The Battlefield is the Mind, 2002

© Nancy Adajania

I propose to read Reena Saini Kallat’s recent paintings, which are overtly political, as a conversation between the visualities of fate and faith. The tension between these two interrelated concepts has been dramatized most strongly in the Indian public sphere after independence. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the citizens of post-colonial India harbored the hope that they could erase the lines of fate (inheritance by birth, caste, religion and regional location) and replace them with the power of faith in the secular icons of Progress, Technology, and the Nation-state. However, by the 1990s, various political and economic upheavals produced a new political configuration, under which this secular faith was eroded and substituted with a fate determined by religion and ethnicity, and articulated through processes of exclusion and discrimination.

Two visual tropes, those of the hand and the flag, recur in Saini’s works. The hand appears both a delta of fate-lines as well as an instrument of labor that could overcome those lines. The tricolor is portrayed as a mnemonic of the nation which once stood for sacrifice, peace, and fertility, and also as a nation fragmented today by divisive political and religious forces. In the paintings, the flag assumes various forms, floating across and tri-coloring a range of symbolic objects that stand for the nation. It hues a diseased branch operated on a surgeon’s table, or dyes a nation-tree thirsting for water, or tints the landscape across which a dhobi carries his bundle of soiled clothes.

In Braiding the Line, Saini tries to reclaim the tricolor from ceremonialism. Instead of an avaricious politician, she chooses a subaltern figure, a fisherman to weave a tricolor with his robust hands: elephants and peacocks, Gandhiji, Maulana Azad, and Vinobha Bhave are held together in this net of succulent vines. The most intriguing detail in this painting is a large watch on the fisherman’s wrist, counterposed with Kalki, the tenth and future avatar of the god Vishnu (the preserver of cosmic order and righteousness), which is placed as a pictorial notation in the corner of the painting. This icon with a white horse’s head, which looks like a folkloric toy stands for a utopian future where disorder will be replaced with the order. Saini knits this narrative with a poetics of time. Three layers of temporality co-exist in this triptych: chronological time symbolized 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.

The artist’s formal treatment complements her construction of contemporary mythologies. She uses decoration deliberately, as a contextual strategy and artistic choice to compose her pictorial space. Here decoration does not remain mere surface ornamentation but becomes an integral part of the image-making vocabulary. For example, the net of vines, which is the central image of Braiding the Line. Forms an arabesque. On examination, it reveals a coded significance, uniting the worlds of animals, birds, humans, and demigods, proposing itself as an image of the universe. Also, the underlayer of cement primer makes the ochre-gold acrylic surface look gritty and holds the tendency towards the decorative in counterpoint. Thus, Saini’s critical approach saves the paintings from looking like a simulacrum of kitsch. She manages to avoid this danger by rendering some of her forms with intentional crudity and even defacing them, so that, in her hands, kitsch becomes an active ingredient and not merely a fashionable form that appeals to current taste in the art world.

Another strategy, which Saini employs successfully, is that of jumbling seemingly different contexts, as in PULSE 30, where folkloric representations of the Dasha-avatar iconography (the ten avatars of Vishnu) are commingled with images from natural history and also with various portrayals of subaltern occupational types. This is an unexpected move because we can establish a correspondence between the pattern of the incarnations and the graphs of the evolution of life on earth (consider, for example, the parallel between the Matsya-avatar, Vishnu as Cosmic Fish, and the image of aquatic species). But there is no such easy correspondence between subaltern artisans such as the knife-grinder and the carpenter, and their neighbor in Saini’s grid, Vishnu as the prince Rama. There is certain friction between the images at these points.

This device of jumbling the iconic with the subaltern echoes a cultural phenomenon that we could call the haphazard democracy of street culture, where heroes of all kinds, film actors and actresses, politicians, gods, goddesses and pop gurus co-exist. The difference is that Saini introduces the excluded and marginalized inhabitant of the street, the itinerant artisan or the daily-wage laborer, into the picture. By adding the subaltern artisans to this pantheon of heroes, Saini produces a new democratic order, one in which the artisan is elevated to iconic status and portrayed with the same kind of valency as the god-king. But we are not allowed to forget that the discriminating powers of fate still operate. We find that this work of 30 small-sized paintings is framed by the images of two open palms, their fate-lines pulsating like naked wounds. And yet are these not the hands that can make a revolution?

Appropriately, on looking closer, we find that images of the subaltern heroes are framed by candles. And although the figures look layered and even blurred at times, they exert a compelling presence. Saini surrounds their defaced bodies with a halo, provoking a dialogue between the ordinary and the auratic. The carpenter is made to look like a saint with a liquid yellow halo and the avatar of Parashuram, the fierce ax-warrior, is domesticated, given the look of an everyday guardian deity of the household.

This play between the ordinary and auratic is most strongly dramatized in the paintings Sleeping River- Inhale and Sleeping River-Exhale, which show a soft-porn image of a woman (sourced from the Net) and an icon of the mother goddess from the popular cultic material. In the former painting, the woman is shown as an epic figure in a deep sleep, her vagina wounded; streams of blood camouflaged as red vines gush over her open thighs. Against this profane image is juxtaposed the sacred figure of the cosmic woman (sourced from an 18th century illuminated manuscript concerning the cosmic process of dissolution and reabsorption, pralaya). The cosmic woman contains within herself the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. Again, an arabesque of vines is used to connect these two disparate elements. And in this net of vines float offering of dismembered parts of the human body made of wax.

In Sleeping River-Exhale, the woman is shown as a pile of flesh on offer. Since her head is cut by the top of the frame, we only see a part of her eyes and are not sure whether she is looking at, or away from, the angry image of Kali as it manifests itself. Saini’s representation of the female body takes many forms in both these paintings: as a commodity in pornography, as a votive wax offering made to show gratitude for healed afflictions, and as an icon. To create a strong visual impact, Saini counterposes the inevitable crudity of the pornographic figures with the more stylized beauty of the sacred icons and symbols of fertility.

I would suggest that as an artist, Saini’s primary concern is the status of the symbol in a charged political environment, where it is the discourse of the symbol rather than the discourse of the text that determines the fate of individuals, parties, and ideologies. She draws our attention to the manufactured nature of these symbols by exposing their machinery, through her 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 do 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 criminalized politicians who grapple for control over India’s public sphere today. The forces ranged against an individual artist’s project such as this one are vast, but Reena Saini Kallat is determined to keep a window of awareness open. The impulse of her work will surely achieve its full maturity in the years to come.