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Sudarshan Shetty's Shunya Ghar stuns Mumbai

An effervescent combination of philosophy, poetry and art—Sudrashan Shetty’s interpretation has added a new dynamic to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, explores Uma Nair.

"The voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in finding new eyes." -Marcel Proust

Materials, multiplicity and mortality become the insignia of artist Sudarshan Shetty's Shunya Ghar that opened at the magnificent Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. More than a dozen reclaimed wooden pillars, captivating domes, latticed windows and narrow created corridors speak to us about fictional passages that define the past and the present—the journey from poetry to art unravels like a lyrical, evanescent thread and this time, the narrator wants to be invisible.
Gorakhnath's Shunya Gadh Shahar Sudarshan works around silent narratives traversing liminal boundaries, offering viewers a single moment in time, in paths to a series of subjective, yet deeply contemplative accounts in the many stories he likes to tell. Based on the 12th-century poet Gorakhnath's poem, "Shunyagadhshahar, shahargharbasti (In the empty fort, a city; in the city, a settlement)", this exposition reads like a dramatic monologue split into acts and scenes that traverse the lifeline of memories.
From Gorakhnath's "Shunya Gadh Shahar", Shoonya Ghar has been Sudarshan's muse since his art school (Sir JJ School of Art) days. Introduced to poetry as a bhajan by Pandit Kumar Gandharva, he became interested in poetry because of Kumar Gandharva's nirguni bhajans. "Shunya Gadh Shahar" has remained in his psyche akin to a poem in a pocket. The son of an ayakshagana (a dance theatre form from Karnataka) artist, with an environment full of music and songs, poetry has been his leitmotif. "Poetry influenced my art, and how I learned to make art," says Sudarshan. "I wondered if I could mediate the two, poetry and art. It became Shunya Ghar," he adds.
Elemental Materials
Sudarshan weaves the magic of elemental materials into life-giving properties and the vitality of objects he uses to speak of the symbolism he finds important. In the paradox of Shunya Ghar that situates the irony of the absent human within his own home, this show is a testimony to one of the greatest minds in contemporary art in India.
You could think of infinite references—the non-duality of Advaita philosophy—the universality of opposites—life and death, desire and entropy, aspiration and despair. To weave this into the reclaimed wooden blocks and invite open-ended interpretations is the piece de resistance of this exercise.
His penchant for weaving folk tales to create allegories for artistic expression and the need to tell stories positions his threshold of the narrative in the kingdom of oral traditions and historical perspectives.
Multiple wooden structures, meticulously hand-carved by a group of craftspeople, represent a series of architectural elements—Sudarshan explains ideations that oscillate between the present and the past—a recreation of histories. "The poem has many architectural elements to it — Gadh, Shahar, Basti…it presents multiplicity …Jalbichkamal, kamalbichkaliyan, bhanwara baas naletahai, is nagarike das darwaze… I tried to respond to the poem by building," he explains.
Set in the open grounds of the majestic Museum, Sudarshan positions installations as a quasi-cerebral practice—it illustrates how to retell stories through symbols like four pillars—a dome-textural wood bricks, a latticed window, a wall that echoes memories. It is uncanny how Sudarshan places meticulous craftsmanship of the tailors, their tools and indices to create secular corollaries in context. There is a universal fabric of the human spirit floating in the web of happenings.
You can choose between watching the film that took four years to make or first, experiencing the magnitude of the installation. The lawns of the Museum make for a backdrop of an epic installation that meanders and mesmerises the viewer who can walk along the corridors of time, or sit and contemplate under the dome, or even perch oneself on one of the ledges and ask time to slow down like a gypsy man as one wanders along a rambling road and becomes a seraphim that ponders on the pathway of one's ancestors.
Unfolding Time
Sudarshan echoes those deeply stirring words of the famed thinker, writer and philosopher, Charles Baudelaire, who wrote: "We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and the sensation of Time. And, there are but two means of escaping and forgetting this nightmare: pleasure and work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose. "
Sudarshan chooses work—and he chooses work that compels us to think, to examine the roots of reality and the gravitas of life and death. When you look at the reclaimed wood and the little wooden bricks used to create the walls of the dome and the many different structures, you realise there is a world of difference between manufacturing a work of art and creating a work of art that recalls the past, defines the present and then invites our interpretation for the future.
Elegiac elegance
Shunya Ghar in its elegiac elegance oscillates between time past and time present—it echoes the contradictions and corollaries of life and death. It also brings alive Sudarshan's own words which he had said in 2013: "Many Indian museums remain in the realm of entertainment, quasi-academic spaces where dates and locations are often left unstated; the contents of the museum then, much like that of the flea market, are temporarily renewed with each subjective engagement." This engagement spans many lifetimes and lyrical lives in the heritage of nirgun poetry as it celebrates the living and the dead. Does Indian contemporary art have an artist who goes back to 12th-century nirgun poetry to create a commentary that traverses centuries and also associates us with the eternal power and pathos of the inevitable passage of death?
For that exercise, Sudarshan Shetty stands alone and apart—so much like one of those pillars at the Colossus of Rhodes—a sentinel that posits the many stories that needed to be told. In Mumbai, by the setting sun, by the shades of night—Shunya Ghar will be an oasis of thought for many who want to partake the shadows of the sunset and turn into urban narrators who will each have an individual story to tell as they discover the brilliance of the pioneer of installations in India, who decided to look with new eyes.
(Displayed at: Bhau Daji Lad Museum)

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