Parts of a whole

Viewing an art exhibition when the artist is present is the best way to get a ringside view of their thoughts.

Published: 19th March 2021 01:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th March 2021 07:18 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

Viewing an art exhibition when the artist is present is the best way to get a ringside view of their thoughts. Details and theories that you might otherwise overlook are pointed out and the realisation will dawn that as the viewer, your understanding of their art practice will always remain limited.

This writer experienced the same while viewing The Sapper, at the new Nature Morte (NM) gallery at Dhan Mill Compound; Bharat Sikka’s 36 photographs, collages, installations, memorabilia and video art, that fulfil his lifetime quest of getting to know his father a retired sapper/structural engineer with the Indian Army whose postings took him to desolate areas and border regions, and away from young Bharat’s life for long periods.

While walking with Bharat at his show, we stopped before a portrait of his father’s bare feet cut at the thighs by the frame. As the gaze lingered at the indentations around the calves, indicative that the man had just taken off his socks, Bharat said:

“…Like this picture of my dad’s legs, not a flattering image because his feet are swollen…”

“Yes, see his toes, it’s not much but I can tell…”  The gaze shifts, and the viewer was let on to a family secret. “It has that voyeuristic vibe, as if you (the viewer) are under the bed and looking at someone’s legs, but you cannot look up….” Bharat continued.

Bharat’s first professional photography engagement with his father was in Indian Men (1998-99), which were environmental portraits of middleclass gentlemen to prove they were more than snake charmers, maharajas and such, as stereotyped by the West. His dad is in one of them, framed by parted curtains, looking upwards, nursing a drink with post-supper lethargy.

The Sapper is an extension of Indian Men, and Where the Flowers Still Grow – portraits of young boys in Kashmir – in terms of Bharat’s pursuit of the ‘male gaze’. But 20 years after that photo, his muse – his father – has become far more agile, younger-at-heart, a master of many moods. In this series, he’s topless while doing a headstand and soaking in a bathtub; looking dapper in a dinner jacket, eyes closed and dancing; playing a harmonica, clad in a woollen turtleneck that complements his silver mane in a diptych. His son Bharat’s past stint as a fashion photographer are evident from the stylised aesthetics.

Juxtaposed with these light moments are isolated landscapes and architecture built in wood and concrete, all oozing loneliness, solitude or is it dystopia? All shot in Delhi, Leh, Kalimpong, Goa, places he’s lived or was stationed at. Portraits of him bending over a bridge as if ready to plunge into the river below; being enveloped by a dark abyss; wearing an avant-garde mesh of wires on his head that casts shadows on his face, mixing with the wrinkles, making it difficult to tell the two apart.

Together, the images contradict and coexist, fitting together like pieces of a jigsaw. But to understand his father in a nutshell, the wooden installation positioned opposite this wall provides answers, as it personifies balance, built by the subject himself, Bharat’s father. “It metaphorically represents his life as a structural engineer and a foundation of a home, both quite balanced. It’s about when you lose your balance, and how you structure things back together.”

The elements in the pictures are the materials that his father worked with all his life, and which now Bharat has toyed with in the show. “I am not really documenting him because he and I made these works together, rather than me just following him around, showing him with my mother, meeting a friend… it has none of that. He’s an interesting guy. So yes, that kind of drew me in, and I got curious to go back with my childhood, reinterpret my memories, try and tell a story about my past, about his personality, his life, and my life with him.”

A gallerist and an artist can agree to disagree. Bharat would have liked if the photographs did not just occupy one wall of the gallery, like a flat image, and would have preferred distortions made to the space “because now you enter and suddenly get hit with it, there’s no mystery to it.” However, Bharat’s friend, gallerist and curator of NM, Peter Nagy, feels Bharat should stick to still photography “because his visuals are so strong. I just think it’s unnecessary. When artists do too many different things, they lose the focus, and I often say, just be a photographer, keep the photos as the primary subjects.”

Still Bharat is itching to fidget, distort compositions for multi-layered outcomes. For instance, in the image of a ladder, shot in a garden in Goa where his father spends a lot of time. Bharat took the photograph taken, made a photocopy, then his intern cut apart, his father further twisted it, then rescanned again at a very high resolution, and finally made into a print again. “I am not a collage artist but I like to make things with photography. Exactly what I am going to be doing from now on.”

AT: Nature Morte, Dhan Mill Compound
TILL: March 21


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