Why I might have to file Sherlock under “guilty pleasures”

I confess, I don’t think I would have actually ended up writing this one if Mihir Fadnavis hadn’t written this piece on Sherlock. But reading how happy he was with season 3 made me… well, it made me write about 2,000 words. Sigh. An edited version of this is up on Firstpost.


If you’re a fan of BBC’s Sherlock, a modern reimagining of the fictional “consulting detective” created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the late 19th century, then you remember seeing the show’s first episode with tingling clarity. I watched it because I was bored, nothing else that was new looked interesting, and because I like murder mysteries.

Remembering the nonchalance with which I’d started watching Sherlock is amusing because three episodes later, the first season was over, and I’d turned into a rabid Sherlock junkie. Waiting for the second season to air, I re-read the original stories, devoured blog posts, scuttled through analyses on Tumblr, and came very close to counting down to the premiere. As much as I adore Benedict  Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, it wasn’t the appeal of a man with otter doppelgangers and his hobbity partner that made me a fan of the show. It was Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s writing.

The stories in Sherlock were dazzling: intelligent, contemporary, original and yet full of the geeky glee of fan fiction. The sharp repartee and meticulous plotting in the stories were matched by the extraordinary care invested in the production design, masterful direction and superb acting. Simply put, Sherlock was the cleverest detective show I’d seen in ages. The writing was good enough for me to not grumble (much) about how Moffat and Gattis trussed up a fabulous woman character from the Sherlock Holmes canon – Irene Adler – into a damsel in distress who must be saved by Sherlock. (They may have done the same to the unnamed woman shooter who kills Milverton in “The Last Bow”, by making her Mary Watson, the assassin who fails to make a kill shot, in the third season.)

Cut to January 2014. Sherlock aired on Indian television before it reached America, much to my delight. The last episode of Sherlock‘s third season came to a close last week, ending with a twisty flourish that is intended to keep Tumblr buzzing for the next few months: Jim Moriarty is alive.

It was a meta moment: Moriarty appeared looking like one of the gifs that are so popular on Tumblr, on tv screens that were being seen on tv screens. “Did you miss me?” he asked. And all I could think of was the climax of Coolie, when Kader Khan kept shooting Amitabh Bachchan, but wrapped up in a holy (and blindingly shiny) chador, the latter just would not die.

For those who haven’t inherited a legacy of heroes who defy death on a regular basis, no doubt it’s deeply exciting to figure out how first Irene Adler, then Sherlock and now Moriarty can outwit death. (Someone please write a piece offering Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s CAPS-LOCK-SPEAKING Death’s opinion on these mortals who evade him.) But for us Bollywood-wallahs, this death-defying behaviour is not cool, it’s just filmi. It was at that moment, as season three ended and part of me wept at how I need season four *now*, another part of me wondered whether it was time to file Sherlock under “guilty pleasure” in my mind 1BHK (not all of us can have palaces).

There were many amazing moments and gripping performances in the third season of Sherlock, but when it came to story, every episode was weak in comparison to all of season one and most of season two. The dialogue still crackled and the modern makeovers were interesting, but the focus of the writing was on fandom and tricks, rather than story.

hair-ruffleMost of the first episode, “The Empty Hearse”, turned Tumblr posts trying to explain Sherlock’s death at the end of season two into beautifully televised scenes (complete with a Sherlock hair ruffle that was quite obviously meant to become a trending topic). A mystery was tacked on at the end in a half-hearted rush. As introductions to arch villains go, the last scene of “The Empty Hearse” was a pretty bland one. Worse, the failure to solve this mystery didn’t seem to needle Sherlock.

The second episode was an ode to the bromance between Sherlock and John. It contained sprinkles of past mysteries and a brief appearance by Irene Adler, who was established as an erotic distraction while Mycroft and Watson featured as aides or helpful hecklers in Sherlock’s head. As a story, “The Sign of Three” was better plotted than “The Empty Hearse”, with the central mystery unfurling cleverly across the wandering events of the episode. However, it lacked the tight, ominous quality that characterised the show. This was Sherlock in rom-com territory.

