Sheetal Gattani | 46 Pillars | Chemould Prescott Road

Sheetal Gattani is among the new grain of contemporary artists in India, and is exhibiting her solo work at the Chemould Prescott Road entitled 46 Pillars. The exhibition espouses Gattani’s marvellous display of perspective, art, and hidden nostalgia in this fast moving world. In an effort to derive an understanding of her work, the exhibition must not be comprehended as a series of objects, instead as a platform of interaction with the existing infrastructure of the Chemould Prescott Road. Having spent over a period of three months within the studio gallery, Gattani has woven stories amongst the pillars installed at the gallery itself. She employs a wide range of materials to engage both with the surrounding space and the viewer. The dioramas on display spark a sweet nostalgia taking the viewer back in time to the city then known as Bombay. As a result, Gattani’s site-specific installation elicits not only a social, but a deep contemplative experience for the on-going gallery visitor.

Bombay has been a prodigious muse to numerous artists for a long period of time. Yet again, Gattani re-imagines the cityscape in 46 pillars as seen from 20 vantage points, with each pillar giving the audience a glimpse of the city. As the viewer travels from one vantage point to another, the artwork responds to the viewer’s position, and a narrative starts to develop. Thus, by looking at other pillars from a particular vantage point, other components of the installation fall into place resulting in composition which can  be seen on a wall from 10 feet away. The multiple drawings on the pillars are reconstructed solely by a romanticised nostalgia, through a memory mapping as imagined by the artist herself.

Previously, Gattani had created a series of artworks for Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. She remarks on how 46 Pillars was initially thought of at her studio at home. She further states that at first she had thought of creating numerous bamboo poles instead of wooden pillars. However, upon her engagement with the gallery space, she realised that installing wooden pillars wood be a much feasible idea since it would compliment the existing pillars at the gallery. Furthermore, Gattani mentions the amount of hard work gone in creating the work in terms of positioning the pillars at the exact angle, working day and night with various carpenters and assistants, along with tons of detailed planning.

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The artist imbues the mundane with meaning by capturing the quintessential Mumbai drink — the ‘cutting chai’, a pocket clock, and an old telephone through charcoal drawings on the pillar walls. Furthermore, as Gattani’s work perforates the gallery space with fibre optics, the most mesmerising aspects of the exhibition are seen —  illuminated sculptures. The artist meticulously creates a tap with flowing water with the use of LED lights. The splashing of water could perhaps indicate a childlike frolicking by splashing water on each other, bringing back memories from childhood, when life was perceived as simple. In another part of the installation the audience can see a lit skyline, which mimic the lights of Mumbai’s high-rises at night. This part provides a point of entry to view Bombay as a growing metropolis transforming into a product of capitalist agenda. As a result, few parts of the installation might be nostalgic for some, and beauty for others.

Equally intriguing is her other body of work titled White Grass (2009), displayed in another section of the gallery. Gattani, trained in print making, explores the dimension of depth through chipping the surface of paper. The works are an abstract body of drawings which are created through a process of repetition by carefully peeling off the surface with a sharp blade. The artist has impressively created a  three dimensionality by simply cutting the canvas and raising parts of it, instilling a need for the audience to dive deeper into the artwork to appreciate the 3D aspect of it. Furthermore, the works appear to be influenced by paintings of Rothko, while some resemble an architectural blueprint, and other textures of textiles such as jute and khadi. However, the artist dismisses all such claims by saying that there was no such intent on her behalf to create such affects.

 

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Interestingly, her series of drawings are devoid of figurative images. Since the artist explores the many facets of Bombay that have woven themselves through her installation, Gattani could have incorporated occupations of people who have got dismissed with time —  flute sellers, knife sharpeners, lottery-wallas, and corn-removers. Perhaps, the artist has deliberately moved away from the stereotype of Bombay being known for its overpopulation. However, the essence of the city is characterised by its diversity — an ability to absorb people from different segments of society along with providing them with  a space to make a living by creating supplies for demands.

Nevertheless, her work beautifully constitutes the nexus between herself and those who receive it. Thus, having spent over three months engaging within the studio gallery, Gattani’s site-specific installation does indeed create a visceral experience for the viewer, which is playful yet solemn. Her work then can be understood as a canvas of urbanism, environment, and cityscapes gently integrated into place.

Brian Jungen |Prototypes for New Understanding

 

In an exhibition titled “Prototypes for New Understanding”, displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery, one encounters artist Brian Jungen’s creative endeavour — a unique hybrid creation of Nike’s Air Jordans with aboriginal masks. This synthesised creation merges elements of tradition and contemporary, and carries with it undertones of commodity fetishism, alienation, and consumerism. By integrating the sacred and mundane, Jungen’s sculptures not only encourage multiple ways of seeing ordinary objects, but also reflect an unconventional symbolical meaning.

