On Art

Alive and Kiki

This article was first published in Time Out Mumbai, in December 2006.


If you type ‘Kiki Smith’ into Google’s image search, a selection of portraits of the artist surface. The search engine also gives you a glimpse of her works: crouching bodies, little glass objects, fantastic animals, prints using lots of blue (her favourite colour).

All of them make it clear whether in installations, sculptures, prints or etchings, Smith’s focus is on the feminine. Since her debut in 1988 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Smith – whom critics acknowledge as one of the most significant American artists of her generation – has been challenging and redefining “girlie” art. Last month, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened A Gathering: 1980 – 2005, a retrospective of Smith’s work. The New York Times praised it for its “freakish beauty” and described the exhibition as “a wonderland version of a pathology lab”.

This month, Mumbai will get a chance to see prints and etchings by the artist at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. There are rumours that the artist may add an installation once she arrives and sees the gallery for herself. In an email interview with Time Out from New York, Smith said that her art is “a collaboration between myself, the physical world and the universe”. Often, she confessed, she finds herself frightened by what this collaboration throws up. She isn’t the only one.

Smith, 52, has frequently been accused of being gratuitously grotesque. In her first show, she created an installation made of 12 jars, labelled ‘oil’, ‘vomit’, ‘blood’, ‘urine’, ‘sweat’, ‘diarrhoea’, ‘milk’, ‘saliva’, ‘semen’, ‘pus’, ‘mucus’ and ‘tears’. Two years later, she made a sculpture titled “Man and Woman” in which semen and blood dripped from the naked masculine figure while milk and menstrual blood streaked the similarly naked feminine figure. The sculpture “Virgin Mary” has her standing flayed, revealing bloody musculature. “I made ‘Virgin Mary’ in the form of a classical teaching model for anatomy,” Smith explained. “I wanted to focus on the corporeality of the Virgin Mary.”

Virgin Mary , 1992  (beeswax, microcrystalline wax, cheesecloth, and wood on steel base.) Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York  Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

Virgin Mary, 1992

(beeswax, microcrystalline wax, cheesecloth, and wood on steel base.)
Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

Photo: Ellen Page Wilson

The darkness in her art may have its roots in her childhood in New Jersey. “We were a bit like The Addams Family,” Smith said in Art: 21, a television series on contemporary art by American channel PBS. Her father Tony Smith, made mammoth, minimalist sculptures that won him critical acclaim. Her mother, Jane Lawrence Smith, was a respected theatre actress. But one part of the Smith house was “death, death everywhere…and dentures,” said Kiki Smith. She had a skull in her room. As a child, she made shrines for dead animals. In the front of the house was a gravestone an uncle had stolen from somewhere, just because it said Smith. The neighbourhood called her a witch. “My father would always say that it’s Irish Catholic to be morbid,” she remembered in Art: 21.

Kiki Smith inherited from her father a compulsive need to create. Her style, however, is very different from his. His work was solidly geometric, not anthropomorphic. Smith is the grand priestess of the female form in modern art. For her though it is more a continuation than a contrast. “Formally the work [of my father] translates into my work as a body. I’ve been influenced a lot by it, “ Smith told Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times.

As a child Smith wanted to be a nun. At 15, she tattooed a star on her hand, “to remind me where I am”. Before becoming an artist, she was a cook, electrician and medical assistant. She admits she was dithering. Perhaps she didn’t want to compete with her father, or maybe she knew art would take her over once she succumbed to it. She learned from others, taught herself and remained open to every experience of pain and rapture. The net result is 25 years of art that is both her diary and her armour.

For Smith, her art is her talisman and her catharsis. “There’s no difference between the private life and the larger social world – that what is happening in one is being created and reiterated in the other,” she told Time Out. In her exhibition Near in 2003, Smith seated a ceramic model of a girl in a blue dress in front of the wall where her prints hung. The innocent simplicity of the girl almost beseeched you to love her and the work she was guarding. “I always say my art’s like my army in the world,” Kiki said in Art:21. “It’s the most exposed you can be, but it’s meditated.”

