BELONGING IS A NECKLACE OF EXCLUSIONS
© Nancy Adajania

‘Threads around the patient trunk of a peepul denote
Divinity of sorts, a spirit to be worshipped.

Thread around the arm can mean love or luck,
Can be a hope upraised to ward off the evil eye….’

-Tabish Kahir, ‘Rope’ (1)

Reena Saini Kallat has increasingly emerged, in her art, as a maker of talismans, a caster of protective spells. Her paintings and sculpture-installations portray the human body, and by extension the body politic, under perennial siege, wracked by mythic demons and unknown viruses that strike at it from all sides. To fend off such relentless acts of invasion occupation and possession, Reena draws or shapes objects in the form of auspicious offerings: lush foliage, fruits, flowers. She places wishing candles on rangolis, ritual floor patterns that she shapes into uterine islands. Or she distributes threads of peace to people who will knot them into plaits of healing like the wishes knotted through a dargah’s filigreed screens. Or she carves toy weapons that function more as lucky charms than as museal emblems of systemic violence. The artist’s actions reveal an obsessive need to consecrate and sanctify contested a sites, to ward off forces of conflict and chaos. I would say that hers is an apotropaic art: she externalizes her fears and anxieties about the human condition, and hopes to contain or neutralize them, by creating talismanic objects.

In my earlier readings of Reena’s art, I have analyzed her practice by reference to the framework of macro-political narratives. I had implied that her art was confrontational, like those of her contemporaries who operate in a post-national space where conflicts of identitarian politics are enacted in the arena of lapsed citizenship. I had spoken of how “Saini’s primary concern is the status of the symbol in a charged political environment… She draws our attention to the manufactured nature of these symbols by exposing their machinery through their representation of the differentiated forms of the female body, the nation and the competing narratives of cosmic order and chaos. Thus, in Saini’s works, the symbols does not appear as an instrument of false consciousness, but instead, is unmasked as a key device in the dominant narratives of power/ knowledge. It appears, from her work, that she has tried to propose a counter-symbology to the symbolic transactions of mountebanks, self-styled religious gurus and criminalised politicians who grapple for control over India’s public sphere today.” (2)

After reflecting on almost a decade of Reena’s practice, I would amplify my earlier reading by observing that the emotional drive feeding her ‘counter-symbologies’- political symbols married to sacral imagery or traditional miniature folios –emerges, not only from grand political narratives, but from her yearning to generate an apotropaism intended to resolve conflicts of perception, location and identity at various levels. For instance, in her recent exhibition, Rainbow of Refuse’, she makes an amulet of toy weapons or tattoos a contested political site with rubber stamps inscribed with the names of Indian citizens. Here, the macro-politics of structural oppression is threaded through with the intimate and particular details of being: political narratives related to forbidden utterance, political rhetoric, territoriality and aggression are sought to be controlled through the powers of healing and magic.

… Threads around the wrist of a man recall
The knots of duty, the danger of forgetting.

Threads over the shoulder proves one’s caste,
That belonging is a necklace of exclusions…

‘Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases)’, a 2006 installation composed from painted portraits and museal cases mimics the stance of historical exhibit. Reena anoints the portraits of ordinary citizens- a turbaned man from the North-West Frontier or a woman with an eastern Vaishnava mark on her forehead, sourced from the Net –framed like royality in glided silver. Below the portraits, a red velvet case of toy weapons is laid out like a set of canines. You look up to find the portraits seemingly foaming at the mouth, with a smear of colour. Could this cloud of incontinence be a forbidden territory or a prohibited zone that is choking the body politic, demanding release and threatening death by poison if choked down? Indeed it does have a recognizable shape: that of the contested territory of Pak-occupied Kashmir.

With no political solution in sight to its contested status, Kashmir continues to be ravaged by low-intensity warfare. The weapons of destruction lie in Reena’s installation like relics, ruins of a freedom that is hard to achieve. They are carved into beautiful objects, their handles exquisitely ornate: precious to the touch, they caress the senses. Nevertheless they have invisible teeth. They are placed in an oval formation that represents the mouth but equally carries the menace of the vagina dentata. I would read the weapon-mouth as an amulet, a taveez made by Reena to protect herself and her follow citizens from never-ending conflict and terror, to help them pass through the penumbral passage of a contemporary history coloured by greed, guilt and nostalgia.

