by Sukanya GargMay 25, 2020
Artists most often thrive in solitude. So, while it has been nerve-racking to live through the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be forced into the confines of one’s homes has posed an interesting opportunity to make a journey inward. To slowdown, observe, reflect, and naturally, to create!
STIR, in collaboration with Bombay Sapphire, launched a unique contest. The objective was to raise funds by offering selected works to be acquired by art enthusiasts, proceeds of which would be donated to support the underprivileged sections of the society that is particularly impacted due to the repercussions of the lockdown. Entries were invited from all possible creative disciplines. There was no overarching conceptual thematic forced. The only constraint was to link the creation with “twenty-one” – strokes, words, lines, or dots. And this is no magic number really! It is the number of days the lockdown was initially announced for in the country. It was a first for most of us to experience a global shutdown of this scale, layered with associated ambiguity and insecurities. The challenges of having limited access to material and equipment, in some cases no access to studio space meant pushing the boundaries.
Was this ‘limitation’ of 21 disruptive and confining? Or did it offer an opportunity to push and propel, provide an adrenaline-rush?
STIR received an overwhelming response that included some very thought-provoking works. We spoke to the creators of a selection of shortlisted entries to know more. And the virtual team-room (via video conferencing) to make this selection was nothing less than a warzone in itself.
Actor Kalki Koechelin shared a pen-drawing of a family of six, locked-down in their home. Stand-up comedian Papa CJ sent a 21-line poem. Architect Sanjay Puri makes a 21-line plan of a community centre, while Orijit Sen through his 21-words feels that there was never a better time to make art, and author Sudeep Sen penned down a poem titled Love in the time of corona. Valerie Barkowski makes a minimal rendition using udon noodles, and chef Nikhil Merchant shared the recipe of his ‘secret sauce’, made with 21 ingredients.
Aishwarya Shetty took this exercise as an opportunity to combine architecture – her education and profession and illustration – her personal interest. Conceptually, the work is reflective of our contemporary times. “With the COVID-19 quarantine, it feels like everybody I knew felt trapped in a space but lost at the same time. That feeling of confinement and being ‘blue’ was what I wanted to capture through this piece,” she explains. And the very idea of 21 posed lots of possibilities for Shetty. Her work titled 21 different stories, 21 spaces away looked at people in their proverbial glass-homes. She captured … “the oddly chaotic yet soothing sectional view of a typical Bombay building…”. In contrast, Ankon Mitra created Atoms and Multiverses with a serious scientific foundation referencing the 21 laws of leadership as per Paul Sohn. He uses paper that is cut and folded. “The tiniest of folds change a system altogether. A series of concentric circular rings fold about small predetermined half cuts. Each ‘orbital module' has 12 folds. Visually that is the reverse of 21 (which is the number of orbital modules). The pyramid suggests an ascent or growth,” explains Mitra. For him the number 21 triggered a memory of the rare-earth metal Scandium. Scandium has the atomic number 21, which means there are 21 electrons orbiting the nucleus, which in turn has 21 protons and 21 neutrons. He confesses that mathematics was his second love and “…21 is a really beautiful number mathematically speaking”!
Deepesh Sangtani sourced inspiration from his 2018 project titled Inktober. “I wanted to work around the idea of upcycling waste material at home and convert it into a meaningful art piece,” he reasons for the use of MDF board has the surface for his work. Ink drawings of architectural structures were made in varying sizes of square board. Stalled Projections was challenging to produce with the constraint of 21 for Sangtani. “I surely had a tough time selecting which ones would make sense within the composition of the frame I was aiming for,” he adds.
For architect and artist Martand Khosla, the work continues in a direction that he has been exploring for the past two years, through a series of works that he calls Studies in Radiance. “This work looks at urban connections, systems and networks beyond the urban landscape and beyond physical infrastructure. It captures moments when communities become zones of isolation, and the links that connect its disparate parts are like containers of memory,” says Khosla. What is noteworthy is his interpretation of ‘21’ - the drawing is made with 21 lifts of the pen and he made it on a timer that counted down from 3.5 minute (210 seconds). “It was not at all limiting; in fact, I could say that it was uplifting. It felt like life drawing class, when we had a short-fixed duration of time within which we had to draw a model,” he adds.
