupta and Bagchi as assistant directors, often on the same documentaries or television shows. On the side, Narula and Sengupta reviewed theatre and films for the Economic Times and other newspapers. There were brushes with the world of art. They made two short films and a 13-part television series for the government run Doordarshan’s DD 3 channel called Growing Up, in which they examined the childhood of writers and artists such as Krishen Khanna and Arpana Caur, and linked it to their works as adults. They made a video documenting an artists’ workshop that had Subodh Gupta, LN Tallur and Shilpa Gupta among the participants. Perhaps because they are trained filmmakers, and the first decade of their professional lives revolved around filmmaking, it is the film and animated component of Raqs’ art that often makes the strongest impression.

Even today, they talk about cinematography with passion, recalling with obvious delight the time when they got a chance to work with the well-known Bollywood cinematographer CK Muraleedharan on the sets of a television series. They used to get so distracted talking cinematography with him that the show’s producer finally fired all three, as well as Muraleedharan. In 1996, they became one of the first awardees of the India Foundation of the Arts grant and, over the next four years, recorded conversations with 27 veteran cinematographers across India about their work, many of them, such as KK Mahajan, living out the last years of their lives. “[We would have] late night conversations with Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray’s cameraman, about Charulata. Fantastic time,” Bagchi recalled. “We would go, take up a low kind of hotel in the city and spend hours with them.”

Many of the films that Raqs has made since—including In the Eye of the Fish (1997) and Sleepwalker’s Caravan (Prologue) (2008)—express ambivalence toward cities and, by extension, modernity. One of them is Strikes at Time (2011), a two-screen, 18-minute video that was shown at Nature Morte in December. (First shown as part of the ‘Paris-Delhi-Bombay’ exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2011, the film was purchased by the museum for its permanent collection for €50,000.) Influenced by Raqs’ conversations with the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, who is known for his inquiries into labour and the concept of leisure, it features excerpts from an industrial worker’s diary by turns quotidian and philosophical.


Left for duty in the morning

Medicine for myself for Rs 32.50. 4 rupees on bus fare.

Oranges for Rs 8. Rs 20 on photographs.

The next episode of a story can be written

only when you stake your life, your own self.

I am proud of my abundant poetry.

Everything else is ordinary.

Mostly shot at night-time, with dark frames that are accompanied by a portentous soundtrack, the shots of steam and smoke, of massive chimneys and factory in the horizon strike unease, while the staccato daytime still-shots of electric pylons, or a jet plane in the sky, or the open road feel ironic. The scenes of a lone working-class man in a library, or alone in a bus, feel as futile as the shots of a distant Maruti van—visible in the darkness because its sides are outlined by a strip of fairy lights—that is going about in circles, like an ant that has lost its way. The mood dips into pessimism.

This gaze at working-class woes, hand in hand with the cynical look at cities and factories, ties in naturally with Raqs’ frequent nods to Marxist thought in their works. One playful example at Nature Morte was Forthcoming Titles (2012), with a row of books placed in shelves with their covers facing the viewer, the names of whose authors were anagrams of authors of classic Marxist tomes. There was Capital of Accumulation by Luxme Sorabgur (Rosa Luxemburg) and the rather funny What is to Be Undone? by Vidya Nalini Chillimeril (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin).

On 26th of January, the trio took to the streets with their immediate families for the Freedom Without Fear march in Delhi, organised by All India Progressive Women’s Association, an arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, to protest against the gang-rape of a young woman in Delhi in December last year. Along with hundreds of other agitators, they shouted slogans and held placards demanding ‘azaadi’ or freedom for all to live their lives as they wished. Sengupta was there with his mother. (His father passed away two years ago.) Narula had brought her six-year-old daughter along, and Bagchi was there with his partner.

I asked Sengupta how he felt about the fact that while themes linked to workers’ causes found representation in Raqs’ works, the works themselves were made to be seen and appreciated by cosmopolitan, upper-middle class and wealthy people. Directed at an art reporter for mainstream media, his response was probably apt: “Never presume the existence of an artistic constituency by what appears or turns up at an [art] opening.” But he adroitly went on to say that people from poor economic backgrounds have played the far more significant role of collaborating with Raqs in creating art.

