Pushing through the century-old turnstiles at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL) in Mumbai, toward the central hall with its gold, stuccoed ceiling and delicately winding pillars, it’s difficult to miss Sarnath Banerjee’s contribution to the 160-year-old museum. On a giant panel in the centre of the room, the artist renders naturalist Charles Darwin, scientist Gregor Mendel, and the 18th century physician, Sir Thomas Browne, among a cacophony of exotic birds, flowers, insects and plants, all vying for attention. On display behind this is the museum’s sixth edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1872), as the larger than life illustration references the museum’s original focus on showcasing natural history. Banerjee’s solo show, Spectral Times is presented as the latest in BDL’s Engaging Traditions series, in which contemporary artists are invited to create works that engage with the museum’s archives. Though the Berlin-based graphic novelist’s other pieces are decidedly more eerie, the panel sets the tone -- Banerjee’s work does not simply respond to the museum's archives and history, but rather functions as an extension of it.
In small cursive writing on the back of the panel is a quote from Sir Thomas Browne: “Whales, elephants, camels, these I confess are the colossus and majestic pieces of nature but it is in the narrow engines such as bees, ants, and spiders, that nature reveals its curious mathematics and the civility of these citizens more neatly sets forth the wisdom of their maker.” It seems that, amongst the pieces of history housed in the museum, Banerjee asks us to zoom in on the intricacies of the small, the everyday, as way to understand our world. Since his first graphic novel, Corridor (2004), he has been interested in portraying the Indian middle class, and his work, even now, unravels hidden stories within seemingly mundane worlds. However, Banerjee’s knack for setting atmosphere and tone is now not just limited to a visual idiom. The show weaves together his characteristically minimal drawings with radio recordings of stories that are inspired by the museum’s collection. As visitors browse through maps of 17th century Bombay and clay figurines depicting the city’s residents and their lifestyles over the years, Banerjee’s installations provide them with a ghostly edge, breathing a half-life into the objects preserved there. In dimly lit rooms to the sides of the main gallery, filled with light, shadow, and not much else, radios play recordings of people’s brushes with the otherworldly.
The show is centred around Birjis Bari, the protagonist of Banerjee’s latest book, Doab Dil. An ex-fact checker, now working for the fictitious local quarterly, ‘The Spectral Times,’ Birjis is interviewing residents of the city in order to document psychic events rather than fact. The collection of 13 stories range from the phantasmic to the macabre, as the reporter, voiced by Banerjee, matter-of-factly prods the speakers to describe their experiences. There’s the story titled ‘Shehri Adamkhor’, about a man who finds himself craving human flesh after he quits smoking, and writes a recipe book filled with ways to cook his family and friends. Another story involves a woman whose on-and-off lover never eats or sleeps, but is somehow still alive, like the ‘Eiffel Tower Syndrome’ where a deadly fungus grows at the base of an oak tree and hollows it out from the inside. Eiffel Tower trees look like regular oak trees, but are dead on the inside. In many cases, we are told, dead oaks outlive the living ones. In another compelling tale, an older disabled woman describes delightful snapshots of residents’ lives as she watches them from her balcony in a railway housing society. Only towards the end of the story do listeners realize that the narrator has since been beheaded, and it’s her severed head that’s speaking to an unfazed Bijris.
Sitting in the cool dark room, on chairs arranged around a coffee table, with the radio in the background, it is difficult to remember where you are, and even more difficult to leave, as the stories run into each other, tied together by our faithful, post-truth reporter. That Bijris is an ex-fact checker is crucial to remember, as if Banerjee wants viewers to contend with the fact that ‘fact’ in itself has become a shadowy concept, that the suspension of belief necessary to listen to these stories, has become a faculty that we rely on more than ever before. Spectral Times is set in a post-truth world reflecting a reality where the barrage of data and news that we get buries the truth, and where we worryingly rely more on stories and emotion than fact. And so Banerjee, through Birjis, asks us to read ‘The Spectral Times’ from a position of the post-belief.
In addition to the large illustrations of haunted men and women, corresponding with the stories playing in the other rooms, some of Banerjee’s earlier works are also presented in the show (on view until 26 May). These include pieces from his 2017 project, ‘I Got Ginger,’ on Dutch colonialism and the spice trade, and illustrations inspired from his time in Japan. Curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee of BDL, with assistant curator Himanshu Kadam, the special exhibits presented alongside Banerjee’s work compliment the atmosphere of the otherworldly, from the books opened to drawings of extinct animals, to framed vintage photographs and a large clay bust of a mustachioed man.
Like half-forgotten dreams, Banerjee conjures a cityscape that is all too familiar, but in the same breath, unsettling. The museum itself takes on the air of the uncanny, its histories and stories coming to life, as theatrical voices echo from the radio installations. Spectral Times is Banerjee doing what he does best - asking viewers, or rather listeners, to take a moment and really look at the city, its whales and elephants as well as its bees and ants. Within the shadows, the murkiness of our reality, we must look to the ghostly and spectral, to recognize the uncanny in of our own lives. If we are living in a post-truth world, perhaps it is ghost stories and forgotten histories that can help us trace our way back.