Amusement Park October, 2009
Amusement Park Video still
‘Settlement’ (2009)
‘Highlight’ (2008)
Islands are forever I 2010 watercolour on paper 48 x 72 inches
Wheel I 2009 digital print on archival paper 54 x 78 inches
Wanderer above the Sea I 2009 watercolor and acrylic on paper (fabriano artistico) 60 x 84 inches
October, 2009
The Unbearable Heaviness of Being: Parables of a 21st-century Nagrik

Nancy Adajania

An artist who takes the city as his primary preoccupation must confront the occupational hazard of having viewers gloss his work with the familiar templates of urbanism. The name-check trips off our tongues with little effort: beginning with Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, we move rapidly on to Foucault, scroll down to Hardt and Negri, and shuffle Calvino with Mike Davis while holding on to Saskia Sassen and Arjun Appadurai for reflective pause. The nimble-footed flaneur is our mascot on these journeys, guiding us patiently through the Borgesian labyrinth of a city that could be located anywhere on this densely networked yet persistently enigmatic planet. And the angels of nomadism are always at hand: they come bearing gifts of lightness, promising to deliver us into a gravity-free future, a situation that we enjoy even as we deplore it in all the right forums. When discussing the urban conditions of mobility and migration, we tend to favour lightness over heaviness: we privilege vectors over scalars, direction over magnitude.

In reducing lightness to a virtue lite, we have forgotten that it is a phenomenon that has been theorised by numerous philosophers and novelists who have dedicated themselves to demarcating the optimal conditions of selfhood. The Yogic masters conceived of lightness as an emancipation from unskillful thoughts, the traces of sensations and the burden of attachments. J Krishnamurti made lightness the centre-piece of his teaching, articulating it through the concepts of dying to the past and achieving freedom from the constraints of the known and repetitive patterns of thought. In his 1984 novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera frames lightness as a negative form of liberation from the inscriptions of fate, history, inheritance and responsibility. In his undelivered lectures, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1993), Italo Calvino presents it as one of the most important values of writing. None of these positions on lightness is interchangeable with the others; each has a specific lineage and application, and yet, taken together, they propose various critiques of psychological heaviness, the earth-bound nature, and the dragweights of unrefined existence.

Defying these authoritative validations, Gigi Scaria refuses to sing a paean to the virtue of lightness, as we might have expected him to do – since he addresses himself to the globalisation-era city, working mercurially across painting, sculpture-installation, photography and video. Instead, to my mind, Scaria unabashedly affirms the properties of the opposite virtue, that of heaviness, and urges us to reconsider our preconceived negativity towards it. Is heaviness an inert property without agency, more acted upon than active, a lead balloon guaranteed to sink rather than to fly lightly with an angel’s wings? Can we rephrase heaviness, turn around the popular perception that images it as lead-like and saturnine, and instead see it as manifesting the enabling principle of gravitas? I use gravitas deliberately, because this Latin etymology for the condition of heaviness allows me to point to many of its connotations: slowness, magnitude, mass, position, the weight of historical and personal memory, dignity, the stillness of melancholia, and the monumentality of the spectacular, many of which are important features of Scaria’s art.

This city speaks to no one and nothing

At the centre of Scaria’s exhibition, ‘Amusement Park’ (held at Chemould Prescott Road, Bombay, in 2009), stands a nearly life-size Ferris wheel, displaced from its customary environment, spinning an aureole of light. We stand in its majestic aura. The large motorised device comes slowly to a standstill: its seats hang heavy with buildings cast under the spell of a curfew. These homogenous buildings look like models produced on an assembly line of developer architecture. A deep melancholia festers at the heart of this colossal toy. As the shadows cast by its swishing blades sweep across the adjacent walls, we recall the claustrophobic film sets of ‘Metropolis’ (dir. Fritz Lang, 1926) and ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (dir. Robert Wiene, 1920). The Ferris wheel is metaphorical of a typical Indian city held to ransom by greedy politicians and land-sharks. Watch the city as it explodes in space, is tossed up in the air and spun without a pause. Vehicle of a joyless ride, this Ferris wheel-metropolis speaks to no one and nothing.