What is real to her is the world of fairy tales and folklore. “They give one an entrance into the real world,” Smith said to Time Out. The tales Smith tells are a dizzying fusion of stories. The masculine tiger ravages a woman in a print mockingly titled “Rapture”. Red Riding Hood has the face of a wolf. Alice swims alongside rats, perhaps because they share the same sense of curiosity. Alice followed a white rabbit down a hole; the rats followed the Piper of Hamlin off a cliff.

In contrast to her sculptures, her prints are as delicate as dragonfly wings. Opening up “Free Fall”, a self-portrait in a near-foetal position that has to be unfolded out of a small book, is nerve-wracking because the paper is so thin. Her prints and etchings, many of which will be exhibited in Mumbai in Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in December, explore her fascination with fantasy.

Smith picked media like paper and cardboard because someone once told her nobody would take them seriously. “I really like making things delicate. I guess you could call them ‘girls’ material’; but they’re just things that are associated with girls,” she said in the Journal of Contemporary Art when asked about her choice of materials. Her new works experiment with another associated with women: sentimentality.


Guided by the stars on her body, she’s sailing towards a new world every time she picks up a pencil. Or a rock. Or some clay. Or a piece of cloth. Because in Kiki Smith’s world, every little thing is alive with possibilities. 

An Iranian (Woman)

This article was first published in Caravan, in January 2011. You can see Shadi Ghadirian's photographs here


IN 1999, the Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian had one of her early exhibitions outside Iran, at theLeighton House in London. She was showing a series called Qajar, portraits of women made to look like vintage photographs, with the subjects posed before painted backdrops and dressed in old-fashioned clothes. A close look at the portraits revealed some modern props—a vacuum cleaner, snazzy sunglasses, a boombox—that cracked the historicity of the portraits. However, at the opening, Ghadirian felt there were more people staring at her than at her art. “Everybody looked at me, with expressions like ‘You wear jeans!,’ ‘You wear red shoes!’” she recalled. Dressed like any other 26-year-old girl, Ghadirian didn’t conform to the mould of a West Asian woman to the gathered crowd and this was disconcerting to them. “I wanted to ask, ‘Do you want to show me in the gallery instead of the photos?’” said Ghadirian. “Here’s the exhibit: an Iranian woman.”

Had she offered, the gallerist may have taken Ghadirian up on it. It had been barely a year since Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’  was shortlisted for the Turner Prize.  The work, literally, was her bed, unmade and festooned with the detritus of her everyday existence like cigarette butts and used underwear. Emin was among the Young British Artists who were redefining what constituted fine art and ‘My Bed’ found art in real life, a trend that was still very much en vogue at the time of Ghadirian’s first show in London. As an additional bonus, Ghadirian is beautiful. In that, she certainly conforms to stereotypes about Iranian women, but it’s best not to word it that way to her because Ghadirian hates being pigeonholed. The week before she came to India for a solo show in Mumbai in November, she was interviewed by an Italian journalist, who tried to get Ghadirian to corroborate the widespread notion of the oppressed Iranian woman. The insistence upon strengthening a stereotype reminded Ghadirian of the decade-old experience in London.

“All he wanted me to say was that I had many problems and I said, no I don’t have any problems; it’s good here,” said Ghadirian. “It’s like they want us to talk about only these things. I can talk about my problems but I don’t like that he wanted me to talk about the same things: veil is bad, Iranian women, Muslim country, Muslim Muslim Muslim. It’s a fashionable word now. But this is not my problem.”

Tehran-based Ghadirian, 36, is among Iran’s best art photographers—and one of the few famous artists who have chosen to remain in Iran. She is happy not to wear the veil when she’s travelling, but is also unperturbed by the law that demands she cover her hair while in Iran. Since her first solo exhibition in 1999, Ghadirian’s photographs have been shown all over the world and are part of the collections of The British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musée des Arts Contemporains in Paris, among many others.

