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Dinesh, who repairs chairs for a living, couldn’t believe what artist Shakuntala Kulkarni was asking him to do—craft a cane armour for the female body. “I had to keep insisting that he shape out the breasts," says Kulkarni. “He wouldn’t listen."

The armour, complete with a skirt (a ghagra perhaps), blouse (Victorian), headgear (Roman), and a retro Bollywood-style bouffant, is part of a multimedia group show, Excavation/Eruption, of 16 artists, which opened on Thursday at the Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi.

The cane armour by Kulkarni. Credit courtesy Shakuntala Kulkarni/Vadehra Art Gallery.
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The cane armour by Kulkarni. Credit courtesy Shakuntala Kulkarni/Vadehra Art Gallery.

“Through the armour I wanted to show the relationship of my body with the intimate space around. That something which protects can simultaneously become a cage," says Kulkarni. This interrogation of women’s spaces has been a recurring theme in all her works, including Is It Just A Game? (2007), Grandmother’s Tales (2004) and Reduced Spaces (2001).

“When you excavate, there’s something you discover…unearth," says show curator and art historian Yashodhara Dalmia. She compares ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day Iraq, where “excavations earlier revealed markers of civilization, like terracotta figurines or coins, but today it’s a cauldron of violent eruptions, a vortex of destruction, and an excavation might reveal lost bodies or explosive devices". Her brief to the artists: Excavate your mind, memory, history. Perhaps Dalmia sang to her artists, in the same way Governor Ratcliffe does to his boys in the film Pocahontas: “The gold we find here will dwarf them by far/ Oh with all you got in you…/Dig up…".

The idea of something creative being upturned is the underlying theme of the multimedia show. Like the human bodies in Sri Lankan artist Anoli Perera’s work. In one assemblage, a group of bodies is shown balancing a huge pillow on their heads. In another, they are quite literally upturned and appear to be drowning in the pillow, which now doubles as a pond. The pillow, symbolic of “lavishness" achieved at “human cost", has peepholes for watching a video and is made with earth-hued, screen-printed cloth, which looks more like a relief map with sketches of flowering trees and polluting cars.

Dalmia posits these artists with those of the 1970s-80s, such as Bhupen Khakhar, who excavated the language of traditional aesthetic forms, like Kalighat paintings, “to empower their creation, their critique of a deteriorated society".

Udaipur-based American artist Waswo X Waswo displays an archival digital black and white photograph of people at a hole-in-the-wall alcohol shop, on which he has superimposed a hand-painted human liver. This, along with human faces—sculpted in terracotta and beeswax, and mounted on walls—smoking cigarettes/beedis, form Waswo’s Interior Decor For Five Star Livers. Waswo is reacting to the “classist" move of banning alcohol in some states, while five-star hotels continue to serve it. “So are the rich immune to the effects of alcohol consumption while the average rickshawalla is not?" he asks.

Excavation/Eruption is on show till 25 March, 11am-7pm (Sundays closed), at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony. For details, visit www.vadehraart.com

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