Latest on the blog

Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

Read Now

Word is slow’s in. Slow’s cool. Slow mocks capital, ghosts the Man. Slow doesn’t drink the Kool Aid. If you work slowly, you are in the being of things, all churn. Word is slow’s care, care is form, form is meaning, redemption, cure. At night, our five knights of the roundtable ponder the possibilities over honey-chilli-chicken made in record time (shoo, slow). Dhiraj, maker of said chicken and other works of art, says: Long-term ka soch raha hu. A wave of solemn agreement rolls unobstructed through the circle—a consensus without ambition or speech, an anti-Babel, if you will: the Peers are mid-chew. The chicken has spoken.

Image by Pratik Sutar

Meanwhile, Khirkee is with us in the room, an erratic storyteller who chainsmokes through the day so you can grow up to blame your compulsive habit on the nebulous irregularities of childhood. The din of Jatin-Lalit grazing past the sharp teeth of an escalating brawl, peels away unevenly like the sticker off a lighter when you pick at it. Dreams of trespass seethe mutely on the tarmac.

At the end of six weeks, three already a pillar of smoke rising in phantom country where no train would ever stop, the Peers must look an audience in the eye and show something. A work-in-progress, if they like; a proposition; an intervention; even failure. Time congeals thickly around the courtyard as the five pace back and forth between ideas. Learning X can unsentimentally part with his own work and endure, even enjoy, its grotesque transmogrification in a Chattarpur kothi calms some, and that Y managed to quit his corporate job and achieve psychic bliss through years of painstaking art-making, comforts others. But back home in the studio or in the living room, reading or browsing or sketching or pining through the small hours of the morning, all assurances and examples give way to a familiar itch: I have this to say, but where do I look for language? 

If there is a frenzied joy or even a meditative stillness in the making of language, there is also a disquiet that settles under the skin.

Each artist finds their own answers. For Debashruti, language looms closer and closer with every line she draws on paper. ‘What I really want is to draw the perfect line with my brush, in one clean stroke. That is all I want,’ she tells me one night, over a late cup of chai. The “too-closeness”1 of the world is an opacity she tries to pierce with her medium, and a spectral intimacy often charges her work—intimacy with the human body, with floral and feline oddkin2 from a childhood in Jamshedpur, with the secrets of domestic living, with grief and envy and the passing of innocence. There is a grace with which meaning gathers around the nerve-centre of a straight line, and there is a slowness too. An almost mischievous languor that seems invested in the postponement of signification. Most nights, I see her at the studio, dreaming with the line. Other nights, she cooks chicken and lets those with no culinary talents feel better about themselves by doing the dishes. 

Image by Adreeta Chakraborty

Even if the city has made a pathological cynic out of you—‘Merey aansu sukh gaye hai, like the Satpula dam’3—you’d do best to check yourself around Pratik, our resident Mumbai-truther. For him, language drops anchor in silhouettes: memory in his work has long lashes, casting ‘frozen’ shade sculpted with cement. An amphibious quality informs many of his sculptures, where the lifeworlds of wood and iron craft in his native Kolhapur confront the city’s metanarratives and the sonorous bassline of a blacksmith’s shop rings through the JJ classroom. There is a relationship here to patrimony that feels as rich, fraught, and sensitive as Heaney’s: ‘…the curt cuts of an edge/ Through living roots awaken in my head.’4 At the residency, when not making a chai that prays to the sugar gods, Pratik is thinking through light, arresting it as sculpture, in a city—and polity—too distracted to trace its scatter. Taking the impression of my fingers one afternoon to test the clay he has found in Noida, he tells me this mitti is taking longer to mould than usual: ‘kaam phir slowly hone waala hai’. To watch his process is to keep your eye on the sun’s trail: before you know it, the day is all durée5, lived in the waiting for shadows.

The sun didn’t impress Bhavneet in the Netherlands when she went there to study. That deep individualism and solipsism of Europe was a far cry from the texture of life in her native Phagwara, or in the cities of Pune, Bombay, and Bangalore, where she had lived. There is something about that bloodlessness that restrains any generative relationality or language, and a preoccupation with Enlightenment humanism’s vexed legacies shapes much of Bhavneet’s practice. Remembering her years in Eindhoven, she tells us, ‘You’re so detached that you can’t make a relationship.’ Is it possible to continue making art in an ecology that feels extractive? Is creative labour supposed to feel like a hollowing out of the self or can it be nourishing? Is it antithetical to the creative instinct to be banished from ‘the family of things’?6 At Khoj, Bhavneet spends time with these questions, kneading atta slowly in her studio and dealing with paratha-requests when she’s unwinding in the living room. 

Image by Suhasini Pande

Swati, a veteran of the insomnia wars (real recognise real), wonders what it means to unwind. Her practice stages the woman as protagonist against the velocities that govern urban cultures of productivity built on labour and migration, sometimes speaking the language of the tired in tracing the (tossing-and-) turning bodies of exhaustion, and sometimes speaking the language of transit. There is a quiet knowledge here of the pace and neurosis of city life. An awareness of a new aesthetics of motion that is tormented by the fear of contact and collision, that is incapable of imagining spaces where bodies might become aware of each other7. Touch and tiredness figure frequently in her practice, but at the residency, she is revisiting migration, thinking slowly through more intimate modes of address across generations that might stand to restore the fragments of these histories. 

Image by Suhasini Pande

Fragments are language and language is fragments, for Dhiraj. A woman found herself caught in a crossfire, so she dug herself a pit and lay there for three days till it stopped. From the pit, the sky was all claws, scuttling in her gut. A procession makes its way into the dense sal forest, now charred—they’ve come to feed the martyrs, now a machhalika swaying on a branch, now a dove. Dhiraj’s practice, deeply rooted in his native Goalpara, holds the fragility of these fragments without necessarily assembling and ordering them—recognising a radical alterity and enduring softness in ways of living and modes of struggle that have shed the hard mould of cohesion. One afternoon, he tells me: ‘Sometimes I want to work so slowly that I completely disappear from the (art) market.’ A slow churning continues to shape his meditations on instability, something like the long, languorous notes sprawling across river mountain sky in the music he likes playing in our living room. 

Image by Adreeta Chakraborty

But slow is anguish, slow is doubt, slow is fear. Slow haunts the gait of every word jaywalking in the witching hour. 

If you’re slow, won’t people forget you? Come on, show them what you’re up to, where your head’s at, what’s cooking. Is it done? Okay, here goes a dispatch into the ether, then another, then another, then another.

Image by Adreeta Chakraborty

1 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012).
2 Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
3 Please respect the speaker’s privacy at this time.
4 Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’.
The philosopher Henri Bergson distinguishes between ‘objective time’, the time of watches, calendars, and train timetables, and durée, or lived and felt time, the time of our subjective experience.
Mary Oliver’s words, from ‘Wild Geese’.
This argument comes from Richard Sennett’s work on the somatic features of the city and the destinies of bodies in urban spaces. See Flesh and Stone, where he theorises a politics of contact and friction fundamental to the generation of what we call a city.