The trope of the contested territory re-emerges in ‘Penumbra’, 2006, a steel cradle that is dead-cold to the touch. This time it is made up of rubber stamps bearing the names of India’s citizens. It lies ominously, like a dormant tumour in the cradle. The rubber stamp recurs as an important motif in Reena’s work. It signifies her need to secure for every Indian citizen the basic freedoms and entitlements that are guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic. She first used them in ‘Kiosk’, 2003, where she had suspended rubber stamps arranged in the colurs of the Indian flag on a stand. By mingling the colours of the flag she was stamping out the various religious and ethnic differences that have caused fissures in the Republic. For this work, Reena also produced a mock MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), an agreement between the Indian State and its citizens to restore and renew the original contract of inclusiveness that the nation signed with its citizens in 1950.Today, millions of citizen live in fear of a de-notification notice that can part them from land and livelihood, while others claim the immunity of privileged citizenship and yet are not recognised as full-fledged citizens by reason of ethnicity or poverty.

‘Kiosk’ was reborn in another avatar as ‘Wave’, 2004, where the rubber stamps were placed in a swing to connote the mood-swings of electoral politics and the oscillation of political identities, polled into existence and later defaced. An identikit of photographic details, comprising body-parts stamped with names of people belonging to different religious communities, forms the backdrop to the swing (‘Blueprint: Birthmarks and Tattoos’). The tattooed names on the body-parts gives them an adopted identity, as against the restricted one with which they are born: so that belonging does not become what the poet Tabish Khair calls “ a necklace of exclusions”. This photographic work is cast like a spell against the buri nazar, the evil eye that threatens the country with schism.

As an artist-citizen who cannot regard the nation as a hospitable site of belonging for all its denizens, Reena has over the years stained various paintings and objects with the tricolour: she portrays it as a mnemonic of the ideal nation of India’s Gandhian liberation struggle, which stood for sacrifice and peace, and which is fragmented today by divisive political and religious forces. In the painting ‘Braiding the Line’and the floor installation ‘Pollen Patterns’ (both made in 2002), the tricolour seeps into a sick political ecology, blessing it with nature’s bounty. Thus, Reena salvages the Indian flag from fossil ceremonialism. In ‘Braiding the Line’, she chooses a subaltern figure, a fisherman, to weave a tricolour with his robust hands: elephants and peacocks, Gandhiji and Vinoba Bhave are held together in this net of succulent vines.

The fisherman, a black-and-white figure salvaged from mediatic debris, takes on the aura of an archetype. He flags the universe as if he were hauling in Indra’s net. The most intriguing detail in this painting is a large watch on the fisherman’s wrist, counterposed with the icon of Kalki, the tenth and future avatar of Vishnu (the preserver of cosmic order and righteousness in Hindu religious thought)’ which occurs as an auspicious pictorial notation. This icon, rendered like a folk toy, stands for a utopian future where disorder will be replaced with order. Reena knits the narrative with the poetics of time. Three layers of temporality co-exist in this wtriptych: chronological time symbolised by the watch, natural time reflected by the flora and fauna in the net, and mythological time by the popular political and social icons of the past, the whole dominated by the cosmic and cyclical scheme represented by the avatar of Kalki.

In ‘Pollen Patterns’, made at the Khoj International Artists’ Workshop, Bangalore, local artisans wove tricoloured bamboo strips into uterine floor mats and toys depicting bird, animal and aquatic life, as well as religious and political symbols. While the toys were strewn about the floor mats, a charkha symbolizing Gandhiji’s call for swaraj, freedom and svavalamban, self-empowerment, was placed at the centre of one of the mats, recalling the early symbolism of the Indian flag. The charkha underlines Reena’s preoccupation with the notion of work, kaam. Work is often portrayed as an act of grace (bandagi) performed through a pantomime of hands. The open palm, painted or rendered in fibreglass, is invariably shown in gesture of seeking, of prayer and thanksgiving. Faith in a better future, which exists literally in our own hands, is shown to be in constant conflict with the lines of fate- inheritance by birth, caste, religion and religious location- that course through our hands, mandating exclusion and discrimination.

When Reena was invited to participate in a residency located in the Laurentian Mountians of Quebec, Canada, she made an imprint of open hands with mehndi on the windowpane of her studio: ‘Seven Degrees of Vapour for the Vitreous Trousseau’, 2002. The artist had subconsciously consecrated the window, an aperture of elsewhereness, with this auspicious paste from her home country. Every second day, she would make offerings of herbs and fruits catalogued from a nearby greenhouse to the framed landscape. This gesture, which enacts a consecration ritual, could be seen as Reena’s need to adorn and decorate a site in the votive mode of shrangar, as well as her need to sanctify it with a mandala or rangoli, an image of cosmic wholeness. Reena deliberately uses decoration as a contextual strategy and artistic choice to compose her pictorial space. In her hands, decoration does not remain mere surface ornamentation, but becomes an integral part of the image vocabulary. Reena holds the decorative in counterpoint by investing the act of decoration with a belief in the auspicious, in nature’s abundance and its power of renewal. Thus the devices of the shrangar and the mandala often recur together in her work: her arabesques of vines and tender creatures are bound by a shraddha, an indwelling faith in the forces of the divine.