Upon looking at the masks, one perceives the mass-produced Jordans as signifiers of eliteness and comfort. Perhaps, the reason for using Jordans amongst other shoes can be attributed to the notion of sanctitude attached to the shoes itself. As an average price of Air Jordans is estimated to be ranging between rupees ten to twelve thousand ($150 – $180), it is quite clear that these shoes are exquisite. They seem to have a pristine quality, satirising the quality of an artefact placed within a museum space.

Further, this enthralling dichotomous creation can be associated with Duchamp’s “ready mades”— the urinal. Just as Duchamp took an ordinary object, placed in the walls of a museum and tagged the object as ‘art’, in the same light Jungen has taken a pairs of Nike shoes and has placed them within a museum calling it art. However, in the process of placing the Jordans in the sacred space of a museum, their original meaning becomes lost. As a result, the viewer tends to attribute meanings that have absolutely no connection to the object’s original purpose.

Moreover, taking a closer glance at the shoes, one may notice that the shoes remain in their most original and unaltered form. Along with that, in many masks the “made in …” tag is also visible. Since the shoes are primarily made in third world countries, the artist draws a vital connection between the Jordans and the workers present in such countries. His work draws attention to the issues of the exploitation in Nike sweatshops. In the capitalist model, the consumers spend around hundred dollars on each pair, while the sweatshop workers receive less than quarter of that per day, resulting in alienation from the product itself. However, the moment the Jordans become linked to money, buyers start to view the objects as inherently carrying value instead of taking into consideration the amount of labor which has gone into creating the object. As a result, the Jordans become perceived as a fetishised commodity.

Jungen’s idea is simple: to re-contextualise daily objects in order to give them a new definition and meaning. The artist through his work conjures the masks into existence by using human hair in few of the masks, thereby creating a sense of eeriness around them. Further, it appears as though the artist is making an anthropological reading about the cross culture resemblance between Nike’s consumer culture and aboriginal culture. By using pigments of red, white, and black, the artist might be subtly trying to hint that the giant shoe brand Nike could be borrowing designs from a previous culture.

In essence, Jungen’s unique Nike masks symbolise themes of commodification, alienation, and critical expressions of contemporary consumerism. As the title of the exhibition “Prototype for New Understanding” suggests some type of experimentation or modification, Jungen has truly changed the manner in which masks may be perceived in the eyes of the viewer.

 

Megapolis India| Without Walls | Studio X

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The process of making a city ‘modern’ has brought joy as well as anomie – joy because people are getting exposed to new forms of information and communication technology, integrating sections of society, anomie because modernisation tends to shun the unprivileged even more. The changing dynamics of Mumbai’s infrastructure and economy have resulted in patterns of spatial segregation  – which have denied the poor their right to the city. The homeless, classified as the “other”, are rendered passive in the changing urban landscape. However, in recent times, the plight of the poor has witnessed a certain revival in popular imagination. A co-curated multimedia exhibition by Megapolis India and Studio X, along with inputs from NGO Pehchan, has focused on the plight of the homeless by exposing the everyday struggles faced by them.

Upon entering the exhibition, one sees a series of video interviews displayed on a projection screen, where women, young and old, reveal their daily struggles living on footpaths. For instance, Meera, a woman in her 30s, along with her family has been living on the footpath for years. She says, “This is where we were born and raised, where our children were born and raised.. Where will we go, even if you chase us away?”. This powerful statement gives us a glimpse of the lives of the homeless, making the urban city dweller question whether or not the homeless have a right at all to decide upon what type of urbanism they want. The series of video interviews made me raise certain questions — on whose ideology does the city run on? Is urban planning done taking into consideration the homeless/poor? Has urbanisation completely become a capitalist endeavour? Are the homeless completely left out of the process of globalisation? 

One whole wall of the exhibition is assigned to maps of areas where the homeless dwell, along with photographs which display the areas where the homeless reside. Thus, as a viewer when I began to engage with the map, there seemed to be a sense of loss of identity and belongingness. In my opinion, the larger than life map displayed on the wall seemed to be overwhelming, further making the observer feel displaced. There seems to be a “growing amnesia” towards the poor, making them appear as overlooked elements of society, as political scientist Rajni Kothari recalls. The homeless seem to be perceived as an unchanging, mundane aspect of the urban dweller’s life.

As an observer, I also find it amusing to see how the visual space of the gallery can transform mundane aspects of life to sacred. The homeless are seen as inhabitants of a space, but who do not seem to catch the everyday pedestrian or a car go-er’s gaze. However, when the lives of the homeless are displayed in a gallery, they instantly become noticed and valued. The visual space of a gallery has the power to alter the perception of an object/group of people. Furthermore, the public then starts to pay attention to the plight of the homeless population.