Finally, there was the finale: “His Last Vow”, which played on Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes’s final case, “The Last Bow”. Shuttling as it did between the revelation of Mary’s actual identity and the extent of information at Charles Augustus Magnussen’s command, the episode left the viewer with many questions. For one, we only learn that Mary has assumed an identity and is probably foreign; we don’t find out who she was or why she came to England. Mary’s story distracted attention from Magnussen, who didn’t really get to flaunt his evil powers much, barring the episode’s brilliant opening sequence. That he comes across as villainous is more a testament to the acting than the story. While in the first two seasons, there was a subtle but strong live wire connecting the different mysteries to Moriarty, Magnussen doesn’t enjoy that kind of arch villain characterisation in season three.

I’m not good at coining hashtags, but here are the two that sum up season three for me: #SherlockFails and #Where’sMyBro? Sherlock spends more time getting things wrong rather than reaching the right conclusions in this season. Unsolved mysteries, Mary’s identity and intent, Janine’s vindictiveness, Magnussen’s mind palace – the catalogue of things Sherlock doesn’t anticipate runs long. He’s outwitted repeatedly and it’s a punishing blow to Sherlock’s past brilliance that a kid is able to spot connections that he misses. (Who figures out the connection between guardsman’s murder and what’s being plotted at John and Mary’s wedding? Not Sherlock.)

Ultimately, Sherlock is a pawn – he’s not the prize that Magnussen wants; Mycroft is. There are few moments sadder than when Sherlock realises he was completely wrong about Magnussen and his method. And if all this wasn’t bad enough, there’s a crack addict who can deduce almost as well as Sherlock can, which only serves to make Sherlock seem less unique and therefore less awesome.

Meanwhile, mushy first-man speeches notwithstanding, there’s a yawning emotional distance between Sherlock and John. In the first two seasons, they weren’t shown indulging in male bonding exercises as they do in this last season, but there was an easy synergy between the two of them as they worked together. This time, they were drinking together and talking about one another’s feelings, but ironically, they’re strangely disjointed as a crime-solving duo. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the episode is when Sherlock claws himself back to life because he refuses to leave John with “that wife”. But when it comes to dealing with Magnussen, the two flounder, unable to aid one another and helplessly watching the other being played.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots to love in the third season and I am already suffering from withdrawal symptoms (why do you think I’m writing all this?). The season contains delicious little hints that you piece together later. Like, for instance, the scene from the second episode, when Sherlock read the best wishes sent to John and Mary by those who couldn’t attend their wedding. One was from someone called Cam, who sent Mary “oodles of love” and wished her family could have seen this day. When Charles Augustus Magnussen was introduced at the start of episode three, my first reaction was “Omg, it wasn’t Cam, but CAM!”, followed by frantic YouTubing for that precise moment from episode two, staring unblinkingly at how disturbed Mary is at the mentions of CAM and her family.

(I’m not the only one who thought of this, in case you think my mind1BHK deserves a cameo on Sherlock.)

Magnussen, played by Lars Mikkelsen, is a fantastic villain. He’s cold, clinical and intensely slimy, which is quite an acting feat when you consider how delicious Mikkelsen is without the trappings of villainy.

Come on. Admit it. He's pretty darn hot.
Come on. Admit it. He’s pretty darn hot.

Magnussen obviously contains elements of Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch and the media’s power over people’s lives and opinions cast a long but faint shadow over the last episode of the third season. I kept remembering that unforgettable first episode of Black Mirror, which tackled the issue of media, power and politics with such chilling perfection. In “His Last Vow”, Magnussen is a wonderful character, but his story doesn’t do either him justice. Magnussen doesn’t just have a mind palace that rivals Sherlock’s, he has a media empire to turn anything he wants into the truth. He has news outlets at his command for any information he may want and if evidence can’t be procured against a target, Magnussen can create the evidence needs. That is way cooler, in an evil way, than Google Glass. Unfortunately, the episode just touches upon this theme, instead of exploring it.