..It is thus we thread the eye of time, trying
It down with strings which web from one life

To another. Who knows what all these threads hold ?
Who knows what will cease to be when they unravel?…

Alongside the flag and hands, Reena deploys the uterus as a recurrent symbol: a site of fertility and plenty. Made from bio-degradable materials like sand, flowers and clay lamps. ‘Beautiful People of the Rainbow-

The Sea is Salty Everywhere’ 2001, is laid out like a rangoli. Boats with wishing candles float around these islands like so many desires waiting to reach their shores. Like a traditional rangoli, this floor installation is painstakingly made with intricate details and then effaced at the end of the show, to be remade at another site. This gesture of creating an art-work only to erase it subverts the idea of producing a finished commodity, solid and permanent. Instead, the qualities of provisionality and fluidity, as well as the hope of replenishing, are privileged. The ceremonial acts of performing shrangar and mandala reach their logical conclusion in the act of visarjan, the immersion or dissolution with the expressed hope of recurrence. In the Indic tradition of worship, the clay idols that preside over annual festivals are ceremonially immersed in a river or the sea, at the conclusion of the festive period. Similarly, in Quebec, Reena produced a uterine island by filling a wire-mesh with leaves from fallen trees, pine cones and driftwood, and then set it afloat in the river.

The decorative assumes another nuance in Reena’s work when she examines the seductive nature of violence. For a while now, she has injected cantankerous demons- who wield primitive weaponry borrowed from the Pahari miniatures and the Razmnama (3) – into the anatomies of unsuspecting anonymous citizens. These quirky, caricatural creatures have infiltrated Reena’s paintings like untameable viruses that mutate to avoid detection. They are prodded and sliced by swords and daggers with ornamental handles and heads. Reena has explored the manner in which violence can be legitimized by aestheticising the tools of destruction, citing the decorative nature of primitive, colonial or postcolonical weaponry and heraldry.

In a suite of paintings structured like memorial columns ‘Sword-swallowers,’ 2004, Reena opened out portraits of everyday heroes into ‘screens of demonlogy’ (4), revealing anatomies racked by the demons of poverty, State oppression and religious discrimination. In current paintings, such as ‘Xylophone I & II’, 2005-2006, body parts have hardened into weaponry, ribs are fashioned from swords and guns, and demons are injected into the bloodstream like slow poison. They twist the organs, branching into trees of death. Or in ‘Rainbow of Refuse,’ 2005-2006, organs toughen into armour, as demons are flung at them encased in an abstract ornamental script – demonic spells? Is this a new calligraphy of terror, undecipherable even on list –serves or by the most advanced search engines? The sense organs are arranged together like a wall of resistance, and the dark outline of the contested site is hurled at them like a garland-bomb, seemingly proving right our worst fears and speculations.

‘Birds of Steel’, 2006 is a set of diptychs juxtaposing fighter planes and colonial-period Indian heraldry. As Bernard S.Cohn has demonstrated in a landmark essay, this system of heraldry was initiated by the British in the 1870s, as a symbolic expression of the consolidation of their power, while they acknowledged the allegiance of the native rulers (5). Heraldry was one of the manifestations of colonial power; the other was the invention of an imperial British durbar that amplified the native form of royal audience to the point of public spectacle. These decorative emblems and occasions were manufactured by the British colonial regime to maintain a visible sense of hierarchy among their vassals, while also compensating in pomp for the complete absence of power that these princes could exercise.

In Reena’s paintings, the quaint and exotic coats of arms of princely states such as Baroda, Jaipur; Kishangarh etc, remind us of the power of invention by which a symbol-making elite uses pre-existing cultural materials to suit current political expediencies. The ornaments on the arms comprise various chimeras apart from the sententious motto. We encounter the elephant-headed tiger (yaali) and the sacred eagle (Garuda) beloved of Hindu iconography, as well as the fish and the horse, associated with auspiciousness and potency, and even a chapatti- included in the armorial bearings of a kingdom as an amulet. Some armorial bearings are confluential and weave together Hindu and Islamic elements; others enshrine quirky origin and triumphal myths. For instance, the Dutch scholar Theo Van der Zaln explains, on a website, the interesting tale that the Hyderabad coat of arms tells: “ On the eve of a war a holy man brought the forefather of the prince of Haiderabad (sic) a luck-bringing ‘chapati’…. as an amulet. Since the victorious battle, it’s the emblem of the princely family.”

