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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Conversely Conversed: Manmeet Devgun in conversation


Drawing by Anuradah Upadhyay after the performance "I Love You"


"Hailing from a Chandigrah, Manmeet came to Delhi in late 1990s to study fine arts and she graduated in painting from the Jamia Millia Islamia. Though she was a trained in painting, perhaps, Manmeet is one of those women artists who abandoned the trained completely with no regret almost a decade back. She moved around in Delhi with friends and helped them in documenting their works and independently did photography as she had the access to a camera... Manmeet partnered with Shantanu Lodh, initially in art and later in life and they together did a few wonderful project..." [Johny M L], 
See more: http://johnyml.blogspot.in/2011/11/i-dont-need-your-help-manmeet-devgun.html


In last couple of years I have been closely observing Manmeet's work, her process of work and also being a collaborator in some works. We made a small video film "Mama-Baby" on 'the every day life of Manmeet Devgun', we initiated a collaborative artists' intervention named as 'HouseMORPHING' and so on. Based on Manmeets piece of writing and her performance on it I designed a digital soundscape as a post performance work. She also collaborated in some of my works like a performance "Let's See What Happens" at Vadhera Art Gallery. Other then editing her performance art R. A. P. E. 2012, I have written some blogs about her performances. We keep conversing frequently and here is a documented conversation.
[Samudra Kajal Saikia, February and March, 2014] 


  1. Exactly when and how you became interested in "Performance Art"? Was it your interest in the form or some circumstance that eventually made you a part of the practice?
It was between the time period 1999-2002 through the magazine Art Forum at Lalit Kala library I became familiar with this term-Performance Art and saw the works of Santiago Sierra, Adrian Piper, Marina Abramovich.
It was quite intriguing to come across this new medium-where there was no need for a gallery to display your work or to ask a curator to see your work.
Personally I see a lot of freedom in performance art and that is what interested me.
What eventually made me a part of it was my close association with Shantanu Lodh and his friendship with Inder Salim. Both of them were exploring this medium that time/performing that time.

  1. This is quite obvious that you do not think much about the future when you enter into a practice. But there might be some particular incident or moment where you realize something which convey a different meaning to you. or there might be a palpably smaller event or evidence which might carry a greater significance to you? Is there any what you would like to share?

A small incident I would like to share with you here. In 2012, I did a performance- "I love you" in Guwhati (it was part of Regional Art and Performnace Events) I was endlessly saying- ‘I love you ‘ in different tones. At the end of the performance when I came down stage, a girl held my hand and said-I wish I was your girlfriend…
It was a very moving experience for me. What touched her emotions? It was just repetition of three words, a monotonous effort…what did she feel hearing/listening to those words…
  1. Now, on inspiration part, who are the people and what are the events that inspired you in your early phase? Inspiration may be taken in practice and also in conceptual part.
Marina Abramovich, really inspired me, her use of her body as a tool was very inspiring.
Ana mendieta,Cindy Sherman.

  1. At present would you like to name any whom you appreciate most in the practice?
I can’t pinpoint to just one artist. Amongst the Indian artists, Nikhil Chopra and Neha Choksi –are the two artists whose works I would love to see live.

  1. What are you working on at present?
Presently I am taking a sabbatical as I need to concentrate on my daughter. But I’m continuing to write poetry.

  1. We have seen you producing material art also, like embroidery, photography and so on. You have a tendency of getting recognized as a 'total' artist. More particularly what would you prefer to be, a painter, a performance artist or a multimedia artist?
I don’t know what is a ‘total’ artist, but yes I like to explore different mediums, though photography and performance art give me immense pleasure.

  1. You also write. How writing plays a role in your performances?
Writing  plays an important role in my art practice-not just for my performances. Poetry accompanies my images at times, at times I embroider what I write , at times I use it in my performances .

  1. Performance Art as art mostly understood as conceptual art. What are the issues or matters that are significant elements for conceptual grounding in your works?
It’s a very difficult question to answer as I have not thought about my performative works in that sense. The main issue or matter is to be able to just convey what thoughts/emotions one wants to say.


  1. Tell us your most favorite work of your own. And share the experience in terms of what made it special for you?
My favorite performance is –The Honour Cloud.(it was performed after the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape case)
It talks about the onus of ‘family honour’ being carried by the female-daughter,wife,mother.
There was a 40 mtr long turban cloth on which I wrote-you are the honour of your family-in English,hindi and Punjabi. I then tied it and was became a Big turban. I then asked the audience if they would like to carry this weight, but no one wanted to do it, and one woman said-we know about carrying this weight, I don’t want to wear it.
What made it special for me was ,that for long this crisis was underlying within. There were (as there still are) many incidents of molestation, rape in Delhi which bring out these responses from the safe guardians of our culture and society, where the female is always blamed for her appearance, being out late at night, etc. and the ‘Nirbhaya’ case crossed all limits. So this performance was done after that incident(Jan’2013, ‘Nirbhaya’ case happened in Dec’12). It made me feel light, took some weight off my chest. It was something I was feeling oppressed with and just wanted to say it.

