A show by Sahmat takes a stand on democratic principles

Installation view of Anupam Roy’s ‘Time is Sloshing’ and Sanjay Sharma’s ‘Drainage'. Photos: Ram Rahman
Installation view of Anupam Roy’s ‘Time is Sloshing’ and Sanjay Sharma’s ‘Drainage'. Photos: Ram Rahman


‘Moments in Collapse’ by Sahmat brings together artists who are vocal in their response to civil rights and development

A carpet of wax lotuses in warm tones present a pretty sight in Shailesh B.R.’s interactive installation Melting Lotus. But there is more to them than meets the eye. In a cheeky aside, the artist has placed a circular hot plate on a wooden stand into which visitors can toss the flowers and see them melt. The work opens itself up to a myriad interpretations.

This work forms part of Moments in Collapse, a show mounted at Jawahar Bhawan by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Sahmat), an organisation committed to promoting the pluralistic culture of the subcontinent. Curated by artist Gigi Scaria, the show brings together 44 artists and over 80 artworks. In the making for nearly a year, Scaria worked closely with artists Aban Raza and Virendra S. Vij to organise the exhibition.

As the title suggests, the overarching theme of the show is the notion of time. But Scaria decided to eschew a linear reading of time and the emphasis on a gradual progress to a better world. As the curatorial note mentions, “There is a common notion among the people that addressing many areas of civil rights and discrimination against caste and class are redundant topics in a globally emergent superpower such as India. Linearity demands that we must only focus on the development agenda and work towards making our nation a superpower," adding “But we may differ from this by saying that while development is crucial, understanding the nuance of democratic principles within the concept of development is even more crucial."

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While some of the artists have handed in existing works, others have made them especially in response to the curatorial brief. Ram Rahman’s digital print on sunboard, titled InCollapse Zindabad, of a broken bust of Jawaharlal Nehru juxtaposed with pictures of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subhash Chandra Bose, Mahatma Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh speaks volumes. Rahman reveals that the “damaged bust of Nehru was found in the ruined Gol Market (in 2013) building in Delhi, lying in filth and trash. It was much later I remembered that sculptor B.C. Sanyal had a studio there (also Ram Kumar) after Partition, so very possibly this was a remnant of Sanyal’s studio". He feels that the work is really about the projected or attempted decay of memory of those who led our liberation and laid the foundations for our modern state.

Ambedkar makes an appearance in his trademark blue suit again in Vikrant Bhise’s gouache on paper, Portraits of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar IV, XII, XI, VII, while Amol K. Patil too addresses Dalit issues in his pen and ink series Lines Between the City. In the video If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Vinit Gupta documents the resistance of indigenous communities to a coal mining project that threatens to displace them in the Mahan forest in Madhya Pradesh. Protests movements also find expression in several works in the exhibition, whether it’s farmers’ protests in Navjot Altaf’s triptych Cognitive Processes Resistance or the quelling of citizens’ protests in Akshay Sethi and Shilpa Gupta’s contributions to the show.

Vikrant Bhise, ‘Mahad Satyagraha -2’
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Vikrant Bhise, ‘Mahad Satyagraha -2’

In Sethi’s accordion-like work, policemen with lathis attack women, while in Gupta’s Untitled pencil on paper drawings, the police grapples with the figure of a protestor, whose details are rendered invisible.

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Violence and its aftermath are other topics that are tackled in this exhibition. Take, for instance, the use of debris in Murali Cheeroth’s photo assemblage on canvas, Unmarked, depicting bombed neighbourhoods in Gaza while Gargi Raina’s striking A Heap of Broken Images could well be interpreted as shattered visions and hopes. In Veer Munshi’s large-format Distant Call, a man can be seen howling with his mouth agape, while bombs and bits fly around him. Forming a stark contrast to this are verses in Kashmiri by the 14th century Sufi poet, Alamdar-e-Kashmir (or Nund Rishi), which make up the background. Elaborating on his work, Munshi states, “It is part of my Shrapnel series, which has evolved from my personal experiences in the conflict zone (of his native place Kashmir) one has lived through."

In keeping with the theme of the show, notions of time play out in Anupam Roy’s powerful monochromatic scroll Time is Sloshing, Mithu Sen’s old-fashioned alarm clock lacks hands in A Time Zone Apart and time is manifested more obliquely in the wizened hands of a man in Parag Sonarghare’s Untitled acrylic on canvas. Environmental issues of our time surface in Ravi Agarwal’s black-and-white photographs titled After the Floods and in Atul Bhalla’s The Weather These Days.

The performance artist Pushpamala is represented in the show with two works. In one, an archival inkjet print titled Motherland (after the 1992 calendar painting by artist Jesudoss), she poses as Bharat Mata, and in the performative video work, Gauri Lankesh’s Urgent Saaru, she pays homage to journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated in 2017. The video depicts the artist, dressed again as Mother India, cooking up a quick curry based on the recipe given to her by her deceased friend. Nearby on display are Anita Dube’s two black-and-white photographs from her Meat Words series that have the words “Dystopia’s" and “Spillage" placed next to each other.

Ram Rahman, an active member of Sahmat, sums up the significance of the show, stating that the art fraternity “is unafraid to be a community, which can express resistance through their creative languages. This is why this show was important for us".

Moments in Collapse is on view at Jawahar Bhawan, Delhi, till 20 June.

Meera Menezes is a Delhi-based art writer.

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