Forerunner, 2013. HD Video, 12:13 sec.

Beauty with a Measure of Awkwardness: A Conversation with Sahej Rahal

Clever, capable, and spirited, Sahej Rahal belongs to a new generation of Indian artists who have seen the success of their immediate predecessors and wish for more of the same. Rahal is as articulate as he is well-informed, with kaleidoscopic knowledge and the ability to adapt ideas from recent history with intellectual ease; his works are intended to be as complex and uncomfortable as they first appear. It may be as significant to make contact with Rahal at this point in his career as it was to have met Subodh Gupta, Indian art’s contemporary father figure, in the early 1990s. Like Gupta, who developed his reputation with due diligence, Rahal applies himself to his works with maturity and a level-headed temperament. His ideas come as much from the wider world—film, the Internet, international media, literature, and social history—as they do from the immediate context of Mumbai, his place of birth. A sprawling metropolis that houses slum-dwellers, the extremely wealthy, and everyone in between, the city reflects Rahal’s affirmation of influences and ideas taken from religion, science, mythology, story-telling, and history. Just as the city continues to absorb multiple narratives, so Rahal’s works re-read and re-interpret history, while investing his own.

Rajesh Punj: For viewers unfamiliar with your work, could you introduce your practice?

Sahej Rahal: I see my work as an expanding meta-narrative that draws from history, myth, and pop culture, that plays out in the context of the city. It’s almost like trying to trace a fictional civilization of absurd beings performing indecipherable rituals in our everyday life and leaving behind the fragmented residues of their tools and toys before they flee into the cracks in the concrete.

RP: Do you define yourself as a sculptor, video artist, photographer, or performance artist?

SR: A Star Wars nerd.

RP: You graduated from a fine arts academy in 2011 and then had a solo exhibition at the Kunst Haus, Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland, in 2011. How did that come about?

SR: I was selected by Heidi Ernst from the FUTUR Foundation based on my work in art school.

RP: You were then included in a group show at Chatterjee & Lal. Had you already been signed by the gallery then?

The Groom, 2011. Photograph, 23.5 x 16 in.

SR: I was actually part of two group shows with Chatterjee & Lal in late 2012, which was a year after the FUTUR residency.

RP: Do you think that you are an exception to the rule, or were many of your contemporaries able to exhibit straight out of school?

SR: There’s a lot of really interesting work right now coming not just from art school graduates, but also from people with art history and theory-based backgrounds. The Sarai Reader 9 exhibition is a really good example.

RP: Do you think that everything came very quickly for you? Do you consider art college good preparation for where you are now?

SR: The art school I went to, Rachana Sansad, was a great place to learn, especially because we had some really cool people on the faculty, who pushed for experimentation. There were also a lot of artists coming in to conduct workshops on new media practices. That said, I feel that there were a lot of gaps in my education in terms of engaging with art history. I took additional courses at Jnanapravah and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which helped to bridge those gaps and also gave me a chance to engage with people who approach art practice with a lot more critical rigor.

RP: How was your residency at Gasworks last year?

SR: It was a huge honor to be selected for the Creative India Gasworks Residency, and London was an amazing place to work. I performed the third leg of the “Bhramana” performances at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a cultural bastion of the Rococo period. I found a wooden didgeridoo in a dumpster in Brixton and made a crusted metallic object out of it that looked like an alien telescope. I played the instrument at the gardens during the performance.

RP: In your Bhramana II performance at Chatterjee & Lal, you bandaged yourself head to toe in cotton, exaggerating your head. What was the purpose of the costume? And what should we make of the instrument or pipe that you propped up and had protruding from your body?

SR: While putting the costume together, I had an ethereal warrior-bard figure in my head, bellowing on his otherworldly instrument as he wandered the innards of the Dhobi Talao subway. I think of such characters as embodying vectors that point toward a range of references across pop culture, myth, and history. They become patchworks pieced together by bits of subjective experience, and the spaces that they fleetingly occupy become sites for a ritual of meaning.

RP: Are you mocking spirituality or suggesting that we have greater need of it?

SR: I’m constantly looking for opposing ways of understanding everyday experience and getting them to collide with each other, but I’m definitely sure that I don’t know enough to mock or preach.

RP: Your gallerist says that your work “can be viewed as a growing narrative that draws upon mythical beings from different cultures and brings them into a dialogue with the present.” How do you envisage viewers understanding these multiple references? Are they likely to lose sight of what you set out to do?

