Nataraj Sharma


Those who are irritated by the interminable construction projects littering Indian cities will discover no soul mate in Baroda-based artist Nataraj Sharma. Sharma’s solo exhibition “Work in Progress” included paintings of lone figures surrounded by seemingly incomplete structures and a dark red, sixteen-foot-high mock-up of a building under construction—proof that for Sharma, such sites are fonts of inspiration. His deliberately rusty iron installation from 2008—also dubbed Work in Progress—hints at conflicting views on the construction boom that has overtaken urban India in the last few years (and which is now tapering off, thanks to the global economic meltdown). Circling the edifice, a visitor felt like Gulliver, by turns too big or too small. Gazing through little windows and doors and touching minuscule, filigreed balconies strewn with small ladders, one felt like a child strolling around a dollhouse. Square pint-size apartments were piled on top of one another, overrunning an entire section of the gallery and climbing toward the high ceiling, curiously dwarfing the audience. Sharma seems to mock our mammoth, modernist-inspired towers, touted as essential attributes of “world class” cities; but his vast metal structures (Work in Progress isn’t the first such sculptural project he’s created) seem to generate a kind of awed affection for architectural ambition as well.

Sharma’s gridlike edifice spawns contradictory emotions in other ways, too. Living up to its name, it reinvents itself at different times. Ironically, at BodhiSpace, it looked more sinister during the day: Hardly any sunlight filtered through the gallery’s roof, so the structure engulfed us in shadows, its bulk suffocating. In the evening, however, it adopted a magical glow. Lightbulbs dangled from the ceiling; we realized that the building, with its ostensibly identical apartments, appeared changed from every angle. A tiny ladder was abandoned on a balcony; others could be seen inside some of the apartments.

Work seems to engage individual identity and its tug-of-war with rigid societal conventions—each square block telling its own separate tale, a distinction nevertheless easy to overlook in the seeming sameness of the building. Certainly, the paintings that circled the installation, oils of solitary men and women laborers standing in front of blotchy sections of vast buildings, gesture to similar struggles. Yet these are less convincing; next to the huge, amorphous, cagelike construction, these relatively small canvases were literally and metaphorically overshadowed.

In contrast, the allure of Work lies in its ability to successfully unite in sculptural form two pictorial traditions of 1980s Vadodara that are usually thought to have run along parallel lines, never meeting: the “narrative figurative” style of the late Bhupen Khakhar, on the one hand, and the monochromatic abstraction identified with the drawings of Nasreen Mohamedi, on the other. Khakhar’s paintings frequently depict middle-class males engaged in seemingly mundane tasks—but portrayed in lurid pinks, blues, and oranges, these ordinary men doing everyday things look surreal. If Work likewise launches a gleeful investigation into how individuals negotiate social structures, its modernist architecture nods to Mohamedi’s affection for geometry. By tarring Mohamedi’s grids with Khakhar’s socially inflected brush, Sharma in his latest exhibition made the best use yet of this cavernous gallery.

Zehra Jumabhoy