New Delhi

Atul Bhalla, Still Life with Fictitious Object, 2017, ink-jet print, 20 × 30".

Atul Bhalla, Still Life with Fictitious Object, 2017, ink-jet print, 20 × 30".

Atul Bhalla

Vadehra Art Gallery | D-53

Was the chunk of meat in Atul Bhalla’s photograph Still Life with Fictitious Object, 2017, as innocuous as it appeared? As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. And all the more so in India, where the cow is considered sacred by Hindus and pork is proscribed among Muslims. While invoking the art-historical tradition of still-life painting, the image also alludes to the rising tide of intolerance in the country, which led to the 2015 lynching of a Muslim man by a mob on the mere suspicion that he had slaughtered a calf and stored the beef at home.

Meat was a recurrent motif in several of the lens-based works on display. In Anhedonic Still Life I, 2018, it was artfully juxtaposed with a pile of well-thumbed books from the artist’s own collection. How then, Bhalla appeared to ask, could he possibly use the insights within these tomes—ranging from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems to the Indian epic The Mahabharata—to counter the polarization surrounding everyday food choices? A chunk of meat also made an appearance in Bhalla’s diptych video Anhedonia, 2018. Here it shares space with a glass of water. In a thirteen-minute shot, the artist contemplates the glass and aimlessly moves it around. Bhalla has long regarded water as a site of knowledge, history, myth, and memory. In the past he has drawn attention to the different vessels used by Hindus and Muslims for their ablutions. By positioning himself within the frame in the Anhedonia videos, Bhalla also sought to foreground his own culpability in the rise of divisive forces within the country.

Ascending the gallery stairwell, the visitor was confronted with a line from “The Century’s Decline,” a poem by the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, emblazoned on the wall. It read, TRUTH WAS SUPPOSED TO HIT HOME BEFORE A LIE, aptly setting the stage for the installation Objects of Fictitious Togetherness—I, 2017, on the top floor of the gallery. The “fictitious togetherness” in the title alludes to the widely held myth that religious communities lived in harmony until the partition of the subcontinent unleashed a wave of bloodletting in the Indian state of Punjab. One such story revolved around a ceremony in which different communities supposedly drank water from the same cup—at a time when members of one group would not put their lips to a utensil defiled by the other. In his search for this elusive vessel—much akin to the pursuit of the Holy Grail—Bhalla gathered several metal tumblers, placing them on a round table. On a wall next to this display was a poem by Amrita Pritam (1919–2005), in which the Punjabi novelist and poet articulates her inability to address the issues of her time in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the partition. In quoting Pritam, Bhalla hinted at his own inadequacy and sense of despair. These feelings also served to explain the leaching of color in the three works titled Anhedonic Self Portrait, 2018, that peppered the exhibition, some of them deliberately blurred and thus difficult for the viewer to see clearly. 

By titling the show “Anhedonic Dehiscence,” Bhalla suggested that the cracks in India’s secular identity—papered over as the newly independent nation-state strove to forge a new syncretic identity post-partition—might finally be widening. These growing fissures staged an appearance in several photographic works depicting landscapes, such as Vaitarni Crossing—I and II, both 2017, and the archival pigment print Fictitious Landscape—III, 2017. But more tellingly, the show was a forceful reminder that the very things that constitute us—flesh and water—are often the things that divide us.

Meera Menezes