Nalpar and Pilla Gudis

Artist: Navjot Altaf
Location: Bastar, Chattisgarh, India
Year of completion: 2007
Researcher: Leon Tan

Nalpar and Pilla Gudis refer respectively to local hand pumps for water and temples for children. They are also the titles for two strands of Navjot Altaf’s decade long communitarian art practice in the Bastar, Chattisgarh region in central India, involving Adivasi artist-collaborators Rajkumar Koram, Shantibai, Raituram, Kabiram, Ghessuram and Gangadevi, as well as Adivasi communities of the region. Adivasi refers to a set of indigenous tribal peoples of India, whose livelihoods, land and rights have been steadily eroded in recent decades by the activities of the Indian government and private firms. Both these projects are exemplary for their emphasis on continual dialogue between collaborating artists from very different socio-economic contexts (urban and rural), Adivasi communities (men, women, young and old), the Nagar Palika (municipal government office), forest officials, and local teachers. Without such dialogue, and the interactions and interventions emerging from them, long term and sustainable social transformations would arguably be difficult to accomplish, for they would lack the social learning and emotional investment necessary for such change.

As a project, Nalpar grew out of Altaf’s feminist commitment to facilitating opportunities for Adivasi women artists to practice independently of the work of male artists. Thus it involved seven Adivasi women artists in the aesthetic transformation of local hand pump sites, communal sites for the drawing of water that were otherwise neglected, in disrepair, and often surrounded by stagnant pools of muddy water (perfect as breeding grounds for malaria and other diseases). The first Nalpar was completed in 2001, and by 2007 seven others were constructed. As depicted in the attached images, each Nalpar consists of a large level concrete platform facilitating interaction between women (water-carrying is exclusively the domain of womenfolk) and the evaporation of surface water (thus preventing the buildup of stagnant pools). The Nalpar also consist of concrete walls adorned with cultural motifs relevant to Adivasi life, and incorporate ergonomic interventions, structural elements allowing women to rest the heavy vessels in the process of water drawing, so as to avoid strain on the spinal cord. The sheer scale of the Nalpar architecture is important to note for its consequences: the high walls provide privacy for the womenfolk, who are at other times continually subject to the supervisory gaze of the men of the village, what Grant Kester discussing this project (2011: 79) calls “a pervasive scopic regime.”

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Pilla Gudis, literally “Temples for Children,” are spaces where the young may gather to play and engage with each other, outside formal schooling structures and processes. They also act as sites for non-formal art workshops and activities for immersion in Adivasi traditions, and function as spaces where dialogues may take place concerning local beliefs and practices in relation to other existential realities, such as those of surrounding cities and the activities of private firms encroaching on Adivasi land and water rights. Such non-formal learning sites are important because, in contrast to schools which privilege intellectual or cognitive knowledge acquisition, the Pilla Gudis and associated art workshops foster the acquisition of aesthetic knowledge, that is to say, learning in relation to sensory experiences. Like the Nalpar project, Pilla Gudis involved extensive cross-cultural collaboration and dialogue. Significantly, opportunities were created for non-tokenistic involvement of children. The Kopaweda Pilla Gudi depicted in the attached images was, for example, based directly on the drawing of Somnath, a 9 year-old child from the Kopaweda neighborhood. The other Pilla Gudis were likewise based on children’s drawings.

While these two strands of Altaf’s decade-long practice have produced outstanding object-outcomes in the form of the Nalpar and Pilla Gudis, and led to the creation of a financially self-sustaining arts organization, the Dialogue Interactive Artists Association (DIAA) in Kopaweda, the object-outcomes are by no means the chief emphasis of these public art projects. Equally important are the learning experiences that have taken place for Altaf and her Adivasi artist-collaborators, as well as for the local communities, and the dialogues, conflicts and negotiations that have led to ongoing social transformations in the Bastar region. As Altaf is at pains to highlight, dialogue, interaction and collaboration lie at the heart of this practice. Given that meaningful dialogue and collaboration takes time, in this case, well over a decade, it is difficult to “fit” the entirety of Altaf’s public art into the stipulated timeframe of the Award (January 2006 – September 2011). Instead, it should be considered that significant placemaking outcomes (e.g. beneficial changes in the daily experiences of place among local communities, particularly Adivasi women and children) took place within the timeframe, even though the project itself exceeds the timeframe at both ends.

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

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