Home > opinion > The sounds of silence

The process of experiencing and observing everyday events and happenings includes the sending and receiving of information by multiple senses. Think of an event mundane enough for everyone to have at least some memory of it.

Most people would be familiar with the experience of someone tossing water out of a bucket or vessel on to the floor or stairs while attempting to wash it clean. You not only see a person lifting and swinging the vessel to tip it over, and observe the water being splashed over the floor, you also hear the sound of the water as it splashes out of the vessel with a whoosh and hits the floor with a wet, whacking slap. Sight and hearing are both integral to the experience and if either is missing, the experience would change dramatically. Imagine seeing the water being tossed out of the bucket and hitting the floor, but without a sound. An unfamiliar tension may possibly be created by the silence that replaces the familiar sound of water splashing. That delightful tension caused by the missing sensory experience is what I experienced at artist Subodh Gupta’s recent retrospective, Everything Is Inside, at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

A giant stainless steel bucket suspended magically several feet above the ground spilled scores of shiny steel kitchen utensils on to the grounds of the NGMA tumultuously. An absolute rush of pots, pans, ladles, tiffin boxes, smaller buckets and other vessels hurtled down from the large overturned bucket and I experienced the movement in their tumble. And yet, they tumbled down without a sound. No cacophony of metal hitting and scraping metal, no din, no clatter and bang accompanied their descent, and that missing sound created a wonderful tension that made me stand still before Gupta’s composition Kiran, almost waiting to hear the hellish racket that would normally accompany such an event. Instead, the objects glinted and winked silently in the sunlight as I caught my breath and moved towards the galleries.

With Thosa Pani or Solid Water, Gupta created a similar tension as a gigantic wave composed of his favourite steel utensils flowed with manic force, heaving upwards from the floor at one point to cascade down the steps in the gallery at the other end. There is such tumultuous movement in the composition that you almost feel like hurrying out of its way lest it sweep you off your feet, and yet once again, there is no roar of the water as there would have been in normal circumstances. The missing soundtrack creates again a kind of thrilling excitement and dramatic tension that is hard to describe.

Among the few installations that used sound realistically was the one titled This Is Not A Fountain, composed of an enormous heap of dented, old aluminium utensils with none of the gleam and glint of the shiny steel objects used in other sculptures. Amid the dreary piles of used utensils, Gupta had placed water taps that hissed and gushed as they ran a steady stream of water over the pots and pans. In this instance, the all too familiar sound of flowing taps added to the ordinariness of the real life situation that inspired the artist to create this work.

I must submit with trepidation that I know nought of art and sculpture, but was bewitched into visiting the exhibition by the sight of Gupta’s giant, gnarled metal tree sculpture, Dada, that caught my attention as I drove past the NGMA grounds. I am, therefore, completely unqualified to comment on the work of an artist of Gupta’s stature and eminence. But being obsessed with sound, the mystery created by the absence of sound in works like Kiran and Thosa Pani enthralled me so completely that I could not help but share my limited perception of his acclaimed work.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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