Jitish Kallat’s “Here After Here” features the artist’s work spanning 1992-2017.
The first of its kind, “Here After Here” is an extensive solo exhibition of Jitish Kallat’s work over the last two decades. It is open for viewing at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, from 14 January to 14 March 2017.
“Here After Here”, for the first time, brings under a single exhibition over 25 years of the prolific and varied Indian contemporary artist Jitish Kallat’s artistic practice. It is comprehensive and encompassing enough to pass for a retrospective but for the fact that Kallat, who is only 43 years old, has many more years of artistic enquiries ahead of him. Curated by Catherine David, Art Historian and curator, Here After Here brings together over 100 works by Kallat at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. The show is an excellent introduction to some of Kallat’s recurrent concerns of the rapidly changing Indian urban spaces, the nature of postcolonial nation-states and cosmic meditations on time. His work, much like his thematic preoccupations, flits between a wide variety of media: drawings, paintings, photography, video, sculpture and installations.
Widely exhibited across the globe, Jitish Kallat’s practice, among other things, has become synonymous with acute observations on the urban landscape of Mumbai, a bustling chaotic city flanked by the Arabian Sea. He was born in the city, and its little wonder that the maddening crowd and its culture continues to inform his work.
The Urban or the ‘Siesmographic Record of the City’s Heartbeat’
Over the years, Kallat’s concerns have diversified and moved back and forth but unsurprisingly, even his earliest works from his student days at Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai (1992-94) were already anticipatory of the tonal preferences that would recur in his later oeuvre. The use of disturbed surfaces would also already be, anachronistically speaking, reminiscent of the ubiquitous scabby walls that stand crumbling in every Indian metropolis that make many appearances in his later works. As early as in 1999, Canis Familiaris-A Dog’s Life proclaimed his preferred iconography of the urban working class. Divided sharply into two halves, the upper part of the canvas is an urbanscape of towering buildings flanking frozen, casual chaos in between it, and the lower half is a dog’s form superimposed on a background made of pavement patterns.
Following the similar conversation, the series of photographs entitled 365 Lives (2007) depicts magnified montages of hollows, bumps and scratches on the bodies of automobiles. In their tonal brightness, almost aqueous-shine, these photographs are even deceptively Instagram-pretty. Automobiles being an increasingly accessible symbol of Indian middle class mobility, literally and socially, 365 Lives becomes another story of post-colonial India – that of the 1990s liberalisation of a heretofore socialist-protectionist economy and the newly acquired taste for global commodities.
Kallat describes 365 Lives as “an inventory of daily quakes in urban existence, a seismographic record of a city’s erratic heartbeat…”, in an interview with Farhad Dadyburjor for “The Urban Space Mixed with Chaos Becomes My Muse”, published in DNA India, 2 December 2005. However, one would also not be far off to see in 365 Lives a reminder of the subterranean anger and masculinity that overruns urban Indian streets and often unfolds into mob violence at the flicker of a moment – an issue he explores in his other works. Juxtaposed with and on the body of the aspirational commodity par excellence of the Indian middle class, it tells a divergent story: that of a crowd always already on the verge of violence coexisting with the national ambitions of joining the global commodity chain.
The Cry of the Gland (2009) is another series of photographs that springs from the urban landscape. It it appears a collection of many bulging shirt pockets, magnified and laden with pens, wallets, cell phones, glass cases, embroidered professional identities, some probably heavy with bidis hanging next to the ubiquitous checked red and white scarves worn by migrant day labourers. In this work, these pockets become characters in the bustling routine of the metropolis, each literally bursting with a story.
The myriad urban Indian stories also go hand in hand with overcrowdedness, cramped accommodations, slums or in many cases, no accommodation at all. Cenotaph (A Deed of Transfer) (2007) is a photographic documentary of one of the many demolition drives executed on decades-old pavement dwellings on a Mumbai street and its aftermath. As the viewer changes her position, these photographs of broken and beaten lone walls shift plane, thereby creating a three dimensionality of what was and is. The coexistence of multiple planes is reminiscent of the many lenticular household objects commonly sold by footpath vendors and small local stationary shops: 3D scales, cartoon stickers that come free with bubble gums, even postcards of 3D gods and goddesses.
Kallat’s oeuvre is marked by the osmotic interaction of seemingly divergent issues. Ecto (2000) is a sculpture of a boy child drinking from the nose of a kettle that he is holding. Street urchins and child labourers have often made an iconographic appearance in other works by the artist, so it is only a further exploration of the relationship between the two seemingly unconnected spheres: the informal economy of the urban space, including the children on its streets, and the metastory of the Indian nation-state. Ecto invokes youthful innocence and the possibilities that therein lie, but made of black lead, fibreglass and stainless steel, and its surface covered in graphite, Ecto leaves a mark on any hand that dares touching it, either “affectionately or in sympathy”. In Kallat’s work, as we will see further, ‘you’ as a ‘viewer’ are never bereft of a role in the story, the possibility of contamination to even a bystander being ever present.