In contrast to the purity of Magnussen’s evil is Ms Ambiguity herself, Mary Morstan. Amanda Abbington as Mary added a cheerful sprinkle of feisty femininity in the first two episodes. There were no laboured attempts at making hers a Strong Woman Character. She felt real and seemed the perfect complement to both Sherlock and John. By the end of the third episode, the only thing that we can be sure about, as far as Mary is concerned, is that she’s a woman. All the little moments that made us love her in the past now have a sinister edge to them. In “The Sign of Three”, it was cute how she was able to make both Sherlock and John think they were doing her a favour by going out to solve a case. Now, it comes across as expert manipulation. How do you trust someone who can manipulate Sherlock Holmes? Especially when she follows up nearly-killing him with gun-toting threats.

Sherlock later tells John they can trust Mary, but he doesn’t explain how “that wife” became an ally. Are we expected to forget that when she shot him, he was convinced the shot was meant to kill him? Sherlock’s tour de force in the mind palace is pivoted on him thinking that bullet is going to kill him. There’s never any doubt of this even though he later comes to the conclusion that this was Mary’s way of salvaging a tricky situation. However, don’t forget: the first thing he does after Mary pays him a visit in the hospital is leave, returning only after John knows the truth about Mary and will therefore be keeping an eye on her.

Mary is one of the two people – three, if you suspect Mycroft is always a few steps ahead of his little brother – who outwit Holmes repeatedly in the third season. What makes her more dangerous than Magnussen is that she’s alive, safe and the USB that was the only record of her past, labelled “A.G.R.A.” – am I the only one who’s hoping against hope that the Sherlock crew will descend upon north India when shooting the next season? – has been destroyed.

Of course, given Sherlock’s track record, maybe Magnussen will also pull a Lazarus on us and revive himself. But leaving that aside, Mary muddles the basic setup of the finale. Magnussen said there was no real archive and Mary is in possession of her files, so why was she bothering to kill him and why is Sherlock going after him? Not just that, given Mary was about to shoot Magnussen and not asking for a tour of his vaults, it seems she knew all the information was in Magnussen’s  mind palace. Why didn’t she drop Sherlock a hint? Is Mary connected to the Eastern European network of Moriarty’s that Sherlock was dismantling while pretending to be dead? Could it be a coincidence that when Mary and John aren’t on talking terms because John doesn’t trust her, there’s an assignment in Eastern Europe for Sherlock that Mycroft is certain will have him killed within six months? How curious that just when Mary has won back John’s trust, Moriarty appears on the telly and Sherlock doesn’t need to go to Eastern Europe anymore.

The endings of the first two seasons of Sherlock left viewers with questions of what would happen next. This time, Moffat and Gatiss have ended the season with an invitation to speculate what may have happened beyond the onscreen action. It’s lazier writing that seems to rely upon the frenzied interest of fans rather than the writers’ considerable skills.  Sherlock is the last show I thought would become a guilty pleasure; something that’s not really satisfying, but ends up being enjoyable despite obvious flaws. Then again, rumour has it that the next season will air around Christmas 2014 and that Irene Adler will be back. So maybe this is all an elaborate setup for the return of the old Sherlock, of acerbic wit and watertight plots. Until then, there’s Tumblr.



On Shilpa Gupta’s Someone Else

I’ve written about Shilpa Gupta’s new show, Someone Else, in my Sunday Guardian column. You can read it here. I love the dramatic headline: “Metallic library, books ablaze — Gupta shows art needs to be free”.

I enjoyed almost every work in Someone Else. Some made for decent pictures as well.

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Interview: Rohini Devasher

Unearthed another lovely interview, in which I learnt many things, like the idea that art is like science fiction and that there is such a thing as “video feedback”. Snippets of it are in the little profile I wrote of Rohini Devasher for the February issue of ELLE. Rohini, like Mridula, is one of our “transformers”.