Moreover, as one walks through the exhibition, a certain sense of a nomadic lifestyle seems to prevail in the images. As a viewer, I feel as if Mumbai’s homeless are living as urban nomads. The temporary lifestyle — similar to that of a nomad, lacks privacy, makes a person succumb to loneliness, keeps an individual always thinking of new places to rest and work in. Nevertheless, the exhibition is an eye opener and can be looked at as a tribute to Mumbai’s homeless.

The Harsh Consequences of The Politics of Social Inclusion and Exclusion

Each social institution has its own methods of creating boundaries within its structure. There are concrete and blur boundaries made in order to distinguish between the cultural spaces of individuals in a society. These boundaries, contribute to the social inclusion and exclusion mechanisms by which people are labelled to be as inferior or superior. What is deemed as ‘normal’ plays a great role in cementing the foundations and boundaries of a society. Anyone who deviates from the so called ‘normal’ is said to be looked at as a maladaptive element in the society and hence is marginalised. However, it is important to note that the definition as to what constitutes as normal is subjective for each community.

Social inclusion as well as exclusion, play a a vital role in terms of marking social positions of individuals in society. Both these concepts are intertwined with power relations, which cater to the issue of social advantage. The individuals who have access to resources are given a more ‘inclusive status’ which is characterised by a privileged status, where as an ‘exclusive status’ can be seen in those who are alienated and de-attached. Exclusion in the Indian context can be understood by those individuals who fall into the category of Dalits, tribals or adivasis and other minorities who are alienated from their most basic rights.

As per the 2011 census in India, scheduled tribes constitute to 8.6% of the total population. Since this number is relatively small, the classification of tribes as inferior is not uncommon amongst many minds in India. Tribals in many parts of the country are assumed to be irrational and incapable of making their own decisions, which is why they have been marginalised not only from many societies in India, but by the nation as a whole.

The issue of governance of tribals in India has been a fragile one and it is crucial to understand both sides of the story. Shri Brajeshwar Prasad, member in the Constituent assembly had strong opinions about the governance of tribal areas. He said that they should be centrally administered and not in control of the state, as during 1947 there was still a blur boundary as to which areas constitute as India. This view further argues that the trib- als through the ‘civilising mission’ should be integrated into the nation as a whole. This argument has lead to the thought of tribals being a ‘local tradition’ which needs to be absorbed in a larger tradition, being that of the country.

There is a confusion as to what constitutes as ‘Indian culture.’  As Hinduism is a religion which is majority in number, many characterise practices of Hinduism as what should be ‘Indian culture’. Hence, tribals who live in isolation are ‘sanskritised’ into Hinduism and are given the status of a lower caste. This a a way of integrating them into so- ciety, into a bigger more ‘recognised’ culture. Hence, the face value of tribals can be seen as inclusive, but looking deeper into the situation they still have an excluded status.

Another school of thought is that of the liberals, who state that the tribals should be be seen as an autonomous unit and be given self governing rights in order to ensure their welfare. This view claimed, that the tribals should be free from processes of globalisation and impacts of dominant cultures that disorient the tribals from their own culture.

Years of hard work towards the preserving of resources such as cultivable land, and forests which are owned by the tribals are looted by the ‘developed people’ who make profit off these means of production. 90% of all coal and around 50% of other minerals are found in the tribal lands. The tribals, being naive and illiterate are fooled by the poli- cies and framework of the so called ‘promised’ agendas of the government resulting in further alienation of tribals from their own land. These so called developmental activities leave the tribals landless and displaced with minimum survival needs.

The government has certain ideologies and goals in mind for the country, one is to increase the GDP growth of the country and move towards a more civilised India. There is nothing wrong in having such agendas, but what is wrong is the means by which they achieve them. The government relentlessly feels that after taking over the resources from the tribals, it would grant the tribals separate land to live on and give them means of livelihood. However, this does not always follow due to the scams and corruption activities involved. Even if they are given employment opportunities and societies to stay in, they are still at a great loss as they are placed in unfamiliar societies having less skill to fit the conditions of modern society. This leads them to be excluded from not only form the economic, social and political sphere but also in the areas of education, citizenship and respect.

Rebellious movements such as the Maoist movements come into play here. The members of the movement brainwash the tribals and use examples of how the tribals have been excluded from mainstream society and from the eyes of the government. They emphasise on how a blind eye is turned towards them, compelling the tribals to join these movements. The tribals feel that there is a certain class of people showing sympathy to- wards them and hence join them. This further intensifies the struggle of being excluded for the tribals.

