A few feet from the entrance, visitors at Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) are suddenly sucked into an expansive wooden arched structure with decorative columns, facade and a long corridor. Made using old wooden dismantled structures, it leads into a dwelling place, a room reminiscent of the place artist Sudarshan Shetty grew up in; his childhood was spent in the interiors of a chawl near the Kohinoor Mill in Mumbai. It’s a subject that remains close to Shetty’s heart, and marks its presence in his shows every now and then. In his latest solo show “Shoonya Ghar”, the 54-year-old Mumbai-based artist has attempted to recreate the minutest details of his room with the help of his memory. There is a white mosquito net on top of the bed, a dressing table replete with cosmetic products, old dust-covered utensils lined up on the shelf, a side table full of toys, besides an old television and a harmonium.
The grandiose assemblage and the accompanying videos, sculptural installations and photographs at the show embody 12th century poet Gorakhnath’s poem, “Shunya gadh shahar, shahar ghar basti (In the empty fort, a city, in the city, a settlement)”. As Shetty goes through the second line of the poem — “Who sleeps, who wakes?” — he says, “During the construction of a doha, often the first line establishes an image and the second line offers a diverse image. The two may have no connection, yet they come together. I have tried to lend in that narrative, much like a mediator.”
The essence of the show is hard to decipher without viewing an hour-long film playing in an adjacent room, that forms the crux of “Shoonya Ghar”. Several objects on display at the show — from the bicycle used by one of the protagonists to the wheelchair used by an old man — have been handpicked from scenes in the film.
The architectural structure placed near the entrance was initially assembled at an abandoned quarry near Lonavala, in the western ghats of Maharashtra, a site Shetty grew very fond of and intrigued with. Even on the screen, the drama unfolds within it, with various characters representing birth, death, dance, play, music and violence through local traditions of storytelling. An infant can be seen walking past the corridor, a young girl dances in the building premises, a child learns music from her teacher stationed next to her harmonium, love kindles between a couple, and an old man dies. A separate room at the exhibit has nine actors on separate television screens giving facial expressions to the nine rasas integral to the Indian classical tradition, as seen in the film.
This is not the first time that Shetty has experimented with poetic verses. In 2013, Shetty’s exhibition featured five hand-carved reliefs depicting two elephants in a jungle, each carrying inventive translations of a single line from a poem by 12th century Sufi mystic and musician Amir Khusrau, “Bahut kathin hai dagar panghat ki (The path to the well is rough)”. A set of Mahatma Gandhi’s nine black-and-white historical images, where the dhoti-clad figure can be seen walking with a mob, have also been morphed by the artist, and is hard to spot until pointed out. He has inserted the same architectural wooden building along with its corridors and facade into the photographs. He says, “Here is an image of historical evidence and I have tried to introduce the idea of fiction in it.”
The aim of the show for the artistic director of the upcoming third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is fairly simple. “I wish that everybody comes and tells their stories. This is a show that needs a lot of time to soak in. It is different and unusual with the kind of shows I do and that is why it is quite significant. It doesn’t happen that often in contemporary art,” says the artist. His latest venture certainly qualifies as evidence in favour of his statement.