Tearing The Heart Out : Navjot Altaf – A Life In Art – at NGMA, Mumbai

by Gopika Nath
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It was in 1997, while working on a textile revival project in Bastar, that I first heard of Navjot Altaf. While driving from Raipur to Jagdalpur, when we halted at Kondagaon, I learnt of the project she had recently started there. I was intrigued because the villages of Bastar were unlike any other in India. The poverty and worldly innocence I had witnessed proved a tremendous test of conscience in resepct of the assignment I’d been hired for, and I wondered about her experiences. Reading about her art and seeing some videos and sculptures at galleries in Delhi and on visits to Mumbai, had not been enough to get to the nub of her contribution or challenges. So, when I heard that Nancy Adjania had curated a retrospective of her oeuvre, slated for viewing in December 2018, I co-ordinated my travel plans to Kutch, returning via Mumbai, to ensure that I didn’t miss seeing this exhibition :‘The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out.’

Displayed within the semi-circular, multi-level galleries at the historical Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall – a late-colonial, Science Society building subsequently converted into the National Gallery of Modern Art, were paintings, drawing, prints, posters, sculptures and videos rife with an emphatic express. Of a radical artist, who as a young schoolgirl, “while running wild in the pine-covered valley of Dalhousie…..felt the first stirrings to be an artist”. And her art, spoke evocatively of an innocent soul’s, almost violent response to a perceived violation of that sense of freedom. Where, as curator Adjania pointed out “She will fight every sullen bureaucrat, hostile censor and pursue every clue until she has a kaleidoscopic view of the situation at hand.”

Emergency, Silk Screen Print, 1977, 20 x 15 inches

Her artistic yearning to break free, from the binds of authority, gender, caste, tradition and even the physical confines of the body, was seemingly heightened by the spiral stairway – its coils contributing to the excoriated angst, rising towards an imagined goal of liberation. Beginning with images from pre-college years, intermingling with experiments in the socio-economic dialectic of Marxism, weaving through the politics and ideals of feminism, meandering towards the life, livelihood and art making of the Adivasis of Bastar; culled from an art-practice spanning half a century, was a rather overwhelming exposition of over two hundred art-works. Snaking their way up five levels of the gallery, culminating with the iconic dome-ceiling projection of a sublime video.

A ‘transcultural’ artist, travelling between Bombay and Bastar, while also collaborating or interacting with artists and researchers across Europe, the US and Latin America. Navjot Altaf’s trajectory could well be termed a quest, centred not on the pursuits of the unseen, abstract notions of self – beyond the physicality of form. But, more like a mission to understand the political dynamics of an unequal social milieu and locating herself, through this exploration. Defining the tonality of her own voice – speaking from within spaces that were not as privileged; facilitating their discourse vide her own indignation.

Video Still of ‘ Soul Breath Wind’

The title for the exhibition is cited as a tribute to voices suppressed by apathetic authorities, presented in the film ‘Soul Breath Wind’. Of assertions of the people of Chattisgarh denouncing unregulated mining of their land in connivance with the State. And where, Nirupama, a farmer from Chattisgarh, in warning of the disastrous outcome of displacing them from ancestral lands and of disemboweling the earth, says: “Purein dharti ka kaleja nikaal diya”. And,‘ The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out’ also becomes symbolic of Navjot’s creative outpouring.

Ancient Water Sign, Nalpar, Bastar

At the base of the dominant, spiralling, chrome stairwell leading from the ground up into the impressive vaulted ceiling, spanning the fulness of its generous curve and not unlike graffiti, was an odd sort of marking. The blue symbol painted on freshly white-washed, cemented walls turned out to be an ancient water sign. It was part of the Nalpar project in Bastar, which had matured from studying the parallel but different modes of art making, (her own and the Adivasi’s) into creating innovative public sites where women, children, and men of all ages come for the mundane job of drawing water for domestic or other usage. In studying the significance of signs, symbols and objects incorporated by the communities during rituals and social functions, their integration and continuance, over centuries of living and in their spiritual life, this symbol became one of the structures designed in collaboration with the Adivasi artists. Transforming hitherto uncomfortable and unhealthy modes of collecting water into an aesthetic activity. An unusual art project where the participant was also a viewer as well as, a possible, future user of the site.