Another colossal toy, ‘Someone left a horse on the shore’ (2007), with its unmistakable reference to the Trojan horse, stands in a scrubland on the outskirts of Delhi. It is an embattled sign of the perennial urban conflict staged between the disenfranchisement of migration and the hard-won legitimacies of settlement. If we take the logic of the Trojan horse further, we would expect it to rattle ominously in the middle of the night, its doors bursting open to spit out armies of migrants or other bearers of perceived threat, who would ‘attack’ or ‘encroach upon’ the city. But Scaria’s Trojan horse is an assemblage of barred windows and empty balconies. It may have begun life as a virus intended to destabilise the system; but the virus has been neutralised, and the city that it was meant to conquer has taken it captive. Scaria’s Trojan horse stands in the graveyard of history, shuttered, bolted, dead.

The neutered Trojan horse is complemented with ‘Settlement’ (2009), a bulldozer that paradoxically houses a model neighbourhood with a shopping centre and a residential complex. Hypermodern India’s most ubiquitous instrument, the bulldozer here becomes a monument to amnesia, having erased all traces of the settlements that stood in its way. Contrary to popular perception, Delhi has far more inter-state migrants than any other city in India, outstripping even Bombay, which complains vocally about its burden of immigration. [1] Once migrant communities have made barren land liveable and increased its notional value, government authorities take over the settlements by throwing out the ‘illegal’ inhabitants. It is said that 27,000 families have been displaced from the banks of the river Yamuna in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games.

The politics of evacuation

Scaria’s paintings encode a radical lack of fit between the map and reality. A map signifies variously a tool for navigation, a totalitarian hope or a utopian dream. A wager on reality, it stands as a counter-pole to it. In ‘Keep Delhi Clean’ (2006), Scaria carves Delhi’s cartographical contours in the shape of a walled city, an apt metaphor for this security-paranoid metropolis. Except for the indication of a river, the map is empty and full of potential: smooth as a cloud or a piece of fallen sky. The city, on the other hand, with its thrumming chaos, is banished from the key zones of the map, rendered as a mass of all that is unmanageable and ungovernable. Does the map as tabula rasa offer the possibility to re-envision Delhi? Or is it a comment on the periodic beautification drives launched by the Delhi government to ‘clean up’ the city, which translates effectively as evicting its expendable citizens to clear land for a new athletes’ village or stadium.

In 2007, Scaria made a series of paintings on what he called ‘alternate master plans’. These could be seen as satirical takes on the nature of the constant debate around the architectural nature and metropolitan future of Delhi, at the heart of which lie contending visions of urban planning. There are broadly two approaches to urban planning. One imposes the beauty, elegance and precision of the master plan from above, and attempts to re-direct human behaviour according to its mandates. The other begins with the texture of human exchanges, of the neighbourhood and the flow of traffic, trade, conversation and festivity, and develops a plan around these informal axes. Where, within this discourse, does Delhi find its place? The imperial capital of the Mughals, it was desolated after the suppression of the 1857 Uprising: with its core districts razed to the ground to create clear esplanades around the British garrison quartered in the Red Fort, Delhi lay in unregarded ruin while the British ruled from Calcutta. The foundation stone of New Delhi was laid in 1911 and the city was planned by the architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. It was inaugurated in 1931 and barely one and a half decades later, the government of the freshly liberated dominion of India moved into Lutyens’ imposing town houses and places of assembly, built on a scale to overwhelm the subject population; very quickly, too, the new government adopted American-style zoning policies to separate the city into areas segregated on the basis of function. With the architecture went an attitude of disdainful governance, of contempt for the governed: the Empire’s last revenge was to leave us its official buildings.

