New Delhi

Priya Ravish Mehra, Making the Invisible Visible (detail), 2012/2017, wood, darned textiles, sound. Installation view. From “Evidence Room.”

Priya Ravish Mehra, Making the Invisible Visible (detail), 2012/2017, wood, darned textiles, sound. Installation view. From “Evidence Room.”

“Evidence Room”

Priya Ravish Mehra, Making the Invisible Visible (detail), 2012/2017, wood, darned textiles, sound. Installation view. From “Evidence Room.”

Over the past decade, timely art festivals such as “48°C Public.Art.Ecology” (2008) and the “Yamuna-Elbe Project” (2011) have highlighted some of New Delhi’s most pressing environmental issues, including rising temperatures, toxic water supplies, and a growing population. Among these initiatives, nonprofit organization Khoj International Artists’ Association stands out for its consistent and long-term approach to public-art, community-oriented, and ecology-based programs in India. One such program, “Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways” (2010–14), combined these three interest areas and supported nineteen projects in remote regions across the country to produce an alternative mapping of the nation’s development, one inclusive of local ecologies, mythologies, and epistemologies. Back in its institutional space in Khirkee, one of the capital’s urban villages, Khoj’s exhibition “Evidence Room” represented twelve of these nineteen projects in the form of archival documents and installation artworks. The audience was asked to consider whether these works could be positioned as evidence or testimony, and if so, the ways in which they contributed to specific truths or wider observations made by witnesses and collaborators.

A strong example of artist-as-advocate was Sunandita Mehrotra, with her project Revisiting the Chipko Andolan, 2013/2017, a retelling of her enriching time in the village of Rampur in Uttarakhand in 2013 with Sudesha Devi, one of the leaders of the Chipko movement of the 1970s. In the form of an accessible, takeaway pamphlet, Mehrotra’s black-and-white drawings shed light on a subnarrative: Though the movement was centered on the conservation of forests, it was also heavily interconnected with women’s empowerment. In Devi’s case, having fought back against societal norms and domestic violence, she successfully blocked contractors from cutting down trees by organizing women to shield them with their bodies. Mehrotra’s project acknowledged such women, who, she says, have not been given their due but continue to influence the fields of ecological activism, farming, and education.

Similarly bringing recognition to an overlooked community, in this case the rafoogars (darners) of Najibabad in Uttar Pradesh, was Priya Ravish Mehra’s Making the Invisible Visible, 2012/2017. Though Mehra cites the Mughal roots of the historical practice of rafoogari (the complex craft of repairing or restoring old or antique textiles), the rafoogars have remained out of sight, and so, as she says, out of mind. Her restaged 2012 project included framed fragments of cloth visibly darned together to depict maps of the economically impoverished town of Najibabad with the rafoogars’ signatures on them, showing the validity, agency, and pride of this socially undervalued community.

The exhibition made it clear that through the study of various environments, projects such as Mehrotra’s and Mehra’s are ultimately enmeshed in people and their indigenous knowledge systems. Often in danger of being erased, forgotten, or simply dismissed in the name of progress (and thanks to urban migration), these histories of cyclical microeconomies and traditionally regenerative cultures still hold contemporary relevance. Rooted in sustainable, and in many cases ongoing, projects, the works and documents shown here registered as evidence of both truths and gaps in the record. In that respect, it was important to bring such public and rural interventions back into an institutional and urban space, reminding the metropolitan public that those unseen or unheard in India’s growth story are often the ones most in need of ethical representation and social justice.

––Jyoti Dhar