First published on 26th February 2024

T.V. Santhosh’s latest solo exhibition -- “History Lab and the Elegy of Visceral Incantations” -- at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai, comprises of watercolours, oil on canvas paintings and wooden sculptural installations that engage with recurring themes in the artist’s oeuvre: the history of violence, the war industry, and how conflict becomes part of everyday background imagery and noise in our increasingly mediatized lives. Created over the last one decade, these works bear special relevance to the age we live in, where we passively doom scroll through or watch from our home screens the rising attacks and death tolls in Israel and Palestine, or in Russia and Ukraine. But they equally speak of a longer legacy of socio-political strife that has haunted the human race.

The story of the universal soldier comes alive in a set of watercolours (2018-2022) that play out like a Biblical series around a noble martyr. The paintings -- deliberately given titles such Protagonist and His Clock of Apocalyse and Protagonist and His Path of Divine Intervention -- chart the journey of a fighter and war survivor who eventually turns activist and political prisoner (the last painting shows him with bloody marks caused by lashings, a reminder of the crucifixion). Connected to this is a parallel series called Jumbled Monologues (2022-2023), where an “elegy of visceral incantations” emerges as text fragments printed on ribbons, entangled around the figure of the central protagonist/soldier, reflecting his ongoing conversation with history making and writing. There are specific elements littered across both series: a memento mori half wrapped in string, a noose, a dog, a rat and rat trap, rifles, a digital sign board, severed body parts, a crutch, prosthetics, a doll. These symbols and residues of war are placed against botanical backdrops with a bright yellow sky/ground, the latter suggesting the healing touch of nature that will outlive the ravages of mankind.

The universal becomes personal with the series “When the World Enters Your Home” (2023). Here, paintings with television screens, depicting scenes of bombing and morphed or passive faces, mirror the violence we consume silently from our cushy couches, and the visual bombardment that leaves us numb to the daily horrors unfolding in distant countries and closer home. This dangerous lull is broken by two hard-hitting installations: a wooden door, half destroyed with bullet marks and holes, on top of which a rifle hangs; and a table (titled History Lab, 2019-2023) filled with severed limbs, weapons and other ruins of a battlefield. The latter includes a digital clock keeping a count of growing numbers (of the dead? Hours spent in unnecessary warfare?).

Beyond the technology and economy that drives war, there are other ways in which citizens are subjected to the oppressive policies of the state. The politics of the uneven control and distribution of land and wealth becomes the subject of two installations, designed like the 100-rupee and 5-rupee Indian currency notes, which bear symbols of hope and freedom (such as Gandhi’s face, a farmer and tractor) but are also trapped in nets and behind treacherous wooden spikes. This series called I Promise (2012-2023) highlights the ironies of constitutional systems that both empower and paralyse citizens. Using references ranging from demonetization to older laws that governed the management and inheritance of property (especially in Kerala, Santhosh’s home state), the artist once again points to the helplessness of commoners before the fates dictated for them by those in power.

Aptly exhibited in the premises of a museum that itself is a History Lab, preserving Bombay’s partly destroyed colonial statues and other objects of the past, Santhosh’s works return to and intervene in the progress of history and nationalism to provide necessary pauses for reassessment. Sifting through the Specimens of an Old Conflict and the Residues of Someone Walking (both names of works), the artist throws light on the foot soldiers of history, whose sacrifices should not be forgotten amidst the chaos of daily life, and the gaps and lapses caused by official erasures, (mis)interpretations and the reckless passage of time.

History Lab and the Elegy of Visceral Incantations was on at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum, Mumbai, from December 14, 2023 to February 11, 2024.

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