THE UNDEAD PAST by Nancy Adajania


The installation of Reena Saini Kallat’s Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings) (2013) at Bombay’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum involved a struggle reminiscent of a Roman siege. In the video documenting the process, we look on as a truck parked outside the museum disgorges hundreds of outsize rubber stamps held together by steel links. Scores of workers tighten the links and lay them out, forming a giant spiderweb on the ground. A crane is then brought into action and the workers raise and maneuver a system of pulleys, swaying and being swept off the ground as they do, to try and fasten the web—which weighs more than a ton—to the facade of the late- 19th-century building, which began life as the Victoria & Albert Museum.

During the last decade, as part of a curatorial program instituted by the museum, several contemporary artists have made interventions within the institution, often entering into dialogue with its 19th century collection of dioramas, superbly crafted artifacts, clay figures denoting community types, and collection of rare books, lithographs, maps, and miniature

paintings. This was the first time, however, that an artist had staged a monumental interface with the exterior of the building, and thus with its architecture.

The superimposition of an orb-like organic architecture—with steel and resin standing in for a spider’s fine silk strands—over the lapidary symmetry of a Palladian architectural edifice might seem bizarre at first. Why would Saini Kallat wish to disarrange a facade whose neoclassical lines invoke beauty, restraint, and poise, especially since the museum was freshly restored after decades of neglect and decay in 2008? While Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings) may well be a spectacular feat, it also conveys a deep melancholia, reminding us that the restorer’s gold leaf and the cobwebs of time will always be in a contention, and that the linearity of an ideology of progress can always be stopped in its tracks by an alternative, cyclic, circling conception of time in which every turn could be a return, a re-turn. The web reminds us that the past is neither alive nor dead, but, like Schrödinger’s cat, undead.

This undead past often flashes up in moments of perceived danger, as during ethnic, religious, or linguistic conflicts, as the talisman of a complex inheritance that has been obscured by the polarization of differences. As we draw closer to the facade, we see that Saini Kallat’s web is not just a universal symbol of time and decayit is a specific wager on such a past. The rubber stamps constituting the web carry the colonial- era names of many of Bombay’s streets, which were changed after independence in 1947.


The politics of naming has been a constant and consistent preoccupation in Saini Kallat’s work. Her research folders overflow with names of nowhere people: the missing and the dead, political refugees, the ecologically destitute, and the mentally unhinged, registered in police identikits. Or the somewhere people: those who live on the wing beat of hope, filing

peace petitions to promote amity between India and Pakistan, the two rival nation-states that were carved out of British India in 1947 and have since been locked in a politics of antagonism and mutual aggression. The artist has turned these names into hundreds of rubber stamps, which she assembles unit by unit, sometimes to construct portraits of anonymous citizens or an image of the national flag, and at other times to depict how women’s bodies have historically been branded with territorial claims and counterclaims.

A rubber stamp is a mark of authorization and official recognition; it is meant to carry the imprimatur of govern mentality. Paradoxically, however, when the name of a citizen is reduced to a stamp, she becomes a government subject with the totality of her emotional, relational, and cultural complexity being repressed. What is stamped out, then, is all that makes for human subjectivity; in its place, the rubber stamp legislates a subject hood. In Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings), the stamps that bear Bombay’s street names invoke the colonial past. For instance, Bazaar Gate Street and Churchgate Street were named after the gates of the Bombay Fort, which protected the British outpost but also demarcated the nascent city between the “white” colonial town and the “black” native town. And Hornby Vellard—today called Lala Lajpat Rai Marg—was once a reminder of the reclamation process initiated by the British to link Bombay Island to Worli in the late 18th century.

At first glance, the gesture of renaming Bombay’s monuments, roads, and even the museum and the city itself attests to a postcolonial nationstate’s desire to decolonize the past. Such renaming serves to erase the memory of empire, as coded into everyday life, and replace it with a set of reference points that pertain to the nationalist struggle, its key figures, and the figures who inspired it. In this spirit, the names of British rulers, viceroys, governors, and administrators have been wiped out and super scribed with the names of Indian leaders, thinkers, and entrepreneurial pioneers. But as the ecumenical ideology of nationalism that dominated India during the 1950s yielded before the parochialism of regional movements during the 1960s, the process of decolonization came to be veined, not only with nationalist sentiment, but also with a self-assertive parochialism.

