Black Flute 2004-2005

© Nancy Adajania

The mediatic image is like a siren: it dies even as it raises an alarm. The central problem facing painters who employ mediatic images in their art, therefore, is: How do you resurrect an image that has such a brief half-life, how do you render significant an image that holds the attention for not more than the blink of an eye? In an economy of images that has reduced every human being to a banal cipher, how can the artist return a sense of significance and dignity to the human subject, re-connecting the image-fragmented individual to the larger texts of the contemporary? In her recent work, Reena Saini Kallat embeds these questions in portrait-narratives that function between the realms of ceremonial time and the accidents of history.

From the flux of mediatic ephemera, Reena extracts images of anonymous people belonging to varied social milieux and political contexts; she invests them with symbolic resonance by the apparently simple act of selection and isolation, with the specificities of their loci cropped away. I would say that Reena’s figures are neither recognisable individuals (in the sense that we cannot name them, even when we identify their locale from internal evidence) nor are they simply identitarian stereotypes (in that, although they are coded with national, religious or ethnic characteristics, the pictorial emphasis is on their human vulnerability, as people going about their lives, rather than as incarnations of identity). In Reena’s treatment, these anonymous people become portraits residing in an unstable semiotic space intermediate between individual and type: she is thus able to employ them as markers of everyday heroism.

The faces that state at us from Reena’s columns are those of ordinary people, archived from the random memory of a computer: a Kashmiri woman in a festive dress, a street-child whose face wears an anxiety of lack, a man in characteristically African Muslim headgear, an anaemic migrant labourer, a taxi- or a rickshaw-driver, or perhaps one of the unemployed millions. We are comforted by their familiar presence, we meet them daily in newspaper, on the TV screen, or on the Net. They may come across as stereotypes at first glance, but the vulnerability of their situation summons from us an empathy that gives them a dimension of reality. For, as the viewing eye travels below the portrait, it encounters a circus of mythic demons, flashing swords and lotus-chakras.

These figures take their place in a conspicuously ceremonial form that celebrates the everyday: Reena has chosen to install her portraits in wooden frames shaped and presented like columns; each portrait has below it, several panels that act as strata of visual inscription. These columns may give the gallery-viewer a sense of having entered a space defined by ritual circumstances. Their form reminds the present writer of the stele, the archetypal memorial column for a hero in the ancient world, which used images to narrate his deeds to gods and humans. But, of course, the people we meet in Reena’s contemporary memorials are not legendary heroes, they are day-to-day survivors.

These portraits seem structured to act like a screening procedure, as though the subjects were being passed through the beam of scrutiny. Below the portrait’s face, what we thought were rows of visual inscriptions may be read as scans of a revealed anatomy, the interior of a body racked by the demons of poverty, state oppression and religious discrimination. I use the term ‘screening procedure’ to allude to the larger context of security paranoia where all individuals are demonised and reduced to types, guilty of belonging to whatever group identity that happens to be perceived as the threat of the moment. I would choose to read the current exhibition as an attempt to address the dissonance between the personhood of the individual and the institutional tendency of states and corporations to depersonalise the individual into a type. This show could also be seen as addressing the rampant trend towards demonising the other in every conflict at all levels, which forces us to perceive the world through screens if demonology.

In Reena’s columns, the demons are largely drawn from the representation of asuras in the Kangra miniatures. Here, they appear as machines of caricature and callisthenics, rather than as things of blood. Their traditional role in mythology was to wreck the sacred sacrifice, the yagna, and wreak havoc on figures of power and authority. In Reena’s interpretation, however, the demons impede the migrant labourer from fulfilling his desire to play Shravana and take his parents on a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Hinduism, or the Muslim man from concentrating on his prayers, or the lotus-chakras of energy nosed within her body. The sword, an intricately decorated prop which may imply the aestheticisation of violence in popular culture, recurs in each column, to mow down the demons.

The presence of these demons in these contemporary memorials has larger resonances. Subaltern histories reveal how lower-caste communities and tribal populations were represented as demons in our myths, how their land was captured and their resources usurped. Labelled as demons, they became outsiders in their own land. This subtly points to our construction of people as demons or our internalisation of demonologies without paying heed to the subterranean layers of history and folklore. Sometimes, it becomes possible to see the demonisers as themselves being the demons: such reversals of perception are probed here. This is significant in an age when George Bush launches
a brutal war of occupation in the name of containing jehad; The Hindutva fundamentalists organise pogroms in revenge for events that are alleged to have taken place a thousand years ago; and the Israeli state engages in daily rites of slaughter to defend a homeland secured by the expropriation of territory and the expulsion of its people.

