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January 28, 2014

Azaadi From Boundaries

Text by Parmesh Shahani

A successful pop-up and a heartbreaking Supreme Court decision leave Parmesh Shahani feeling bittersweet at the beginning of 2014

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  • Sculpture-by-Professor-Prashant-Desai-and-students-of-Rachna-Sansad-at-Vikhroli-Skin–photograph-by-Shruti-Wilankar-Bhanse
  • Karishma-Shahani-giant-bag-creation-for-Vikhroli-Skin-Photograph-by-Nitin-Shimpi
  • Rahul-Inamdar-created-a-walkthrough-3D-painting-at-the-Vikhroli-Skin-entrance-Photograph-by-Elvis-D’Silva—Onesmallwindow

It was a bittersweet year end. On one side, I curated one of Mumbai’s – if not India’s – most spectacular pop-ups at the Godrej India Culture Lab. (Yes, humility is so last season, darlings, didn’t you get the memo?) If you remember, we’d done the Museum of Memories last December. Vikhroli Skin, this year’s pop-up, was twice as big with more than 100 collaborators showcasing their unique talent in the form of art, music, fashion, science and technology, all under the roof of a 2,00,000 square-feet suburban Mumbai warehouse.

Approximately 7,000 people came in through the day. We had ensured that everything was free – the experience, food, everything – and so, for just one day, all people had to do was to share and connect with each other, and they did! As I stood in the middle of the warehouse and felt the crowds throb all around, I felt a freedom from boundaries. High art/low art, student/professional, humanities/science, hand-made/machine-made, performance/installation – at Vikhroli Skin we broke all these boundaries during that one short day. The artists, scientists and performers had all responded to the theme ‘Skin’ differently. Skin as a barrier, cover or medium, skin as a manifestation of race or gender…. The energy in the warehouse was incredible. This is the new India, I said to myself, where anything is possible, and where fixed divides can be crossed with ease. This is what freedom feels like. Unfortunately, the joy was tinged with sadness, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

First, to give you a sense of just some of the spectacles we hosted at Vikhroli Skin. Anjali Purohit displayed a series of paintings about Mumbai’s disappearing chawls and mills and also curated a special poetry and folk music session in the morning featuring the city’s poets and performers like Mustansir Dalvi, Amarendra Dhaneshwar and Menka Shivdasani. Rahul Inamdar created India’s largest walk-through a 3D mural, welcoming guests at the entrance while Harshvardhan Kadam painted another gigantic mural, this one across two large walls of the warehouse that created the backdrop of our stage. On my request, Karishma Shahani from Princesse K fashioned India’s largest vegan handbag – the 79 – which happens to be Vikhroli’s very own pin code, while furniture designer, Hardik Gandhi created a special series of ‘Love Vikhroli’ stools as well as an iconic Love Vikhroli logo. (Yes, we have our own ‘It’ bag in Vikhroli now, people; and our own ‘It’ stool and also our own ‘It’ logo – so eat your heart out, you so-boring SoBo-ites and bourgeois Bandra-ites. (Sorry, I get carried away sometimes with my ‘Viva Vikhroli’ mantra, but what to do…V are like this only!)

Moving on, sculptor Jayaram Gopale showcased a 50-foot-long sculpture, the Grandmother design team created live art on an actual taxi and Aditi Kulkarni presented a spellbinding interactive motion-based art experience for all visitors.

The Future brands team from Delhi put together an insightful photo exhibit on India’s men, from their pan-Indian research, as did Nalanda University’s Professor Michiel Bass – the two perspectives on the same theme were fascinating to watch. We also had a large fashion installation curated by Pearl Shah, who had gotten together designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Abraham and Thakore, Pero and Rahul Mishra to celebrate Indian handlooms. Complementing this intricate craftsmanship was some cutting-edge technology as a glimpse into the future. This included India’s first indigenous 3D printer – the Brahma3 – and a 3D prism that can be controlled by hand gestures that was made by the innovative students from KJ Somaiya. Student and professor delegations from other colleges like Ecole Intuit Lab, Rachana Sansad, and Kamala Raheja College of Architecture also created super participatory experiences for all, ranging from pottery to sculpture.

And what can I tell you about the stage except that you had to be there to witness the electricity? We had foot-tapping performances of beat boxing by Voctronica, mystic Sufi songs by Kabir Café, folksy rock by Pais and the Petticoats and a special Pop-up Mahindra Blues Festival featuring Overdrive Trio. In addition to this stage-craft, we also had golas made by an Indo-American pedal-powered golawala, special blue tea from Radhika Batra Shah, washing machine lassi, we played giant chess, and got free mehendi tattoos. I can go on and on but you get the drift by now. What pleased me the most was that we created an inclusive space, not an exclusive one. We welcomed one and all – from CEO to factory worker, and treated everyone with the same dignity, as equal participants in a very special experience.

From inclusion, let us now talk about exclusion. In sharp contrast to the love and beauty and the creativity burst of Vikhroli Skin was the freedom denied to so many millions of India’s citizens because of the Supreme Court’s verdict on Section 377. When I heard the news, I went numb. I remember the joy I had felt in 2009 when the Delhi High Court de-criminalised homosexuality in our country, and the pride I had at reading the wordings of the judgement, which spoke about human rights and dignity. After the reversal of this judgement by the Supreme Court, it felt like someone had punched us hard collectively as citizens of this free nation. I moved from TV studio to studio on the night of the verdict, and argued passionately with news anchors like Rajdeep Sardesai and Arnab Goswami about how the issue really wasn’t about LGBT rights alone but human rights, about how being supportive towards LGBT diversity was actually an intrinsic part of Indian history, culture and mythology, and about how this verdict would affect the families of LGBT citizens of India deeply. In short, an argument for inclusion versus exclusion. It was really very exhausting and draining and I must tell you, I was quite dejected for those few days.

Some days later, I sat in Maheshwari Garden in Matunga at a rally protesting the verdict. All around me there was singing and dancing, fearlessness and hope. I began to notice just how many straight supporters there were at the protest. Some had brought their children, others, their parents. “This is our joint struggle,” said one aunty to me, and I felt my tiredness and sadness ebb away. Then I heard a shout of ‘Bhaiya’. It was the Kranti Mumbai girls who had performed their play Kamathipura Ki Zindagi the previous evening at our Vikhroli Skin. Their hugs, large smiles, confidence and humour gave me just the boost that I needed. Inclusion versus exclusion, I thought to myself, yet again. Time to rise.

So I joined the crowd, shouting out loudly and clearly with everyone present, “We want azaadi.” Soon, the sun set over the garden and candles were lit. I remembered what President Obama said at the Nelson Mandela funeral (quoting Martin Luther King Jr): “The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t bend on its own.” As we enter 2014, I am comforted by the fact that what lies ahead is not a solitary journey but rather a march together with all of my friends, and indeed, with you, my dear Verve readers, towards a more just tomorrow for all of India’s citizens.

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