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Molecular Aesthetics: Contemporary Art and Performance in Delhi

  • Author(s): Shankar, Karin Shankar
  • Advisor(s): Jackson, Shannon
  • et al.

This dissertation examines how contemporaneity is variously encoded, embedded, and embodied in different medial combinations across the works of four artists and performers living and producing work in the National Capital Region of Delhi in India today. Experimental kathakali performer Maya Krishna Rao (b. 1953) ‘deterritorializes’ traditional kathakali gesture, breath, costume, and props to embody expansive ways of being, becoming, and relating alongside quotidian, middleclass, urban New Delhi frames. Filmmaker Amar Kanwar (b. 1964) mobilizes the microentities of dust, light particles, and ambient sound to blur and reformulate macro-categories of ‘center,’ ‘periphery,’ ‘rural,’ ‘urban,’ ‘underdeveloped,’ and ‘developed.’ Visual artist and sculptor Jagannath Panda (b. 1972) shapes, sculpts, molds, paints, and collages sewage pipes, glass, upholstery, bricks, and other urban materials in the satellite city of Gurgaon into ‘immanent’ (or emergent but as yet un-actualized) urban spatio-temporalities, revealing that human, animal, plant, thing, in the urban realm are always already partial expressions of each other. The artists’ workshop Khoj’s (1997) emergent community art practices offer ‘rhizomatic mapping’ as method to conduct a contemporary inquiry into this booming urban agglomerate’s spaces, publics, and infrastructure. Finally, my epilogue comments on Inder Salim’s (b. 1964) extreme performance art that violates the boundaries between his own dermis and the skin or surfaces of the city of Delhi to enact new modes of fluid and affective urban belonging.

Using a framework from the “artist’s philosopher” Gilles Deleuze, I posit that all these works “performatively enable,” (Rogoff 2006) shake or stir the modernist and still-pervasive binary distinctions between local/global, state/market, development/underdevelopment, tradition/modernity, and East/West, and bring into proximity these and other such grand divisions and categories. Underlying the boundaries between these categories is a stultifying spatio-temporal politics. Aesthetic forms that unsettle these divisions, then, also propel a necessary unsettling around linear notions of temporality and spatiality. Contemporary aesthetics might be the name for such a destabilizing and enabling force or, as in art historian and cultural theorist Simon O’Sullivan’s description, contemporaneity is that which produces “new combinations in and of the world, which would suggest new ways and times of being and acting in that world” (O’ Sullivan 2010).

In my discussions of separate artworks I turn to the microlevels of aesthetic practice to trace the “how” of the particular contemporaneity of the arts and performance milieu in Delhi of this moment. As such, I engage a Deleuzian framework to offer what he might term a “molecular” reading of contemporary art and performance in Delhi. If the “molar” relates to the well-defined wholes or masses, of modernist cultural discourse, and is the realm of representational thinking, then the molecular relates to that which destabilizes perception, and produce “encounters,” in the place of representation. Within the realm of artistic creation, the concept of molecular replaces hierarchies of matter and form, with the study of the interaction between matter and aesthetic forces. An understanding of contemporary aesthetics as molecular therefore pays attention to those practices that might release fixed and molar ways of being.

From India’s independence through to the 1980s, modernist playwrights, directors, dancers, performers, and visual artists were largely measured by the standards of a ‘molar’ center in Delhi. Art historians, cultural critics and socio-political observers mark the late 1980s and early 1990s as a decisive shift in Indian political economy, coinciding with economic liberalization reforms and the fundamentalization of politics at the national level. These forces played out as a binary polarization of subjectivities, temporalities and spatiality. From within these binds and impasses, the artists and performers I examine in this dissertation enact “contemporaneity” variously, articulating the possibilities of other more generative economies of sensing and knowing.

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