Nalini Malani, Dream Houses, 1969. Copyright: Nalini Malani, Images Courtesy: Nalini Malani and Volte Gallery, Mumbai
Shanay Jhaveri: Before you actually started making films at the Vision Exchange Workshop in 19691, I am curious to know what were the kinds of movies that you were exposed to in Bombay in the mid 1960’s when you were at the Bhulabhai Memorial Institute2. Did you have access to international films? Was there a particular place or venue that you frequented?
Nalini Malani: The first film society (Anandam Film Society) had been formed by a person who was mad about cinema, and he himself was from the graphic art world, he was a designer (or visualiser as they were called in those days), called Gopal Duttia. He was able to contact various cultural agencies, like the Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, and two or three others who did not have auditoriums of their own, but were keen to show their cinema, that is the Italians, and the Cubans as well, and of course the Soviets, because we had a lot of Soviet cinema as you can understand at the time. What Gopal did, was that he hired a very small auditorium called Tarabhai Hall under the Princess Street flyover. It was a smallish, dingy auditorium, probably not so expensive and then he invited people to become members of the club, and with that membership money he was able to get films, hire the projector. At the Bhulabhai we would get to know there is a film on for the Cine Club members, and we would all jump into taxis and run off to Tarabhai hall, a whole bunch, like twenty people from the Bhulabhai, and so very systematically we went through the New Wave, Neo-Realism from Italy and all the leftist cinema from Brazil and Cuba. It was pretty well ordered, and it was all on film, as there was no video in India at that time. That’s how I felt very well equipped when I left for Paris in 19703 and went to the Cinematheque Francaise, and met Henri Langlois. He was always there because it was his baby. That time in Paris wasn’t so much about learning at the film school rather than at the Cinematheque. Students, and filmmakers were always hanging about, it provided me the chance to speak with people informally and have a cup of coffee together. There was a lot of camaraderie, especially at that time, as it was so soon after 1968, a different kind of spirit was in the air.
SJ: So your engagement was going to the cinema, being a cinephile, rather than reading Film theory? Did you read Film theory later on?
NM: Much later, much later. It was a direct contact with cinema.
SJ: At this point how did you reconcile your interest in cinema and the moving image with your practice as a painter, before you actually made your first three films at The Vision Exchange Workshop in 1969-1970?
NM: One form of painting, which I had developed for myself, was the diary, and I would give myself the task of making small watercolors at least five in a day, just to contain my emotions, and they would have some sort of a sequence, at least my idea of sequence. The other thing that was happening was art school and I had to make money to buy art materials. I went to the Times of India, where I met the two editors of the Hindi magazine. I then started to read the new story writing that would come in; it was still a very young country, so there was a lot of new writing pouring in. I began to make storyboards from them, which in a way was connected to cinema. I was always interested in comic books, and how comic books always had different angles. This helped a lot when I was doing figurative painting and large works, how to position people, what kind of lens to use, while focusing on a particular point in the canvas. Then in the 1980’s I made a series called His Life, which had different lenses, the close-up, the mid point, and the long shot. So the language of cinema and the lensing, and so on and so forth, were a very useful aid for me in painting as well4.
SJ: Could you perhaps describe what the Vision Exchange Workshop was like and your experience of it?
NM: Well it was great in terms of equipment, because at the art school we were very poorly equipped. Even the etching press was in very bad shape, I never did etching there and the lithopress was disastrous. So it was very good to have the etching press there and the dark room, I had never worked in a dark room before. I had seen two other photographers use the dark room previously, at the Bhulabhai. At the workshop I had the opportunity to do all of it myself, to develop my own film, and my own contact sheets, and then choosing how to work with negatives, it was all a process that I taught myself, plus at the time there were these young filmmakers Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, who would regularly come, and there I also met Udayan Patel who was a psychoanalyst. All in all it was a very rich atmosphere, unfortunately very few women.
SJ: Were you the only female member of the workshop?
NM: Yes, I was.
SJ: Can we discuss the two black and white films you made in the workshop Still Life (1969) and Onanism (1969)? The both have strong psychoanalytic overtones.
