Speaking of video art in India

When Bharati Kapadia approached me with the idea of doing a festival of video art, I assented at once. It seemed a worthwhile thing to do and she needed a hand with the dozens of jobs to be done behind the scenes of a festival. The effort also required an organisational entity, so Comet Media Foundation came in. For the name of the festival, Bharati came up with the acronym VAICA, for Video Art by Indian Contemporary Artists, a title that soon caught on with all our contributing artists and associates.  
My first thought was that the term ‘video art’ was anachronistic, out of sync with the times. Analogue is practically extinct and, replaced by digital media everywhere. No one works with video tape any more. What is common between today’s digitally produced art and the video art and art films of past decades is the projected image. It may be an action-packed moving image or a static image with subtle changes, but it is an artistic expression in light, that is seen as a projection or on a monitor screen. This, as against drawing, painting, print-making, sculpture and so on, which are traditionally what visual art is imagined to be.
Calling the works we were considering “video art” meant, in a sense, tying this art form to an older point in the development of technology. Such terms change constantly, and are therefore slippery and easily outgrown. I felt it would have been agreeable to have found a term that transcended technology and delineated the nature of the artistic activity itself. Bharati laughed off my objections as being too technical and referred to something called “the language of video”. Since everyone seemed to recognise what “video art” is, I decided, “What works, works!” There was no point quibbling about it and so VAICA it remained.  
Apart from motion and projection, what the 67 works in the VAICA festival have in common is that the 35 participating artists all come from the stream of visual art. With the exception of one self-taught artist, the rest have formal training in art and one has done a formal course in cinema direction, after an art degree. That is, they have trained and worked on creative expression as a way of life, and self-identify as artists. Even as they made videos, several continue to work in more conventional media. All have an awareness of being Indian artists, though some live outside of Indian terrain.  
When speaking of moving images as a form of art, as an aside and a salute to the past, one must mention the experimental films made on film, 35mm and 16mm film, by artists like M F Husain, Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967); Akbar Padamsee, Syzygy, and Events in a Cloud Chamber, (both 1969); Tyeb Mehta, Koodal (1970); and Pramod Pati’s Abid featuring Abid Surti (1970).  
However, these were created long before the coming of video art as we know it at present, which emerged after video equipment for recording and editing images became easily available. Few may be aware that video technology became available outside state-owned broadcasting in India only in 1991 or so. Earlier, only the national broadcaster Doordarshan, and a handful of government agencies like the Indian Space Research Organisation, were authorised to import video equipment. In other words, it was illegal to own video equipment privately. With economic liberalisation in 1991 and the lobbying of the commercial film and TV industry, the doors opened. Video equipment was now available to anyone to buy or to rent.  
Early video art consisted of moving images, looped, largely without a plot and displayed as a part of installations in art galleries. The first significant video art work that I can remember was done in 1993 by Vivan Sundaram as part of his Memorial show, after the Bombay riots of 1992-93, that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Soon after that, Navjot Altaf, responding to the same events, showed Links Destroyed and Rediscovered (1994). Then came Nalini Malani’s Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998) taking off from Saadat Hasan Manto’s story set against the backdrop of Partition. With the new millennium, we saw a wave of more individualistic works, Sonia Khurana’s Bird (2000) and Ranbir Kaleka’s Man with Cockerel (2001) among many others, which transformed the video art scene.  
In these early works made on videotape, the artists largely depended on persons trained professionally in camera, sound and editing for technical support. The edits were made through a process of copying and sequencing from various source tapes. In this repeated series of copies, each copy down the line known as a generation, there was a degradation of the image, the final output being at least the third generation from the original. Managing the visual quality of the image was one of the challenges of the early attempts at video art.  
Having closely watched the evolution of video art in the country over the past two and half decades, I cannot help but remark on the wide range of subjects and treatments we see in the VAICA works, and the sharp improvement in the quality of the images. The key to these works doesn’t lie in technique but in the structuring of the stories and the sensibilities these reflect. The implicit aesthetics in these works reflect a blurring of traditional film genre categories like fiction films, documentaries, home movies, commercial promos, political statements, and so on.  
All said, video art in India is still at a nascent stage, growing and finding its forms. There are interesting experiments going on. To make it move further into public awareness, it will take stronger patronage, besides a commitment to displaying video art and to talking about it. VAICA is one such attempt to build awareness.  
For VAICA, we at Comet Media Foundation had been fortunate to receive financial support from the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, two private collections of contemporary art which have moved into the public space.

Then comes the support of the cultural institutions that lent us their spaces and public outreach capacities, for screening our five part programme of two hours each: the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Godrej India Culture Lab and Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in Mumbai. Subsequently we took the festival to Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi; Museum of Goa in Pilerne, Goa; National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad; and the Dept of Fine Arts at Maharaja Sayajirao University in Baroda, where we were hosted by the Students Film Club and Gallery White.
We had hoped to take this set of works to other cities in subsequent months but the pandemic stopped us in our tracks. We hope to continue our efforts into future years with further editions of VAICA. We are open to all suggestions and invitations in this regard.

CHANDITA MUKHERJEE is a documentary filmmaker; she heads Comet Media Foundation and is co-curator of VAICA

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