I The dramatic expansion of mass media - print, televisual and cybernetic - that followed economic liberalization in the early 1990s, has profoundly shifted the terrain of the visual in India. The growing ubiquity of media images has forced artists to reexamine the changing status, role and power of the image in contemporary culture. According to Nancy Adajania, this dynamic new mediascape has inspired the emergence of a “new mediatic realism,” a realist impulse among Indian painters that explicitly references the imagery, format, effects and surfaces of the media flow. Like many of her peers, in her recent work Reena Saini Kallat has experimented with strategies for arresting the overwhelming glut of media images and imbuing these images, especially those of people, with renewed pictorial and emotional significance. Her approach has been to anoint the human image sourced from the media with symbols and icons from a mythic register. In the 2004 series Sword Swallowers, generic portraits of ordinary people, sourced from the Internet, topped stele-like stacks of paintings filled with fantastical images of warring demons. Two years later, in the Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases) series, similar painted portraits appeared again, each framed and stained with a floating form in the shape of the contested Occupied Kashmir region, and hovering over a museum case containing tiny toy-like weapons arranged like a menacing set of teeth. According to Adajania, Saini Kallat’s constellations of images and objects, of the mediatic real juxtaposed with the mythic imaginary, may be understood as serving an “apotropaic” function, providing a spiritual salve for the many evils and injustices that trouble India and its least fortunate citizens.
Saini Kallat’s recent Synonym series marks a distinct departure. Here, the portraits stand alone, monumental yet atomized, composed entirely of hundreds of painted rubberstamps, each bearing a name (in reverse) in one of over fourteen Indian languages. From the appropriate viewing distance the array of stamps coalesce into a recognizable human image; up close they register as pure pattern, an irregular lattice of color and text. Ambiguously hybrid objects, they oscillate between photography, painting and sculpture, between human portrait and abstract pattern, between image and text. Seemingly forgoing the mythic as the mode for consecrating human images extracted from the media flow, the Synonyms instead register in their very pixilated materiality the growing fragility and profound dissolution of the human image enacted by the spread of media, an indeterminacy that appears to extend to issues related to subjectivity, identity and citizenship that these human images embody.
The Synonyms are not without precedent and bear superficial similarities to Chuck Close’s large gridded portrait paintings or Rashid Rana’s Ommatidia series, composite digital prints of Bollywood heartthrobs composed of thousands of tiny images of everyday Pakistani men. However, Saini Kallat’s works, comprised of short interlocking horizontals and verticals of varying lengths, reject the stability that a regular orthogonal grid might provide. The composite image that emerges more closely resembles a mosaic or, in the artist’s own words, a “circuit board,” pulsating, as the eye is forced to wander across the surface in search of a visual anchor. Despite their three-dimensionality, for Saini Kallat, these works are intimately tied to the history of painted portraiture, reflecting her training at Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art and revealing much about the craft of painting. Encrusted with illegible text, each stamp resembles an individual brushstroke, its rough surface suggesting the impasto of an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist canvas. Like these earlier styles, Saini Kallat’s Synonyms challenge the smooth illusionistic space of traditional painting, evincing instead the piecemeal way in which a painted image is constructed, through the careful application of individual marks. Saini Kallat goes a step further, literally disintegrating the picture plane, dramatizing the dialectical relationship between image and mark.
In their teeming, tessellated and textured surfaces, these portraits seem to visualize the Nehruvian maxim of ‘unity in diversity,’ a popular nationalist creed that asserted that India’s national identity and true strength lay in its cultural diversity, that a palpable but indefinable ‘Indianness’ united and transcended the myriad of ethnicities, religions, castes, and languages found across the nation. While the motto served as an important rallying cry, mobilizing these diverse populations against the colonial power, India’s troubled post-colonial history has demonstrated that, though laudatory, it is a difficult if not impossible ideal to achieve. Rather than naively celebrating its increasingly hollow utopian multiculturalism, Saini Kallat’s Synonyms reflect the strange paradox and delicate tension inherent in this nationalist credo; their trembling surfaces register difficult lessons about democracy, secularism and citizenship. The unstable formal relationship between image part and image whole serves as metaphor for the increasingly fraught relationship between the individual and the collective, the citizen-subject and the nation-state, the regions and the center. Like in these portraits of its citizens, which do not completely cohere, resolution is never absolute in a democracy like India and consensus is at best temporary and ephemeral, the result of constant and always contested negotiation.