How Perfect Can Perfection Be, 2015-2018, Water colour drawing on Wasli paper and PVC transfer on acrylic, 22.5 x 32 inches each

There was no specific chronological order to the display. Adjania placed Altaf’s photographic series ‘Abdul Rehman Street’, shot during her student days in the early 1970s, alongside recent, millennial water-colours, on the ground level. Emphasizing the non-linear progression of the artist’s creative development, she collated various other phases, on subsequent ones. With her portrayal as a young woman through Marxism and JJ school of Art on the third floor and effects of ‘violence on sociality’ on the second. Structuring the show such that each phase is self-consistent within its space/level and the curatorial mise-en-scene allows for conversations across the various levels in the spiral-shaped NGMA building.

Factory Series, 1982 – Ink of Board Paper, 24 x 30 inches

Here, in dramatic, high contrast black and white tones of ink onboard paper, of the ‘Factory’ series, made during the turbulence of Bombay’s labour movement and disruptive textile strike of 1982, Navjot compelled us bear witness to image-fragments that, bereft of human presence, and by implication humane ideologies, implode upon themselves. Exemplifying the militant approach of Dutta Samant – the movement’s trade union leader, which successful to a point, ended in disastrous defeat: of jobless workers and factories converted into real estate assets by factory owners.

On level four, in revealing ‘transgressions’, Adjania tells us that “Navjot was deeply troubled by the gaping lacuna in regard to gender inequality in Marxist discourse”. A question that opened up “both ideological and iconographic problems” compelling her “redefine the representation of the woman’s body… imprinted by the insidious forces of patriarchal socialisation.” Drawing inspiration from female surrealist painters Carrington and Kahlo who refused to “play the muse to male artists……foregrounding their own desires and subjectivities” Altaf appears in a self-portrait, with large spiral coils emerging from her vagina. In another painting, from the early 1990s, colouring the background of the canvas in a powerful shade of red and representing the female body through tactile, pebbled textures, was an endeavour to legitimize the act of masturbation. Navjot thus, drew attention to the pleasuring female self – rarely depicted in contemporary Indian painting.

Being an artist myself, makes the act of viewing an informed and engaging process. But, seeing effort of this diversity, intensity and scale, one somehow overlooked the details of every canvas or watercolour brushwork and video, going beyond specifics of each, searching for the artist. Where did Navjot Altaf stand in the midst of these marks – the ridges, rents and commentary zig-zagging the complexities of contemporary society which had provoked her art. And what was the crux of her cry?

I read her commentary as a pursuit for relevance. To find meaning and purpose and also one of frustration in the inadequacy of art alone, to do this. Which almost contradicted the free-spirited run in the woodlands, awakening the artist in her. On level 3, Through the ‘Proyom’ posters, in “Dreaming of the Revolution” art is designed for modes of public communication, but in that tonality of stark contrasts – of marks weighted with rigidness of steel/ mortar/glass and urban an imprint, it was impossible to trace even a glimpse of the free soul that once roamed the pine covered valley.

Surfaces, 1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12, 11 x 15 inches each

Surfaces, 1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12, 11 x 15 inches each

As I walked from image to image of strident lines and compositions, listened to the cacophony of videos competing to be heard; the responsive outcome of this audio-visual impress, which crowded and stifled my senses, was empathetic. I too wanted to see her free.

Surfaces, 1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12, 11 x 15 inches each

Thoughtful, I sat on one of the benches trying to clarify my insights, but multiple videos playing simultaneously with full volume, jarred. The sound of crashing oceanic waves, a woman wailing or something akin to howling and then something else superimposed on these audios, was disconcerting. But uncannily, it also evoked the artist’s many voices. A constant, conflicting inner dialogue externalised through art, overlaid on the walls at all the levels I had ambled through. An attitude that struggled and fought but intended to find a way. A fundamental vision that had the passion, the will, the courage to express its confusion and it’s floundering anxiety. And the lacunae – not just in the attempt to listen to the testimonies of those affected in the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, but a generally pervading inadequacy. In the willingness to really listen and the foreboding of not being heard.

Lacuna in Testimony, video still of 3 channel video with 60 mirror pieces

Reminding again and again of the churning and constant thrust of unequal forces in the social fabric that intimidated and magnetized the artist to seek a larger purpose, beyond the personal. Defying the intellect and its formalized learning, as she witnessed the fallibility of existing knowledge in tackling the inequalities pervading the socio-economics of contemporary living.

