Nestled in a verdant bylane in Ulsoor, the Sandbox Collective office is the very picture of serenity. The space belies its occupants, however, for within, the members of the collective are hard at work putting together the final touches on Gender Bender, now in its third edition. The ten recipients of this year's grants will come together this week to present their ideas on gender and society through painting, installations, games and performances.
"We can't live in a bubble anymore," remarks Nimi Ravindran, who co-founded Sandbox Collective with Shiva Pathak. They have known each other for well over a decade and believed firmly, atleast at the start, that aesthetics defined art. "Anything aimed at a social cause was a turn off," said Ravindran. "Maybe we're maturing as well, because we realise now that we can't work in isolation. You can't turn a blind eye to what's happening to couples in Europe and stage Romeo and Juliet."
What began as a conversation at the Goethe Institut - "Let's do something on gender, would you like to try?" has grown into the only festival of its kind in the country, focusing exclusively on gender. They decided on a grant, issuing an open call for applications. "The brief only talks about reinventing and re-imagining gender," says Pathak. This fetched them some flack for being 'too vague', but that, she explains, is really the point.
"We want artists to play with their own ideas. It's not a formal grant where the chosen artists are asked to report to the foundation every step of the way. The freedom to explore one's own creativity is a huge thing."
Applications came pouring in - this year, for instance, Arunima Bose, a Delhi-based artist, will present In Full Bloom: Playing with Pleasure. An interactive installation, the audience is invited to touch, experience and engage with vaginas made from different materials. "She's called the 'vagina lady' and has absolutely no qualms about this," Pathak smiles. Zui Kumar Reddy, a young writer from Bengaluru, used her Gender Bender grant to create Goeffe Josef, a short film on what female desire, replete with angry, gun wielding women who shoot men who can't pleasure them. The film made the rounds of feminist festivals, going first to Mumbai and then to Los Angeles. "It got a fair bit of criticism too, people thought it was over the top, but that was to be expected," says Ravindran. "How can a woman talk of pleasure, after all?"
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of Gender Bender, however. "The diversity of the ideas that come in surprise us every time," Ravindran says, as Pathak nods her agreement. There's Sukriti Sureka whose installation, Berang se rang, is a collection of Madhubani paintings on what appears to be a hut. The outside showcases Madhubani work while the inside uses the traditions to depict gender biases. Madhushree Basu will present Swachhandacharinee, a story-telling based on Thadaka, by Malayalam poet Vayalar Ramavarma and Himani Panth's Hysteria deals with psychological stress in women.
"As we go from year to year, we find there's always something to learn. We're constantly asking questions of ourselves," said Pathak. "That feeds into what we do with the next edition."
The experience has been a defining one for the founders, too. "Our work has moved into that space," said Pathak. Museum of Memories, another Sandbox project, was born of an open call asking artists to respond to the mass molestation on New Year's Eve in Bengaluru. "It's been a complete transition for us, too. We're becoming more aware of the issues that plague us - how we inhabit physical spaces, for instance. A woman is always aware of her surroundings because she's used to being groped and catcalled - we respond to these things in a number of different ways," Ravindran says. "It's casual misogyny that you don't think about, or even notice. And we're being made aware."
What: Gender Bender 2017, in association with Sandbox Collective and the Goethe Institut, co-curated by The Ladies Finger
When: September 9 and 10
Where: Goethe Institute
Free entry, registration required
Age restriction: 14 and above