Bhramana I, 2012. Documentation of performance.

SR: I’m not interested in getting an audience to catch every reference, because that is two steps away from a didactic approach, which makes me uncomfortable. I’m more interested in setting up arenas of probability in which past and present can come into flux, can be played with and built upon by the viewer. In effect, this narrative is made manifest by everyone engaging with it.

RP: Once you fully take on your persona and walk through a designated area of the city, do you invite audience interaction? Do you perform a predetermined routine or respond to a situation?

SR: Though I go through a rigorous preparation cycle before performing, my instinct is to go against it, which allows the performance to take on its own ephemeral contours.

RP: How many times have you performed Bhramana II?

SR: “Bhramana” is a series of ongoing performances; each performance is different from the previous one and performed in a different space. Bhramana II was the second performance of the series.

RP: It is impossible not to think of Nikhil Chopra and his practice when considering your performative work. What is different about what you do? Was he a major influence for you?

SR: I learned a lot from Nikhil, especially while studying under him in art school. What particularly drew me to his practice was his ability to conjure a vivid and cohesive sense of history almost alchemically. I think of my furry beasts and turbaned bards inhabiting a more shifting and entropic space.

RP: You had a residency at Khoj in 2014, as part of the exhibition “The Arena, the Imagination and the Body.” What did you make there?

SR: I was invited for a month-long residency. I was working on a film called Forerunner, based on Pir Ghaib, an observatory/hunting lodge built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq and named after a saint who vanished there.

RP: Can you explain the “Forerunner” exhibition that opened last year at Chat­ter­jee & Lal? Besides a new performance, you included photographs and sculpture.

SR: “Forerunner” brought together a lot of things that I had been working on for the previous three years, including documentation from the “Bhramana” performances, sculptures that I made in my studio in Mumbai and at Gasworks, and the film I made at Khoj, which shares its title with the show.

RP: There appears to be something utterly morose, grotesque even, about your work. Is beauty something you fear, or does it not interest you?

SR: I’m interested in things that fit into the idea of beauty with a measure of awkwardness.

RP: Could you explain The Groom (2011)? Was it part of a performance or entirely a photo-work?

SR: The Groom is a photo-work. I was thinking of a man-in-waiting, whose grassy mane has grown thick with ennui.

RP: Bhramana I (2012) is another work almost impossible to look at because of your persona’s brutish qualities. Are you making reference to Mumbai’s destitute, as well as to mythology? How do you understand mythology in a modern setting?

SR: The idea behind the “Bhramana” performances was exactly this—to test the potential for myth-making within the city, especially in its transitory spaces where the narrative of the city, rife with tensions, plays itself out in real time.

RP: The “Forerunner” exhibition included Walker I and II (2013), two hideous sculptural monsters that appear to come out of a sci-fi film rather than an art studio. What do they represent for you?

(Left) Walker II, 2013, wood, plastic, coated iron, condensed PVC, polyester fur, and acrylic paint, 17 x 16 x 11 in.; (right) Walker I, 2013, wood, plastic, coated iron, condensed PVC, polyester fur, and acrylic paint, 25 x 17 x 10 in.

SR: The “Walkers” are definitely my love letter to sci-fi. They were made using found objects like coat hangers, a broken ab roller, polyester fur, and polyurethane. They are almost like little mutations trotting out on an absurd exodus from under the city’s debris.

RP: Knuckle (2013) is as troubling as Walker I and II. There appears to be nothing amiable about it; it seems utterly damning. Do you see it like that? Do you think we are troubled by ideas and images of the grotesque because we are so used to notions of beauty and of kitsch?

SR: Knuckle was made using a real knuckle-duster that I found. I’m playing with these violent things, making toys of them in some sense.

RP: There is something incredibly powerful about Tandav III (2012). How did it come about?

SR: Tandav is a video work in which a figure shrouded in ornate table mats swings a pair of tube-lights. The photograph that you mentioned was achieved through a slow shutter shot of the entire blade dance.

RP: Finally, can I ask what you are reading right now? And what in Mumbai is a particular source of inspiration for you?

SR: I’m reading Wobblies and Zapatistas, a dialogue between Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd on anarchist and Marxist traditions. Mumbai has a weird sense of being able to hold itself together even though it’s always two seconds from bedlam. I think a bit of that bleeds into what I do.Rajesh Punj is a writer and curator living in London.