He referred to Sarai’s Cybermohalla initiative as part of which it ran three ‘media labs’ in working-class Delhi neighbourhoods where school-going and older boys and girls could meet to read, write or just talk at ease. Sengupta said that the Cybermohalla group had been credited as an interlocutor in Strikes of Time and such collaborations were not one off but had stretched over years. He spoke of Bagchi’s engagement over the last 22 years with Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar, a newspaper meant for workers in the Faridabad industrial belt. (Bagchi said he wished to keep his work there private.)

Wordplay and a fascination with time and temporality are two other plainly visible markers of Raqs’ art. Half the works in the Nature Morte show, which was titled ‘A Phrase Not a Word’, featured text or letters in one form or another.

Visitors to the show were greeted by a glowing sign at the entrance that read “Sold Out”, casting a knowing wink at the viewers. (Two editions of the work, which had a list price of Rs 16 lakh, were sold at the India Art Fair.) It was funny, but in a profound kind of way, and quite un-Raqs-like because it pointed toward a cynicism that they don’t subscribe to. As artists and in their many roles outside of it, they are too vigorously engaged with the world to wear a smirk or assume a shoulder-shrugging posture.

An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale, shown at Nature Morte, featured a digitally manipulated and animated 100-year-old black-and-white photograph of men in white dhoti-kurtas, absorbed in work at the Survey of India office in Calcutta, projected on to a large screen. A steady observation of this otherwise still image revealed some near imperceptible changes in it—the two blade ceiling fan first turned slowly in one direction and then another, a fleeting figure of man walking outside appeared across one of the windows, at some point glass bottles on a shelf quietly acquired an indigo hue, and a little later the pen-wielding right hand of the man sitting in the foreground moved just a little to make a mark on the open register in front of him. These subtle flourishes hold our attention, making the room come alive in a way that is both playful and meditative.

An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale (2011) features a digitally manipulated 100-year-old photograph of men absorbed in work at the Survey of India office in Calcutta. COURTESY RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE

As a kind of counterpoint to Sold Out (2012) and An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale from the December solo show, I was reminded of the sculptural installation titled A Different Gravity (2012) showcased at the Project 88 booth at the India Art Fair in 2012. A carpet on the floor had the word ‘flying’ woven on it, placed on the carpet was a table with the word ‘time’ engraved on its top, and a chair that had the word ‘wrong’ printed on its back. The three objects were reflected on a wall mirror that had the word ‘stage’ written in illuminated letters across its top.

Recalling the work recently to Sengupta at the Raqs studio, I said that while ‘flying carpet’, ‘time table’ and ‘stage mirror’ fell in place right away, the meaning of ‘wrong chair’ wasn’t immediately clear. He explained that words could also be read interchangeably, such as ‘wrong table’ and ‘time chair’. “You don’t have to read them only in terms of the tag that the object has,” he said. The mirror, he pointed out, was positioned to reflect the back of the chair, with the word ‘wrong’ clearly visible in the reflection. The words, in a sense, were afloat. “It’s a bit like when you shoot a bullet at something and it ricochets when you hit a surface. So a lot of our work, the way in which the play of images works, has that kind of ricocheting possibility,” he said. “Even if you think of The House of Everything and Nothing, the ‘nothing’ and ‘everything’ are what you read in your mind.”

“With a lot of works there is always this invitation to finish or to claim the work in your own consciousness,” Sengupta added. “To process that work internally and sometimes not even have an immediate response. There are people who say that they have figured a work in a dream three months after they have seen it. We are quite happy with that.”