Death of Distance (2006) elaborates the story of the Indian nation further. It uses two found texts: that of a news report announcing a new telecom scheme proclaimed as the “death of distance”, which would bring down the cost of calls within India to one rupee; and the other a news report of a twelve year old Indian girl who committed suicide because her mother could not afford to give her one rupee to buy a meal. Both these stories coexist within a single frame, and either one stands out depending on where the viewer stands in respect to the work. One story becomes visible only at the cost of the erasure of the other, and in this erasure, the viewer becomes complicit. Next to these stands erected a one-rupee coin that is nothing short of monumental – an aloof viewer to the two of its sides.
Another installation, Anger at the Speed of Fright (2010), explores similar ideas. It is an installation composed of Lilliputian human figures frozen in a rioting frenzy, replete with stones, rods and chains. The vantage point of the viewer – hovering over the rioting lot – engenders a perspectival moment akin to epiphany.
Perhaps the most explicit statement that Kallat makes on the metastory of postcolonial India is contained in the Public Notice trilogy made between 2003 and 2010. Public Notice 1 (2003) consists of five acrylic mirrors onto which the artist first inscribed Nehru’s momentous midnight speech to the nation on the eve of Indian Independence and then burnt the texts as a gesture of protest against the discrepancies between the high ideals of the immediate post-independence era and the contemporary state of affairs in the country. Once again, as the viewer moves closer to read the burnt texts, her distorted image stares back at her from under the blackened sentences; her body becomes one with the process of distortion and failure even as she moves between the mirrors; once again, she is contaminated in this story of the death of a/the nation.
Similarly, Public Notice 2 (2007) and Covering Letter (2011) revisit the positions of Swami Vivekananda and MK Gandhi. In many ways, Kallat’s position is postnational, which is not to mean that he speaks from a stage where national boundaries have ceased to exist, but that his ethical and critical positions are wary of the early optimism associated with the creation of the postcolonial nations and the theoretical end of imperialism that it was assumed to herald. In this, he talks of the metastory of India but also talks of issues above and beyond it, into the sphere of what the very nature of nation-states are.
The Artist-Self and the Cosmic
Despite all the above, to limit Kallat’s oeuvre to the urban space and the nation would be unfair, to say the least. Many of his works are also intimately personal and deeply philosophical. Artist Making a Local Call (2005) is a monumental, panoramic photograph of the artist making a phone call from a public phone booth in a relatively busy street. The phone booth also serves as a small electrical shop and a paan (betel nut shop) at the same time; there is a deceptive taxi-autorickshaw collision and some characters reappear in multiple places in the same photograph.
Manacled Man and the Secret Society (1999) is an earlier work that follows the same line of inquiry about the artist/self as an observer-creator and his position in the overall map of the artistic universe. In this, the artist is manacled by a giant insect, somewhat reminiscent of Gregor Samsa’s bewilderment in Metamorphosis; over him hovers an anklet, a piece of jewellery widely worn by Indian women. In Peter Nagy’s words, Kallat treats “that which is specifically Indian… no differently than the images which have been imported. The result is a self-portrait that accepts contradiction, hybridisation and foreign influence without a trace of anxiety.” (published in exhibition catalogue “Private Limited”, New York, 1999).
Maternamortal (Mom’s Mom’s Mom-Mom’s Dad’s Mom) (2000) is a twin portrait depicting the artist’s great grandmothers. Superimposed on them are blue flowers on a blue vase and a wreath made of “labouring hands”. Epilogue (2010-11) is a series of photographs of 22,000 rotis, a staple Indian flat bread, changing shape as though in a movement around an orbit, representing the 22,000 moons on which his father might have gazed on. In 22,000 Sunsets (2011), Kallat records every sunset he ever saw, as a parallel record of his own life in conversation with his father’s. He brings together the given and the mundane – like the changing regularity of the moon and the life-sustaining roti – in order to arrive at the measurement of a life(s) within the infinite span of cosmic time.
In the recent years, Kallat has explored his preoccupation with cosmic space and time further in his Wind Study (the hour of the day of the month of season) (2015) and Rain Study (the hour of the day of the month of the season) (2016). Earlier, a series of seven lenticular prints depicting close details of the surfaces of fruits entitled Sightings D9M4Y2015 (2015) found the cosmos contained on the surface of various fruits. The photos shift plane as one moves – the viewer transitions between the colour of the fruit as retinally perceived and its chromatic opposite. Of this, Kallat says in an interview with Homi Bhabha (“Drawing Fire- A Conversation Between Homi Bhabha and Jitish Kallat”):
Every time I looked closely at the surface of a fruit it was as if I was seeing a photographic image of the universe with distant supernova explosions and dispersed constellations manifested on its skin. The fruits thus became a small gateway to speculate about the very energy in the fruit as a temporary incarnation of this vital stellar power; that very force posing as a fruit, for a time offering a spectacular sighting of the cosmos in your hands.
Rain Study (the hour of the day of the month of the season) is a series of drawings created by exposing paper to rain momentarily and thereafter, overlaid with a fast-drying paint. The outcome is as though the view from an antiquated telescope was captured and archived. Similarly, Wind Study (the hour of the day of the month of season) is created by submitting graphite lines drawn at random to fire and wind. In the same interview with Bhabha, Kallat says that “the burnt line becomes a transcript of what transpired between wind and fire in the life-duration of that line.” By submitting his artistic devices to agents beyond his control, Kallat makes an entry point towards hinting at the larger, alchemical forces in the universe – perhaps even whispering about the miraculous in art.
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