Over the years, Delhi has tried to define its ‘cityness’ by privileging spectacular built form and wide vistas, and by hosting national festivals and global sports events. These displays are almost always achieved by the displacement of subaltern communities and the erasure of their means of livelihood. Scaria’s riffs on alternate master plans demonstrate how there is nothing alternate about master plans: each one is more anti-people and top-down in its approach than its predecessor. If one casts one’s mind back on the various proposals and campaigns in the last decade over how the capital should be represented, we find the following themes: Delhi as metropolis or Delhi as National Capital Region; saving Lutyens’ Delhi; cleaning the Yamuna; enforcing zoning regulations; and insensitive anti-pollution legislation that resulted in loss of livelihood and habitation for thousands of subsistence-level labourers; the building of the Metro; and the Commonwealth Games.

Referencing some of these themes, Scaria’s ‘Options of an alternate master plan/court’ (2006) is projected as a series of impossibility conditions. The various legislations meant to bulldoze people out of existence are imaged as a courthouse which can be accessed only through a labyrinth. However, the labyrinth is a trick maze: you cannot reach the centre; and when you are inside it, you cannot look out. Scaria’s paintings are deliberately devoid of human presence because they dramatise what I would term the politics of evacuation: an emptying out of the city’s people and their behaviours, in order to emphasise the overwhelming presence of its spectacularity. This is a form of doubling, in which spectacularity is maintained and kept in play through a constant process of evacuaton.

Silence of the Paintings

Scaria’s paintings play with flatness, with the look of the poster, the diagram and the caricature. We find, in them, resonances of the distributed network of narratives popularised by Gulammohammed Sheikh in his paintings of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as traces of the biting satire of the late Malayalam novelist O V Vijayan’s political cartoons.

Sheikh deployed the multiple registers of miniature painting to conflate periods, places, cultures and phenomena, in his work. His narrative paintings broke away from the tradition of the monological narrative. While Scaria may appreciate the revolving routes of Sheikh’s narratives and his many-layered approach to truth, his own paintings are neither palimpsest-like nor loquacious; rather, they are composite constructs of reality which conduct their business with diagrammatic precision and in absolute silence. In fact these mock blueprints of city planning or cartography are not narrative so much as they are idea-driven conceptualist propositions rendered with the bite and immediacy of caricature.

In his recent paintings (2009-2010), Scaria takes a fresh look at the tradition of the sublime landscape, which evokes a terrible beauty, instilling both awe and fear in the beholder. And what better way to recall the sublime than to reference Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (1818) In Scaria’s riff on the Friedrich masterpiece, we re-acquaint ourselves with the familiar Friedrichian pose of the man standing with his back to the world as he gazes spellbound at the landscape. But instead of a landscape drifting through fog, Scaria’s protagonist stands against a cityscape that has been hived off into prison fortresses. As we transit Friedrich’s arcadia and meet Scaria’s futurist dystopia eye to eye, we are confronted by a troubling irreality. Is this cityscape a painted backdrop? If all reality is a construct, then is the wanderer of our hypermodern times literally and metaphorically at sea? Are we in a version of ‘The Truman Show’ (dir. Peter Weir, 1998) or ‘The Matrix’ (dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999), in which even natural phenomena like moonrise and sunset are mediatic constructs?

In a 2010 work, ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Being’, Scaria suspends the city above its foundation in a state of precarity. The foundation is a terraced formation, denuded of agriculture or it could be a kund ghat or the leftovers of an excavated city. The gap between built form and topography, between built form and the people is the monumental lacuna that punctuates all of Scaria’s work.

