Two excellent new art shows in Delhi use memory and violence to powerful effect
The relationship between time and memory forms the essence of two excellent art exhibitions in New Delhi—but the provocation is vastly different.
At the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Sudarshan Shetty has a solo show, Shoonya Ghar. Using old wood, he has created a ruined structure: An archway leads to a long, pillared corridor; walking down this, the hollow sound of your footsteps echoing, you reach a room that contains the dusty remnants of lives once lived within it, traces of its past occupants. Each object leads you to imagine the individuals who used them, the shared experiences they may have had.
This allows for the same warm, tingly feeling that old palaces and forts evoke: Your imagination of things past brings the place alive, but also keeps it distant, as though in an amorphous, dream-like state. An accompanying video reinforces this feeling—it yields memories of the space. But it also reinforces the fact that the structure may be ruined, but is undead as long as people walk on it. Along with dramatized episodes from the lives of people who “belonged" to this fictional space are “real" scenes of labourers building the structure.
But, a death that one views in the film can’t undo the exhilarating feeling of having revisited the past in one’s mind, as though time has made things too distant to evoke any real empathy in us.
This is not so in This Night Bitten Dawn, an exhibition curated by Pakistani artist Salima Hashmi, and showing at 24, Jor Bagh. The show, which reverberates with a feeling of the senselessness of Partition, seems to want to keep memory from fading and the pain and loss real and raw. It starts in a darkened room where an audio recording of Hashmi’s father, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Subh-e-Azaadi (Dawn Of Freedom) plays, even as you stare through a broken wall into a prison-like room, a bare, grilled window projected on the wall beyond. “And the dark weight of night is not lifted yet/And the heart and the eye have not found their rest"—Faiz’s words echo in the work of some 20 artists, both Indian and Pakistani, in the exhibition, including Zarina Hashmi, Shilpa Gupta, Nalini Malani, Iftikhar Dadi, N. Pushpamala and Faiza Butt.
Many artworks make a direct statement. A physical border notwithstanding, the inability and unwillingness to separate is referred to by Sheba Chhachhi’s Cleave/Cleave To (2016), a video projection of Siamese twins floating in a glass container, as well as Farida Batool’s Line Of Control (2004), a lenticular print that shows the line formed by the fusion of two bodies, and at times, two hands clasping each other in intimacy.
The violence of Partition, and the memories of a home that it could not erase, are felt in Roohi Ahmad’s video See Sow (2015). The first part of the video, titled Accumulation, shows a hand with a series of lines being sewn on to it with red thread. In the second part, Erasure, the thread is slowly pulled off, but the marks that show where it once ran remain.
Work after work is emotionally loaded; the wound will not be allowed to heal, for it is through the pain of separation that there continues to be a sense of togetherness. There are stab-like indentations on paper pulp in Somnath Hore’s 1970 Wound series, royal splendour in Anita Dube’s jewellery in Silence (Blood Wedding), 1997, and horror in realizing that they have been fashioned from human bones wrapped in red velvet and decorated with lace and beading, agony in the voice accompanying the video of a fresh flower garland that slowly dries up in Asma Mundrawala’s Love Story (2004), and bubbles continually bursting in Susanta Mandal’s 2007 untitled motorized installation.
But there is a more contemporary relationship too. Bani Abidi’s 2002 video, Mangoes, has her in twin characters, one Indian and one Pakistani, sitting at a table eating mangoes and recalling the memories of childhood and summers spent with cousins. Then, with amusement, one notes the friendly competition: Which country has the tastier mango, and greater variety? There is nostalgia for the past, but people of both nations aren’t necessarily living in it.
Shoonya Ghar is on till 6 March, 10am-5pm (Mondays closed), at NGMA, Jaipur House, Sher Shah Road, India Gate, Delhi. This Night Bitten Dawn is on till 29 February 11am-7pm (Mondays closed), at 24, Jor Bagh, Delhi.