Art Floats

Guwahati enters a new cultural phase

01 September, 2010

A DECADE AGO, Guwahati was something of a frontier town, a place you’d pass in transit, a gateway to the northeast of India. It was a convenient stop. It had an airport, a railway station and somewhere to spend the night. Its transformation from a sleepy, nondescript town to a bustling city has been rapid. The past few decades have seen an unprecedented expansion of territory and population—20,000 residents in 1971 have grown to over a million today. Militant activity—at its worst in the late 1980s and 90s—has for the most part been quelled in the state of Assam, ushering in a period of relative political and economic stability. On the commercial front, brand outlets, upmarket restaurants and shiny malls have sprung up all over the city.

After a sustained period of development, Guwahati is now ready for its own cultural scene. It is a non-negotiable need for Guwahati, the fifth fastest-growing Indian city, one that no longer wants to remain in the shadow of the culturally vibrant metropolis of Kolkata. As Dhruba Jyoti Dutta, a freelance photographer based in Guwahati, explained it, “People now have the time and motivation and opportunity to do something…start a theatre troupe, a TV channel, poetry readings. A decade ago, nothing much was happening.”

The state’s film industry has finally been acknowledged in the form of the annual Guwahati Film Festival of World Cinema. Organised by the Guwahati-based Cine Art  Society, Asom (CineASA), the festival screens over 40 entries from around the globe, with a strong focus on regional films. The response from the public, whether local or national, has been strong—mainly because such events are rare in the Northeast. There are frequent theatre and music festivals hosted by institutions such as Srimanti Sankardev Kalakshetra, Rabindra Bhavan and the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati. In the past three years, six local television channels have been launched.

The highlight of the city’s cultural repertoire, however, is the Periferry 1.0 project, the country’s first ‘floating’ art space. This art initiative is located on a ferry anchored to the banks of the Brahmaputra and hosts screenings, seminars, workshops, art exhibitions and various other forms of artistic interaction.

Periferry was conceptualised in 2007 by Desire Machine Collective, an autonomous, non-profit, artist-led organisation in Guwahati that engages with issues of borders, trans-nationalism, hybrid identities and politics of representation. Sonal Jain, the project co-ordinator and co-founder of the collective, says the idea behind Periferry is to “create a nomadic space for hybrid arts practices.” The initiative has been organised in collaboration with KHOJ in New Delhi, an organisation that encourages artistic and cultural exchanges with a focus on South Asia. “Guwahati is a small place but an important city in the Northeast. There’s a big film and music scene which we in the metros know nothing about. I think having a local initiative that creates a space for artists/musicians/filmmakers and other creative people to get together is very important,” says Pooja Sood, director of KHOJ.

The location of the project is as important as the idea. Guwahati is poised along the banks of the Brahmaputra, one of the major Asian trans-boundary rivers, originating in Tibet and passing through China, India and Bangladesh. The river is part of India’s inland waterway system, making it an important channel of communication. Periferry is located on the MV Chandardinga, a ferry formerly run by the state government’s water transport department. Built in 1972, the vessel ferried people across the river and carried cargo—cars, etc—to places along the waterway. After the building of the Saraighat Bridge, which greatly reduced waterway traffic, the ferry became redundant and fell into disuse. Today, the Chandardinga is part of a row of ferries with various purposes—tourist rides, cargo carriers, and even a disco—near a bustling ghat. Jain said they chose the vessel because its size and design makes it multifunctional. Apart from that, the ferry’s ‘live’ history is an attraction. Displayed on the vessel are hundreds of stories of the experiences of the people and crew who once sailed it. While artists do not actually live on the ferry during residencies, the process is intrinsically linked to the experience of the Periferry work site. Parismita Singh, a 2008 resident Assamese artist who developed a comic book titled The Adventures of Tejimola and Sati Beula during her tenure, says, “I spent weeks just walking the shores, taking the ferry across to other shores, watching the birds and boats, and talking to people with sketch book in hand. The sketches are almost a journal of my time spent there.”

The ferry is basic yet well-planned. There are two main cabin rooms used as exhibition spaces, a control room, and above that, a lovely upward spiral bamboo artwork by Belgian artist Barkatu. Future plans include a mobile media lab powered by solar panels and other sources of alternative energy. Global participation has ensured the project’s resources. Difference Exchange, an international agency that places artists from different cultural backgrounds with host organisations to explore interconnections between artistic disciplines, academia and industry has been associated with the project. So has n.e.w.s, a collective online platform for the analysis and development of art-related activity. The artists that have participated so far come from various backgrounds: Pauliina Salminen and Andrés Jaschek, a Finnish-Argentine duo; Syeda Farhana, a Bangladeshi artist and photographer; Mahardika Yudha, a researcher from Jakarta; Bruce Allan, a photographer from the UK and Mriganka Madhukaillya, a member of Desire Machine Collective.

An important part of Periferry’s agenda is to bring attention to global issues—like climate change—through a local focus. China’s plans to build a dam on the River Tsangpo (what the Brahmaputra is called before it flows into India) to divert the flow to its drier northern parts is one of them. This would have devastating effects on the Brahmaputra’s water level, drastically altering the environmental balance and, subsequently, wildlife habitats. Sanchayan Ghosh, head of the Painting Department at Kala Bhavana, Shantiniketan, started a ‘live adda camp’ on the ferry called The Anchor House, a project where participants engaged in how damage to the river and its ecosystem would affect the people of Guwahati.

The attempt to redefine a local role in a global community, to move beyond the centre and focus on the ‘periphery,’ is vital, says Jain. The ferry is moored to the south bank of the river, in Guwahati town, while on the north bank lies rural North Guwahati. “The moving [of the] population from the village is a part of our river community,” she says. It was the same idea behind Camera Praxis, a programme that organises film screenings in rural areas. So far, Periferry has taken Camera Praxis to Dahung, a small village near Bomdila in Arunachal Pradesh, and will next take it to Tawang, also in Arunachal.

It is evident from the projects completed at Periferry that the participants wish to follow interdisciplinary art, working with a distinctly local emphasis. Syeda Farhana’s ‘Green Guwahati’ (2008) was a mixed media installation, which involved setting up a ‘shop’ selling digital pictures of the Brahmaputra, playing songs collected from the public, and a billboard with advertisements commenting on the lives of Guwahati’s working class and how the city had changed over the years. In the same year, Andrés Jaschek  set up a site-specific video installation, a loop showing a line of people travelling somewhere, seen as though from the ferry’s window. Pauliina Salminen’s video ‘On my Way’ combined snapshots taken on different days on her bus trips in Guwahati with text describing how alienated she felt in this foreign land.

The project has been well-received. The ‘open day’ workshops, film screenings and seminars have seen a devoted crowd. “… the public is built into the project.  Most artists projects are collaborative,” explains Jain, whose own piece at the residency, ‘Bhotbhati Tales,’ consisted of filmed conversations she had with Bhotbhati boatmen who ferry boats between North and South Guwahati. Austrian/Belgian artist Christina Stadlbauer’s ‘Body water’ work had a component of community cooking with local medicinal plants.

Among the ongoing projects at Periferry is ART + PUBLIC: Interrogating Everyday, a combined initiative involving the Lalit Kala Academy, New Delhi, which aims to study the practice of ‘everyday’ through the involvement of art in public spaces in Guwahati. Meanwhile, the floating art space seems to be serving as an exciting venue for artistic and cultural negotiations, something much required in a changing city vying for a place amongst the country’s other metropolises.