The first floor of Sunita Vadehra & Associates’ warehouse in Okhla, Delhi, is a labyrinth of art. Figurines of Buddha and B.R. Ambedkar, perched atop indigo pillars, stand on either side of this maze, guardians of the exhibition. Created by the Mumbai-based Ambedkarite artist Prabhakar Kamble, the placement of these figures is also deeply symbolic. For him, an image of hope arises from the pillar of emptiness. It also recalls the moment when Ambedkar turned to Buddha, giving up caste and Hinduism.

At every turn into the labyrinth, visuals are accompanied by text in seven languages, but predominantly in English and Hindi—poems by Kabir, Avvaiyar, Naz Khialvi, Tukaram, Sahil Parmar, Agha Shahid Ali, and more. There is a constant dialogue between the text and the image, adding layers of meaning to the way one engages with the show. Titled Suññatā Samānta: Emptiness Equality, the exhibition has been curated by S. Anand, poet and founder of Navayana, a publishing house that focuses on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective.

The art on display has been drawn from the collection of the Devi Art Foundation (DAF)—the not-for-profit arts organization started by Lekha and Anupam Poddar which has presented the show. Suññatā Samānta also features new works by those working in the industries of Okhla. Anand maintains that the artworks are identified only by their title, just so people do not judge an artist by his or her name and their prior reputation or lack of it.

Photo: S. Anand
Photo: S. Anand

The artists’ names are handwritten in alphabetical order on the wall at the mezzanine level, sans hierarchy and classification: Arunkumar H.G., Aslam Khan and group, Bani Abidi, Bhuri Bai, Firoz Khan, Golnaz Fathi, Jeetender Ojha, L.N. Tallur, Nilima Sheikh, Prabhakar Kamble, Sukhnandi Vyam, Rajyashri Goody, and more. “During my Master’s, the class register would be classified under ‘general’ and ‘reserved’. There was barely any interaction between these two groups. We come into this world parcelled into groups that we have no control over. The art world reflects such a hierarchy-driven society and creates its own silos. We wanted to move away from all this in this show," says Anand. Inspired by Ambedkar’s idea of annihilation, the exhibition aspires for the more esoteric sunnata (emptiness) without forsaking samanta (equality).

The key concepts undergirding the exhibition can be traced to his sustained engagement with the ideas of Ambedkar and Buddha over the past five-six years, spiked with a renewed interest in music and poetry. When he was approached by DAF in May last year, he started putting Suññatā Samānta together. “The core idea came from a Gorakhnath bhajan,Shunya Gadh Shahar, that I learnt to sing from Kumar Gandharva," he says. On learning that the 6,500 sq. ft space of the Sunita Vadehra furniture warehouse designed by artist Satish Gujral would be the venue, Anand was clear that there would be no equality unless he commissioned artworks by industrial workers in and around Okhla: people who never enter the art space unless they are needed for behind-the-scenes work.

One artist led him to another and it all started falling into place. For instance, Girdhari Lal, a furniture draughtsman, was introduced to him by Lekha Poddar. He had an archive of sketches—of table legs, side tables, almirahs, lion chairs—collected over 35 years of his work life in a factory right behind the warehouse. In the show, a wide selection of these aged, well-worn drawings have been mounted on fabric on a massive wall, about 50ft wide and rising to a height of 15ft.

It is through Lal that Anand and his team found some of the other artists, such as Aslam Khan, a metal worker who has his own factory a kilometre away from the warehouse, and Jamaluddin, who is a carpenter at the Vadehras.

One of the most compelling works in this maze includes a set of three panels by Firoz Khan, Ramakant Maurya and Rakesh, metal workers who contribute to the Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, a free newspaper which offers news of life and labour among factory workers, and has a circulation of 30,000 in Delhi.

Initially, Firoz and team wanted to make a set of placards—similar to the one his colleagues and he had created in 2005, while protesting against a multinational company which denied them bonus. Things, however, didn’t work out as planned. Firoz’s wife had to be hospitalized and his participation became uncertain. “One day, while I was in Coimbatore, I got two images from him and Ramakant on WhatsApp. I liked what they were doing," recalls Anand.

Today, one can see three panels with figures in black and red—in some, they are seen standing along a railway track, and in others in front of a traffic junction. Titled The Work Of Art: Not To Keep, it is accompanied by an ekphrastic poem (a literary device in which a poet engages with a visual art form through his words) by Anand. In one stanza, he lists the reactions of those who first saw the work. It states: Here some red, there black, the yellows that don’t rhyme/ —soldiers—an occupation—run amok pawns, no king/ —the majority abandoning the minority….

Over the course of the show, Anand has heard some other views on the work as well, with some likening it to a protest against the new citizenship law and others assuming the red and black figures, standing along the road, are publicizing the odd-even scheme in Delhi aimed at combating pollution. “Art is both deception and truth and it requires you to do a double take. It tells you that the problem doesn’t lie in what we see or we don’t see. It is the one we are in the middle of and choose to walk right past—it could be a person entering a sewer that you walk or drive past. We are all complicit and culpable," explains Anand.

The very workers who are featured as artists here are reluctant to mingle with the art world people, says Anand. So he has done a few special singing walk-throughs, including those for the workers of Okhla on Sundays—the only days they get off from work. Given the show’s maze-like nature, people have been known to get lost.

“(Indian writer and hotelier) Aman Nath got lost when I was just about to begin my first walk-through. But he said, ‘I looked for Ambedkar and I found my way.’ I can’t think of a more philosophical take on the show," says Anand.

Suññatā Samānta: Emptiness Equality is on view at Sunita Vadehra & Associates’ warehouse space, Okhla, till 2 March.

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