There is a sense of the spiritual in Debashish Paul’s performance. As he walks around the NSIC Grounds, Okhla—venue of the 2023 edition of the India Art Fair—in a sculptural dress, wearing a headgear of matkas, it feels like he is exploring his queer identity with every movement and folding of the fluid textile forms. He attributes this spiritual element to a childhood spent in Phulia village, located within West Bengal’s Nadia district. “Nadia is where Chaitanya Maha prabhu spread his message of bhakti and prem. While growing up, I both watched and participated in kirtans, jatra and putul naach, a performing style with dolls,” says Paul, who is now based in Varanasi—he moved to the city for his masters degree in sculpture at the Banaras Hindu University in 2019.
He felt a certain fascination for myths, stories and rituals. They offered him a window to explore ideas of gender and the body. “In our stories, sometimes Radha morphs into Krishna, and vice versa. Lord Vishnu takes on a female form as Mohini. The myths show that the soul has no gender, and that idea informs my work,” he adds. Paul found an environment similar to Nadia in Varanasi. “There, people come in search of mukti. It is a city of birth and rebirth,” he adds. This reflects in his performance as well—sometimes he buries himself in earth, at times he makes small houses and immerses them in the river. “My performances are a search for mukti,” elaborates Paul.
A note by the India Art Fair states that Paul first began by creating drawings of figures in other-worldly garments, which have over the years taken the form of ‘automatic’ performances featuring the artist himself. In each of these pieces, the artist creates a “ritual environment” in which the body and its expressions are most sacred.
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An artist-in-residence at the India Art Fair, he is presenting Me and My Pets at the NSIC Grounds. “I have often felt one-sided love for certain people. I could never convey my emotions to them. Many worlds of feelings live within me. Over time, I realised that memories are like pets—we nurture them, they accompany us everywhere,” says Paul.
2020 marked a turning point in his practice. His training as a sculptor met his passion for performance art. “Uss samay maine apne andar jhaak ke dekha (I spent a lot of time looking inwards). I explored the idea of body and identity,” he says. The artist’s childhood experiences came into play once again—when he used to stitch fabrics with his sisters and sisters-in-law. He also felt brave enough to confront desires and his identity further. “In one of Paul’s recent and much-beloved performances, Beyond The Body and Gender, the artist wears a dress and helmet made of paper painted with graffiti-like marks and walks along the banks of the Ganga river with dozens of festive balloons, which, at the end of the performance float away into the sky,” states the fair note.
Today, such sculptural dresses, with their fluid forms—that don’t subscribe to any gender norm—have become an innate part of his performances. Going forward, he hopes to work on newer experiments, while continuing to be inspired by his memories.
‘Me and My Pets’ will take place at the NSIC Grounds, Okhla, New Delhi, on 11 February, 4 pm to 4.30 pm