Sometime in 2019, when the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) for Assam—a list of Indian citizens living in the state—was almost ready to be released by the government, artist Dhrubajit Sarma was at his home in Guwahati. Through a series of portraits of domestic workers at his home—and a number of conversations—Sarma witnessed the emotional turmoil that the NRC evoked on them. The underlying fears (the artist mentions these continue to exist) of being stripped of their citizenship came to light. The result is a series of artworks titled ‘Bamboo Blossoms’ that Sarma made by transferring photos on wood and etched later. “The project is a part of our orality. I tried to connect the political scenario with my own memories, and how there was a chaotic situation in the state [Assam],” shares the 34-year-old who is showcasing a few works from this series at Simulacrum, an exhibition organised by Anant Art Gallery that was inaugurated at Bikaner House on Thursday—it concludes on August 8. Curated by South Delhi-based artist and curator Arushi Vats, ‘Simulacrum’ brings together works of 14 artists —Abhishek Narayan Verma, Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Divya Singh, Hammad Gillani, Neerja Kothari, Neha Grewal, Nilanjan Das, Pritish Bali, Sajeev Visweswaran, Sanket Jadia, Youdhisthir Maharjan, etc.
Literally meaning the representation of a certain entity, the Simulacrum has been of interest to philosophers such as Plato and Friedrich Nietzsche. Explaining the concept, Vats shared, “The idea [behind this exhibition] was a response to the fact that our contemporary society is driven by an almost paralysing sense of consumption of information. For instance, the kind of political information we consume through images or videos, things that are presented as facts, our own state archives, and our negotiations with museums—the fact that these are being eroded. If in the past they were contested, today the hegemony is over. We are living in a post-hegemonic state where we are being fed settled ideas.”
Creating artistic representations
The works—across a series of mediums such as photography, etching, oil on paint, gouache, etc.,—probe deep into several socio-political contexts and issues. The techniques used by these artists seem to slow down the rapidly-changing realities, helping the viewer to ponder the status quo. The work of Bangladeshi artist Ashfika Rahman’s ‘Files of the Disappeared’, for instance, may look like a compilation of images of pristine landscapes at first. However, her ongoing series of digital photographs are actually sites where bodies of people allegedly killed in extra-judicial encounters perpetrated by Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)—an anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of their country’s police that has been accused of human rights violations and abuse of power.
Similarly, artist Kashmiri artist Moonis Ahmad Shah’s ‘Almost Entirely Sisyphus, 2022’, showcases a typewriter that is programmed to self-operate sans paper or ink, and types the names of people who have disappeared in Kashmir—suggesting how there has been little evidence of the disappearances.
Collectively—but in several different ways—these artistic works not just question but also explore the idea of the truth, the false, and the copy as the simulacrum blurs the boundaries between the three. We met Shoarya Sood, an architecture student from Green Park, at the gallery. Talking about the experience, Sood concluded, “This is a very interesting exhibition. There is this sense of self and how these themes, this idea move outward. There is this inherent character… The artists are addressing several political issues. It is also very interesting to see their present and past work and notice where they are coming from.”