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.
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.
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.
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.