It’s a sight as familiar as the bedrock of blue-sheeted slums that cloak parts of the city: rusted clusters of steel girders sticking out of cement pillars, signs of impending development, of monstrous new residential and office complexes that look dated even before completion.
And during times when everything seems to be in varying states of decay—the economy, the ecosystem—it’s a sight that provides an uneasy metaphor for parallel universes. One in which the city sprouts overnight in seeming disarray, and another where it crumbles into stifling layers of dust.
It is this duality to which artist Natraj Sharma pays tribute. His installation, Work in Progress, currently showing at BodhiSpace, Mumbai, is a mammoth iron reproduction of these half-baked constructions. Four 20ft high iron buildings stand side by side, in varying stages of rusted completion. Sharma has an adept eye and a feel for absurdity in proportion—standing in front, peering into the dusty windows, he makes us feel some of the overwhelming anxiety of break-neck development.
Ugly steel grills are fitted around some of the windows; balconies are strewn with piles of cement, dust and dirt; little bundles of those steel girders poke desolately into thin air. Stairwells are dirty and rudimentary, painted in the paan -hued rust of shoddy construction.
With these small giveaways, Sharma has explicitly created signs of human life, of the flurry of labourers who remain inconspicuous from the ground level. Which is why the accompanying oil paintings of labourers—of sari-clad women who carry away piles of rubble, and of the sinewy, sunburnt masons and migrants who hammer and drill long into the night—could have been done away with.
It is Sharma’s reminder of the back-breaking labour that is behind Mumbai’s clatter of development, but one that is entirely unnecessary. His buildings are powerful enough to stand as their own reminder—they are evidence enough that nothing in the city is broken and built without human cost.
The oils, clumsily executed, look like works of freshers at the JJ School of Art, so it’s hard to reconcile them with this masterful and moving installation. Nevertheless, as a neat encapsulation of everything the city is and will be, it works on levels beyond the obvious.
Work in Progress is on view at BodhiSpace, Wadibunder, Mumbai until 30 November.
All photos are installation views of ‘Work in Progress’