Review by Georgina Maddox
August 10, 2014


Is it What You Think? 
January 30 –September 30, 2014
KNMA, 145, DLF South Court Mall, Saket, New Delhi

Prefacing the exhibition, “Is it What You Think? (Ruminations on Time Memory and Site)”curated by Roobina Karode at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art at the South Court Mall in Saket (New Delhi), are a collection of rare photographs that document a performance by the late iconic artist Rumana Hussain. It was a performance that was never video-documented and it speaks about her being a Muslim woman, the taboos around a woman’s body and how her acerbic text and path braking performances of the late 1980s and early 1990s challenged all of it. 

Still at the entrance of the main exhibition site is N.N. Rimzon’s iconic sculpture, ‘Inner Voice’, of a full-bodied tribal figure surrounded by an array of tools and weapons, he stands like a sentinel and testament to the violence that plagues human existence. Right next to this is Himmat Shah’s fired clay sculpture of a rather tortured human form twisted into sculptural folds. This sets the tone for what unfolds after you cross the threshold into a world of reflection and rumination.  

Stepping in, one encounters Vivan Sundaram’s Memorial, an installation that he created in 1993 after the communal riots in Mumbai, that were set off by the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The press photograph of an unclaimed body of one of the riot victims formed the key image to Sunadaram’s installation which he built around it. He recreated the form in plaster of Paris, encased it in a triangular funerary tomb and lit it with the antiseptic white-light of hospital rooms, brining an abandoned body into sharp focus. In a new interpretation of the installation Sundaram has added miniature models of half finished construction sites, a collection of blunt and sharp objects that hint to both utility and violence.  “The work simultaneously mourned and honoured the innocent victims of this carnage,” writes Sundaram. 

Further down we encounter Anita Dube’s installation that pulls away from the local and focuses on the international. She fuses together the spaces of Bathhouse Bunker and Museum as spaces of conflict and violence in Iraq war, where the homeless and destitute are the fallout of this carnage.  Navjot Altaf’s Lacuna in Testimony is brilliantly displayed and captures the fading images of various found footage of war victims, against the soothing blue backdrop of the sea—almost as if these memories and testimonies were washed away with time. 

Other works are Atul Dodiya’s cabinets that speak of memory, Zarina Hasmi’s sculptures of homes on wheels, speak of migration and Gulammohammed Sheikh’s mobile temple, Kaavad: Ayodhya Mirage that is constructed as a fold out Hindu temple, displays images of the Babri Masjid demolition. Bangladeshi migrant and artist Aprita Singh’s canvas talk of displacement during war time while some rare drawings by Krishna Kumar and Surendran Nair share their Left leanings through poetic and poignant imagery. 

One may argue, why should we view these works now? In fact this exhibition could not have been timed better. In the face of a ‘so called’ Right Wing Wave, we as a nation must revive our memories about the histories of violence, so that we do not continue to repeat our mistakes and perpetuate through our apathy this cycle of bloodshed. 

“The pertinent question that haunts our minds today is linked to the crisis of a decadent humanity that the world at large and India in particular is grappling with,” says Karode. The selected artists have been committed to a socially engaged practice for long years. “Through their seminal work, themes that touch upon issues of oppression, violence, historical identity and cultural memory will be addressed in diverse formats and modes of representation,” she adds.

For Kiran Nadar, this is perhaps the most political exhibition she has hosted in the very public space of her mall-museum. “Part of the inspiration of having the show was to challenge political apathy,” she states. “It was not an easy show to put together since 50 percent of the works are borrowed and are on loan, but the aim of the museum is not just to create hype with highly-priced block-buster works by Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta and S H Raza, but to expose people to the happenings of our society,” says Nadar. 

Just as an aside, Nadar’s commitment to the exhibition was so complete that money was not an issue, even though none of the works are for sale. N N Rimzon’s sculpture was transported from the Fukuoka Museum in Japan, at a cost that outstripped the actual price that the museum paid to acquire the sculpture. 

Another behind-the-scenes story is of how getting an exhibition of such mammoth proportions took time and effort, along with several good-natured altercations with artists who wanted their works displayed in a particular way, but Karode had to maintain her ground to put her vision of the show design into practice. 

Besides the well known artists and iconic works, there are also works by the younger generation of artists, like Shilpa Gupta whose dark witty work addresses the violence of censorship in literature. “Someone Else’s Library” is a collection of a 100 books written anonymously or under pseudonyms. “The authors either wanted to hide their gender—like J K Rowling who thought she would not be taken seriously as a woman writing the Harry Potter Series, or Muslim authors who could not publish under their own names,” explains Gupta. 

 Now the only quibble that the gutsy team at KNMA has is the lack of footfalls for an exhibition of this stature and importance. Sadly if this exhibition had been hosted in the US or in Europe, there would be people queuing up to see the show, which incidentally is free of cost! “Delhi does not have an ethos of a museum culture and we have been trying to change that. To some extent I think we have found the numbers of people who visit the museum on a day to day basis go up, but the change is glacial—we need to speed things up and get to the point quickly where people will debate over going to the cinema or the museum,” says Nadar.  We could not agree more.