NM: I was very interested in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, and the kind of angst and ennui that you experience in his films. I was very curious to explore this further. I recall that I used to subscribe to a rather interesting journal, called Encounter5 where Stephen Spender was the editor. There were a lot of essays in it on psychoanalysis connected to literature, which has been a fascination for me. Then of course the links to films, and I was very intent to read further on psychoanalysis, and I myself went for psychoanalysis for a long period of time. This was of course later, my interest at that time in 1966 and onwards was through literature and the films that I saw, and I was very happy that I found this particular journal, and it was quite an eye opener for me. Then when I started to work with the camera, I wanted to do something like my diaries and Still Life really connects with that. It is as if the camera is me, and I walk through a space, which is my space and each object that I handle, you don’t see my hands, you don’t see me, you just see the objects, and I wanted very much while the camera shoots the object, it shoots it in a manner that makes it very intimate. This was something I wanted to explore, how do I make something that is inanimate be a personal statement, to give it a wetness, an emotiveness that would then emanate from that object when you saw it on the screen.
SJ: What about Onanism?
NM: I had a very dear friend, she was actually from East Africa of Indian origin, and was having a lot of problems. At the time whoever thought of taking help. She was actually staying at the Villa Theresa Hostel at Peddar Road, and tried very hard to get the nuns to help her out, but of course they would not understand what she was going through. I thought that perhaps if we worked together, she performed and I filmed her, then whatever she was going through she would be able to bring that out in a sort of therapeutic way, a kind of cathartic enacting. I said it won’t harm, it is only you and me, there is no other audience, so lets try this. It worked out quite nicely, and what we did was actually, what I wanted to do was make a top angle view so I climbed a ladder; there was no crane or anything. So perched, from the top of a very tall ladder I shot the whole thing, as almost one single shot, and my main aim was that it was black and white and grey, and that the black and the greys would animate as she moved laying on a bed. I had everything in these shades of grey, from white to black, and then the shade of grey in between. That would be the formal exercise, while shooting this particular scene. Unfortunately, I was unable to help her, and nobody else could, and a year later she passed away.
SJ: What both these films announce and visualize quite forcefully is a motif that you have continued to explore, which is female pain, angst, suffering. Would say that these films are amongst the first articulations of that preoccupation?
NM: Yes, that is right.
SJ: I know that the films were not received well at the workshop, with the men suggesting that you not involve yourself with such feminist ideas. Did you ever get the chance to screen the films outside the workshop? For other women?
NM: No, I had no chance to show it outside, but at the Vision Exchange Workshop, you must try to understand that period, it was as if women had swallowed whole the concept that we are incapable. It was so much so that even if I talked to the wives of artists who were there I was told to back off, because I was trying to convert these women to a feminist ideology. It was almost as if doors were shut. It was a very, very strange situation because there was no openness on the part of the men. None.
SJ: Was the attitude patronizing or did they view you with some sort of suspicion?
NM: Neither, they just simply ignored me.
SJ: Whatp did you think of Akbar Padamsee’s Syzygy (1969), M.F Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967) and Tyeb Mehta’s Koodal (1970)?
NM: I found Tyeb’s film very intense. It was expressionistic and at the time that fitted with what I was keenly involved with – existentialism. Syzygy was in the area of artist as researcher so in that sense I was interested. Husain’s Through the Eyes of a Painter was a bit too exotic. Nasreen accompanied him on the shoot. I was fascinated by her account of it. She also made photos at the time if I recollect accurately.
SJ: It really was yourself and Nasreen Mohamedi who were active, and participating in the Bombay artistic community at the time. So Mohamedi already started to take photographs in the 1960’s?
NM: Her family actually had a shop that sold cameras in Bahrain; I think she already started to take photographs of the water tanks in Kuwait. She never showed them to me till much later, I think I saw them for the first time in 1972 -3, and I urged her to exhibit them, but she never thought they were good enough for showing. Also, nobody encouraged her to show them either.
SJ: At this time you also experimented with camera-less photography, which are abstract, and you exhibited them for the first time this January. For me they are quite crucial when looking at history of abstract works being made by women on the subcontinent. They come at a moment when you have Nasreen Mohamedi evolving her practice through the 1970’s, and Arpita Singh working in an abstract mode as well.
NM: Well I did go through a whole period, where I have done abstract paintings, because again abstraction was in the air, where as somebody like Vasudeo S. Gaitonde would make idealized seascapes or whatever, he would not like to call it anything specific, and he never titled his work, but I made junkyards, and debris, I made the dystopic part of what would be abstracted. My paintings had that, but these camera-less works, were an attempt to learn photography. I felt that I wanted to manufacture my own negative, and from that negative would come the positive. How light would work with the object, in the abstract sense. I was not sure whether I could get forms from this whole practice, which would then become a viable thing, as a tableau. I was endeavoring to create textures, through the materials I was using. I did not want blocks. I strived to have an organic feel to it, a malleable feel to it, tactile, almost make it feel like felt.
