“In the Light of….” curated by Gitanjali Dang at Gallery Ark, Vadodara is an ambitious show. It brings together photographs, paintings, drawings, embroidery, sculptures, installations, video, film screenings, talks, to take forward, into the depth of summer, the curatorial premise of ‘remembered stories … in the light of confabulation’.
The genesis of the show was at an exhibition in a Mumbai Gallery in 2017, where the curator saw two near-identical photographic images of Anoop Talav at Fatehpur Sikri. She thought both images were taken by Nasreen Mohamedi (whose own image of Anoop Talav has become one of her most reproduced and readily recognized works) but found that the other image was in fact taken by Gulammohammed Sheikh. The two artists, it so happened, were at Fatehpur Sikri in the summer of 1970 where they had taken the photographs, although Sheikh had developed his images much later. Gitanjali imagined a story about how this may have come about and two years later, over a telephonic conversation with Sheikh, the story was set straight; it was not as she had thought. The present exhibition was thus built on the idea of a story as a remembered element, who remembers, what is remembered, what is forgotten, and amidst this what role does confabulation play. Originally planned for an opening in July 2020, the process was stopped mid-stream by the virus outbreak, allowing for another narrative stream to emerge with its own stories.
While the show exhibits only one print by Nasreen Mohamedi, Anoop Talav, it includes eleven of Gulammohammed Sheikh’s crisp Fatehpur Sikri photographs, in an elegiac homage to Mohamedi, but also as mourning for the rapid negation of Islamic heritage around the country today. There are six more images by Sheikh in another section of the gallery of Le Corbusier’s Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, taken in 1966, when he was visiting with Bhupen Khakhar. Here the mood (and the story) is different - more buoyant and positive -- of close friends sharing an explorative journey together.
Fatehpur Sikri references itself in the works of a few of the participating artists. Kush Badhwar takes the ‘family resemblance’ between the Anoop Talav photographs as ‘a point of departure’ to create a narrative format resembling the print/digital book , through words and images that includes his own family’s visit to Sikri. Priyanka D’Souza’s The Crow Shat on the Monument Series, focuses on Akbar’s Ibadat Khana, a built space still not ‘identified convincingly’ at Sikri. Rising to the occasion, D’Souza with tongue firmly in cheek paints ‘fragments of an assumed Ibadat Khana’ in the style of Company School miniatures that documented much of the architecture of Fatehpur Sikri. Within this colonial aesthetic she uses a frame tale, exploring possible versions of the Ibadat Khana through fictional and historical characters; because the number of versions of the Ibadat Khana is equivalent to the number of crows in Fatehpur Sikri. In a folk anecdote, Birbal once gave a figure when asked by Akbar saying, if they were more, the relatives of the crows had come to visit and if they were less, the crows had gone to visit their relatives. The exact figure proffered by Birbal varies according to the person telling the story, because history certainly doesn’t.’ D’Souza has even created an intriguing horizontal scroll with images and text, a narrative in itself! Teja Gavankar examines and weaves together the complexities inherent in the step/staircase as an architectural form and a winners’ podium, exploring the natural process of metal-rusting, its oxidization, M C Escher’s ‘impossible stairs’ and the influence of Islamic geometry of Alhambra Palace on his work, and finally the art of tessellation which can be found in Fatehpur Sikri as well.
