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A Retrospective

by Adam Browne and Jeremy Shaw

3025 words

Never have I travelled so far to review an exhibition. For this, however, I would have travelled further.

Readers of my column in the Times of India will be aware that sculpture is my passion. It was the first art form, and it is the last, in the white figures of the skeletons we leave after death.

My journey continues. The ship roars, and not only does it roar. Its systems are modelled on the behaviors of a Bengal tigress, the trip accompanied by amorous yowls, huffs and gurrs, yaps and trills.

It circles the Moon as if inspecting its defences, then leaps in for the kill. I share its zeal.

Here is the old city, straddling the Ten Bruggencate crater, a building of size. It is the image of the Ass as imagined by Zarathustra: white its color, its food spiritual, three the number of its legs (great pylons lifting it above the lunar regolith), many the number of its eyes.

And five the number of its caretaking staff. Young men and women, helping me through the complicated entry locks after landing.

These caretakers have done their best, but the city has an air of abandonment. Once, I know, it housed many hundreds of people. I think of the old, oft-repeated gag in cartoons set in the Wild West — Tex Avery? Friz Freleng? — where the population counter on the city-limits sign drops by ones and twos whenever a gunfight sounds in town.

My guides lead me deeper in. More abandonment. The city was empty for eighteen months before Naveen came here.

La, five years of solitude. How must that have been for him?

Then, suddenly, silently, near the beginning of his sixth year here, the population counter returned to zero.

No corpse was found, no sign of mishap.

Naveen Mritak, national treasure. An artist as universal, as fundamental as Lautrec, Picasso, Tagore — a name whose recollection comes so easily it does not feel like recollection.

And now he was simply … gone.

• • •

We approach his studio. Doors open before us with buzzy invocations to Allah.

Naveen was Hindu, while I am an irreligious man of the Hindu sort; the city, however, is Muslim, as are my guides. They are Malays, trim, quietly elegant people. I remember a book of my father’s — The World and South-East Asia — giving by its title a glimpse into the Western worldview. I recall it for the otherworldly quality of these Malays, their composure, their eerily impeccable manners. If God exists, it is among the social graces of the Islamic tradition … and now, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar — more doors; passing a walled-off distraint leased to a totalisator agency, clamped onto the infrastructure like a laptop bum nursing a three-hour latte in a Wi-Fi café.

I walk on, guided by the Malays. There is little talk. I resist asking my guides about G. W. Pon Rijiju, who preceded me here. I hear that his physicians have expressed cautious optimism about his recovery. He is a fine critic, an excellent writer. I wish him well.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, and a door opens onto the conservatory, the florest, so called, which surrounds Naveen’s studio as a briary wood does a bewitched castle.

The architecture is faintly religious, the stained glass crazed and smeared — no, not glass, I remind myself, but vitrified regolith raised from the base of the crater. Colors more ancient than the idea of churches.

We push on, through whin and grease and wormy marl, the sunflowers groaning, their muscular trunks growing audibly. They seem animal to me, and male, regardless of gender — hijras — burly transvestites in too-bright dress — and tall, as such ladies often are, some thrusting their heads entirely through the panes of the ceiling. I hear the kettlewhistle of escaping air (I am assured there is no danger). I look outside, and see, through the smeared panes, other flowers growing in the lunar soil.

Vacuum-adapted, faintly darkmattered, touched by Naveen’s art, their faces upturned to offer the simple mathematics of their floret-arrangements to the void.

• • •

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. We enter a filthy cleanroom. In a cubical, I am stripped, and yes, I am old, and wattled, and fat as a partridge, but what care I? — one grows less ashamed of one’s body as it approaches its most shameful.

My protective gear is assembled, an elaboration of boxes, a gee-suit. It is as big as a Portaloo, and as charming, and the sleeves are like paired filing cabinets — open a drawer and look under F for my fingers. Last is the enormous bungalow of a helmet, gabled with buffers and sensors.

Ready, I am ready. I wait, wondering if G. W. Pon Rijiju wore this very suit.

Allahu Akbar croaks the big plugdoor. I do not hesitate, but totter through: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar … the door shuts behind me.

I am in the final studio of Naveen Mritak.

• • •

Always he had favored exotic media.

Twigs and shards and Fun Chum softdrink cans in the village of his birth; the rubbish and e-waste in Lucknow. Later, the extraterracotta pottery; the spirals secretly induced into the circumambulations of the Mecca Hajj pilgrims; his use of living birds as paint brushes, and as paint, their colors transferring directly across to the canvas…

And in the end, darkmatter.

There is an industrial aesthetic to the studio, which was originally built by a defense paracontractor out of Chhatarpur. I see fat plesiosaurs of cabling, bulky apparatus, rows of field-governors, aligned with the Moon’s magnetic field like yttrium termitaria, maintaining the darkmatter at proper density.

I totter forward in my suit (so difficult, like trying to move a fridge from the inside!), feeling the pull of the art.

There is enough darkmatter here to enspiral Scutum–Centaurus Arm of the Milky Way.

My suit protects me against the gravitic effects. It offers no protection against the art.

