Clever, capable and spirited, Sahej Rahal belongs to a new generation of Indian artists who have seen the potential success available to them, as it has been attributed to their contemporaries and wish for more of the same. In context Rahal is as articulate as he is well-informed, for his kaleidoscopic knowledge and ability to acquire ideas from recent history with intellectual ease; and for his audience his works are intended to be as complex and uncomfortable as they might first appear. Blemishing one’s imagination as much as they infiltrate our psyche. Therefore it proves positively gratifying to make contact with Rahal now at this point in his career, as it might well have been to have first met Indian art’s contemporary father figure, Subodh Gupta in the early 1990’s; and as much as Gupta developed his reputation with due-diligence, you can appreciate the maturity and like-minded temperament with which Rahal applies himself to his works, and of the direction he is favourably taking. Engagingly the artist’s ideas come as much from the wider world; film, the internet, the international media, literature, and social history, as they do from the immediate detritus of his place of birth, Mumbai. A Sprawling metropolis of slum-dwellers and the very successful, the city reflects Rahal’s intrinsic affirmation for influences and ideas that are bound by religion, science, mythology, story-telling, and history. And as the city’s blueprint continues to absorb its multiple narratives, so Rahal’s works are born of his interest in re-reading and re-interpreting history, whilst investing his own.
Like a societal thread that draws his audience in, in order they are better conditioned to inhale the morose melancholia in his works. Rahal’s practice can be regarded as other-worldly; borrowing from science-fiction, spirituality and the sizable history of modern religion, as his absorbing performative works and unsettling sculptures positively infect their neutral spaces, introducing a darkened atmosphere that overshadows the gallery space. Describing himself as self-confessed ‘Star Wars Nerd’, there is a darker literature that could well serve a new audience scrutinising Rahal’s work. Homer’s Odyssey, the sequel to the Iliad, an extraordinary fable of gods and monsters engaging in ‘the giving and receiving of trouble’. J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels, The Lord of the Rings series, where giant spiders, violent orcs, wild wolves, and the dungeons of the wood elves, are the odious characters that plague middle-earth; and of a more modern era, American Evangeline Walton with her fantasy fiction, in which she was ‘able to humanise historical and mythological subjects with eloquence, humour and compassion’; all epitomise something of the attractive and traumatic beauty of Rahal’s works.
He himself focuses on specific influences, choosing ‘one book and one film, I’d go with Gravity’s Rainbow and Blade Runner, I think both allow themselves to be read and viewed over and over again, every time throwing out something new.’ Gravity’s Rainbow, written in 1973 by American writer Thomas Pynchon, is a dreadfully difficult book that deals with a whole cast of tormented characters in Europe at the end of the Second World War preoccupied by the Schwarzgerӓt or a ‘black device’ being installed into a rocket marked serial number ‘0000’. And more famously Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 American novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, in which organic robots or ‘replicants’ occupy Los Angeles in November 2019. There is also in Rahal’s works a devilish sensibility that is equally recalled in early film works that include John Barrymore’s, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, and William Cameron’s adaptation of H. G. Wells, Things to Come, that for all their gratifying charm embody a dizzying spirit that hypnotised the cinematic atmosphere as it infects reality. As a modern dictum good and evil have become a by-word for ‘life’, ‘love’ and ‘justice’, as a struggle over deliberate ‘wrong-doing’, ‘torment’ and intended ‘violence’. Yet such polarities are never stable, never regarded as fixed points of reference; as rooted in the ambiguity, between the corruption of good and the prevalence of evil, that Sahej Rahal’s works appear to manifest themselves.
As interested in mythology and religious rites, as he appears to be in history and social circumstance, Rahal’s work appears to hover very effectively between our stable sense of reality and its underlying metamorphosis; as modernity and history effectively become one and the same.
