Artists

‘Lullaby’ is perhaps the most complex package of work that Shambhavi Singh has produced in her 20-year career as an exhibiting artist. For those who have followed her output it will contain one major surprise: hitherto she has been known as a dedicated painter who occasionally worked with installation, but here she demonstrates a direct and intense feeling for three-dimensional work.

Comprised of five paintings (three of them composite canvases) and four sculptures, the show’s concerns are broad and cross-cutting. On first viewing, one work, Ghatak, dominates with a monumentality born of subject and size. Its nine 6.5ft x 8ft panels depict cosmic ghataks (or ghat or matka, the traditional earthenware vessels used for carrying water all over India), standing for the nine planets of our solar system. To a degree, the other works gravitate around this piece, such is its pull, but it is the much quieter diptych Migrant Labourers that stitches ‘Lullaby’ together, as we will see.

The show’s title, meanwhile, which is deceptive, provides an intriguing entrance point. Lullabies are meant to soothe us to sleep. Moreover, they refer to a time when we are innocent of the business of living; when the world is composed of not much more than our mother’s milk and presence; when the laws of the marketplace and the jostling of the haves and have-nots mean nothing; when history and existential questions are non-existent.

Singh’s eponymous iron fans, representations of the palm leaf pankha she knew from her childhood in Bihar, advise us to be circumspect about the artist’s putative love song. They are overgrown and ineffectual for their purpose: they would take a wrestler to wave them gently - and the air, barely disturbed, would slip through the open frames of two of the four, which function as beautiful drawings of fan-ness. Immediately recognisable, they are nevertheless totally removed from the hand fans that India’s villagers still use to soften oven-hot summers.

Then again, one has only to think of a famous English ditty to understand that the ‘lullaby’ in which Singh has chosen to wrap up her recent works should be read with alertness.

Rock a bye baby, in the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

If we follow merely the melody and rhythm, as infants do, we too, would slip into unconsciousness; if we listen to the words, we snap awake. Similarly, Singh’s work is seductive - its embrace of saturated colour, its large scale, its bold line and feeling for material, go a long way towards masking its more searching and disturbing references. But thematically there is little to support drowsiness. The imagery crafts a pattern: trains, shoes, feet, letters, stamps - the stuff of transit (notated by the Gandhian charkha and khadaon); pankha, ghatak and chalani - implements of village India; earth, iron and ether - the materials of being. At one level, clearly located in the quotidian concerns of a distinctive group, the migrant labourer, the show firmly sets up universal questions around the burdens of labour, travel and exile, and the lifetime toil of understanding one’s place within the scheme of things.

These have been long-term preoccupations for Singh whose attachment to her native Bihar remains vibrant despite two decades of living in Delhi. She has steadily evolved a vocabulary to explore them, notable for its development of core motifs, its play between abstraction and figuration, and persistent linking of the microcosmic and macrocosmic. Ghatak epitomises this associative mode - one that stops short of conflation but insists that we make ourselves open to the propositions that might flow from such connections.

Singh quotes both the 15th-century mystic Kabir and a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali as her inspirations for the series. In a stunning poem that uses reiterative rhythm to build its conceit, with line upon line opening from the phrase ‘is ghat antar’, Kabir mines the fundamental components of the pot - clay and space - to explore the gamut of human experience. We, of course, are the original clay vessels. Thus, he chants:

is ghat antar baag-bageechey …

is ghat antar saat samundar

is ghat antar paras moti …

is ghat antar nau lakh tara …

is ghat antar anhad garje

within this vessel are orchards and gardens...

within this vessel are the seven oceans...

within this vessel are jewels and pearls...

within this vessel are nine hundred thousand stars...

within this vessel thunders the unstruck sound ... [1]

The scene from Pather Panchali takes us to a related area: an eye appears, blinking in the darkness, leaving the film-goer momentarily confounded as to context, before another frame reveals that the peeper belongs to a girl who is looking into a ghatak. The corollary: for an instant, we, the audience, were part of the dark interior void into which the child peered - perhaps, even, we were the void.

To know that these sources provoked the artist is simply to find evidence for the experience of standing in front of Ghatak. They may call to mind photographs of whirling galaxies and solar systems sent back from NASA satellites, but the pots’ assertion over each canvas - their square placing, their simultaneous fusion with and containedness against something we were once wont to call ‘outer space’, their sheer size (we could curl up within them, like a baby in a womb) - all proclaim that Singh is, in fact, painting interior space.

Should we need further proof of this, we can turn to her earlier series of cosmic pots, A Bird and 2000 Echoes, shown in New York in 2007 but painted between 2001-06. In contrast to the vase-like receptacles of ‘Lullaby’, these are markedly spherical, have flattened necks and tilted stances (occasionally threatening to spill their contents). Inside, swirling atmospheres periodically shift to reveal dreamlike motifs of travel or, travel’s inverse, home. So stylised is the container in A Bird and 2000 Echoes I, it reads as a floating eyeball, its pupil magnetically drawing light into a darkened cinema hall of shifting phantasmagoria, in this instance including a train streaking across a darkened landscape and paper boats tossing in chalky seas. We are back to Ray’s blinking eye - the eye that opens to the soul - in response to which we blink in return.

