THE ARCHIVES OF THE HEART
© Nancy Adajania
An island in Japan houses an archive of heartbeats gathered from people living in different parts of the world. We might regard this as a New Age technique of mummification. And indeed, in this work, ‘Les archives du coeur’ (2008), Christian Boltanski creates what the curator Tessa Praun describes as a unique class of ‘portraits’, her contention being that these recorded heartbeats will prolong the lives of the subjects even after their physical death.  Since the 1960s, Boltanski has been recording his own personal effects, as well as those of anonymous people condemned to occupy the margins of history. His photographic portraits are subject to the tremors of representation, appearing to float in a liquid blur, in the twilight zone between birth and dying, between the wingbeat of recorded history and the ephemera of personal memory. With his idiosyncratic conceptual take on portraiture in ‘Les archives du coeur’, Boltanski distils the portrait into a pure note of classical music, a thrum of life that transcends local and corporal circumstances and reminds us of the survivor’s drive that has kept us going on the long journey from Olduvai Gorge.
Launched on an analogous quest for the posthumous evidence of the missing, Reena Saini Kallat began to experiment in early 2000 with the portraiture of anonymous denizens of the global multitudes. Her passion for nameless faces gradually grew into an obsession with compiling archives of the missing and the dead from India, articulating in contour a history of post-colonial India as told through traumatic upheaval. Recall that the nation-state of India was born in cataclysmic circumstances, through the Partition, which was accompanied by pogroms, forced migrations, mass rape and the irrevocable dispersal of families and communities. Such crises have recurred in India since, at different scales and intensities, because India balances on a paradox, between robust democracy and relentless atrocity.
The political logic of democracy has been to enfranchise every single individual, so that in theory every single person has a name and a share in electoral power. Therefore, metaphorically speaking, we could say that the nation-state is a complex composite portrait made up of a billion mosaic units. The tragedy is that we cannot see these units clearly, but only through a symbolic blur. While the Constitution of India guarantees its individuals various entitlements, in reality the vast majority cannot articulate their political rights.
Precisely this paradox animates Reena’s mixed-media works, photographs, sculpture installations and video in the recent suite of works, ‘Silt of Seasons’ (Chemould Prescott Road, Bombay, 2008). In ‘Synonym’ (2007), for instance, we are confronted with a series of 6-foot-high portraits of ordinary citizens constructed from hundreds of painted rubber-stamps bearing names gathered from police records. She scours the records to retrieve the memory of those who have disappeared during riots, earthquakes, landslides or genocides.
With ‘Synonym’, Reena constructs an anti-monument. Unlike official monuments, which extol the virtues of permanence, these portraits appear like ghostly transmissions from another planet. From a distance, they look like burnt, scarred faces; up close, they pixellate, lose definition, hover in a grey zone. They are, in the development activist Dunu Roy’s words, “nowhere people looking for a somewhere place.”
A Sentimental Education
What’s in a name? Deep histories of violence and loss. Bodies are swallowed up by mass graves, dumped into oceans, shovelled into ovens. Names remain, residues silted up in the ever-growing list of the missing. Names are talismans of absence, keys to a resistance against amnesia. The spectre that haunts Reena’s art is the spectre of forgetting.
Two anomalies remain behind in the ruins of war, civil strife and genocide twinned in a cruel asymmetry: bodies without names and names without bodies. When we go close to the portraits, we realise that the names are withheld in plain view. Hundreds of names in 14 different languages in reverse sensitise us to the fact that historical silences cannot be decoded with the certainty of a cryptographer, and that loss cannot always be compensated.
Curiously, despite being the carriers of hundreds of names, the portraits themselves remain unnamed. Or alternately, we might think that instead of having a fixed identity, the portraits possess multiple lineages of ethnicity, language and religious persuasion. Reena’s acts of naming and recalling suggest a secular, politicised recovery of the practice of japa or dhikr. Instead of a mantra or the names of God, the artist recounts the last traces of history’s victims.
