Saturday, October 15, 2011

Urban Bawl 2

Here is the second in the series of Urban Bawl columns in Time Out Mumbai for their 'Back of the Book' page. This piece is on city, memory and a set of installations by Jitish Kallat.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Bringing it all back home

Artist Jitish Kallat has been invited by the Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s Director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to create a series of installations in the museum that engage with the exhibits. This invitation is one of a series of mandates that the museum has made to invite contemporary artists who are alumni of the Sir JJ School of Art to make works of art in the museum. Through historical incidence, the museum is habited with artefacts and exhibits made by the former students of the Sir JJ School of Art in the late nineteenth century. Kallat is the second contemporary artist to put up his work thus, the first was Sudarshan Shetty.
The Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, Mumbai is an ornate pile nestling cheek by jowl with the city zoo. This museum (formerly known as the Victoria and Albert Museum) and its extended grounds (formerly known as the Victoria Gardens) house several artefacts of nineteenth century colonialism, including the equestrian statue of Edward VIII (latterly remembered elsewhere, but in absentia, as Kala Ghoda) and the elephant that gave Elephanta Island (formerly and latterly known as Gharapuri) its name. It is inside the museum that the singular legacy of the Sir JJ School manifests itself.

Unlike the Ajaayab Ghar/ Wunderkammer paradigm of museums that were the repositories of curiosities and exotica, essentially rooms filled with collections, sorted or otherwise, with an intention both to preserve as well as to enthral, the Victoria and Albert was an entity created to reflect the city of Bombay. In a well orchestrated attempt to portray the colonial city as inhabited by a diverse cosmopolitanism under a benign ruler, the Sir JJ School of Art and its students were commissioned to create relief maps, figurines and dioramas depicting life in the city as it was then.
The museum was therefore lined with showcase after showcase filled with glimpses of life in Bombay and surroundings, teeming with the vitality of the various denizens who populated it, but neatly sorted according to sartorial taxonomies of caste, creed and religious persuasion. Ergo, dioramas of Bombay at work and at play exhibited full bodied depictions of Parsees in their flowing white robes and tall hats, varieties of Muslims with varieties of beards, Kutchhis, Marwaris, Kolis, Marathas, Agaris, and assortments of sadhus amongst much else. All these populated the museum in a representative albeit stereotypical microcosm of the city outside. Other creations by the School of Art also fill its shelves, notably pottery and ceramics. Of course there is a sizable collection of other collections as well that are on display in the vast interiors on either side of a dominating, larger than life, marble statue of Uncle Albert himself.

I have memories of several visits to the museum as a child. I soon realised how different it was from the other great museum of the city, the Prince of Wales. A visit here formed a bonus feature to the de rigueur walkabout in the Raani Baag to admire caged animals. I was not particularly impressed by the exhibits that I thought bordered on the monotonous, showcase after showcase of clay toys, especially in comparison to the Prince of Wales, a place I loved, which was a veritable Ajaayab Ghar. With every visit, it seemed to me, the museum was getting darker and dingier, there were not too many visitors about, and a sense of desolation and abandonment was apparent. All this changed, very happily after 2008, when the museum was exquisitely restored by Vikas Dilawari, many of the artefacts re-housed under a contemporary curatorial gaze. The latest enterprise, as is seen with Jitish Kallat, of commencing a conversation between the contemporary city and the erstwhile artefacts has revitalised the space, both literally and intellectually.

It was only appropriate for director/curator Tasneem Zakaria Mehta to bring an alumnus of the Sir JJ School of Art in as an Artist in Residence. There a great resonance between the two institutions, near contemporaries of each other. The School of Art was set up initially to preserve and resurrect the dying crafts of India, whose value Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy saw in the artefacts that filled up the vast Indian section of the Crystal Palace Exposition of London in 1851. Through his munificence was the school of art set up, with an aim to train local students to carry forward these traditions. Things did not exactly work out this way, for within a year or so of the school’s inception, Sir JJ was dead and the teachers and masters imported from England set up a curriculum to train students in the grand tradition of the Beaux Arts, with specialised departments of painting, sculpture and architectural ornament. Students became more and more adept at these skills rather than Indian crafts and as the city experienced its boom in the wake of the cotton trade and textile industrialization. The School was able to contribute to the city in several ways. In the last decade of the 1800s, ceramics and pottery made by the school went ‘viral’ for a short while in the mother country.

