The year Rohini Devasher joined the College of Art, she also joined a group of amateur astronomers in New Delhi. The motley set comprised children, men and women of all age groups, and they would often travel to different spots—within the city and outside—to observe the night sky’s many wonders and photograph them. It was during one such trip to Hanle in Ladakh, where the Indian Institute of Astrophysics has an observatory that Devasher realized that she was more fascinated by the people photographing the sky with wonder, than she was in the sky itself.

“I realized that I was not really interested in the things they were (interested in). People took photos of the night sky and the star trails. I (on the other hand) found their interest and wonder amazing," says the artist, who is based in Noida, near Delhi. Not only did the night sky inspire observation, recording, calculations, forecasting and other scientific pursuits, but for this group, it was also a site of wonder.

In his seminal 1987 book Chaos: The Amazing Science Of The Unpredictable, James Gleick wrote: “The mission of many 20th century scientists has been to break their universes into the simplest atoms that will obey scientific rules. In all these sciences a kind of Newtonian determinism has been brought to bear." Yet, as the book demonstrated, unpredictability is built into even the most deterministic of systems—the technical term for this is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions". For Devasher, wonder has the power to alter the initial conditions.

A triptych, Encounters Of The Remote Kind, place the Maunsell forts in another location. Photo: Amit Mehra
A triptych, Encounters Of The Remote Kind, place the Maunsell forts in another location. Photo: Amit Mehra

Devasher’s exhibition at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, which opened on 21 August, is aptly titled Speculations From The Field. She has travelled to observatories in Bengaluru and Scotland. In Scotland, she was inspired by The Cloud Appreciation Society, committed to fighting the “banality of blue-sky thinking", into taking photographs of cloudy skies. A recent trip to the Maunsell forts in the UK— metallic towers built for the army in the Thames estuary—led Devasher to reimagine these World War II relics as abandoned astronomical observatories. These sea-worn relics find place in a 21-minute, single-channel video, Shivering Sands, a triptych of prints with drawings titled Encounters Of The Remote Kind and a print titled Field Notes. All three works are Devasher’s response to the site; all three present the abandoned forts as assorted artefacts, in an act of what the artist calls “engineered fiction". The video is a meditation on the nature of deep time sciences like astronomy and geology—sciences that operate on long time scales, almost impossible for the human mind to comprehend without bringing into use imagination and wonder.

The triptych and prints are meant to be pages from an explorer’s diary, transforming the site of the forts from sea to land, and using an archival pigment, re-imagining them as objects over hundreds of years old.

In these works, the site of observation itself becomes a site of speculation, and a site of wonder.

Speculations follows previous exhibitions at the Bhau Daji Lad, where contemporary artists like Atul Dodiya, Reena Saini Kallat and Sudarshan Shetty have responded to the museum’s collection. Devasher’s wall drawing, Deep Time, is accompanied by some of the museum’s collection dating back to when it used to be the Central Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts, in the 19th century. This includes fossils, stones and corals that date back to the Jurassic period. The wall art emerges once again from her engagement with deep time sciences, which, according to Lorraine Daston, “are the guardians of the far past in the service of the far future". Daston is the executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, where Devasher spent four months in 2012, as artist-in-residence.

As you walk into the city museum, on your left is a vitrine filled with objects made out of bison horn that are around 100 years old; to your right are imposing pottery sculptures from the early 20th century, made at the city’s historic art institution, Sir JJ School of Art.

Bang in the centre of the hall are two 14ft-long cabinets that house 20 prints made with colour pencil and dry pastel on rice paper, showcasing the sky above the museum all the way up to 20,000 years from now. The work is titled Meridian: Experiments in Time Travel.

Right beside these cabinets is an artefact which belongs to the museum’s collection: a Philip’s Planisphere, made with embossed and gilded leather, from the early 20th century. It shows all the principal stars, and their position during every hour of the year.

For a museum to possess a planisphere is not surprising, but for it to position it next to fictionalized records seemingly derived from readings of a planisphere, is what makes the museum such an interesting site. Not only is the museum a site of recording—for archaeological, human effort and artistic endeavours—it is also, increasingly, a space that questions itself. In this self-reflexivity, Devasher’s art finds the best display.

Speculations From The Field is on till 4 October, 10am-6pm (Wednesdays closed), at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, 91 A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijbai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg, Byculla East, Mumbai.

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