  1. How the body matters for you? And when a body is there 'physically present', there is definitely a political affiliation. Do you prefer to go for a distinct political positioning across your body of work?

I am not a theorist, so I don’t know how to put a distinct political position across my work. But many refer to it as a feminist body of work. For me ‘personal is political’ and most of my works spring from my experiences of being a woman- daughter, wife, mother. And that is where my politics lies.
I see ‘body’ as a medium, tool, which can be used in one’s work –as a subject or not/as an object or not.

  1. Is there any sort of disturbance felt when you shift the mode of working?

I think the shift of mode of working is due to disturbance! When one medium dissatisfies me, I shift to another. And writing calms me down and I go back to what I was doing initially.


  1. How the space and time important for you? How they determine your working pattern?
Are we talking about my daily working pattern or how space and time help to determine about a performative work? Please specify.

  1. Your most of the works are based in Delhi. Your life style is based in Delhi. So it can be assumed that Delhi as a site and Delhi as an environment might be a part of your becoming. How do you comment on that?
Undoubtedly. Had it not been for Delhi, I would have be married to some rich/wealthy sardarji-maybe in Canada !!! and would be having teenager kids by now!! Jamia gave me the opportunity to do my masters and to be exposed to the art scene here. And of course it has shaped my art practice. It was in Delhi for the first time I came across installation art. That time Khoj was in its initial stages, there used to be the Modinagar residencies. The Box Walla project was happening in Gurgaon,there were artists from UK,Italy being invited for work presentation in Jamia. It was quite energizing to see all these. Shantnau Lodh and Inder Salim were making posters. It was very very influential/impressive for a girl from Chandigarh Art college.

  1. Comment on the performance practices in Delhi.
Performance art in now (like) a new medium which many are exploring. Even Mithu Sen has started performing now. It is being promoted by artist collectives like Raqs Media Collective. Workshps are being held, sponsored by agencies such as Pro Helvetia-Gati. Ambedkar university is providing an MA in Performance Studies. Recently KNMA, Saket did a one year long project, inviting performance artists to perform in the museum premesis. It is definitely emerging as a new art form.

  1. What do you think, when the trends of performance art started in Delhi and how?
Trends of performance art in Delhi started around late 1990s,I believe. Anil Dayanad had performed sometime around 1998 or earlier-please check the date with him.
During that time itself Shantanu Lodh performed in the gallery space of his school(where he was teaching). He and Inder Salim did a collaborative performance at a gallery in CP-sorry I am forgetting the name. these are the people who I think started doing performances,where ever they found an opportunity.
There was a girl-Kriti-don’t remember her second name,she would invite artists to perform at her terrace in a small flat in Lajpat Nagar-Anil dayanad,Inder Salim –all performed over there. Shanatanu Lodh and I did a collaborative performance there.
Khoj was providing artists space to perform in their studios(as it still does).
This was the kind of energy that time.

  1. Was there any significant historical moment that can be traced as an important role-player for the emergence of performance art in Delhi?
Maybe an art historian can answer that better. Yet, I will try my best.
I think besides the personal efforts of artists,performing at their own level,it is when it(performance) happens in a platform-like a gallery or an alternative space like Khoj, or a performance event,it gains visibility. And when there were art talks post the performances,happening at Khoj,that a particular performance/performance art, gets talked about,documented,it gains some weight. I maight be wrong. But I think that Khoj was the only place where such art practices were happening. That I would say is a major role player for the emergence of performance art in Delhi-and the will of artists to do it when it was not a regonised/accepted art form.

  1. Are you affiliated in any other performing genres like music, theatre, dance etc.?
I wish I was  affiliated with other performances genres,but I am not.



  1. Performances have a tendency of incorporating elements other than the 'performer's body' into the 'act'- like video, photography, projections, music, soundscape and so on. in that way a performance is not a singular mediumistic entity but a multimedia work. How do you use other elements in your work?
I am just six/seven performances old(if it can be stated like that!) (as I am not sure if I count my collaborative performances with Shantanu Lodh as my works-due to personal reasons and not) I use other elements if I find any relevance of it in my work. So far I have used photographs, one sound piece. For two of my performaces I have used my poems-if that can be counted as an element.

  1. You also make videos as well as photography is you another interest. How do you see them? Are they extension of your performance or you want to see them as distinctly different practice?
Well, my photographs are very much performative in nature. My performances can be said an extension of my photographic works. But I do see them as different practices, because a photograph is a still image. It is a captured moment/emotion and it is frozen. While a performance is a live act,it exists only for the time it is performed,there are residues left behind and each time it gives a different experience. Though I do not repeat my performances, it would be interesting to actually perform the same performance again,in a different space and experience the repetition.