A lot of your earlier work had a distinctly sci-fi quality to it. Were you inspired by science and science fiction?

I’ve been a huge fan of both scifi and fantasy since I was about 15 so I am certain that has coloured the way I look at things and the way I work. All these fantastic possible / probable / improbable pasts / presents / futures which draw you in. Science fiction in particular is a powerful imaginative tool and its keyword is ‘investigation’. It challenges established assumptions and forces you to turn what you think to be true on its head, because anything can be. It makes you ask the question “what if”?

For instance, a series of prints I did between 2007-2009 (Archetype and Chimera) began with an exploration of the botanical writings of the philosopher and poet JW Goethe  and plant morphologist Agnes Arber, who developed and enlarged upon his ideas. What interested me was their approach, which is holistic and looks at the relationships among parts; how they develop, and how they relate to the whole, and to the forms of other species. What resulted were these hybrid organics that float in a twilight world halfway between imagined and observed reality, strange denizens of a science fiction botanical garden.

What did you want to be as a child? Have your interests changed over the years? 

I don’t really remember wanting to be anything in particular. I always have been and still am very fascinated by all forms for archaeology, including paleontology. And I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut or at least find a way to see the Earth from space. But I think these interests have managed to become a part of my work now.

You went from painting (at the Delhi College of Art) to printmaking (at the Winchester School of Art). Why did you make that shift? Does painting still inform your practice?

I studied printmaking at the College of Art as well and I enjoyed it very much, my teacher there was Anupam Sud, an exceptional artist and one the very best teachers I have ever had. There was something about the possibilities inherent in repetition layering that was fascinating. And that process continues to be the basis for everything I do regardless of the media, video, drawing, print or audio. Drawing is still plays a very important role in my practice from the large site specific wall drawing, to the hybrid print and drawing works, the videos.

When you look back on your early work, how do you respond to it?

There’s a distance so I don’t judge those works too harshly.  That being said, there are some that should never have been!

From the series titled Arboreal.

You recently did a series that was black and white, with tree branches. In its starkness, it’s quite different from the more colourful works you’ve done before. What brought about this shift?

Arboreal or ‘relating to or resembling a tree’ both the video and the set of 20 prints are actually constructed from layers of video, in the case of the prints with still frames of video. I wanted to ‘draw’ with video both moving and still. The raw footage is derived from a process called “video feedback”, which is the equivalent of acoustic feedback.  With patience and certain amount of trial and error it is possible to explore a vast arena of spontaneous pattern generation, which mimics those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, cells, tree forms, bacteria, snowflakes…. They are not imposed from the outside in any way and are entirely self generated. A small selection of these forms have been layered to create this slowly-evolving, artificial construct which offers insights into the intricacy lurking within nature’s processes. With all my work I am deeply interested in the way form evolves, in the way form changes and grows in complexity. With Arboreal, what results is a digital forest, a greenhouse of possibilities.

Do you have any projects that you’re working on that you’d like to talk about?

My current research explores areas within the larger frame of astronomy. The first is a form of collective investigation with astronomers working towards an understanding of what has been termed ‘behavioural astronomy’. What draws them to the night sky? What sets them apart?

Second and more specifically, I am trying to chronicle, the obsessive subculture of the eclipse chasers—people whose lives have been transformed by what they see in the sky.  As an amateur astronomer myself, I am trying to explore the dual role of the artist as both ‘participant’ and ‘observer’. A significant part of this research was done during the ‘City as Studio’ Sarai Fellowship. I am hoping to take this project further next year.

What is it about art and being an artist that excites you?

The new possibilities it opens up, like good sci-fi.

Are there other media that you’re interested in?

As part of the Sarai residency, I began to work with audio, with histories, narratives and conversations. Sound is a very interesting media, it requires very different things of you and the uncertain and unknown is always exciting.

