Disposable House

Artist: Samudra Kajal Saikia
Location: Guwahati, Assam, India
Year of completion: 2012

Researcher: Leon Tan

Apna hi Ghar Samjho (Mobilizing the House or Disposable House) is a mobile public art project by Samudra Kajal Saikia, supported by a public art grant from the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art in 2010, and realized on February 20, 2012. The project was developed over several years, and took as its conceptual premise the public exploration of images of home in individual and cultural memory. Based on a 22-kilometer ritualistic procession across the city of Guwahati, in the Indian state of Assam, Disposable House literally confronted street audiences across caste and class divides with life-sized physical homes, five in total, made from local materials such as timber, mud, and hay.

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A survey of documentary materials suggests that the project was highly successful as a public spectacle, captivating street audiences with an element of surprise, and evoking both questions and conversations. The artist himself took on a role as a kind of self-styled prophet or guru. The procession was ritually opened, groups circumambulated the houses, and the entire journey was accompanied by Sufi and Dehatatwa songs with dotara (a stringed folk instrument similar to the mandolin) and khol (a local variety of drum) music, all of which conferred on the spectacle a sense of spiritual import. That the houses were constructed in Jyoti Chitravan, the first film studio established in Assam, suggests that the spiritual overtones of the procession were more theatrical dramatization than anything else, a public “act,” so to speak. This dramatization, however, may be partly responsible for the project’s successful reception, given the widespread public support for any number of hereditary or self-appointed gurus or saints in the subcontinent.

The five houses themselves were adorned with symbolic references. Each represented a specific theme. Thus there was a Sufi house, an urban house, a house of displacement, a house of social norms, and the Kankhowa’s (actor’s) house. At the conclusion of the procession on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, the houses were installed on site, and a number donated to homeless families in the area, a fitting final act for a work that dealt with the notion of home. While it is difficult to objectively ascertain the extent to which the procession engaged audiences in reflection on the notion of different kinds of houses and homes, and indeed, on the idea of the body itself as home, it is conceivable that these notions were not lost on at least some of the public, not least, the homeless who received the gift of housing, and those who witnessed this generosity.

As a project, its excellence lies in the manner in which it engaged the fictive dimension of experience through performance, in order to pose questions concerning real life conditions, those of home and homelessness, possession and dispossession, property and poverty. It clearly transformed or disrupted the perceptual habits of unsuspecting audiences, and at the very least, stimulated amiable conversations between passersby in public. In terms of placemaking, the facilitation of social conviviality in the public spaces of a nation that is regularly traumatized by interreligious differences is highly commendable. Furthermore, Disposable House quite literally made living places for the homeless, rendering the aesthetic event socially useful.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency