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How leading Indian artists are making sense of the covid-19 pandemic

In Part II of this week's cover story, artists Nalini Malani, Shilpa Gupta, LN Tallur and Atul Dodiya speak of their struggles to make sense out of the chaos and suffering all around us

A work by artist Nalini Malani. Courtesy: Instagram@nalinimalani
A work by artist Nalini Malani. Courtesy: Instagram@nalinimalani




On Friday, 13 March, Nalini Malani was in Barcelona, putting the finishing touches to a wall drawing at her show at the Fundació Joan Miró. Last year, she had received the Joan Miró award and the Fundació had invited her to hold a solo show. But her plans changed abruptly when she and her partner realized Spain would go into a lockdown that weekend.

“We rushed to take the last flight out to Amsterdam. And the following day Barcelona was indeed locked down," Malani says. The Indian lockdown followed 12 days later. But the trajectories were quite different. “The exodus of the migrant workers was a tragedy of immense proportions in India," she adds. “A tragedy that could have been prevented."

Nalini Malani.
Nalini Malani.

Born in Karachi in pre-independence India, Malani’s art has always been bold, daring to push the boundaries of thought and action. Her paintings are vividly imagined, often rendered with splashes of excess, informed by the memories of her family’s experience of Partition. That jagged energy and stridently political sensibility also come through in the work she makes using the graphics interchange format (GIF) and posts regularly on Instagram. Recently, these moving images have been framed by dramatic soundtracks, spliced with quotations from famous writers or with her own witty or irate observations. It’s a remarkably flexible format in more senses than one.

“Having or not having a studio in the face of this gigantic pandemic seemed to me the least of the problems when there was the fear of the devastating disease and the isolation and the loneliness in death," Malani says. “But I need to draw as much as I need to breathe—drawing is a means of sustenance, else I shrivel. My iPad is my studio on the move."

Her recent posts on Instagram reveal the subtle but intrinsic ties between art and reality in her work. One depicts a crumpled skeletal form, with the inscription “I am a skeleton I am not" running around it. Another one depicts a couple of figures, floating in and out of focus amidst a riot of colours, with the word “Dystopia" flashing.

In spite of the pandemic, it has been a busy year for Malani. “Since the beginning of 2020, I have been involved with organizing four solo museum shows," she says. The one at Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum opened in January, the Fundació Joan Miró show was to open on 19 March but was postponed to 19 June. A show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London is scheduled to open in September and the one at Serralves in Porto, Portugal, opens in December. The grimness of these last few months was also undercut by a pleasant surprise, when she was awarded the very first fellowship by The National Gallery in London. “This will consist of a two-year study period that leads up to three museum shows at The Holburne Museum in Bath, The National Gallery in London and another international museum," Malani says.

However, the pandemic and its possible aftermath are never far from her mind. “One only hopes that it will be an eye-opener in many ways," Malani says. “The way the earth has healed in these few months should make people realize that Mother Nature needs a vacation too. For us, in India, it is an eye-opener for the rich and middle class of how they have exploited the working class and turned a blind eye to their plight for decades and decades."

In the long run, we will have to find new ways of viewing art, Malani believes; this is already evident as galleries and museums attempt to shift to the virtual realm. “The next step is to book a time in the museums so that there is sufficient physical distancing," she says. “The virus is here to stay for a long time." —Somak Ghoshal




The last time Atul Dodiya travelled out of Mumbai, where he lives with his artist wife Anju and daughter Biraaj, was early March. Biraaj opened her first solo exhibition around that time at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata. Soon after the family returned home, news from Europe began to pour in about the pandemic. Then India went into lockdown. With no help coming in, there was work around the home during the day. Evenings were devoted to watching movies, mostly the classics of world cinema—Fellini, Tarkovsky, Truffaut, Ray. “I stopped going to my studio, which is a 15-minute drive from our home," says Atul Dodiya. But there was no break from art.

Dodiya is known for large-scale paintings and installations but he is versed in many formats and media. He puts this adaptable temperament down to his travel schedule and the fact that he is used to spending time at residencies. “It’s not possible to work on large oil paintings during such periods," he says. “The mechanics of painting with oil are elaborate and it takes much longer to dry. It’s heavy stuff, compared to watercolours." Cut off from his studio, Dodiya got hold of watercolour supplies and sketch pads, converted the guest room of their apartment into a makeshift studio and started painting variations of an idea—of “a solitary figure in a landscape, roaming, moving, playing, making strange gestures in nature".

A file photograph of artist Atul Dodiya.
A file photograph of artist Atul Dodiya. (Mint)

“I felt a sense of freedom. With the whole world under lockdown, and no events taking place, it was the ideal time to be a recluse," Dodiya says. “I didn’t have to tell anyone what I was working on, there was no assessment from others. Don’t think, I told myself, just paint." He threw himself into the work, finishing a painting almost every day. There were only the skies and clouds and birds to look at from the windows and balcony. But nature was never far, at least in his imagination. “These paintings are not haikus," Dodiya says, “each is a full-page poem." He has finished more than 140 of them.

One of the paintings he has created during the lockdown.
One of the paintings he has created during the lockdown. (Courtesy Atul Dodiya )

Dodiya works intuitively, starting a stroke that may remind him of a woman’s back, or an outstretched arm, as the rest begins to morph into a scene. Working on these 17x12-inch watercolours, with their relative limitations compared to oil on canvas (which can be manipulated easily and made changes to), has been rich and revelatory for him.—Somak Ghoshal




At a railway station in Chemnitz, Germany, a flapboard—the kind you find at airports and stations announcing arrivals and departures—has been suspended from the ceiling. However, instead of the usual details of routes and unexpected delays, it features some rather unusual text: “We are closer." “We are closer than you ever imagine." 

