New Delhi

Hemali Bhuta, Image A, 2015, aluminum, waterproof solder, and pencil on paper, 16 1/4 × 22 1/4". From “Diary Entries.”

Hemali Bhuta, Image A, 2015, aluminum, waterproof solder, and pencil on paper, 16 1/4 × 22 1/4". From “Diary Entries.”

“Diary Entries”

Gallery Espace

Hemali Bhuta, Image A, 2015, aluminum, waterproof solder, and pencil on paper, 16 1/4 × 22 1/4". From “Diary Entries.”

From Virginia Woolf to Anne Frank, Sophia Tolstoy to Anaïs Nin, in the twentieth century the diary was established as a woman’s respite: a blank receptacle of expression, bound by no manner of speech or society, only by its own spine. Later, it became an unbiased, uncensored literary source of cultural and historical experience. Intensely intimate, the diary was an unmediated object that freed the writer to be as furtive or frivolous as she pleased. Beginning from this premise, curator Gayatri Sinha invited five artists to consider the turmoil and tranquility of their lives in a variety of mediums. The resulting “Diary Entries” were painstaking and private, but so discreet that the viewer never felt like a voyeur; instead, the show stimulated a desire to head home and pen an entry of one’s own.

While some of the works may be read as self-contained “pages,” others are chapters, with a visual or narrative continuity across frames. Hemali Bhuta’s drawings—rather, obsessive marks and scratches—on paper (and sometimes cloth) are palimpsests of inks, paints, and other, less painterly material, such as dust and soap, layered over one another, accumulating history, but somehow lighter in the end. Abstract and minimal, they are fragile, frayed at the edges, without language or opinion, yet they convey a density of experience and an insatiable hunger for harmony. Paula Sengupta, in the ancient and mythic tradition of embroidering, sews her revolt into her mother’s and grandmother’s handkerchiefs: Over stitched daily schedules are the words YOU CAN DO ANYTHING ANYMORE threaded across the five frames of the eponymous work, dated 2016. In a second series, “The Kerchief Garden,” 2016, Sengupta places stitched botanical motifs on found fabrics behind screen-printed glass, creating a further textuality, so that the layers of banality and bereavement are interwoven. Nilima Sheikh’s mixed-tempera paintings on traditional Sanganer paper from Rajasthan are stunning earth-toned depictions of the natural world surrealistically floating alongside an architectural one. Titles in the present continuous, for instance Waiting, Scripting, 2015, render her diary as one written not in retrospect but in the elusive simultaneity of idea and action. They are nostalgic, secretive, feminine, provocative. Two paintings from the series “Nasreen,” 2015–16, refer to the late Nasreen Mohamedi, whose diaries are renowned for their strangely delicate yet defiant mathematics. These moving elegies to a fellow artist depict a female figure folding into waves, seeping into soil, disappearing into dust.

Other diaries are like epic novels come to life, filling a whole space with an intensity of feeling. In a room of its own, Benitha Perciyal presented similarly eulogistic installations: A bookshelf, a gourd, a collection of timepieces, a bottle in a suitcase, a cradle, and a lens were just some of the items. Most heart-churning was a restored letter box filled with political maps, There is no place to go,2015. The objects seemed to ask, How do we form knowledge even when we have not formed our own being? Perhaps most immersive was Sheba Chhachhi’s installation Between the Lines, 2016, an all-white room in which things have gone awry: A polystyrene chair hung upside down from the ceiling, a table was held up just above the floor by vinyl string, a light box was affixed to the ceiling, and a long column of drawers—somewhat reminiscent of Judd—was lined with photographic slides from the botanical and zoological worlds. Diagrams of ammonites and E. coli were accompanied by their taxonomic definitions. The interior functioned as a metaphor for the personal and the microscopic—an internal system that works of its own accord.

In India it is still rare for women’s diaries to be published, so this exhibition, with its distinctly located materials and stories, marked a significant point in a feminist movement long under way, giving it voice in a subtle fashion. The artists put their inner lives on display even while their privacy is hard-won. All the more unfortunate, then, that the exhibition neglected the post-Internet transformation of the diary: Has it turned into a blog, a vlog, or a Twitter feed—an open-source public forum of opinion and ideas, desperate for validation—or is it still closely held, a series of personal notes on a MacBook Air’s Stickies?

Himali Singh Soin