Caste, creed religion — the way I see it, these are all the great dividers of society. Throughout history, it has caused divisive politics, oppression and violence. All we need to do is take off our comfortable blindfolds and look at the world burning around us. We do not even have to look as far as Palestine but somewhere much closer to come home — Manipur. Even amidst the rising death toll in Manipur each day, the ethnic war rages on.
Where our politicians have failed us, artists step in. Where there are so many divisive forces in society, art has a universally unifying energy. In these times, it is of paramount importance to pay close attention to the voices of artists hailing from the war-torn region of Manipur. This brings me to Thamshangpha Maku, a talented artist from the Maring tribe, which is part of the Naga community in Manipur. Born and brought up in Manipur and currently residing in Baroda, his homeland is intrinsically tied to his artistic practice. He is a multidisciplinary artist working with the mediums of painting, sculpture and performance art.
Today we are going to delve deeper into three performance art pieces by him that shed light on his artistic approach.
You and, You as me
In this thought-provoking piece by Thamshangpha participants are invited to embark on a transformative experience. The artist challenges individuals to step into his shoes, assuming his identity, features, family, qualifications, and even gender. Through this interactive work, participants are given the freedom to explore what it would be like to be Thamshangpha.
The heart of this piece lies in the written responses elicited from the participants. They are encouraged to share their thoughts, whether in the form of a paragraph, poem, essay, or even a story. By engaging in this process, the artist aims to shed light on the experiences of those who often feel ignored or silenced, providing them with a platform to express themselves. "I always crave to be loved and accepted," Thamshangpha reveals, emphasizing the underlying desire for connection and understanding that permeates his work. However, as the project unfolds, it becomes evident that this exploration extends beyond the artist himself. It evolves into a collective narrative, where participants find ways to express their own experiences and memories through their written contributions.
One participant's poignant write-up captures the essence of the piece, reflecting on the feeling of being observed and the longing to disappear. The words delve into the complexities of existence, questioning the circumstances of birth and the sense of belonging. The participant's voice echoes the sentiment of displacement as if they do not fit into the expected norms of their community or society.
Soon Love Will Be Taken Out of This World
Thamshangpha's residency took an unexpected turn when he encountered Sajeeda, an artist, student, and shepherd from Bihar. Intrigued by the idea of working with sikki and the exchange of culture, Thamshangpha and Sajeeda formed a unique agreement. Sajeeda would teach him the art of weaving sikki, while Thamshangpha would share his knowledge of drawing and colors. This collaboration not only facilitated learning but also fostered a deep connection between the two artists.
Beyond the technicalities of sikki and their interactions, Thamshangpha sought to explore the lives and work of people outside the Parivartan campus. Meeting Sajeeda provided a gateway to this exploration, allowing Thamshangpha to delve into the realities of life beyond the residency. As their bond grew, Thamshangpha discovered more about Sajeeda, adding immense value to the artistic process.
In addition to the personal journey, Thamshangpha felt compelled to give back to the space and the environment. Inspired by his mother's wise words, "Soon Love will be taken out of this world," he conceived a performance that doubled as a social experiment. This performance aimed to shed light on the unintended consequences of our actions, the pursuit of material gain, and the disregard for what truly matters. Thamshangpha wanted to provoke thought about the obvious and invisible prejudices based on caste, race, sex, and religion that persist in society.
The performance involves a captivating game of spinning the wheel. Participants are invited to spin the wheel for a minute, with the chance to win 100 rupees as a prize. Multiple ropes are attached to the spinning wheel, connecting it to various points in the village, including Thamshangpha himself. The experimentation continues for almost 50 minutes.
Meanwhile, amidst the mustard crops on the other side, Thamshangpha is tethered to a rope, accompanied by the haunting voice of Manipur singer Lourembam Bedabati. The song mourns the state of nature and the loss it has endured. This juxtaposition of the spinning wheel game and the mournful song creates a powerful atmosphere, reflecting the pain and struggle that has always been a part of Thamshangpha's artistic practice.
Don't Die Starving
Thamshangpha's latest work, Don't Die Starving, delves into the profound significance of food in the lives of people from Northeast India. For many, food holds a deep emotional connection, evoking feelings of nostalgia and a sense of identity. Growing up with limited access to home-cooked meals due to his family's circumstances, Thamshangpha vividly recalls the anticipation and joy that accompanied his parents' visits, bringing with them prayers, chai, and sticky steamed rice cake.
However, Thamshangpha's recent visit to his parents after a long absence was marred by violence and unrest, preventing him from reuniting with them. This experience ignited a desire to share the recipes of home and the stories behind them with others. Thus, the idea of creating a collection of recipes and reflections on food emerged.
In Don't Die Starving, Thamshangpha not only explores the culinary traditions of his homeland but also delves into the history and struggles of Manipur. Through the lens of food, he sheds light on the isolation, neglect, and hardships endured by the people of Manipur, from the impact of World War II to the present-day challenges faced by the region. The title itself reflects the fear instilled in Thamshangpha by his mother's words, reminding him of the resilience and strength required to survive in difficult times.
The performance was held in HH Art Spaces, Goa. It is divided into three meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Each meal offers a unique experience, intertwining personal narratives, cultural exchange, and food politics. From the simplicity of a rainy oyster mushroom soup for breakfast to the exploration of a mixed cuisine noodle dish combining Manipuri and Myanmar influences for dinner, Thamshangpha invites participants to engage in a free and interactive experience that goes beyond the confines of a traditional stage. Don't Die Starving is a poignant exploration of the power of food to evoke memories, preserve cultural heritage, and foster connections.
Thamshangpha compelling performance art pieces invite participants to question societal constructs and reflect on their own identities within a larger cultural context. His work highlights the experiences of marginalized communities and fosters empathy and understanding. By incorporating elements of cultural exchange, social experimentation, and personal narratives, Thamshangpha's performances offer a platform for dialogue, introspection, and the exploration of complex societal issues. His artistic practice serves as a testament to the transformative potential of art in challenging norms, fostering connections, and inspiring a world where multiplicity of identity is celebrated and not seen as a divisive force.
Find out more about Thamshangpha here.
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