SJ: When I saw Utopia (1969/76), now that you have had the opportunity to realize it the way you had intended, as a diptych projection, it brings together two ideas that you have consistently explored, the female subject, and other is an investment in urbanism. I am curious to know how the work developed, the stop motion animation Dream Houses coming first in 1969, and then the black and white footage later in 1976. Seeing them today, projected side by side, they do really affect one another.
NM: In 1969 what I aspired to do was teach myself color theory, and I of course had painted, so I knew additive and subtractive color, but did not understand color theory in terms of light. Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, I think, were two artists who had really did a lot of research on this, and of course now we are talking about high modernism, and for me there have been artists like this who have assiduously worked on the research on the visual, which I find very compelling. They are the scientist artists so to speak, and in some manner even Paul Klee has that, but he veers onto other things as well. With this idea in mind, I thought how would I go about it, and what I did was that I made these pop up books, with carton black paper, and changed that into negative plates, the kind that went into the registration holes for animation. That is how the classical animation was made, and I made a whole lot of them, I cannot remember how many. Then the grey areas that I had shot, had to be converted into color, with filters, and then of course, I sought to have this thrill of how it would be if I had a cyan filter and a red filter, how the yellow would emerge. I had a lot of fun doing that, I really revelled in it. It required a lot of study, and hit and miss, and god knows what else, I was twenty-three at the time. I was very happy that I could make this, but I never thought it was finished. I did not think about what I would do immediately, lots of things happened in between and then the subject came up again. I was in a place when I could see that this unsettling landscape, not quite finished, not getting finished, of course the poverty of that urban landscape came up, and I had this young person perform me. Then I started to use the earlier black and white images as superimpositions over her. That is how it connects.
SJ: When you were in Paris from 1970- 1972, did you work with film or moving image? What kind of work were you doing?
NM: I was well educating myself. Fortunately, the Ecole des Beaux Art was closed. It was soon after 1968, and they had decided that they wanted a whole new curriculum, so had barricaded themselves in and nobody else was allowed entry. When I got the scholarship, they give me a student card and said do what you like. That was great, I was not interested in getting one more diploma or degree or anything. They said ‘Your scholarship is related to art, so what are you going to do?’ So, I found a really good atelier, which actually S.H. Raza pointed out to me, it was Atelier Friedlander, and this was on rue Saint Jacques next to the Pantheon very close to the Sorbonne. I made friends with a very fine student of political science, and would accompany her to the Pantheon and the Sorbonne, and twice a week I went to Atelier Friedlander. Friedlander was not teaching, it was an Atelier, if you wanted to learn you could, if not, you just sat around, but I did. It was the classical method of etching and engraving, which I enjoyed. He was an elderly person, and he took a shine to me, and asked me to help him, and I learnt a lot from that. He himself had worked in the resistance, and thus I got a first hand view of the time of the war with the Maquis6. Imagine walking on rue Saint Jacques with these big copper plates in my hand going to the printers, and those pavements are very narrow, so you always had to walk in a single file. He is this wizened old man walking in front of me in his white almost laboratory coat, and me behind him with the plates, and he was talking as if he was talking to himself, and he could just not stop talking about the war to me. I was a total outsider, some how or the other he had to have it all out. So I learnt a lot, and at the University, at the Sorbonne, I heard for the first time Noam Chomsky, and Roman Jacobson, and went to Claude Levi-Strauss’s lectures, and then I went to Louis Althusser’s lecture, and I did meet Alain Robbe-Grillet. I loved his writing, and I liked his films. He had made one film I remember, I had already seen Last Year in Marienbad (1961) and was fascinated by it. So I wrote to Robbe-Grillet, requesting that if he were ever planning to make another film I would love to come and assist, he wrote back saying that at the moment I have no money, and as soon as I do and if I am starting something, I will certainly get in touch with you. Anyway, I have his hand written note. He was a very good writer, and that whole period of literature in France was something else with Marguerite Duras, and Nathalie Serrault. It was really learning, and there was a little errand I remember which Kumar Shahani wanted me to do with William Klein. It was a closed world, but the only person who was very open was Jean Luc Godard. He would come to the Cite Internationale Universitaire, and he was all set to take his Portapak and go off to Palestine. He was the one who was really engaged with students.
