The art of travelling through time

New York artist Chitra Ganesh uses the walls of Mumbai’s Lakeeren gallery as ‘tunnels’ for a multi-referential collage


Chitra Ganesh with a work in progress at the Lakeeeren gallery, Mumbai. Photo: Nayan Shah/ Mint
Chitra Ganesh with a work in progress at the Lakeeeren gallery, Mumbai. Photo: Nayan Shah/ Mint

Cave No.1 at Ajanta seduces you with languorous eyes and luscious women. One has a disconcerting moment thinking of monks living “monastically” surrounded by all this. Every wall of the cave has the gorgeousness of fifth-century painting, its depicted material desires imbued with the patina of time, wall painting that leaps beyond the surface centuries later, the colour in natural pigments saturating the beauty of the drawing.

Chitra Ganesh draws on walls now, in a residency at Mumbai’s Lakeeren gallery.

In Drawing From The Present, Lakeeren’s walls become the cave, or “tunnel” as the artist conceives it, the walls saturated with a muted colour, a “landscape” the artist would like to open up the gallery space with. There’s no closing in like at Ajanta, the stories depicted relating to a particular time and place. Here, in this 21st century “cave”, Ganesh’s “eyes” embrace the temporal and the spatial.

Ganesh, a New York-based American artist , weaves back and forth in time, stitching it together in collage, embellishing it with the popular, drawing the familiar—beauty is not restricted to the now but projected into the contemporary mythology that is science fiction, drawing from old fables.

It is interesting to see this show in tandem with Ashish Avikunthak’s film Rati Chakravyuh showing further down Arthur Bunder Road, which has women overturning myth and the contemporary. Avikunthak’s Sita sparkles as a woman whose desire encompasses the good and the evil simultaneously; Ganesh’s women meld the sensuous with the robotic; hybrids that retain femininity, they live in a non-linear narrative.

Ganesh is not mired in post-colonial angst like many diasporic artists. Instead, the drawing on Indian mythology (Amar Chitra Katha comics being a source), using material as embellishment, incorporating a fascination with sci-fi, are just strategies to further her drawing—more as formal elements that enhance a concept not bound by nation or a particular culture. Assimilating the popular with the historical, she draws from art history more than her Indianness; her woman may seem like a yesteryear Hema Malini to us, but she could also be a fulsome Beyoncé Knowles, drawn in a universal graphic style.

One thing does predominate: the narrative of women through the ages. As a member of the queer community, the universality of independent women shines through rather than her Indian legacy. Her characteristically sensuous women are brutally dismembered, yet in the floaty femininity there is assertion, a freewheeling branching out of the self. Further illustration is derived from the surrounds, it could be weathered walls in Delhi or the graphic of a UFO in an American comic book.

This “free” spirit of her works does come across: There’s the sensuousness of the East in her curvaceous women and the early machines of an industrialized West, put together to talk of myths and cyberspace and time travel. Wires connect walls, mirrors reflect others, Buddhism and Star Trek are all influences. If it’s a hotchpotch of referencing and material, there is method in the madness, an order in the immersive environment created.

As one enters the gallery, the eye is drawn to the Medusa-like drawing on the far wall; the tunnel vision the artist hoped for does in fact occur. From her, all radiates out—the walls are awash with colour; like the grey seas that surround Mumbai, a muted orange monsoon-washed sky rises. So, stand on this island and let the eye wander over Ganesh’s horizon.

This Medusa-like head has the “halo” of H.G. Wells’ time machine, instead of hair, as adornment; there is a Zen-like feel to this larger than life bust, much like a Buddha head in form, as there is to the reclining figure to the right. Taking up an entire wall, the reclining figure is not the Buddha but a woman who beckons, courtesan-like. Pieces of mirror, embellishing her body like glistening fish scales, throw back fragments of you…this surface play of wall acts like a membrane: The artist wishes to imagine the very “breath” of the woman.

This build-up of the drawing through materiality is important for Ganesh; two-dimensionality is broken, as she wants a back and forth between the drawing and the gaze.

On the opposite wall, a cyborgian woman connects the inner and outer worlds through Ganesh’s trademark thought bubble, in which small canvases abound. Using the patina of walls photographed in Delhi, digitally transferred on to canvas, then painted over with memories of women in her life and drawings of time-travel machines, the combination of material raised off the surface of the flat wall is used to “come” at the viewer. Whether or not this is successful, the artist uses this collage of ideas and materials similarly in “kitschy” “prayer flags” that adorn the gallery—here, contrarily, these are the only takeaways for viewers.

Fittingly, given Ganesh’s play with time, two panopticons oversee it: Rajabhai Clock Tower looks down with a “third eye”, as does a convoluted communication tower, tucked away behind the iron pillar of the gallery—she uses geographies of the city and the gallery interior, the historical and the contemporary. One needs a gadda to lie down, much like most of the city does on pavements, and gaze up at Ganesh’s cave of present dreams; watching crows on the shadow lines in her sky, it takes time for all this fantasy to seep in.

Drawing From The Present is on show till 30 September, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Lakeeren, 6/18, Grants Building, Second floor, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba, Mumbai (65224179).

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