Known variously back home as artist manque, patron saint of street puppeteers, godfather of local artisans and high priest of design who finds his natural habitat at cultural dos, Rajeev Sethi is back in the news. He has erected a shrine to the new humanity in cool, faraway Germany and decorated it with the functional art of people whose only access to visibility is through people like himself.
Sethi is the first South Asian to be invited by the German government to design a pavilion for its international Millennium Expo 2000 that is on till the end of October in Hanover - a lower Saxony small town famous for its annual fairs and exhibitions. After being the voice of craftsmen, folk artists and others similarly invested with indigenous talents by putting together cultural fests, Sethis organisational skills have once again captured the attention of the fair-going world.
What highlights Sethis achievement (thanks also to his legendary association with Festivals of India, Trade Fairs and other sundry India projects) is the fact that it is for the first time that an exposition of this scale, range and intent is being held in this part of the world. The Expo 2000 is different from other similar expositions because it reflects the spirit of the 1992 Rio Declaration. Technology is not shown as a glorious end but as a means of optimising and sustaining natures abundance.
Sethis brief from the Germans was simple: create something that redefines existence. An artistic elevation of mans basic needs over his ever-multiplying greed. If those seemingly varied needs of an expanding humanity seemed like a tall order three years ago, it doesnt show up in his demeanour. Today Sethi is optimism himself - in khadi kurta, pyjamas and stole.
The Basic Needs pavilion at the Expo is a show of everyday articles that depict the cycle of life. These are held together by pointers that bring in the contrast of life in the times of suggestive selling, rabid consumption and increasing acquisitiveness. Sethi used the work of people living in rusticated pockets of human habitat - which makes them directly dependent on natural resources - to address global issues. These localised solutions, plucked away from their original context, string together a narrative of artwork that is superbly global. Sethi got 500 artisans and craftsmen involved in a symphony that defies the contemporary synonymity of the word global with an American fast-food chain; ironically, McDonalds is the sole American representative at the Expo.
The subtext of Sethis design scheme is the issue of empowerment. So where there is Teji Ben from Ahmedabad, who did the patchwork for an Earth Tent, or a leprosy-afflicted Suresh Mehto, who wove the tent, there are others as culturally uncelebrated as Bolivias toymakers or the women from Bangladesh who make economical sanitary napkins or the puppeteers from Vermonts Bread and Puppet theatre who stubbornly hold on to their disappearing art. They all happily meld in to form a larger canvas. "The craftsmen were like fodder for this project," explains the scenographer.
Sethis vast and influential network of friends also came in handy for the project. Zandra Rhodes (of the headgear with sari fame) lent her pink-haired presence to the Earth Tent. German artist Frei Otto provided the opening act with his Net of Hope, a kind of wishing well for world peace. "The electronic extension of folk", was provided by multimedia artists such as Briton Graham Rawle and Brazilian Rubem Grilo. Peter Brook promised to rope in Frances Channel 2 to make a film on the three years of travelling and research that went behind the exhibition. And the World Bank has asked Sethi to mentor a programme with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and philanthropist Lord Rothschild to use culture to fight poverty.
Being Rajeev Sethi sure has its rewards!