Like the Bhau Daji Museum, the Sir JJ School of Art stayed the course it had set upon. Art was produced for the Salon, within the Western tradition of the Beaux Arts and the modernism that had made its impact fully felt in Europe did not really impact Bombay’s shores until the penultimate decades before independence. It would require an almost subaltern resistance to the craft/skill based productions. This would emerge from within its students in the early fifties in the form of the Progressive Artists Movement that rattled its doors and rebooted both the forms and substance of what was produced in the school. Change, such as it was, was brought about by the alumni. Dissatisfaction bred innovation.

To return to Jitish Kallat.
His installations, currently up at the Bhau Daji Lad are collectively called ‘ Field-notes: Tomorrow was here yesterday’. Kallat, through a series of rather subtle interventions, introduces a voice that begins with a whisper that slowly rises not to a din but to a level that cannot be hushed away. His work talks of the contemporary city, of Mumbai, as a series of intrusions and impositions that occur where least expected, and are made up of objects that allude to change and transition, the propensity of the contemporary city to usurp the old, to erase the inconvenient and to easily slip into an amnesia fuelled by unreasonable aspiration. Kallat bring the city to the museum, disturbing years of cobwebby and mildewed mindsets, raking nails across the persisting image of the idyllic cosmopolis that the former artefacts sought to recreate. His installations evoke issues not given enough air in the city: the conflicts that have beset it in the contemporary past, the ghettoization of the mind into increasingly homogeneous selves, the othering of everyone else, and the swift slide into violence outside that is only a step behind the violence within.
With 'Chlorophyll Park (Mutatis Mutandis)', using digitally composite photographs, Kallat addresses the aspirations of a ‘dirty’ city with a ludic use of lawns that over-run former tarred roads with a uniform green lushness, or as his press note says ‘evoking a time when urban expansion is halted, and nature exacts her claim on the concrete jungle.’ O that our city could be like this! And yet, the oversaturated green sets up a counter allusion- that of Astroturf, the faux grass carpet made of plastic, uniform but lifeless. The fulfilment of aspiration flips back to mere application of superficial lamina, not unlike the ubiquitous blue tarps that we see covering large parts of the built city, especially in the monsoons.
Kallat’s panoramic photograph ‘Artist making a phone call’ where the same subjects make impossibly multiple appearances in the same image is successfully juxtaposed (using similar framing and symmetrical locations) with panoramic images of Bombay taken nearly a hundred years ago. This exhibition is filled with such created presences.
A visitor passes under an unexpected series of scaffoldings within the interiors of the museum- at the entrance, all round the statue of Albert and straddling the grand stairway like a Dusshera toran. These bamboo scaffoldings, held together by coir rope, are ubiquitous in the city outside. Every inhabitant of Mumbai walks around or under them, side-steps to avoid them or rues their presence on buildings, flyovers and skywalks and pavements. They represent the city in flux, never complete, never at rest. Kallat turns the museums space inside out bringing in an element of exterior presence inside the museum, belying expectations of what should be in and what should not. One is reminded of the Laurentian Library in Florence by Michelangelo where the interior walls are articulated as an external facade. A closer look at the scaffolding is revelatory: these are not bamboo at all, but meticulously crafted poles of fibreglass. The knots that cause one to mistake them for bamboo are in fact animals in relief, familiar to most South Bombaywallahs.
They encounter them every day, embedded in the neo-Gothic ornament that can be seen on most of the buildings in the stretch from Bombay VT to the Regal. Birds and rabbits, dogs and mice have played peekaboo with pedestrians on the streets of Bombay since the late 1800s, leaping out from behind the acanthus fronds that make up the Corinthian capitals on so many buildings in the colonial city. Another flip: the past has infiltrated the present, the contemporary contaminated with a persistence of the erstwhile.
I first encountered ‘Annexation’ from the museum’s upper floor gallery looking down into the atrium. I had just finished contemplating ‘Anger at the speed of fright’, Kallat’s own contribution to the dioramas of the museum, which he makes by usurping two showcases that would have otherwise have housed objects from the museum’s permanent collection (models of boats and ships, as it happens). The showcases are filled with foot high figurines, all male, dressed sartorially to evoke Rajnikanth/Salman Khan/Govinda, indulging in various cameos of rioting, assaulting each other with weapons of various found objects, scattering a detritus of abandoned possessions in their wake. Frozen in the middle of a bloodletting fury, these little people occupy the space they are housed in a variety of vignettes of choreographed violence. Preserved here, in all their inglourious presence, is a diorama riveting to look at, but with a sinking heart.
As I moved beyond this installation in the upper gallery, I looked down at the ground floor to see a burnt-out kerosene stove with equally burnt-out tweezers for lighting the wick. Do you remember the primus from the days before the gas stove became the primary choola to cook on? A remnant of violence, a destruction of domesticity, the aftermath of a riot, this black, soot-stained, partially melted stove reminded me of our immediate past, of things we did witness in the mad days our city went through not so long ago. We don’t talk about how easily the city can revert to this, as it did for extended periods in 1992-93 (and of course various times before that, and occasionally since). The stove was aligned with other displays and even had chrome barriers that called attention to it as ‘a work of art’ or an exalted ‘do not touch’ exhibit in a museum. It had dark, bad beauty that warranted a closer look.
‘Annexation’ is a work of great aesthetic pleasure when seen up close. Made of lead and metal, it is formally arranged as a monument, with plinth, column and canopy overridden with the self-same animal figures, just like those on the bamboo scaffolding, taken down from the neo-Gothic buildings of the city, and lumped together. The animals of various species had resorted to devouring each other. The stove transforms to an under-scaled gazebo or an over-scaled fountain, classically correct in its mouldings and ornament. Once again Kallat conflated the past to make us realise the present.
Now consider this. In the ‘Battle of the Styles’ that was an ongoing debate in the mid nineteenth century, both in England and in India, the neo-Classical vied with the neo-Gothic for being anointed as the most appropriate style of architecture in a universe dominated by Kaiser-i-Hind Ranee Victoria. From the 1860’s onwards, the neo-Gothic style achieved fashion dominance in the colonies. Bombay’s first line of public buildings, the set that gave the name of ‘Urbs Prima India’ to the city were all built in the neo-Gothic style. These buildings displayed ornament and architectural articulation taken from French Gothic and Venetian Gothic sources, proselytised mainly by writers like John Ruskin with his ‘Stones of Venice’, a very influential voice amongst architects and artists of the time.