Notes: Death in a Rainforest, Minam Apang

This had to be a show I’d been looking forward to for years. I’ve seen Minam Apang’s art since her very first show (Peel, back in 2007) and while she hadn’t quite figured things out in those early works, it was plain to see there was something intriguing and distinctive in the way she conceived her paintings. War With the Stars was simply breathtaking. It was delicate, powerful and poetic. The swirling, go-with-the-flow chaos of Peel had teetered towards looking like a mess in parts. War With the Stars harnessed the energy of the dripping paint seen in Peel but the inky black lines were sharp, powerful and bold. The moved on her paper with a fluid decisiveness. Plus, Apang’s handiwork — whether in the drawings or in the little hanging bridges she crafted so meticulously — was impressive. Bottom line: War With the Stars was beautiful. Which is why Death in a Rainforest was a show that I’d been waiting for. After three years, what would Apang show? This (and I must say, they look much sharper on the computer than they did in real life. Yet another bit of evidence for my theory that artwork that compresses well — into a photo or for digital view — doesn’t work when you see it before you. But that’s just a working hypothesis of mine. Returning to Death in a Rainforest…):

These are not all the works but the selection is enough, as far as I’m concerned. There’s all sorts of techniques and cleverness at play in these works. Manual drawings are seamlessly meshed with digital prints. There must have been many stories in the drawings and prints that played upon the kind of illusions that can be created using the shapes and lines of things like a dissected bark, the shape of a skull, the form of a root, and so on. What you’re left asking are questions like, is that a puppy or a piece of ginger?

Unfortunately, there’s something about Death in a Rainforest that makes the works feel mechanical, which may have worked if the illusions that Apang created struck one as wonderfully clever. No such luck. They’re meticulously wrought but they’re not particularly intriguing. You could walk past them without casting a second glance.

At best, the carefully-done scribbles look like something you might just spot at a sight like Design Boom. A few of the works reminded me of the doodles that we;d lazily spawn during boring lectures in school. There were a multitude of fine lines in each piece but none of them felt delicate or evocative in the way that War With the Stars did. Not a single work drew me, and I’d wanted to fall in love with this show almost desperately. Instead, Death in a Rainforest was easily forgettable. It lacked drama, energy and the works seemed to be almost swallowed up by the gallery. Nothing stood out, which is saying something because some of the works are a mesh of lines drawn in pop-happy shades of pink, green and blue.

When I walked out of Death in a Rainforest, I didn’t want to go back (I did eventually; same response) and nor did I feel that I needed to spend more time with the works. I wasn’t curious about what might be hidden in the neat, precise lines. I wasn’t moved by it at all, which is, perhaps, much worse than hating a show because at least that’s a decisive reaction. It’s the kind of show that I see and wonder if I’m a step closer to turning into that old biddy who looks at a contemporary work and asks the gallerist if they show any ‘real art’ (i.e. paintings). Because I’m so underwhelmed and, given how interesting Apang’s work has been in the past, it feels almost wrong to find her show, well, boring.

But there you go. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for her next solo.

Review: Excrescence

This was first published on Mumbai Boss.

Abnormal Outgrowths

Tushar Joag's "Bombay to Shanghai Post Box"

Chances are you’ve never used the word excrescence in conversation but after seeing the show titled “Excrescence”, we think it might just pop up in your social chit-chat because the art on display is thought-provoking and worth talking about. Curated by Maya Kovskaya, this group show is inviting, engaging and erudite, but not inaccessible.

“Excrescence” has works by Ashutosh Bharadwaj, Sheba Chhachhi, Han Bing, Tushar Joag, Prajakta Potnis and Wu Gaozhong. The title of the show can mean either “an abnormal outgrowth” or “a disfiguring addition”. Every work in “Excrescence” responds to this idea and fills the gallery with a silent anxiety. The most cheerful piece in the show are Tushar Joag’s drawings and the “Bombay to Shanghai Post Box” (see image). They are part of his series titled “The Unicell Project”, in which he imagined public service items like the letterbox and the lamppost as superheroes.

