Thursday, 31 May 2012


Today is a very special anniversary. And there are people out there who made it possible. People who made such a difference, and so casually, almost unthinkingly - though what they did, and achieved, was the very opposite of thoughtlessness. Some kinds of generosity are formidable in their absoluteness. I wrote this poem for another set of people, just as precious, but it holds good for the ones I am thinking of today - for very different reasons. All that might be just a bit too elliptical but I don't think I have the words for clarity right now.


It takes little to change
a life.
In the whisper of a breath,
in the echo of a smile;
tectonic plates, ocean currents,
cosmic forces that could
drive our destinies,
swing, bow and let through,
newness, transformation.
A spring of fresh clear water,
or a lee of verdant growth.
Maybe even a landmass, a continent.
Or disappearance: of arid wastelands,
swamps of dismay, even over-run
thickets of uncertainty?

They call it a catalyst.
A nimble spirit they seek everywhere,
in alchemy not the least.

And how would you greet that unsettling
tremor, the slight trigger etching out
glistening - unknown, unknowable, scary
but so desired -  fresh lines on the palms
of fate's domineering hand ?

Would it vanish in fear
if I turned around, and hailed
it with two puny words;
tried to convey all the beauty,
the glory, the pain of new-
found quests, of goals
emboldened, paths chosen
(not sprung, nor borne) with just
thank you?

Should I watch it cross these
thresholds with muted tread
from the curves of eyes,
and assume sightlessness
so it continues the spell?

Or polish the floor with rose-petals,
leave bowls of silent,
fragrant saffron – reward
and tempt at once in the hope
of regular returns?

Often though, I only learn
of a visit from damp footprints
outside my door, and a stir
in the air, spring unplanned
and unplugged.

Karthika Naïr, 01/01/2008

* Catalysts was first published in Bearings (HarperCollins India, 2009)

Friday, 18 May 2012

What ehr should art do?

It happened five years ago. We were given the task of founding a department of programming/performing arts at the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration (CNHI) in Paris, France's latest national museum, one devoted to the history of immigration in France. There was a good amount of debate - from the scientific committee, from the historians who had devised the project, from the civil society bodies whose untiring campaign had led to the birth of the museum, from funding institutions (the Ministries of Culture, Education and Social Cohesion, notably) - on the exact role of art, especially performing art (felt to be something of a loose cannon), in such a museum. 

Museum International, a journal run by UNESCO, invited each of the different departments of the CNHI to write about their activities and goals in a special issue dedicated to emerging museums. Patrice Martinet, artistic director, asked me to write on behalf of our department, and this is the introduction I handed in. The piece went on to record the thoughts of two of the artists we had invited to make new work, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and playwright/theatre director Mohamed Rouabhi.

There is a lot of talk right now about what art should or should not do; about what its ambit is and what its code of conduct should be, as though it were a young, fractious student. I wanted to remind myself of what we had wanted to nurture in that fledgling museum, what we had spent our days and nights defending during two years.

"The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration does not exist.

What does exist, actually, is scores of Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration.

Like the elephant in the Panchatantra, which was identified by four blind men as rope, pillar, fan and snake respectively, this project impels myriad visions. There are at least as many as the people involved in its creation, directly or indirectly, and – after its opening in April 2007 – more likely to come from the general public, the media, the powers-that-be … the list will be endless; as will the definitions, the expectations and probably the criticism. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by this institution is to subsume these multiple particles, all the while allowing them to thrive, and emerge as a cogent structure whose bedrock is its very plurality.

In the pages that follow, one gets glimpses, to take an analogy from another field, of what the light reflected from one face of this highly refractive chunk of hard, crystallized carbon could give – when cut and polished. Because that is the process it has to undergo: a diamond left to itself is just a shapeless abrasive lump.

Remember, this is just one facet of a whole. One vision. Of what the credo of an arts & programming wing should be in a cultural complex that is all at once a national museum, a research & academic hub, a vanguard for civil sector and citizen advocacy organisations, a publishing unit – all firmly focused on the issue of immigration.

But it appears that before defining content or aim, we need to rationalise the very existence of an artistic wing within a museum specialising in the history of immigration. For although museological policies over the last two decades have evolved to encompass artistic activity in a great number of historical and civilizational museums, and although the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration – whose name itself denotes its composite nature – has more than one activity, the presence of art in the realm of immigration is still less than self-evident.

To circumscribe the role or import of art within an issue-based paradigm seemed rather parochial to us. Hence, we extend the question to defending its existence per se, as also its “functionality”.

Art exists in its own right, on its own terms. Without the necessity to justify itself, or the additional onus of purpose. Yet, throughout time, we find that it has questioned mankind, consistently jolted it into making new discoveries, unsettled societal preconceptions, ripped apart status quo and given us other ways to view the world. It unearths fragments of the past; hurls shards of an often painful present straight into our faces; and sometimes it offers terrifying or tantalising oracles of the future. It is, perhaps, above all, a reminder that nothing is sacrosanct: certainly not the sacred monster, art, itself.

That is why what we are attempting to build here is, first and foremost, an arena of free artistic expression. Where artistes can deliver their thoughts – unfettered, “unguided”; through the creative language of their choice; in the manner that seems most befitting to them – cerebral, visceral or soulful – on the countless concerns surrounding immigration; ones that are just as inextricably bound to this issue as ligaments to a bone: boundaries, belonging, uprootedness, integration, exclusion, alterity, home, identity….

An arena that will not claim to enforce one worldview. Nor presume to provide solutions. But which will try to raise questions. Innumerable questions, queries, critiques from all fronts, on all things – including the same artistic expressions that set the stage for these questions.

An arena where dissent and debate will be recognized as contributors in their own right to constructive co-existence.

A place we will visit not to learn about the Other and his strangeness, but to recognize how “other” we ourselves are, how we are all composed of Others.

It will be a nimble tightrope act in a world that is becoming increasingly intolerant of contention. To tread the fine line between criticism and censure, between dissent and divisiveness. To provide a platform for opinion that is not necessarily our own, and to voice both our disagreement with the given view and defend the right to state both.

But the idea here, at this moment, is not to perorate about what we wish or intend. If we are committed to our aim, then the first act is to step aside, and hand over this space to those whose creative ethos will contour our activity. The stage is theirs, even while it is a work in progress. If they continue to step under our spotlights, and fuel the crucible with their questions and their aspirations, the lights will keep burning in this theatre."

- Karthika Naïr
excerpts from A Crucible for Questions, first published in Museum International, N° 59 (May 2007).