Ravi Vazirani likes to experiment with photography. His work titled The Sound of Silence is an attempt to document the time we are in. “It is a juxtaposition of anxiety and struggle with stillness and clam,” explains Vazirani. While confined in his home, Vazirani says that he is surrounded by all things he loves. Being a designer, it is his constant endeavour to see beauty in the mundane. 21 images, taken on each day of the lockdown became the basis of his work.
“With the lockdown announced in India, there was a huge impact on the daily-wage workers,” says Michelle Poonawala. She feels that the informal workers are the backbone of our economy, including a wide range of industrial sectors. Poonawala adds, “The shutdown turned these people into overnight refugees. Men, women and children began journeys back to their native places. They walked for days under the summer sun and the night stars. Most of them carrying few belongings knowing they would starve. They battled hunger and fatigue, but they had to carry on with their families”. For her, the pandemic had turned into a humanitarian crisis and this became the basis for her work. 21 migrants were carefully sketched inspired by a ‘real life situation’ with references taken from images that were published in national media. On the other hand, Studio PKA used the idea of modern lifestyle that is encouraged through commercial advertisements of our capitalistic society. Pandemic Classified is created with old advertisement flyers, juxtaposed in its context with alterations we are living today. They explain, “As mankind is slowly adjusting to the new-norms of life, the essentials are extended to ‘modified luxuries’ of the pre-pandemic times”. On asking if they felt constrained with ‘21’, they confess that it felt limiting, but at the same time it was imperative for them to not have a forced indication of the number or to let it overshadow the concept. “We picked 21 different ads for the project,” they add.
Lens-based artist, Shahid Datawala, created a series of 21 images, Through the grill. “It was just a few weeks ago that I was walking all over the city with my 100 mm lens hunting for metaphors and a new language in birds against the open sky,” he reminisces. But life had other plans - cut to day one of 21-day lockdown and for Datawala, an operated foot. “I am housebound like the rest of the socially-distanced world. My eyes hunt for a new subject. I went back to my old friend and muse - the night. We meet again, and this time through the grill,” he adds. Datawala feels that everything is a constraint at the current time we are in, … “21 is just a number and I used those many images to tell my story”. Tehmeena Firdos believes that it is the planned spaces and a small monument that revolve around an absence of history and culture. In her work, she uses muted colours with the objective of displaying calmness in the horror. She adds, “The reference of the text and image is inspired by the painting ‘Mystery and Melancholy of a street’ by the Italian artist Chirico.
Navkirat Sodhi's video work arose from a need to go beyond the five-senses. “I wanted to make some sense of the pain of hunger, fear, and abandon unleashed on countless people after the lockdown,” explains Sodhi. The works germinate from a need to reach-out, reach-in, and rethink. Sodhi adds, “This was a natural extension of my exploration of performance art through poetry videos…and the limit of 21 and the tenderness of all our hearts at the moment only made the purpose and challenge sweeter”.
Multi-disciplinary artist Probir Gupta used a 21-word text written on a terracotta pitcher. “Bismillahpukaarhindustani Badegulamlisteningto dogshounding brother marinatedinvenom Iloose youplural arrestedrashid. ArrestedTaj mypoem oflove iturn inshame my brothers are dying. Desh is hounding Aamir". A deep reaction to his interpretation of polarity of our times, specifically within the Indian context, Gupta’s narration reflects ironies in a unique way using conjoined words of multiple languages, probably just the way our lives remain intertwined.
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(The proceeds of the campaign will be donated to SMILE Foundation (to feed the underprivileged, daily wagers, migrant labourers), GiveIndia (to provide PPE to frontline COVID-19 warriors) as well as RESQ Charitable Trust, The We Exist Foundation and Friendicoes (to feed and rescue stray animals) for COVID-19 relief work.)