In Bombay, the School of Art commenced classes in 1857, under three masters- one each a master of painting, of sculpture and of architectural ornament. Lockwood Kipling was the Master of architectural ornament. His work and his teachings for the ten years or so that he spent in Bombay was greatly influential, as was his attempt to integrate Indian forms with western architectural elements. He initiated the creation of architectural ornament, of forms and elements of buildings carved in stone in the School of Art which would then be installed on the various buildings that were coming up in the city. His students became adept at creating elements like column capitals, bases, plinths, friezes, roundels, crockets and gargoyles that would become the crowning features of the neo-Gothic buildings all over the city.
All the architects creating these new edifices, from F. W. Stevens, to George Wittet, to John Begg and William Emerson ‘outsourced’ the aesthetic details in stone to the students of the Sir JJ School of Art. Lockwood Kipling’s own work can be seen even today in the two beautiful reliefs of local Indian life created in the tympanums of the entrances arches to Crawford Market. In the School of Art Building (designed by Molecey) built in the neo-Gothic idiom, sculptural vignettes of artists and craftsmen are ‘embedded’ in the Corinthian Capitals. The most notable building that Kipling and his students would contribute to was the Victoria Terminus Station, across the street from the school. The Venetian Gothic pointed arches on the facade are interspaced with a variety of architectural sculptures that range from the symbolic to the representative (busts of city fathers) to the playfully ornamental, where architecture freely morphs into sculptural depictions of peacocks, monkeys, rabbits and rats. These animals are on full display at eye level on the porch of the railway station that leads to the ticketing chamber. It is from this very porch that Jitish Kallat has sourced most of the animals on his scaffolding and his stove.

These two installations bring all the various strands together: the outer city and the inner museum, the older artefacts with the current impositions, the Bhau Daji Lad with the Sir JJ School of Art, the rapidly changing with the resistant past, and the 21st century city with a 19th century form. An alumnus of the school of art, Kallat has returned to the very museum that the school’s early artists filled. But Kallat’s prodigal installations return with the same elements that made the school a notable contributor to the city in the first place, the home of the architectural ornament. In his inimitable manner, Jitish Kallat has succeeded in bringing it all back home.