All at once I am … ravished. I did not expect this. I am devastated.

This is the material whose existence for a long while astronomers could only infer. And in truth, I can only infer its existence here.

But that it cannot be seen is of no consequence. This is Naveen Mritak’s genius, the insight he shares with me now.

Does darkmatter need to be visible to shape the constellations? Does art need to be visible to shape the sensibilities?

• • •

It is well known that Mritak was not the name he was given at birth. Mritak is Hindi for deceased.

It was an earlier time, his Uttar Pradesh a different Uttar Pradesh. The swindle was common then: an official bribed, a false death notice filled out, the property of the ‘deceased’ inherited by his ‘murderer’.

A shameful practice, and so widespread that its victims formed a lobby group, the Association of Dead People. But their victories were few. Death is a valve allowing passage in one direction only. I have written two books on Naveen. In my first, I give account of his visit to the Azamgarh District Consolidation Department, where he hoped to have his death notice reversed. Thoo! The tortured complexities of the Consolidation Department were such that the demons of the labyrinths of the Lower Hells could but look on in bewildered awe!

Poor Mritak, everything lost, everything gone; abandoning his home, his home no longer. He travelled to Lucknow (an inappositely named city!), hometown of his closest living relative, his paternal grandfather, called Grandfather Bunny.

I have been to Lucknow: the chaat stalls and tiffin carriers, the filmi music whining like dentists’ drills, the gated international community, the shanties of corrugated iron and packing crate timber, with glimpses of the planetary ships beyond, the city booming and lashing around them.

I found, as Naveen did, his grandfather’s rooming house. I saw the entrance he passed through, walking to the remembered apartment.

I have written of him knocking at his grandfather’s door. It was answered by a woman, or a hijra, to be more specific, her dress patterned with sunflowers.

By her, Naveen learned that Grandfather Bunny was no longer about. He had moved, she said. He had come into money, she said.

It was the beginning of Naveen’s understanding that where he had hoped for salvation, he had discovered his murderer instead.

Adventures followed, not necessary to relate here. The city spun, it tilted, it spat Naveen out upon the Saadatganj solid waste landfill zone, near Airport Colony, E. Kanpur Road, Lucknow.

Saadatganj Mountain, as it was sometimes called. But how could it be a mountain, as Naveen himself once said, when it was the lowest place in the world?

He survived as a gleaner. He gathered animals’ viscera for sale as surgical sutures; he wet bales of paper so they weighed more on the broker’s scales; he crushed cans under the wheels of trucks; he reclaimed ink from disposable pens.

Also, he resumed his art, although he declined to call it that.

The objects he made in this time were amusements, merely, toys and trifles for the children of other gleaners. (Recently, Ganesa on Bicycle (e-waste assemblage #4) was sold at auction for thirty-five crore USR.)

He lived eighteen months on Saadatganj. That he survived this time is attributable, I believe, to some confusion on the mountain’s behalf. Wasn’t the fellow dead already? But it wasn’t above toying with him even so. He was wounded once in a landslide, a second time in a fire fuelled by the gasification of rotting materials.

His burns became infected, and here his story might have ended were it not for the intervention of Dr. Saryu V. Tamhane.

I met Dr. Tamhane once, for an interview. An interesting character. Her black hair was in a heavy braid, as I recall. She preferred to wear it up.

It rose directly above her head. Woven with fibres of kevlar and boron nitride, it extended forty-three thousand kilometers into the sky — above the sky — into high orbit, to the Chandrayaan IndusObserver geosynchronous communications satellite above Andhra Pradesh.

Not a sparrow fell in the subcontinent but that Dr. Tamhane marked its passing.

Her funding stemmed from various private and public auspices that reposed their faith on the ‘soft economy’, so-called; the idea that India’s most precious resource was India.

She had discovered Mritak’s earlier, village works. She had searched him out, found him on the mountainside, plucked him to safety — these matters are related elsewhere.

She saw to his medical care. She oversaw his career.

Success succeeded success. Even Dr. Tamhane was dizzied by the prices that attached to his work. But then, as Mritak himself observed, art often commands high prices after its maker’s death.

• • •

I find I have moved deeper into the studio.

Around me, the field-governors crackle and smack with wet electricity. They maintain the sculptures’ forms, and pull at me, the suit working against their energies.

We have all seen those fools who feel the need to touch art. I have seen them, rich, influential men and women, so-called collectors, running their hands over their sculptures, as if the dull, haptic sense might enrich their understanding. But they have no understanding. What they do not grasp is that the art is not there; that it cannot be touched. Sometimes it is barely there to be seen. The art — it is an abstraction, like prana, the Hindu life-essence; an idea, almost entirely divorced from the physical. The greatest art is all but invisible; the work itself, the sculpture, is little more than a place-marker.

I move more lightly, appreciating the works around me.

The genius: to unite gravity with art. Forces, tensions. A balance so exquisite. I think of the sadhus and sadhvis who deny the worldly to achieve the spiritual, the body waning like the glass under a lens-grinder’s tools. The less that is visible, the greater is the light.