It is instructive that Reena breaks the solemnity of her portraits by inserting them within a comic-strip narrative of violence and retribution. The drama unfolds through energetic play between the demons and the invading swords: black blood, a splatter of entrails, a missing leg. This sense of comic play is mirrored in a portfolio of small acrylic works which Reena has composed as a gallery of rogues based on comic characters from Italian baroque theatre. The status quo is lampooned: a bunch of knives breaks out of a bespectacled face, legs grow roots of knives. Reena sees these figures as symbolic of our Indian politicians who juggle the citizens’ fate, driving their knives magically into the body-polity without drawing any blood.

But all demons are not displayed as weapons of mass destruction. In one of the columns, a demon with pointed tusks and sharp clawed hooves grows larger than life and swoops away with the monuments around which religious contention has been waged. Above, we see the portrait of an elderly citizen with clouded spectacles. He waits for change, a respite from everyday violence. Echoing his hope, in another column we witness the blade of a sword faintly disappearing. The column ends with a spring-cloud, a shade lighter than the nocturnal blue dupatta of a child shielding herself from the biting cold. Perhaps this is why, these columns have been titled, Sword-Swallowers, to emphasise that today ordinary people have to perform extraordinary feats to survive demons of all shapes and colours. Our everyday heroes have the skill of the juggler and the spiritual resilience of the fakir. They survive the blade of the sword that cuts through their vocal cords and the demon that bites their entrails.

Demons have fluid identities, they demonise, are demonised in turn. But even cycles of violence have to end: the spring-cloud returns and stains us with hope.

post script: Reena’s works, whether paintings or assemblages or photo-based installations have always dealt with the fragility of human existence and with the susceptibility of the human body that could easily crash like a pack of cards that was never meant to last its composure. Body-parts, especially hands, recur in her art, sometimes they open up an existing wound, at other times, they rehearse the coming of grace. The hands symbolise the constant tension in Reena’s art between the hap-hazardness (pun intended) of faith and the enduring lines of fate.

Two earlier works have been judiciously added to this current suite of paintings. Both of which in their own distinct way deal with tattooed body-parts: the former (Seven Degrees of Vapour for the Vitreous Trousseau) and the latter (Wave and Blue-print: Birthmarks and Tattoos).

Seven Degrees…follows the cumulative growth of natural cycles, which are beset with the inexplicable. On a three-week Residency at the Boreal Art/Nature Centre in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec, Canada, Reena was given a brief to socialise with nature, to reduce the gap between the binaries of culture and nature. Since the cultural/nature binary is a given today, it would be more useful to find out what kinds of interfaces are possible between culture and nature. Away from the humid, sound-percolating city of Bombay, Reena chose to meditate uninvasively on the tranquility of the Laurentian Mountains. She did not resort to quasi-anthropological heroics that most artists in such a situation would have performed inevitably; no ground-clearing or hunter-gathering for her. She framed the landscape with an already existing frame, the window-pane in her room, a facade of sheer glass entranced her.

By making the glass window with a henna drawing of open palms, Reena was subconsciously consecrating the window, an aperture of elsewhereness, with this auspicious paste from her home country. It is as if Reena had visited the Laurentian Mountains in the spirit of a bridesmaid, only the palms on which she drew her henna designs were not those of a bride, but a window waiting to be dressed as one. I have deliberately read this as a ritual of consecration rather than a naturalistic framing of a landscape. Look at her gestures, every two days she offered drawings of fruits and herbs catalogued from a nearby greenhouse to the framed landscape. Instead of controlling the landscape by drilling a hole in the ground, she transformed the window-pane into a sheet of water, making the landscape outside her window her own. The frame outside changed with the weather, the bare mountains were covered with a green garment as bald trees grew leaves. Reena recorded these changes with her camera to make 21 photo-prints. The resulting images did not need digital manipulation, no burn, lasso or crop (note the phallocentric terminology). Rather they were a slow unfolding exposure of the mountains superimposed with signs of abundance and nurture.

Wave and Blue-print: Birthmarks and Tattoos, were not a private notation like Seven Degrees…, but a political inscription of the body with tattoos of discrimination.

The notion of play as lucid intervention phrased in the political context permeated this sculpture and photo-installation. Reena led viewers into a familiar recreational field of reference, then pulled the rug from under their feet. She made an inviting swing, its seat covered with a quilt of diverse scripts. But the viewer could not sit or lie on it. Covered by upturned rubber stamps bearing the names of people belonging to different communities, its seat seemed to signal ‘Inconvenience Regretted’! Reena felt an obsessive need to inscribe the names of India’s citizens in the colours of the national flag: it was her way of renewing the original contract of inclusiveness that the nation signed with its citizens in 1947, at Independence. Today, some citizens fear a de-notification, while others claim special citizenship, and some are still not recognised as full-fledged citizens. Subject to the mood-swings of electoral politics, citizen oscillate, their political identities polled into existence and defaced thereafter. Reena made an identikit of photographic details, comprising branded body parts, to from the backdrop to the swing, amplifying the tattoos and taboos of a dismembered nation.

Nancy Adajania
Bombay, January 2005