New Delhi

Ranjani Shettar

Ranjani Shettar’s recent solo show, containing two sculptural installations and four woodcut prints, dressed the mundane in the garb of the mysterious. In Touch Me Not, 2006–2007, creamy-colored wooden beads are attached to a snow-white wall; their carefully fashioned, lacquered spheres balance on silvery metal rods. Like the bashful plant for which it is named, Shettar’s beadwork seems acutely sensitive to the viewer: The beads form undulating lines on the wall that seem to meet and merge while casting tiny, shuddering, bubblelike shadows.

For the second installation, viewers meandered down a staircase into the gallery’s dimly lit basement. Me, No, Not Me, Buy Me, Eat Me, Wear Me, Have Me, Me, No, Not Me, 2006–2007, lives up to its riddling title. Thin strips of multicolored steel are woven together to create five basketlike forms, their squat shapes suggestive of both rusty machinery and crouching animals. The viewer is trapped and enveloped by grid-patterned shadows. The silhouettes of these pseudo-vessels are as fearsome as those of Touch Me Not are fetching.

Shettar’s exhibition was called “Epiphanies”—a word the artist says expresses her feelings when method and material combine to produce the desired effect. Though she was born in Bangalore and is still based there, there is nothing obviously Indian about Shettar’s work, and she has shown more extensively abroad (most recently, at the Biennale de Lyon 2007) than at home. But, appearances notwithstanding, India’s rapid urbanization and the consequent erosion of rural traditions find their way into her art. Me, No, Not Me . . . deals with consumption and production. The work was fashioned by hired laborers from the bodies of old cars in Bangalore’s junkyards. Each steel strip retains the partially rusted color of the original vehicle—red, blue, green, slathered over with white metal paste—reflecting Bangalore’s recycling industry, which is powered by low-wage laborers. India’s transition from a rural to an industrial society, evident in Bangalore’s construction boom, is evoked in the work’s semiorganic, semi-industrial shapes. Touch Me Not is the plaintive cry of nature under threat. In the handpainted woodcut River Dance, 2007, soft blue and golden streaks suggest partially evaporated smears of liquid. The aquatic allusions of the prints accord well with the environmental themes of the installations, though it is all too easy to bypass these delicate, small-scale works for the latter’s shadowy seductions.

Shettar’s ambiguous installations are unusual in the contemporary Indian art scene, where figuration reigns supreme, but they aren’t without precedent. The Baroda-based Valsan Kolleri’s site-specific installations are similarly preoccupied with the ways in which the rural order is yielding to industrialization. Like Shettar’s installations, Kolleri’s copper-wire meshes play games with light and shadow, though they often operate with a more muted palette. Given Talwar Gallery’s support of site-specific work by artists such as Shettar and Kolleri, it is sad that the weakest part of this exhibition was the space in which it was displayed: Talwar’s Delhi quarters, unlike many Mumbai galleries, feel more like a home than an exhibition space, and while Touch Me Not was given plenty of air and light to work its magic on the first floor, Me, No, Not Me . . . was less fortunate. Positioned in a dingy drawing room–like area, its interlacing metallic strips lost some of their rainbow-hued glory.

Zehra Jumabhoy