There have been many lives of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. From being the Central Government Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts in 1855, it was made into the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1872, and finally the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum in 1975. Paying homage to the first identity of the museum, Rohini Devasher’s exhibition is fashioned like a wunderkammer (a cabinet of curiosities) that encourages one to explore every aspect of it.
As part of the program Engaging Traditions, Devasher was invited by Tasneem Mehta, the Director of BDL Museum, to respond to its archives. Devasher cast artefacts from the archives to focus on the lesser viewed objects from the museum’s exquisite natural history and geology collection. The curatorial touch of the BDL team is evident in the seamless display of the symbiotic relationship between the museum objects and Devasher’s explorations. The exhibition weaves stories from the artist’s passion for astronomy, palaeontology, printmaking, science fiction, archiving, history, archaeology and more. As a child, Rohini Devasher’s fascination for the skies was nurtured by trips to the Nehru Planetarium, pursuing astronomy clubs and science fiction conventions. These blossomed to field explorations through her professional print-making journey.
In my conversation with Devasher, she mentions her conviction to include the fossils from the natural history collection in the exhibition. The exhibit on the first floor displayed in the ‘Origins of Mumbai’ gallery, is aptly titled Deep Time. Devasher mentions how this intimate setting was necessary for the observation of material artefacts in the room, where the artistic tools like acrylic, color pencil and dry pastel are married with fossils, minerals and corals. The room is meant to be viewed as an artwork, and it comments on the chronological appearance of organic forms on Earth. Visualizing this temporal and spatial intersection as an amorphous growth is a drawing, much like its fossilized companions, spread across the wall. This room particularly attracted Devasher because its wooden paneling and vitrine like classical showcase made it a right ‘fit’ to display these works. As one enters the room, Devasher’s wall drawings are flanked by vitrine-clad fossils from approximately 440 million years ago. The gradation of the drawing from formlessness to form, is a window into the history of everyday objects - from the chalk we use on blackboards to the charcoal used in art. It is interesting to note that the room also accommodates busts of two British Municipal Corporation officials, E.C.K. Ollivant and George Henry, who avidly contributed to natural history journals in their time.
On the other side of the first floor, the Kamalnayan Bajaj Gallery canvasses Devasher’s trysts with astronomy, terrestrial forms and horizons on the sea coast of the United Kingdom. It includes the works Atmospheres, Shivering Sands and Terrasphere.
Atmospheres is a video filming the perceptibly changing sky at the Gauribidanur Observatory near Bengaluru. One can sense the artist’s attempt at understanding the ‘oneness’ of the planetary systems, which is akin to her penchant of using video feedback loops in her art work. According to Devasher, the repetition of viewing oneself while looking at oneself from a point in the sky is humbling, fascinating and hopeful of a global humanity.
Devasher gets the opportunity to review the varied nuances of her art works through the observations of visitors to the museum. One of the viewers thought that Atmospheres is about the sun, as the video shows the sun rising from one end and setting in the other. This made Devasher re-examine how the solar telescopes in the observatory panned the sky for two days and indeed captured the sunrise and sun set. With the camera pointed towards the zenith, touching the endless canvas of the sky, this work is reminiscent of the seamless horizons explored in the neighbouring rooms.
Shivering Sands encompasses a site visit to Maunsell Seaforts on the coast of the United Kingdom. The site contains decommissioned metallic vestiges of the Second World War, reminding Devasher of an anchor from a bygone time. She sees these forgotten outposts as parts of an H G Wells novel or a Star Wars fantasy. The quietly lapping water throughout the video creates a soothing effect of contemplation ashore. The voiceover narrates her contemplations during her field visit and the accidental discovery of these outposts in 1960s by a MIT meteorologist, Edward Lorenz. This makes the viewer an implicit part of Devasher’s experience. The room where the video is being shown is comparatively large and one can feel the meditative pull of unceasing horizon in the video.
Starting her journey as a student of print making, Devasher was fascinated with using the plate as a block for multiple iterations of each print. Her archival prints from her site visit to Maunsell Seaforts are temporally linked with Terrasphere, a video work that speaks of preserved ecosystems for flora and fauna. The pensive quality of the work makes it difficult to categorise its form as liquid or solid. Often Devasher found people standing around the dome topped pedestal, trying to ascertain the form of the art work. This ambiguity makes it even more compelling to view the projector displaying 59 still images of the biosphere on a loop, contrasting beautifully with the darkened room.
The main atrium on the ground floor houses Meridian: Experiments in Time Travel, the museum’s tryst with time travel of its own night sky. These archival prints on Hahnemuhle paper were inspired by the planisphere, a star chart analog computing instrument in the form of two adjustable disks that rotate on a common pivot, kept in the museum collection. It can be adjusted to display the visible stars for any time and date, and for this exhibition, 6.30pm and 10pm on August 20th across twenty thousand years was chosen. This date is significant as the show opened for public viewing on this date. Whilst standing there one revisits the same sky across centuries, beginning in 416 A.D., till 21016 A.D.
While one reels with the heady feeling of accessing history and the future through these archival prints, it is revealed that this artwork led to the restoration of one of the gems in the museum collection - the Philips Planisphere. The BDL team brought out this original 19th century English Planisphere created by the Philips company, to be restored by the INTACH Conservation Lab.
Devasher asserts that her field visits are always different from her expectations, which has driven her creativity to the fore. Always Take the Weather with You embodies this experience. The work is a happy, but ironic personal commentary on Devasher’s unique luck which carries the cloudsonallherobservation trips. A clear sky is a must for amateur astronomers, and on all these trips she couldn’t manage to see the intended parts of the sky. One of the notable visits where she didn’t find a clear sky was at the Gauribidanur Radio Observatory near Bengaluru, where the photographs of these cloud etchings were shot. Her other eagerly awaited trips include the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, UK, Patna Planetarium when India witnessed the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century in July 2009, and the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle.
Image courtesy: Author and Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum