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Right to Dissent

This exhibition, put together in support of Dr. Binayak Sen, is an example of how something can work despite a wealth of things being entirely wrong. To begin with, the ground floor flat of Clark House is not a gallery. It’s an office that is in desperate need of renovation. Second, the moment you walk through the doors, the smell of piss saunters up and clings to you, like an over-attentive salesperson. There really isn’t proper lighting. The walls are in terrible state. To see Prajakta Potnis and Majlis’s contributions to Right to Dissent you have to climb up an extremely precarious staircase. Add to that the fact that Justin Ponmany, Riyas Komu and Bose Krishnamachari have given largely forgettable works — they’re also among the first things you see upon entering — and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the right thing to do once inside Right to Dissent is to get the hell out of there. Correction: Bose Krishnamachari’s outstandingly egocentric work was not forgettable; it was appalling. According to Bose, it seems being bald, moustachied and bespectacled is all it takes to be M.K. Gandhi. Super. Glad he’s figured that out for us. Komu’s wooden sculptural installation didn’t make much of an impression on me (although it’s heartening to see him doing better stuff than those utterly pointless portraits of footballers). Atul and Anju Dodiya’s paintings were disappointing. They really are forgettable and despite being a fan of their works in general, I couldn’t help but sneer at these nothingnesses that they’d given for this show. Both their paintings are pale wraiths of paintings. In that, they are perhaps a far more accurate depiction of the state of ideological protests in this county than the angry works inside Clark House that do make an impression. The only memorable piece at the start of Right to Dissent is Sharmila Samant’s brass plaque (with sufficiently disillusioned and angry words engraved on it) and box of glass hammers.

Curiosity and patience are a good thing, and once you go further inside Clark House, the art gets better. It’s certainly cleverer and more heartfelt. Desire Machine’s video is about the protests staged against the Assam Rifles headquarters in Imphal, after Thangjam Manorama was brutally raped and killed (allegedly by army personnel). It’s a sharp, powerful little video. I didn’t understand a lot of what the women in the video were saying but you can feel their rage and sadness. At one point, a woman screams in English, “We are all mothers of Manorama” and then you see a group of nude women holding a banner that reads, “Indian Army Rape Us.” I have no qualms admitting that I had tears in my eyes. The fact that you have to see it in a dank, gloomy little corridor makes the viewing experience that much more powerful.

Extreme left: Joag's cocoon. In the mirror: the cheesy butterfly. Click for larger view

Near Desire Machine, is Tushar Joag. He’s in a cocoon of sorts. Basically, he’s holed up at the end of a corridor. You can barely see him because the fourth “wall” is a mesh of string, which gives it the cocoon effect. Inside, Joag is writing out one line repeatedly: “I will not lose faith in the Indian judiciary and democracy”. A couple of exercise books are kept outside, should visitors want to help him out by writing the line for him. Outside the cocoon is a reasonably cheesy butterfly made up of words like equality and democracy (just in case you didn’t get the metaphor). Joag will be cutting himself loose on May 30, I think. The starting point of Right to Dissent is this performance/endurance piece by Joag. He’s been wanting to do this since Dr. Binayak Sen was arrested, I think, and he essentially got the artists who have taken part in the show to give works and add some star power to it. When I was there, Joag’s son (or at least a kid that calls him “Baba”) had come to visit. He peered in through the little slit in the string wall and chatted with Joag. Then he was dragged away by his mum. “I want to see Baba,” the kid wailed. His mother patiently told him that Baba was working. “You can’t see him now. He can’t come out,” she said. “But why can’t he come out?” the kid asked. “Because he’s working. Does Baba come and disturb you when you’re doing your homework?” his mother asked. The kid paused for a moment and then said, “Yes.” It was quite, quite heartbreaking. I stuck around and wrote three pages of that one line in a notebook and while writing, I couldn’t help wondering at Joag’s convictions and the futility of all this. As wonderful as it is to see someone who is as idealistic as Joag, it’s also disheartening to face the cold hard reality that initiatives like this are barely noticed. But kudos to the boys and girls and artists like Joag who persevere with their protests, largely unfazed.

Shilpa Gupta's triple metal cage. Click for larger view

There are three other works that are well worth all the piss-fragrant air you breathe inside Clark House. Shilpa Gupta has a fantastic installation made up of three rusty metal cages, one inside the other. The piece casts fantastic shadows and has a mad claustrophobia to it. The fact that there is a little altar with gods and marigolds in the room makes it all the more eerie. Even when you’re outside the cage, as a viewer is, the shadows cage you and you’re walled in because Gupta is one of the artists who gets a room to her self. Super stuff. To see Potnis’s installation, you have to climb up a rickety ladder to a mezzanine floor that has a couple of desks and a cabinet. On the walls is fake lurid green moss, made of sponge. Quite obviously, Potnis has fashioned her idea of spaces being taken over (see Group Effort 1) for this show but it works. The whole place feels terribly cramped and the thick moss, particularly because of its obvious sponginess, just reeks of discomfort. You feel trapped and like a trespasser. Two video works by Majlis are up here as well, in a dark, file-stuffed corridor. They’re a bit slow and trying, especially because a narrow, dank shelf isn’t the most comfortable of places to watch a long video.

Finally, possibly my favourite work in the show: Reena Kallat’s superb installation. It’s a giant book on which the constitution of India in Braille is projected. After a bit, the dots start leaking, as though water has dropped on ink, and the page is first stained and then drowned in red. Once the whole page is red, the colour slowly fades and then on the whiteness, again the dots emerge. It’s a mesmerising work. Using Braille, Kallat points out how blind most of the population is about its rights and responsibilities and how unaware we are about what is written in the constitution. The dots quickly become reminiscent of bullet holes, recalling freedom fighters, insurgents and the random violence that takes place and is against the constitution but so frequently goes unmentioned. The bleeding ink also reminded me of the Rajasthani and Gujarati tie and dye patterns, which in turn suggests a pun between “die” and “dye”. I’d actually taken a video which I’d thought I’d put up but Kallat’s room is very dark and my video doesn’t capture any of the gut-wrenching redness of the bleeding text so I’ve nixed that idea.

For Kallat’s, Gupta’s and Joag’s work, I’m happy to ignore all the decay and decrepitude of Clark House. I have no idea whether this show will have any real impact upon the city or a single regular citizen, but it’s good to see initiatives like this. By which I don’t only mean Joag’s attempt at idealistic protest but also the idea of having curated shows like this that aren’t just a slapdash collection of works but an attempt at forming a coherent, critical argument with art.

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