Beyond a nondescript gate in Byculla is architect/artist Bijoy Jain’s workspace — Studio Mumbai. In stark contrast to heavily constructed city life on the outside, the world within, you realise as you walk in, embodies Jain’s ideal of “Man in nature. Nature in man” concept. Almost instantly, there is a sense of being one with your surroundings. The clean lateral spread of the space, the abundant presence of green and animals, the simplicity of structure, all hark to the basic elements of air, light and water at their core. It’s all reflective of Jain’s beliefs.
The studio is abuzz and alive with activity. The floors are full of pieces left to dry while several works in progress line the walls — it’s all material that is part of his second solo at Chemould Prescott Gallery. As the title of the showcase suggests, Abhaya: in the palm of our hand , is an exploration of works that are made using the palms of one’s hands. Abhaya, he explains is a “gesture of the palm”, where the hand is open to give and to receive in peace, protection and without fear or without bhay — its Sanskrit translation. “A universal gesture”, Jain elaborates on how it is our first point of contact as babies when coming out of the womb, as touch, and then to hold and to eventually experience for oneself, with “intimacy and tenderness”.
Acts of energy
“For me, the interest lies in this idea of using that palm of our hand as a way to transfer energy. And the energy then gets embedded into the object,” says Jain. The objects created accumulate all that energy, becoming like receptacles or capacitors — batteries that store intense amounts of energy. Watching over a work that looks like a long chalkboard laid out on the floor, Jain instructs his team of assistants who are busy dipping thread into a bowl of white powder. Next, they use the same thread, held taut between their hands at two ends over the board, to strike it down hard. As the dust settles, you see a clean straight line, made with nothing but just a movement of the hands. Jain reveals how the blackness on the board and the powder are two versions — charcoal and ash, derived from the same source — firewood.
But without being told so, you would never really know, would you? This ambiguity, where there is a semi-familiarity at play, is integral to Jain’s work. “To displace your perception of the materiality of the object,” as the artist states. This deception helps rid our perception of prejudice, hence opening up not just our vision but our other senses for interpretation. You see the object for what it is in the present moment, but also for what it might be. Curiosity and endless possibilities stretch our thirst for imagination and there is a shift, a mental movement, in our understanding and our learning that leads to growth.
Naturally, material is primary to Jain’s oeuvre as something to begin work with. Clay, cow dung, lime, stone, ash, mud, turmeric or vermillion are all free of what he calls “industrial economy” in some way and have been “accessible culturally from time immemorial to even now”. In a return to roots approach, Jain’s works cut through boundaries of time and space and even physicality. His lime, clay and water drawing inspired by an actual well he built in Chennai recently is proof. The design and technique that his team unearthed through research and oral history inheritance is 2,000 years old. “It’s a technical drawing of that well…basically I’m drawing you data so that you can now build a well 2,000 years old…,” he shares. Just like the actual well where one digs through the clay to get to the water beneath, the clay used in the drawing too is symbolic of holding water within.
“Fragments of things remain… But when you collectively put the group into conversation and a dialogue, you can retrieve or draw out embedded things that are in the DNA of the materials itself,” he goes on to explain. Be it the small figurines of animals that might look like paper mâché work, but are actually cut from black basalt rock and then covered in layers of cow dung before a final wash of lime. Here again, the “phenomenon of lightness” that one experiences is deceptive and hence challenges perception. These rock sculptures made by someone Jain fondly refers to as Shinde Mama, a 84-year-old gentleman from Alibaug, are a homage to the sculptor as well as Jain’s long collaboration with him. “Whether [Shinde Mama] makes a chalk drawing on the stone or makes the first mark or the 1ooth mark, at every single moment, the work is complete and the work is incomplete”, shares Jain fondly. He adds, that Shinde Mama is someone who “…sees the potential of what is embedded inside the stone” before taking his time to “select the stone, based on the atmosphere within him, what he wants to communicate.”
This approach reflects a large degree of letting go that Jain aspires towards, ridding oneself of prejudice and attaining freedom through work. The role of chance becomes paramount, where one remains blind and yet inquisitive about the end result. The journey clearly wins over the destination here. In creating his works or “instruments” as he calls them, Jain creates a field of sorts where objects communicate with one another and also with the viewer as the interface or the filter. The way he places or arranges these works then resembles a cosmic map or a mandala, where every structure is independent and yet deeply connected to one another, retaining their individual energies and deriving a separate, collective energy as a whole. As for the viewer, Jain relates, “If I get you to move a certain way…you’re yourself becoming the drawing…and that’s what you’re experiencing. You become part of that constellation.”
Abhaya: In The Palm Of Our Hand is ongoing at Chemould Prescott Road until January 3, 2019