In Memoriam by Dhruvi Acharya
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On October 14, one part of the Gallery Chemould transformed into a bedroom for the viewer to walk into memory. To be precise, we walked into artist Dhruvi Acharya’s memories. To begin with, everything in the room, from the bed to the dresser to the bookshelf is made with white cloth—the floor and the ceiling are covered with it.
The soft sculptural bed has a layered fabric bedspread on which the artist has painstakingly drawn her memories of her marital life—including her late filmmaker husband, Manish, and her children. One side of the bed is strewn with large, triangular thorns; at once comical and poignant. The book shelf features titles such as ‘Memory’, ‘Desire’, ‘Loss’ that the artist has sewed onto the fat cloth books. Over 2,000 pen and pencil drawings made by the artist covers the walls of the bedroom—the installation evokes over 20 years of the artist’s memories, her painterly journey, her love, her loss.
However, for the 44-year-old Mumbai-based artist, her personal loss is also an entry point to examine the issue of death and loss, and more significantly, coming to terms with both.
“There are so many explanations about the timing and nature of death: it is based on your karma, or it is your destiny, or it is God’s will,” Acharya says. “All religions offer their own explanation to help believers deal with it—but I couldn’t understand death from any of these positions. Most of the work in the show is based on my experience of trying to understand death and to come terms with it.”
Several of Acharya’s previous works, whether paint on canvas or ink or watercolour on paper, present the realm of the private. The city intrudes and engages with the women in the works (almost all her works are centred around figures of women), but ultimately, it is the mental and emotional landscape that Acharya seeks to delve into. This is true even of her last solo exhibition held in New York in 2010. The genesis, admits the artist, has always been in her life experiences: homesickness while doing her postgraduate degree in fine art in the United States of America, migration, travels, love, pregnancy, parenthood, social expectations, environmental concerns, city life as she experienced them, all made their way into visual journals that she continues to maintain assiduously. Yet, by the time Acharya transposes her reflections to the canvas, she attains a critical and emotional distance from them. Quirkiness and humour abound, and nothing about the subject seems didactic or literal.
In the latest exhibition titled ‘After the Fall’ however, emotional trauma is the bedrock from which the works have emerged. In paintings like ‘Departure’, ‘Hibernate’ and ‘Missing’, the women figures are rendered with far more detail than before’; some are prone, some bleed, some try unsuccessfully to hide from prying eyes. The single woman on the canvas of ‘Barf’ and ‘Scream’ has a look that says ‘tell-me-what’s-new’, even as she vomits in one, and wears a mask of a scream in the other. The quirkiness is retained, but the humour is a few shades darker.
It would be easy to call the bedroom a shrine, yet the deification is not of a single man who lived, and whom the artist, by all accounts, loved deeply. Nor does the exhibition, made up of several works on paper, paintings, and an 18-foot long paper scroll (made in 2014 for Chemould’s 50th year exhibition curated by Geeta Kapur) deify anyone, though several pieces recall the artist’s late husband. In ‘Awakening>’(2015-16), a 4 by 9 foot triptych, for instance, Acharya’s well-known speech bubbles (a common motif across her works) transform into elliptical gilt-edged windows of memories in which Manish is directly invoked.
If anything, by evoking death, loss and the abundance of memory repeatedly, the works—when seen together—end up demystifying death. No longer does it seem to be outside the realm of human understanding, but through the myriad ways in which Acharya renders loss on paper, death finally becomes something that can be pinned down and examined, one human experience at a time.
After the Fall will be exhibited at Gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Fort, Mumbai from 14 October to 19 November, 11am to 7pm (Sundays closed). Prices range from Rs.25,000 for works on paper to Rs.60 lakh for large canvases.