The idea of something rotten or toxic looking beautiful appears repeatedly. In Han Bing’s gorgeously technicolour photographs, landscapes with sylvan trees and neat homes are seen reflected upon polluted, dirty water. Prajakta Potnis’s wonderfully ominous “Still Life” photographs (see homepage image) show fruits and vegetables in a fridge but instead of being fresh, they have mysterious, icky clusters growing on their surfaces. Wu Gaozhong’s photograph of rotten organic compounds that look pretty and ethereal are excellent complements. Potnis has also done site-specific “interventions”, which you’ll miss if you don’t keep your eyes peeled. We’ll give you a hint: look very closely at and past the switchboard.

Our favourite work in “Excrescence” is Sheba Chhachhi’s fascinating interactive video, “Bhogi/Rogi”. It’s been years since Mumbai had a chance to see Delhi-based Chhachhi’s work and this one work gives you an idea of why she is considered one of contemporary art’s brightest minds. Stand in front of the video and an image of you will be projected upon the screen. See what happens to it as the images change. Made in technical collaboration with Thomas Eichorn, “Bhogi/Rogi” taps into our narcissism and fascination for technology. Your glee at seeing yourself distracts you from noticing how the idyllic image of a field of yellow mustard flowers turns into bubbling oil and then disturbing red globules. The video keeps changing, shifting from consumption to disease to violence and back to consumption. Having seen “Bhogi/Rogi”, we’re now extra dubious about genetically-modified food.

There is a handout that you can pick up once you enter the gallery and it’s a daunting document, beginning as it does with a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein and going on to salute other philosophical heavyweights like Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Keep it with you and read it after you’ve seen the show. It’ll all make sense.

List: 10 Unexpectedly Arty Raw Materials

This piece was first published in India Today.

While its appeal may not be quite as widespread as that of Bollywood, contemporary Indian art has its fans all over the world. Indian artists have been our cultural ambassadors, showcasing realities and fantasies of modern India in their works. As a toast to their inventiveness, here are 10 commonplace items that became fine art when they caught the attention of our finest artists.

1980s Enamel paint

Ask about the medium of most paintings, and you’ll be told oils or watercolours. If you’re looking atPrabhakar Barwe‘s paintings from the 1980s, however, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at synthetic enamel paint on canvas. Yes, the stuff that’s generally used on walls. Barwe thinned the gloopy enamel paint using turpentine and kerosene to make beautiful, delicate paintings in muted shades.

1995 Bindis

Indian women have adorned themselves with these cheap little stickies for decades but when Bharti Kher stuck the bindi on her sculptures and paintings, their value multiplied million-fold. Kher’s interest in the fashion accessory began in the mid-1990s. She was at a market when she noticed a stranger wearing a black bindi that reminded her of a sperm. Kher asked the woman where she’d bought the bindi, then went to that shop and bought its entire supply of serpentine bindis. It was, as Kher put it, her “supernova moment”. This year Kher became India’s top-selling female artist when one of her bindi works was sold for $1.5 million.

1996 Fake Eyes

You’ve seen them on statues of Hindu deities, looking kindly or angry, depending upon the deity in question and how the eyelashes and eyelids have been painted. Manufactured eyes have also been a regular feature in Anita Dube‘s art since 1996. A cluster of these unblinking synthetic eyes would spread over a wall in the gallery or encrust the surface of objects, like in the photograph C-Creature that shows hands covered with these fake eyes. Their unblinking gaze is tremendously unnerving and yet, it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off them.

1999 Bottle Caps

Does Coca-Cola remind you of saris? If yes, then you’ve probably seen Sharmila Samant‘s “Handmade Saree”, a gorgeous, unwearable creation made entirely of Coca-Cola bottle caps. Samant made the first Handmade Saree out of 1,800 bottle caps during a year-long residency. It cleverly talks about globalisation, exploitation of labour, commodification, notions of waste and value, the opposition between readymade and custom-made, threats to handicraft traditions and homogeneity, but without getting burdened by the gravitas of polysyllabic words.

