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Spiderwoman at the public zoo


Can an adornment be attractive and ugly at the same time?

A cobweb made of enlarged rubber stamps covers the façade of Mumbai's Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Cobweb/Crossings by Reena Kallat is the inaugural public art exhibit funded by the Italian fashion label Zegna. It was chosen from a kitty of cherry-picked artists such as Gigi Scaria, Hema Upadhyay, Srinivasa Prasad and A Balasubramaniam, who were invited to send in their proposals. Visitors can peruse their project proposals inside the museum, perhaps to see where those who were not selected for the honour of being a Zegna-funded artist went wrong. After much deliberation, the jury deemed Kallat fit for an artwork that drapes Mumbai's oldest museum in a tangle of good intentions, visual bravado, relevant historicity and acrobatic impracticalities.

Cobweb/Crossings is a project that draws inspiration from the decolonising of the city via the renaming drive Mumbai has undergone. And don't Mumbaikars (formerly known as Bombayites) know about it. Marine Drive is Subhash Chandra Bose Marg, Breach Candy is Bhulabhai Desai Road and Victoria Terminus is Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. These re-christenings might be adolescent happenings when compared to the spectrum of Indian history but, sadly, renaming, as recent a phenomenon as it may be, is loaded with political tidings, not always pleasant to the denizens of a cosmopolitan metropolis. Many historians believe that renaming a city and its neighbourhoods strips citizens of their agency, historical, nostalgic or cultural. But this hasn't stopped India from its crusade to erase the stamp of colonialism. Aside from Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangaluru are other metros that have reverted to their former names.

In keeping with the theme of a larger hand at play, enlarged rubber stamps are used to invoke the bureaucratic machinery that facilitates and institutionalises the erasure of the past and the imprinting of a newer (brasher?) reality. However, as mentioned before, renaming institutions and streets and cities is a tangle that is more complicated than merely a bureaucratic stamp. In this regard, Cobweb/Crossings does not adequately address the complexities involved in reinstating vernacular monikers. The project on a visual level is stunning and subverts the idea of 'adornment'. The cobweb that exists in nature is a delicate work of art. In encumbering such an exquisite and natural geometrical form with something as ungainly as magnified rubber stamps, Cobweb/Crossings does indeed look like one of those wilted, oversized garlands that hang off statues or political hoardings across our nation. Can an adornment be attractive and ugly at the same time? Reena Kallat certainly strikes a fine balance here. Also, in creating an installation that draws attention to Bhau Daji Lad's location (it is housed in the precincts of a public zoo), a spider's web adds a nice touch.

However, Kallat's rubber stamps, a motif she has been obsessed with for some time now, ironically obfuscate the very point she is trying to make. The effort Kallat has taken to collect the names of the many streets that have been rechristened is wasted because you cannot really see the names from the stamps hanging off this installation, unless you are as acrobatic as Spiderman. Perhaps something as simple as a plaque imprinted with all the renamed streets might have trapped bystanders into engaging more deeply with Cobweb /Crossings. Sacrificing subtlety would not have been much of an issue either, because a gigantic web across the façade of a colonial building is not exactly an insinuation to begin with.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum itself is a great success story when it comes to reclaiming a public space, in the hope that the public can consume more of the city's architectural beauty. On a recent visit to the city, Christopher London, author of Bombay Gothic, an impressive tome on the history of Mumbai's colonial architectural treasures, lamented how little of India's architectural wealth, colonial or Islamic, is accessible to the public. Most of our heritage buildings house post offices, bureaucratic departments, courts, bhavans - the pestilential red-tapism that has thwarted so many hopes for a better India. The idea of reclaiming some of these architectural marvels so that the public may enjoy them better is not merely a great idea;it is, many would argue, a democratic right. Which is precisely why, despite the awkwardness of Kallat's enterprise, Cobweb/- Crossings is a tangle worth getting into. If anything, it brings to light a far scarier reality than not being able to loiter in a post office or a courtroom housed in an imposing colonial structure. Cobweb /Crossings also suggests (if Kallat's bureaucratic stamps are indeed to be taken seriously) that with a little bit of clout and a lot of money, any street or alley can be renamed after someone who can afford to be canonised. After all, when history is for sale, heritage becomes as fragile as a cobweb.

The work is on view at Bhau Dadi Lad Museum, Mumbai till April 14

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