Her photographs are technically flawless and the framing of scenes skilful. The different elements in a photograph are meticulously chosen and arranged to create precisely the situation that Ghadirian wants to capture. Colour, chiaroscuro, lines, everything is perfectly pivoted to create images that are rich in detail, have depth of perspective and tell eloquent stories in addition to being beautiful to look at. The narratives that interest Ghadirian are those that she relates to personally. They’re stories about women and while Ghadirian emphasises their universality and steers clear of being political or didactic, it is obvious that they are deeply rooted in the experience of being a woman in Iran.

She told me her work is ignored by the political establishment in Iran because it’s “mostly social.” I suspect what protects Ghadirian is her discretion and the subtlety with which she communicates her opinions without flouting laws. But Ghadirian’s success shouldn’t be credited just to world politics. In 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution was radicalising Iran, Ghadirian was five years old. She remembers very little of it. The political fervour of the times did not register in her five-year-old mind; nor did she feel Iran’s transition to a strictly Islamic regime that accorded women the right to vote and education but declared them unequal to men and curtailed their freedom. The present Iran, ruled by rigid Shi’a clerics for over three decades, is the only one she’s known and despite what she said to the Italian journalist, Ghadirian is extremely conscious that things are not good for her gender. But the Revolution has a complex relationship with women. It was heartily supported by the women in the 1970s but it imposed restrictions on them. Yet, unwittingly, the government’s emphasis on education has resulted in more women getting graduate degrees than men, which means there are increasingly more skilled women than men in many professions. For example, Ghadirian has seen the number of women photojournalists multiply rapidly over the past years. In the late 1990s, when Ghadirian had approached a newspaper in Tehran for a job, she was told women couldn’t do photojournalism.

Not that being rejected for that job cost Ghadirian anything. She wasn’t really interested in photojournalism anyway. She wanted to tell the story of being a modern Iranian woman “in a nicer way” through art. As a college student working at a museum of photography in Tehran, Ghadirian realised Iran had a long photographic tradition. She was amazed to learn photography had come to Iran just ten years after the camera was invented in the mid-19th century, courtesy the king of Persia, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar who had his own studio in Golestan Palace. Here he would take photographs of everything he could, including the members of his harem. “He had something like 500 wives so we have a good history of photographing women. Even nude photography,” said Ghadirian. These were the first portraits of women in Iran (even painted portraits didn’t exist because women didn’t show themselves to a man who was not a family member). Taking a cue from the old Shah, Ghadirian shot the Qajar series in 1998 as her graduation thesis.

Qajar, named after the dynasty that was overthrown by the Pahlavis in 1925, remains among Ghadirian’s most beautifully-produced photographs. The images speak eloquently about the dualities of being a modern woman in a conservative society. They seem vintage but the elements of modernity suggest that life hasn’t really changed for the Iranian woman, despite radical changes in the political sphere. The sepia tones add elegance, the costumes are sumptuous, and the painted backgrounds lend an old-world charm. Then there are the modern details, like the Pepsi can and the avant-garde newspaper. Ghadirian wanted to show that despite the constraints of old-fashioned laws, in her private space the Iranian woman is free to do as she wishes—bike, paint, wear a burqa, dress up like a Qajar.  Simultaneously, the fact of the painted background emphasised the sense of posturing in the models. There’s also an implication that the women are free to do as they will only in these enclosed, private spaces.

I asked Ghadirian if she’s felt any need to self-censor over the years because of the conservative regime. She said she didn’t. But some of the political reactions to her work over the years don’t quite support her statement. When she was 21, she won a prize for one of her Qajar photographs but the prize was withdrawn because the ministry of culture found a picture too contentious. Ghadirian was then removed from the competition. Her 1998 series, Unfocused, couldn’t be exhibited in Iran because the blurred photographs suggested a feminine form that was wearing a fitted Western gown, which is banned in Iran because such clothes are considered obscene and degrading to women. The black and white photographs almost turn the figure into an abstract form, as though one is seeing a woman through a dense fog, but there’s no mistaking the fact that the dark shape in the photograph is that of a woman. There’s a sense of abandon in the poses that adds intimacy to the delicate beauty of the photographs, which also show an exquisite use of light and shade. Unfocused rams home the absurdity in the laws regulating women’s lives in Iran and, like in the Qajar series, Ghadirian uses the motif of clothing to articulate her story. True to Ghadirian’s style, no laws have been broken but they are certainly ridiculed.