Since the germination of the show is in the photographic image, a few artists have used photographs and video as their mode of expression. Gauri Gill’s seven photographs titled Ruined Rainbow itself a contradiction in terms, were taken by one of the children in Barmer district in 2010, on Kodak cameras, given to them by the artist. One of them had accidentally opened the back of the camera exposing the film to light, creating flashes of light streaking across the printed images. Usually trashed as flawed, the supposedly ruined images got Gill thinking about ‘Ruined Rainbow which is ‘as much a reflection of an inner chamber of subjectivity, as it is the inner chamber of a camera’. The effect thus created by the flawed streaks establishes new relationships amongst persons and objects in the photograph, generating stories of their own. The fabulous Re-Run, a 2013 work by the Raqs Media Collective, restages a 1948 Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of a ‘bank run’ in Shanghai, featuring desperate crowds of people thronging banks to get a hold of their paper money, which was in imminent danger of devaluation and converting it to the more reliable gold. Do we see history repeating itself? Perhaps, given that a couple of Indian banks in the past months have similarly slipped. “The anticipation of the future produces conditions in the present which lead to the anticipated future. Time folds in on itself like a snake biting its own tail. In revisiting and re-staging Cartier Bresson's photograph in Shanghai, Raqs meet the conditions of the self-fulfilling prophecy invoked by the event captured in the original image. The image (or its restaged clone) eases away from the surface of the analog emulsion of the photographic object and reconstitutes itself in digital terms.”  Abhishek Hazra’s single channel video, Sh(m)oron/Shoron, (a play on the words for remembrance and displacement in Bengali/deltaic Ardhamagadhi, signalling historical amnesia) has colonial overtones, but it is a tad too long and cacophonic to hold interest.
Caught in the pandemic’s vicious uncertainty, some artists took inspiration from their own health problems. Niyati Upadhya is a trained musician-artist who understands breath control. Her works, Winds of Awe and Fear, are rooted in the ability of the body to react with ‘awe and fear’ to stimuli, via the mechanism of breathing and its internal landscape. “I became aware of the space from where I project my voice when I'm fearful or awe-struck,” says Upadhya of her attunement process. A couple of months into the lockdown when Upadhya collapsed, a map of her lungs was the first thing she saw when she came to. The drawing and painting of this piece come from that visual. Where Upadhya’s personal narrative is related to her lungs, Vidha Saumya’s problems with a lockjaw were eased while working on her compact cross-stitch pieces - “the works are a testimonial to shared knowledge, collective practices and a relaxed jaw.” Like intricately painted landscapes, Saumya’s work touches several places across the world - Tinsukia, Kashmir, Finland - and ‘the idea of sharing the sameskyisrepeatedlyinvokedinthissuite’. Among the sculptural works, Ranjit Kandalgaonkar’s The Miasmatic Breath: An Anthology of Masks in the Light of …takes the pandemic story by the horns, creating a web of research-based material that is converted into a small primer on mask drawings and a scenography that “references a photograph in an influenza hospital in the US (where the Spanish flu originated) where convalescing soldiers were sequestered, and separated by a cloth, a form of social distancing norm. It seems more a visual marker than of any actual help, perceived as a reassuring gesture.” Kandalgaonkar tries to grapple with the challenging idea of the unseen miasma - lingering, disappearing, but always with a threat of reappearing.
Piyush Thakkar’s installation Janantike stands apart in the exhibition, taking the idea of the narrative to a different level, throwing light on the 1950s and 1960s, “a period of significant cross-pollination between literary and visual arts in Vadodara”, the fountainhead of which was Prof Suresh Joshi, early modernist, polyglot, scholar, author, poet. His birth centenary year is 2021, and Thakkar pays homage through an archive of book jackets, little magazine covers, letters, and a selection of poems - all of which celebrate “this period of dense convergences, overlaps, and conversations” between artists and authors. However, while Thakkar’s installation is interesting and complete in itself, it has no apparent engagement with the curatorial premise of a ‘confabulated’ story. In fact, most selected artists in the exhibition appear to have conducted diligent research -historical and philosophical - for their respective ‘stories’ to leave anything in the realm of imaginative confabulation. In whose mind then is the confabulation causing misinterpretation or confusion? Is the curatorial premise too challenging to even attempt a translation into a work of art?
This exhibition, though, is still incomplete as Gitanjali Dang has planned a series of happenings - artworks in the form of events with filmmakers, writers and musicians, curated as an extension of the show. These will continue till June 2021, even when the gallery show ends on March 31. Some answers may come in then.
Gallery Text accompanying image.