  1. Though I mentioned Performance Art as a conceptual one, materiality matters a lot here. The body is the first material. Then it is cited under a certain time and space. Then comes other physical elements like costume and other props. Have you thought about the materiality of the work? What sort of props do you use frequently and why?
I try and use as minimal props as possible as I work alone and being a single parent my child becomes my priority,so I try and use things/material which I can handle just by myself. So the maximum I try and explore in terms of material is my costume and whatever technical support I get at the performing space-like projector or a microphone. Maybe as my daughter grows up and is able to handle herself,I will incorporate other materials. Also ,I have never received any production cost for my performances(What passes through is the air-performed at KMNA,has been one performance where I got paid a substantial amount; Situaion 01-performed at JNU,I got a small amount where I got a minimal amount,which covered my production cost). So cost also becomes a determining factor in terms of acquiring paraphanelia.

  1. Stitched cloths or embroidery can be seen in your works. Say about that. 
Though the camera is my constant companion/witness/lover, I am fond of knitting, stitching and embroidery. I have done a one year diploma in Fashion Design,which refined my stitching skills.
My mother is wonderful in stitching, embroidering and knitting. Since childhood I have admired and helped her in some of her projects-embroidering bedcovers, making curtains, knitting sweaters and blankets. In fact we had embroidery and knitting as a subject in school, which were one of my favourites.
Embroidery was actually explored by my poetry. When I had my solo in 2011,I wanted to display my poems but I wasn’t sure what would be the right medium for it, so I ended up embroidering my poems(though only one was displayed). And that led to embroidering images.

  1. While saying materiality of the work, it is different from other mediums of work. You cannot preserve a performance or sale it out. What you can do is create some memory. Now what is your take about that? How much of a performance could be captured through photography or video documentation?
Yes, a performance cannot be preserved in its entirety ,it is only experienced for the time it is performed.

The experience of a performance cannot be captured but it needs to be documented-that is the only way it will survive and that becomes the only evidence other than witness account.

And believe me ,the photographic documentation may still do justice to it but a video documentation can even kill it-as I experienced it in Khoj-post ‘Hamam main him sab nangey hain, per yeh hama hai kahan?(2006)
And interestingly I mostly have photographic documentation!

  1. In reverse to the earlier question, can a photographic documentation of a performance be considered a performance in itself?
No I don’t think a photographic documentation can be considered a performance in itself.
I see Cindy Sherman’s photographic works as performative works but they are not a documentation of a performance-they are the final act.

  1. While preparing for a performance how do you develop it? What comes first to your mind? Is it a concept or idea that clicks in your mind or is it the situation that you imagine in a formalistic way? Or do you think of the spectators first?
While preparing for a performance what comes first in the mind is the concept/idea definitely. The idea/concept is then worked upon,discussed with friends. I also do photo sketches which are very helpful. Spectators are never a consideration. ‘What we cannot see’ performed at Abadi Art Space, had only six spectators.

  1. Do the conceptual spectator matters for you in the formation of the work? Do you ever think "for who am I doing this?" To be very precise is there any incident where you have changed the mode of performance for the present audience?
Spectator is there to see my performance,absorb/negate, experience or carry a memory. How or what they feel is not in my control or my intention. They are free to view it or not. I have never changed the mode of performance for the present audience.
Also for me,the space, the feel of the space is more relevant , if I change the mode of performance,it could be after how I relate to the given space.

  1. Who are the patrons for your works?
Patronage as Wikipedia says-is the support, encouragement, privilege or financial aid that an organization or individual bestows to another. In the history of art, art patronage refers to the support that kings, popes and the wealthy have provided to artists such as musicians, painters, and sculptors.
Let us hope that 2014 becomes the year of patrons for my work!

  1.  Survival is a big question being a performance artist in India. How do you see the future?
In the present times being a performance artist or otherwise is hard for survival. Though I am hopeful of the future.

  1. There can be a question on How Indian is Indian performance art? Is there any requirement of searching a certain Indian-ness within the practice? At large comment on the Indian Performance Art Scenario.
Why does Indian performance art have to be Indian? Or rather how can it be Indian? A performance can have a regional/national context or relevance for that matter, concerning an issue or incident.

  1. Do you interested in Collaborative performances? All the major artists' groups had collapsed in India much ago. In today's practice most efforts are emerged in singularities. What is your take on this?
Collaborations have never deterred me. I have done collaborative performances in the past, been part of performances of friends.
I think one of the reasons for  today's practices emerging  as singularities could be a lack of agreement over an issue or concern. Maybe ego also plays a major role. If the personalities of two individuals are in conflict, it does become problematic.
Also artists are habituated to making individual art works (T & T are one exception in the Indian art scene who produce collaborative works) so probably collaboration becomes an uncomfortable situation.

  1. Whenever we talk about "Performance Art", most of the problems occur because of the lack of a singular definition. The practices are so individualistic and conceptual that there is no 'canon', 'method' or 'rules and regulations' in it. In that case how to explain it to a young student artist? How to train a young artist who is interested in Doing "Performance Art"?
Hard for me to say. For a young student artist it is essential to see performances, to study about its history-how performances started, the need for performance, question performance artists. They should explore the medium on their own, make mistakes and learn.


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