Aishwarya Kumar Iyer

Aishwarya Kumar is an artist, writer and cultural producer whose interests, research area and knowledge lie in studying and creating immersive learning experiences and discourse from object to architecture. Positioning herself in the liminal spaces of academia and artistic practice, she has imagined and conceived programs, events, and spaces that enable artistic and academic exchange. Having focused her undergraduate and graduate course to studying media objects and performance cultures, her practice is informed by site-specific knowledge and how they transcend classroom environments.

Program Portfolio

If we are only a part of the same whole

Are serial killers reflection of our own imaginations that aren’t actualised?

A Socio-cultural study of Charles Sobhraj and audience reception.

The case study is a mixed analysis on interviews with Charles Sobhraj and the show ‘The Serpent’.

“I asked him, ‘You look familiar – are you Charles Sobhraj?’,” Nathan said. “To this, in a distinctive French accent he asked: ‘Who is he – a Bollywood actor?’” This case study explores, Charles Sobhraj as a person who aspired for fame not only through the crimes and murders, he committed but also through games he manufactured, which allowed for the development of his celebrity status. The case studies his behaviour during the development of his character as a serial killer but also hopes to study the time after, during his stay in the suburbs of Paris and finally, his residence in Nepal before his last arrest.

The Reaction

It is customary to retract into oneself when watching in gruesome, gory, harrowing details, the murders of not one, not two, but a group that fits a pattern. For the social, moreover communal being that we are, the mind tends to initiate a self-scan. Do I fit the profile? Was I wearing similar clothes? Didn’t I walk that street, drink, talk to that stranger, and brush away the strangeness of that one house I visited that night? A paranoid reading of this kind only appeals in the initial moment of encounter, when you first read the news article, when social suspicions create different buckets of danger.

What is to say about the continuing interest the anatomy of serial killers and their killings? What makes the viewing of serial killers, true crime, detective drama and more, “binge-worthy”? I am operating with the belief that beyond the curious desire to observe the unfurling of events and with that the growth of a person into a serial killer, their moral abdegation of the justice and ethical system, and the resulting downfall, whether by surrender or capture, there is a certain sense of the self reflected in the psyche or actions of the the killer that the viewer strongly resists acknowledging. A rather controversial perspective, I hypothesise on the underlying need to override societal morality and the pleasure of morose delectation that is present in Schadenfreude. While Schadenfreude is commonly understood as the joy felt in someone else’s misfortune, the underlying possibility of the impure thought does not escape anyone. Which is why we catch ourselves from chuckling, giggling, and nudging those around us at the sight of a falling child, an unkempt drunk at the table, an absurd ending of the relationship of a close friend. Is it even personal, the enjoyment of such impure thoughts? Is the joy directed towards the person experiencing the misfortune or towards the sensation of the thought, regardless of the person. Is it this feeling that allows, in a small percentage, for us to be able to follow entire series of murders? Is it this feeling that is a sign of the times?

Just as the serial killer is aiming to be studying sociologically, so is the audience that absorbs the content.

The Influence

One such example, of a man so stringently French and yet not, is of Charles Sobhraj. Recognised and wanting to be recognised for his life, it was his charm, personality, and murders of the western tourists travelling the hippie trail of the 70’s. A more recent TV series, The Serpent (2021), is one of the few documentaries that detail out not only the murders, events, and personality of Sobhraj but also focuses on the character of Hermann Knippenberg, the unassuming antagonist to Sobhraj’s image of himself, yet the telling protagonist of the show. While Knippenberg isn’t critical to the rest of this piece, it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the complexity he adds to Sobhraj’s fight against the Imperial West.

According to the TV series, one of the main entry points for this piece of writing, the attention towards Sobhraj’s undertaking’s begins when Knippenberg, a dutch diplomat, comes across the images of two missing Dutch travellers. What begins then, is almost a decade long documentation of Sobhraj, or then known as Gauttier, by Knippenberg. The recognition of the importance of Knippenberg’s character by the director Tom Shankland Hans Herbots is not for no reason. Knippenberg’s obsession with Sobhraj, albeit to finally provide him some form of retribution, is quite ironically the claim to fame that Sobhraj has seeked all his life, and continues to. To understand this character and how it feeds our desire to watch true crime, I have drawn out an infographic.

Infographic Analysis

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The Outcome

More recently in India, partners, specifically live-in partners have come under governmental scrutiny. After the self-proclaimed dexter-esque murder of Shraddha Walkar by her partner Aftab Poonawala, there seems to be an increasing number of cases becoming socially visible, those mainly targeting murders by partners. The increased journaling of such cases is easily placed within the Baader Meinhof phenomenon, which states that the tendency of cognitive bias is to notice something repeatedly after having noticed it once. It can be claimed that the pattern then arises out of a bias rather than a pre-existing fact, otherwise ignored. It is claimed that the reason behind such incidents is the modernisation of culture. What is lost through such claims is the insidious problematic of such incidents that sits outside the simple dialectic of western and non-western culture. 

