To walk into an exhibition of works by Reena Saini Kallat is to know a few things with certainty: Pakistan and Kashmir are sure to be referenced; people’s names and signatures will play a prominent role; and rubber stamps (lots of them) will be utilized. Her latest show at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road, Silt of Seasons, is no exception. Here Kallat, with her characteristic employment of irony, satire and despair, has created a series of mini shows rather than a single sweeping manifesto; the works are silo-ed into pockets of their own making. Through them, the viewer gets a crash course on the significant political debates of our times. Pakistan and Kashmir appear in due course; the Line of Control is mapped with clear progression; bureaucratic tangles, migrant and labour issues, farmer suicides and torture also pop up.
In other words, this is a CliffsNotes primer for current world history. Kallat is a cerebral artist, a concept-driven heavyweight, whose liberal use of reference material can sometimes overwhelm. However, if like Cliffs Notes, they are taken in bite-sized viewings, the end result, to provoke and instigate, is inevitably achieved.
Mosaic: (clockwise from above) Crease/Crevice/Contour (2008); Closet Quarries (2008); and Reena Saini Kallat in her Bandra studio. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Synonym is a series of migrant worker portraits, made ingeniously with the ubiquitous rubber stamps that have become somewhat of a Kallat hallmark. The stamps are printed with the names of hundreds of missing people culled from the Internet and police reports around India. Up close, they are a hodgepodge of colour, line and purple-stained imprints. From a distance, they fall neatly into place, a jigsaw of irregular pieces that together reveal faces of surprising gentleness. A young girl, her head caught in a three-quarter turn, peers outwards—she could be glaring, squinting, or just slant-eyed. In their low-res, pixellated rendering, they somewhat resemble a Chuck Close portrait, but unlike Close, who works on a grid, Kallat is more loose-limbed—her end portraits are not facsimiles of their subjects, nor are they meant to be. They are, in their homogeneity, representations of both the loss of people and the loneliness of mass migration.
Kallat has employed the same technique, albeit less successfully, in a second series—Closet Quarries, a set of panels with floral motifs taken from inlay patterns at the Taj Mahal. Here the rubber stamps have the names and symbols of the workers and masons who assisted in the construction of the Taj. Some are no more than hieroglyphics, others are names written out in the Devanagari script. Kallat’s intention is to weave together the factual and the fictional, to speak as much about the mythic allure of the monument as to reference the migrant labour that helped build it. Yet somehow, the execution fails to bring together the many strands of this narrative. The painting of the stamps is not quite as deft, the colours muddier and the patterns, though clearly Mughal motifs, not as appealing.
Among the rest of the works are a few that have been displayed before at various venues. White Heat, a giant weapon-studded marble iron that sits atop a cloth embroidered with the names of people who signed a peace petition between India and Pakistan in 2004, was on display at Bodhi Art’s Everywhere is War show in September. Now, as then, it is a powerful statement on the form and functionality of weapons, as well as the absurdity of war museums that display ornamental weaponry as works of art.
A photographic series, Crease/Crevice/Contour tracks the geographical changes in the Line of Control between 1947 and 1948. The map, composed of the names of people who signed the same peace petition, has been rubber-stamped on the back of a woman. Chronicled across 10 photographs, the shape evolves from an inky red stump to a pistol-shaped clump, to the present-day boundary between India and Pakistan.
It is with works such as these that Kallat soars. Their message is timely and moving, and even without the aid of the accompanying literature, able to convey clearly the disintegration and frustration of this decades-old peace process.
Prices range from Rs10-20 lakh. Silt of Seasons will be on view at Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Fort, Mumbai until 25 January
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