Amar Kanwar, who navigates between moving images with dexterity, tells us that the world offers him a host of possibilities to explore. The acclaimed artist will be speaking at The Hindu Lit For Life session today

I remember walking, no, almost running, for a really, really long time, frantically searching for Bank Street, on a hot and humid afternoon at the Sharjah Biennale last year. I was accompanied by a couple of other journalists too, in the chase. Running against time, we were getting closer to the deadline to return to the bus that was to take us back to Dubai. And just when I had lost all hope of finding Bank Street, I found it. I entered the Sharjah Islamic Bank Building to see Amar Kanwar’s seminal work “The Sovereign Forest” which was on display there.

In the early stages of my career, a Bharatanatyam dancer had told me once, a good work, a good image is something that stays with you. The images from “The Sovereign Forest” linger in my mind till today. The installation with myriad elements in it — films on the disappearing landscapes, 272 varieties of vanishing rice seed varieties, books on handmade banana-fibre paper with images projected onto them, narrating the stories of resistance; an album with photos of farmers who have committed suicide in Odisha — was a result of his consistent engagement with the state, spanning a decade.

The work was first exhibited at Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany, marking his third consecutive participation at the significant platform. Not many Indian artists can boast such achievements.

At the recently concluded India Art Fair, an artist in a casual chit-chat referred to Amar Kanwar as one of the best video artists in the country. Finest he is, but not someone who conforms to any boundaries. “I am not obsessed with categorisations. At different points in time you respond to varied situations and inspirations. The moving image is a spectacular medium to work with. We play with time, movement, colour, sound , text etc and it is possible to move seamlessly between a spectrum of forms. The medium is so fluid that it allows multiple vocabularies. I could be formal or experimental," says the artist, who will be in conversation with Sanjay Kak and R.V.Ramani in the session on documentary cinema “My Frame” at The Hindu Lit For Life, this Saturday.

Yes, it could be a single channel projection, like “A Night of Prophecy” currently on at Khoj as part of “Word.Sound.Power” (it premiered at Documenta 11 in 2002), or an eight-channel projection, “The Lightning Testimonies” (which is on at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art Saket, as part of the group show “Is it what you think?” curated by Roobina Karode), or it could be a 19-channel video projection like “The Torn First Pages” (included in the Guggenheim collections) divided into three parts.

The installation could come to include or exclude certain elements depending on the venue. Like in Yorkshire Sculpture Park where “The Sovereign Forest” concluded recently, he has an added element of listening benches with seats made from a dismantled 19th Century organ from Bretton Hall’s estate chapel. On those benches, the visitors can hear the soundtracks.

In Bhubaneswar, housed in an old rented warehouse, the installation, open for public viewing, offers a different viewing experience.

Not just viewing but the process of viewing also enriches the viewer’s experience and according to Amar, adds to the art work. In “The Lightning Testimonies” where the viewer is surrounded by disparate images, how and where to look first and absorb is just so interesting. Like much of the work Amar creates trying to understand what’s happening around him, “The Lightning Testimonies” (2007) was also made in response to the Gujarat carnage of 2002.

“It was hard to understand a certain kind of brutality and celebrations. Over time the installation became a way to look at the history of the subcontinent but only through the issue of sexual violence in public spaces and conflicts. There were many questions. How is the trauma dealt with? How is it remembered? What visual language could one use? I didn’t know how to represent these experiences. I didn’t want the women to recount their pain. I learnt that different women from various regions and communities archived and recalled their experiences in different ways. At times the stories were hidden, submerged, protected. At times they were camouflaged and released. I explored multiple forms and vocabularies to try and comprehend this pain. There are narratives that abstract or documentary or archival or even through drawings and performance”, says Amar. As the viewer moves between the stories of Bilkis Bano, women during Partition, the Imas from Manipur (the mothers of Manipur who staged the nude protest against the rape and killing of Manorama)...these supposedly disjointed frames, a larger narrative begins to emerge. “And when it shifts from multiple screen projections to a single projection, it is only then that you hear a spoken voice. Sabitri (veteran actor Sabitri Heisnam) then performs and sings on this screen, as she almost pulls you out of a deep pit of despair," he adds.


Amar’s work is rooted in what he saw growing up in Delhi, the Partition, 1984 Sikh killings and the Bhopal gas disaster. Those concerns and their resonances remain embedded in his work even today.

“Site” and “A Wager”, “Earth as Witness”, were some of his early works dealing with labour, Partition, Buddhism that Amar made shortly after he graduated from the Mass Communications Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia. However, it was “A Season Outside” (1997) a film on Partition, violence and turbulence that ushered in a turning point in his artistic career. It was followed by “A Night of Prophecy” in 2002, which took him to Documenta, one of the most significant exhibition of modern and contemporary taking place every five years in Germany. The work, he says, tries to understand the passage of time through poetry of different regions.

In 1999, he travelled to Odisha and witnessed huge mining cartels come into the State. He began filming the resistance to the industrial interventions taking place there. “In 2010, I returned again, but this time to film, in particular, the terrain of this devastating conflict. Almost every image in “The Scene of Crime” (one of the two films that are central to “The Sovereign Forest” ) lies within specific territories that are proposed industrial sites and are in the process of being acquired by the government and corporations in Odisha,"

“The Sovereign Forest” has mostly been travelling ever since it was made. But where would he show when it comes back here? Remind him about the paucity of avenues to showcase such a work and instead of adding to the usual lament about museum space, he says, “You create your own space then. I would have to find new spaces. It is important to show work in many kinds of spheres and audiences so as to be able to also free oneself from these territories as and when required.”

Unlike last year, much of which was spent travelling and showcasing his work, Amar plans to invest the present year working towards a new project. Meanwhile, “The Sovereign Forest” will continue to grow.