India 2019



I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.

Rabindranath Tagore


In  2019, I was awarded a  3 month residency  in the Buitenland Atelier program in Kolkata, India. The program fosters artistic and cultural exchanges between India and the Netherlands and is sponsored by the Calcutta Art Research and Mondriaan Foundations.  In November 2019, I led a workshop  in Boratalpada, a Santhal tribal village of about 100 people  nestled  in the foothills of the Sandakfu mountains in rural West Bengal about 240 km southwest of Kolkotta .The workshop was organized in the run-up to the annual Boratlpada Theatre Festival through the Trimukhi Platform- a project dedicated to  fostering international exchanges in the contemporary arts. Seven young artists from the village joined the 3-day workshop :  Budhray Besra, Dhananjoy Hansda, Joba Hansda, Ramjit Hansda, Salkhan Hansda, Sukul Hansda and Surojomoni Hansda.

Jean-Frédéric Chevallier, the Theatre Festival Director and co-founder, along with his partner, Sukli Bar of the Trimukhi Centre acted as occasional English language translator, but for the most part we used improvised hand signals to communicate. This became key to the learning process on both sides. When I asked for clay, a village elder was contacted and she soon arrived with a big basket of cow dung balanced on her head. Once mixed with clay, the dung, in fact,  proved to be an essential ingredient. It ended up playing a central role in the creative process, as it does in every aspect of rural life in India. In Hindu lore, cow dung is a holy, healing, cleansing substance. Beyond the vital role it plays in farming as a fertilizer, the villagers mix it with clay and apply it in a fresh layer each year to the floors of their houses.

Following the example of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali modernist artist-poet and founder in 1921 of the  Visva-Barati University at Shantinketan, we used only ready-to-hand materials- bamboo, rice, hay, water, clay and cow dung. We fashioned simple primal forms -yonic ovals, circles, nets, snakes, and wheels- whatever shapes sprang unprompted to mind. On the last day of the three-day work shop we assembled a rickety portal on the edge of the forest surrounding the village and hung the forms we’d made in a dense mesh between the trees. That night, using the Festival’s store of media equipment – a video projector, and two speakers – we strobed white noise onto the makeshift screen with an amplified soundtrack of radio static. The whole village showed up.  We drank home-brewed herb beer and danced into the night.

Later on the same trip, I visited the Center for Interdisciplinary Arts at Shantineketan, and talked about my practice and the workshop project with students in class, and afterwards outside seated on the grass in the shade of a mango tree.