Shilpa Gupta’s latest work, ‘Untitled’, a digital print about numbers that have become part of our daily lives.
Shilpa Gupta’s latest work, ‘Untitled’, a digital print about numbers that have become part of our daily lives. (Courtesy Shilpa Gupta)

This 36-minute-long mechanical installation is opening in Chemnitz on 15 August as part of the city’s first international public art project, Gegenwarten | Presences, curated by Florian Matzner and Sarah Sigmund. Shilpa Gupta, unable to travel to the site owing to the pandemic-induced disruption, is working on this installation long-distance. “The flapboard is sitting in Germany. I have been accessing it through a webcam on LAN," says the contemporary artist, who has been invited by Kunstsammlungen Chemnitz to participate in the project.

This work carries forward the artist’s long-standing engagement with the idea of transition, and the objects that embody that sense of movement. One saw this in Gupta’s earlier flapboard, 24:00:01 (2010-12) as well, shown as part of her 2010 solo at Castle Blandy in France.

This particular work, created during the lockdown, starts with the notion of time. Date With Mom—Suspended reads one of the initial texts. As phrases such as “Breathe in Breathe Out", “Have Nmubers Gone Up", “Have Nmubers Gone Dwon" flash on the flapboard, one is transported back to the time when the lockdown had just been announced and these questions could be heard everywhere.

Courtesy Shilpa Gupta
Courtesy Shilpa Gupta

The artist further explains the concept, particularly the idea of distance—perpetuated socially, economically or geographically, as also from our own hands and faces, impossible to maintain. The words in the text have been misspelt deliberately, as they would be on a train station flapboard. The whirring of the letters as they transition from one text to another is a dominant feature of this work. “The human mind slips from one strand of thought into another—just like we move from one hyperlink to another in the digital world, a non-place where we are spending an increasing amount of time in the lockdown," explains the artist. In the same way, fragments of text on the flapboard weave in and out and take leaps, she adds. Different strains of thought come to mind as one watches the work come to life with Gupta on a Skype call—of the increasing cognisance of one’s mortality (“How many will live", “How many will die"), of touch and proximity, the intrusion of technology in our lives.... “At one moment, it reflects upon the transmission of fake news and poses the question: Are we following algorithms or are algorithms following us?" she elaborates. At another level, it looks at the kind of surveillance we are allowing into our lives and the risks involved.

Besides this installation, the smaller works she has been working on are graphs—digital prints—about the numbers that have become part of our everyday lives. Over the last five months, notes Gupta, there has been a somewhat frenzied profusion of graphs and data in an attempt to get a grip on, and make sense of, our present. “Perhaps we are searching for predictions in rules, systems and patterns—however, the future, for the moment, seems very evasive and exerts its unpredictability," she notes. —Avantika Bhuyan




During the lockdown, artist L.N. Tallur watched a film called The Plague (La Peste) based on the novel by Albert Camus, which left a deep impression. “I realized that nothing much has changed between the 14th century and now in the way that the human mind responds to illness or a pandemic," says the artist, who shuttles between Bengaluru and Seoul. “But it’s nice to see that art continues to provide an understanding of the times that we live in."

The pandemic, he feels, has created an interesting juncture to think about and make art. For him, personally, it has brought about a change in world view. In 2005, when he started spending a part of the year in South Korea, the country had one of the highest users of broadband internet. He assumed that the citizens were using to get to know everything imaginable about the world. But over the years, Tallur has come to realize that he was wrong as most of the internet was being used for playing games and entertainment. Similarly, he had assumed that over the years the humankind’s ability to deal with a crisis was immense. But the pandemic shattered that illusion as well. “We are one step away from living on the moon, but we have failed miserably in dealing with a tiny virus. Technology and knowledge are being used in a narrow way, and naturally the mess that we have created for ourselves over the years has become even more apparent now," he says. 

L.N. Tallur is currently working on a textile sculpture.
L.N. Tallur is currently working on a textile sculpture. (Vaibhav Raj Shah)

And this realization has brought a subtle shift in the way he approaches materials. Tallur has always based his practice on as well by exposing the absurdities of everyday life in contemporary society through large-scale sculptures and site-specific installations. He uses found objects and industrial material to quip on symbols of developing India. Take, for instance, Chromatophobia (2019), featuring a granite Buddha cut in half by a wooden log, hammered with coins, with one half saying, “Made in India" and the other one, “Made in China"—a scathing comment on the anxieties that plague an increasingly consumerist and materialistic society. 

Courtesy L.N. Tallur
Courtesy L.N. Tallur

Only now he has moved from the macro to the micro in a literal sense by looking at all materials from under a microscope. “Recently, I was looking at illustrations of the coronavirus in different magazines only to realize there are over a thousand depictions. However, other than the one put forth by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton Montana, none of these is a real image of the virus," he says. This creation of a “symbol" or a perception vis-a-vis the real thing is something that Tallur finds fascinating, and has used a lot in his recent work. 

“In the beginning, I did some cement sculptures and then put them under the microscopic lens. Then I used imaging to print that micro view on to the bigger sculpture. This enables the viewer to see a micro and macro view of the same sculpture at the same time. It’s a bit like looking at various facets of the pandemic," he says. --Avantika Bhuyan

In Part I of the story, Rekha Rodwittiya, Sudarshan Shetty, Jogen Chowdhury, Arunkumar H.G. and Ranjani Shettar tell us about their lockdown art. Read it here.

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