OCTOBER 13 MEETING AMAR KANWAR AT HIS STUDIO
We listened to Amar speak of his film and multimedia practice without being shown any visuals. He said it didn’t make sense to him to spend two hours showing us extracts of his films. Instead, he chose to describe and narrate the stories that informed his artistic practice.
In between his thoughts and reflections revolving around archiving experiences and speculative actions and poetry, he mentioned the need and importance of creating temporary spaces, or as he called them “pop-up spaces.” This idea came about around questions of local mobility and how to create spaces within spaces. He threw the ball at us, asking: How do we gather?*
Although only mentioned in passing, the concept of pop-up spaces stuck with me throughout the trip and remained in the back of my mind during all the conversations and interactions we later had. Perhaps prompted by the configuration of the Orbitals program, I was nonetheless amazed by the quality of the exchanges we managed to have over such a short period of time. How we were able to circulate in the city collectively without really being together. And how the context of New Delhi – although unknown to us – served as a fertilizer for our collective imagination.
*Back home in Marrakech, I am still processing and evaluating the manifold aspects of how our Orbitals trip created a space within a space. But at as a first reaction, I believe we managed to build a 10-day itinerant space whose format was one attempt to answer the question of how we can gather.
OCTOBER 14 ARCHITECTURAL TOUR OF OLD DELHI LED BY SOHAIL HASHIMI WITH VISITS TO CHANDNI CHAWK MARKET AND JAMA MASJID
When Sohail took us on a tour of the Chandni Chawk market, I immediately started taking photos of the masses of entangled wires and overhead cables hanging in the air and fixed to poles around the old city.
According to Sohail, the history of these cables dates back to colonial times, when the electric supply for domestic use was first introduced in 1903. Generators were installed at the town hall in Chandni Chawk, and a British company started supplying electricity by installing these poles in front of shops and houses. It saved them the hassle of spending money and time on building a proper infrastructure for the city. The poles remain in place until today. Over the years, the network continued to expand, holding not only electricity but also internet and fiber optic cables.
OCTOBER 14 SARMAD
Walking barefoot in the courtyard of Jama Masjid, on the pale pink sandstones, I could almost touch the thick polluted air of Delhi that gives the city its evanescence.
On the indication of our guide, we stop and look beyond, towards the gates of Shahjahanabad: “On the left of the tree, lie the tombs of Hare Bhare and his disciple Sarmad.” One is painted green for immortality and the other red as a symbol of martyrdom.
Sarmad was a Jewish-Armenian merchant who became a Sufi poet, admired and veneered by crowds, even mentoring Dara Shikoh, the heir to the Mughal throne. He is sometimes referred to as the naked fakir. Sohail explains to us that “the Majzubs were those taken over by an idea, who would forget everything else, and start disregarding their home, clothes, property and roam around naked in the streets.” He stresses that “it was not shocking for Delhi at the time, as other sects’ members would also go naked such as the worshippers of Diva who would cover their naked bodies with ashes.”
After Aurangzeb had his brother’s Dara beheaded, he brought Sarmad to trial, asking him to cite the Kalimah. The fakir uttered “lā ilāha” and stopped.
The temperature is now reaching 30 degrees, I squint my eyes to better imagine the end of the story: “And as Sarmad’s head was falling, he picked it up and started climbing the stairs of the mosque uttering the end of the Kalimah. But just as he was about to enter the Jama Masjid, a voice called out to him from Hare Bhare Shah’s grave telling him to stop and not sully the house of God. So Sarmad walked down, head in his hand and finally laid down and rested next to his mentor’s grave”.
OCTOBER 15 VISITING THE MAY DAY BOOKSTORE AND STUDIO SAFDAR WITH SUDHANVA DESHPANDE
We learnt this morning about Safdar Hashmi, whose name would come back in many of the conversations we would later have throughout our time in Delhi. Sudhanva Deshpande our interlocutor was a friend of his. He is also one of the founders of the theatre space “Studio Safdar”, neighbouring the May Day Bookstore and the founder of LeftWorld Books, a marxist publishing house. At the May Day Bookstore, Sudhanva, talks to us about the leftwing theatre group Jana Natya Manch and the culture of street theater that resurfaced in the late 70s in India “as a response to the withdrawal of democracy, we felt the need to go out on the streets and perform.”
Safdar Hashmi was assassinated in January 1989, while performing at Jhandapur village in Sahibabad. He was to become a legend of political theatre in India, the bearer of a strongly rooted tradition of using art as a tool of resistance and activism. Below is a photo of a cover of a book that LeftWord published about the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp.
