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It’s two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. The central atrium of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum is buzzing with the excited chatter of schoolchildren. Right down the middle of the hall is an exhibit titled Meridian: Experiments in Time Travel. It comprises a flat instrument called a Philips Planisphere and two sets of a series of prints depicting the stars as viewed from the museum grounds. One set shows the twilight sky, as seen at 6:30 pm and the other shows the night sky, as seen at 10 pm. Two young boys next to me lean over the vitrines, one says to the other, “I’ve seen exactly this, using an app on my smart phone.”
He’s not off by much; many of the apps used by amateur astronomers are based on instruments developed centuries ago to observe the skies, such as the Planisphere, which was recently discovered in BDL’s collection by assistant curator Himanshu Kadam. That, says Rohini Devasher, was the start of her exhibition, “Speculations from the Field”, which is currently on at the Byculla museum. “As soon as Himanshu found the Planisphere, the work in the central atrium came together,” she says.
The Noida-based artist used the antiquated instrument to map how the star-scattered sky above the museum would look on August 20, across 20,000 years, starting from 416 AD, right until 21016 AD. By presenting to the visitors a view of the stars that spans 200 centuries, Meridian performs the function of a time machine. It also introduces them to more complex ideas about the dilation of time in space, and reminds them that our measures of time — hours, days, years, centuries — aren’t capacious enough to contain time as it exists outside the human experience. “I wanted to suggest the idea of Deep Time (geologic time), through my works,” says Devasher, adding, “Geology, paleontology, astronomy are all Deep Time sciences, because they deal with long time scales, so huge that for the human mind to truly comprehend them is a feat.”
As the name of the exhibition suggests, the idea of the ‘field’ is central to the work. Devasher, 38, says, “I’ve been an amateur astronomer for years and one of the implications that the ‘field’ has for me, is as a site for observation. I’ve traveled around the country with other astronomers, making observations from the ‘field’, and the BDL became one such site.”
With the exhibit Deep Time, Devasher engages with the concept of the ‘field’ through the paradigms of archaeology, where the field is a site of past activity — a nod, not just to the archaeological samples held by the museum, but also to how the institution itself has changed over time.
In a room displaying fossil and mineral samples dating back to the Jurassic, Silurian and other ancient periods, the artist has used a wall to create a drawing that suggests a fossilised form. The idea, she says, was to present the verticality of time, as understood in archaeology. The drawing, then, is an effort to understand the concept of Deep Time through a fictitious form.
For years now, Devasher has used her practice to explore the intersections of science and art. “The only difference between science and art, really, is how one is trained. The ideas of the field, observation and recording are used in science, but also in art,” says she, “Whether you are a scientist or an artist, you have to be able to imagine questions and follow your intuition.”
To this end, Devasher lets the rules of speculative fiction (SF) frame her observations. “When we use the word ‘record’, it suggests a certain truth or objectivity, but I like to subvert that,” says the artist. Thus, an expedition to the Maunsell Seaforts, relics of the Second World War, is filmed in a manner that emphasises the strangeness of these huge metallic structures. The film, Shivering Sands: Chaos and Coincidences of History, makes the viewer question the origins of these structures, reminding one of the extra-terrestrial war machines one might encounter in a HG Wells novel. This fictionalization is stronger in Encounters of the Remote Kind & Field Notes, in which Devasher plucks the seaforts from their location in the Thames and Mersey estuaries, and places them on completely fabricated landscapes where they appear more at home.
The other exhibits are also experiments in making the familiar unfamiliar and vice versa. In Terrasphere, Devasher creates yet another planet, with 59 still images projected on a pedestal with a curved surface. This fictional planet is covered almost entirely with vegetation and reminds one of the Forest Moon of Endor from the Star Wars universe. In Atmospheres, she inverts the idea of Earth as the Blue Planet by shooting a view of the sky through the telescope at the Gauribidanur Observatory near Bangalore. What we finally see is a spherical, planet-like form — blue like the Earth, but criss-crossed by wires, trees and birds. “What I ultimately want is for the viewer to feel awe and wonder at familiar sights,” says Devasher.