2000 Metal Shutters

Generally when shutters come clanking down, it means the shop’s shut. Unless Atul Dodiya has painted on them. Then they become fine art. Dodiya first painted shutters in 2000 when he was asked to participate in an exhibition called Century City at London’s Tate Modern. He chose shutters as his canvas because he wanted to use something that was emblematic of Mumbai’s streets but would also communicate a sense of anxiety. The shutters were perfect because they’re fixtures in shops and the sound of them coming down was one of Dodiya’s sharpest memories from the 1992 Mumbai riots. Dodiya had an entire show of his shutter paintings earlier this year.

2003 Blessings from God

Many temples, churches and mosques have websites but only at Blessed-Bandwidth.net could you download a blessing that was less divine and more fine art. In 2003, Shilpa Gupta created the website Blessed-Bandwidth.net. Visitors were invited to log in, choose a religion and then get blessings from the relevant religious authority. They could also download a certificate to prove they’d been blessed. The website was commissioned by Tate Online, the digital arm of London’s Tate Galleries, and was Gupta’s meditation upon religion and the divisive role it often plays in society.

2005 Mattresses

In 2005, Anju Dodiya exhibited her first series of paintings made on mattresses. The show was called “The Cloud Hunt”, which sounds like an aggressive form of daydreaming and explains where the mattresses fitted into Dodiya’s scheme of things. One would think the bulkiness of a mattress would make it an inelegant starting point for a painting but Dodiya transformed this sleeping apparatus into a wonderful canvas. Mattresses added a hint of three-dimensionality to the two-dimensional medium and were strangely perfect for Dodiya’s works, particularly when they explored themes of fantasy, sleep and night.

2006 Hawker Stalls and Sofas

This one’s a double whammy. In 2006, Tushar Joag came up with a brilliant contraption for hawkers being harassed into shutting shop by officials of the Brihanmumbai Municipality Corporation (BMC): theShanghai Couch. (The BMC had banned hawkers as part of its master plan to give Mumbai a makeover and turn it into Shanghai; hence the name.) The Shanghai Couch was a hawker stall that in a few swift, nifty moves could turn into a bright red couch. Because, as Joag pointed out, there wasn’t any law banning couches on Mumbai’s pavements.

2007 Rubberstamp

It’s impossible to find an Indian office that doesn’t have at least one person rubberstamping away. In Reena Saini Kallat‘s art, however, the rubberstamp is a sign of her disapproval of the state of affairs. Kallat first used rubberstamps to create portraits of missing persons in 2007. The custom-made stamps had names from missing persons written in 14 languages. Two years later, she used rubberstamps again in a series inspired by the Taj Mahal. Contrary to popular belief, there is a record of the names of the artists who worked on the monument, which Kallat discovered in an archive. She recreated some of the motifs of the Taj Mahal using rubberstamps that had the artists’ names on them.

2007 Steel Utensils

There are two places where you will almost always find steel utensils: in Indian kitchens and Subodh Gupta‘s art. Even as a moderately-successful painter, Gupta’s muse was steel kitchenware but it’s when he turned to installations that he became Indian art’s brightest star. His works have used tiffin-carriers, plates, glasses, serving spoons, bowls and every other stainless steel item you would expect to see in a middle-class Indian kitchen. Among the other items he’s turned into fine art are petroleum jelly, cowdung and the Ambassador taxi.

Review: Gallery SKE for Gallery BMB

This review was first published in ArtSlant.

By Sakshi Gupta

The speedy rise of GALLERYSKE as one of India’s more important galleries is, in many ways, a testimony to how quickly Indian contemporary art has soared in critical estimation. Choosing to leave the modernist masters and conventional art practices to others, GALLERYSKE concentrated on looking forward. Its focus was on finding and promoting new artists whose work used new media, sculptural installations and performance art. A showcase of the gallery’s artists should be exciting, unconventional and full of novelty. Despite a few interesting pieces, most of the selection made by curator Bose Krishnamachari for “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” doesn’t quite live up to that promise.

