First published as a Catalogue entry for Absur-city-pity-dity exhibition brochure, New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2015.

There are signs of flowing water on Mars, says the news, bringing an unexpected thrill to a Monday morning. We see reflected in our red neighbor some of the potencies of our own liquid planet. With water comes the promise of life. Without it, all is latent.

Water slips its way into every crevice of our lives. It crashes into our imaginations even as it rocks us to sleep. It appears as a welcome glass of hospitality; it coaxes a seed to sprout; it soothes the parched land. It appears as a leak in the roof; a puddle on the road; a dripping faucet and in the frustration before the mute mouth of many an Indian municipal tap. We are lulled into complacency by its quiet foundational flow until its ravaging excesses-as floods, hurricanes and tsunamis-command our attention. Vibha Galhotra’s work finds its movement in the deep swell between water’s daily dream space and its mythic force.

The rivers of Hindu mythology are wild, powerful women whose strength as they surge down from the mountains threatens to engulf the world that it embraces. In fact, it is this force in the mythic Ganga that is curbed by Shiva who binds her raging torrent in his hair. In Delhi, where Galhotra makes her home, flows the dark Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganga and no less the stuff of legend. The rivers emerge, in an untitled work in the exhibition, in the fine tracery sewn by female fingers into a map of a very fluid India, where these once wild women are diaphanous and delicate-but they are there. Galhotra lets water seep into the room as it does into daily life.

Yamuna watches us. Still and sullen in bottles, she accompanies the desultory meander of urban life in 365 Days. Her black alluvial innards spatter across the canvas in Sediment. The insistent seepage through the cracks of buildings and spaces, manifested through Galhotra’s hallmark ghungroo sculptures, is seen in Flow, Majnu ka Tilla and Altering. Ghungroos are the bells tied around the dancer’s ankles that provide additional percussion as her feet hit the ground. The onomatopoeic chhan chhan of the ghungroo is the vocabulary of poetry and anticipation. The dull burnished bells are painstakingly sewn together by women working with Galhotra into these intricate displays. They tumble forth relentlessly: hundreds of open mouths with their small metal tongues, as quiet as the women who made them, as quiet as the river, silent but everywhere around us.

The news from Mars reminds us that the story of life and water is inevitably a cosmic one. In a time before time, when the universe was cursed into arid gloom, everything in it withered, decayed, and died. Here begins the story of the Samudra Manthan, the mythic tale from which Galhotra takes the inspiration of transformation. The god of gods, Vishnu, assures his followers that amrit, the nectar of immortality-the promise of sustained life-would be released by the primordial ocean if they join together with their sworn enemies to churn it. With the mighty mountain Mandara as their staff and the snake-king, Vasuki as a cord, the two sides pull back and forth as any peasant woman might as she churns butter. Many glorious things and beings emerge in the course of the churning but in this power and fury, Vasuki also spews the ugly poison, Kalakuta. Its evil would destroy the earth were it not that the great destroyer Shiva intervenes and swallows it. It halts in his throat where it remains forever, turning his throat blue, much as the stark beauty of a white canvas holds the black power of Yamuna’s sediment. Shiva is himself a dancer-and this is surely no accident here. His cosmic tandava, which releases the energies of creation, destruction and emancipation, appears in the iconography of Nataraja-the lord of the dance, arms raised, hair flying, beating drum to hand, the right foot firm on the demon of ignorance and the left aloft in the air. What will it take for the ghungroos of that dancing foot to come crashing down to our earth, releasing the power of their voices, chhan chhan, to awaken us from our complacent slumber?

First published as a Catalogue entry for Absur-city-pity-dity exhibition brochure, New York: Jack Shainman Gallery, 2015.

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