The methodology of ‘Synonym’ shares an unmistakable affinity with that employed by Chuck Close in his portraits, where the picture grid is incrementally built from units consisting of finger-prints, scribbles and wads of pulp paper. As Close observes about his artistic process: “It’s that tension between the artificial and the real – the insistent flatness of the surface and the conjured up illusion that makes for a very physical experience for the viewer.” 
That said, the act of painterly representation can involve the reductive translation of a wide range of surfaces and effects into the relatively limited language of the medium, of pigment, brush, knife, spatula, rag and roller. By contrast, Reena extends painterly media in such as way that a wide array of palpabilities is made disturbingly available. For example, the bruised skin of the portraits produced from an intense chromatic saturation and their extra-dimensionality, the move made from the painted surface of the rubber stamps to their tactile knob-like presence on the reverse.
Indeed, we realise that these works are no longer paintings, but rather, are delivered as sculptures in the round. This is where their family resemblance with Close’s portraits ends. Although Reena’s mixed media works seem to function in an interlocking grid, they are more like jigsaw puzzles in nature than grid-like. And unlike Close’s incrementally painted grids, we realise with some surprise, these works are formally sculptural: they occupy mass and volume and create dense black silhouettes. This gives them edge and unpredictability: double portraits that confront us with one face and darken the walls with their spectral shadows.
The first time the artist deployed the rubber stamp as an object and device was in a sculptural assemblage titled ‘Kiosk’ in 2003. She recomposed the colours of the Indian flag by suspending rubber stamps from a stand. The mixed-up colours of the flag were meant to stamp out the violent differences wracking the Indian republic. A mock MOU (Memorandum of Understanding), an agreement between the Indian State and its citizens to renew the original contract of inclusiveness that the nation promised its citizens in 1950, accompanied the sculpture.
The rubber stamps and the MOU signal the dialectical tension between two discourses, that of the juridical and of sentiment: a tension that has underwritten Reena’s art over half a decade. The play with the juridical documents that legitimise the authority of the State and the status of the citizen is not difficult to decode; but the discourse of sentiment is less easily reduced to evidence. What is the locus of sentiment? For instance, the term ‘public sentiment’ is grossly manipulated in a country which is governed by competing populist forces whose only aim of politics is to secure a ‘vote bank’, a reliable support base constructed on the basis of an exclusive and defensive group identity, and where, as a corollary, popular mobilisations are made by playing up religious and linguistic differences among a largely illiterate electorate. Repeatedly, in over six decades of Independence, charlatans of every shade from the Left, Right and Centre have played with public sentiment to disrupt peace, manufacture riots and factionalise a society already divided along identitarian lines. When I speak of the discourse of sentiment in Reena’s art, I mean that she provides her viewers with a ‘sentimental education’ in the Flaubertian sense. This has nothing to do with sentimentality as commonly conceived, meaning the maudlin expression of strong feeling. On the contrary, it signifies a training in the modes of responding to a potentially fracturing experience in such a way as to develop the resources of the self: sensitivity, reflection, the ability to understand vicissitudes, the gifts of acceptance and reconciliation. Such an education in feeling has specific value in a desensitised society where the values of liberty, equality and fraternity have been sacrificed at the altar of expediency. In Reena’s art, the discourses of the juridical and of sentiment manifest themselves as a relay of effect and affect in the public domain.