Till date, tribals are still victims of developmental processes. Unless proper attention is given to the plight of the tribals, bringing about a change in their situation is tough to accomplish. The main issue to be targeted is the implementation of the laws. There are many protective laws made in order to protect the tribals. But the question still remains, how far does law enforcement go? Nevertheless, tribals should be educated and made aware of the laws made for them, it is only then they can stand up for their rights.

Can The Dreams of Secular Education Ever Be Achieved By Indian Society?

As citizens of India, we are citizens of a secular nation. “Secularisation is the process whereby religious institutions and practices become peripheral or almost invisible in a society in which they were perceived to be central and pivotal” (Copley, 2005:7) However, in the case of India the definition of secularisation takes a different turn. India rests on the principle of “dharma nirpekshta” which means indifference to religion to be observed by the State. As Gandhi said, it was vital for India to have respect and tolerance for all the religions in India and that was crucial to govern on bases of common citizen interest, permitting free expression of religious practices.  Having understood this, it is a precondition for a secular nation to promote secular education. Unfortunately, the Indian state is far from promoting secular education.

Education is a social institution which plays a pivotal role in shaping the future of India, through the youth, who are the agents of social change. Education goes beyond the domain of classroom learning and can be inculcated through experience, debates and different modes of conversation. What holds importance in education, is the power relations and the quality of content involved.

Karl Marx, has spoken about the ‘superstucture’ in society that comprises of the people who hold immense power and are capable of moulding nearly all social institutions, the most important being education. In India the educational system is controlled either by the government or by elites. What goes into what we call ‘book knowledge’ is governed by the ideologies of what the people in power follow.

Andre Beteille claims that the Indian education system has suffered from the ‘bad advocacy’ of academics. Hence the educational system becomes defective and encourages the people to think in terms of groups and communities and promoting feelings of ethnocentricism or having the view of being superior against another culture. This practice further encourages feelings of communalism and alienation amongst the citizens of India.

Today in many schools, especially in the rural areas (in the urban as well) of India one can find the textbooks being dominated by pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses and slokas from Hindu scriptures. There is barely any other representation of other religions of the country.  The aim of education is to foster critical thinking and broaden the vision of individuals, this is not being done with the current practices being followed by the educational system of India. Instead the schools are encouraging conservative thinking which is inclined towards going back to barbaric stages of evolution rather than civilised. This also leads to a vicious cycle where the teacher who was once a learner, was placed in an environment which encouraged sectarian thinking, propagates the same ideologies to his or her students. Hence the claims of ‘educated’ people promoting sectarian ideologies does not come across as much of a shock in todays day and age.

Many textbooks till date still promote casteism. There is difference between understanding the ideology of caste and promoting the ideology of caste. Many teachers purposely label the Dalits who belonged to the lower strata of caste, in a more negative light. Their status in many books is linked to that of a crow whose lifestyle thrives on living in garbage. How is it possible to cultivate broad thinking when the malleable minds of young children are getting brainwashed to believe in a particular way? Many have questioned this stand.

India has innumerable tribal population living in its interiors. They constitute 8.61% of the total population of the country, figures go upto 104.28 million and cover about 15% of the country’s area. (2011 Census). Very conveniently textbook authors has ben ignorant about this fact and have labelled them as a part of Hindu tradition. Many tribals have different Gods, rituals, ceremonies and many do not have the concept of caste, but this goes unnoticed. Their tradition has been labelled as an inferior ‘local’ tradition compared to the ‘great’ dominant tradition of Hindus. Hence their have been claims that the tribals have been “sanskiritsed” into the folds of the great Brahminical tradition. The unfortunate part is that the tribes due to their isolated lifestyle are completely unaware of the exploitation done by the people in power.

Education not only revolves around text but is also achieved through various discourses. The religious discourse of Hindutva, has in recent times intensified the struggle to achieve secular education. This ideology glorifies Hinduism and one of the principles which it adheres to is that of “pitra bhumi”, meaning an individual’s forefathers must be born in India for him or her to call it ones land. According to them, Muslims and Christians have their lineage originated from else where and hence are ‘foreign elements’ to India. Thus being ‘foreign’ is given the status of an outcast encouraging feelings of communalism. This ideology is being promoted in various rural areas of India where there are high levels of illiteracy, leading to the moulding of the minds of the villagers.

As every nation envisions itself as being successful, India is no exception. If a modern India has to be built, the government has to have a broader outlook with aims of encouraging healthy thinking and achieving a society which is not based on caste. The panel for framing the syllabus in schools all over the country should themselves have an open mind and not just get elected on the basis of religion. Critical thinking is the key to achieve progress, existing societal structures and epistemological claims to knowledge theories should be questioned by the citizens themselves. With these fundamental changes, India as a country will no longer be far from achieving progress in terms of secular education.