SUBBA GHOSHDreamer – I Trepidations, 2008–09, mixed-media pasted on medium density fiberboard, paint on fiberglass, 27.9 × 177.8 × 160.8 cm. Courtesy Anant Art Gallery, New Delhi.

State of Mind

Subba Ghosh

Anant Art Gallery

The New Delhi-based painter, animator, installation and video artist Subba Ghosh is a mercurial figure in India’s art scene. Defining himself primarily as a painter, Ghosh trained at the College of Art, New Delhi, the Surikov Institute of Fine Arts, Moscow, and Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he began experimenting with video. Exhibiting since 1989, he declines to participate in group shows, thus maintaining a certain exclusivity around his work. This desire to function largely outside the market is in keeping with the core theme of Ghosh’s oeuvre: a critique of the frames established by institutions to define individual identities, specifically the state’s use of coercion and violence to control and maintain its population.

Subba Ghosh had his third solo exhibition in February at Anant Art Gallery with a survey of recent monochrome drawings, video and sculpture installations, an animated video and painted cut-outs, with which he made visible the tools of institutional control. To illustrate this, Ghosh juxtaposed on adjoining walls Coercion I & II (2009), black acrylic drawings of a policeman poised with a stick above his head to hit a protestor attempting to run away, and Monument to National Mother (2009), a pedestal surmounted by a bronze-colored bust of an old woman whose sari is draped over her head. Since the time of the Subcontinent’s struggle for independence from colonial rule, the female form—which conflates the figures of goddess, mother and liberty leading the way to victory and freedom—has stood for national pride. Ghosh subverts this narrative to critique the state. On four sides of the wooden pedestal, he drew images of Mahatma Gandhi lying with his hands across his chest and his face turned away from the viewer, a man in chains, a man throwing a stone and, finally, a hand using pliers to pull a nail out of an unseen object. The price of nationhood and nationalism is made clear
in the images of strife and conflict on the pedestal and the weary, aged Mother India positioned on top.

Ghosh’s skill as a draughtsman was evident throughout the exhibition, but especially in his animated video of monochrome drawings Within Darkness – Homage to Nat King Cole in Today’s World (2009). Cole’s song I’m Through with Love is used as a soundtrack to the video, which starts with a man tearing open his chest, pulling out his heart and another man eating it. The heart then sprouts a bomb, a missile, a gun and a fish in succession and, finally, it is bound in chains. A man carries a wounded child and two other men beat up another, a pool of blood spreading underneath him. The heart is used as a metaphor for human frailty, and the song identifies Ghosh’s disillusionment
with the current realities of widespread violence and lack of love and respect in places where violence persists. Cole’s title consequently takes on a much more dire meaning. 

From painting to sculpture to video, Ghosh’s aptitude in multiple media is readily apparent. But one work, Vox Populi (2009), which made its debut in this exhibition, showed that the artist may be switching gears entirely. Vox Populi is an installation of six computer screens mounted on pedestals and placed in a semi-circle. Each screen shows an interview the artist conducted with unknown individuals who were invited to speak on any topic. Invariably, the artist found that his subjects all spoke about their own lives and the interviews took the form of monologues. The viewer is assaulted by the indecipherable cacophony of mingled voices as individuals’ oral narratives replaced Ghosh’s overtly political and generalized critique of government Ghosh plans to develop this work into an aural experience, marking a new step in his oeuvre.