ODE TO A CITY
ROTIS, COMMUTERS, ANGER, FRUSTRATION AND GRIDS MAKE UP JITISH KALLAT’S BODY OF WORK, INSPIRED BY A LIFE WELL LIVED
E ight weary, sleeping men, their faces resting on each other’s shoulders, while their hands hold on to their bags. They are strangers. Their eyes never stop darting around, in between that suspended moment of sleep and wakefulness, a city dissolves. It then becomes the stage.
You see them at shoulder level, which is what the focal range of viewing the world is, according to the artist. Part of his retrospective exhibition called Here After Here After at th eNG MA, opened in New Delhi last week. The installation called Syzygy that means alignment of celestial objects, is an attempt to immortalise the city scenes that he grew up witnessing. Jitish Kallat, one of India’s biggest contemporary artists, says it was the subtle and peculiar tension between being asleep and wakefulness in the eight commuters on a local train that inspired the installation. Even though he always witnesses the commuters on the local trains, yet the artist insists his work isn’t about the city, although it is located in a city. Even as they sleep with bent heads, the figures clasp their bags, revealing a degree of restlessness and awareness of their surrounding even in a state of near-surrender, reads the curatorial note.
A CITY IN TRANSIT
“They are partly under surveillance. We think they are travelling but there is a peculiar tension between being asleep and holding on to their things. Here, it is not about the train but things that we don’t see. Therefore, the work is about the themes of life that unfold in a city—
time, death, mortality and sustenance,” he explains. There are grids represented in the scaffolding, which are indicative of change.
“It is either going up or going down. It is about transition. Cities are nothing but many, many people, more than what the land can hold. Here, themes get exaggerated,” Kallat adds.
Therefore, cities also become the playground for human endeavour to immortalise things like bridges and trains. These are products of imagination too. A city is a repository and has its own language, which is what the artist is trying to communicate. This is located in many cities. This is also from one city, as a child wakes up to a city in a suburban neighbourhood and witnesses daily life of ever-changing rhythm and cadence and tries to make notes through drawings, paintings and sculptures like when he freezes a child selling magazines on the streets and instead of his feet, there are blocks to indicate the homelessness and at the same time, there is a sense of belonging to the street, where he lives and works. That’s how elemental and sensitive his work is. Impeccable in its documentation of the mundane and searching for metaphysical themes in a lived environment, a city offers anonymity.
And then there is the burden everyman carries in his pocket. Bulging with phones, IDs, money and who knows what else, these commuters carry them along.
“All these images come from my lived environment,” Kallat says. “These are images that come from shoulder height. That’s the scale at which we see the world. One might look at the roti which could become the star fields or galaxies, a dense narrative of lives. It has got everything to do with that question— where do we come from?”
NOSTALGIA AND METAPHYSICS
Kallat’s emphasis is on returning hallucinations to the world. In Conditions
Apply, which traces the phases of the moon, the artist has used nostalgia in order to immortalise what his father, who is no more, witnessed. In Eternal Gradient, 365 rotis document the waxing and the waning of the moon. They span the lifetime of his father. “It is the life and death epilogue through the moon my father saw. It permeates the self, the city, the nation and perhaps the cosmos,” he says. “This kind of cyclical interplay of time continues.” The exhibition features Kallat’s vast oeuvre ranging from his paintings, photographs, drawings, videos and sculptural installations. These represent 20 years of his work.
Kallat grew up in Mumbai in the suburb of Borivli. But cities expand and distances close in. At 14, he was interested in metaphysical questions about life and death.
“I might say I am trying to convey nothing. Objects are forms of inquiry,” he says. It is the gaze of the artist that defines his work—the different focal lengths co-exist in his work. Like most, he is also interested in the question of time. He is interested in its collapse, its density, its co-ordinates. In his 2005 work titled Artist Making
Local Call, a 34-feet-tall, 360-degree panoramic view of a street in Mumbai, one can see him standing in a phone booth. In the photo, two people are crossing the road. There are two shadows in the image as well. The point is to show the collapse of time. “It is am and pm at the same time,” he says. “There is a rickshaw and a taxi colliding or seeming to collide. The panorama was made of many pictures. It is an urban march. It is condensed time. Hence, collisions.”
Catherine David, the curator, says it is the permanent tension between the prosaic and the other themes that mark the works of the artist. “They mean many things. It is all about the subtlety,” she says. If nothing else, the exhibition truly makes you wonder about the burden of the universe. The works conjure those people in our heads. They make for our cities in our memory.
Contemporary artist Jitish Kallat’s retrospeCtive exhibition spans 20 years of his worK inCluding aquasarous, eplilogue and syzygy among others at ngma
The 42-year-old arTisT has delved inTo The lives of commuTers, labourers and securiTy guards as a parT of his lived environmenT