In ‘Crease/Crevice/Contour’ (2008), a set of ten photographic prints of a torso are stamped with the changing contours of a contested territory. As we trace the changing magnifications of these red scars, we realise we are looking at a woman’s torso, vulnerable to the brandings of a territorial claim. The figure of the abducted woman has haunted both sides of the Partition: Hindu and Sikh women were abducted by Muslims on the one hand, and Muslim women by Hindus and Sikhs on the other, in 1947. Within a few years, with no hope of recovery by their families and an acceptance of their new lives, many of these women married their abductors and even had children. Then, with the horrifying lack of compassion that only the most public-spirited can afford, commissions of recovery decided that the women must be found and ‘returned’ to their ‘original’ countries, even if this meant destroying the new families they had created, separating them from their husbands and children. Stories recounted by feminist writers about these search and recovery operations for abducted women both from India and Pakistan after Independence make for chilling reading. Veena Das observes that the recovered women were not seen as citizens with equal rights but were seen as ‘sexual and reproductive beings’ who had to be returned to their rightful territory to save the ‘national honour’. As Das observes: “In the fantasy of men, the inscription of nationalist slogans on the bodies of women (Victory to India, Long Live Pakistan) or proclaiming possessions of their bodies (This thing, this loot – ye maal – is ours), would create a future memory by which men of the other community would never be able to forget that the woman as territory had already been claimed and occupied by other men. The bodies of the women were surfaces on which texts were to be written and read – icons of the new nations.” 
The contested territory in Crease/Crevice/Contour happens to be Kashmir, morphing in relation to the LOC (Line of Control) between October 1947 and December 1948. Neither India nor Pakistan has been able or willing to resolve this issue. Kashmiris call it the Ceasefire Line, not agreeing to the military strategists’ ambiguous term LOC. Since the late 1980s, the women of Kashmir have suffered violation and brutality at the hands of the militants and the Indian state: the scars have deepened.
As a gesture of healing, the artist decided to stamp the names of people who have signed the peace agreement between India and Pakistan on the woman’s torso. Thus, Reena’s representation of the woman’s body in ‘Crease/Crevice/Contour’ is that of desiring agency rather than passive victimhood.
Where Have The Masons Gone?
History has shown us how the names of people who have suffered slavery or genocide are transformed into ciphers, recall the branded foreheads of Chinese slaves or the numbered bands of the Holocaust victims. Artists have responded to these historical silences by building memorials and making mementos. I would like to draw parallels between Reena’s recent work and Maya Lin’s ‘Vietnam Veterans Memorial’ (1982) and Boltanski’s ‘The Missing House’ (1990).
Lin’s ‘Vietnam Veterans Memorial’, which began as a controversial public arts project, has achieved iconic status. The granite wall (built, incidentally, from stone quarried in South India) is etched with 58,175 names of US soldiers who died during the Vietnam War. The present melds into the past as the families of the veterans see their reflections in a wall that is more mirror than stone. This fluid interface becomes urgently haptic as they take away rubbings of the names as souvenirs. 
In ‘The Missing House’ (1990), Boltanski has placed nameplates on the facade of a building in Berlin that had formerly been occupied by Jewish families, and had been destroyed by Allied aerial bombardment in 1945. The artist makes a gesture that is at once archaeological and elegiac, by reminding an urban present of one of its brutally erased pasts. 
Reena’s first attempt at creating memorials for the ordinary citizens began with her series ‘Sword-Swallowers’ (2004). Painted portraits with unfolding screens of visual inscription were installed in the form of archetypal memorial columns or steles. The stele narrates the deeds of the heroes of the ancient world to gods and humans. But the people we meet in Reena’s contemporary memorial columns are not legendary heroes but day-to-day survivors. 
In her recent works, Reena puts the erased impulses of ordinary people back into the historical record. She dismantles historical monuments brick by brick, metaphorically, and stamps them with the names of the workers who built them. She redrafts the Taj Mahal’s beautiful pietra dura patterns, using the names of workers and their guild signatures, instead of the precious stones originally inlaid there. This gesture of defacing the monument with the marks of labour creates a dense and robust beauty, cutting against the refined craftsmanship we are familiar with. Bertolt Brecht’s song, ‘A Worker Reads History’ returns to our lips:
“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
In the evening when the Chinese Wall was finished
Where did the masons go?”
