Walking through Nalini Malani’s works on Instagram

The artist will explore the idea of identity, oppression, dominance and freedom in a virtual walkthrough today

Updated - March 28, 2020 03:09 pm IST

Published - March 27, 2020 11:25 pm IST

Behind doors that can now be witnessed virtually; the resounding voices on the streets, from the (now disbanded, owing to the COVID-19 outbreak) sit-in protest by women at Mumbai Bagh, Morland Road at Bhau Daji Lad Musuem, finds resonance in The Witness by artist, Nalini c, that can be accessed on the museum’s Instagram handle.

The show explores concerns that have preoccupied Malani’s art for decades, through immersive installations, ephemeral wall drawings, animation chambers, and her signature video/shadow plays. In a digital tour of the show via Instagram, we can see Malani navigate through the politics of identity, oppression, dominance, freedom, and community. Like many artists, Malani is ‘a witness’ of the death of the progressive socialist state.

Promise of hope

The artist was forced to accept the metamorphosis of home, and identity after Partition in 1947. “My mother was Sikh, my father was an agnostic, and my grandparents were Theosophists. Eventually, it was the diversity of the Indian nation that made settling down easier,” shares Malani. Twenty-two years later, the artist created a stop-motion animated film, Dream Houses (1969), that reflects the idealism and hope that modernism brought in the Nehruvian era, post-Independence.

In 1969, a 23-year-old Malani was inspired by architect, Charles Correa’s utopian vision for Navi Mumbai. It drove her to produce the two-minute animation at Akbar Padamsee’s Vision Exchange Workshop. ‘Variation I’ (The second variation exists both as an independent film, and as part of Malani’s double film projection installation ‘Utopia, 1969–76’ ) flashes on a screen, reminiscent of a psychedelic game of tetris. When observed closely, you see faces in the shifting shapes, scrambling to find space in a cramped city.

Memory and emotion

Malani’s Instagram page, has an array of colourful animations that appear, and disappear across posts. These are a part of her five-channel installation, Can You Hear Me? (2018/2019) which was developed in collaboration with the Goethe Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Mumbai for their Golden Jubilee in 2019. The installation is a combination of 56 iPad animations, that first found life in the artist’s notebooks. Popping-up in the form of thought bubbles, the bright sketches, and quirky tunes are a glimpse into the artist’s collective stream of consciousness.

Malani describes the whimsical drawings as “memory emotion,” which are reflective of the viewer’s own frenzied mind. Powerful quotes about oppression, democracy, rape, and the dispossessed by Hannah Arendt, George Orwell, Veena Das, and Martin Luther King Jr. mingle with images from the artist’s own imagination, Goya, Japanese prints, and Kalighat paintings.

“What is it in the human mind that doesn’t think of the other?” questions the concerned 73-year-old artist. In her drawings titled City of Desires (Variation III), 1992/2020 People Come and Go, Malani tackles the inequality faced by economically, and financially troubled citizens, who might not have the required documentation to prove their citizenship. “How is it, that in their own land, they are suddenly declared as uncitizen?” she asks.

The charcoal and ink drawings depict a 19th century map of Mumbai that nudges a catatonic young man, possibly from rural India, to join the work force for survival. An enlarged thumbprint is sketched into the corner of the white wall, standing as an allegory of identity.

Politics of identity

Perhaps the most evocative thought of the show lies in the words of an illiterate cotton farmer, Bahinabai, who became a noted Marathi poet, posthumously. The Marathi version of her poem, Dharitrichya Kushimadhi , is written on the same wall that discusses the thumbprint and the politics of identity. The poetic verse speaks of the nurturing seed within a mortal, who is driven by creation, and not religion. “What is it in the human being that wants to annihilate?” asks Malani rhetorically.

With multiple works in her show – ‘In Search of Vanished Blood’; ‘(Variation IV)’, 2012/2020; ‘The Witness’ (2019), and ‘Listening to the Shades’(2008/2013), Malani navigates the complications of human behaviour through the eyes of Cassandra, the mythological princess of Troy. The artist believes that every man and woman is made-up of equal parts masculinity, and femininity, and it’s imperative to acknowledge that balance. “If we divorce gender from the psyche, we will better understand the crux of humanity,” she says.

I n the eponymous artwork of the show, the artist uses a reverse painted triptych on acrylic to convey thoughts about manmade borders, divide, and conflict. As Cassandra hovers across the margins of the canvas, the viewer’s eyes follow words by Polish poet, Wislawa Szymborska, “ I like maps, because they lie. Because they give no access to the vicious truth…” The significance elides with the reality of the world, where maps are devoid of graveyards, battlegrounds, or destruction which are all clear demarcations of our power hungry race. “We’re in the midst of an alpha patriarchal time, that is drenched in cannibalistic capitalism,” says Malani. By highlighting the stark state of affairs, the artist hopes to “bring back the love.”

A conversation with Nalini Malani, along with videos, and posts, from the exhibition will be uploaded on Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum’s Instagram handle @bdlmuseum on Saturday, March 28, 11.30 a.m.

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