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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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“Art is protest.”

Tanaya’s work at Khoj drew extensively from her experiences in Delhi, thrown into sharp contrast with her experiences in Shantipur and Hyderabad, since incidentally Khirkee was her initiation into the city. The entry to tanaya’s studio was lined with photographs she had clicked in and around Khirkee, but which focused only on the feet of the people walking past. Tanaya’s experience of Khirkee is made manifest through these photographs and their placement. A labyrinth of human interaction and miscommunication, Khirkee became for Tanaya a place where one meets people only to have them disappear the next day. Some pass by unnoticed everyday, while some inhabit the sides of streets and watch life pass them by, creating a system of movement that seems to be on a perpetual collision course in a place has its own idiosyncratic way of creating a collective of differences.

The focus on the feet emphasizes the anonymity of the people who become her subjects, what really works about these photographs is that they are careful not to disembody the people they represent by making them into objects. The subjects, if only through their feet, are retained as a whole in the viewer’s imagination.

Tanaya is an artist who constantly pushes herself. She spent her time at Khoj crashing into every tiny corner of Khirkee, deciphering the ways in which rooms are let and the way the children of prostitutes conceptualize the world from their position, placing herself in situations that were precarious, difficult to understand, that were not her own, over and over again. Her previous work is an articulation of her perception of her gendered identity and femininity, and the physical reality of being a woman in a largely masculine social setup.

(There is a difference between male and masculine).

One aspect of this thematic that consistently underlines her work and transpired in one of her performances at Khoj is her articulation of the delicate relationship between pleasure and pain. The performance in itself was intensely powerful, and in my estimation, the shock value lies in the fact that what had happened actually only became evident slowly.

Tanaya painted her abdominal area with red poster paint, and cut a triangle into the skin around the navel. For the viewers, which were at that time the residents, the blade and the blood were not overtly visible and therefore, the realization of what Tanaya had done only sank in after the blood had started to deepen the triangle that it is seeping out of. The black-red blood slowly becomes visible over the brighter, flatter red of the paint, creating a remarkable effect where the viewer is torn between looking away and continuing to watch.

On the open day Tanaya had projected her documentation of another of her performances at the mall across the road as a part of a larger exploration of her interaction with Delhi. Here, she tried on and purchased clothes with an exaggerated flourish, and painted her face with absurd and contrasting colours in a caricature of the superficiality of the glamour of consumer culture.

The only problem with this performance is that it comes across as a simplistic, cursory glance into the social and cultural habits of a metropolis, and therefore does not do justice to the brilliant observation behind it. It comes dangerously close to lampooning only a certain kind of mall visitor, a certain kind of femininity. The exaggerated application of make up and the clicking of ‘selfies’ in a frantic attempt to preserve the moment of one’s decoration becomes a caricature of the simple fact that people use make up. The underlying issue with this is that over the evolution of the feminist movement, make up has come to occupy a tenuous space where some believe women should have nothing to do with it, and some see it as empowering. Fact remains that there is a long history of women being told how to dress and look and what to say and how to exist, and when this performance is replayed, it comes across as just another reiteration of those same rules, only coming from a different source in a different form.

The performance on the open day- where Tanaya sat silently facing a wall with her bare back lit by candlelight- created a silent, stifling effect, and the ambience supplemented the gravity of the impulse behind the performance. The candlelight synchronized beautifully with the idea she was trying to explore- the constant flickering changed the shape of the shadow, enhancing Tanaya’s attempt to convey the fragility of the boundaries of gender identity and its construction, and the tenuous relationship between desire, pleasure, and pain. With only one corner illuminated, the play of light and shadow was even starker, throwing the artist’s shadow on to the wall, erasing all physical determinants of an identifiable gender identity. Tanaya’s work seeks to throw the fragile coexistence of pain and pleasure in desire into light, but she chooses to focus on the pleasure while the pain remains slightly eclipsed, yet unignorable.

Her work has served her as a means to channel the frustration from all the hindrances she has faced, and her constant negotiation with gender, androgyny, and its social implications on her life as a woman comes from personal encounters with the oppressions that she has somewhat managed to break out of. Her practice draws from real life experiences, and what comes as a great relief is that she does not create an abstraction of the people who she integrates into her work, lives of the marginalized, the homeless, the prostitutes, lives declared abject by social diktats beyond their control. Her storytelling comes from a place of deep empathy, and she is not a showman who intellectualizes other people’s pain and creates a spectacle out of it. Her cognizance of the depth of other people’s lives and their complications amalgamates with her work, and this is something that comes across not only through her work for PEERS but also through all her previous projects.

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