Later in our chat, she conceded that the government is “sensitive” about art. “Which photos showing women want to go abroad or are going to show in a gallery, they are very, very, very sensitive about it,” she said. “They want to control everything. Not just for me and my photos but for cinema, for everything.” When Ghadirian showed Qajar in a Tehran gallery in the late 1990s, the owner was initially very nervous about the exhibition because to show portraits of women was to walk on thin ice with the moral police. Most of the models showed their faces and were dressed in fineries, which could easily be misconstrued as indecent by Right-wingers.

Some of Ghadirian’s work has taken on the Islamic regime quite directly. West by East (2004) comprised photos of women in Western clothes but it looked like most of the models’ bodies had been blacked out in the pictures. Hair, arms, sometimes even the clothes were obscured like this. It looked like the photographs had been defaced and showed how little of a woman survives the Iranian morality code: just the face, atop piles of black, as though decapitated. In My Press Photo, Ghadirian made collages out of photographs from the World Press Photo catalogue and vintage snapshots of Iranian soldiers. The uniformed soldiers popped up in unexpected spots: teetering on Muhammad Ali’s fist, being stared at by a skeletal famine victim, plastered over a racehorse’s face, slapped on a praying Mother Teresa’s eye like an eyepatch. My Press Photo was a biting critique of a jingoistic culture that valorises violence. It also attempted to turn the tables on the army by pointing the guns at the soldiers and making them victims, rather than perpetrators, of random acts of cruelty. 

In her other works, Ghadirian has been rather discreet. More often than not, she uses humour to point out the absurdity of laws concerning women. Ctrl+Alt+Del (2006) was a series of portraits in which only the model’s face, hands and feet emerged out of a black background. Using computer desktop icons, Ghadirian delineated the body subtly. The icons also referenced the importance of computers and the internet in the lives of Iranians, many of whom are prolific bloggers. “I live inside Iran, I feel it, I touch everything, it’s very important for me,” Ghadirian said. For Ghadirian, the repressive regime has proved to be a weird, mixed blessing. Its restraints force her to be inventive, so that she can create unobjectionable photographs without losing the sense of reality that inspired her to create a work. “I want to show the reality in the way that I can show it in Iran and also abroad.”

The way is often a roundabout one and her most acclaimed series Like Everyday (2000) is a good example of this. The inspiration for Like Everyday came from the endless cooking utensils Ghadirian received as gifts when she and her long-time boyfriend, photographer and writer Peyman Hooshmandzadeh, got married. The photographs showed women wearing chador made of tablecloths or upholstery. But where there should be faces, there are household objects, like a broom and a meat cleaver. Like Everyday is as hilarious as it is unnerving, and Ghadirian intended the photographs to be both. “The best husband just helps their wife, anywhere in the world,” she said with a laugh. “A woman, whether she’s doctor, teacher, housewife, she’s always thinking about something else: cleaning that room, cleaning that drawer, what to make for dinner.” However, the woman being almost smothered by the chador makes this construct of domesticity more culturally specific. She has literally been objectified. On some occasions while exhibiting Like Everyday, Ghadirian has repeated a few of the photographs. “I wanted to show that women always repeat these things, everyday, without any creativity,” she said. “Maybe they like it, being able to retreat behind doing work like a machine.”

In July 2009, photographs from Like Everyday were shown as part of Ghadirian’s exhibition in Mumbai. She didn’t come for that opening. A few weeks before the show was to open in June, student protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed electoral win erupted in Iran. In cities like Tehran, people flooded the streets. Curfew was imposed. Armed militia patrolled the streets. Many people were killed; Ghadirian’s husband was injured.