The affordances that allow the journey from imagination to reality, of either victim blaming or heroic elevation to murder, is not the journey of the killer alone. It is evident, as in the case of Aftab and Shraddha that the journey is shared in parts with the viewers. To question the living condition, that is to say to assign the reasoning behind such issues to the live-in situation rather than the power dynamics in different partnerships allows for the further development of thought that the murdered was from a section of society that had “asked” for the outcome. Similar to Sobhraj’s case where the victims were dismissed as “dirty hippies”, underserving of the time of the officials for very long, victims of single-murders or serial killings, often sit at the intersection of society which doesn’t only partake in the western/non-western hierarchy, but also the dialectic that negates gender imbalances, social support systems, and more. While the viewer isn’t directly involved in the journey of the murderer, there seems to be, a study that could be further undertaken from a psychological perspective, a pattern of morose delectation. After all, as said by Hodgekinson, Prins et. al, “the public attraction to the darker aspects of human nature, such as torture, cruelty and killing, can be found throughout history, and should be seen as normative rather than aberrantly pathological (Carrabine, 2011)” (Hodgekinson, Prins et. al 2016, 3). 

By consequence, Sobhraj’ perception of his own celebrity status, for being able to steal from those he considered undeserving, for being the man who could move the sentiments of some to look away from his acts for it was taking care of larger issues in the process, for being able to operate in the open, and for being able to succeed, is not too far from a claim. “Celebrity is recognised to be a global, international, yet also often culturally ‘local’ phenomenon which produces modes of representation that can be felt as empowering, disingenuous and impossible to attain” (Holmes and Redmond, 2010, p. 7)” (Driessens 2014, 110).


Delving into the intriguing interplay of stage, film, and performance art, where personal tales unfold before the public eye, as the mesmerizing film ‘If It Were Love’ takes center stage, whether behind closed doors, in open air, or within bustling public spaces. Witness the enchanting convergence of mediums, as the boundaries blur and the narratives intertwine, inviting us to ponder the captivating display of private lives exposed to the collective gaze.

Shedding Skin

(Up to down): Poster image for the digital presence of Narcosexuals (2022), Screenshot from If It Were Love (2020).

“You want some water?” asks the voice in your ears as I stare straight ahead into the grey eyes of a naked, lithe man, or into a room exposing the butt cheeks, penis and nipples of the three other naked men, or look through the bathroom window at a man sitting on the toilet, squirming at the ecstasy that is flowing through his body. He turns and looks at me when I hear the question. I almost lurch in, catching myself soon enough to realise, I’m on the outside, looking in. This opening encounter with Netherlands-based artist Dries Verhoeven’s performance Narcosexuals was about a container box converted into a middle-class, minimally replenished home, with large, transparent windows as its distinct feature. Distinct, not because of any aesthetic standard, but because of the strangeness of its presence at a site that housed inhabitants clearly disobeying any social distancing, health, censor and moral structures.

“You want something?”, I am asked again as this feline body gyrates on top of a couch in the middle of being told about how another man’s butthole was his galaxy. And as he slaps himself against the window, staring into my eyes, I forget that I am on the outside looking in. Keeping aside the visual porosity of a glass facade, for which there are many aesthetic and social arguments ranging from moral ques of society to the surveillance status of the surrounding, I think what encloses Narcosexuals and If It Were Love by Austrian filmmaker Patric Chiha in the same field, however nebulous the contours of this field may be, is the ambiguity of the perception between private secrets and public displays created by the intersection of theater, performance art and film (in the case of If It Were Love).

At the very beginning of both experiences, the audience is teased with the possibility that a threshold can be crossed, only to be thwarted time and again. Narcosexuals sets this momentum in myriad ways. From the manner in which the performers hold and disengage eye contact, to how they seem to select you in the audience to narrate the story, to the intimacies shared with the other performers, as if oblivious to the voyeuristic gaze from the outside. But am I truly allowed to feel the pleasure of a voyeur if I have been invited to watch? Is the audience simply assigned the role of a cuckold, a helpless yet desiring viewer to the performer’s affair with the furniture, the house, and the other inmates? 

If It Were Love plays a different game. Oscillating between shots that showcase the entire rehearsal sequence, from the instructions uttered by the choreographer, to the stage set-up and green rooms, and close-ups that move with the movement of the performers, as if witness to the intense process of how they begin to embody the characters they play, I was pushed to question whether the entire documentary was in fact a monologue performed from the perspective of the dancer? Or, was I, the hypothetical interviewer, getting answers to questions I didn’t know I had – how had the performer abstracted their bodies to strong concretised images such as a Nazi? How has it affected them? How do they survive it? To be able to see the shadow side of dancers who are most of ethereal, inaccessible and sublime, to be able to hold on to them longer than their fleeting presence on stage is possibly Chiha’s attempt at catching a firefly and with that allowing us to see what makes it glow, or burn.

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