The juxtaposition between martial aircraft streaking through an ever-nocturnal sky and the symbolic code of heraldry is sharpened when we note the abstract calligraphy of demons swirling dangerously close to the coat of arms. Armorial bearings are the codified expression of power. But how do we decipher power that remains raw and beyond the range of symbols: power that is not articulated through codes or by positions of precedence at a durbar, but manifests itself through inchoate, as yet uncodified, forms? As against the matte acrylic, colourful, fresco-like surface of these paintings, Reena has chosen to install a larger-than-life mock-model of the crown of the United Kingdom: it resembles a giant cream-cake, its pristine monochromatic surface embossed with the impression of inlaid jewels, decked with fur trimming.

On closer look, through, ‘Memoria Corona’, 2006, memorializes the contributions- both meritorious and lethal- made by political thinkers of all shades from the colonial and postcolonial periods, and even by provincial leaders who were influential in the first decades of independence. Here is a crown studded with names from an all-inclusive pantheon, devas as well as asuras, liberals and conservatives, secularists and fundamentalists, mystics and rationalists, self-sacrificing saints and corrupt public figures. These metal name-slugs denote competing visions for a newborn nation, rival strategies for an emerging power, alternative directions for a Republic in mid-passage. Each figure wanted a share of the cake, and the crown passed from head to head. The ghosts of history do not return to haunt us, because they have never gone away.

For there is no one who has followed the thrown
Ball of string of our palimpsest past to its loose

End, and returned to tell the tale. No wonder we cut
short lengths of threads and strings: just enough

To circle neck or tree, not enough to circumambulate Life.
Rope around the neck means death.

Reena’s miniature weapons, monumental crowns and pervasive demons reflect the nightmares of a child-woman who sits in a nursery of perennial stimulations. In this twilight zone, toys are wound up by unseen forces; they come alive like shrill warriors raised from the dead. She must cast a hex on them to seize control. The artist’s very first show was built around toys and games, and candles waiting to flare up. In ‘Joint Family’, 1998, a larger-than-life-size house made of corrugated paper had a large key stuck into its back, as though demanding to be wound up. This rather precarious toy house was covered with a large network of peepal leaves holding symbols from everyday life. She decorated the house with a light bulb and a yogi whose physique was marked with charkas, foci of energy; also, with the lines on a hand that threw up a blueprint of a fairytale castle, a flowerpot and the sudarshan chakra, Vishnu’s radiant discus, ready to spin into action and cut-off the heads of evil-doers. Elsewhere in this exhibition, Reena installed a collapsible pyramid of playing cards, with two hands trying to seize a house that always floats higher than their reach (‘Orchard of Home-grown Secrets I-A’,1998). And in ‘Recital from the City-garden’, 1998, Reena had dolls clutching onto paper houses, burning eerily in slow motions on back-lit translates. Is this sympathetic magic? Is it a memory of sati from another life?

Are these evidence of something more than a horror unleashed from the unconscious? Perhaps it is. Amidst this nursery of life-like toys and trip-up games lies the fragile floating home whose lock has been changed. The desire for the ‘Joint-Family’ persists for the conjoining light and dark hands are the hands of twins separated at birth, searching for one another and their common home. Reena was born to a Punjabi family that suffered the horror of the Partition that brought independent India into being. The Partition created two nations and left them with mutual suspicion flaming into hate, but also a forlorn desire for peace, and the indelible memory of an undivided home.

The artist was raised on stories related to the partition Her father; brought up in Lahore in West Punjab, had moved to East Punjab two years before the actual event, but other members of his family followed in the tide of refugees in 1947. He remembers the horror; but also the risk and courage with which people hid their friends in their homes, defending them against their own co-religionists. And so, at the core of her being, Reena finds the macro-political interwoven, inextricably, with the intimately personal. She has attempted to fight these demons of the mind with the powers of magic. By scaling up a mandala, pouring sand into a rangoli, she proposes a balance between the trauma of contested political sites and genocide, and the promise of an unscarred future. But those who work with fragile threads also know that the ‘rope around the neck means death.’ And yet, it is equally true that the short threads of dua, of blessing and hope, can heal the deepest of wounds.

Notes:

  1. Tabish Khair, When Parallel Lines Meet (NewDelhi: Viking/Penguin, 2000).
  2. Nancy Adajania, ‘Remanufacturing Symbols: Recent paintings by Reena Saini Kallat’, exhibition catalogue essay for ‘The Battlefield is the Mind’ (Sakshi Gallery, Bangalore, 2003)
  3. The Razmnama is a Mughal folio painted in the atelier of the Emperor Akbar, and illustrates the Persian translation of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharta.
  4. Nancy Adajania, ‘Screens of Demonology’, essay in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Black Flute (And Other Stories)’ (Gallery Chemould, Mumbai and Nature Morte, New Delhi, 2005)
  5. See Bernard S.Cohn, ‘Representing Authority in Victorian India’, in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983; rpt 1995).

Nancy Adajania is a Mumbai based cultural theorist, art critic and independent curator.