The stamps in these portraits bear the names of those officially registered as missing, from victims of the natural disasters, riots and accidents that regularly afflict the Indian populace, to those whose disappearances are inexplicable but no less distressing, who have willfully absconded or been forcefully abducted. While Saini Kallat’s earlier experiments with portraiture reproduced anonymous images from the Internet these works are based on photographs of migrant workers, many children, encountered in the artist’s Mumbai neighborhood, shot by the artist herself. Despite the somewhat impersonal passport photograph format, the occasional coyly tilted head or cheeky grin betrays the warm intimacy of this face-to-face encounter. Their collective title, Synonym, suggests a series of equivalences: between the linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste and cultural differences registered in the variously scripted names, between those named and those pictured, between the missing person and the migrant worker. The missing, in Saini Kallat’s own words, are those who have “slipped out of the radar of human communication, [have been] thrown off the social safety net.” The migrant worker’s existence is similarly precarious; displacement from their rural homes severs their traditional bonds of kith, kin and community, resulting in a gnawing instability and deep sense of loss. And like the missing, the migrant workers are rendered invisible; they are the dark under belly of the metropolis, the hidden and exploited work force whose unacknowledged labor is, however, integral to its proper functioning. While the Synonyms rightly monumentalize these marginalized figures, their portraits remain visually liminal, their faces appearing and disappearing like phantasms.
II The name as marker of the subaltern citizen reappears in the photographic series and sculptural installation entitled Lunar Notes (2008). Arranged in an incomplete grid, the photographs document instances of ‘love-graffiti’ scrawled and etched on the often ornately carved but decaying walls of historic monuments across India. To the authorities that manage these heritage sites, the inscriptions are a nuisance, small acts of vandalism that collectively threaten the integrity of national treasures. One tongue-in-cheek image includes a clearly ignored Archaeological Survey of India sign pleading, “Thank you for not scratching on the monument.” Drawn to these scrawls for their tender transposition of the private emotion of love into the public sphere of history, Saini Kallat began systematically documenting examples encountered on her travels. Seemingly neutral documents, these photographs, however, reveal a profound tension between the master narrative of Indian history and literature and the quotidian experiences and desires of its subaltern citizens. Examples of a spontaneous populism, little acts of romantic resistance to eventual historical absence, the inscriptions, through the most human of emotions, register a powerful need to index subaltern presence by literally etching one’s name onto the architectural edifices of history.
Inspired by the photographs, the accompanying sculptural installation is a curtain comprised of strings of variously sized beads of bonded marble, that, from a distance suggest the silhouette of the Taj Mahal. Along with the names of the everyday Romeos and Juliets documented in the photographs, the beads bear those of great lovers from the annals of Indian myth and history: the star-crossed Punjabi lovers Heer and Ranjha, immortalized in verse by Waris Shah; the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz, the monument’s patron and muse respectively. An architectural masterpiece and an enduring memorial to lost love, the Taj is increasingly a visual cliché for India, repeated ad nauseam on travel guides, tourist brochures and snapshots, and kitsch souvenirs. The installation seems to acknowledge this dual status, and like the Synonyms, uses optical resolution as metaphor. The image of the monolithic Taj is literally dispersed, rendered fragile and fugitive like the love it symbolizes, a fleeting vision increasingly difficult to resolutely grasp.