ROHINI DEVASHER’S INTEREST IN amateur astronomy began in 1997, the same year that she signed up for a BFA degree. Over the years, as she gained recognition as an artist, she actively pursued her hobby alongside her work. From time to time, Devasher would think of making a work of art out of interviews with fellow amateur astronomers, but then dismiss the idea as outlandish. That is, until 2009, when Sarai called for proposals for awarding fellowships under its City as Studio (CAS) program. “Just writing that proposal was a leap of faith,” she recalled. Her faith was rewarded by a Sarai Associate Fellowship in 2010.

“The CAS fellowship was one of the most important experiences for me,” Devasher said. She travelled to Ladakh and Pune with other astronomers and shot film footage at sites where large telescopes are located. She also struck up a friendship with Raqs. Sounding like a fan, she praised their “quality of nurturing” and “the insights that they bring very gently, making you think that you were on brink of thinking that yourself.”

As part of the nine-month fellowship, Devasher presented two 15-minute sound-pieces meant to be listened to while looking at the sky. The fellowship paved the way for a four-month residency at the Max Planck History of Science Institute in Berlin, and it enabled her to make new video works and drawings that she showed at the Kochi Biennale. Some of that work will be shown at the Frieze Art Fair in New York in May and further developed for Devasher’s solo show in Mumbai later this year.

Since its inception in 2000 as a programme of the well-regarded social science research institute Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Sarai has funded hundreds of fellows such as Devasher. The Raqs team, along with the two CSDS academics who cofounded Sarai, still serve as its directors.  Among their reasons for initiating the programme, Sengupta told me, was a shared sense of general malaise and claustrophobia after the BJP assumed power at the Centre in 1998 and then conducted nuclear tests. But Raqs also had a more straightforward motivation: “Documentary filmmaking couldn’t exhaust all our energies and curiosities,” Sengupta told me.

The first two years were spent working on the concept and writing proposals to drum up funding for Sarai’s various planned initiatives. As each of these took shape, Sarai developed into a full blown institution conducting research, organising conferences and seminars, managing a publishing division, hosting exhibitions and performances, and running programs in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In just six years, starting in 2001, the institution granted more than 500 fellowships and around 100 student stipends. (At its peak, in around 2005, Sarai had just over 40 fulltime staff, though the centre’s activities have been scaled back considerably since the start of the global economic downturn.)

During its most active seven-year period, which lasted until 2008, Sarai awarded research fellowships to resident fellows as well as independent researchers. Sundaram said that the idea behind the Independent Fellowship Program was to give a relatively small amount of around Rs 60,000 as seed money to enable people to pursue any research interest outside their vocation. “You give a bit of support money to anyone—top-most academics to working-class people like nurses,” Sundaram said. The fellowship programs have supported artists, scholars, students, journalists, anyone who submitted a good proposal.

As a longtime Delhi resident who has worked in publishing and journalism, it appears that many of my former colleagues and acquaintances, including writers, cartoonists and photographers, have passed through the Sarai revolving door at some point. Some have gone on to earn fame in their fields. Sundaram mentioned graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee and journalists and writers Basharat Peer and Aman Sethi.

When Sethi first wrote about one of his protagonists of his widely acclaimed book A Free Man for a magazine, Sengupta—who knew Sethi—suggested that he speak with Bagchi about the article. “Jeebesh, Shuddha and I had a long chat and they completed changed the way I thought about my work. It was then that I decided to explore various forms of writing about urban life,” Sethi said in an email. “I would often stumble upon something in the course of my research and then sit down with Raqs and bounce ideas off them.”

As a Sarai Independent Fellow in 2006, Sethi’s topic of research was “Seeking alternative ways and means of representing the ‘poor and oppressed’ by studying informal networks at labour mandis in Delhi.” As a fellow, Sethi had to post online once a month to keep the Sarai community abreast of his work, and it was there that the idea of writing a book first took shape. After his fellowship period was over and he had secured a book contract, he continued to be a Sarai regular. “I’m still struck by how non-hierarchical and generous a space Sarai was, and how everyone took great pains to engage with the work put out by the fellows,” he said.

