Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum presents an exhibition of its contemporary Indian art acquisitions, the first of its kind at the Museum.
In an environment where modernity comes face-to-face with tradition, the exhibition aims at encouraging critical engagement with Mumbai’s history, art and cultural developments over the course of a century and a half.
Contemporaneity in a historical setting
Mumbai’s oldest museum, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum opened to the public in 1857, to showcase the city’s cultural heritage and history, through a rare collection of fine and decorative arts of the Bombay Presidency. The permanent collection includes miniature clay models, dioramas, maps, lithographs, photographs and rare books that document the life of the people of Mumbai and the history of the city, from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. It is interesting, therefore, that a museum with a 160-year old history has one of the most ambitious and extensive exhibition programmes aimed at promoting contemporary art and culture, amongst institutions of its kind in India.
The Museum conducts a series of curated exhibitions titled “Engaging Traditions“, which invite contemporary Indian artists to respond to its collection, history and archives in their own, inimitable style. It has partnered with international institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Council, British Library, Dresden State Art Collections, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, Ermenegildo Zegna Group and The Guild of the Dome Association in an effort to facilitate international cultural exchange.
Engaging people with the past
As a part of its celebrations of the 160th year of its founding, the Museum has organised a first-of-its-kind exhibition of the contemporary artworks that it has acquired over the past ten years, by artists like Archana Hande, Atul Dodiya, CAMP, Jitish Kallat, L.N.Tallur, Nalini Malani, Praneet Soi, Ranjani Shettar, Reena Kallat, Rohini Devasher, Sheba Chhachhi and Thukral & Tagra. Most of the works in the collection are gifts from artists whose practice engages with subjects that are relevant to the Museum’s collection and who participated in the “Engaging Traditions” series of exhibitions.
At the entrance, a specially designed curvilinear wall echoes the curvature of the tympanum, a defining feature of the Museum and acts as a canvas for Praneet Soi’s Notes on Labour (2017), which pays homage to the unacknowledged labourers and craftsmen that contribute to the process of creating an artwork. In a similar tribute to marginalised histories, the visitor also sees Sheba Chhachhi’s Mistri Ke Haath (1999/2011) in the form of a series of tiles arranged on the checkerboard-designed basalt floor of the Museum. Each piece portrays a black and white image of a pair of hands cradling a photograph of an artisan, the unsung hero of artistic enterprise.
Archana Hande’s POI/Bharat ke Log (2014) is an ephemeral work, with contemporary and historic images of people appearing on a shroud-like mosquito net hanging from the roof. It was the artist’s response to the Museum exhibition “The Doubled Frame: Interrogating Identity” (2014), which attempted to trace the genealogy of the Museum’s model and diorama collection that served as a colonial documentation of the people of India. Addressing similar historical complexities is Atul Dodiya‘s Gallery of Art Expansion Imphal (2014), a watercolour that was a part of “7000 Museums: A Project for the Republic of India” (2014) – an exhibition that humorously addressed ideas of local cultural representation through a construction of mock museums.
An immersive, experiential step back in time
In one of the exhibition rooms, across the length of an entire wall is CAMP’s The Country of the Sea (2015), an unusual, fictional map of the Arabian and Somali coasts. Inspired by a remarkable Gujarati navigational chart of the Gulf of Aden dating around 1810, the artwork brings the coasts of India, Africa, Iran and the Arab states in dialogue with each other. Jitish Kallat uses an incident from the history of the Museum for George Buist’s Resignation Letter (2011), which is a stained facsimile of the curator’s letter of 1857, expressing his dismay at the insensitive destruction of the Museum when it was used to store ammunition at the time of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny in 1857. Also on display is L.N. Tallur’s Quintessential (2011), a collection of wooden pieces that a visitor can try to put together to form an elephant. The work is a symbolic reminder of the sixth century stone sculpture from the Elephanta Caves that stands at the entrance of the Museum, which had shattered in 1864 when the British tried to ship it to England.
On a pair of arresting purple walls of the Museum are Listening to the Shades (2013), a set of 42 reverse paintings in which Nalini Malani retells the story of the Greek myth of Cassandra to address the issue of women’s rights and draw attention to the unfinished business of the women’s revolution. Ranjani Shettar’s Varsha (2012), on the other hand, is an artist’s book published by the Library Council of The Museum of Modern Art. It is an accordion-folding volume, bound in hand-worked metal, which includes 16 original prints, each corresponding to a specific period of the rainy season.
Also on display is Reena Saini Kallat’s oversized web (Untitled, 2013) made with hundreds of rubber stamp replicas, each bearing a colonial street name that has been replaced by an indigenous one, thereby weaving the history of the city into the work. This installation had been draped across the façade of the Museum in an initiative to engage the public imagination in 2013, in partnership with ZegnArt, a project of Ermenegildo Zegna Group. In Meridian: Experiments in Time Travel (2016), Rohini Devasher, inspired by a 19th century Planisphere (star chart) in the Museum’s collection, has created a series of maps that charts the sky above the Museum on 20 August 2016 (the day her exhibition “Speculations from the Field” opened). As an extension of their project “Games People Play” exhibited at the Museum, in 2015, Thukral & Tagra’s diptych, Summer and Chapter 9: Buddha – The Single Player A, B (2017) is built around the structure of a single-player game that uses Buddhist philosophy to try and achieve enlightenment through a game of ping pong.
The exhibition is a unique experience for the visitor and is testament to the Museum’s ongoing commitment to promoting Mumbai’s artistic and cultural heritage. Seeing its contemporary art acquisitions in close proximity to its permanent collection of artefacts presents the viewer with a comprehensive representation of the city’s art and culture from the 19th century onwards – taking us from tradition to contemporaneity, from past histories to modern creative enterprise, in one fell swoop.
“An Exhibition of Contemporary Art Acquisitions” is on view from 19 November 2017 to 7 January 2018 at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, 91-A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Babasaheb AmbedkarMarg, Byculla East, Mumbai 400027.
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