We have spoken earlier about the doubling of spectacularity and evacuation, one feeding off the other in Scaria’s work. To relate this to another issue regarding anti-human evacuation, let us explore ‘Dilli Mall’ 2006. It expresses the dangers of monumentality and the lack of political representationality. Delhi is supposed to be a city of spectacular monuments, which also allows citizens from all over the country to voice their political protest and be heard. All the major think tanks that influence policy as well as the smallest resistance group from the remotest part of the country is able to represent its grievance or political demand in the capital. In ‘Dilli Mall’ Scaria warns us of a new aspiration of ‘Dilliness’ based on galloping consumption. ‘Dilli Mall’ is a composite monument of monuments. It is a brand-conscious concoction that places the most significant and the finest monuments of Delhi on display: Qutub Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, Parliament House and the Jantar Mantar. To make a mall out of these monuments of Delhi is to suggest that everything is on sale: is consumerism the new civic entitlement or the latest social pathology? Everything in this ‘Dilli Mall’ is consumable: from tourist spots like Qutub Minar to the seat of the government, Parliament, whose unparliamentary proceedings are broadcasted daily on television. Even the ingenious observatory, the Jantar Mantar, which is placed above the Parliament House as a symbol of dissensus, the site where resistance groups of all shades protest when Parliament is in session, is in the final analysis a ‘designated’ place of protest which becomes co-opted into the grand political scheme of paying lip service to representationality without really acknowledging the validity of the other’s viewpoint.

A Cartographer of the Sprit

A phantasmagoric structure, Scaria’s ‘Dilli Mall’ eludes the totalising grasp of definition: it exudes the magical power of a cosmic diagram, the playful grandeur of a temple chariot. Scaria’s ability to deploy the contents of the sacred into his sculptures and paintings helps him transcend the bleak circumstances of history and contemporaneity. In ‘A Metaphysical Speculation’ (2009), which has a Vermeeresque ring to it, recalling to mind such iconic works as ‘The Geographer’ and ‘The Astronomer’, Scaria evacuates the globe and places, in its orbit, what looks like the sudarshan-chakra. To visualise the absent earth as Vishnu’s discus could imply a desire to cut through all the ills that beleaguer the globe. Even the leitmotif of the closed shutter, which appears regularly in his work as a metaphor of the speechless city silenced by curfew or riot, is built into the ziggurat of a temple in ‘Shutter Stories’ (2008). The ascending ziggurat buoys up our hope of battling all political contingencies. But Scaria always holds the transcendental in check by never losing sight of the immediate effects of the political. When a street lamp is covered by a structure resembling a deepa-stambha, a column of lights, we are not allowed to forget that there may be no electricity in the street lamp (‘Highlight’, 2008). [2] The metaphysical properties of light are not privileged over the absence of basic entitlements in a country that has been independent of colonial rule for six decades.

A Roman Catholic who grew up in an orthodox family in Kerala, Scaria is confluential in temperament and practice. His childhood was spent in the sensorial warmth of church processions and Christian iconography, copying Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and paintings by Raphael and Rembrandt. As a young man, he stopped going to the confessional and became critical of his faith. Gradually he became interested in Indic philosophy and the heterodox forms at the boundary between Hindu, Buddhist and shamanic practice, such as the philosophy of the Siddhas. Scaria’s belief in the sacred is not born out of a narrow religiosity but is more widely metaphysical in its orientation. We could attribute his spiritual openness to Kerala’s social and religious reform movements. When Gandhi visited Scaria’s village Kothanalloor, situated between the districts of Kottayam and Vaikom, the Hindus opened the doors of their temple to the ‘untouchables’, who were until then forbidden entry. Early 20th-century social reformers like Sri Narayana Guru fought hard to break down the pernicious caste hierarchy: “Narayana Guru who belonged to the so-called backward community of the Ezhavas, placed a Shiva linga in the temple and called it an ‘untouchable’ Shiva.” [3]

If the church provided Scaria with religious education as a child, the library sowed the first seeds of philosophical doubt in his mind. European and Latin American literature was widely available in translation. He read Kafka’s The Trial, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, as well as the novels of Marquez and Borges, and those of the Malayalam novelist O V Vijayan. Scaria lived between the structured world of official religion with its predictable ethical outcomes and the irresoluble world of literature, which was sceptical, anarchic and full of surprises.

The Argumentative Indian

As a teenager, Scaria became interested in the world of cinema. He studied film appreciation in his village, apprenticing himself to the pioneering visions of Eisenstein, Ray, Kurosawa, the French New Wave, German Expressionist cinema and so forth. The strong tradition of film criticism in Malayalam enabled him to analyse films within their culture-specific contexts rather than just see them as formal experiments. At 17, he had already written 27 synopses for screenplays. Eventually, Scaria chose visual arts over cinema. A degree in painting from the Thiruvananthapuram’s College of Fine Arts (1995) and a post-graduate degree in the same discipline from Delhi’s Jamia Millia University (1998) have not dampened his desire to make films in the future.

