View of “Jitish Kallat,” 2011.

View of “Jitish Kallat,” 2011.

Jitish Kallat

View of “Jitish Kallat,” 2011.

Visiting the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum during the monsoons provoked a surge of irritation: Like everything else in the city, we grumbled, it seemed this handsome building was also under construction, its gilded columns and archways obscured and the famous statue of a macho-looking Prince Albert unfairly imprisoned by crisscrossing bamboo poles. Moving closer to the marble figure, though, we discovered that his cage contained small protrusions—minute grimacing lions, unblinking owls, and crawling crocodiles pimpled its surface. For once, the scaffolding (actually resin masquerading as bamboo) was not an aberration to be ignored but the untitled cornerstone of Jitish Kallat’s exhibition “Fieldnotes: Tomorrow Was Here Yesterday.” Invited by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, BDL’s honorary director and curator, to respond to the museum’s permanent collection of Victorian artifacts, Kallat overran the recently restored nineteenth-century building with videos, sculptures, and installations evoking Mumbai’s troubled past and chaotic present.

Kallat’s fabricated construction site alludes to a city undergoing an identity crisis. The metropolis’s name change from Bombay to Mumbai, pushed for by the Hindu Right, is itself resisted by many citizens, who argue that it eradicates their multicultural heritage. Annexation, 2009, riffs on the dog-eat-dog existence of residents. It features an oversize black kerosene stove, richly carved with squabbling animals: A lion munches on a peacock, a lizard lunges at a terrified bird. They resemble the gargoyles decorating the facade of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, one of Mumbai’s main railway stations. Time and travel were also evoked by the roman numerals, outlined in neon lights (Untitled, 2011), that Kallat inscribed onto an ornate archway. The giant clock face is as beautiful as it is useless, unable to mark the passage of time.

For Mehta, Kallat’s show is part of a time-sensitive project. Once known as the Victoria & Albert Museum, BDL was meant to showcase local artifacts produced under the aegis of the British Raj. “It was a bit like a fair,” says Mehta. By inviting contemporary artists to display within its Victoriana-stuffed precincts, Mehta insists that she is “revisiting the original intention of the museum” while “commenting on its controversial legacy.” The V&A had a close relationship with the Sir J. J. Institute of Applied Art, founded in 1857; this was, and remains, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges for the study of visual arts. The principal of the school was also the V&A’s curator, yet “natives” were generally thought to be incapable of producing fine art. The old V&A was consequently dedicated to craft. Hence, Annexation stood next to heavily carved ceramic vases, made by J. J.’s erstwhile students. Upstairs, figurines of “native types” were counterpointed with the sculptural installation Anger at the Speed of Fright, 2010. Kallat’s natives are a nasty lot: They are busy throwing stones at each other. Is Kallat speaking about the city’s subjugation during the Raj or the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1992–93?

Though Mehta has invited other contemporary artists to “intervene” at BDL, none has been as shrewdly site-specific as Kallat. In a cool, dingy room are nineteenth-century panoramas of Bombay by Bourne & Shepherd and Lala Deen Dayal. These photographs shared wall space with Kallat’s color photograph Artist Making Local Call, 2005. Kallat stands at the center of the frame, calling someone from a phone booth. Shot just a few years ago, the photograph nevertheless documents the past: Decrepit pay phones, such as the one featured here, are now rare. (Nor can we imagine the tech-savvy Kallat utilizing one today.) Vehicles line up on Kallat’s right, as if they are offering to fast-forward him into his own flourishing future.

Zehra Jumabhoy