III If the Synonyms and Lunar Notes both rely on the limits of optical resolution to address the indeterminate status of hallowed national myths, Saini Kallat’s other recent work focuses on the always uncertain relationship between India and Pakistan, a conflict that, despite repeated efforts at peace, appears irresolvable. Saini Kallat unites work in diverse media through her iconographical repetition of the form of the still-disputed territory of Occupied Kashmir, a shape, that for the artist, becomes an “emblem of human folly,” and carries with it a powerful traumatic legacy that continues to taint Subcontinental geo-politics. The brazen terrorist attacks that besieged Mumbai for three devastating days in late November, and appear to have derailed attempts at peace between the two countries, are just the latest disheartening reminder of this.
In Crease/Crevice/Contour (2008), a series of ten photographs trace the shifting Line of Control (L.O.C.) between the newly independent India and Pakistan during their first war over the region of Kashmir. In each image, the specific contours of the conflict area at a particular stage of the conflagration - which lasted from October 1947 to December 1948, following on the heels of the devastation of Partition - is rubber-stamped onto a woman’s naked back. The form is composed of the names of signatories of a petition demanding the construction, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, of a bilateral memorial to victims of Partition violence, such an official public acknowledgement of atrocities being a necessary first step to resolving deep-rooted traumas and achieving lasting peace in the region. By visually equating territory and the female body, Saini Kallat extends the popular concept of Bharat Mata or Mother India, of the nation personified as a nurturing and self-sacrificing Mother Goddess, a patriarchal archetype of Indian femininity that emerged in nationalist discourse in the late Nineteenth century. However, her analogy introduces a critique. Stamped in blood red ink, the changing cluster of names resembles an embarrassing birthmark or a malignant skin lesion, growing or shrinking with the shifting frontline. As a “residual scar” of an ongoing territorial dispute, one that has cast a lingering shadow of violence and mistrust over the Subcontinent’s post-colonial history, the form symbolically marks the fact that women inadvertently bear the brunt of such hostilities, their bodies literally invaded, defiled, occupied and exchanged, like pieces of land. During the dark days of Partition, on both sides of the newly drawn border, women were abducted and forcibly converted, raped and murdered by strangers as a show of strength, and killed by their own to safeguard so-called ‘family honor.’
Through exaggerations in scale and symbol, the playfully absurd sculptural installation White Heat (2008) dramatizes the frustration that characterizes attempts to resolve the conflict. Perched atop an ironing board is an oversized iron, its flat surface encrusted with ornate weapon-like projections that render it useless, unable to smooth out the creases in a cloth repeatedly embroidered with the form of the contested territory. Embedded within the weapons are the characteristic rooftops of religious monuments - a mosque dome, a temple shikhara, a church steeple - a gesture that acknowledges how religion is cynically, strategically and divisively wielded by power hungry politicians on both sides, hindering all attempts at peace. In contrast, Silt of Seasons (2008), the artist’s first video installation, appears more optimistic. Projected onto sand shaped into the form of Occupied Kashmir, recalling Saini Kallat’s previous use of rangoli or ritual floor patterns, are the names of signatories of a recent peace petition. Each name, carefully spelt out in letters of sand, appears momentarily, eventually blowing away, its transience reflecting the fragility of the peace process. Yet the piece balances elegy with hope; each erased name is promptly replaced by that of another peace advocate, the desire for and commitment to peace enduring, renewing itself with each new name.
Displaying these varied works, both in subject matter and medium, together under the exhibition title “Subject to Change Without Notice” is more than mere acknowledgement of the paralyzing bureaucratic inconsistency that has long characterized everyday life in India. Rather, the indeterminate and precarious status it describes is a Cassandra-like warning issued by the artist to her fellow citizens. While India might be shining bright as it triumphantly emerges onto the world stage as a political and economic superpower, its status as such will always be tenuous until it resolves the specters that haunt it, until it acknowledges and grapples with the profound trauma that accompanied its independence and its enduring legacy of violence, and it achieves equal access to the rights and freedoms promised under the Republic’s constitution for all its citizens. Until then India might just remain beyond resolution.
Published in Reena Saini Kallat, Primo Marella Gallery, Walsh Gallery and Chemould Prescott Road, 2009.