Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXXIII No. 7, July 16-31, 2023
The Vanam Art Festival was organised as part of the Dalit History Month celebration by the Pa Ranjith-founded Neelam Cultural Centre. The event was held at the Madras Memorial Hall at Evening Bazaar Road in George Town. The building – a structure of the iconic classical style – was constructed by the British in 1860 as a thanksgiving to the gods following the sepoy mutiny. I found myself overwhelmed by the grandeur of its tall, soaring ceilings. When I passed through the gates to enter the festival, I was greeted by the striking image of exhibits displayed alongside a community kitchen set up by Untitled Kitchen. The Vanam Art Festival turned out to be a lively, interactive experience blending together art, music and food. Many talks and discussions were organised as well.
20 artists and 23 photographers came together to create this impactful exhibition, which was presented to the audience in two parts – Dalit Art and Aesthetics, an exhibit curated by artist Natarajan Gangadharan and Nitham, a photography exhibit curated by visual artist Jaisingh Nageshwaran and photographers Palani Kumar and Steevez Rodriguez. The show was inaugurated by Athiveerapandiyan, Mariya Anthoni and Alphonse Roy. While the overall theme of the festival focused on the importance of the collective voice, each of the exhibits had a distinctive voice and character. The artists showcased works in different mediums ranging from ceramic, wood and stone to beads, paper and terracotta, to name a few.
The first exhibit that greets the visitor is one that explores the intricate links between power and media. It is strikingly positioned between the building’s towering columns, close to the main entrance. Nearby is a plywood wall that borders the community kitchen, which the audience is invited to paint as they have a sip of lime tea. The day I visited the event, I saw that everyone joined hands to help out in the kitchen, be it artist, curator or visitor. Every single person who dropped by the exhibition left with memories of a hot meal or drink, made more enjoyable by warm conversation and chit-chat. And there was certainly a lot to talk about – each exhibit packaged its message inside presentations both passive and interactive to provoke thought and dialogue. For instance, one of the exhibits gave visitors the opportunity to make a beaded chain or accessory that they could freely take away with them – an exchange that deliberated on a recent incident in the city where a family was denied entrance into a movie theatre even when they held bona fide tickets. There was also quite a unique, tactile sculpture of Ambedkar, surrounded by works of various artists.
The photography exhibit was wonderful, as well. When I spoke to Jaisingh, I discovered that the entries included oeuvre from states outside of Tamil Nadu as well, including Nepal. He stressed the importance of a collective voice and explained that an ‘insider-outsider lens’ is crucial to any serious work of documentation. The photo exhibit also displayed the work of students trained by curator Palani Kumar, who himself presented a body of work based on their parents and homes.
The week-long Vanam Arts Festival was a celebration of art, literature and theatre. Personally, I found that a day was not enough to explore it!