Gyan Panchal, wedhneumi, 2012, palm tree bark, paint, paper, 80 x 19 5/8 x 9 1/2".

Gyan Panchal, wedhneumi, 2012, palm tree bark, paint, paper, 80 x 19 5/8 x 9 1/2".

Gyan Panchal

Amrita Jhaveri

Gyan Panchal, wedhneumi, 2012, palm tree bark, paint, paper, 80 x 19 5/8 x 9 1/2".

There are circumstances when sticks and stones may break our bones, as the saying goes. Paris-based Gyan Panchal’s show in Mumbai was not one of them. Here, such sturdy materials appeared curiously fragile. In bndus (all works 2012), the aforementioned “sticks”—actually three white-painted bamboo poles—were perched rather forlornly near a window. In wedhneumi, the bark of a palm tree emerged from a piece of yellowish paper on a wall, its shell-pink contours recalling the ruffled skirts of a soiled petticoat. Panchal’s curious titles, by the way, are gleaned from his study of the Proto-Indo-European language reconstructed by linguists to aid their research into the roots of Asian and European dialects. Since the terms have no currency in everyday life and no fixed pronunciation, he sees them as occupying the same marginal zone as his artworks.

In preparation for his first solo show in Mumbai, Panchal took three weeks off to explore, scouring the city’s streets, shops, and industries for inspiration. While the French-Indian sculptor is generally known for his use of crude oil (whose use in the ancient world fascinates him), for this exhibition his partiality for that substance was held in check. In qotred 1, a rectangular piece of cloth hangs on a wall like an abstract painting, reminiscent of Rothko or his Indian counterpart, V. S. Gaitonde. It is, in fact, a lungi (the garment worn by South Asian men) made with khaddar, the homespun fabric so dear to Mahatma Gandhi’s heart. At first, the textile was brown. After Panchal drained it of color using bleach, it turned a dirty orange flecked with a mysterious purple blemish. Prettier, if less excitingly textured, is the baby-pink qotred 2, which could pass for a threadbare tablecloth. These down-at-heel fabrics are unconscionably attractive, which led me initially to object to Panchal’s exhibition. It felt strange to see humble objects and materials—shards of vermilion granite in prai or the deep-green marble of pelom 1—so exquisitely displayed in a too-serene white cube. By making griminess gorgeous, wasn’t Panchal discounting the reality of India’s laboring millions?

In the end, I think not. Aligning himself with the elevation of commonplace materials in Italian Arte Povera of the 1960s and ’70s, Panchal has charted his own path by rehabilitating the “poor” objects, devoid of function, that are deemed valueless by the “new” India. It is the point of transition—from discarded object to high art—that Panchal cherishes, admitting that he wants to preserve “the moment when the object is in-between a raw material and a finished product.” Since, in India, marble tends to be dyed in brilliant shades to accommodate local tastes, Panchal set out to reveal what lies beneath its artificial jewel-like hues. In part, pelom 2 mimics a slab of malachite. We don’t have to peer too closely, though, to distinguish uneven brushstrokes. By concentrating on the tactile quality of industrial rejects and unwanted objects, Panchal probes the processes of production and consumption. The jagged edges of three thin, long strips of gray-veined marble in cicami were positioned along the floor and a wall, lined up so that their ends almost touch. A fourth section was relegated to a separate wall—standing alone, as if abandoned. Just as we might have been about to walk away, something seemed to happen: From a certain angle, all four fragments of marble lined up together to form an arc. And then, for an instant, we glimpsed the sculpture as a whole. With Panchal, value depends less on what we see than on how we look.

Zehra Jumabhoy