© Ranjit Hoskote

Reena Saini’s art has come of age during an epoch in which Kalidasa’s Yaksha would be more likely to commit his missive of love and yearning to an e-mail server than a cloud; and Odysseus, were he alive today, would be more likely to spend the years of war and exile re-playing his recorded memories of Ithaca on the video than evoking the lost homeland in song. In other words, Saini’s art must content with a frame of experience that has to a great extent replaced poetry with technology, and passionate engagement likewise with a remote-control surrogacy.

But let us not fall into the error of supposing that art can be defeated by change; change is the only arena in which art can test its range, extend its resources, transform itself. The dominance of technology has summoned poets into a radical awareness of the word as disturbance; the torpid acceptance of surrogacy has provoked artists into an engagement with improvised gesture and mischievous, even shocking image: these are the styles we know as Conceptual Art.

But what are the lower-case conceptual options available to artists like Saini, who are not entirely comfortable with upper-case Conceptualism, with its sharply polemical stance and its insistence that the idea is the form? What are the formal choices exercised by an artist who still wishes to address the art-work as sensuous form, as a vehicle for mysterious and unsayable impulses rather than as an ideologically programmed device?

Let me try and phrase this question in another way. What can an artist do in a situation where art no longer aspires to the condition of mythology – that heightened awareness of loss, separation, distance and quest which once formed the vital psychological centre of society? Is it possible for an artist to recover something of the grief, the melancholia, the exaltation germane to the mythological consciousness – without losing the ironic, playful finesse of the contemporary?

These are the dilemmas that Saini dramatises, with an accomplished sense of purpose, in her paintings and constructions. Knowing that it is no longer possible to enter the grand ruins of the temple of mythology, she assembles a mosaic of small myths instead. It is her project, after all, to find pictorial accommodation for memories that have no other home: for the great fish that was once the saviour of the world; for the column without beginning or end, that was the link between heaven and earth; for the houses of the heart that stood wide as the sky.

Saini’s works are cast, then, in the form of a fascinating interplay between the archetype and the novelty. The flavours of present-day waking life are patterned, here, across the archaic structures of experience that manifest themselves in dream and hallucination. The effect is one of a fabulist’s magical continuity: the viewer enters a region where the spiral staircase is the path to the house of the gods and its column is the axis mundi, where the keyed-up mechanical toy is an impersonation of the self and Aladdin’s lamp is placed just out of reach of a hand that desires acquaintance with genies.
As with any post-mythological art, Saini’s underlying theme is that of belonging: the attempt to establish coherence between self and world. She does not pretend that the attempt is anything but difficult; her studio is replete with surreal images of the all-too-human conditions of fallibility, error, weakness, bewilderment. It is an intriguing array of hybrids that Saini offers us: the cloud floating above a dreamer stretched out on a park bench; the hand encased in a glove made from a map, its territorial ambitions belied by its evident delicacy; the Trojan horse that two children treat as a toy, oblivious to its capacity for treachery; the child in a conch-shell, as enigmatic as Vishnu, whom the sage sees as a cosmic infant in the Markandeya Purana. Here, we can tune in to the echoes of the cloud-bell, observe the opening of the sky-flower’s petals.

The binary of home and world, not unnaturally, occupies a central place in this schema. In a work like ‘Escapades of the Ladder Occupants’, for instance, Saini turns inside and outside around, questioning the distinctions we make between interior and landscape, private and public. The questions that haunt this construction have haunted philosophy for centuries: Must the self revel in schizophrenia, investing its emotions in spheres artificially separated by tact and reason? Is a transparency of intention possible? Do acts and motives twine around each other like coupling serpents, or do they come apart like the halves of a broken ladder?

Another outcome of the post-mythological condition is the formal problem of containing the epic within the scope of the miniature. In ’Joint Family’, a construction cast in the form of a house, Saini employs the trope of a family tree – which grows over the walls – to pack in multiple histories, private and public, ancient and modern, local and global. This is a trail of clues rather than a rigorously detailed encyclopaedia: as we scan the leaves, we pick up a train, a light-bulb, the a Buddha, the diagram of the yogic body with its splendid chakras, Leonardo’s ideal man measuring himself against the cosmos. We scan the leaves again, as though they held the oracular answer to a riddle: we see a diver, or is he parachutist, or a tourist with his backpack?

Here are energies of various kinds, and enlightenments: the Bodhisattva in the forest, Edison in his laboratory, the diver reaching for the pearl. This quasi-allegorical narrative is as ‘global’ or ‘national’ in its mood as it is personal, even autobiographical. In gently mocking the project of a universal history even in the act of tracing its outlines, Saini successfully draws our attention to the ongoing crisis of internationalism. We are plagued by the knowledge that the alien and the intimate are not always opposites: the foreign is often closer to us than the native, the native is often more distant than the foreign.

Saini’s use of the painting or construction as an envelope for diverse elements – elements which she has not yet configured into coherent relationships – was first rehearsed two years ago, in tentative works like ‘Home, a Showcase for Culture’. There, she was preoccupied with the rituals of possession, consumption and acquisition by which the affluent convince themselves of their success: the self is invested, finally and literally, in the sum total of the objects of its desire.

Through these works, there continues the quest for an identity: a self-definition that Saini prefers to approach obliquely rather than with frontal bravado. In the sequence of photographs, digitally printed on clear film and assembled as ‘Recital from the City Garden’, the artist presents us with the images of events performed like little rites. We trace the fate of a choir of wax dolls, each holding a paper house or boat, that is burnt. It is a model of sati that we witness (morally and politically treacherous as the analogy is, it is appropriate) in which the artefact survives the loss of presence. Like a song that has outlived the throat which first sang it, the sequence of photographs becomes a memorial to the precise, calculated violence that has become an endemic feature of our polity.

But Saini does not simply plunge us into despair; she also offers us metaphors of hope and emancipation. There is the fish in ‘Reservoir’, its splotchy acrylic surface flagged with little pictures of taxis and mapped over as though by latitude and longitude. And juxtaposed with this painting, the fibreglass sculpture of a fish: an icon that is also an entertaining diversion, with a peephole cut into it, through which we see the inset of a smaller fish. The comedy of the toy is a lyric release, an affirmation that we can always find needles to puncture the monumental figures who overwhelm our minds.

And there is that quintessential image of risk: the pyramidal palace of cards, a suite of cards layered over with cement primer and sprinkled with cement, bearing the motifs of clasped hands and cloud-creepers, bowls of sweets and spiral shells. Does life remain in suspense awaiting the draw, and does a fateful augury lie hidden in these innocuous pictures? Are these solemn rituals or are they spirited games? Reena Saini seems to suggest that they can be both at once: for are not our lives a lila shaped by the play of paradoxical forces, of agency and structure, of necessity and chance? She has invited us into her orchard of home-grown secrets; we must now do her the courtesy of cultivating a taste for its fruits.

Summer 1998