India Re-Hyphenated

Rosalyn D’Mello is an art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover
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Seventy stages of freedom

THE OVERLY conspicuous ‘l’ in the hyphenated second word makes the title of Arshiya Lokhandwala’s exhibition—‘ India Re-Worlded’— seem like a visual and aural typographical error. Should it not have been ‘re-worded’, you wonder, before learning from the wall text that the titular term has its origin in post-colonial theory. Gayatri Spivak coined the phrase to signify a subversive exercise undertaken by a once colonised country. Reworlding engenders a re-mapping, re-defining one’s realities against one’s own axes, and not those of the colonisers.

Lokhandwala extends Spivak’s present participle ‘reworlding’ into a hyphenated, immediate past, almost indirectly deeming her ‘survey’ exhibition an accomplishment, one that has successfully manoeuvred such a daring, imaginative feat. Despite this declarative stance, there is a sense of understatement, given that the wall text has been confined to two paragraphs followed by a large textual cloud that’s really a list of the contributing artists, an impressive roster of Modern and Contemporary greats, both dead and living. It is here that Lokhandwala, whose doctoral thesis was titled, ‘Historicizing Biennales and Large-Scale Exhibitions in a Global Age’, outlines the curatorial strategy for this re- worlding mission: ‘The exhibition is an invitation to 70 artists to examine one year of their choosing from the last 70 years,’ she writes. ‘Artists have chosen to highlight the early years of independence including... the newly written constitution and reforms, marked significant political events, protests, riots, commemorations, assassinations, violence against women, environmental concerns, including the domestic, and everyday existence. The show encapsulates 70 such moments allowing us to write a unique history of India constructed through these individual moments experienced by the artists in post-Independent India.’

Riyas Komu’s Fourth World, a dark commentary on the recent threat to diversity that has marked the lead-up to 2017, his chosen year and the one that defines our current reality while foreshadowing the upcoming 2018, sets the pitch for the extensive show, even though it isn’t placed within plain view of the entrance. Komu has dismembered the four lions of the national emblem, derived from the Lion Capital of Ashoka that dates back to 250 BCE, stringing each one from a meat hook so they lie suspended between their supporting column and the wall. For Komu, the four dimensions represent the unity in diversity enshrined in the Constitution. ‘Though we do not see the fourth dimension, its presence is there, always unified with the other three and that was the strength of the republic,’ he writes in the wall text accompanying his work. ‘Conceptually, when this unity breaks, when we are no longer able to rely on the unseen fourth dimension, that’s when the anxieties of the State, and political and administrative processes surface. We’re excluded from these, making it easier for power structures to erase cultural differences and instill ideas of homogenisation in its citizens.’ Komu’s work hints at the gradual erosion of the very principles upon which the Indian Constitution was founded. The meat hooks are a subtle allusion to the more recent policing of what a democratic republic’s citizens can and cannot eat.

This corrosion of the foundational values that defined the legacy of India’s struggle for independence finds further expression through the illegible scrawl of Reena Saini Kallat’s Verso-Recto-Recto- Verso, a two-part hand-dyed bandhini scroll upon which are imprinted in part- Braille, part Roman script, the opening paragraphs of the constitutions of India and its ‘other’, Pakistan. It is an extension of an earlier video work, Synapse (2011), in which patients have their eyesight tested at an optometrist’s clinic by unintentionally reading out, letter by letter, the Preamble to the Indian Constitution, a satirical take on blindness as a prognosis, despite the seeming ability to see. ‘Flattened and thus made illegible to both the sighted and the blind, the ‘Braille’ text replaces words common to the preambles of Indian and Pakistani constitutions,’ the wall text informs us, pointing at faltering attempts to highlight some ideological commonalities that inflect both foundational texts. ‘The inscrutability of the two renderings is a reminder of the collective amnesia of the two sets of citizenry, resulting in a failure to understand and fight for the values upon which the two nations were constituted.’

The corrosion of the foundational values that defined the legacy of India's struggle for independence finds expression in some of the artworks

Obviously, it seems, artists cannot be trusted to blindly proliferate any propagandist strain of nationalism. The re-worlding—that transpires through various critical positions disguised as artworks in the exhibition—implicates political forces, as well as the citizens responsible for their election as active participants in the dismantling of the ideals that were at the forefront of the nation- building exercise that characterised the freedom struggle. In an era of wasteful budgeting for hyper monuments that stem from the desire for superlatives, the artworks in the show quietly examine what ought to be memorialised and what ought to be rescued from the pitfalls of collective amnesia. One resilient example that is continually reasserted is that of victims of state-sponsored violence, particularly in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition of December1992. Anita Dube’s Missing since 1992, a sculptural installation that uses bulbs suspended from electrical wires, evokes the architectural form of the Babri Masjid dome while simultaneously gesturing towards a hollow, or a vacancy. Dube’s wall text affirms the connection to this historic day, which she claims will forever be etched in her memory as the darkest day she has experienced as a citizen. ‘The idea of India as a secular state was brutally shaken that day,’ she recounts. ‘Pick axes and iron rods rained down on the dome to demolish it.’ The dome’s resemblance to a woman’s breast harks also to Dube’s perception of this religious fundamentalist violence as a violation of the feminine. ‘This work is an act of remembering,’ she states.

