NRI Voice: At Home, Everywhere

Singapore-based artist-writer Shubigi Rao does not believe in clinging to the ideas of nation, ethnicity or cultural singularity.


Artist Shubigi Rao calls herself “a cultural nomad with no singular affiliation or identity.” Which is why she didn’t think of herself as being uprooted when she moved to Singapore in the early 2000s, preferring a more roving existence.

For Rao, who had struggled with living in Delhi in her teens, as she had grown up in Darjeeling, in Nainital, and in the middle of the jungle on her parents’ land, coming to Singapore didn’t mean leaving India behind. “I still move around a fair bit – I just finished a residency in Berlin that lasted a year, and I’m constantly travelling for my research, filming, for shows, and for events,” she tells Little India, adding, “I’m still journeying, I suppose.” Rao takes us through her experiences across the world:

The artist at work

Singapore is hyper-urban and crowded, but it did give me what I most needed when I moved in my twenties – the ability to work and live without the suffocating misogyny I had experienced growing up. I was able to throw myself with gusto into forms and methods of working without the constant battle needed to simply get access as a young woman.

My sense of humor came to the fore, and by operating under a fictive male persona I called S. Raoul, I was able to make work that ranged across areas as diverse as archaeology, earth science, neuroscience, art history and criticism, natural history, scholarship and exploration, to language, libraries, and historical acts of cultural genocide. I began to make complex installations, immersive and often tongue-in-cheek, that employed puns (textual and visual) and wordplay, whether it was creating archaeological archives of garbage, writing How To manuals for incompetent tyrants to building a nation and a culture from scratch, discovering and diagnosing peculiar forms of urban malaise where digital dandruff and pixel dust accumulate like lint and cloud the contemporary brain, building immortal jellyfish, or a pseudo-museum environment questioning the nature of collecting, the mechanisms of knowledge accumulation and storage to destruction.

Cultural influences seeping into art

Everything influences me. I’m not a huge believer in grasping at entrenched (and often stagnant) ideas of nation, ethnicity or cultural singularity. I suppose the most Indian aspect of my work (and thinking) would be the way I work with language. I’m immensely fascinated by India’s rich language and dialect histories, its texts, lyricism and vernacular.

Since I moved around so much as a child I couldn’t really master any particular language, and this leaves me with an acute awareness of the poverty of my singular language – English. In a way it certainly helps facilitate an easier navigation in the art and literary worlds, but on the other I am constantly having to defend a lack of overt “Indian-ness” which is ridiculous. One doesn’t ask a German artist why there isn’t an overt German identity in their work! I think the pressure of having to assert an ethnic posturing throws up very interesting questions about perceptions of authenticity – what does it mean to be Indian?

My artist residency at Khoj International Artists’ Association from Sept-Oct this year felt like a homecoming of sorts, because I hadn’t lived in Delhi since my teens. I was able to revisit my old haunts, especially the bookshops (where the booksellers recognized me after all these years). I realized that familiarity hadn’t left me, and it was unexpected and quite lovely.

‘Useful Fictions’, at the 10th Taipei Biennale in 2016

The 10-year Pulp Series

In my current 10-year project Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book (2014-2024), I’m making a film and writing five books about the history of book destruction, censorship, and other forms of repression, as well as the book as activism and resistance. This involves visiting public and private collections, libraries and archives across the world that have served as flashpoints in history. By collecting fragments, ephemera, anecdotes, buried secrets, smuggled texts, and stories from collectors, librarians, open access advocates, exiles and displaced people, I’m piecing together (through the film, books, and artworks) a composite of the conjoined literary and violent trajectories of our species.

The first book, released in 2016, looks at issues surrounding books, libraries, translating, migrations, language shifts and displacements through hidden, censored, destroyed, marginalized and survivor texts. Wide-ranging in scope, the book is divided into five sections, and serves as giant introduction to a number of subjects.

Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book:

The first section looks at the natural history library as a taxonomic form that lent support to the colonial narrative of ‘civilizing the native’, and its resultant eradication of biodiversity of flora, fauna, cultures, languages, texts and traditions. The second section examines book and print histories, our love for and hostility towards knowledge. The third section looks at the nature of fact and fiction, myth, narrative building, history and lies, and meaning-making in the brain. The fourth section is more painful, but forms the core of the project – it’s a list of lost libraries, the problems of censorship, banning, and destruction, as well as the dangers of populist, state, or religious control of knowledge making and access. The final section is more hopeful – it looks at the power of books as potent symbols, at forms of literary resistance. This section also examines that supposedly most democratic medium – the internet, which is now also under assault from corporate and state interests that restrict free access, open source and information flow.

I’m currently writing volume II, and it’s in a very fluid state, so I hesitate to describe it just yet. It is informed by my travels filming people and sites that been at the forefront of cultural destruction, as well as by my conviction that a common humanist impulse links us across geographies, cultures, nations. A messy, shared love of multiplicity, of stories, of being heard and listening, of translating, printing, and of sharing – these are the narratives that are redemptive.

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