New Delhi

Shambhavi Singh, Rehat/Water Garland, 2014, iron, rust, 47' × 2' 7“ × 6”.

Shambhavi Singh, Rehat/Water Garland, 2014, iron, rust, 47' × 2' 7“ × 6”.

Shambhavi Singh

Shambhavi Singh, Rehat/Water Garland, 2014, iron, rust, 47' × 2' 7“ × 6”.

Poor, illiterate, lawless, caste-discriminatory Bihar is every Indian’s stereotype of rural backwardness. Yet today the state is touted as a shining example of economic development, which is greater than in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. But problems remain deep, and out-migration high. And when migrants arrive in India’s metropolises looking for work, a so-called anti-Bihari sentiment offers them a cold welcome.

Shambhavi Singh, a native of Bihar based in New Delhi, has for many years been exploring the plight of the Bihari farmer in her work. Her preference has been for metonymic images that depict not hardship and displacement directly, but rather their traces through paintings of things like feet and trains, or through sculptures made of punctured vessels. For “Reaper’s Melody” at Talwar Gallery, Singh took this a step further, with haunting metaphors of obliteration and absence in various media, seductively wrapped in luminous color and texture.

Truly beautiful was Megh Meyrd (Embankment Cloud; all works cited, 2014). This set of fourteen acrylic paintings depicts gray rice paddies from an aerial perspective beneath a sky heavy with clouds. A related set of canvases titled Meyrd Ga showed a similar landscape in rust tones. The press release contrasts “the farmer’s role as nurturer and provider” with “the division and exploitation of land that threatens to dissolve its very existence.” Singh’s landscapes make this conflict look like the smoldering aftermath of trench warfare—minus the bodies, however, and minus the politics that make land such a deadly issue across India.

Oppression hovered over the show. With a vertiginous effect similar to that of looking up into Rodchenko’s radio towers, Singh’s two Kuan (Well) paintings peer down into the dark depths of a widemouthed bore well. The viewer knows that the glimmering pinpoint at the center of one of them is not the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, drought and farmer suicides being familiar news items in India. Rehat/Water Garland, a thirty-one-foot-long iron sculpture, hung the length of the gallery’s five-story atrium staircase. It re-creates the bucket chain of a bullock-powered water wheel (a rehat), but with the buckets perforated to create a sievelike figure of Sisyphean effort. The subtitle refers to the flower garlands placed on the necks of people and religious idols in Hindu ceremonies. Must we then conclude that the Indian farmer’s fate of being born to blessed Mother Earth hangs around his or her neck like a massive bone-snapping chain?

The rest of the show was rather tacky. Reaper’s Melody is a sculptural installation of rough iron curves resembling half-forged farming sickles; “Ghar Andar Bahar” (Step/Home Inside Out), 2014, consists of rectangular wall-hangings made of cotton paper pulp, shaped and colored to evoke the ocher- and turmeric-toned straw and mud walls of rural huts. The “Girvee” (Mortgage) series is a set of three oversize canvases, each showing a giant thumbprint integrated into a nebulous monochromatic field. These were meant to evoke a common scam against illiterate Indian farmers, in which they are tricked into usurious debt or the forfeiture of land by being pressured to affix their prints to documents they do not understand. Now here’s someone else making money off their misfortune.

It was hard not to get irritated by this show’s prettified fetishization of rural India and its troubles, especially considering that it was installed in a high-end commercial gallery housed in a refurbished mansion in a semi-gated community. Singh’s art is all too suited to this context. In a country where class divisions are so in-your-face that looking away is second nature to the rich, her modernist aversion to direct depictions of human suffering is in impeccably good taste. If you’ve ever read Palagummi Sainath’s classic report Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996), you know that the subject of rural poverty in India does allow for comical treatment of a cutting, absurdist kind. But to find beauty in it—even the lugubrious beauty Singh depicts—without addressing the root causes of the problems (corruption, caste, class, bad agricultural policies) requires real moral detachment. The desperation of the poor rarely looks as innocuous as it did here. Aestheticism has rarely looked so guilty.

Ryan Holmberg