Arts curator Himanshu Verma attempts to create resonances with India’s rich past and its rapidly-evolving present through his cultural organization Red Earth. He is also a longtime proponent of the sari, a garment he wears and is besotted with for its beauty and fluidity, and which has brought him the moniker ‘sari man’.
It was all a consolidation of an accident that I began wearing the sari in 2006. I was working on a project about redefining notions of masculinity and on a whim, I decided it would be interesting to wear one to the event’s opening. I didn’t expect to fall so in love with it. The gorgeous fluidity of the drape – every time I wear the sari, it speaks to me in a different way. Of course, there are the established regional ways of draping it, but it’s so open to interpretation. It’s magic and that’s why I remain endlessly fascinated by it. But what I loved even more was how it was such a perfect antithesis to the binary system of gender. In fact, in colloquial parlance, ‘sari’ simply refers to a drape and is not gender-specific.
I am interested in unusual weaves that haven’t been tapped as much. I inherited some of my mother’s saris – the kind of benarasis you won’t find now because they simply don’t weave that way anymore. Even kanjivarams are so beautiful. But I’m interested in the lesser-known weaves that break the mould of the festive sari. Like the ilkals of Karnataka and many other forgotten weaves which are being reinterpreted by some designers. They have so much potential for creative development.
I see the sari becoming relegated to occasionwear, very few people are wearing it on a daily basis. At the same time there is this consciousness of roots – that the sari meant something more in the past – and I feel there is always the possibility to ignite those resonances again. We started the sari festival where we collaborate with designers to showcase their saris across the country and to foster conversation and learning around the garment. This is actually a leitmotif of Red Earth –like the sari, we try and work with a lot of traditional elements like seasons and their associated festivals, to make new art that resonates with people.
For example, The Monsoon Festival we organize, which is in its 12th year now, is a celebration of the Indian monsoon and how it has spawned creativity over the ages, in visual art, songs, fiction, food, festivities, rituals and lived culture. What we try to do is interpret the same ideas – the ritualistic connotations and the connection with agrarian economies – within the vocabulary of art forms we work with in an urban context.
The Genda Phool Project (TGPP) which we started in 2010 is another example. I was looking at how the marigold is such an important part of social life in not just India, but all of South Asia. It’s a flower that’s used for every occasion, from birth to death to marriage and it was part of the common man’s vocabulary. We tried to give its ubiquity expression through art, music, plantation activities and crafts and several other community-building programmes. TGPP has been dormant for the last couple of years but I plan to keep returning to it; it’s a lifelong endeavour for me.
Another aspect of what we do is the effort to collapse the idea of ‘genre’ and work across arts because genres tend to give way to hierarchies: like classical being better than folk. or folk music being better than Bollywood music. Or handloom is better than power loom or mill-made fabric. And while it’s fine to have your personal assessments of things, we strive to maintain a neutral perspective in order to study and engage with all forms.
I am interested in stories, but also simpler pleasures. The world is moving at such a fast pace. We’re so driven by technology – in the organization too, we have to keep moving with the time and adapt to technology to market our work. It’s hard to escape. We’re losing that sense of leisure, as a result, that sense of itminaan. If you look at the accelerated rate at which cities are growing, it doesn’t matter if you were born and brought up in one, you can still feel exiled and lose your connection with your city.
I curate 1100 walks (@1100walks), which offers walking tours centred around art and design in Delhi, rather than the usual history and heritage-based experiences. Like a sari walk, for instance. I like to tell unusual narratives of Delhi – or even Jaipur and Vrindavan, for that matter. The process of developing an itinerary is also very intuitive. I do the research very slowly. If I was doing a walk in Jaipur, I would go there like 500 times, just amble around, visiting the same places again and again until their finer points make themselves known to me.
In Delhi, it is popular to go to Chandni Chowk, but most people only skim the surface, maybe hit Jama Masjid and Red Fort. But Chandni Chowk is an amazingly dense city. I can still lose myself there and encounter things I’ve never seen before even though I’ve been there hundreds of times. You never know when you’ll stumble upon the best chaiwala in the city, or the best tikki. Sure, you can access all the history through other people’s work but accidental discovery brings a different joy altogether. A lot of walkers ask me if I’m bored of Chandni Chowk because I go there at least five times a week, and the answer is no, because I’m creating a new map every time.
Nostalgia drives me as a curator. I long for the Delhi of yore. I enjoy Mehrauli for its rich collection of buildings – you can see every kind of Delhi architecture from the last 1000 years in one neighbourhood. Outside the Mehrauli Archaeological Park and outside the park, leading into the village, heritage structures dot the landscape. When you research, you enter different realms that you haven’t experienced in your lifetime. Which means you can go beyond your lived nostalgia and tap into a collective nostalgia.
A good way to start getting back in touch with your city – or any place – and become immersed in its traditional narratives, is to remember to keep looking outside our regular hangout places like the coffee shop. Get out there and walk. Traditional elements are being gradually eliminated at every level and being aware is the only way to hold on to them. Get yourself a good cultural interpreter, it’s possibly more important than even walking, because you need someone to hold your hand and they will help you read the neighbourhood.
And finally, be open. It’s hard because it means stepping out of your comfort zone. We’re all used to comfort and luxury and it’s hard to explore because you have to get used to heat, dust and pollution. I still find it hard too. But I think you have to just let go and work through it because you’ll be the richer for it.
As told to Cheryl-Ann Couto, exclusively for Parisera.