OCTOBER 16 SMELL ASSEMBLY
The following conversation departed from questions around the exhibition Smell Assembly that was on show at the Kiran Nadar Museum and the different modalities of presenting research in an arts context. The conversation took place a few days after visiting the show between Nuha and Marie-Nour, and was quickly joined by Nada.
Marie-Nour: I noticed you were very interested in the exhibition Smell Assembly which relies heavily on anthropological research conducted in New Delhi and focusing on the city various smells. I wonder if it resonates with the type of work you do and which likewise deals with archival material?
Nouha: I see my work as a research borrowing tools from the different mediums offered by both arts and documentation. Because it doesn’t follow the orthodoxy of academic research, I sometimes feel the need to produce an exhibition-like set up in order to show the process. Most of the time, and it is the case with many research-based or collaborative practices, the end product only shows a small portion of what you have been doing.
Marie-Nour: You could also make a publication, isn’t it also another way of exhibiting?
Nuha: Yes, although a publication is mainly directed to one audience. Say you produce a publication about research in architecture or urbanism, you end up with a readership from that field while an exhibition remains more open, attracting families, passers-by, etc.
Nada: The possible interactions between a publication and a live exhibition are also very interesting, how to turn a publication into an exhibition.
Marie-Nour: This is what I liked about Sohrab Hura’s work, he managed to produce an exhibition, a video and a publication using the same photos, but turning each into a singular artwork.
Nada: The ways of exhibiting a publication could be manifold, it could be through recordings or 3D printings. The Smell Assembly exhibition is heavily based on research, you can experience it as an exhibition but you can also go much deeper.
Marie-Nour: I also find there is a certain ethics in putting the research out there.
Nuha: It is somehow a democratic way of showing your work.
Marie-Nour: When working within academic standards, you have to design a thorough research methodology and will be scrutinized for this, an exhibition on the other hand tends to hide its research methodology. So, if we want arts practices and exhibitions to be regarded as valid sites for research, we have to find ways to be more transparent.
Nuha: When you take away the written format, the academic world gets confused about the research and finds it hard to identify you as a scholar or a researcher. The audience also might not read it as something serious, and not look at the background that informed your result.
Nada: Fuck academia!
Nuha: When you undertake research, you do want a form of acknowledgment, so this question – would I commit to the conventional format or would I ditch it because I would rather reach the largest number of people – can become quickly irrelevant.
Nada: But why are we making academia part of the equation?
Nuha: Because we are constantly dealing with academia. We present to academia, we collaborate, and we exchange information and knowledge. So, when they dismiss the whole conversation, you can find yourself blocked sometimes.
Nada: Academia also tries to get out of academia – scholars often present their work in non-academic manners in festivals and independent art spaces. They feel it is a dying field but at the same time they can’t get rid of it completely, and they will publish in both e-flux and an academic journal. There is a permanent back and forth between all these forms of knowledge production.
Marie-Nour: They are looking for something else. On the other hand, academia has become the most legitimate form of knowledge, at the very top of the pyramid, and everything else such as journalism and activism is not taken as seriously.
Nada: If a publication can take the form of an exhibition, it can also take the form of an academic paper. I think that if you see yourself as an artist and want to go into academia, you also have to speak its language. For example, if you are making an exhibition, you cannot just exhibit your academic material on the wall.
Nuha: You need to constantly be able to transform and translate.
Nada: It is so much labor for the people behind it, navigating between so many different places. This is why the art world is criticized, you have to do all this work to be recognized in different fields despite the fact that other fields don’t do that – an engineer working at Google for example doesn’t care. We on the other hand, artists always have to adapt and cater to different mindsets.
Marie-Nour: This is why Smell Assembly was such a playful way to transform, even transcend, research.
Nuha: I want to have access to many things, and be exposed to many things, I don’t want to only be talking to people who believe that ‘Forensic Architecture’ for example is the only form of research that makes sense!
Sohrab Hura’s work can be accessed on his website here.
Smell Assembly is an exhibition curated by Akansha Rastogi and proposed by Ishita Dey and Mohammad Sayeed at the Kiran Nadar Museum in New Delhi.
OCTOBER 17 STUDIO VISIT WITH RAM RAHMAN
With Ram Rahman, we had a conversation about SAHMAT, a collective born in the wake of the murder of Safdar Hashmi (the political activist and communist who co-founded the street theatre group Jana Natya Manch in 1973). In addition to meaning “in agreement” in Hindu, SAHMAT is also an acronym for the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust.