While Scaria’s paintings and sculptures function as quiet conundrums, his early videos are provocative conversation pieces. In his paintings, the diagrammatic blueprints of dystopia devoid of human presence display a ceremoniality, despite their caricatural informality. By contrast, his early videos are dialogic, inviting an engagement with both the middle class and the marginalised. Scaria leads his protagonists into situations where they are made to subconsciously interrogate their deep-rooted prejudices; more importantly, he has been unsparing with himself, questioning the received truths that pass for normality.

In 2007, Scaria staged a conversation for his exhibition catalogue, performing simultaneously the roles of the ‘self and the ‘other’ to discuss the myths and misconceptions surrounding new media art. This format recalls Gandhi’s dialogue between the Editor and the Reader in his anti-colonial 1909 manifesto ‘Hind Swaraj’. Scaria debates the differences between film and video art, video art and documentary, gradually moving beyond the questions of appropriate technology. The ‘self’ contemplates: “The voice of the ‘other’ is not only the voice of the marginalised but also of our own critical self.” [4]

This observation, which eschews visual anthropology for an investigation into the construction of selfhood, demonstrates that the artist’s political commitment emerges from a deep belief in self-transformation – failing which all else is plain condescension or empty rhetoric. The artist could be seen as embodying Amartya Sen’s quintessential ‘argumentative Indian’. Sen reminds us of the importance of our dialogic tradition which encourages the questioning of inequalities regarding caste and gender in the Upanishads and the epics. [5] He emphasises the critical significance of discussion and debate for the functioning of a healthy democracy in contemporary India: “... The argumentative tradition if used with deliberation and commitment, can extremely important in resisting social inequalities and in removing poverty and deprivation. Voice is a crucial component of social justice.” [6]

Scaria’s early single-channel video ‘A Day with Sohail and Mariyan’ (2004) deconstructed the authorial ‘voice’ of documentary filmmaking which passes itself off as the sole arbiter of truth. The artist followed two waste-pickers at night while they went about their job of scouring the dustbins of Delhi. Sohail and Mariyan share their confidences with the camera. Resilient yet vulnerable, they speak directly to the artist as they ‘perform’ various feats of endurance in the dumps of an elite diplomatic enclave. These are not the conventional scapegoats of documentary film-making, whose views will be sculpted into a unidimensional narrative. Sohail and Mariyan reserve their share of representation in what the artist calls ‘a fictional documentary’, which is partly scripted and partly candid. As viewers, we begin to speculate on what really transpired and what was fabricated. The sequence on finding the map of Delhi in the dustbins seems like a Scaria insertion. The artist is always looking for ways of orientating himself in a city that is at once foreign and home. It is a migrant’s destiny to be in exile forever. When Scaria left Kerala for Delhi in the late 1990s, he changed house twelve times, travelled two hours to work and back, suffered discrimination at the hands of neo-feudal northerners.

In the haunting single-channel video ‘The Lost City’ (2005), Scaria dramatises the pathology of a man who is direction-challenged. This man desperately signposts his route from home to office and back. He chooses, as his signage, the symbol of the compass – but it disappears from the cityscape, leaving him lost and even more confused than before. This allegory of not finding one’s way home dramatises the anxiety faced by millions of migrants who leave their homes in search of livelihood. The map can never recover the memory of a place and the compass can indicate a direction but can never guarantee you the safety of location. While the man in ‘The Lost City’ makes every attempt to mark his route and courts repeated failure, the waste-pickers Sohail and Mariyan discard the map, because it does not mention the routes on which their dustbins are located. The map which excludes them is replaced by a manual of instructions in a DIY kit lying in the dustbin. They create their own toy propellers – which ascend momentarily from land staked out by various vested interests and soar, before diving back onto the asphalt road. Scaria produces a model of distributed authorship with Sohail and Mariyan, who both perform to a script and depart from it. [7]