In this context, we must recall that Bombay’s name was changed to Mumbai in the mid-1990s by a right-wing state government comprising the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. Members of the latter party had been involved in the Bombay riots of 1992, which left hundreds of members of the Muslim minority dead or homeless, and plunged the metropolis into an unprecedented period of disarray for several weeks. The artist produces an important temporal disjuncture by invoking the undead past as an overwhelming presence in a contested and unresolved postcolonial present.


As I choose to read it, Saini Kallat’s gigantic cobweb, unleashed on the museum facade, engages with the drama of time that is staged within the museum, and in the process, it counterposes itself to the logic of colonial modernity. The industrial revolution produced the phenomenon of clock time, a linear notion of time that regimented patterns of work and play, activity and rest. Clock time in a colony inevitably became symbolic of colonial control, of the expansion of industry and empire. In Mumbaiche Varnan (1863)—the first written biography of the city, composed by a Goan immigrant Govind Narayan who wrote in Marathi—the author’s imagination is seized by the sudden proliferation of clocks in homes and public places. Narayan’s visceral account of a new form of consciousness produced by an insistent clock time could be seen as an oblique allusion to the colonial condition, in which the desirable logic of progress is inextricably linked to the detested condition of enslavement. To a colonial subject such as Narayan—who was, in Antonio Gramsci’s sense, an organic intellectual— the challenge was twofold. First, he had to reconcile his genuine admiration for European-style civilization, with its amenities and protocols, with his regret at the lapsed state of his compatriots. Secondly, with the shadow of the censor never far away, he had to deploy a set of literary devices, including allusion and metaphor, to couch any observations that might be construed by the authorities as critical of the colonial regime. Thus, his meditation on clock time:

“Clocks and watches are so commonplace in Mumbai that it would be difficult to find even a third of their number in the rest of India. Some years ago a king commissioned a clock as big a temple sanctum that plays tunes using a variety of instruments. To mark every hour, half hour and quarter, figurines of soldiers emerge to spar with each other… Many of the rich people of this city have similar clocks in their houses… Even the ordinary people of Mumbai use clocks and watches, and in some areas, washermen and barbers can be seen sporting them… In public places such as temples, mosques, hospitals and offices, one can always hear clocks ticking, so that even the poor are conscious of the passage of time in all its divisions.” ²

Even as a new secular theology of time (“a clock as big as a temple sanctum”) was transforming the city and its people, the collections deposited within the Victoria & Albert Museum—today’s Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which opened to the public in 1872—were programmed to be removed from the circulations of time. Over the decades, they would come to inhabit a world outside time, an eternal Bombay of the late 19th century, where the city’s communities would remain forever costumed in their traditional garb, forming an apparently cosmopolitan ensemble yet demarcated from one another by ethnographically fixed identities, defined as “natives” or “foreigners,” each embodying an ethnic or sectarian type.

Incidentally, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad’s original dioramas and a number of the clay figures on display were made by the students of the J. J. School of Art, which was established by the British colonial regime in the 1850s, and where the artist herself studied in the early 1990s. According to the historian Tapati Guha-Thakurta, the students who studied at the colonial schools of art were caught in a double bind. On the one hand, they were encouraged to learn from the works of the great European masters and on the other hand, at a practical level, they found themselves reduced to plying the jobs of drawing masters or engravers, or draughtsmen or lithographers or supplying Indian popular pictures to indigenous commercial markets. “These men were artists in terms of the individual status, the respectable careers, and professional success they were acquiring. But the Romantic or Avant-garde notions of the artist, with its reified self-image, remained outside their bounds.” ³

To make things worse, George Birdwood, the curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum (now Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum), had famously denied the existence of the “fine arts” in India, while extoling the virtues of its decorative arts. More than a century separates the dioramas of the J. J. students at the Victoria & Albert Museum from Saini Kallat’s Untitled (Cobweb/Crossings) on Dr. Bhau Daji Lad’s museum facade. Of course the predicament and urgencies of a post-colonial Indian artist are completely different from that of a colonial one and yet it is remarkable to see how a J J alumna has literally ambushed the museum facade. The churning time embodied by Saini Kallat’s gigantic cobweb reactivates the energies of identity, memory, interaction, and complicity that are frozen by the essentialism of the ethnographic display.

At another level, the spider web is also a cosmic image: the most recent manifestation of an archetype that has recurred at various points in Saini Kallat’s oeuvre. In Braiding the Line, a painting she made in 2002, this archetype appears as a fisherman’s net, trawling in a vast and variegated freight of flora and fauna and political and religious symbols, unifying the diverse materials and impulses of the universe. 4