In the same vein, the artist subverts the solidity of the Mughal architectural masterpiece by making it porous, a see-through curtain that marks domestic thoroughfare. The beads of the curtain recount the names of the lovers who will not make it to the history books, but who will live on in graffiti and song. Other monuments like Bombay’s colonial structure the Gateway of India is scaled down to act as a maquette or a teaching model in an urban history museum. The litany of colonial names of streets – Ropewalk Lane, Cruickshank Lane, Hope Street and so forth – were embossed on the structure to remind us of our present rather than of our past. Bombay was renamed under pressure from right-wing nativist forces in the mid-1990s and is now Mumbai. This politics of renaming shows the rise of an illiberal politics that has no interest in securing the rights of citizens but prefers to produce the empty spectacle of demagogic triumph over hapless symbols, branding and re-branding streets and squares, tearing down and replacing public statuary.
The Lost Mother
“I began to work as an artist when I began to be an adult, when I understood that my childhood was finished, and was dead. I think we all have somebody who is dead inside of us. A dead child. I remember the Little Christian that is dead inside me.” 
While Boltanski’s art may be activated by the dead child he carries within himself, I would say that in Reena’s case it is the memory of her dead mother that has given birth to an art of (un)belonging. Although she professes not to allow autobiographical elements to enter into her work, she has made such exceptions as ‘Walls of the Womb’, a work made two years ago and scored in Braille to articulate hazy memories of her mother who died of cancer when she was a child. It could be argued that Reena’s obsessive inscription of the names of the missing could have its roots in her search for the mother she never knew. The personal is the political and her loss becomes, in her art, a mode of recovering the status of all those citizens who have not been mourned properly, whose memories are alive only in their erasure. 
Reena’s first video work, which is projected on the contested territory of Kashmir, is the most powerful work in this suite. Names scatter like snowflakes and dissolve into other names. We stand mesmerised as a blue spiritual light sheathes names of people belonging to various religions and ethnicities. Suffering recognises no distinctions. In this work, the conceptual charge of Reena’s art is seen to advantage; elsewhere, it can sometimes be overwhelmed under the dazzling effects of surface or technical accomplishment that she brings to the production of her art. With its minimalism and clarity, the video takes the logic of japa or dhikr to its conclusion. It is a prayer, but it is also an ode to silence.
Notes & References
1. See Tessa Praun, ‘Les archives du coeur’ in Zeitung für Kunst und Ästhetik (Buch 3, 2/2008).
2. See ‘Chuck Close: Decoding the Mysterious Process of Art’ in Herb Meyers and Richard Gertsman eds., Creativity: Unconventional Wisdom from 20 Accomplished Minds (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
3. See Veena Das, Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007).
4. See Robert Campbell, ‘An Emotive Place Apart’ (A.I.A. Journal, May 1983).
5. See http://www.chgs.umn.edu/museum/memorials/berlin/index.html
6. See Nancy Adajania, ‘Screens of Demonology’, essay in the exhibition catalogue, ‘Black Flute (And Other Stories)’ (Gallery Chemould, Bombay, & Nature Morte, New Delhi, 2005).
7. See http://www.tate.org.uk/magazine/issue2/boltanski.htm
8. See Nancy Adajania, ‘The Braille of Desire’, essay in the exhibition catalogue, Urban Manners: 15 Contemporary Artists from India (Hangar Bicocca, Milan, in collaboration with Art for the World, Geneva & Milan, 2007).