‘Interview’ (2006) and ‘Site Under Construction’ (2007) are performances presented in quasi-documentary mode. They deal with the effects of speculation, conjecturing at the truth value of what is seen with the naked eye. Both ‘Interview’ and ‘Site Under Construction’ are presented as three-screen projections, with the viewer grasping as well as occasionally missing out on the rhythm of the encounters and the dialogues. Paradoxically, the experience of a multi-screen projection in video art is far closer to that of everyday life, where conversations ebb and flow, than to film.

In ‘Interview’, Scaria uses a mix of Kafkaesque absurdity and Holmesian investigative procedures while presenting an interview between an employer and a prospective employee. The questions asked of the candidate require him to make certain assumptions; those assumptions lead him to make generalisations. When asked to identify a man in a photograph the candidate speculates about his ethnicity, class and region, by depending on his learned reflexes, that is, his prejudices. The employer wants the candidate to stop generalizing; but without any facts to lay his hands on, he cannot but generalise. We become engrossed in the debate but are baffled as to which side holds the winning proposition. The employer appears to be an enlightened capitalist who could also double as a policeman investigating the Identikit of a migrant labourer. In which case, he wants the candidate to allow the reservoir of his prejudices to flow thick and fast so that the migrant can be condemned without a trial. Who does the employer represent? Perhaps he stands for the surveillance state, which has found a complicit candidate to comply with it.

In ‘Site Under Construction’, a housewife and an architect living in adjacent buildings play a guessing game over a labourer laying a foundation. Suddenly their guesswork comes to a halt as the labourer destroys his structure. An innocuous conversation between two citizens reveals the callous attitude of the middle classes towards urban planning and development programmes. ‘Site Under Construction’ implies that a master plan is only guesswork of a higher order.

The cityscapes in the video animations ‘Amusement Park’ (2009) and ‘Panic City’ (2007) have been personified as humans with a mind on edge. The cities under the spell of rapid change spin vertiginously and dance like raving lunatics. In ‘Panic City’ Scaria has for the first time produced a mock operatic soundtrack with distinctive strains of Pavarotti and Vivaldi. Gasping for breath the buildings are orchestrated to move weirdly to the music. The sound of clapping and whistling at the end of the performance is added specially to draw attention to the self-congratulatory urban planners who want to transform cities like Bombay and Delhi into the next Shanghai and Singapore.

Which brings us to a difficult question: If Scaria is uncomfortable with urban chaos and understandably so, as well as with master plans, what kind of order would he prefer? Scaria observes that he likes order but not ‘ordered reality’. He recalls the first time he went abroad in early 2000 and was spellbound by the clean lines of the foreign city’s vistas; until he discovered that every lamppost and every tree had its designated place. If the choice is between what we have called earlier a plan-based and a practice-based approach, Scaria would prefer the latter. He believes in the micro-unit of the neighbourhood, in the invisible cities hidden within the city we call home.

The artist has travelled a long way since he made the video ‘Stampa’ (2002), which portrayed the anxieties of the artist as a young man who did not want to be imprinted with the homogeneity of globalisation. Since then, he has collaborated with other cultural producers on residencies, travelled widely and come to an understanding of what Okwui Enwezor calls the difference between a generic globalisation and specific wills to globality that are expressed by diverse people across the globe. For instance, ‘All about the other side’ (2008), made during a residency in South Korea, reveals the entanglements between people, histories and cultures and shares in their predicaments and crises. With this, I return to the question of heaviness in Scaria’s works. In his videos, the spectacular is replaced with everyday realities, with people who never gain visibility in Delhi’s elite society. In ‘Political Realism’ (2009), a moratorium is passed on the idea of monumentality. Here the heads of Lenin, Stalin and Saddam Husain roll, as these heroes of history become yesterday’s news. This iconoclastic exercise is disrupted by the Delhi metro zooming through the space where once history was made and lost. By staging these tableaux vivants in his house he points to the adjacenies between our diverse histories, for every head that rolls there is a dent some place close, some place far.

