New Delhi

Jitish Kallat, Epilogue, 2011, 753 ink-jet prints on paper, each 12 1/2 × 15 1/2". Installation view, 2017. Photo: Randhir Singh.

Jitish Kallat, Epilogue, 2011, 753 ink-jet prints on paper, each 12 1/2 × 15 1/2". Installation view, 2017. Photo: Randhir Singh.

Jitish Kallat

National Gallery of Modern Art | New Delhi

Jitish Kallat, Epilogue, 2011, 753 ink-jet prints on paper, each 12 1/2 × 15 1/2". Installation view, 2017. Photo: Randhir Singh.

IN JITISH KALLAT’S illusory world, a roti mimics the moon. This interplay between the earthly and the celestial, the material and the spiritual, was a recurring motif in his midcareer retrospective, “Here After Here.” On entering the new wing of the National Gallery of Modern Art, the visitor was confronted by a corridor flanked on both sides by row upon row of densely arranged prints; from afar, these images appeared to depict the moon’s waxing and waning. Closer examination of the work, Epilogue, 2011, revealed pieces of flatbread masquerading as the heavenly body, with more than twenty-two thousand “moons” correlating to the moons present in the night sky over the course of Kallat’s father’s lifetime. This deeply personal tribute to a parent who passed away at the age of sixty-two is also a testament to the artist’s abiding preoccupation with timescales and transience.

Roti could be spied in several additional works, including Breath, 2012, a video featuring the ersatz lunar orb that was projected onto the concavity of the dome that presided over the museum’s old wing. The connection between the microscopic and the telescopic was similarly evident in the video Forensic Trail of the Grand Banquet, 2009. What seem to be floating celestial bodies are in fact X-ray images of various produce and Indian snacks taken in a radiology laboratory. This zooming in and out within space and time was also mirrored in the show’s layout; the curator, Catherine David, pointedly eschewed a chronological hang. Older works were instead juxtaposed with more recent creations, highlighting the artist’s repeated returns to certain thematic concerns and emphasis on temporal and scalar shifts throughout his career.

The show’s title echoes that of Kallat’s sculptural public commission Here After Here After Here, 2015, mounted in Stockerau, Austria, which depicts numerous strips of traffic signage arranged in a massive floppy bow. This cyclical view of life, with its reenactments and recurrences, is also evident in the satiric Circadian Rhyme—2,2012–13, on view at the NGMA, a sculpture depicting people being frisked by security personnel. Their orientation—the tiny figures are incrementally rotated from one end of the lineup to the other—is evocative of the movement of the hands of an analog clock.

Several of Kallat’s earlier works bear the mark of his native city, Mumbai. This is particularly true of the painting Rickshawpolis—I, 2005, which depicts a city bursting at the seams with its crush of people and traffic. In it, a bullock cart, an auto rickshaw, and a laborer-pulled handcart are all crammed together. Maximum city, a term coined by writer Suketu Mehta to describe the megapolis, sprang unbidden to mind when I encountered this work, which is supported by two wall-mounted bronze gargoyles, reminiscent of the creatures that adorn the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station. The daily struggle for space and survival manifests itself in the dents, gashes, and scratches seen in the 365 close-ups of vehicles in 365 Lives, 2007, which from afar appear as serene explorations of sheer color. Violence also finds form in Anger at the Speed of Fright, 2010, in which miniature figures are frozen in postures of aggression. Elsewhere, and in contrast to these diminutive denizens of an unspecified dystopia, Aquasaurus, 2008, a life-size tank truck made of cast-resin bones, bares its large teeth in a grotesque grin. It is as much a stark reminder of the daily struggle for such basic amenities as drinking water as it is of torched vehicles, the vestiges of riot-incited destruction.

Kallat’s empathy for the marginalized and dispossessed is further manifested in works such as Ecto, 2005, and Death of Distance, 2006. In the former, a naked urchin with crude block forms for feet carries a teakettle—a grim reminder of the widespread use of child labor throughout the region. In the latter, a massive upright one-rupee coin is placed close to a series of lenticular prints that flip between two news stories. One narrates the piercing tale of a twelve-year-old girl who commits suicide because her mother cannot afford to give her a rupee for a meal. The other describes a promotional campaign by the Indian government, touted as the “death of distance,” since it would reduce the cost of making a call anywhere in the country to a mere rupee per minute. As in other works, the artist used the lenticular-print format to powerful effect, creating a palimpsest of perspectives.

Text also assumed different avatars in this retrospective. In Public Notice 2, 2007, Gandhi’s speech on the eve of the historic Dandi March—an act of civil disobedience staged to protest Britain’s colonial-era taxation of salt production by Indians—is fashioned out of cast-resin bones that appear white, as if bleached by the sun. Arranged on shelves stacked floor to ceiling across three walls of a wood-paneled gallery, the words were overwhelmed by their material trappings, the crux of the message all but lost. In Public Notice, 2003, Nehru’s 1947 “Tryst with Destiny” speech, which the country’s first prime minister delivered on the eve of India’s independence from British rule, was similarly distorted, in this instance through the use of buckling acrylic mirrors and burned adhesive lettering. Then there was the epistle written by Gandhi to Hitler, entreating him to avert an impending war, projected on a screen of fog in the immersive installation Covering Letter, 2012. These linguistic missives from the past thrust into the present attested to the fact that “Here After Here” was as much about shifting between moments in time—and structures of power—as it was about moving between the cosmopolis and the cosmos.

Meera Menezes is an independent curator and the New Delhi correspondent for Art India.