It was her husband who drew Meera Devidayal’s attention to the rippling, silvered surface of the Arabian sea reflected in the glass panes of Nariman Point. She was visiting him in his office that evening in December 2015, when he directed her to the window from which could be seen the undulating reflections. “I hadn’t noticed them before, but once I did, I couldn’t stop looking. I didn’t immediately know what to do with these reflections, but I did know that I wanted to capture them and use them in my work in some way,” says Devidayal.
Over the next couple of months, armed with a Canon 550D, the artist shot videos of the sea as it heaved and shimmered on the window panes of buildings in the South Mumbai business district. “Nariman Point, as we know, was built by reclaiming land from the sea. The buildings are all so close together now that sometimes you can’t spot the sea at all. But it finds a way of making its presence felt, even if it is through these reflections,” says the 71-year-old artist. These videos of the Arabian Sea became the seed from which her latest exhibition “Water Has Memory”, on view at Chemould Prescott Road, grew.
To walk through the exhibition, it is best to begin with the three-channel video installation that gives the exhibition its name. On three walls of a small room, resounding with the sound of waves as they crash on the shore, are projected videos of how the sea will eventually claim all that was taken away from it. Images of the concrete jungle slowly being overwhelmed by water are intercut with the sea’s reflection, as filmed by the artist. This battle between two unequal forces — human enterprise and the relentlessness of the sea — is also depicted in the two works titled Mirage. One is a mixed media on canvas, depicting — in a reversal of sorts from Water Has Memory — sea water reflecting structures that could very well be described as temples of capitalism. The other work titled Mirage is a video depicting the sea of people that, like the tides of the actual ocean, goes in and out of Nariman Point. To highlight the claustrophobic development of the city — especially when juxtaposed against the openness of the sea that fringes it — three walls of the room in which the video is projected have been covered with images of buildings that cover Mumbai’s landscape.
Devidayal, for whom this city has been home and a “hunting ground for ideas” for the last five decades, says that her attempt with the latest works is not to capture the beauty of the sea. “I’m not a nature person. I’m very much an urban artist and for me the human element is essential in any subject that I work with,” she says. This has been the case in her previous works too; for example, in the 2014 show “A Terrible Beauty”, Devidayal mused over the decline of Mumbai’s mills and how the city’s aspirations for the future are now being projected on their grand ruins. A similar exploration of the city’s aspirations — and its relationship to the sea, of course — can be seen in the works in “Water Has Memory”. The suite of works, Serene Brutality of the Ocean, for instance, probe the role that the sea — the concept as well as the natural body — has played in the story of humanity. Boats loaded with humans, a path cutting through waves and a line of people marching through water — these images evoke journeys made and struggles surmounted throughout history. There are other works that are more directly linked to current stories of migration and aspiration. For instance, in Sea as City, the artist presents the city itself as an embodiment of dreams, and in Chipping Away the Ocean, construction workers do their job, unmindful of their role in shaping the urbanscape. “We’ve been gouging land out of the sea all these years, and in a sense, pushing the sea out. This is both because of our need and because of our greed. But the sea is lying there, waiting, and sooner or later it always strikes back,”