The newly constructed metro in Delhi which also appears in ‘Amusement Park’, is as an apt symbol of rupture. While there are many views on how it’s construction has interrupted people’s lives, it has also allowed people to circulate through parts of Delhi which were difficult to access before. More significantly, it has without intending to do so, collapsed to some extent the class barrier which is so aggressively enshrined in the city’s public culture. Even if this phenomenon is an accident of circumstance rather than one of intention, it is a welcome departure in the life of the city. Scaria has this ability to turn a symbolic image into a conversation piece. And his Vijayanesque humour makes for a title that critiques the art historical genre of ‘socialist realism’, dedicated to the promotion of Socialism and Communism. In the course of his art, Scaria knocks quite a few canons on their heads. But he doesn’t turn the art of iconoclasm into a reactive habit. In 2007, he made a single channel video ‘Raise your hands those who have touched him’, where he critiqued the hagiographic approach to history not by breaking down the icon which happens in this case to be Gandhi, but by remaking it through the intimate memories of people who had known him.

A rejoinder to an unfinished dialogue

To conclude, Scaria could draw more on the dialogical impulse that characterises his early videos. While his language has become more refined today, he could well recover some of the raw and argumentative spirit of ‘Interview’ and ‘Site Under Construction’. And behind these works, we may discern the literary model of Dostoevsky and the critical engagement of Bakhtin. Scaria has been an ardent admirer of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and especially the section in that novel where the Grand Inquisitor comes upon Christ wandering in the streets of Seville, and decides that He must be incarcerated and executed, since His actual presence would disrupt the institutional mandates, the authority and the world-view of the Church erected in His name.

Scaria responds warmly to Dostoevsky’s ability to speak from different perspectives, presenting contending viewpoints and textures without choosing between them – the quality that the literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin celebrated as polyphony and heteroglossia. Charles Guignon, writing about Bakhtin’s view of Dostoevsky’s polyphonic novels, observes: “Where traditional novels are monological or homophonic, presupposing a single worldview and moving toward a final synthesis of opposing views, a polyphonic novel creates a set of characters, each endowed with a distinctive voice and worldview, who are pitted against one another in an open-ended dialogue.” For Bakhtin, the polyphonic novel is a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices.” In such a context, any character’s viewpoint, according to Bakhtin, is “from the beginning a rejoinder in an unfinished dialogue.” [8] Such polyphony, evident in Gigi Scaria’s video works, bubbles up even through the silence of his paintings, and will, I believe, come to distinguish his future work.

  • See Aman Sethi, ‘The Oblique Strategies of Trickster City’, May 4 2010 (accessed from
  • Similarly, in ‘Postland’ (2008), Scaria covers an electricity pole with a cruciform.
  • In conversation with the author, December 2009.
  • Gigi Scaria, ‘Video: A Parallel Inquiry (Other Encounters the Self)’ in exh. cat., Absence of an Architect: Gigi Scaria (Palette Gallery: Delhi, 2007).
  • Jamila Adeli has observed that Scaria refers to and revisits ‘the dialogic tradition of Indian philosophy’. Jamila Adeli, ‘Preface’ in the exh. cat., ‘Gigi Scaria: Settlement’ (Berlin: Galerie Christian Hosp, 2009).
  • Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity (London: Penguin, 2005).
  • Unlike ‘A day with Sohail and Mariyan’, the tender single-channel video ‘Search’ does not engage in a robust conversation, but it displays a similar form of compassion for the marginalised. The camera quietly follows a boy who collects iron from the streets of old Delhi with a magnet attached to a rod. The metaphysics of a search merges with the economics of making a living. But the boy’s instrument could also be seen as a diviner’s rod: who knows what else he might find apart from iron?
  • Charles Guignon ed., Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov (Indiana: Hackett, 1993).

Nancy Adajania is a cultural theorist, art critic and independent curator based in Bombay.