At the edge of a swaying boat, sits a man in a white shirt. The shot fills the central screen of Ranbir Kaleka’s three-channel installation ‘House of Opaque Water’. Flanked on either side by endless gleaming waters, he begins to point us to things. “This is my home…the cows grazed by the Banyan tree” he says. Except, there is no home, no tree and no land - just the same endless waters the installation surrounds him with.
Filmed with environmentalist Pradip Saha, the work is an elegy to the fast drowning plains of Sunderbans in the Bengal estuary as the water levels rise; the most dominant symptom of climate change. In another scene, the same man draws us a map on wet soil using his hands - a large circle populated by smaller ones on the inside. “School”, “path that lead us to our friend’s house”, “Masjid” he continues against the sound of children playing. As the waters come in, people are moving out - leaving behind the land that birthed them.
Kaleka’s work delicately moves between the documentary and imagination, constantly reminding us of the vastness of nature and the vulnerability of man in it. In this time of ecological emergency, he draws us to think of loss not only in terms of land, but of memory and a way of life - the traditions of people. In the figure of the narrator, he also introduces us to recuperation, a coming to terms with loss and memory as record of that which doesn’t exist anymore.
On the first level of the gallery, the wall is split into three surfaces of varying depths - a scenography for multiple “incidents”. In the screen to the right, a man is seemingly out to hunt, his head in the clouds. He begins by blindly shooting arrows through the haze. They puncture the barren land in the absence of the target, or shall we say victim. But eventually the victim emerges, held captive to the centre to the frame, his identity made unclear with his digitally blurred face. The man continues to shoot arrows - a few misses and then a fatal blow, the victim falls to the ground. The episode continues a few times. There is no red, but there is blood. In the same frame lies the severed head of a donkey on the ground that bleeds profusely each time the victim is murdered. Kaleka though is hopeful as well. Interjecting footage of a woman breast-feeding her child and a deer-calf at the same time, the artist also demonstrates the strangeness of human nature, and its ability to accommodate difference, and perhaps love.
Kaleka subtly inserts references across time, from his own childhood to the violence we all witness in our everyday lives. The donkey then stands for the construction of civilizations, of labour carrying the burden of building vast settlements. In his work there is a lot to be seen and thus the danger of a lot being lost, of eluding the viewer. Several creatures creep in and out of the frame - rats, a snake, deer - each symbolizing a surreal function and an embedded meaning perhaps mythic or psychological of the times that we have come to occupy.
On the second level, a cuboid made of charred wood lies on the floor, very obviously referencing a coffin or the remains of a pyre. Projected onto this is a blurred figure of a man that occasionally trembles before going motionless again. In the stillness of the dead, the man is visited by birds and animals. Kaleka draws a comment on the farmers and their relationship to the soil - one that they till, one that takes their lives, the umremitting act of farmers’ suicides, and the one they are buried in. Titled Bound, the work perhaps is the most direct of Kaleka’s otherwise dense and contemplative language - a gesture that feels too easy and rushed for emotion.
Amongst other work is a huge alien structure with two peeping windows. Kaleka turns us into voyeurs confronted by the monotony of life. Eponymously titled Fearsome Acquiescence of a Monotonous Life, we see a man by a window looking out to the world. This is characteristic of the artist - portals that take us through simultaneous experiences of our outlandish times, each from a perspective different from the first. Close to Fearsome Acquiescence of a Monotonous Life, is The Unremarkable Life of the Man with Tiffin another ode to the common man, whose life must go on come what may; a slave to our capitalist structures, a life virtually immune to and unaffected by political change.
Fear of a New Dawn is packed with visual and social commentary, with the works taking on diverse conditions, rather, symptoms of what we have come to know and see of violence in recent times. Each work then is also in a different state of thought, some more resolved, others jarringly imperfect; and herein lies the strength of Kaleka’s exhibition. The artist never feels the need to simplify, to offer a solution or to belabour the point. He is instead invested in putting forth his own dilemmas with these incidents and images. He rarely uses colour, keeping the exhibition predominantly black and white - an affective mood that tints the conversations, the works attempt to evoke, a sobriety or perhaps an attitude of mourning.
In Fear of a New Dawn, Kaleka continues to make evident our complicity in enabling the injustices around us with our silence. He confronts us with everything we otherwise tend to ignore or never really notice, because it does not affect us directly. Barring a small logistical complaint about his works requiring a distance for viewing and the gallery space being limited, the exhibition is a provocation that will linger on for a while.
The exhibition was on until April 13 at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi