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Jitish Kallat’s long meditation on life and death in the city

7 February 2017

‘Cut whole from the cloth of Bombay’. This sums up Jitish Kallat for Peter Nagy who, since reopening Nature Morte gallery in Delhi in 1997 (it originally operated from New York’s East Village, 1982–88) has been trailblazing in his support of cutting-edge Indian art. Kallat’s native city of Mumbai, still affectionately called Bombay by many people, does indeed shine through his work. Yet, despite shows in Delhi and Mumbai, and his bold artistic direction of the second edition of India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale, his global success has not been fully appreciated at home. Several of his landmark pieces in Germany, the US, Australia, China and elsewhere have not yet been enjoyed in India, nor have they been displayed in the context of his other work. So ‘Jitish Kallat: Here After Here’ – a huge mid career retrospective in Delhi of more than 100 works made over 25 years – seems timely. The display fills two parts of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), whose core is Sir Arthur Bloomfield’s 1936 townhouse designed for the Maharaja of Jaipur. With this new national recognition, Kallat joins an elite group that includes Anish Kapoor and Subodh Gupta.

Modus Vivendi (1000 People/1000 Homes) (2002), Jitish Kallat. Collection Nitin Bhayana

Modus Vivendi (1000 People/1000 Homes) (2002), Jitish Kallat. Collection Nitin Bhayana

The show is not chronological. Rather, it follows Kallat’s deep engagement with ideas about time, sustenance and historical recall. These concerns began early: as Nagy says, ‘Jitish popped out of the womb as an artist.’ As a student at Mumbai’s Sir J J School of Art Kallat was already exhibiting; his first solo show was in 1997, aged 23. Paintings from this time break away from the neatness of many of his fellow artists. Kallat ridges, scars and scrapes the surface, reflecting the grittiness and messiness of his city, and creating a sense of age. ‘I would peel off paint in places to reveal the white canvas’, says Kallat, ‘so that in the end you have a new painting that looks old, like the passing of time.’ He refines this in Modus Vivendi (1000 people/1000 homes) (2002), and again in Quarantine Day (2003) where he captures the defiant energy of people-filled Mumbai.

Baggage Claim (2010), Jitish Kallat. Centre Pompidou, Paris

Baggage Claim (2010), Jitish Kallat. Centre Pompidou, Paris

In a more recent painting, Baggage Claim (2010), he pushes further. The painting has a clear sense of location: the wide-mouthed bronze gargoyles holding it up are casts of the ones decorating Mumbai’s landmark Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (formerly the Victoria Terminus) railway station. But the painting itself transcends place and time. An everyday scene of men informally sitting down is given the treatment of a history painting: the sitters hold a squashed up crashed car and a collapsed home, symbolised by an insect-infested box. ‘I am meditating on life and death in the city. Any city we live in is a little window through which we seek the truth. It’s the only choice we have, our own tunneled vision of the world.’ Syzygy (2013), a sculpture made from dental plaster, again depicts four seated men, but this time they hover between waking and sleeping, one leaning on the shoulder of another. It depicts ‘the moment’, Kallat says, ‘when we don’t claim anything, are tolerant, give comfort yet don’t entirely let go’.

Epilogue (detail; 2011), Jitish Kallat

Epilogue (detail; 2011), Jitish Kallat

Several rooms in the exhibition are filled with Kallat’s monumental installations. Epilogue (2011) is a memorial to the artist’s father. It depicts the 22,889 moon phases of his father’s life in growing and crumbling rotis – the flat circular bread eaten in India. Kallat dubs it ‘my luna-rotis’, explaining that it is ‘distilling real lived time, the family bread, into an external recurring celestial phenomenon’. Space restrictions mean that some of Kallat’s biggest works are only partially represented, with photographs of the full installations displayed nearby. Circa (2011), a fantastical scaffold of the sort seen all over Mumbai, has been enjoyed in full in Kallat’s home city. Made of cast resin, it also incorporates animal figures from Victoria Terminus station, and was installed in the polychrome gothic-inspired interior of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. Two chunks of it are in the current show.

Public Notice 2 (detail; 2007), Jitish Kallat

Public Notice 2 (detail; 2007), Jitish Kallat

Similarly, a part of Public Notice 2 (2007) is on display, one of a trilogy of text pieces created between 2003 and 2010 which together are probably Kallat’s most powerful work yet. This piece takes Mahatma Gandhi’s speech instructing his followers in peaceful civil disobedience on the eve of his Salt March in 1930, and reproduces it letter by letter in simulated resin bones to evoke sacred relics resulting from human aggression. A section of it is mounted floor to ceiling to fill one room of the show; a photograph of its full installation in Sydney is nearby. By redeploying a historic text in sculptural form, Kallat gives Gandhi’s words a new powerful presence, making them, as he says, ‘a mirror against which we assess our present; the opposite of calls we hear today for aggression and terror’. It is a monumental memorial to peaceful protest.

Public Notice 2 (2007), Jitish Kallat.

Public Notice 2 (2007), Jitish Kallat

‘Jitish Kallat: Here After Here’ is at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, until 14 March 2017.

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