From a distance, the corner of the gallery that artist Mithu Sen has claimed as her own seems inviting. There’s a strip of pink running from ceiling to floor. A lamp hangs low, throwing light on a simple table that seems to have pink photo frames on it. Once you come closer, the work (titled ‘Permanent Past’) threatens to rejig your understanding of pink. This is not the colour of baby girls’ dresses, but a fleshy, gummy pink that’s shining as though slick with saliva. And then there are the teeth sticking out of that surface.
As if that wasn’t creepy enough, you’ll find that between some of the awkwardly-embedded teeth are tiny human figures. Behind these modified photo frames are a set of tools and glass jars that contain powders as well as (presumably false) teeth.
“Permanent Past” looks like you’ve entered the workspace of a demented tooth fairy rather than an artist, and this is a compliment. It’s not every day that an artwork can fascinate and horrify you in equal measure.
Sen is one of the 20 artists who have taken over Chemould Prescott Road for an exhibition titled, Modus Operandi II; In-situ: An Artist’s Studio.
The idea behind it is to allow viewers a glimpse of the processes that bring an artwork to life. Some of the participating artists show you the books they’ve read and the objects that have inspired them. Others show you their tools. Some just show you their work.
Even if you’ve never heard of Aditi Singh, Anju or Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat, NS Harsha, Reena Saini Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni or Sheetal Gattani, this show is a delight. With elements on display like a delicate fan of dried coral; pigments used to make a particular shade of colour; perfectly-made miniature bricks; a string of tiny heads; and a newspaper clipping that asks if actor Biswajeet was a “master impregnator”, inspiration is revealed to a fabulous, varied business.
While some participating artists like Anant Joshi, hold back from revealing much about their process, many others in the show seem to repose a degree of trust in the viewer.
Kulkarni’s space, for example, has her tools, sketchbooks as well as bric-a-brac.
Her powerful watercolours and sketches celebrate the feminine body and attack social conventions – like crossing one’s legs when seated – that seek to attach shame to feminine sexuality. Below the art lie the tools, including a pot of Fevicol and a cheerful, little plastic figurine of a hula girl that offers a pointed contrast to the bodies in Kulkarni’s art.
Atul Dodiya brings part of a shelf from his studio into the gallery, complete with books and kitschy sculptures (including a bust of Dr BR Ambedkar in a pink suit). Below this is a grid made up of his watercolours and framed stills showing villains and victims from old Bollywood films.
The paintings are a study in vulnerability and body language. For example, the abject woman desperately holding on to the sari that a villain is pulling off her becomes a heroine in a balletic pose in Dodiya’s watercolour, which focuses on the lines of her form and removes details like the villain, the room and even the sari.
Gattani’s abstract drawings are hung in a group, turning the wall into a collection of windows that look out onto a hazy cityscape. They’re actually meant to be non-representational studies inspired by stillness, but especially if you’ve been on the Bandra-Worli sea link on a cloudy, hazy day, it’s impossible to not think of our smothered city as you gaze upon Gattani’s drawings. Below the drawings are the tools that she uses to make these delicate works, along with curled shavings of paper – because that’s how these structures reveal themselves to Gattani – through the process of subtracting the paper using a surgical knife.
In a city of cramped homes and limited spaces, where we’ve made our peace with being uncomfortable, Modus Operandi is a reminder that while it may be ideal to have a room of one’s own, sometimes, just 1/20th of a gallery is enough to set your imagination free.