SJ: I am fascinated to learn more about your time in Paris, because I curated a show ‘Companionable Silences’ at the Palais de Tokyo in 2013, which mapped the journeys non-western women made and had within the Parisian art world. The show started in the 1920’s and stopped at the early 1960’s. Your time in Paris, following on from a great lineage of strong Indian women having inhabited that space starting with Amrita Sher-Gil, was extremely political.
NM: It was a period when you had to take a position, politically, and if you went to any of the rallies and demonstrations, you obviously engaged in a debate, and so you had to constantly think about your own position, and how you would put forth your ideas, and what your ideas really were, it was a moment when you could formulate for yourself, in the Marxian sense, where you came from, and some how or the other, if you came from a middle class family in Bombay, you were really in a cocoon. So, I was keen to be out there and expose myself to all these other winds that were running through Paris at the time. For example, when I first arrived in Paris I had a room at the Maison de Landes at the Cite, and next to the Maison de Landes was the Italian house, and the first thing I saw was a demonstration of Italian women fighting to get abortion legalized. I had never encountered anything like this in Bombay, abortion was not legal in India at that time, and I said this is fantastic, and wanted to know more about this and start something like this at home. These women, and there were also, of course, men –it was like a whole revolution, the whole Cite was up in arms because the Italian government was so conservative. Six months later, for the first time I saw the work of Edward Kienholz at a place called the Centre Nationale de Contemoprain (CNAC), where actually Alfred Pacquement the director of Centre Pompidou, who just retired, was there. I actually reminded him of that recently, and he said that he had a great time having that exhibition because it was a big controversy exhibting Kienholz’s work7 about abortion, In the work you could see it all there, the before and the after, what would happen to this girl if she went through the hands of this abortionist. There were really so many connections, and what the French call the presse de conscience, you know, fighting for Angela Davis, the Vietnam War, when Nixon came all the roads were blocked. It was every form of color rouge that was out on the streets; you had to have a position. I used to go to this area called the Mabillon where Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir would give talks, and there for the first time I heard Yasser Arafat, and became aware of the whole Palestine problem. We could talk to these people, we could discuss things, and Sartre brought out a paper called Le Cause du Peuple which he would ask the students to sell on the streets and it was banned by Charles De Gaulle, and a left wing paper made a remark about ‘how come they don’t arrest Sartre, they only arrest the students who sell the paper’, so De Gaulle made a statement saying that you cannot arrest a monument. No matter, I was not pro De Gaulle, but it really shook me, and thought if only if India becomes like that with such openness and liberty. So it was always connected to India, it was how we ourselves could be, to be able to talk, and it was possible because we had a super intellectual climate.
SJ: Was it this aspiration, which brought you back to India in 1972? The spirited activity that was taking place in the 1960’s ?
NM: Absolutely. The other thing that I said to myself was that there was Frida Kahlo, and there was Amrita Sher-Gil. They lived within eight years of each other. When Mexico went through the revolution, and then the republic, the artists came back. Frida never left, but she took on all the overtones of the Mulatto side of herself, the indigenous people, whereas in India people left, artists left, and for me it was very strange, here we have a newly independent country and the artists were leaving to connect to some kind of international idea of what art was in the international arena, like abstract expressionism. For me this is the time to come back and to start doing some image building ourselves, just like Diego [Rivera].
SJ: You bring Amrita Sher-Gil and Frida Kahlo together in a very evocative painting.
NM: Yes, it is called Old Arguments About Indigenism (1990), it was the kind of image to stand up to Geeta Kapur’s thesis on Amrita8. I said I can paint, and you can use words, so I am going to do my painting.
SJ: When you returned to India, you felt that painting was just inadequate for that moment and context. You spent a considerable amount of time filming and working in a slum.
NM: When I came back the idea of starting up with painting was in one sense not acceptable to me, because of certain ideologies etc. I began to work in a big Bandra slum that was right next to the mosque. It was a swamp, and the very people who were living there had filled in the swamp. I had copious footage of that on 16 mm. I visited everyday for over eight months and I shot whatever I could, and then one day morning nothing was there, nothing was left, and these were all unemployed people but nobody was begging, there was a dignity in this poverty, a huge amount of dignity, and all they kept saying was look how beautiful our houses are, all we want is taps, and toilets. After this I just went into mourning and could not pick up the camera or do anything with the footage. For a long while, that part of myself went into cold storage. You know that I am an artist, at that time I almost thought that I should go into activism, maybe join the trade union movement, something like that, but there is a part of me which is because I am an artist, a malaise, that needs to somehow be satisfied. It is like being on a drug. So I stayed an artist, and did what I could in terms of putting these ideas across in ones work.
