The exhibition Lost Text at The Guild, Alibaug (February 25 - April 1, 2018) presented itself almost as a parenthesis in the artistic practice of Navjot Altaf, in its intimate and emblematic approach. Working with ideas of the transience of memory, Navjot delved into her Bastar diaries as the point of departure for this body of work. A diary is an intimate space of recording, referencing, or even archiving of thoughts, events, and memories; what happens when some segments get lost or when significant aspects of this experiential practice can no longer be retrieved? With Bastar being the context, it can be concluded that these diaries were where the artist wrote her ideological thoughts, placing her in the field of a political diarist. And they could also be full of questions and uncertainties of an urban privileged artist in a rural context, negotiating in an Adivasi life-world through the dynamics of diversity and difference.

To contextualize, Navjot’s interaction with the Adivasi world in Bastar (Chattisgarh) can be traced to 1973 with her association with Jaidev Baghel, a master artist of bell metal sculpture. Baghel founded Shilpigram, an interactive space for artists from different disciplines and cultural backgrounds. In parallel, Navjot’s engagement with marginalized communities began in Bombay in the early 1970s as a member of Proyom (Progressive Youth Movement) founded by Dev Nathan and Kiran Kasbekar, who were influenced by Marxist philosophy and aligned with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). [1] Navjot’s readings in Marxism and Feminism and association with progressive movements (1970s-80s) initiated her interest in the politics of culture, communication, and reciprocity. These involved artistic interventions at grassroot levels and non art spaces such as factories, labour camps, colleges and offices that interrogated state policies and identity politics in a post-colonial scenario.

Since 1997, Navjot worked closely in Shilpigram with the Adivasi artists - Rajkumar, Shantibai, Gessuram, Kabiram and Raituram - sharing a common studio space for long durational projects and collective experimentation in public spaces; this site continues to be her space of scholarly and relational engagement through the Dialogue Interactive Artists’ Association (DIAA) co-founded with Shantibai, Rajkumar and Gessuram in 2000. Recently, several jottings in the Bastar diaries were lost in the process of digital archiving and transcription, when the files got corrupted. This converted the text into “an arbitrary mix of numerals, alphabets, symbols, used and underused punctuation marks and diacritics (acute accent) that are used with alphabets of many modern written languages based in Latin, Cyrillic and Greek scripts - making it cryptic.” [2]

This corrupted text led to a range of creative associations with texts and scripts of ancient history, found on stones and plaques - which are not decipherable. The next layer was investigating the photographs taken during her travels over the last three decades to several ancient sites - to explore how the historical and the digital script/text transposed to composite images. Formally, the works had restrained tonal and textual configurations of blacks, greys and whites - with the photographs serving as backgrounds with antiquated hieroglyphs juxtaposed with corrupted digital fonts, codes, and punctuations. While the computer text had indeed lost its structure and seemed like a labyrinth of illegible words without any chronology, it set forth a play between memory and text - autobiographical memory, historical memory, cultural memory and also digital memory.

In this textual labyrinth, the artist spotted decipherable words that allowed for new meanings to occur, leading her to engage with her lost diaries transversally. In this sense, the artworks become like diary pages where the artist highlights words she spotted first. Words such as anthropology, primitivism, Naxal, mistaken, censorship, anxiety, loaded, sensitive, labelled, claims or impunity bring forth narratives that relate to her experiences in Bastar while others such as whispered, flower, bagh, animals, fiction, separation or layering lead to imaginings on ecology and culture. Each word acts as a sign to be decoded in the ideographs and pictographs that the works represent. In the semiotic analysis of visual art, the aim is not to produce interpretations but to investigate how artworks are comprehensible to viewers by being engaged in processes of seeing. Any discussion of visual and verbal representation or the ‘word’ and ‘image’ is but a contested space where systems of knowledge collaborate with individual and social paradigms. The image-text interconnectedness can be argued for how the pictorial operates in and out of language, producing a statement about the author/artist’s place in society.

One critical aspect of Navjot’s durational engagement in Bastar has been the subjectivity of an urban artist from a position of privilege and access to cultural resources negotiating in the Adivasi life-world. This included comprehending the social, material and cultural histories of her Adivasi colleagues, who themselves see their role as individual interventionists in their own environment. The Bastar region is within the purview of development and socio-cultural transformations and fraught with Maoist resistance, state violence and protests over ecological rights. Anthropology or primitivism found in the corrupted text underlines the history of colonial racism and the anthropological invention of the ‘primitive’ which organized relationships between Westerners and non-Westerners. [3] Others such as Naxal, mistaken, censorship, anxiety or impunity draw attention to the way the Indian State has framed Adivasi marginality and conflict over land and natural resources within the framework of class, caste, and capital. Another word that stood out was passport - the artist’s dilemma over her class licence and metropolitan favour?

The mechanism of the photographic image and the digital text allowed for the transfer of diverse memories across time and space, while foregrounding the technological realities of our time. The surrealists and conceptualists traversed the boundaries of word and image, working in experimental ways of writing in images or placing text as the central characteristic. To delve further, texts can describe, unpack, transform images; images can accompany, pre-empt, and incorporate texts. [4] In this body of work, Navjot’s approach is in the conceptualist tradition, and presents us a case of how meanings are inscribed in language. At the same time, she also reminds us of the malleability of meanings. The composite image-texts embody perceptual and cognitive aspects of visuality, or how we visualize ideas in the spotted words. There is also adoubling of the ancient script and the digital text, extrapolating an exercise between visibility and legibility.

In pursuance of her interactivity with viewers, the artist invited gallery viewers to “write down their thoughts, arising out of any reading of the ancient scriptures or diary notes, any word that interests/inspires them to think differently and brings forth a different line of thought or an idea, which can be penned down in a diary provided for viewer’s participation.” [5] Exploring her interest in visual aesthetics, the austere works challenged the realms of abstraction and intuition while drawing our attention to historical and cultural contexts; more appropriately, the underlying structure of text and context.

The exhibition took place from February 25 - April 1, 2018 at The Guild, Alibaug


[1] Nancy Adajania, Dreaming of the Revolution: How politics shaped the art of Navjot Altaf,, April 12, 2018

[2] Navjot Altaf, Exhibition Note, The Guild, Alibaug.

[3] Zero Anthropology,

[4] Sabine Gross, Writing in Images: Introduction, Monatshefte, Vol. 102, No. 3, WRITING IN IMAGES / IN BILDERN SCHREIBEN (Fall 2010), University of Wisconsin Press, p. 278

[5] Navjot Altaf, Exhibition Note, The Guild, Alibaug.

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