Big Bong Theory: Ranjani Shettar’s High Tide For A Blue Moon

Ranjani Shettar’s sculptures are fantastical, beautiful stuff and her show at Bhau Daji Lad Museum (on till February 19th) is one of the loveliest you’ll see in a while. Considering how baroque the whole place is, you may think that pretty much anything will look good inside Bhau Daji Lad. I seriously doubt it. Aside from the fact that I have seen shows that haven’t looked spectacular in there, it’s also not easy for contemporary art to hold its own in the middle of all that gilted glory. But when artists are able to use the space, it works spectacularly, as it did in the case of Ranjani Shettar’s High Tide For A Blue Moon. My only grouse with the Museum is its policy of not allowing photography. But thanks to the help of a few kids, given due credit in column below, I have one smuggled photo. The images in this post are courtesy Bhau Daji Lad Museum.
This column was published in today’s DNA.

Ranjani Shettar at Bhau Daji Lad

There was a queue outside Bhau Daji Lad Museum and it snaked all the way out of the grand doorway, down the steps and halfway to the main gate. That wasn’t the worst of it. It was a queue of about 100 schoolkids — adorable munchkins in uniform with a formidable capacity for cacophony. As I waited for the line of children to snake its way into the museum, I overheard animated chirrups about tiffin, pranks and something about ice cream. This, I realised, was going to be my soundtrack as I saw Ranjani Shettar’s exhibition titled High Tide For a Blue Moon at Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Shettar has never shown in Mumbai before, but her sculptural installations have charmed critics and connoisseurs all over the world. They’re both strange and poetic, touching delicately upon myriad references and traditions. Friends who have seen Shettar’s sculptures describe her work as meditative. I imagined myself meditating on art while surrounded by 100, energised-by-lunch kids. I groaned, grit my teeth and walked in.
As it turns out, I, like most adults, underestimated the children. They raced in and chattered while peering into the different permanent museum exhibits while I walked around the curious, skeletal  form of the work titled “High Tide For A Blue Moon”. The sculpture is made from wood from a coffee plant that has been coated with automobile paint with a metallic glint. My reverie about the way Shettar uses simple material to complicate our understanding of the organic, the fantastical and the man-made; about how the urbane and nature were fused into one, was soon interrupted.
“My brother’s bike is made of this stuff,” said a voice from somewhere around my hip.
“No, it isn’t,” disagreed another voice from the same height above sea level.
“Yes, it is. It’s the same colour as his bike.”
“Stupid, it’s made of wood. See?”
Voice number two was clearly more perceptive and reading the note with details of “High Tide…” stuck near the sculpture. While the two of them struggled to read the word “automobile”, I scurried to the first floor, where Shettar’s exhibition continued.
Bhau Daji Lad Museum has three spacious, high-ceilinged rooms on the first floor that are contemporary art’s domain. Walk into the rooms and you will catch your breath. You could begin with “Lagoon”, which is a tumbling installation made of laquered wooden beads in shades of aqua and purple, and move into the middle room where “Tunes For A Winter Morning” and “Heliotropes” seem to grow out of the museum’s walls. “Tunes…” is white and looks fragile enough to snap even though it’s made of metal wires wrapped in muslin. In “Heliotropes”, made when Shetter was recovering from a surgery, vulcanised latex snakes around in a fleshy tangle that is the colour of clotted blood.
Then there’s Shettar’s magical sculpture “Scent of a Sound”, which turns a non-descript, white-walled room into something out of a dream. Metal wrapped with muslin create immense but delicate works that are shaped like leaves, flowers and buds. They float in the room. Wispy shadows dance on the walls. It’s like entering fairyland. Any moment now, I thought, Puck would peek out from one of the floating sculptures.
“Wow! So beautiful!” someone whispered.
I turned around. There were a clutch of kids, all wide-eyed and transfixed by the sight of Shettar’s gorgeous work.
“What’s it made of?” one child asked me.
I told him Shettar wrapped muslin around wires, stretched them into shape and then put tamarind-kernel powder paste on the cloth to harden the material. Laquer added the gloss that gave the flowery piece its pearly gleam.
“Wow!” he said.
I nodded. All of us just stood and stared.
I took out my phone to take a photo. One of the museum’s security guards growled and told me photos are not allowed. A little disappointed, I sighed. Suddenly, there was some chittering. A few of the children huddled around the guard and started asking him something. He looked frazzled and looked around for a teacher, some assistance, anything that would stop the chittering. The little boy who had been as wowed as me caught my eye, winked and gestured to me to take my photo. I grinned and clicked.

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