Artist Jahangir Jani talks about culture, religion and love in his solo show in Mumbai

Updated: 19 August, 2018 12:11 IST | Benita Fernando | Mumbai

Jahangir Jani is a self-taught artist, who quit his job as an accountant with Tata Electric Company at the age of 33 to focus on his artistic practice

Jani at his Versova home with one of the works that will be part of his exhibition. Pic/Ashish Raje
Jani at his Versova home with one of the works that will be part of his exhibition. Pic/Ashish Raje

Jahangir Jani's Versova apartment is otherworldly. There are aquariums, a birdcage, watercolours by Nandalal Bose and Atul Dodiya, prints of Banksy's graffiti, clay objects by Madhvi Subrahmanian, a Syrian Christian crucifix and a Shiite depiction of Ali. There are Bohri taqiyahs (religious caps worn by Muslims) stacked in a bag, and ostrich feathers bristling in a vase. It's an odd mix of domesticity and curiosity. If anything, this eclectic welcome is testimony to both the man and the artist.

Jani is a self-taught artist, who quit his job as an accountant with Tata Electric Company at the age of 33 to focus on his artistic practice. Among his recurring themes, the production of culture and its socio-political consequences have been at the fore. With significant solo and group shows to his name, he has worked with diverse media, including video.

At 63, Jani comes across as effervescently witty and resolutely anti-establishmentarian. He questions nearly everything and tells us that he wants to make as many enemies as possible. "It's better to have a true enemy than to have a fake friend," he says. It is hard to tell if this is jovial conversation or sardonic criticism, but all this is a prelude to his upcoming exhibition, opening on September 6 at Clark House Initiative, Colaba.

When we finally settle down with Jani, he fishes out a stack of ledgers, bound in red cloth. Born a Bohri Muslim, Jani says, "It was common to find these in business communities. Among the Gujarati Hindus, they have worship these ledgers - the books of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It's called chopda pujan, when these books are blessed with kumkum, rice and swastik symbols. The Bohri Muslims, also a business community, do the same, but with saffron and reciting 'Bismillah'. The ritual is the same, and the intentions, too. Just that the script is different."

But, these are no ordinary ledgers. "It's an account of my past lives," he says. Jani has dug into the last 30 years of his life in an attempt to bare his soul somewhat. There are pencil sketches, watercolours, clippings from newspapers and glossies and love songs that fill these pages. In one, there are layouts for dream apartments rendered in watercolour, each room a different colour. There are poems - you imagine that a younger, angrier Jani would have typed them out bitterly after every heartbreak that his former boyfriends left him with. There are men baring their butts and there are the questions that Jani has reserved for God. A line reads: It's hard to believe that you left so soon, when will you be back. "Why God? Anything you believe in - even a lover, even love - can leave you. Be prepared to lose everything," says Jani.

The ledgers are fragmented, containing his preoccupations with religion and eroticism, as if Jani is pulling out wisps of the past and putting them on paper. "We try to organise memory, which itself is an artifice. Memory has no truth. I don't want the books to be organised. Love is unorganised and so is life, so why are we trying to put things in order here?" he says.

The major religions of the world have often fertilised each other and Jani's exhibition will shed light on this. The ledgers will be joined by installations, made of cement and fabric, one of which, called the Chador of Desire, was shown earlier this year as part of the Kala Ghoda Festival's group show, 2020.

The ostrich feathers that we earlier noticed are in fact dusters that Jani bought off from a bus while travelling in Iraq. A recent visit to the country has spurred him to continue his line of thought. Recalling how he wandered through a bazaar in Najaf, where there are cobblers and shops selling throwaway military rucksacks, he says, "We have vilified Iraq and its people, but if you go there, you will realise that the truth is far from it. This vilification is thanks to the unholy triad - of the USA wanting resources, Israel for land-grabbing and the Saudi Arabia wishing for domination in the Middle East."

For now, Jani is titling the show Batin, the Sufi concept of the soul, and also his personal attempt at getting to the truth. Given the artist's preoccupations, will this exhibition propose the cross-pollination of cultures as an idealised harmony or a critique of parochialism is yet to be seen.

The upcoming show also marks his return to the Mumbai art scene, for the last solo of his sculptures that the city saw was in 2007 at Max Mueller Bhavan, Kala Ghoda. "But, I never left in the first place. You see, the art world friends I had relied on found they had nothing they could sell of me. I was not bankable. My smaller works sold in auctions but bidders and buyers couldn't play with my prices. This 'comeback' is a coalescence of the journey I have been on," he says, light-heartedly.

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First Published: 19 August, 2018 07:24 IST

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