Sarai set up a media lab at the CSDS campus and published a reader roughly once a year, dedicated to one theme, with writing from both new as well as established writers. Any research or work funded by Sarai was publicly accessible online, free of cost, in keeping with its ethos of the commons or public property. The works now comprise a large archive online as well as at the Sarai building on the CSDS campus.

“Sarai played a very important role in incubating a number of institutions,” Bangalore-based lawyer Lawrence Liang, who co-founded the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), told me. In 2002, Liang, who was doing work on intellectual property and copyright, met the Raqs team when he attended a Sarai workshop in Delhi on information politics. “We clicked,” he said. He credits Sarai with helping consolidate ALF, which seeks, among other things, to use the practise of law to promote social and economic equality. “We were a bunch of interesting lawyers,” he said. “They gave us a bunch of fellowships that allowed us to emerge from a loose set up to a more formal organisation.”

Sarai’s Cybermohalla project, run in collaboration with the NGO Ankur, aimed to engage children and young people in working-class Delhi neighbourhoods with uncertain access to formal education. One of these, in Nangla Machi, made headlines when it was demolished along with the rest of the ‘unauthorised’ neighbourhood by the municipal authorities. Like many other Sarai programs, the Cybermohallas have shut down for lack of funding, though Ankur is still operating one of them. As a replacement for the demolished Nangla Machi Cybermohalla, Frankfurt-based architects Nikolaus Hirsch and Michel Muller, longtime collaborators with Raqs, came up with a design for a mobile substitute called the Cybermohalla hub that could be placed in the neighbourhood where some of the ousted residents of Nangla Machi were being resettled. Permission to do so was not granted by the municipality, but a prototype was built and placed at the Devi courtyard to serve as a hub for gatherings and discussions for the Sarai Reader 09 project.

IN LATE JANUARY, Sengupta spoke with the four selected CAS fellows for non-fiction writing on the first day of their fellowship program as part of the Sarai Reader 09 at the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon.

Raqs was the curator of the ambitious nine-month long project, in which Devi’s ample space served as a studio for artists, a venue for workshops and performances, as well as an exhibition gallery for 120 artists, researchers, scholars and writers. The exhibition was named after the Sarai Reader, the annual anthology published by Sarai. The ninth anthology or Sarai Reader 09, titled Projections, was prepared and published as part of the exhibition.

The fellows had gathered inside the Cybermohalla, which forms the centrepiece of the project. It is a modular structure almost two storeys tall, which looks like it has been fashioned out of wooden boxes, stacked and glued together. Housed in the Devi courtyard, with a protruding top that gave it the appearance of a structure out of medieval siege warfare, it serves more as a tent that can comfortably accommodate up to 20 people. Its inside walls have the same box-like protrusions that function as stools, shelves, niches or even bulletin boards.

Sengupta has a courtly demeanour and, unlike Narula or Bagchi, an air of slight reserve about him. Even in normal conversation he speaks in deliberate, well-formed sentences. Welcoming the writing fellows, who with one exception must have been in their twenties, he introduced himself as an artist, curator, writer on art, and a writer on political and social issues for the political blog Kafila. “Most importantly I see myself as a reader,” he said, concluding the introduction. Then, lucidly, he explained what was expected of them, maintaining all the while the modest tone of a slightly elder peer.

Advising the young journalist who lived in the Batla House locality of New Delhi and who wanted to write from the perspective of a resident about the infamous 2008 encounter there, which claimed the lives of alleged ‘terrorists’ and policemen, Sengupta’s references ranged from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the different registers of speech of characters in Bangla novels, such as a Daroga, a  Presidency College-student-turned Naxalite, and a woman who lives in the refugee colony in Sonarpur or Bijoygarh. He mimicked the banal and facile language of police FIRs, provided the name of an RTI activist who had done work on the encounter and suggested that the journalist read a controversial version of the events that had appeared as a cover story in a national weekly. Sengupta also spoke about weighing sources and finding a language that did not make the journalist, who had talked about the trauma suffered by Batla House residents in the wake of the encounter, sound like a victim.

