Nalini Malani is a politically committed artist who sees her work as an active, eyewitness account of modern society. The work mimics a middle-class Indian sitting room, with red walls, photographs of characters and scenes from history on the walls bathed in dim light, and a large painting that comes to life before our very eyes. It is a video shown in a large gilded frame holding Ravi Varmâ’s undated canvas Galaxy of Musicians, shown at the Chicago World Congress of Religions in 1893, where the philosopher Swami Vivekananda warned of the dangers of religious orthodoxy. At the time, India was witnessing the rise of a nationalist school of thought alongside powerful reformist movements. The painting depicts eleven female musicians in regional costume playing traditional instruments, symbolising ‘unity in diversity’, the paradoxical motto chosen by India at the country’s independence following the partition of Pakistan in 1947.
In the video, Malani confronts Varmâ’s painting with recent Indian history, particularly the 2002 genocide of the Muslim population of Gujarat, on the border with Pakistan. The outbreak of violence between communities was the bloodiest in India since independence, shaking the democratic nation to its foundations. What starts out as a harmonious composition, with all parts of the nation playing sweet music together, ends in a bloodbath. Gunfire rattles as the music gives way to screams and lamentations. The orchestra morphs into an army where women carry rifles to protect themselves from abuse. Images of a surgical abortion symbolise the failure of a promising future. A voice that sounds like Nehru evoking the unfinished task of liberal nationalism delivers a pessimistic manifesto borrowed from Heiner Müller’s play Der Auftrag (The Task), inspired by a 1933 text by Bertolt Brecht.
Sophie Duplaix (ed.), Malani, la rébellion des morts/Malani, the Rebellion of the Dead: Retrospective 1969-2018, exh. cat. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Stuttgart, Hatje Cantz, 2017.
Bernard Fibicher (ed.), Malani. Splitting the Other, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz, 2010.