This is art without visible flaw. This is earnest, this is playful. I sense references to Henry Moore’s ‘Reclining Figure’ — or at least the holes in that sculpture. I perceive the utilitarian beauty that is the goal of the structural engineer, who strives for lightness … but such an engineer must despair, here, before these structures, reduced to less than their basics … only the idea remaining … even the idea barely here … items to be apprehended by the imagination, or not at all…

I find myself thinking of bridges, I know not why, when I totter into an L-shaped alcove. And there is a bridge here. Bold, extraordinary, arching from nothing to nothing.

It is not long before I sense someone standing at the other end of it.

• • •

Once, an anonymous collector in Delhi invited me to a viewing of ‘Mosquito’, one of Naveen Mritak’s unfinished pieces.

I will not lie: I was tempted. It was this very temptation that decided me against accepting the invitation.

I sent a reply reminding the collector of their moral duty to return the work to the Allahabad Museum, from which it had been stolen. Further, I notified the authorities, who proved unable to trace the source of the invitation. Perhaps it had been a hoax after all.

I forgot about the matter until the collector was discovered a year later. Harsh Vaddan-Nadda, a former minister of cultural affairs. He was found dead. Suicide. He had impaled himself on the sculpture.

‘Mosquito’ was returned to the museum. The curators offered Naveen a chance to repair it. His instructions were only that it be cleaned, and no longer listed as unfinished.

• • •

Death was often a presence in his art. Is this death who awaits me at the end of the invisible bridge?

Moving forward, my boots come up against a step at this end of the bridge. I try to mount it, without success. I try again, but my armored knees lock, and I slip, almost fall.

It is less by the crude sensors of my helmet than my critical acuity that I understand that the figure is gesturing to me.

Again I try to mount the steps, again I fail. Ach! This suit!
I scrabble at the suit’s chest, and a panel gives way. Some mechanism behind it falters. I feel a gentle disequilibrium. I widen the opening, experiencing shearing forces.

I get a better grip, pull; something cracks, and for a moment I think it is one of my ribs, then look down and see fragments of the panel in my hand.

The disrobing is easier after that, section after section, each panel and component a step closer to —

From behind me: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar — the plugdoor — I turn, see someone entering, huge and anonymous in their own unwieldy suit. I shout and back away. The intruder is nimble, catching my shoulders with armoured hands. The struggle is brief. I am dragged from the studio, my tears lifted into helices by competing gravities.

• • •

My guides are solicitous. They crowd around me, believing their presence is comforting.

I cannot look at the man who saved me — his name is Yusri Nabil. It is not shame that makes me turn away.

There are medical checks. Elevated blood pressure, bruising, but nothing so terrible as that which befell G. W. Pon Rijiju. I envy him, that he was able to fully remove his suit.

Later, there is a debrief. One of the caretakers tells me they had suspected the exhibition was designed as a trap; now they are sure. They are apologetic, but I do not care. Naveen died there, they believe, crushed to nothing by tidal forces, but not before setting the bait. The figure at the end of the bridge. Grandfather Bunny, it must be he, invisibly beckoning, wanting to do to me what he had done to his grandson…

All I wish is to return to him, this ultimate expression of the artistic urge…
After another examination, I am declared fit for travel.

With time, I reboard the tigership. With chuffs and breathy growls, we bound from the lunar surface.
The Earth comes into view.

I almost weep to see it. This pathetic thing! This visible thing! Trying so hard to be beautiful! Bleak as a child’s abandoned toy!

The time for toys is over! Do you not understand this? This is the lesson that Naveen is teaching. Visible matter has been our plaything too long.

I look away. The tigership shivers and roars. She gurrs, yaps, huffs. The hull shakes with more attitude adjustments than seem strictly necessary.

It is as if the tigress were trying to draw my attention to something.

Again, I look outside — and find I am not looking at the Earth, but the vacuum beyond it.

Where I see … or don’t see…

With my imagination, with my artistic sense attuned, I feel sure, by my recent experiences, I perceive —
A structure far larger than Earth. In which our planet serves as a little bit of drab to accentuate the loveliness, the invisible rococo — which recalls the architectures of certain temples, with floral elements — alive, are they? — and unseen leaves gentling in the vacuum breeze, and darkmatter vines greater in size than can be seen; but then, none of this can be seen…

Here it is, and here, and everywhere — darkmatter art curling away in all directions, into the deeps of space, into the sun, whose brilliance does nothing to make a sculpture less visible that is invisible anyway; and I experience a sensation that I attribute at first to one of the ship’s course corrections, but is in fact a lifting of the heart.

Here is a work that preceded Naveen Mritak by millennia. A masterpiece more ancient than humanity, from an artist of another race.

Almost, art had been my destruction. But as ever, the fault was mine; I had simply been looking at it the wrong way. Art is that which isn’t seen, and this is to the good, because the unseen makes up so very much of the world.

Jeremy Shaw is the middle bit of a Russian doll with reality problems.

Adam Browne is responsible for finding the middle bit of the Russian doll and realizing its potential.

Issue 27

September 2015

3LBE 27

Front & Back cover art by Rew X