Later that year, Ghadirian completed two new series: Nil Nil and White Square. The works were a return to the subject that had first propelled Ghadirian towards art. From the age of six until 14, Ghadirian had lived through the vicious war fought between Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988. “I was 14 [when the war ended] and I thought, I should do something,” Ghadirian remembered. “But I’m not a good person to go into the street and take photos.” It wasn’t just that she didn’t feel she suited the gritty danger of photojournalism. “I picked photography because it was the fastest art,” she said. “The other thing was that it is something in your hands that can record the truth. This was very important for me. I should record the truth everywhere and make sure it’s documented. It remains a story, it’s a part of our time.”

Even though there are no green banners in Ghadirian’s most recent works, the story of the 2009 protests is implicit there. Nil Nil and White Square are the first time Ghadirian hasn’t used any people in her pictures. Against the whiteness that should symbolise peace, military equipment is placed, gift-wrapped with a red bow, in White SquareNil Nil shows rooms in people’s homes, full of things, and devoid of people, like the rooms of the protestors whose disappearance the Iranian government refuses to acknowledge. Everything is clean and pretty, but there’s an eerie lack of order. “You have two separate lives in Iran, outside the house and inside the house,” said Ghadirian. “We go out to the street, it’s crossing a border. When we come back into the house, it’s another border. But sometimes, things from the outside come in with us. It’s all still clean and ok but the war is reflected in the house.” In the photographs, the “things from the outside” are military equipment: a grenade in the fruit bowl, a bullet in a cigarette case, the drop of blood on the military boots standing next to the red stilettos. In 2009, violence entered Iranian homes when some protestors like Ghadirian’s husband came back injured, and many others didn’t come back at all. Meanwhile, the government media calmly declared that everything was in order—lies as meticulously false as the rooms in Ghadirian’s photographs.

Nil Nil is also about the fear engendered by this civil war-like state that Ghadirian has represented in her images of a home. There’s a sense of repetition and after seeing a few of them, it feels like a predictable game of “Spot the Military Equipment.” But that’s just what Ghadirian wants you to do: to look for the symbols of violence and ignore the pretty, homely setup. “Once you’ve decided you’re going to find it, it’s everywhere,” said Ghadirian, explaining the sense of paranoia that she wanted to capture in the photographs. The calm with which Iran faces potential warfare is disconcerting to her. “War is something that is a familiar idea for Iranians because we had war for several years,” she said. “All our neighbours—Iraq, Afghanistan—have had war. Now they say America will attack, Israel will attack. It seems we are ok with it, we know what we should do. Like in the photos, everything is ok, everything is neat, you have fruit. It’s ok.”

A little more than ten years ago, Ghadirian made a decision to not leave Iran. She chose to return to Tehran after that show in London because she knew that the only stories she wanted to tell through her photographs were those of modern Iran. The events of last year may have rattled Ghadirian but they haven’t shaken her belief that she has work to do. Had there not been as oppressive a political system as the one that has ruled Iran for most of Ghadirian’s lifetime, she might not have been so determined to keep working. “When I’m living in Iran, social issues must come to my work,” she said. “When I’m working, I just feel about my condition, my generation, my environment. I have to talk about these things. In the photos, my generation should see their times. It is very important I should tell our story.”

With Raza’s passing, last link to Progressives severed

This article was first published in The Hindu, in July 2016.  

It’s the simplicity of the paintings that strikes you at first glance. A black circle with concentric lines radiating from that dark centre, a neat arrangement of triangles and straight lines; dabs of paint that never spill out of their cells, colours that glisten with vibrancy long after the paint has dried; perhaps a few words written in Hindi at the bottom. Wait a moment, let your eyes adjust to the brightness of the chosen pigments, and the painting starts revealing itself to you — its pristinely perfect geometry, the delicate and precise alignment of planes and pivots, the calculated nuances of shade, tint and colour; the magnetic blackness of the bindu.

Syed Haider Raza’s circle was completed on Saturday when, at 94, one of modern Indian art’s most legendary names breathed his last in Delhi. Born in a speck of a town in Madhya Pradesh, Raza travelled first to Nagpur, then to Bombay as it was known then and finally to Paris, all on the wings of his art. He was one of the legends of our art history and with him gone we have lost our last link to the era of the Progressives who in anger and elegance raged against established traditions.

