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Reviewed by Monica Arora
Let me confess that I approached the enigmatic Chintan Upadhyay’s solo show called ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron – Redux’ with much trepidation. As a part of the visit, I deliberately chose not to Google the artist or any of his previous work so as not to get influenced by any pre-conceived notions or clichés. And surely, the exercise paid off as I was thoroughly ‘shaken and stirred’ after witnessing this unique display!
The installation tailor made by Chintan for this exhibition essentially works at two levels: the micro and the macro. So, on walking inside the gallery, the entire space seemed to have been very creatively ‘possessed’ on different levels by Chintan’s artworks. Mostly comprising of misshapen knitted sweaters twisted beyond recognition into myriad shapes and structures with the help of metallic wires, the sculptures seemed to spring out from everywhere – the walls, ceilings, floor, et al. The onlooker slowly got the feeling of walking into a complete space, infused with interesting elements. The artist himself said that it is almost akin to walking into a stitched garment from the neck down to the buttons (represented by the round images along the staircase) and seams contained by myriad stitches (represented by the many many images of men’s heads being covered by unusual garments – entitled ‘Known Unknown’), the garment being embellished occasionally (represented by ‘Fly on the Wall’) right down to the end of the garment (represented by ‘Shramjeevi Express’).
All this is fine at a micro or basic level but what is the artist exactly trying to portray through this labour of love? Over some steaming Americano and cool lemonade, I chatted up with Chintan at the tranquil ‘Café Turtle’ and discovered his angst. Being an extremely people savvy and socially conscious citizen, Chintan believes that the role of an artist is to observe the trends and behavioral traits in our community and accordingly offer some ‘clues’ or little ‘codes’ through one’s art for society to ponder over issues that need utmost attention. Hailing from the colourful state of Rajasthan, Chintan perceives himself as an ‘outsider’ in the metropolitans, be it Delhi or Bombay, and is extremely fraught at the socio-economic and political marginalization of those who come to these big cities seeking livelihood. And that torment forms the core of this exhibition.
The misshapen sweaters represent these very immigrants from the villages, districts, mofussil town and deep interiors of poverty-stricken states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and so on. Over a period of time they are relegated to the fringes of society in these huge, flashy cities where they gain employment as construction workers, or domestic helps or assistants to manual workers or in the cramped factories where they are churning out assembly-line products. The anonymous man whose face is hidden by these sweaters or who is working in a herd, huddled along with fellow co-workers as in Trophies From A New Empire is akin to these nameless laborers who toil day and night and at dusk, when they are exhausted, how they collapse anywhere, on roadsides, park benches, under flyovers, night shelters and so on. The heart-wrenching centre-piece of this display, named Shramjeevi Express after the train coming in from the interiors of Bihar, comprises of used sweaters stuffed into misshapen objects and strewn carelessly across the floor. On closer inspection they resemble human bodies and when Darpana Capoor, Gallery Espace’s Manager said, “Go ahead – walk over them”, I shuddered. Such is the impact of these installations!
Similarly the three parts of Fly on the Wall and Known Unknown are again depicting these supporting workers, who quietly slog away to make our lives more comfortable and yet have no distinct identity. The Maid to Order section is extremely interesting as it features these small wooden boxes reminiscent of multi-storeyed high rises bursting at the seam of every major city of not just India, but the world. Inside are ensconsed these domestic maids who are commonly serving as house-helps for millions of urban families and one gets a sense of their claustrophobia inside this confined space. Moreover, the multi-coloured hues of the differently-shaped stuffed toys remind us of their diverse backgrounds and cultural identities from where they belong and how it gets completely lost in the cities.
Chintan is a very involved and interactive person and as a result, he has involved scores of friends, family members and his mother in this project for knitting these sweaters (the red coloured piece Weigh Me Up Weigh Me Down was single-handedly knitted by his mother and reflects how society is perpetually judging a lone woman trying to support her family). In fact, since he grew up watching his mother knit in order to eke out a living and support her family, that has stayed somewhere in the inner recesses of his mind. Not just freshly knitted pieces, he has also deployed used pieces as he says that “each piece or garment carries its own energy, its special aura.” The loneliness of that piece when it exchanges hands from one owner to the other or hand-me-downs that we pass on unthinkingly to our staff is reflected in his installations.
Finally, I quipped why the name ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron – Redux’? He smiled and replied, “Simply because that’s how we feel towards these hapless immigrant workers. Their lives are worthless. And also it implies ‘laying down of lives’ as in ‘jaane bhi do’ and therein lies the pun.” I was speechless!