BEYOND RESOLUTION: THE ART OF REENA SAINI KALLAT
© Murtaza Vali
The dramatic expansion of mass media – print, televisual and cybernetic – that followed economic liberalization in the early 1990s, has profoundly shifted the terrain of the visual in India. The growing ubiquity of media images has forced artists to reexamine the changing status, role and power of the image in contemporary culture. According to Nancy Adajania, this dynamic new mediascape has inspired the emergence of a “new mediatic realism,” a realist impulse among Indian painters that explicitly references the imagery, format, effects and surfaces of the media flow. Like many of her peers, in her recent work Reena Saini Kallat has experimented with strategies for arresting the overwhelming glut of media images and imbuing these images, especially those of people, with renewed pictorial and emotional significance. Her approach has been to anoint the human image sourced from the media with symbols and icons from a mythic register. In the 2004 series Sword Swallowers, generic portraits of ordinary people, sourced from the Internet, topped stele-like stacks of paintings filled with fantastical images of warring demons. Two years later, in the Penumbra Passage (Canine Cases) series, similar painted portraits appeared again, each framed and stained with a floating form in the shape of the contested Occupied Kashmir region, and hovering over a museum case containing tiny toy-like weapons arranged like a menacing set of teeth. According to Adajania, Saini Kallat’s constellations of images and objects, of the mediatic real juxtaposed with the mythic imaginary, may be understood as serving an “apotropaic” function, providing a spiritual salve for the many evils and injustices that trouble India and its least fortunate citizens.
Saini Kallat’s recent Synonym series marks a distinct departure. Here, the portraits stand alone, monumental yet atomized, composed entirely of hundreds of painted rubberstamps, each bearing a name (in reverse) in one of over fourteen Indian languages. From the appropriate viewing distance the array of stamps coalesce into a recognizable human image; up close they register as pure pattern, an irregular lattice of color and text. Ambiguously hybrid objects, they oscillate between photography, painting and sculpture, between human portrait and abstract pattern, between image and text. Seemingly forgoing the mythic as the mode for consecrating human images extracted from the media flow, the Synonyms instead register in their very pixilated materiality the growing fragility and profound dissolution of the human image enacted by the spread of media, an indeterminacy that appears to extend to issues related to subjectivity, identity and citizenship that these human images embody.
The Synonyms are not without precedent and bear superficial similarities to Chuck Close’s large gridded portrait paintings or Rashid Rana’s Ommatidia series, composite digital prints of Bollywood heartthrobs composed of thousands of tiny images of everyday Pakistani men. However, Saini Kallat’s works, comprised of short interlocking horizontals and verticals of varying lengths, reject the stability that a regular orthogonal grid might provide. The composite image that emerges more closely resembles a mosaic or, in the artist’s own words, a “circuit board,” pulsating, as the eye is forced to wander across the surface in search of a visual anchor. Despite their three-dimensionality, for Saini Kallat, these works are intimately tied to the history of painted portraiture, reflecting her training at Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art and revealing much about the craft of painting. Encrusted with illegible text, each stamp resembles an individual brushstroke, its rough surface suggesting the impasto of an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist canvas. Like these earlier styles, Saini Kallat’s Synonyms challenge the smooth illusionistic space of traditional painting, evincing instead the piecemeal way in which a painted image is constructed, through the careful application of individual marks. Saini Kallat goes a step further, literally disintegrating the picture plane, dramatizing the dialectical relationship between image and mark.
In their teeming, tessellated and text-ured surfaces, these portraits seem to visualize the Nehruvian maxim of ‘unity in diversity,’ a popular nationalist creed that asserted that India’s national identity and true strength lay in its cultural diversity, that a palpable but indefinable ‘Indianness’ united and transcended the myriad of ethnicities, religions, castes, and languages found across the nation. While the motto served as an important rallying cry, mobilizing these diverse populations against the colonial power, India’s troubled post-colonial history has demonstrated that, though laudatory, it is a difficult if not impossible ideal to achieve. Rather than naively celebrating its increasingly hollow utopian multiculturalism, Saini Kallat’s Synonyms reflect the strange paradox and delicate tension inherent in this nationalist credo; their trembling surfaces register difficult lessons about democracy, secularism and citizenship. The unstable formal relationship between image part and image whole serves as metaphor for the increasingly fraught relationship between the individual and the collective, the citizen-subject and the nation-state, the regions and the center. Like in these portraits of its citizens, which do not completely cohere, resolution is never absolute in a democracy like India and consensus is at best temporary and ephemeral, the result of constant and always contested negotiation.
