Review: Sheba Chhachhi’s Evoking the Pause

This review was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Water Show

Given the limited number of respectable galleries and art spaces in the city, it would be unfair to say there’s been a glut of Sheba Chhachhi exhibitions this year. However, considering that the number of solo shows Chhachhi had in Mumbai until 2011 was zero, two exhibitions in a year seems to verge on over-exposure.

We tend to be impatient viewers, hungrily hunting for novelty and ever ready to dismiss repetitions. Chances are there will be some who will walk through “Evoking the Pause” at the Bhau Daji Lad museum and complain about how similar much of it is to “Luminarium: A Prelude“. It’s true that there are similarities in technique in a number of the works but be patient and look beyond the obvious resemblances to understand the stories that have inspired Chhachhi’s art. They are poignant and simple in their melancholia, notwithstanding Chhachhi’s love for phrases like “beyond normative boundaries”.

“Evoking the Pause” is a mini-retrospective of Chhachhi’s works from the past eight years. Unlike Jitish Kallat, who turned the experience of seeing an exhibition into a treasure hunt, Chhachhi has helpfully drawn up a map in which the works of art are pointed out clearly. Tucked into different nooks of the museum are photographs, videos and installations. Chhachhi’s work is striking in its sophistication but the emphasis she places on traditional crafts and lingering mythologies connects her art to the mission of the Bhau Daji Lad, which is committed to preserving the history of local communities. She’s developed a distinctive and unique medium for herself, one that uses photography, video, found images, lightboxes and screens to create a modern version of the pre-cinema magic lantern.

Take the placement of “Ganga’s Daughters” as an example. These powerful portraits of women ascetics are placed in a room that has cabinets full of figurines of male sadhus striking freakish yoga poses. On one wall are nineteenth-century paintings of demure Indian ladies and they seem positively wilted next to Chhachhi’s vibrant, saffron-clad women. The installation “Mistri ke Haath” shows the hands of a man who made tiles. How ironic then that the work lies prostrate before the bust of David Sassoon, who we can thank for the beautifully-tiled watchtower in the nearby Jijamata Udyan.

Chhachhi’s faux books—they are actually lightboxes—are curious, beautiful works. They look like books but you can’t flip through the pages. It’s chilling to think this might be the future of the book: a static beautiful thing, fixedly open to tell only one story. Fortunately, Chhachhi’s stories are worth remembering and re-reading. Her books use both traditional artistic techniques and modern technology to talk about issues related to both the past and the present. “Ultanag”, which shows the story of Krishna ridding Yamuna of a serpent’s venom, is a myth about reducing the river’s pollution, which is precisely what is needed today.

Our favourite book was on one of the piles in the installation titled “The Water Diviner”. One page showed an image from a miniature painting of Radha and Krishna on the banks of the Yamuna. Instead of painted waters, however, Chhachhi has a photograph of the Yamuna today, festooned with garbage. On the facing page is a description of a pristine forest. It is interrupted by a news report about 40 men beating up women in a bar, in an effort to safeguard Indian tradition.

The highlight of “Evoking the Pause” is meant to be the two installations on the first floor of the museum. Both fill the building’s enormous rooms with shadowy darkness. “Neelkanth: Poison/Nectar” shows a miniature cityscape made of small aluminium towers. At the heart of this “city” is a screen that shows a neck that seems to be constantly swallowing. “Neelkanth” refers to the myth of how Shiva swallowed all the poison that rose out of the sea during the Samudra Manthan. It is eye-catching but the references feel too forced and the images of garbage repetitive. “The Water Diviner”, however, is an enchanting installation. Piles of newspapers, files and books crowd a room to recreate the sense of being dowsed in water. Blue light casts strange shadows and on one wall, a video shows specks swirling in water. The specks become a swimming elephant. We’re willing to bet someone will be booking a holiday to the Andamans the moment they leave the show.

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