Weight of pogroms, lightness of rain
Painter, sculptor-installator and inter-media artist Navjot Altaf has just opened an exhibition of her works in Mumbai. A review by NANCY ADAJANIA.
A vocabulary that shuttles between documented reality and abstraction.
OVER the last 30 years, Navjot Altaf has worked in a diverse and impressive array of media ranging from painting and sculpture to inter-media installations comprising elements of sculpture, video, sound and text. During the 1970s, she was a member of the first generation of artists who sought out a viewership beyond the art world, in mill-worker neighbourhoods, mining towns and railway stations. Since the early 1990s, she has worked in collaboration with artists from other disciplines and milieux; these experiments have resulted in gallery-based sculpture and also in site-specific collaborative installations.
Navjot has just opened an exhibition of her recent works at Mumbai's Sakshi Gallery. The show consists of a video film, "Lacuna in Testimony" (2003), and a video installation, "Mumbai Meri Jaan" (2004). "Lacuna in Testimony", presented as a three-channel projection, was made in the aftermath of the pogrom initiated by Hindu-majoritarian forces in Gujarat in 2002, which left thousands of Muslims dead or homeless. When the film opens, a blue sea, close-cropped, looped, rises to the vicissitudes of wave and tide. One by one, a grid of windows open on the screen, each layered with footage of historic and recent catastrophes. The form of the video as an oceanic archive brings to my mind the Katha-Sarita-sagar, Gunadhya's classic Ocean of Stories, each layered with the muscle of the past, the spores of the future.
This connection is not fortuitous. We may recall that, in the ancient classic, Gunadhya retreats to the forest because the royal court does not wish to hear his stories. He recites his testimonies of life, instead, to the animals and birds; as he finishes each volume of tales, he throws it into the fire. The remorseful king reaches him just in time to save the last volume. Although only a fraction of the vast original remains, it is enough to remind us of the inexhaustible production of narrative from experience, the lacunae that always haunt the voice, and the threats of neglect, silence and censorship by which the truth-teller is beleaguered. I would contend that these conditions apply just as much to the victims of pogroms and riots, to those seeking redress and others who wish to bear witness to the horrors of our present. Truth has many faces and Navjot layers each of these faces with an archivist's precision, superimposing the frames from the footage of displaced people on that of concentration-camp victims, or of the atomic holocaust on that of the Indian Muslim minority in the aftermath of a pogrom.
Each crisp window becomes blurred, unreadable through the commingling of stories. I think Navjot kills one intractable problem with two subtle aesthetics. By carefully messing up the grid, that archetype of order prevailing over chaos, she shows that the mere possession of such neo-classical modernist tools does not guarantee the artist safe passage. Also, by blurring the already low-resolution newsreel aesthetic of the footage, she appears to suggest that the gaps in testimonies cannot be completed merely by legal procedures. An aggrieved memory needs more than forgiveness and justice to reconcile itself to the meaning of aftermath. In the coda to the work, we are jolted by a sea of blood. Navjot has unconsciously hit upon an archetypal trope: the sea of primeval times had the chemical composition of human blood; thus, what runs today in our veins has the consistency of the ancient sea.
The video installation
The video installation, "Mumbai Meri Jaan" comprising a four-channel projection, began as a response to the recent attacks on Bihari migrants in Bombay/Mumbai, launched by the Shiv Sena, the localist right-wing party whose politics of aggression bulks large in the politics of the metropolis, and of the state of Maharashtra. The campaign is the latest in a long series of attacks on "outsiders" launched by the Sena since the 1960s, on the plea that they take away jobs that should go to the "sons of the soil".
Against this chauvinist violence, the video installation takes up a stance signified in its very title: that of inclusiveness, easy camaraderie and the tolerant spirit of a great city (the line, adapted from a Hindi movie song, suggests the lightness of Bollywood, the dream factory that entices migrants to the city). The title, with its slippage from the original Hindi "Bambai" of the song to the pointedly Marathi "Mumbai" of current official practice also alludes to the manner in which the name of the city was changed in the name of satisfying regional sentiment (or rather, regional chauvinism). Thus the video installation is mapped on the constant tension between "insiders" and "outsiders" over resources and space in Bombay/Mumbai.
But Navjot's is not a straight documentation of a migrant's reality in the cosmopolis. It is built like an unfinished road map, layered with the desires, visions and mirages of different protagonists: three street children, now sheltered by the non-governmental organisation YUVA, who led the artist to their former sites of work and play. The artist herself becomes a participant and protagonist in the tale, conjoining her visual abstractions with the fugitive signs and forms planted in the urban deluge, listening in to the voices of invisible figures across class, ethnicity, religion and vocation, which fade in and out like strains from a tug-of-war that almost always closes with a draw.
The purposeful stride of a child-protagonist is shown largely through a close-up of his feet. The feet become wheels, the wheels become pantograph cables, are transformed into railway bridges that once sheltered such migrant children. The pedestrian crossing, a garland of freshly painted yellow and black cat's eyes, dissolves into a yellow taxi roof weighed down by its carrier, empty-full marking the entry and exit of newcomers into the city. Yellow is a recurrent note here, its 1:6 magnification giving it maximum visibility in the video installation as in real life. Its seductive glow fills the mind with hopes of crossing, of reaching destinations, of returning.
What we do not see
What we do not see in this video installation are the masses of people who are stereotypical of the great metropolis. The many voices of the metropolis only come together like facets of a many-sided prism in the fourth projection, which stands separate from the other three. In this fourth projection, migration is seen in the larger context of the political and economic asymmetries that force people to migrate from villages to the big cities.
Navjot's "Mumbai Meri Jaan" is made on the cusp between documentarist reality and fiction. Abstract details and animations are coded into the testimonies on the migrant condition. These animations are symbolic abstractions. For instance, the white plastic flowers sold by children at the roadside appear one by one on a red screen, like twinkling Deepavali lights; they are slowly wiped off the screen and replaced by strange red satin creatures with open maws, which turn out to be empty purses. The pristine white flowers are wiped by a passionate red, signalling the dangers the city holds for new entrants.
The fourth film ends with the contrary impulses of lightness and heaviness. The child-protagonist walks along a pipeline with the deftness of a prophet walking on water. A Magrittean moment follows, as the child walks with an umbrella to shield himself from the sun: a glass of water appears on the umbrella as if miraculously balanced. The image, which recalls Rene Magritte's "Hegel's Holiday" (1958), is presented in a poetic flash. Navjot casts a spell on the glass of water, which contains the rain and will not evaporate in the heat.
Navjot's video works are meditations on communication and its difficulties, on the gap between the seen and the interpreted, the shown and the spoken, the immenseness of a narrative and its inexhaustible versions. Her vocabulary shuttles between the fixity of a documented reality and the poetics of abstraction. Navjot's achievement is that she has preserved her aesthetic centre of gravity without shutting out the social and political contexts in which her extensions of the visual sense are seen.
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