The inventiveness of works like Forerunner, 2013, is palpable, as Rahal’s narrator Rehaan Engineer diligently orchestrates a complex fable of the keeper, who remains unidentified throughout, and his interest in a by-gone age of ‘geometry’, ’symmetry’, and calculated precision. Comprising of a twelve and a half minute video work that begins by spanning the outer atmosphere of earth from space, and then becomes equally as rooted to a depilated building that has succumbed to the forces of natures; and as the visual imagery for Forerunner develops, Engineer becomes more specific in his choreographed narrative, referring to ‘a man’, ‘who vanishes from the apartment room of the first floor’. Whilst the camera pans the enclosed space of the derelict building that appears to have had all of its concrete floors punctured out. And in a moment of rest-bite, as a substantial bolder swings precariously from the floor above, Engineer breaks into more well versed dialogue. Referring to ‘cartographical veracity’, and ‘how the map falls into disrepair’, as a mythical ‘empire’ and dystopian ‘universe’ have dissolved to dust. And further, under the rudimentary lighting of the exhibition space, Engineer hypnotically reels off a whole series of causal effects for the downfall of man. Both man-made and natural, they are seen as the collected evils of history; as word for word, ‘the electric chair’, ‘the gallows’, ‘the guillotine’, ‘the gas chamber’, and ‘stoning’, heighten the ruinous rotation of earth. It proves to be a challenging work, on several levels, though it does require of the audience an intellectual resourcefulness to keep up with such a number of accumulated ideas. Where Forerunner is possibly most dynamic, and visually gratifying (for the residual photographic prints that are available), is Rahal’s choreographed impersonation of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker grasping a two pronged lightsaber. Which when turned and twisted vigiously in the night sky, reveals an intense creature of light. The immediacy of what the artist attempts to do, in an otherwise stage managed and calculated film, is invigorating in and of itself.
Sculptural works include Helmet, 2013, (wood, coated iron, condensed PVC, and acrylic paint), that Rahal uses as part of the performative piece Bhramana III, 2013. In detail the magnificent coated iron head mask draws attention to itself, as its textural unease is magnified by the theatrical gallery setting. Another is Knuckle, 2013, (brass, condensed PVC, and acrylic paint), which is a discarded knuckle duster, with its characteristic elongated ‘eight’ shaped handle, from which gold coloured biomorphic forms sprout from the handle irregularly. For Rahal ‘Knuckle was actually made using a real knuckle duster that (he) found’, and as he explains he was ‘trying to play with these violent things, make toys of them in some sense.’ There is, as with so many of Rahal’s works, an endearing beauty to the physical form that manifests itself as sculpture. Another Hammer 2012, (Found wooden furniture, plastic, coated iron, condensed PVC, acrylic paint), could well be miscast as a religious ‘implement’ for its biblical appearance. Most engaging of all are the triptych floor sculptures, Walker I, Walker II and Walker III, 2013, (wood, plastic, coated iron, polyester fur, condensed PVC, acrylic paint), that recall something of the apocalyptic premonitions of the Italian 15th century Fresco, The Triumph of Death. For Rahul ‘The Walkers are definitely (his) 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 these little mutations trotting out on this absurd exodus from under the city’s debris.’
As a forerunner for new works, with reality daily compromised by the conditions of ‘rape’, ‘suicide’, ‘torture’, ‘terrorism’, and ‘mass killing’, Rahal clearly has a long way to go before he runs the risk of creative block.
Rajesh Punj: For an audience unfamiliar with your work can you introduce us to your practice?
Sahej Rahal: I see my work as an expanding metanarrative of that draws from history, myth and pop-culture; and plays out in the context of the city. It’s almost like trying to trace this fictional civilization of absurd beings performing indecipherable rituals in our everyday, and leaving behind this 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: 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 was included in a group show at Chatterjee & Lal; had you already signed to the gallery by then?
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 you are an exception to the rule or were many of your contemporaries able to exhibit straight out of art college?
SR: There’s a lot of really interesting work coming from not just art school graduates but people from other art historical and theory based backgrounds as well, right now, a really good example of this is the Sarai Reader 9 exhibition.
RP: Everything appears to have come very quickly for you, do you consider that so? Or do you consider art college good preparation for where you are now?
SR: The art school I went to, Rachana Sansad, was a really great place to learn, especially because we had some really cool people in the faculty who were really pushing for a lot of experimentation, and there were a lot of artists coming in to conduct workshops on new media practices. That said, did feel that there were a lot of gaps in my education in terms of engaging with art history, I’d taken up courses at Jnanapravah and the Bhau Daji Lad Museum which really helped bridge those gaps, and also gave me a chance to engage with people who were engaging with art practice with a lot more critical rigor.
RP: How was your residency in March of this year at Gasworks? Were you performing there?
SR: It was a huge honour to be selected for the Creative India Gasworks Residency, and London itself was an amazing place to work in. I performed the third leg of the Bhramana performances there, at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a Cultural Bastion of the Rococo Period. I found a wooden Didgeridoo in a dumpster in Brixton and made this crusted metallic object out of it that looked like an alien telescope. I was playing the instrument at the gardens during the performance.