A new aesthetic

Formed in the 1940s, the Progressives began fashioning a new Indian aesthetic that was diverse, impossible to pin down and yet distinctively our own. It rebelled against the romanticism of the Bengal school and rejected the conventions of classical European art. What emerged was art that powerful and negotiating myriad and traditions — just like the young India that had just secured independence.

In many ways, Raza was the most accessible of the Progressives. He didn’t have the angular rage that bristled out of F.N. Souza’s paintings. His paintings weren’t provocative like M.F. Husain’s. They didn’t disturb as much as reiterate a certain sense of harmony. In Raza’s most memorable paintings, everything is in equilibrium. On his canvases, particularly the geometric ones that he started creating at his artistic peak in the 1980s, was a world of feeling and abstraction that was like a portal rather than a painting.

Uncomplicated modernity

Raza’s art embodied an uncomplicated yet diverse Indian modernity — an artist with a Muslim name, drawing upon both Hindu and Islamic philosophy with his bindus and his use of geometry, taking colours and shapes from folk art, creating paintings that were undeniably contemporary. He was also among the first of the Indian artists to go and live abroad — Raza spent decades in Paris, having moved there when he was 28. He had chosen the city because he was determined to see the paintings of Paul Cézanne. He stayed on and it became his home and yet the canvases were filled with kaleidoscopic fragments of the home he had left behind, arranged in careful and beautiful patterns.

He once said that he hadn’t really left India. He said that he had carried India with him and surrounded himself with the country as he knew it through his paintings. In the colours that he chose and the shapes that he used, there was a landscape of memory and nostalgia.

What gave his paintings the energy was that sense of nostalgia and longing perhaps because Raza’s finest paintings were created when he was far away from home. Yet even when he came to India and made his home in Delhi, he continued to work and what he produced still characterised that easy and unlaboured fusion of traditions and ideas. There is no statement that he is making and neither is there any need to prove his adherence to any stream of thought or belief. At their best, Raza’s abstract, geometric paintings hum with energy. At their blandest — and there are a fair number that fit this description since Raza diligently painted in his studio every day until his body gave way a few months ago — they are simple and beautiful. Either way, they are at peace.

Today, in an age when we are struggling to find harmony in a society that seems to be more violently fragmented with every passing day, Raza’s paintings are a reminder of the times past and confluences that we no longer seem to be able to find around us.

Winged Pilgrims/ Luminarium: A Prelude

Over the years, I’ve only seen bits and bobs of Sheba Chhachhi's work. I think the first time I really noticed Chhachhi was when I chanced upon “Ganga’s Daughters: Meeting with Women Ascetics 1992-2002”, back in 2004, during a very random and short trip to Delhi. The show was fascinating. I hadn’t heard of Chhachhi before and knew nothing about this project of hers, but many of the photographs she had taken, documenting women ascetics, were tremendous. The world of the Hindu ascetic is very much the male bastion and has been so for centuries. This isn’t to say there haven’t been women who have added a little variety to the mix and in “Ganga’s Daughters”, Chhachhi presented the modern sorority. These women don’t fulfill the social roles expected of their gender — they have abandoned the hearth and home that the mother/wife/sister/daughter is supposed to care for — and yet, despite being transgressors, these ‘abnormal’ (i.e. not conforming to the norm) demand and command respect. Chhachhi’s photos showed a weird mix of distance and candour that really stayed with me.

Nothing I’d seen in “Ganga’s Daughters” could have prepared me for the artistry of her works in “Winged Pilgrims”, which was exhibited in Nature Morte. “Ganga’s Daughters” had all the simplicity of documentary photography. The ideas in it were thought provoking, but the medium and the way it was used was straightforward. “Winged Pilgrims”, on the other hand, seemed magical. It used technology, lightboxes, layered imagery, all sorts of artistic artifice to tell Chhachhi’s chosen story. It came to Mumbai in 2011 with a new name: "Luminarium: A Prelude". 