The stamps in these portraits bear the names of those officially registered as missing, from victims of the natural disasters, riots and accidents that regularly afflict the Indian populace, to those whose disappearances are inexplicable but no less distressing, who have willfully absconded or been forcefully abducted. While Saini Kallat’s earlier experiments with portraiture reproduced anonymous images from the Internet these works are based on photographs of migrant workers, many children, encountered in the artist’s Mumbai neighborhood, shot by the artist herself. Despite the somewhat impersonal passport photograph format, the occasional coyly tilted head or cheeky grin betrays the warm intimacy of this face-to-face encounter. Their collective title, Synonym, suggests a series of equivalences: between the linguistic, ethnic, religious, caste and cultural differences registered in the variously scripted names, between those named and those pictured, between the missing person and the migrant worker. The missing, in Saini Kallat’s own words, are those who have “slipped out of the radar of human communication, [have been] thrown off the social safety net.” The migrant worker’s existence is similarly precarious; displacement from their rural homes severs their traditional bonds of kith, kin and community, resulting in a gnawing instability and deep sense of loss. And like the missing, the migrant workers are rendered invisible; they are the dark under belly of the metropolis, the hidden and exploited work force whose unacknowledged labor is, however, integral to its proper functioning. While the Synonyms rightly monumentalize these marginalized figures, their portraits remain visually liminal, their faces appearing and disappearing like phantasms.
The name as marker of the subaltern citizen reappears in the photographic series and sculptural installation entitled Lunar Notes (2008). Arranged in an incomplete grid, the photographs document instances of ‘love-graffiti’ scrawled and etched on the often ornately carved but decaying walls of historic monuments across India. To the authorities that manage these heritage sites, the inscriptions are a nuisance, small acts of vandalism that collectively threaten the integrity of national treasures. One tongue-in-cheek image includes a clearly ignored Archaeological Survey of India sign pleading, “Thank you for not scratching on the monument.” Drawn to these scrawls for their tender transposition of the private emotion of love into the public sphere of history, Saini Kallat began systematically documenting examples encountered on her travels. Seemingly neutral documents, these photographs, however, reveal a profound tension between the master narrative of Indian history and literature and the quotidian experiences and desires of its subaltern citizens. Examples of a spontaneous populism, little acts of romantic resistance to eventual historical absence, the inscriptions, through the most human of emotions, register a powerful need to index subaltern presence by literally etching one’s name onto the architectural edifices of history.
Inspired by the photographs, the accompanying sculptural installation is a curtain comprised of strings of variously sized beads of bonded marble, that, from a distance suggest the silhouette of the Taj Mahal. Along with the names of the everyday Romeos and Juliets documented in the photographs, the beads bear those of great lovers from the annals of Indian myth and history: the star-crossed Punjabi lovers Heer and Ranjha, immortalized in verse by Waris Shah; the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his queen Mumtaz, the monument’s patron and muse respectively. An architectural masterpiece and an enduring memorial to lost love, the Taj is increasingly a visual cliché for India, repeated ad nauseam on travel guides, tourist brochures and snapshots, and kitsch souvenirs. The installation seems to acknowledge this dual status, and like the Synonyms, uses optical resolution as metaphor. The image of the monolithic Taj is literally dispersed, rendered fragile and fugitive like the love it symbolizes, a fleeting vision increasingly difficult to resolutely grasp.
