It is not hard to get lost in the rustic charm and winding alleys of Chimbai village in Bandra. To guide those who wander, Reena Saini Kallat appears like an immaculate vision in mint-green and white. Her studio, less than 10 feet from the beach, holds within it white shelves that sag under the weight of hardbound art catalogues and coffee table books. Works from previous collections occupy the heart of the two-level studio, with maximum space taken up by Light Leaks (2008-2010), an imposing red gate reminiscent of the Wagah border. It looks familiar but strange; they’re actually neighbouring nations that were once part of a whole. Do gates let you in or do they keep you out?
Artist Reena Saini Kallat at her studio in Chimbai, Bandra. Pic/Rane Ashish
Kallat explores these metaphors on a larger scale in Hyphenated Lives, her first solo in seven years at Gallery Chemould, Fort. Like a peace-loving genetics engineer, Kallat has morphed flora and fauna under her artistic lens. Some of these works are scattered through the studio, some still under tight Bubble Wrapping. Shamrocks from Ireland blossom with English roses; a Palestinian sunbird appears on an Israeli stamp; Pakistan’s national reptile — the crocodile — morphs into a cobra, its Indian counterpart. The names are also hyphenated, like in the case of Car-gle, a new species that’s a mix of national birds of USA and Mexico. “National symbols are meant to unite, but these become points of contestation. Hyphenated Lives is a proposition for a future species — hybrids of halves from two places,” explains Kallat.
The show will also see some of her previous pieces on display, including a set of 15 works in various media. There are some faux fossils as well, all of which together function like a natural history museum. Her idea is to draw on countries with border conflicts, pointing to the fact that nature does not care for artificial boundaries.
The fantasy mutations draw on politics too, both serious and trivial. In June, Indian authorities “arrested” a pigeon from the village of Manwal for being a Pakistani spy. The Pakistani government, in turn, shot down an allegedly nosy drone scouring their skies. Kallat makes a tongue-in-cheek statement with a fossil of a drone’s limbs, alongside important politically charged birds.
Returning to themes of conflict, loss and disappearance, which she has previously explored in Synonym (2009) and Falling Fables (2010-11), Hyphenated Lives makes significant use of electric cables as a connecting thread (literally) across the works. Kallat had made substantial use of wires in her installation titled, Woven Chronicles, exhibited in Vancouver this year. Here, she used cables to trace the route of migrants, sometimes turning into barbed fences.
“Wires can be transmitters of energy and deep-rooted connections. But they can also prove a hinderance. Hyphenated Lives is really about the fine line and fragile connections, not just between countries in conflict but also neighbours across the compound. Prejudices trickle into our interpersonal relationships too, don’t they?” Kallat asks, as she goes on to muse about the bias at play when cosmopolitan Bandra — the suburb where she lives with her artist husband Jitish Kallat and son — refuses to rent a home to people from a certain community. Kallat, whose father moved before the Partition to India from Lahore, doesn’t like to attribute her interest in conflict just to the Partition. Further events such as the ’92 riots in Mumbai and Godhra in 2002 have impacted her. But she is shy of calling her art political. “I consider myself more a catalyst, and works poetic than political.” If there is one thing she wishes for, however, is that art would have the same impact films do. “People come out of theatres and go, ‘Whoa!’ I’d like to see the same happen with the visual arts and galleries.”
When: 11 AM – 7 PM, Sept 12 – Oct 10 (Closed on Sundays)
Where: Chemould Prescott Road, Queens Mansion, Fort