Raqs Media Collective and Raunik
MFA painting student Jagdeep Raina on "A Myriad Marginalia," an experimental studio course exploring manuscript marginalia from medieval to contemporary in both research and practice
This spring, Rhode Island School of Design welcomed the internationally acclaimed Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta) as Kirloskar Visiting Scholars. The collective, formed in New Delhi in 1992, joined forces with Painting professor Dennis Congdon to teach A Myriad Marginalia, an experimental studio course exploring manuscript marginalia from medieval to contemporary in both research and practice. The course culminated with the creation of a large-scale, one hundred-page experimental manuscript beautifully bound by bookbinder and RISD alum Jim DiMarcantonio. But the real heart of the course was our month spent with Raqs in the RISD Museum's Lower Farago Gallery, where we looked, drew, wrote, read, talked, and drank tea, all in a space open to the whole RISD community and the public.
Prior to the Raqs arrival, we met with Printmaking professor Andrew Raftery, who demonstrated how to make iron gall ink, Chinese ink, and quills from scratch to create marginalia drawings in the manuscript pages. Margot Nishimura, a former RISD professor, gave an insightful talk at the Fleet Library, where she shared her book Images in the Margins, a survey of absurd, horrifying, and playful marginalia found in the borders of English, French, and Italian medieval manuscripts. We also visited the John Carter Brown Library at Brown to study the marginalia scribbled in the pages of a wide range of texts. Kim Nusco, Reference and Manuscript Librarian, and Ken Ward, Maury A. Bromsen Curator of Latin American Books, devoted themselves to an extraordinary afternoon with us, sharing material ranging from early editions of Aristotle's works to children's drawings in the margins of eighteenth-century New England families' books.
In March, the magical trio arrived in Providence, bringing with them the spring weather, a flux of experimental and eccentric ideas, and infinite raunik, the Punjabi word for livelihood and joy. The very first class was with just Shuddha and Jeebesh. Our phenomenal conversation set the stage for what was to come. Topics ranged from yearning to see an imminent solar eclipse to imagining how humans would someday become walking images and archives. Soon Monica arrived, and the reading discussions began. The Raqs shared more than forty texts, ranging from their own experimental writings to the private diaries of a man named Heeraprasad. As discussions floated off, students would wander over to the tables full of waiting manuscript pages. We added our marginalia to the scorching Indigo-blue designs that peppered the printed paper. Collaborating on the same sheets made the pages even richer, as did taking them home with us and inviting people outside the Museum's walls to make their mark. Each class was different from the last, adding an element of surprise and mystery; we were never quite sure what would happen.
Over the course of the month, the Lower Farago Gallery transformed from what I had known as a restrained space for quiet visitors, academics, museum curators, and prowling guards into a vital communal space for not just looking but creating. I began to see raunik in every nook and cranny of the gallery. Films were shown on the walls, tables were littered with drawings, art supplies, books, and tea bags. Conversations were held, laughter was constant, and the crowd became extraordinarily eclectic. One Sunday afternoon a museum guard excitedly grabbed my arm and asked if she could sit in and draw in the manuscripts. An elderly gentleman picked up a rare first edition of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, helping himself to some tea and sitting for hours engrossed in the novel. These are just two of hundreds of small, visceral memories that changed my relationship with the RISD Museum. Every person who entered became a part of a conversation and had their voices heard.
The weeks slipped by, and the manuscript book began to bulge. The drawings and writings became livelier and livelier, and we all fell deeper and deeper into the raunik of the page. Acting as writers, artists, philosophers and provocateurs, much like the Raqs themselves, we engaged with intensive criticality the question of how we see ourselves as artists and realized the necessity of engaging with the world around us every single day. To enter a course with rigid expectations of how I should live my life as a thinker and artist and then have those expectations completely unraveled and remade—nothing is initially more devastating yet ultimately rewarding.
Looking back on my first year as a graduate student at RISD, I can in retrospect say that one of the biggest factors that lured me here was the Vikram and Geetanjali Kirsloskar Visiting Scholar program. This initiative, started by a generous donation from the Kirloskar family to the school in 2013, has given students meaningful exposure to Indian art and culture. Being a first-generation South Asian born and raised in Ontario, my knowledge of contemporary South Asian art had always been very little. Taking Contemporary South Asian Art with Chitra Ganesh—the prior Kirloskar artist-in-residence—in the Fall of 2014 and working with the Raqs allowed me to not just expand my knowledge of South Asian art but to acquire the tools necessary to create meaningful artwork, engage in honest discussion, and develop a work ethic saturated in rigor and humility.
The drawings above—of the Museum's current exhibition of our marginalia, a far more orderly rendition of the course itself—are my attempt to resuscitate the dizzying and majestic transformation of the space during our collective residency. The Raqs' swift departure out of Providence to continue their adventures beyond the margins of the United States left a gaping hole. But their legacy has already become legendary, forever living on in the hearts of those they touched.
—Jagdeep Raina, MFA Painting, 2016
"Raqs Media Collective: A Myriad Marginalia" is on view at the RISD Museum from March 17 – May 31, 2015.
The Raqs Media Collective residency and exhibition are made possible through the Vikram and Geetanjali Kirloskar Visiting Scholar in Painting endowed program at RISD, presented through collaboration between the RISD Museum, the RISD Painting Department, and RISD Global Partners & Programs.