American-Canadian journalist, author and activist Janet Jacobs, whose work has significantly influenced urban studies, once said that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. Jacobs’s words were, at the time, meant as criticism towards the growing phenomenon of urban renewal by which large spaces within inner cities were being cleared out to make way for residential housing, business plots, and wide-scale modernization of the city’s landscape. It was an unequal barter that not only failed to respect the needs of city dwellers, but also failed to respect the needs of the living city.

Over time, this shift in the balance between the need for urban development and organic development of the living city has grown to chasmic proportions. PoojaIranna investigates this in her solo exhibitionSilently: a proposed plan for rethinking the Urban Fabric presented by Aicon Gallery at Bikaner House. Iranna’s new work explores the impact of evolving urban patterns on the human psyche. She unpacks the experience of this new urban fabricfrom the perspective of the people dwelling within it rather than through the lens of the architects and planners who designed it.

As Iranna jumps headfirst into a meditation on the psycho-geography of space in the city and its impact on the emotional behaviour of its inhabitants, we are compelled to first consider the shared spaces we occupy; to look about us and account for what was and what is. It is a deeply nostalgic exercise, one that reveals and illuminates that whichhas been forgotten, discarded, or marginalised in our newly transformed urban life. Marking this transition,Iranna’s photographic printsIntruder 1 and Intruder 2 layer the traditional architectural and cultural tones of the city - traditional minarets, monuments, and tombs - upon a mad tangle of the multistoried development that is replacing them.

The urban fabric of Iranna’s world is textured and artificially constructed: a weave of settlements resembles burlap that gapes in some places and is overly dense in others. The grid-like buildings that constitute her landscape have an algorithmic quality to them;they lack a human touch, as though we are watching a game of Tetris instead of an architectural blueprint of city squalor. In Assorted Aggregation, we see layered grids, etched in white, on screens of acrylic sheets placed one behind the other.No grid is alike; instead, it seems as though each is competing with the other in an exercise of world-building. In her curatorial note,Iranna explains how this work reflects the hubris of human ambition spurred on by our “materialist perspective of the conditioning of life, vis-à-vis the quality of life we may be forced to compromise on”. The environment, increasingly moulded by our urban needs,represents the human condition of surplus, of needing and wanting more. The grids unite in certain parts, as though to show that there are still connections to be seen and experienced -interactions in the shape of overlapping lines and forms seem to indicate the broader connectivity of human life.Yet, it is hard to ignore the over-constructed nature of this world.

Unlike Iranna’s works, which focus on a gradual if somewhat muted acceptance of urban evolution, in Nataraj Sharma’s paintings one experiences this modernization in the blink of an eye, leaving a jarring impression on the psyche. Both artists are suspicious of the relation that exists between time and the ambitious advancement of human life.Sharma’s Travel Log is influenced by the artist’s own travel and migrations, where he stands as an outsider looking inwards at the march of time. His dystopic landscapes taking onthe sites of industrial development,are noticeably devoid of any human presence. In Adani Thermal Power Plant(oil on canvas), the canvas predominantly includes factories and large-scale machinery, burgeoning signs of commerce and industry.Yet the scene seems to be just a skeletal framework, waiting to be brought to life. InDungarpur, Sharma examines the history ofhuman progress through the urban realities of modern society.The medieval town of Dungarpurhas closely spaced houses outdoing each other in splendour and hierarchy,with the most magnificent - the ‘garh’- situated on top of the hill.“The organisation of the town’s buildings reflected its social structure”, explains Sharma in his curatorial note. Thishierarchy is worked into Sharma’s painting, with the most lavish houses located in the upper-half of the canvas, and the homes that disappear into one another sedimented to the bottom.

There is, however, distinct satire in Sharma’s work; his world-building is focused sharply on the economic aspirations of the middle-class, and yet the people who are chasing these dreams rarely make an appearance. The artist’s large-scale canvases are usually left barren, and in the rare works that contain human figures, they appear as miniatures, dispersed within the landscape. The frenzy of construction and industrialization is diminished; it inspires awe and indifference in equal measurebecause of the frequency with which it populates the canvas. This is evident in the Ferry to Mandwa:the vastness of the blue ocean is undercut by floating pieces of iron, massive cranes and containers. Instead of the hopeful experience that comes with ambition, Sharma’s landscapes are pervaded by a sharp disenchantment towards the race to modernization. Even scenes of leisure that one would expect to be pleasurable, robust, and full, are kept hollow and devoid of life in a dystopian framework of what could have been, as in Marina Beach, where the beach is painted with empty joy rides like the Ferris wheel, iron frames of merry-go-rounds, carts waiting to be filled with wares. Human life is conspicuous by its absence.

In bothSilently… and TravelLog, the artists seem to hold themselves at a distance from their subject matter, as if to claim their non-participation despite the autobiographical suggestions in both shows. One cannot help but wonder if, by doing so, they are joining in the human apathy to rampant urban advancement, the very thing they seem to be disillusioned by.

‘Silently: a proposed plan for rethinking the urban fabric’by PoojaIrana and ‘Travel Log’ by Natraj Sharma, presented by Aicon Gallery,were on view at Bikaner House from March13 -March 22.

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