Sunil Gawde’s new work ‘Alliteration’ is an advanced variation of a similar piece from his key sculptural series titled ‘Blind Bulb etc.’ (2005). I have a distinct memory of standing before it even as the interplaying black-and-white lunar forms moved at different speeds evoking a mechanical montage of an anomalous sky. In the piece I’d seen earlier, the sky seemed to have somehow gone malignant with moons of differing dimensions metastasized all over; each one was seen waxing and waning at a varying pace as if their individual rotational speeds were in allochronic disarray. This uncanny vision seemed slightly catastrophic as the earth’s nearest satellite replaced all the distant stars; and all familiar constellations seemed to have paranormally gone missing from this celestial coordinate system conjured by Sunil Gawde.

We decide to meet the following day at his workshop in Mumbai where ‘Alliteration’ is being fabricated.

The Playful Transliteration

We meet at a grungy industrial complex in North Mumbai where various kinds of metal fabrications are in process. In one glance the tenor of Gawde’s workshop is no different from the activities in the neighbouring factories; however, what sets this enterprise apart is the fact that hard industrial labour and skills are being employed with the poetic and playful intention of making a pigment coated metallic sky. Steel bars are cut into precise right angles; sheave and pulley mechanisms are being tested to meet the strict calculations of the CAD drafting; and noisy momentum tests are being conducted to ensure that the perfunctory backstage circuitry gets programmed to efficiently run this all-steel supernal composition.

To have a quiet and undisturbed conversation on the subterranean objective of this mechanical object we head to a nearby peaceful café. Coincidentally the beginnings of this piece happened half a decade ago when Gawde was invited to consider an unusual artistic commission in this very neighbourhood. He was urged to think of the imagery surrounding the Hindu deity Shiva as a starting point for his piece. This project was peculiar since it is rare to see commissions of this nature in the contemporary Indian art scene that seeks to directly reference religious iconography. Religion was never an explicit theme in Gawde’s work during his twenty five years of art-making. While he decided to address this commission in an indirect manner, at a personal level he continued to pursue the vast set of images that he had thought of during his short deliberations on the image of the deity.

There are numerous attributes that become a repository of symbols surrounding Lord Shiva: for instance, the tiger skin attire suggests his attainment as an ascetic, the hourglass shaped drum reveals the rhythmic reverberations of cosmic time, the blue throat is suggestive of the poison he churned and swallowed from the world oceans, and the serpent-garland he wears around his neck cools his poisoned throat. Of these, Gawde was drawn to the miniature crescent moon that Lord Shiva wears in his matted hair. In Hindu trilogy Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the maintainer and Shiva is the destroyer or transformer; the waxing and waning of the moon symbolizes time-cycles but wearing a permanently crescent moon as an ornament makes him an eternal reality beyond cycles of time.

‘Alliteration’ in a curious way emerged out of a playful transliteration of these religious symbols to take the form of a free-standing art object, a twisted cosmogram, a mechanical toy or a sacred chronometer that concurrently registers the passage of time in several parallel worlds.

The Moonologue

While viewing Sunil Gawde’s work-in-progress two artists from very diverse cultural backgrounds and generations came to my mind; Nam June Paik (b. 1932) and Darren Almond (b. 1971). While their widely differing practices have very little formal or mediumistic affinity with Gawde, a fleeting note on particular works by these artists might aid the viewing of ‘Alliteration’.

I thought of Nam June Paik’s seminal video ‘Moon is the Oldest TV’ (1965) where a lunar cycle is created by a magnetic intervention in the television’s cathode ray tube, transforming the incoming televised signal into full, gibbous and crescent moons. Another interesting piece is Paik’s collaboration with the influential film maker Jud Yalkut on the video ‘Electronic Moon No. 2’ (1969) revealing a deep artistic fascination with the earth’s oldest means of nocturnal illumination. In ‘Electronic Moon No. 2’ the moon is seen as a glowing and shape-shifting mass of mystery as it gets reflected in the waters and finally ends with an interesting eclipse created by the shadow of a male face and a female breast; the mysterious pitch of this video led David Bienstock, erstwhile film curator of The Whitney Museum of American Art, to refer to this work as a modern day film-haiku. The fact that Gawde wasn’t familiar with Viola’s and Yalkut’s pioneering effort makes it even more interesting when one looks at a short poem he wrote in 2003. I quote: “In the arithmetic of life, The mystery of shadows puzzles me the most. Shadows on the moon, Shadows on the human heart, Always ascending and descending the mystery of soundless shadows, Make me rearrange my beliefs. Because at times I can recognise my own shadow- On the moon. It’s God’s divine shadow play”.

It is fascinating to look at ‘Alliteration’ alongside Darren Almond’s monumental flip-clocks. One of the captivating elements of Almond’s mammoth time-machines is the alarming flip of the numeric flap, as if the passage of time itself has a component of threat inscribed in it. The exposed machines at the rear help register the passing moments; while the attached speakers amplify this process to announce the movement of time acoustically, etching an element of fear and unease into its course. The word clock comes from the Celtic root-words clagan and clocca meaning ‘bell’, where intervals of time are marked with a set of chimes or a gong; using sound at intervals to record units of time.

The Cyclic Clockwork

In an interesting contrast to Almond’s amplified sounding of time, Gawde’s ‘Alliteration’ continues with the gradual, relentless and unchanging hum of the machine at the back. The consistent rotation of the multiple moons evokes time but simultaneously provokes us to ponder on the notions of periodicity and duration. When undivided, time becomes a seamless, intangible stream. Time has no concrete beginning or end until we begin to domesticate it within markers and pollute it with numbers, creating units and fractions that provide us a sense of duration. Left alone without a sense of frequency, time is an endless journey without stations where the only definite reality is the present. [1]

Quite strategically Gawde’s time-keeping apparatus provides no markers to quantifytime. Through the disorienting movement of twenty-eight moons, our convenient notions of duration get inverted. As the moons change shape at different speeds we are simultaneously confronted with a sense of uncertainty and ennui, the kind of unease that might be quite the inverse of Almond’s pounding reminders of passing time. Gawde points out the fact that the differing rotational speeds, the varying dimensions of the twenty-eight moons and their many combinations will ensure that the overall formal configuration of ‘Alliteration’ cannot look identical for very long periods of time. Enshrined in this constant change is a promise of recreation; however the process continues without beginning or end, without intervals or a possible culmination in sight. Such a paradoxical feeling of stasis is central to the construction of ‘Alliteration’.

As a parting thought it might be instructive to recall Nietzsche’s proposition of ‘eternal recurrence’; the belief that everything that has happened or will happen, has already occurred infinitely and will continue to recur in a self-similar form. With ‘Alliteration’, Gawde plays the mischievous horologist, employing a simple mechanical device to tease out a larger metaphysical dialogue.


[1] Think also of Darren Almond’s interest in the moon as an artistic reference, evident in the series of photographs of landscapes titled ‘Fullmoon’. These photographs are taken on full moon nights with a prolonged exposure of fifteen minutes bathing the picture in a glowing bright light, turning night into day. First published by B & G Foundation, 2009.
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