In the ongoing exhibition at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (Saket , New Delhi) Constructs Constructions, there is a small painting by S.H. Raza, Crucifixion (1957) where the charred figure of the crucified Christ is mounted atop a building and painted against a fiery orange sky. It is a picture enflamed with rage and sorrow. A few paintings along the wall is another painting by Raza, a cityscape painted in pleasing pastels, a city awakening to a new day, to possibilities. These early works, so markedly different from his widely known ‘Bindu’ paintings, are beautiful renditions of two distinct moods of a city and though encountered towards the end of the viewing set the tone for the exhibition which contains landmark paintings, sculptures, installations, prints and photographs. Raza’s paintings identify the two moods in which we view our civilizational progression - away from rural and community-centered living towards the urban and nuclear existence - as simultaneously a positive evolutionary step that is also fraught and violent.
Roobina Karode, the curator of the Museum and of this exhibition, has created a mood that is contemplative rather than bombastic and the ideas are developed though theme, medium and artists’ practice. The idea of Construct Construction develops on the back of works that visualize the growth of our urban spaces through the acts of building with steel, brick and concrete. Thus Hema Upadhyay’s 8’ x 12’ (2009) creates a container of the same dimension (this tiny size of housing is all that many poor migrant families can afford). She covers the inside of the box with miniature high-rises and houses and slum-shelters and in effect creates a 360-degree aerial view inspired by Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum. Nataraj Sharma’s Constructs (2008-15) includes a monumental metal building with etched architectural detailing alongside are six etchings - two of a tall crane, two of a shiny high rise and two of a building in construction. And finally there are two small portraits of unskilled daily wage-workers as humble tribute to the men and women who build our cities and dwellings. Through these crowded, rather monstrous, urban spaces the artists develop their commentary on economic and social inequality, on personal ambition and dreams, on migration, displacement, disenfranchisement and abandonment.
Giving us an intimate experience of the urban city is Gigi Scaria’s famed work Elevator from the Subcontinent (2011) made for the India section at the Venice Biennale (2011). One enters an actual elevator by pushing a button and on the inside the three sides of the elevator and the ceiling are video projections. One is dizzyingly and claustrophobically carried up and down past parking lots, middle class drawings rooms and concrete and plaster walls. You feel a bit like a peeping tom looking through a hidden cctv / camera. The speed of the work creates vertigo and consequent nausea. Through image and tempo, the work references the discomfort experienced at the speed in which we are expanding our urban centers, with little or no care of the long term consequences. It also recreates the way the eye captures the urban space - a house here, a parking lot there, a glimpse through a window, the blur as one drives past - the act of (un)seeing the city.
In marked contrast to this postmodern urban distress is the jubilant mood of the modern city as site of hopeful progress and re-imagination of utopia. This is evident in the smiling photographs of Himmat Shah alongside his mural project at the St. Xavier’s Primary School in Ahmedabad (1968-69). On display are also the moulds used to cast the geometric high relief square plates that were joined together to make the relief on the façade of the school. This is not to say that there weren’t trepidations then, a premonition of the mess we would make a few decades down the line. In the same room as Shah’s moulds and documentation of the mural are Jeram Patel’s untitled burnt wood and metal reliefs from the 1960s that speak of a darker mood, a lately dystopia. Thus, as with the Raza’s paintings, the differences in perception of the urban project are simultaneously presented.
Because the speed of change is astronomical, artists often adopt a poignant tone. Sudarshan Shetty’s three channel video Waiting for others to arrive (2013) is filmed in a large dilapidated house where the main character is repeatedly smashing a teacup, that jiggles a distressing dance along a small colonial style coffee table before falling off to its demise. There is also a woman playing a string instrument. The house, also from the colonial period, is occupied and yet reeks of disuse and despondence, testament to happier times past. This of course is an illusion, this mythologized ‘happier/ simpler/ richer/ more urbane urban’ past.
Zarina Hashmi (Home is a Foreign Place, 1999 and Folding Home, 2013) is past master at using a delicate hand to narrate a personal story of migration, which through time and distance, takes on a golden hue. One that is fondly remembered but better not to attempt reconnection with the present day, whence the purity of the distilled image will likely be polluted by chaos and excess. The destruction of such a perfect image is enacted by the neighbouring work of Anish Kapoor’s In Mind (2014), where the face in the clear cube is fragmenting and breaking down slowly over time until it will, in the future, disintegrate.
Placed close to Hema’s container is Gulammohammed Sheikh’s Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home (2008), a painted multi-panel foldout box structure that one can traverse and circumambulate and while doing so journey through art history through the images of Bihzad, the Lorenzettis, Giotto and Duccio, Goverdhan, Sahibdin and Nainsukh that Sheikh has quoted in the installation. A history more sympathetically and reverentially referenced, referenced for its own right, not as example of a present day melancholy.
One of the key ways in which the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is contributing to the innovative longevity of Indian art is by allowing us to have a view of our history as a continuum. Thus the exhibition draws from the extensive collection of the Museum and brings forth works from the 1940s including works by the Bombay Progressives - F.N. Souza, Ram Kumar and S.H. Raza past the artists who came to maturity in the from the 60s to 80s like K.G. Subramanyan, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Himmat Shah, V. Vishwanadhan, in the 1990s and the new century with Dayanita Singh, L.N. Tallur, Sudarshan Shetty, Nataraj Sharma and lately Hema Upadhyay, Manisha Parekh, Gigi Scaria, Seher Shah, Yamini Nayar, Srinivasa Prasad, et al. It is comprehensive and informative though, if one was to find reason for complaint, it would be that it isn’t informative enough - that good exhibitions such as this one are not supported by literature, new commissioned research, outreach and education programming.
All artworks reproduced on this page are part of the KNMA Collection.