Among the stories Ram told us, one especially caught my attention: In 1992, SAHMAT curated a public art project called Slogans for Communal Harmony involving a contest for auto rickshaw drivers to create slogans for communal harmony, secularism, and religious tolerance to be placed on their vehicles. The winning slogan was “India is a golden bird, India my motherland is great, may it shine like gold.”
On the way to our next meeting, I saw a young man on a bus. He seemed lost in his thoughts, but above all he looked like one of the children from Ram’s photograph of the winning rickshaw. I wondered if it wasn’t him and if the questions posed then by SAHMAT are still valid today in Delhi. I remembered the slogan, “India is a golden bird, India my motherland is great, may it shine like gold” and thought it would look great on this bus.
OCTOBER 17 THE DELHI ART SCENE
The enthusiasm I felt for Delhi during my first trip in December 2018 remains intact the second time around. The (relative) ease I have, going from disciplines, generations, institutions, and interests amazes me. The Delhi art scene is interconnected in ways that reminds me of the scene back home – in Beirut – and what made me fall in love with the arts in the first place or to be precise, the space opened by arts and some forms of art practices… and then in 2016, I fell out of love for a scene riddled with jealousy, lack of belief, and support.
While in Delhi, I start dreaming of a program like CISA , one that would stand by and nurture the next generation of curators, accompany them into re-defining their own roles and professions within the possibilities of the region; I nourish a deep longing for the care Vidya  pours into knowing every arts practitioners, valuing them and connecting the dots; I wonder what a figure such as Shuddha  – taking his time in explaining, reminiscing and sharing his knowledge – could do for young artists; and I am deeply inspired by the radical paradigm shift proposed by Five Million Incidents : re-imaging the scene as a rehearsal space, and the other as a peer rather than a competitor.
Writing this, I realize I might not be getting the full picture; perhaps relationships are tense between the old guards and up-and-coming artists, and the dialogue has turned sour between the commercial arts sector and the more radical leftist practitioners.
I am writing this in retrospect, on Day 18 of the Lebanese “thawra” that erupted on October 17 or a day after my diary entry was due. Today, Delhi feels far away, a distant encountered that I haven’t had time to fully process. Images of Chandni Chawk are superimposed with chants of hela hela ho! We are occupying the Ring  chanting and dancing! I have always loved the Ring, racing my car from east to west, and now my body is a barricade for the thawra to use to reclaim the city as ours.
For once, I feel empowered. My generation always felt powerless, resigned to leave, compelled to look at each other as an enemy that refused to change. We started believing we were defeatist, apologizing in advance for being sectarians, coming from a fucked-up corrupt country – an angry, gossiping people parading money we did not have. We truly believed this was who we were.
Falling in and out of love with a place and in love again. The experience of Delhi forever entangled with a re-energized Beirut should remain an echo of what I am aiming for: Instead of dreaming, I can start imagining.
 Curatorial Intensive South Asia (CISA) is a fellowship for young curators from South Asia, offered each year by Khoj International Artists Association.
 Vidya Shivadas is the director of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA).
 Shuddhabatra Sengupta is a member of Raqs Media Collective, an influential Delhi-based arts collective.
 Five Million Incidents is a year-long series of events, organized by Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi and Kolkata. Conceived in collaboration with Raqs Media Collective, it invites experimentation with the possibilities of public space, time, media, communication, and interaction.
 The Ring is a flyover in Beirut, connecting the west and east sides of the city.
OCTOBER 17 IN CHANDIGARH WITH RATNA FABRI
During the visit to the Government Museum of Chandigarh, we discovered the work of Ratna Fabri. On internet searches, she is referred to sometimes as a museologist, sometimes as a furniture and interior designer. The display structures she built for the museum collection superimpose themselves on the architecture of Le Corbusier. The museologist Ratna Fabri seemed to have sought in her designs to mitigate the contradictions that modernism implies. The whole network of cupboards, vitrines, panels, and lights were tailor-made to host the artefacts as if there was a way for modernity to actually build from the past. Fabri’s designs allow for other dimensions to subtly interfere in Nehru’s utopia of “a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past.”
Little is written about Ratna Fabri, tells us Zasha Colah, one of the curators of the current Chandigarh Biennium. Google searches about the museum do not even mention her and her designs. I am reminded of Charlotte Perriand who collaborated with Pierre Jeanneret and Le Corbusier to design furniture and interiors for other projects. At the end of the 30s, she designed the Boomerang Desk that would be later be used by Le Corbusier and his cousin for the interior of the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh and credited as one of their own designs.
OCTOBER 19 BURAIL
I sketched the following drawing after a visit to Burail (Sector 45), one of the few remaining villages that were not torn down to give space to Chandigarh during its construction, instead it was incorporated as is. For more info click here.