RP: Your Bhramana II performance at Chatterjee & Lal, in which you appear to bandage yourself head to toe in cotton, exaggerating your head entirely. What is the purpose of the costume, and what of the instrument or pipe you have propped up and protruding from you horizontally, what should we make of that?
SR: While putting the costume together I had this ethereal warrior-bard figure in my head, bellowing on his otherworldly instrument as he wandered the innards of the Dhobi Talao subway, that said I think of these characters embodying vectors that point towards a range of references across pop-culture, myth and history, they become patchworks that are being pieced together by bits of subjective experience, and the spaces they fleetingly occupy, become sites for a ritual of meaning making.
RP: Are you mocking spirituality or suggesting we have greater need for it?
SR: I’m constantly looking for opposing ways of understanding our everyday, and getting them to collide against each other, but I’m definitely sure I don’t know enough to mock or preach.
RP: Your gallerist describes 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 our audience to understand these multiple references? And are they likely to lose sight of what you are setting out to do?
SR: I’m not interested in getting an audience to catch every reference, firstly because, that is two steps away from taking on a kind of didactic approach, which I’m uncomfortable with. I’m more interested in setting up these arenas of probability where the past and present can come into flux and 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 had fully taken on your persona, (as it is referred to), walking through a designated area of the city, in that time were you inviting audience interaction? And were you performing a pre-determined routine or responding to a situation?
SR: Though I go through a rigorous preparation cycle before performing my instinct is to go against it, this allows for the performance to take on its own ephemeral contours.
RP: How many times have you performed Bhramana II?
SR: Bhramana is a series of on-going performances, and each performance is different from the previous one, and performed in different spaces. 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? And was he a major influence?
SR: I learnt a lot from Nikhil, especially while studying under him in art school, what particularly drew me to Nikhil’s practice initially was how he is able to conjure up this 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: Did you also have a residency at KHOJ this year, as part of ‘The Arena, the Imagination and the Body’ exhibition?
SR: Yes, I was invited by KHOJ for a month long residency this year. I was working on a film; Forerunner, based on Pir Ghaib, an observatory-slash-hunting lodge, built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq and named after a saint who vanished there.
RP: Can you explain more about the FORERUNNER exhibition that has just opened at Chatterjee & Lal? Besides a new performance for that you have included photographs and sculpture, are these all new works?
SR: Forerunner brings together a lot of the things I have been working on for the last three years, documentation from the Bhramana performances, sculptures that I’ve been working on in my studio in Bombay, and from Gasworks in London, and a film I made at Khoj this year 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 have much less interest in?
SR: I’m interested in things that fit into the idea of beauty with a measure of awkwardness.
RP: The Groom (2011), what is that work about? And was it part of a performance or entirely a photo-work?
SR: The Groom is a photo-work; I was thinking of this man in waiting, whose grassy mane has grown thick with ennui.
RP: Bhramana I (2012), is another work that is almost impossible to look at for your personas brutish qualities? Are you making reference to the city’s destitute as well as to notions of mythology? How do you understand mythology in a modern setting?
SR: The idea behind taking on the series of Bhramana performances was exactly this, to test the potential for mythmaking within the city, especially in its spaces of commute where narrative of the city, rife with its tensions, plays itself out in real-time.
RP: Included in the FORERUNNER exhibition are Walker I & II (2013), again hideous sculptural monsters that appear to have come from a science fiction film than an art studio, what are they representative for you?
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 these little mutations trotting out on this absurd exodus from under the city’s debris.
RP: Knuckle (2013), is another that is as troubling as Walker I & II, because there appears to be nothing amiable about the piece, it is utterly damning. Do you see it like that? Do you think we are troubled with ideas and images of the morose and the grotesque, because we are so used to notions of beauty?
SR: Knuckle was actually made using a real knuckle duster that I found, I’m trying to play with these violent things, make toys of them in some sense.
RP: There is something incredibly powerful about the image and the work Tandav III (2012), how did that come about? And is this the closest thing you have to something ‘beautiful’?
SR: Tandav was a video work I made where a figure shrouded in ornate table mats is swinging a pair of tube-lights, the photograph was achieved through a slow shutter shot of the entire ‘blade dance’
RP: What are you working on currently? When do you plan to perform again?
SR: I’m getting ready for my residency in Rome, which begins on August 30th of this year, and I have been toying around with a little helicopter drone that I’ve got a hold of recently.
RP: Finally can I ask what you are reading right now? And what in Mumbai of many things is a 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. Bombay 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.