As we see the ever-widening gap between the producers and consumers of a particular kind of visible ‘culture’ and a much larger world relegated to invisibility, these efforts hint at small, hopeful bridges. The Biennale, in turn, nods to this by mounting its photos in public spaces. At 11:00 am, the city is already sizzling but Nageswara Rao Park is cool, green and quiet. On its stone benches lie middle-aged men, jobless or homeless or both, oblivious to the giant frames around them. Young footballers work out inside a gazebo. As with most exhibitions, one artist sometimes grabs you by the gut. I stand for a long time in front of Karolin Klüppel’s frames that capture the girls of matrilineal Meghalaya in whimsical moments of intense beauty. Hidden amid the clusters of bamboo, the photos somehow look organic to the park, a sort of surreal foliage.
The photographs at Lighthouse MRTS station, though, don’t stand a chance against the seediness that hangs over the station like a miasma. I step past puddles that could be rainwater or piss, and pause at a nightmarish repetition of frames where women with plastic pots wait patiently to collect water against a backdrop of multi-hued cables in a reiteration of the city’s endless loop of thirst. On the first floor, past giant blue faces, Anshika Varma’s vignettes of kuppam life are joyous. But the squalid station wins after all, mocking the patchwork colours stuck on it like band-aid.
Apparao Gallery is, of course, more amenable, and Navroze Contractor’s infectious enthusiasm illuminates his kushti series as much as the play of light and shadow. The photos are a celebration of gleaming sweat and muscles, black and white wedges of innocence and simplicity. Later, he tells the story of how his jazz photos — their close-cropped intensity a jazz-lover’s paean — ended up at the Smithsonian for the price of an air ticket home to India.
Monochromes dominate Spaces, too, the seaside gallery showing ‘Remembering Chandralekha’, a large-format exposition of the dancer’s choreography, each picture a deep dive into the heart of dance and the physicality of the body. When I go in, workers are still erecting bamboo frames and measuring distances and an immense photo of the dancer lies, vividly patient, in a pit. Curator Sadanand Menon potters about, sometimes directing the workers, sometimes taking time to explain a picture. There’s a sense of intimacy in the moment, as if you had walked backstage when the dancers were still getting their makeup on. But there is also intense drama, as Menon’s striking photograph of Chandralekha under a blazing red maple tree leaps out of a corner, or you turn and see the Dashrath Patel image of Chandralekha on her back, legs akimbo in the air, iconic white hair spread on either side, almost an upside-down Ardhamandala, exuding athleticism, eroticism and yogic power.
In contrast, the drama in Gautam Bhatia’s wacky Gandhi montage is satirical. By superimposing the famous face on other bodies doing other quotidian things — Gandhi playing tennis on McEnroe’s legs or conducting Zubin Mehta’s orchestra — Bhatia gently mocks the middle-class appropriation of the Gandhi icon. I ask Bhatia how much flak he drew when he first exhibited this in the mid-90s. There were a couple of nasty comments in the Visitor’s Book, but nothing beyond that. We wonder how he would have fared had the subject been someone else and the date now. “These are dangerous times,” says Bhatia, “I might have been speaking to you from Tihar Jail.”
And so, the show goes on, and while it still can, the city steeps itself like a tea leaf in the warmth of visual imagery pouring over it.