A walk through Nalini Malani’s extraordinary mind


The artist’s ongoing show on her intimate “memory-emotions” is also a masterful demonstration of technical proclivity, says Pooja Savansukha

In 1969, a 23-year old Nalini Malani produced her first animation film Dream Houses at Akbar Padamsee’s Vision Exchange Workshop in Mumbai. Inspired by architect Charles Correa’s utopian vision for the city, the film reflected the optimism that modernism brought in the Nehruvian era. It was in the same year, that the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan opened its doors to the city to promote inter-cultural exchange. Malani developed a relationship with the Goethe Institut — in 1993, she collaborated with Alaknanda Samarth on dramatist Heiner Mueller’s Medeamaterial, and in 1997 she did a theatre-play and exhibition on Bertolt Brecht’s The Job with Anuradha Kapur. All of which makes, Malini’s solo exhibition, Can You Hear Me?, a new 11-channel installation, an appropriate way to celebrate the Insitut’s 50th anniversary. The show will eventually travel to the Joan Miro Museum, Barcelona in March 2020 as part of an extensive overview exhibition that celebrates Malini’s distinguished career, revealing her tenacity as she continues to push the limits of her media.

Absurdity of our times

Samuel Beckett’s words, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” feature prominently in Malani’s animation Endgame (titled after Beckett’s 1957 play) projected at the exhibition’s entrance. The artist recites the quote as a backdrop to her portrayal of two characters from the play who want to end their lives but cannot. This reference to Beckett’s work that centres around incongruous recurrences, the deteriorating world, and the imminence of death, is a salient entry point into Malani’s otherworldly space.

Entering the show, one confronts tempestuous, graffiti-like imagery teeming with layered textual and visual referents that span writers such as Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, and Veena Das and images from works by Goya, Japanese prints, Kalighat paintings, and the artist’s previous works. Can You Hear Me? juxtaposes ‘Dream Houses’ that was made on 8mm film with projections of over 50 animations from her ongoing series Notebooks rendered on an iPad. Evocative sounds designed by Malani are contrapuntal to the jarring imagery. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, the artist explains, “Dream Houses reminds us of glowing expectations, coming from a shared ideology for all, into a better — nay — into a humane social future. How intense is the contrast with the installation, Notebooks 50 years later, where a multitude of ‘Thought Bubbles’ have a sense of the abject. Within these phantasmagoric illusions, there is place for the satirical, the comic, and the absurd.” The artist’s disenchantment over the decades manifests in the form of whimsical renderings and characteristic grandiose projections that compel a participatory mode of engagement.

Transitory mediums

In 2017/18, Malani began sharing her Notebook animations on an Instagram page, #malaninotebooks. These began as journal-entries where she recorded her visceral “memory-emotions” in response to personal encounters, or provocative ideas and images. Malani drew her animations on an iPad using her index finger. She explains, “There is something more erotic, something very raw and direct about the process of drawing, rubbing, scratching and erasing, to do with messing around in one’s mind, which then comes out at the tip of one’s finger.”

In an interview with The Hindu, she shares the realisation of how projecting the work extends their scope. She says, “When you have something as a video installation, you’re seeing it with a broader public and that has a different experience from how you see it in the palm of your hand.” The projections spanning the walls of the room are displayed at particular angles to suggest the shape of an unfolded accordion book. Malani acknowledges how this format conjures “another space for contemplation, another place for thought, as a person alone in the room, or as a group.” The theatricality of the works recall the artist’s eminent shadow-play and erasure animations. These animations, present a blatantly disjointed narrative confronting viewers with the task of engaging with everything at once.

Artistic archive

Anachronistic and diverse references appear fleetingly in loop – in the show – without adhering to chronological time. One perceives no single linear narrative but experiences a feeling of being suspended in an eternal climax. Malani says, “Having lived so long, time for me in one sense collapses into the present — whatever I have lived, read about, remembered, experienced, not only at a personal level, but a distant level too; all of these thoughts come together at some point and I try to open this out like a warp and a weft and try to understand those strands.”

The show’s title, Can You Hear me? is a reference to an animation about a girl who was raped but nobody heard her cry. Other evocative allusions are portrayed simultaneously, occasionally overlapping, with the same urgency to create a sense of dissonance. It becomes impossible to focus on one strand of thought and the lines between fact and fiction, memory and imagination begin to blur. The animation Hieroglyphs from Lohar Chawl recalls the time Malani worked from her studio in the busy area observing people who live on the pavement and work as labourers (paathiwalas), and have lives which are almost invisible to the wholesalers in the markets.”

Malani’s preoccupations surface as one begins to discern opaque details by observing the works. In Megalomania I and II, she portrays the world being shattered by a head of state, condemning bureaucratic structures of the world that resulted in her own displacement during Partition. She is Gone my Mighty Bird, the artist suggests,is about missing my mother – who passed away this year at the age of 97 – the beautiful bird under whose wing I lived for 72 years.”

The antidote

Malani’s ostensibly comedic and audacious imagery quickly appears graphic and dark. Through bold colours and constantly shifting forms, matters that span personal and political issues of urban and third world poverty, violence, and decay become apparent. Animations such as Blind Man’s Bluff, Ubu Roi, and Double Speak I and II, reveal the artist’s anger with decisions made by the hegemonic powers operating in this world. Yet, her bombastic representations of the human experience successfully spare room for sensitivity. She says, “My Secret Flower is about a young girl’s awakening sexuality and her freedom to feel within the flower. In Portrait of a Girl I and II, the childhood of a girl collapses into the life of a young woman. Recalling girlhood feels pleasurable and joyous.”

Through their ambitious scales and larger-than-life representations, Malani’s works remind one of art’s ability to provide the freedom to dream even when that seems impossible. She expresses, “Art is the interface between broad imagination and aggression. I think aggression comes from boredom or a lack of imagination and that art can provide a portal to opening up the mind. That’s why it is important that we have art in our lives. It gives you space to think.” If there was just a singular takeaway from Malini’s show, it should be this thought.

Can You Hear Me? is ongoing at Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan until January 2, 2020.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 11:47:55 AM |

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