There is more to be said on the visual and non-visual rhymes that Singh sets up between trains and stars and sieves and containers, and their real-world implications, but this is the moment to stick with interiority and note the most abstract of the show’s paintings, Deafening Silence of the Void - paradoxically also the only piece in ‘Lullaby’ with a unique, rather than generalised, historical correlate. The painting is Singh’s response to a news report about a boy on a railway platform struck deaf and dumb by the 2006 bombings in Mumbai - attacks that left 200 dead and 700 injured. Its focus is not a dissection of violence and its causes in contemporary India, however, nor even a lament at wanton destruction; instead the artist is caught up by the blanket of isolation thrown around the child, one that will rewrite his experience of life and turn him back upon himself.

In the event, sound fell out of his world, but she portrays his shock through a synesthetic loss of sight. Known for her palette of black, red, orange and blue, here she loads blue, the colour of melancholy and clear skies, on to the substantial triptych (17ft 3in x 6ft 11in in total); the only other addition being the black outline of an ear. Flat areas move into others suggesting movement and turmoil, articulated by the smallest shifts of tone, but ultimately the colour confounds any sense of depth, communicating the smothering, transforming nature of the boy’s experience. That Yves Klein, the man who all but purchased that particular hue, should also be known for a photograph Le Saut dans le Vide or Leap into the Void (1960) is a neat echo of the existential cast that Singh brings to the subject.

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Ten years ago another blast, India’s 1998 nuclear tests, largely greeted within the country as a sign that the nation had arrived on the world stage, prompted a bald riposte from Singh. It is worth looking back to this to trace another important trajectory in her work, this time in relation to her formal development - that is, her engagement with abstraction and its play with figuration.

In three brooding brown-blue watercolours, Earth I, Earth II and Earth III, in which the image was fragmented variously on three, six and nine handmade paper sheets, Singh presented the planet we live on as a wobbly circle. Earth I is more blob than globe, hanging like a disconsolate balloon in some murky, backstage lot of the universe. Earth II ill fits its nine parts, its edges falling off the paper plane, and communicates a sense of bad-tempered, reclusive, internal wrangling. (We are up close, but this is not the home we know from National Geographic; rather, it is billions of years before we came on the scene, when the solar system revolved without us.) Earth III, in contrast to both, is a magnificent, shadowy, receding orb, almost eluding the viewer in three of its six panels. Three portrayals of the planet on which we live that succeed in alienating and unsettling us, a prerequisite for reconsidering what we take for granted; that allow us to sense ancientness and an incorporated power we have barely begun to understand, and - what we know but choose to ignore - that we could destroy this same world.

The Earth paintings shared a number of characteristics with another striking watercolour from that year, Red Kali, a black tongue that severs, like a malicious, snaking arrowhead, 12 blood-red panels. A decade into her practice, Singh was finding ways to present subjects in a manner at once arrestingly full-on and yet which had the openness to allow the viewer - indeed, invited the viewer - to wander within the image and around its edges. Two divergent strains were central to this: first, her ability to intuit her own passionate responses and to boil these down to resonant motifs; second, her inclination to disrupt and fragment this process, sometimes literally breaking up the picture frame, creating gaps between parts or multiple renderings/ perspectives. Both relied heavily on allowing abstraction to flirt with a modulated figuration.

Another instinct was emerging around the same time in Singh’s work, an inverse to her capacity for what I might call an interrupting disruptiveness: that is, the rhyming I’ve spoken of briefly, wherein unexpected elements are brought into proximity and relation. Both strategies have paid dividends, although the latter, in particular, can leave loose, uncomfortable ends.

During a residency in Cape Town at the end of 2000, for example, she brought planetary images, sieves and fans together in a meditation on South Africa’s independence called Midnight Song on Twelve Pages. As the child of a state (Bihar and India both) still dependent on an agrarian economy, she was pointing up the post-colonial struggles of an essentially rural population. Then the planet in question was a rising sun, shining down on a new nation, and the life-size (hand-held) sieves and fans formed part of an installation, rather than taking on the mantle of sculpture.

In ‘Lullaby’ she mirrors this combination, countering the Ghatak series with a giant metal sculpture of a chalani, a sieve used in the countryside to separate dust from grain (they are placed together in the downstairs space of Talwar’s Delhi gallery). At more than 7ft in diameter and with a burnished coppery finish, the piece has a powerful presence. It exerts the fascination of a handmade tool while spilling stars from its underbelly (a poetic chorus to the pinpricks of ancient light that sing out of the Ghatak series); an object you would return to search and circle at different times and in different lights.