Dev Nathan and Vasanthi Raman, core group members of Proyom and Navjot’s friends from 1970’s, interviewed in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Prisoners of Conscience in 1978

The 1990s proved a turning point, as art installations paved ways for artistic collaborations that not only altered conventional art-viewer relationships, but provided the potential for collaborative democratisation. And the earlier threads of Marxism, feminism and activism, inspired by debates on demarcations between westernized forms of art and rural craft, coalesced. Where, from 1997 onwards, Navjot began an active collaboration with Adivasi artists sharing in their lives and improvising a two-way learning and art-making process. Cultural-theorist Nancy Adjania, who has followed Altaf’s work closely, informed that the transition from Bombay to Bastar was not easy. “She and her artist colleagues found themselves working hard to overcome the barriers of class, gender, location, language, education and world-view.” And, that it took two decades of engagement with Bastar, to evolve new forms of artistic dialogue through collaborative and cooperative projects such as Nalpar, at the micro-political level of village and district.

The retrospective exhibition as a whole had a profound but disturbing effect. It made me revisit my own anxieties with regard to a self-absorbed, isolated art practice. There were no pretty pictures to comfort, nor transcendence to reassure. It was all about community and the trauma of belonging and unbelonging. A veritable abduction of the self. Yet, when she brought back hope, it was harking back to Marxism. In the capacity to live together, among each other as equals.

They Clean our Compound, 1977, Silk-screen print 21 x 14

Wading through the dark messages, doomed social inequity and cries of careless living tearing out the heart of the earth, exhausted by the gloom, I heaved myself up to the last level. What else could there be to learn about this devastating world, where all her struggles had not achieved enough to let the light shine through – for tranquillity of soul to prevail in the accomplishment of its goals.

Links Destroyed and Rediscovered’ (1994) Site specific installation

Reaching the last step, I was confronted with an unwieldly plethora of dark, black, plastic pipes spilling out like the ghastly excess of sewage in our polluted cities. Contrasted with this, on the opposite side of the stepped passage was a reprieve in the minimalist, meditative grid-mesh of ‘Between Memory and History’. Where Navjot had created a secular shrine, replacing the traditional vermillion thread prayer-knots of a dargah, with white paper ribbons inscribed with questions and words “from testimonial literature” that the viewer was invited to open. I did, to find the telling words of “abduction” and some illegibly over-typed text, signifying a lack of clarity, so essential in finding the answer to one’s prayer.

‘Between Memory and History’, Site specific Installation

From Partition, female infanticide, to factory strikes, unregulated mining, riots and pogroms, to collaborative practices with Adivasi craftsman, the irrepressible artist-activist in Navjot Altaf had involved herself in myriad ways with a chaotic and seemingly unfair world. She had an opinion on many matters and hadn’t averred from expressing volubly. An artistic journey riddled with the scars of a traumatic path, was an equally dark and distressing passage, for me as the viewer. She presented social conundrums, gender issues and artistic concerns, but the overwhelming question that I came home with, was of myself as a creative individual in such a dysfunctional and disparate society. In Fin-de-Siècle (end of 19th century) Europe, when socio-political structures had begun to disillusion, the artist, writer, composer and poet’s inner navigation had provided direction. Today, vide Altaf, this thinking was being re-aligned. Where the artist could not take her subtle role and subliminal significance for granted, but must strive, against all the odds of an indifferent social ethos, to carve a relevance, however tenuous.

‘Between Memory and History’, detail

‘Between Memory and History’, detail

Ingeniously projected, on the concave interior of the dome, was a video of insects and spiders working in perfect tandem. “Inspired by Gregory Bateson’s ideas about patterns which connect both the realms of the human mind and nature, and his belief that if we break those patterns we destroy both the ecology and human lives, Navjot set up a kaleidoscope that promises the possibility of inter-species communication”

Digitally fashioned this Kaleidoscope reproduced snowflake-like patterns, albeit in the colours of the natural world and not the innocence of snowy white. Taking me back to the scientific notations of Masaru Emoto and his treatise on the ‘Hidden Messages in Water’. Of his experiments that showed that the greater perfection in symmetry, visible in the snowflake crystal formation, it reflected a higher level of purity in the water source that had been frozen. Forming 70% of the human physiognomy, water is impacted by words and sound – the music we play and the things we say to each other. The grace and gratitude or hate and anger we express towards the semi-aqueous body of self and others, impacts through this innate feature. In close proximity of the ‘Shrine’, the symmetrically repeating, Kaleidoscopic patterns of the natural world, appeared as Navjot’s sublime evocation of a prayer – her life-time’s quest for lived harmony. A wish, a hope that hadn’t dimmed despite the odds – of tearing her heart out. The undying courage of a determined, optimistic soul, creatively devising her out of the wilderness.

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