By VITTORIA BENZINE November 20, 2020
“We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins,” American playwright Tennessee Williams once remarked. In response, Mumbai-based visual artist Askhita Gandhi asks, “During the lockdown our bodies were confined, but where were our souls?”
Gandhi teamed up with poet Anukrti Upadhyay to create Traveling Souls, a virtual exhibition that pairs Gandhi’s digitally re-worked photographs with Upadhyay’s pensive language to document the adventures of two spirits breaking free from quarantine’s confines. Once outside, each artist explores their abandoned city at the onset of monsoon season. The resulting work immerses online viewers in shades of blue, shades of quiet unrest, shades of hopeful submission.
As the pandemic took hold, Gandhi and Upadhyay found themselves sequestered from society and each other in Mumbai. “The two friends continued to develop their respective practices,” reads the exhibition’s introduction. “When the rains arrived, usually a time of celebration and gathering, they decided to create bodies of work in tandem to commemorate the start of the new summer season.”
The virtual tour unfolds in a straightforward fashion, offering a full visual outline of the featured photos and poems. From here, viewers can either choose where they’d like to jump in or start from the beginning. As the poems and photographs progress, they craft one aura of reverence, and another of anxiety. These forces intertwine throughout the cross-medium conversation established as the exhibition guides viewers from their chosen starting point.
A 1987 piece from illustrates the significance of India’s monsoon season with a succinct punch: “For the one billion people of South Asia, the monsoon time is the most important time of year. Moreover, it is a cultural mainstay, the creative source for art and literature ranging from cosmic Hindu myths to simple tribal paintings, such as the pointillistic rain sketches of the Worli Tribe from Maharashtra.”
Gandhi and Upadhyay contribute their own modern perspectives to the historical body of work surrounding this natural phenomenon. Gandhi actually devotes time each year to documenting its arrival. Regarding her process, the artist told “I photograph annually during the monsoon and work over it. This year, I browsed through my photographs taken over the years of iconic landmarks of Mumbai and started to work over them. Each piece has movement over static structures.”
There are structures pictured across Traveling Souls, but they’re hard to place. The exhibition’s introduction cites the Horniman Circle as a specific example. Let me linger, longer seems to show a market at night in illuminated jewel tones. To the galaxy and beyond takes that energy into daytime, picturing similar swirls of saturated light against a grey day and damp, bare trees. Traveling souls, the exhibition’s eponymous image, uses long exposures to conjure a splash of bright blue light streaking across the frame. The photo explicitly illustrates a traveling soul on the town.
“In her poetry,” the exhibition’s introduction continues, “Upadhyay oscillates between the evocation of the rains and the anxieties of our current situation.” Some works, like City under the blue tarp, are direct odes to Mumbai in monsoon — Blue like the wide sea / rolling endlessly / Blue like the eye / of the all-seeing sky. A poem titled City, rain, moon, dreams follows, transmuting the waterlogged symbolism into something lighter, evocative of Gandhi’s swirling markets: Rivers of colour / Rivers of light / Rivers of darkness / Rivers hope-bright. Upadhyay’s words haunt viewers like the looming pressure change that announces a storm’s arrival — that moment when the body’s cellular makeup tacitly understands nature’s omnipotence.
Monsoon season’s quenching rains result from a seasonal reversal wind, a striking instance of the force majeure humankind remains subject to despite its strongest technological advancements. These are fitting themes for our time, as society stares in wonder and disbelief. How could something so minuscule and invisible as a germ catapult the world into a chaos? How strange it is that this chaos can feel like unity — the first large-scale event most of us have witnessed together as one globe.
Gandhi is a multi-media artist who holds an MFA from the Lotus Institute in Dubai. Her biography states that “By merging social, historical, and mythological concepts her work concentrates on breaking out of stereotypical gender roles, grappling with the history of colonialism, and self-empowerment.” She has collaborated with designer Frank DeBourge during New York Fashion Week, the Indian menswear brand Kurtees.
Upadhyay’s “is an award-winning Indian national author that divides her time between Mumbai and Singapore.” She recently published twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri, a Hindi short story collection titled Japani Sarai, and her third English novel, Kintsugi. Her work springs from an interesting well of lived experience — Upadhyay holds post-graduate degrees in Literature and Management, and a graduate degree in Law. She’s worked for Goldman Sachs and UBS in Hong Kong and India and currently works with Wildlife Conservation Trust, a conservation think-tank.
Traveling Souls is presented by online art platform and NYC-based arts agency and publication . Anna Mikaela Ekstrand, founding editor-in-chief at Cultbytes and the curator behind Traveling Souls noted the work’s unique relevance at this moment. “The online format is especially suited to explore longing, nostalgia, and connectivity, universal and timely concepts, in new ways,” she continued. “By bringing together mediums, users are given the opportunity to feel transported to this place through poetic and abstract forms of reminiscence – opening for both new exploration and real memories to ignite.”
A portion of the proceeds from this exhibition will benefit the , founded by Akshita and Priyanka Gandhi, which provides local solutions to reduce poverty in Mumbai. Here, longing becomes something new: action. When the world reopens for good, we must make use of the art that’s carried us through the tumult by engaging with the seasons’ rhythms. For now though, we can only dream of sharing their beauty with the other traveling souls we haven’t seen in so long. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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