A City is a Canvas

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The Beast Kirtisukha, the two-headed interpretation of Shiva’s monster
The Beast Kirtisukha, the two-headed interpretation of Shiva’s monster

In monsoon, it is not unusual for the walls of Mumbai to resemble petri dishes, teeming with life, marked by strange patterns and discolourations. This monsoon was particularly strange. The wall at Chor Bazaar had sprouted an elephant. One side of Bhendi Bazaar featured a rooster in flight. More creatures began to appear, but, as is de rigueur in Mumbai, no one stopped to stare. It was only once the ‘manimals’ had migrated to the basement of a Diesel showroom in swish Juhu that reporters thought to ask who or what they were.

The creator of this urban fauna, 29-year-old Amitabh Kumar’s favourite piece of writing is Walter Benjamin’s The Storyteller. Viewed from a distance, the outlines of Kumar’s work, as Benjamin wrote, appear clear, simple, “a rock a human head or an animal’s body”. But up close, Kumar’s figures are animal-shaped portals, masses of teeming activity leading into tunnels impossible to define. While this visual style of bold outlines and intricate inner worlds is typical to Kumar (see ‘Tinker. Solder. Tap’ produced and designed with the Sarai Media Lab, or his work in the Pao Collective), his most recent works on display at The Guild Gallery and now at the Diesel store, are experiencing a “breakdown of narrative”, quite unlike his previous graphic stories.

In the past two years since he initiated the Pao Collective, a group of graphic novelists who released an eponymous anthology last year, Kumar has been consciously rejecting this need for a cohesive thread to bind his images with. What began as a phase in Bengaluru, doing what “all artists in that city do”, that is experiment with “isolated colours, isolated subjects and isolation”, he turned into extended soul-searching. He came to the point where he began to wonder if all he did was ‘draw’ as opposed to ‘create art’. The art market didn’t share those doubts. Kumar, a graduate of MS University, Vadodara, has at an early age already curated the ‘City as Studio’ exhibition in Poland, been a featured artist at the Helsinki Comics Festival and executed a public mural for the Khoj Dus tak festival last year.

This May, his debut solo show ‘Message to Zero’ at The Guild Gallery attracted a large and savvy crowd. Displayed in a vast expanse of white, his monochromatic sketches — recreations of the 50 murals Kumar painted on walls across Mumbai — are intriguing. It is no surprise that the footfall at ‘Talab’, his current exhibition at the Diesel+Art space, in the cramped basement of the clothing store’s showroom, is not huge.

For Kumar, whose attraction to murals has to do with sheer scale as well as the kind of engagement that public art inspires, this move ‘indoors’ (quite literally now, to the basement) has begun to cramp his style. There are interesting themes at Talab, which is also curated by The Guild, like ‘Meri Mashooka Ke Baal’, the complex microcosm of his lover’s tresses, an amorphous intersection of lines across the wall; or ‘Kirtisukha’, the two-headed reinterpretation of Shiva’s monster (the two heads stare at one another, wondering which should consume the other first — a perfect metaphor for a city whose population and urbanity are constantly at internecine war. Economic success brings fresh waves of labour; simultaneously, success eliminates all signs of the labour that provides the scaffolding for its high-rises). But once the works lose their mythological reference (at the third level, a dog’s mouth appears, filled with Eklavya’s arrows), Kumar’s work can seem like kitsch, large black strokes devoid of feeling.

Outside the gallery space, Bandra, in particular, has seen a surge of wall-art in the recent past. But none of the neon mermaids of Chapel Road and neatly-painted images of kings on Pali Naka have evoked the sort of interest Kumar’s ‘manimals’ have, since they began to appear in April — particularly because they steered clear of ‘hipster zones’ where graffiti was usual. The rejection of narrative, as always, has built a narrative of its own. Amitabh Kumar’s disconnected, highly detailed images are charged with meaning only when they are out in the open chaos of Mumbai; jostled together in a basement for our collective assessment, they fail to fly.

Kumar’s works will be on display till 3 September at the Diesel + Art store in Mumbai

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