At the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, in the midst of a display of ancient sculptures, it is surprising to stumble upon Sumakshi Singh’s thread installations. Their delicate and ephemeral form stands in stark contrast to the massive stone works. These days, one can find several such artistic interventions across the museum. As part of the ongoing exhibition, ‘Rhizome: Tracing Ecocultural Identities’,14 contemporary artists such as Singh, Aaditi Joshi, Arunkumar HG, Atul Bhalla Pooja Iranna, Reena Saini Kallat have responded to museum artefacts, iconography and aesthetics to create site-specific works in galleries dedicated to natural history, miniature painting, the Bombay School, numismatics, and more. Visitors to the museum feel like they have embarked on a treasure hunt. Many, who might have come to see the many galleries at CSMVS, stumble upon a contemporary installation, and then begin to search for more.
For curator Jesal Thacker, it has always been important to connect the past with the present. This concept too stems from that interest. “I didn’t want to place existing works by artists in the museum. Rather, I wanted to create an intervention, a site-specific response, which connected with the museum’s history and our own culture,” she elaborates. Just before the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, in 2019, she had sent out a proposal to the museum, and the director general, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, liked it. As things came to a standstill due to the lockdowns, she mulled over the works of various contemporary artists whom she would like to invite once things opened up.
‘Ecology’ is at the heart of her concept. In her curatorial note, Thacker elaborates on the idea further, looking back at 1866 when German zoologist Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology. “So, before the term was coined, what were our modes of perceiving and understanding nature then? It all began with fundamental questions that are rooted in building awareness about our physiological, psychological and psychic relations with nature, vis-a-vis ourselves,” she writes. In fact, inquiring about the self in relation to the universe has been seen as a consistent thread in most Asian and indigenous cultures. “Can these acts of consistently seeing, listening, intuiting, discerning, being aware and conscious revive and strengthen our ecocultural identities in the present circumstance?” she asks.
Artists have always been attuned to the shifts in ecologies of the self and the universe, translating these changes in their work. In ‘Rhizome’ too, the 14 contemporary artists bring their unique expression of these ecocultural identities. “The works are not intended as a direct comment on the environment or climate change, but about something deeper,” says Thacker.
The CSMVS team has not imposed its ideas on the aesthetics or the curation of the exhibition. However, Thacker had to be mindful of the scale of the exhibits—that they didn’t hinder the walkways or evacuation areas, and that the installation process didn’t harm the heritage structure in any way.
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The artists could choose from the galleries that they wanted to respond to. Singh, for instance, wanted to work with fragments, and the Buddha gallery with its scripts seemed like a natural choice. However, the gallery had to close down for some reason, and she turned her attention to the sculpture space. “All the sculptures in the gallery have been retrieved from pillars or columns in archaeological sites. Through her architectural threadwork, she is rebuilding that memory of that site and of completeness. It also reflects on how destruction wrought by invasions, time, and more, affects our ecological identity as well. The experience of viewing such fragmented sculptures is different from when you go to, say, Ajanta, and experience something in its entirety,” explains Thacker.
Rhizome can be viewed at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Mumbai, till 22 June, 2023, open all days (10 am to 6 pm), except on public holidays