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Gautam Bhatia’s storyboard of life

Through a new set of miniature paintings, drawings and sculptures, the noted architect explores the transitory idea of birth and death

Detail from a work from the 'Going Nowhere' series. Courtesy: Gautam Bhatia
Detail from a work from the 'Going Nowhere' series. Courtesy: Gautam Bhatia

Browsing through architect Gautam Bhatia’s set of drawings and plates is like watching the storyboard of a motion picture come together—there is a sense of movement and connection between each visual as one gives way to the next. His Home series, for instance, shows the story of a house, from its construction to the toll sun and rain take as it is beaten down by the seasons over time, finally crumbling to dust. As it decays, new life springs around it in the form of saplings. Trees take root, only to be cut to stumps to make way for a new house.

It is this transitory idea of birth and death that features in Bhatia’s exhibition Still Life, on show at Bikaner House from 24 March.

“It took my own ageing to realise that architecture, like everything else, was not just made, but also lived and died,” he writes. “As you approach your own physical end, there arises the need to free and unburden yourself. You remove yourself from judgement by erasing what you have seen, what you have built. Whenever I draw architecture now, I place an undergrowth of plants in the cracks of buildings; wild shrubs appear on decaying books and on paintings.” To him, this doesn’t demonstrate an erosion of ideals—it leads to hope of something new and better.

What started as a moment of reflection has now led to a full-blown series of miniature paintings applied to a variety of subjects, from people, food, transport and labour to religion, love, home, family and, of course, architecture. The series now features 205 paintings on the sequence of life, and 12 bronze sculptures, created with Shankar Bhopa, supporting the theme.

The show is divided into sections such as Home, Ambition, Love, Life, Society, Faith, Celebration, Ageing and Passing. “The archaeology of cities, the rise and decay of architecture, the dimming focus of design and material objects, private transformations and public cultures, the physical residue of all that manifests as life and material, transforms from birth to love to struggle to dissolution, to loss and memory, finally to recall and remembrance. Things die, there’s grief. Things remain beautiful, even in sorrow,” he writes in an introduction to the show.

'Manor' from the 'Ambition Calls' series. Courtesy: Gautam Bhatia
'Manor' from the 'Ambition Calls' series. Courtesy: Gautam Bhatia

Bhatia feels this movement across enormous stretches of time is best conveyed through the changing images of a storyboard. This is precisely why he began recording the construction of a block of flats in his neighbourhood some years ago. A tree-filled landscape transformed into a populated space with 400 flats in a matter of five years. “Every week, I stood at a designated spot and took a picture of the changing scene—the felling of trees, the rising of walls, the fitting of windows, the finishing of the building, residents moving in, their laundry hanging from the balconies,” he says. “When seen in rapid succession, the photos were a time capsule of architecture—built, occupied, eroded. The changes were never the same, never linear and foreseen. A multiplicity of forces had attacked the building, and the end result was a residue of many inputs.”

His work is a reflection of the changing perception of architecture. What was earlier viewed as inanimate is now perceived as a pulsating, throbbing entity. The structures are alive with the stories of their dwellers. The material weathers and transforms over time, just like the inhabitants within. This idea of transience is at the core of the exhibition—not just in terms of physical transformation but also spiritual, commercial and societal. “Still Life as a title is something of a paradox. It means that even when life appears still, it is not. Change is happening in slow motion; entropy causes buildings to die, businesses and ideas die, love and longing fades. The exhibition reveals the changes slowly, sometimes metaphorically. Transformation and erasure occurs in its own time, in an unpredictable infinity. Permanence has no chance of survival in this world,” says Bhatia.

It is interesting that he has chosen painting and sculpture—essentially static mediums—to depict fluid themes of birth, ageing and death. The miniatures have been made in a series, possibly in an attempt to make each transition apparent. “Each one is of a different length, and each follows its own storyline,” adds Bhatia.

Still Life also stems from the way he perceives architecture as having a sort of eternal life, beyond that of its creator. “You design and build something greater than yourself, and you imagine it being viewed by succeeding generations. This is also true of books, and sculptures and film—anything that has value beyond the person who gave it life. Writing, building and painting are just other ways of prolonging your life with the help of some artistic medium.”

The section on Ambition Calls seems particularly pertinent to the times we live in, with the appetite for wealth and luxury growing with age, burdening the ecosystem. It is in this process of growing affluence and greed that a hut becomes a lodge, a lodge becomes a cottage, then grows into a bungalow, a mansion and a villa, finally becoming an overgrown palace, before it turns into a ruin, and rises again as a hut. Ultimately, both the wealth and the ecology crumble to dust.

Bhatia believes unbuilding is critical for a country that is constantly over-constructing and is faced with polluted rivers, rising dust levels, overheated concrete cities and denuded forests. Yet we continue to add highways, cities, ramshackle shops, half-finished markets and endless streams of broken housing.

“When construction is a form of environmental desecration, shouldn’t we build less? Still Life is directed at making the same point. Unwashed City demonstrates the growth of a city in a bathtub. House abuts house, construction overtakes more construction, till the overbuilt bathtub begins to leak and washes away whole lives,” says Bhatia. The symbolic excess of Indian urban life also appears in Houses Of Cards. For him, this cyclical growth is part of a strange urban amnesia that overtakes the citizen constantly agitating for better goods and services. “The artifice is all the more exaggerated because of the absence of basic needs—no water, no clean air, no neighbourliness, and no humanity. You build more, and higher, till ambition collapses into itself,” he adds.

It surprises Bhatia that the pandemic has provided no relief or course correction—the 8-10 months of clean air, blue skies, silence and bird calls proved to be only a temporary escape from our messy reality. Time and again, he has observed, history has shown the effect of pandemics and wars on urban life. “England’s Clean Air act came in 1956 after smog had killed over 12,000 people. If the pandemic hasn’t taught us anything, there is no predicting what will happen in India over the next decade.”

Through each section, he has made some of the most pressing issues—like the farming and water crises—very personal by placing them in everyday settings and situations. According to him, the world today is unfortunately viewed through OTT content and social media, as a sort of palatable and interesting fiction, but the reality outside the window—cities, houses, food, religion, family and institution—is exhausting and visibly distressing. And because we have learnt to ignore it, these aspects are gathering pace on their own terms. “On a comfortable sofa in an air-conditioned room, their effects will creep up quietly and destroy while we are eating chips and waiting for the next episode,” he adds. “Still Life engages with some of these situations and carries the story to extreme ends. The Hindu, Muslim and Christian Family Reunion series reveals that everyone is essentially the same under the sight of God.”

Yet, hope forms a big part of the exhibition. The underlying premise is that human actions, no matter how frail, unforgiving or hopeless, will lead to some form of rebirth and rethinking. Pessimism, he hopes, will not be taken at face value.

“The conscious mind is always backed by subconscious hope. Going Nowhere is the rush to be in constant movement. Whether walking, cycling, or in a bus, the eventual struggle is to stop all unnecessary commuting and movement, and end up motionless like an old tree. Meanwhile, Feasting Extinction is the imbalance between need and greed: the plate is always full and ready to be consumed whether it contains an ant or an elephant. Starvation at a time of plenty,” he says. “In the end, the open window in Call Of Nature shows nothing. Nature is painted on the window shade; it appears only when the shade is shut. Is nature needed inside, or outside a window?”

STIRworld and Gallery Art Pilgrim present Still Life from 24-30 March at Bikaner House, Delhi. 10 am to 6 pm

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