Even if you’re not interested in the curious confluence of migration, mythology and modernity in these Chhachhi works, “Luminarium: A Prelude” is one of the most beautiful shows you’ll see. Just at the visual level, Chhachhi has crafted exquisite pieces that she describes as “electronic palimpsests”, which sounds complicated but really is the best phrase to describe her works. Essentially, each work is a composite of layered images. In some, a layer or two moves, scrolling slowly across like a magic lantern. Sounds primitive and looks simple, but the effect is very sophisticated, as is the technology. Using lightboxes, screens and I don’t know what else, Chhachhi looks at the idea of migration through three things: the symbol of the bird, the robes of Buddhist pilgrims and toy televisions. Her sense of colour is superb and she is able to communicate so much just by the levels of saturation and contrast. Take the work that has black crows against a terribly red background (made up of a landscape taken from Mughal art). Just the colours make the work reek menace. Add to that the angularity of the wings, the sharp beaks… you can almost hear the raucous war cries from the murder of crows.

Crow Mughal, Sheba Chhachhi

Crow Mughal, Sheba Chhachhi

Enter the gallery and it’s gloomy but the works gleam, jewel-like, on the walls. The Buddhist robes stand in the gallery. They look ghostly because there’s no visible body even though the robes look filled. They seem to hover mid-air and hold little screens with invisible hands. They’re an amazing and spooky installation. You can immediately sense they’re protective about what they hold. Once upon a time, Buddhist pilgrims carried sacred texts to different parts of Asia. Now Chhachhi’s disembodied pilgrims carry Plasma Action tv screens. You’ve seen them before. They’re tacky little toy screens that have an image scrolling across them. The ones I’ve seen most often have glowing fish blandly moving across the screens without a twitch of a fin.  Chhachhi’s robes hold up screens that show images of scientists all suited and masked up to battle avian flu. There’s no mistaking the resemblance between the contamination suits and the robes. Of course, while the robes were worn by people who tried to conserve stories that saw birds as wise and mystical creatures, the suits are worn by those who cull birds.

Birds are all over the wall pieces. There are peacocks, Garudas (in Hinduism, Vishnu’s rather frightening consort; now, the name of Indonesia’s national airline) and the Kaha bird, which is from a Tajik legend. In the story, a diseased Shah is told that the blood of the Kaha can cure him and so there is a failed attempt to hunt it. They fail and the magical bird is lost to mankind. In “Luminarium”/”Winged Pilgrims”, the bird isn’t lost, but it mutates. From being a metaphor of the soul, it becomes an object of consumption and a cause of anxiety as this mutated symbol strikes fear into people. The mutation is the result of modern progress, beginning with steamboats and culminating in the festering trash of industries. Images of delicate beauty — taken from Chinese brush painting, Indian sculpture, Persian miniatures and other classical sources — are placed against a backdrop of modern decay, pollution and trash. The modern birds, unlike the gorgeous Kaha bird, are a scary cluster. There’s something tremendously eerie about the parrots, crows and hens, with their neon colouring. The flocks have all the grim determination and sameness of a marching platoon.

All the while that you walk around the show, a plaintive voice sings wordlessly. If the helpful lady at Volte is to be believed, the singer is Vidhi Rao. She composed this piece specifically for Chhachhi’s show. The music is quite fascinating because Rao lets you hear hints of very disparate musical traditions by changing the throw of her voice. I’m sure there are technicalities of the notes used and what not that I didn’t understand. All I know is, Rao’s voice sounds haunting. At moments, I felt like I was hearing hints of Chinese opera and at other times, there was the steadiness of the dhrupad singing style, the low hum of a chant… beautiful.

While I’m not one of those who is sold on the idea of modernity being the force of all evil (I am hugely grateful for modern plumbing, thank you very much; it’s the one reason that I don’t want to live in any other time period), I could spend hours watching Chhachhi’s version of a diatribe against the conventional notion of progress. What I love most about “Luminarium” is how beautiful it is. When you read Chhachhi’s accompanying text, it could be daunting (big words, spattered references to esoteric and erudite ideas), but much more important is the fact that her intimidatingly intelligent words don’t convey the delicacy of her art. There is a simple beauty to these works that makes them spellbinding and there are no polysyllables that can match that impact.