If the Synonyms and Lunar Notes both rely on the limits of optical resolution to address the indeterminate status of hallowed national myths, Saini Kallat’s other recent work focuses on the always uncertain relationship between India and Pakistan, a conflict that, despite repeated efforts at peace, appears irresolvable. Saini Kallat unites work in diverse media through her iconographical repetition of the form of the still-disputed territory of Occupied Kashmir, a shape, that for the artist, becomes an “emblem of human folly,” and carries with it a powerful traumatic legacy that continues to taint Subcontinental geo-politics. The brazen terrorist attacks that besieged Mumbai for three devastating days in late November, and appear to have derailed attempts at peace between the two countries, are just the latest disheartening reminder of this.
In Crease/Crevice/Contour (2008), a series of ten photographs trace the shifting Line of Control (L.O.C.) between the newly independent India and Pakistan during their first war over the region of Kashmir. In each image, the specific contours of the conflict area at a particular stage of the conflagration – which lasted from October 1947 to December 1948, following on the heels of the devastation of Partition – is rubber-stamped onto a woman’s naked back. The form is composed of the names of signatories of a petition demanding the construction, at the Wagah-Attari border crossing, of a bilateral memorial to victims of Partition violence, such an official public acknowledgement of atrocities being a necessary first step to resolving deep-rooted traumas and achieving lasting peace in the region. By visually equating territory and the female body, Saini Kallat extends the popular concept of Bharat Mata or Mother India, of the nation personified as a nurturing and self-sacrificing Mother Goddess, a patriarchal archetype of Indian femininity that emerged in nationalist discourse in the late Nineteenth century. However, her analogy introduces a critique. Stamped in blood red ink, the changing cluster of names resembles an embarrassing birthmark or a malignant skin lesion, growing or shrinking with the shifting frontline. As a “residual scar” of an ongoing territorial dispute, one that has cast a lingering shadow of violence and mistrust over the Subcontinent’s post-colonial history, the form symbolically marks the fact that women inadvertently bear the brunt of such hostilities, their bodies literally invaded, defiled, occupied and exchanged, like pieces of land. During the dark days of Partition, on both sides of the newly drawn border, women were abducted and forcibly converted, raped and murdered by strangers as a show of strength, and killed by their own to safeguard so-called ‘family honor.’
Through exaggerations in scale and symbol, the playfully absurd sculptural installation White Heat (2008) dramatizes the frustration that characterizes attempts to resolve the conflict. Perched atop an ironing board is an oversized iron, its flat surface encrusted with ornate weapon-like projections that render it useless, unable to smooth out the creases in a cloth repeatedly embroidered with the form of the contested territory. Embedded within the weapons are the characteristic rooftops of religious monuments – a mosque dome, a temple shikhara, a church steeple – a gesture that acknowledges how religion is cynically, strategically and divisively wielded by power hungry politicians on both sides, hindering all attempts at peace. In contrast, Silt of Seasons (2008), the artist’s first video installation, appears more optimistic. Projected onto sand shaped into the form of Occupied Kashmir, recalling Saini Kallat’s previous use of rangoli or ritual floor patterns, are the names of signatories of a recent peace petition. Each name, carefully spelt out in letters of sand, appears momentarily, eventually blowing away, its transience reflecting the fragility of the peace process. Yet the piece balances elegy with hope; each erased name is promptly replaced by that of another peace advocate, the desire for and commitment to peace enduring, renewing itself with each new name.
Displaying these varied works, both in subject matter and medium, together under the exhibition title “Subject to Change Without Notice” is more than mere acknowledgement of the paralyzing bureaucratic inconsistency that has long characterized everyday life in India. Rather, the indeterminate and precarious status it describes is a Cassandra-like warning issued by the artist to her fellow citizens. While India might be shining bright as it triumphantly emerges onto the world stage as a political and economic superpower, its status as such will always be tenuous until it resolves the specters that haunt it, until it acknowledges and grapples with the profound trauma that accompanied its independence and its enduring legacy of violence, and it achieves equal access to the rights and freedoms promised under the Republic’s constitution for all its citizens. Until then India might just remain beyond resolution.
New York, December 2008