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Caught between demons

Reena Saini Kallat's recent paintings draw on the crises that we have come to accept as normal features of everyday life. NANCY ADAJANIA interprets these new forms and images.

"Sword Swallower", Reena Saini Kallat, acrylic on paper, 2004.

THE mediatic image is like a siren: it dies even as it raises an alarm. The central problem facing painters who employ mediatic images in their art, therefore, is: How do you resurrect an image that has such a brief half-life, how do you render significant an image that holds the attention for not more than the blink of an eye? In an economy of images that has reduced every human being to a banal cipher, how can the artist return a sense of significance and dignity to the human subject, re-connecting the image-fragmented individual to the larger texts of the contemporary? In her recent work, on exhibition currently at Mumbai's Gallery Chemould, Reena Saini Kallat embeds these questions in portrait-narratives that function between the realms of ceremonial time and the accidents of history.

Treatment of people

From the flux of mediatic ephemera, Reena extracts images of anonymous people belonging to varied social milieux and political contexts; she invests them with symbolic resonance by the apparently simple act of selection and isolation, with the specificities of their loci cropped away. I would say that Reena's figures are neither recognisable individuals (in the sense that we cannot name them, even when we identify their locale from internal evidence) nor are they simply identitarian stereotypes (in that, although they are coded with national, religious or ethnic characteristics, the pictorial emphasis is on their human vulnerability, as people going about their lives, rather than as incarnations of Identity). In Reena's treatment, these anonymous people become portraits residing in an unstable semiotic space intermediate between individual and type: she is thus able to employ them as markers of everyday heroism.

The faces that stare at us from Reena's columns are those of ordinary people, archived from the random memory of a computer: a Kashmiri woman in a festive dress, a street-child whose face wears an anxiety of lack, a man in characteristically African Muslim head-gear, an anaemic migrant labourer, a taxi- or a rickshaw-driver, or perhaps one of the unemployed millions. We are comforted by their familiar presence, we meet them daily in newspapers, on the TV screen, or on the Net. They may come across as stereotypes at first glance, but the vulnerability of their situation summons from us an empathy that gives them a dimension of reality. For, as the viewing eye travels below the portrait, it encounters a circus of mythic demons, flashing swords and lotus-chakras.

These figures take their place in a conspicuously ceremonial form that celebrates the everyday: Reena has chosen to install her portraits in wooden frames shaped and presented like columns; each portrait has, below it, several panels that act as strata of visual inscription. These columns may give the gallery-viewer a sense of having entered a space defined by ritual circumstances. Their form reminds the present writer of the stele, the archetypal memorial column for a hero in the ancient world, which used images to narrate his deeds to gods and humans. But, of course, the people we meet in Reena's contemporary memorials are not legendary heroes, they are day-to-day survivors.

These portraits seem structured to act like a screening procedure, as though the subjects were being passed through the beam of scrutiny. Below the portrait's face, what we thought were rows of visual inscriptions may be read as scans of a revealed anatomy, the interior of a body racked by the demons of poverty, state oppression and religious discrimination. I use the term `screening procedure' to allude to the larger context of security paranoia where all individuals are demonised and reduced to types, guilty of belonging to whatever group identity that happens to be perceived as the threat of the moment. I would choose to read the current exhibition as an attempt to address the dissonance between the personhood of the individual and the institutional tendency of states and corporations to depersonalise the individual into a type. This show could also be seen as addressing the rampant trend towards demonising the other in every conflict at all levels, which forces us to perceive the world through screens of demonology.


In Reena's columns, the demons are largely drawn from the representation of asuras in the Kangra miniatures. Here, they appear as machines of caricature and callisthenics, rather than as things of blood. Their traditional role in mythology was to wreck the sacred sacrifice, the yagna, and wreak havoc on figures of power and authority. In Reena's interpretation, however, the demons impede the migrant labourer from fulfilling his desire to play Shravana and take his parents on a pilgrimage to the sacred sites of Hinduism, or the Muslim man from concentrating on his prayers, or the street-child from awakening her latent energies of self-expression, emblematised by the lotus-chakras of energy nodes within her body. The sword, an intricately decorated prop which may imply the aestheticisation of violence in popular culture, recurs in each column, to mow down the demons.

The presence of these demons in these contemporary memorials has larger resonances. Subaltern histories reveal how lower-caste communities and tribal populations were represented as demons in our myths, how their land was captured and their resources usurped. Labelled as demons, they became outsiders in their own land. This subtly points to our own construction of people as demons or our internalisation of demonologies without paying heed to the subterranean layers of history and folklore. Sometimes, it becomes possible to see the demonisers as themselves being the demons: such reversals of perception are probed here. This is significant in an age when George Bush launches a brutal war of occupation in the name of containing jehad; The Hindutva fundamentalists organise pogroms in revenge for events that are alleged to have taken place a thousand years ago; and the Israeli state engages in daily rites of slaughter to defend a homeland secured by the expropriation of a territory and the expulsion of its people.

A comic-strip narrative

It is instructive that Reena breaks the solemnity of her portraits by inserting them within a comic-strip narrative of violence and retribution. The drama unfolds through energetic play between the demons and the invading swords: black blood, a splatter of entrails, a missing leg. But all demons are not displayed as weapons of mass destruction. In one of the columns, a demon with pointed tusks and sharp clawed hooves grows larger than life and swoops away with the monuments around which religious contention has been waged. Above, we see the portrait of an elderly citizen with clouded spectacles. He waits for change, a respite from everyday violence. Echoing his hope, in another column we witness the blade of a sword faintly disappearing. The column ends with a spring-cloud, a shade lighter than the nocturnal blue dupatta of a child shielding herself from the biting cold.

Perhaps this is why these columns have been titled Sword-Swallowers, to emphasise that today ordinary people have to perform extraordinary feats to survive demons of all shapes and colours. Our everyday heroes have the skill of the juggler and the spiritual resilience of the fakir. They survive the blade of the sword that cuts through their vocal cords and the demon that bites their entrails. Demons have fluid identities, they demonise, are demonised in turn. But even cycles of violence have to end: the spring-cloud returns and stains us with hope.

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