SJ: When I saw Utopia, I immediately thought of Jawaharlal Nehru’s very real attempts at building a new nation, namely Chandigarh. Had you visited Chandigarh when you made Dream Houses, the stop motion animation in 1969? Or was it purely from the discourse surrounding Chandigarh?
NM: It was from the discourse around Chandigarh. I have not even today visited Chandigarh. During the Nehruvian years, it was a kind of model we were looking at for the future, and so the India we see today, or I see today, and my generation, is a very disappointing one.
SJ: How did it feel to rediscover, this work, these films, the material shot in the slums, today9? How was it for it all to come back to you as real, and not just living in your memory?
NM: You know the things about memory, how shall I say – it is a kind of Proustian situation. When Johan Pijnappel found the films, he himself had them cleaned up and digitalized, and the room at the Kiran Nadar Museum Retrospective was his idea, and I am happy that it was his idea, I could not have come up with any ideas at all because that past was so laden, you know with too many things. I could not have looked at it objectively, there is too much clutter. What it did do, and this is not a bad thing, was bring out a whole rush of things past.
This interview was conducted on the 9th of May 2014.
Nalini Malani‘s work is influenced by her experiences as a refugee of the Partition of India. She places inherited iconographies and cherished cultural stereotypes under pressure. Her point of view is unwaveringly urban and internationalist, and unsparing in its condemnation of a cynical nationalism that exploits the beliefs of the masses. Hers is an art of excess, going beyond the boundaries of legitimized narrative, exceeding the conventional and initiating dialogue. Characteristics of her work have been the gradual movement towards new media, international collaboration and expanding dimensions of the pictorial surface into the surrounding space as ephemeral wall drawing, installation, shadow play, multi projection works and theatre.
Shanay Jhaveri is the editor of Outsider Films on India: 1950 – 1990 (The Shoestring Publisher, 2010) and Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design (Thames and Hudson, 2013). He has curated film programmes at the Tate Modern, Iniva, LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images, and the exhibition Companionable Silences at the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. He is a contributing editor to frieze magazine, and is currently a Phd. Candidate at the Royal College of Art, London.
1 For a discussion of the Vision Exchange Workshop please see Building on a Prehistory: Artist Film and New Media in India Part – 1 by Shanay Jhaveri https://lux.org.uk/blog/building-prehistory-artists-film-and-new-media-india-part-1, Nancy Adajania, ‘New Media Overtures before New Media Practice in India’, in Gayatri Sinha (ed.), Art and Visual Culture in India 1857-2007 (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2009) and Meenakshi Shedde, ‘Art in the River of Life’, in Bhanumati Padamsee and Annapurna Garimella (eds.), Akbar Padamsee: Work in Language (Mumbai: Marg Publications, 2010).
2 The Bhulabhai Memorial Institute was founded to commemorate Mr. Bhulabhai Desai, an Indian independence activist and lawyer.
3 Malani studied in Paris on a French Government Scholarship for Fine Arts from 1970-72.
4 For a greater discussion on the relationship between Malani’s painting and film/video see Ashish Rajadhyakshas text on Indian video art in the book Nalini Malani: Medeaprojekt (Max Muller Bhavan, 1997) and Johan Pijnappel’s ‘Selected Biography: Compulsions towards a Filmic View’, in Nalini Malani In Search of Vanished Blood (dOCUMENTA 13, 2012).
5 Encounter was a literary magazine founded by the poet Stephen Spender in 1953 and journalist Irving Kristol. It stopped being published in 1991.
6 The Maquis have come to symbolize the French Resistance.
7 The Kienholz’s work Malani is referring to is the sculptural assemblage The Illegal Abortion (1962).
8 See Geeta Kapur, ‘Body as Gesture: Women Artists at Work’, in When Was Modernism: Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India, Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2000.
9 Nalini Malani’s archive was started by Johan Pijnappel in 2010 from the storage of her former studio at Lohar Chawl. This ongoing project was discovered and restored including the early film experiments, camera less photography, the theater works, slide and photo documentation and the correspondence. This archive was the basis for the retrospective at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, called ‘Nalini Malani: One can’t Keep Acid in a Paper Bag – 1969-2014’. The retrospective is on view from the 30th of January 2014 to 30th November 2014. It is divided into three chapters. Utopia and the early photography were juxtaposed in the first room of Chapter 1.