Saavdhaan: The Regimes of Truth poses questions to the voices of authority
Stumbling through the dark, avoiding stones and brambles, one is not quite sure what one will discover down the rabbit hole that is Saavdhaan: The Regimes of Truth. The recently concluded exhibition, curated by Shaunak Mahbubani at the little-known venue, Kalakar Theatre near Saket Metro Station, Saidul-Ajab, is not the conventional well-lit, white cube gallery display, that we have all come to expect when attending art openings. The raw brick and motor bowels of the theatre, is shadowy with wisps of cobwebs festooning nooks and crevices. The exhibition is not easily forthcoming rather it slowly reveals its contents as one negotiates through the slightly bewildering space.
Digital ticker-tape projected into one of the niches ask if you know where to look for ‘Vikas’, as the arm of the waving cat meant to usher in good-luck and prosperity eerily waves at you from the other end of the hall. A shrill voice on a loudspeaker seems to be announcing some kind of political propaganda, while in another corner books and pamphlets are kept out for the purpose of reading them, earphones and a monitor beckon you to sit and listen to Ravi Aggarwal and Anita Dube holding forth, while another installation shocks you with the macabre sight of human body-parts hanging off meat hooks. If you are a little over-whelmed and expecting to meet the Minotaur in this labyrinth, then that is exactly what Mahbubani designed through this multi-media show.
“The exhibition is intended to be demanding and it requires you to take out time to read, listen and interact with the works. On many levels it poses questions to the voices of authority, history books and news in the digital era of political propaganda. It questions public pedagogy and the communalizing of our political and cultural spaces,” says Mahbubani, the recipient of the Apex Art scholarship with which he funded the exhibition, which is Part 2 of his series Allies for the Uncertain Future. He is also currently Curator, Programming at The Gujral Foundation.
The artists and collectives featured are Asim Waqif, Arko Dutta, AltNews, Dalit Panther Archive, Johar Jhangram, Mandeep Raikhy, Payal Arya, Sanket Jaida, Samar Grewal, Sarah Naqvi, Smita Rajmane, material and reports from The Wire, Vidisha Saini, Video Volunteers, Vishal Kumaraswamy and Zine: Medium as Message, by Karan Kaul.
The installation mentioned earlier, Ask Where is Vikas, is by Saini who takes a stab at the whole mythology of progress created around the Modi government, while the wool sculpture of human body parts hanging off meat hooks is by Sarah Naqvi who comments on the lynch mobs that have killed innocent Muslims in the name of Gauraksha (Cow protection) over the years.
The interviews with Aggarwal and Dube are part of Waqif’s video-work that tackles the wave of fake news spreading through the country. Raikhy’s choreographed performance unfolds to the beat of disciplinary power. Arya’s immersive mood-piece creates a mimeo of a migrant worker’s home, with rickety and impermanent bamboo structures, fog created by a fog-machine and an old TV in the corner playing footage of children running around old structures and homes. The fog is symbolic of the fog of fear that has engulfed our society.
Sanket Jadia’s layered drawings mounted on a glass and wooden stand and lit by naked bulbs investigate the politics of visibility in the media coverage of these incidences. Violence against Dalits and other lower-caste communities has been an abominable part of sub-continental life for centuries but there has been no checks and balances put in place to stem the violence. Interestingly Jadia has intentionally blackened the faces of the perpetrators reducing them to a faceless mob.
Smita Rajmane’s installation of broken earthen pots references the arcane and inhuman practice by the upper-castes, of insisting that Dalits carry an earthen pot around their necks so that their spit doesn’t touch the ground. The installation works in conjunction with footage of a film by Somanth Waghmare titled The Battle of Bhima-Koregaon Park playing on a TV monitor. The documentary was also screened as a separate part of the exhibitions programming on November 3. It questioned the domination of upper-caste where Dalit narratives continue to be over-simplified and misinterpreted in situations like the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Maharashtra in 2018.
However, more importantly Waghmare’s film is a rare documentation of the annual celebration at Koregaon Park. Here Dalits of all age groups and gender gather around the war memorial pillar that commemorates the contribution of the Dalit Mahar community who fought alongside the Peshwas. Together the installation and film interrogate the reportage or lack of it, around Dalit issues in newsrooms dominated by upper-caste editors and journalists.
As we proceed through the exhibition we come to the second half of the show that examines how citizens can hold agency and moved forward to participate and question the nexus of alarmist culture and communalism. A display of the work done by Video Volunteers, a network of over 250 community correspondents across the country, speaks of how individuals are empowered to take control of their narratives through the technology of video production. Other sections of the exhibition display the work done by the Wire, and AltNews that takes on one of the more dangerous tools in the neo-fascist arsenal: fake news.
The Dalit Panther Archive is committed to digitizing the archive of writings, magazines, and other materials from the Dalit Panther movement. The little magazine movement also erupted in India within and around the latter now popularly called the zine, has grown in recent usage with illustrators, poets, and artists drawn to its subversion of capital and censorship. There are also other zines like Punter and Aunty Boom’s Almost Feminist Confessions that document queer struggles and lives.
RJ Shikha Mandi evokes narratives in a different format through her radio show, Johar Jhargram, spreading the Santhal Indigenous language and culture. The show broadcast entirely in Santhali, marries social issues with humor and village music, making it a big hit with local communities.
The exhibition leaves one with a lasting impression, one that grows with repeated visits and certainly it creates an atmosphere for debate and awareness about the times we live in. Mahbubani hopes that the exhibition builds connections beyond its physical avatar, into the realm of digital existence, which will continue to dissent and debate the issues tabled herein.