Zakkir Hussain opens the exhibition with a mixed media work on paper. Hussain’s untitled triptych is full of violent imagery, recalling descriptions of torture particularly in the first and second panels. Yet, despite the macabre note, this piece isn’t particularly memorable. The mutilated body has been seen in a variety of avatars in contemporary art and Hussain’s efforts don’t stand out in comparison. Similarly, Sakshi Gupta’s emaciated animal sculpture inevitably invites a comparison to Bharti Kher’s famous sculptures and falls short. Gupta’s other piece, a weird and impossible skeleton, is much stronger and benefits from dramatic lighting, even if it does look like something Tim Burton may have concocted for “The Corpse Bride.”

Avinash Veeraraghavan’s prints and Navin Thomas’s video, “While Your Were Sleeping” are works that needed an introduction for the viewer to appreciate them. Veeraraghavan is interested in creating patterns and using repetition and layers to tell stories. At first, Veeraraghavan’s imagery looks random but once the eye settles into the geometry of his piece the suggestions of dark and violent tales emerge. Unfortunately, themes like castration and repressed sexual identity need to be treated with more inventiveness than Veeraraghavan displays, particularly in the video titled “My Inexplicable Love for Cotton Candy” which repeatedly shows (among other things) a rose blooming and circling knives.

“While Your Were Sleeping,” the only work by Navin Thomas, might easily be missed by many visitors. Not only is it tucked away in the belly of the gallery, but it’s niche is so dark that you have to grope around to find the headphones. The gadget seen in the video is a toy Thomas found in a market of Chinese manufactured toys in old Delhi. The toy sings an Iranian song. If you don’t knows this background, however, then all this video shows is a bit of junk whose tinny speakers leak a cheerful song with gibberish lyrics. You wouldn’t recognise the rusty little gadget as a cultural traveller. All the sophistication of centuries-old artistic traditions of Iran, China and India is contrasted with this product of their contemporary cultures and politics: a mechanical toy that has decayed and looks like nothing recognisable as it sputters recorded noise. It’s a shame the show didn’t have more of Thomas’s works because he is among the more exciting artists in the GALLERYSKE stable.

Srinivasa Prasad’s “Tailor Mama” is perhaps the most charming part of the show. It’s an inventive hybrid of a sewing machine and bicycle, complete with a set of jewel-bright spools of thread. Although “Tailor Mama” is quite obviously a fantastical piece, it’s easy to imagine a man cheerfully riding it through rural India, as the accompanying prints show. The installation displays the sense of enterprise that marks the self-employed and is simultaneously tinged with a sense of nostalgia because the present is characterised by mass-produced, machine-made goods. Prasad’s two “Nest” photographs share that sense of melancholia. The first picture shows a bare, leafless, lifeless tree. In the second, there is a nest in the tree’s branches but it is quite obviously not something built by a bird and hence looks ridiculous. “Nest” shows the artist intervening in an effort to hold on to what has been lost and attempting to replicate nature, without success.

On the whole, “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” feels unsatisfactory. This is partly because the insight it offers into the works of the five chosen artists feels too cursory, and the artists have not been aided by the manner of display.  Even if they were given proper contextualization, not all of the pieces are eloquent or impressive enough to make an impact.

While white space is important and large works need breathing room in order to be appreciated properly, the exhibition design of “GALLERYSKE for Gallery BMB” leaves the gallery looking oddly empty in parts. It’s as though there weren’t enough works to hang on the walls. This is a problem that Gallery BMB has had on repeated occasions as the artworks negotiate the passage-like central section of the gallery and the gallery’s side-wall.  One interesting area of the gallery is the aforementioned niche in which Navin Thomas’s video “While Your Were Sleeping” is on display. However, rarely has this bit of the gallery been used in a manner that doesn’t make the exhibited art look like either a neglected member of the show or an afterthought that couldn’t be housed elsewhere. Thomas’s interesting video feels similarly abandoned in the dark corner and it’s a shame.