While Sengupta proceeded to speak to the other three fellows, I went upstairs to the first floor, where Narula and Bagchi were discussing plans with the 14 CAS fellows for contemporary art and cultural practice on what to present for the ‘closing party’ of the India Art Fair, when hundreds of guests were expected to come to Devi.

The aim of the discussion was to come up with a way to present a sense of the work and interaction that had happened among the fellows during their residency at Devi, and it started conventionally enough. “The idea is to view it as a coherent thing. Some sense of it as a coherent show,” someone said. Then Bagchi advised the group to “dilate the concept of the exhibition.”

“Can we show the process as something that can be consumed?” a participant wondered.

A young fellow spoke of her native village in Orissa, where there was no electricity, and of her grandmother who had never ventured beyond 250 km from the village. She said that her grandmother marked time by the number of glass bangles on her arm. Others spoke too and more questions were posed.

“How do we show a process in an event?” someone asked.

“How do you be the process in the context of an event?” Bagchi countered.

After sometime a vague idea seemed to be taking shape out of all the speculative talk. Narula, ever the filmmaker, said, “An exhibition should be seen as a projector in search of a wall.” More discussion followed on whether this statement should be taken as a metaphor or, perhaps, literally, and then Bagchi had one final word of advice: “Go loco!”

Film historian Kaushik Bhaumik who has worked with Raqs in the past, saw the Sarai Reader 09 project as a response of sorts. “Art is becoming too professional,” he told me, stressing that a genuine art ‘scene’ was a space populated by more than just artists, art galleries and dealers. It had room for critics, students, bohemians and hangers-on. He saw the Sarai Reader 09 as just that kind of unstructured space, where people had been given nine months to “hang about”. Compared to the slick conventional appearance of past shows at Devi, the gallery now did look more like a workshop or a studio, with many exhibits feeling like works-in-progress. Indeed, artists who joined the exhibition in mid course were free to ‘intervene’ in or modify existing work with the original artist’s permission.

Among the works at Devi was Gurgaon Glossaries by Prasad Shetty, the Mumbai-based urbanist who has collaborated with Raqs on many projects, and showed at Manifesta7. Shetty was fascinated by how a new settlement spawns new phrases and jargon unique to the place, and he saw an ideal opportunity in Sarai Reader 09 to explore this phenomenon in Gurgaon. Some of the results had been typed on Index Cards and pasted onto the wall at Devi. ‘Jaipur Net’ referred to a kind of netting used to trap large lizards in Gurgaon’s high-rise condominiums, and ‘Pehelwan Brokers’ described muscular young men who operate in sets, and connect tenants with local apartment owners. They were also at hand, should the need arise, to help settle any landlord–tenant disputes.

For Shetty, quirky and offbeat discoveries such as these, what he calls “oblique narratives of the city”, are the reward of working on a project with Raqs or one sponsored by them. “We are architects and planners, and we found ourselves really restricted in the kind of work that we were doing, because we didn’t have an audience in our own discipline,” he told me.

“We created an opening and that opening gave some kind of confidence to many people to do what they want to do,” Bagchi, who sees Raqs as pioneers, told me. “They are different from us and have a different intellectual trajectory. [But] we made possible the confidence: ‘Don’t be afraid of being sucked into something that is not yours’.”

SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER the opening night party for House of Everything and Nothing, I found myself on Lodhi Road again. It was almost 11 pm, and the main gate to the installation was locked, but the house was lit according to the plan. I stood outside the front boundary wall and took in the view. From this distance, the perspective was just right: the red lines were glowing and ‘HOUSE’ was clearly visible on the far wall of the empty front room. Narula had said that they wanted the viewer’s attention to be on the skin or the surface of the house, not its structure. But the lit lines felt too sparse and the light from the street and the house next door too strong. The sign, shining brightly through the bare window, retained an ethereal appeal, but it was illuminating the inside, and affecting my idealised notion of the work: a wall, with glowing red streaks, enveloped in darkness.