While the 2008 chalani undoubtedly keys into a discourse related to that of Midnight Song, buttressed as it is by the Lullaby fans and Migrant Labourers diptych, Singh complicates and extends matters by calling the huge perforated disk Braille. The reference to blindness arguably syncs with the loss of sense (and autonomy) described in Deafening Silence but also introduces a note of menace - to run fingers across the punched-out holes of its surface would be perilous. Perilous for whom, becomes the question. For the villager who still uses the original as an essential device to sift his food, but the use of which increasingly points up his separation from the modern mainstream? Or for the city dweller who can see the object only as a bijou art-world commodity ripe for investment?

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To raise these questions is to starkly highlight the gulf that exists between the world of India’s villages and metropolitan centres, a chasm Singh is highly aware of. The daughter of an artist, she had an early sense that she would pick up his creative legacy; equally, having seen him struggle with poor health, that she should brook no compromise in its pursuit. Making a career meant staying in the capital, engaging with the centre of the country and its art world. In the process she discovered what the many thousands of Bihari migrants who do some of the lowest-paid jobs all over India quickly learn: that to be a ‘Bihari’ is to be seen as ill-educated, with little to contribute. As the agitation earlier this year in Maharashtra showed, when the politician Raj Thackeray told Bihari workers to go home, to belong to one of the least developed states makes for a precarious existence.

In fact, Patna, in the 1970s and 1980s, where Singh grew up, had much to offer. For six weeks each year it boasted one of India’s finest festivals of classical music, dance and recitals between Durga Puja and Diwali, at which the cream of the country’s performers would nightly hold court to 2,000-strong audiences. The same crowd would have yielded coteries of articulate youngsters able to regale a stranger with the latest rock and pop coming out of the West. “But the best time was spent in my grandmother’s village,” Singh remembers. “That was quality time. You learnt from the land and the people. Their homes were always open. The fields at night were lit by fireflies - you’d think you were surrounded by stars. It was a direct education. A devoted time.”

If she is nostalgic for those experiences, she doesn’t let it blind her to the problems of past and present: the accounts of lawlessness and corruption that continue to emerge from the state; the annual stories of homes washed away in the monsoon (the news is always “heavy” she says, talking of Postal Address?); the villages that live with four hours’ electricity a day. (She sees the dark works that have dominated her output as “banners of my homeland”.)

These are the narratives behind Singh’s images, but they are far from straightforwardly translated. So General Bogey, for example, a symbol of the trains that have carried generations of Bihar’s brightest sons and daughters away in search of better lives elsewhere, is an obsolete steam engine rather than contemporary plane or one of Lalu Yadav’s shining Rajdhanis. By fixing on the locomotives that ran in her childhood, Singh collides a series of references: to her own desire for a better time; to the ‘backwardness’ for which Bihar is known (to go there is to travel backward); and, through a visual rhyme with her 2002 multi-panelled Who Ironed Your Clothes, to the crude conditions under which so many poor people still labour.

Interestingly, while General Bogey is clearly a successor to the New York show’s E-mail I, it seems to need its title to reinforce its undelineated black recesses. Its outline, a bizarre, jagged ghatak (it, too, is a container of heated air) and its turbulent surroundings leave it hovering. Formally, the painting seems stranded between two worlds, one where figuration is tipping over into narrative, the other where abstraction kicks in.

What General Bogey reinforces, however, is the thought that, somewhere, there is a version of the Romantic dialogue running through Singh’s work, which is set, as that artistic and intellectual movement was, against a backdrop of an industrialising, modernising country, with all the ambivalent reactions such a process triggers. As the European Romantics of the 18th century did before her, in ‘Lullaby’ Singh elevates nature into the sublime, makes noble the lowly - the feet of Migrant Labourers have haloes, they walk (or fly) through the cosmos - and monumentalises the ways of the countryside.

In an essay titled ‘The Dilemma of the Romantics’ the critic John Berger describes the Romantics’ response to the society they found themselves in:

There was a new awareness of the size and power of the forces in the world - an awareness that invested the word Nature with a completely new meaning, and there is the breathlessness of the new superstitions that protected men from the enormity of what they were discovering: above all, the superstition that a feeling in the heart was somehow comparable with a storm in the sky. [2]

He went on to conclude: “between the privilege and the reality lay the predicament”.

Ten years ago Singh took part in a curated project called ‘Art between implosion and explosion’. In many ways the title is a fitting description of her current work and concerns. However, the pace of change in India promises to push her own set of inquiries. Either she will become a more entrenched Romantic or she will have to find ways, artistically and otherwise, of unmasking the predicament.

Notes

[1] The translation of this last line particularly is loose and inadequate; it remains a topic of discussion for critics. With anhad, Kabir is referring to an a priori self-emanating cosmic vibration that can neither be heard or felt in day-to-day perception, and garje comes from the verb that could be used to talk about the roar of a lion or the rumble of thunder; the reference is to the creative force behind the universe.

[2] Berger, John. ‘Selected Essays’ (edited by Geoff Dyer) Bloomsbury 2001
May 2008.
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