This spectral aura of re-introducing into public discourse the many casualties of politically-minded atrocities bleeds into several other works, including Ram Rahman’s installation, The Ghosts of Gulberg, which uses a photographic reconstruction of the walls of Rupalbehn Mody’s home in Gulberg society, Ahmadabad, “blackened with soot and neglect”. “I had first met her in 2002, days after her son went missing during the massacre of members of the Muslim community by a Hindu mob on 28th February,” Rahman recounts. “SAHMAT and Citizens for Justice and Peace (led by Teesta Setalvad) had brought survivors to Delhi for a public hearing. I saw tears in the eyes of President KR Narayanan, his wife and even his hardened military attaché when they met the survivors (even as the riots in Gujarat carried on).” It was at another hearing that Rahman made portraits of the survivors who he reminds us were also witnesses to “acts of unspeakable brutality.”

THE BLOW TO secularism had a direct impact on artistic production in the 90s. But artists of Muslim origin and identity found themselves more consciously influenced by the divisive politics of hate and violence. One such example was Rummana Hussain (1952– 99). ‘As the riots began in Mumbai, Hussain had to remove the family nameplate from outside her home and flee with her husband and young daughter,’ art critic Jyoti Dhar wrote in her essay on the late artist. “Hiding out at a nearby hotel, fearing for her life and home and for the safety of her family was a traumatic experience,” Rahman told Dhar, adding that this incident shocked her and was “an invasion into her protected, personal space” and how “suddenly she felt as if her Muslim identity was being thrust upon her.” On January 1st, 1993, Hussain was part of the interdisciplinary 17-hour performance event in Delhi organised by SAHMAT, of Sufi-Bhakti music in defence of secularism. Dhar’s essay reminds us of Hussain’s plea in The Independent: ‘It’s necessary to emerge from our insular shells, to come together and try and develop symbols of secularism… a coming together of artists and viewers is a form of public participation, one that emphasizes the commonality of all.’ Hussain’s trajectory transformed by the mid 90s, and the inclusion of the footage of her 1997 performance piece, Textured Terrains, among her last, in the exhibition is a brilliant move by Lokhandwala to remind contemporary audiences of the prescient role Hussain played in using the body as a channel for speaking of violence, censorship, while also adopting organic materials and props to articulate the endangered self.

In an era of wasteful budgeting for hyper monuments, the artworks in the show quietly examine what ought to be rescued from the pitfalls of collective amnesia

How can artists not only voice their opposition against injustices and violence but also offer their less privileged peers such avenues for expression? Raqs Media Collective provides an answer to this. Their choice of year is 1966 and their artist Mizoram-based Lalthlanchhuha Thlana Bazik creates a work ‘at variance with the republic’s own narrative’ about the Aizawl air raid that year which was silenced in the rest of India ‘but refuses to be erased’.

TO LOKHANDWALA’S CREDIT, she has rendered her role as curator almost invisible, allowing artists to choose their year of preference, as against assigning a year each, something a lesser curator would have felt inclined to do. She allows narratives to surface without cajoling them into elaborating a specific discourse. Her premise is transparent from the start, and she is careful not to fall into the trap of chronological sequencing as a modus operandi for display, perhaps her most admirable achievement. She has constructed the show around four major themes. Nationalism and the nation as archive are best exemplified through Vivan Sundaram’s pin-up board on 1968 and images from Dayanita Singh’s File Room. Violence, and finally the realm of the domestic and that of the gaze are exemplified by excellent works by Prajakta Potnis and Shakuntala Kulkarni. But Lokhandwala has strategically avoided making this obvious by not including section headers of any kind, allowing the viewer the luxury of navigating her own path instead, and by creating points of intersection, the most poignant one being the placement of Bharti Kher’s punctuating Mother and Son: Amar, Akbar, Anthony, a 2007 work, but framed within the year 1969, the year of Kher’s birth. ‘I wanted to be Cinderella with bouncy yellow hair,’ she writes in her wall text. ‘Now I want to be Kali, the black one, Mother Nature, keeper of time. Just walking.’ While the sculpture, composed of found objects, emphasises the aggressiveness of sectarian violence, its various dimensions create forking paths even as it seems to lie at a junction between various other seminal works, including a Souza crucifixion and a Tyeb Mehta masterpiece, a clever curatorial manoeuvre. It also dialogues with a new piece by Mithu Sen, specially commissioned for the show, titled UNlynching: You never one piece, an installation with bronzes, found objects, wall drawing, gesso painting on board and glass, that artfully illustrates the generic nature of violence, how it cannot be pinned on any one religion or group. Sen lists all the years since 1947, writing ‘to be continued’ at the end of 2017, as if subtly suggesting that while things change, they also remain constant, presenting us with a challenge to alter this tired narrative.

Incidentally, Lokhandwala has staged ‘India Re-Worlded’ 20 years after one of her first important curatorial ventures, when she ran Lakeeren out of Vile Parle back in 1997, when India was celebrating 50 years of Independence. ‘Jagriti’ was the name of the show she’d curated then, when “she didn’t know anything about what a biennale was, but felt a gallery had to do something with a public skin”, inviting 15 artists from around India to create installations and bits of theatre, dance and performance on different parts of the pavement of the predominantly Gujarati neighbourhood. “People from my locality who didn’t come were looking from their windows,” Lokhandwala recounts. “Of course, one has been thinking of the nation. In 2015 I did After Midnight, which was kind of a national show in a different way,” she says, referring to her gargantuan exhibition at Queens Museum in New York. Having given up her relatively tiny gallery space in Colaba, which was Lakeeren’s second avatar, it is indeed heartening to witness what Lokhandwala is able to envision with a more generous expanse of space and kitty of resources, courtesy the India Bulls Foundation, which has made it possible for Mumbai to freely access a museum-worthy exhibition.

(India Re-Worlded: Seventy Years of Investigating a Nation, curated by Arshiya Lokhandwala, runs at Gallery Odyssey, Mumbai, until March 31st, 2018)