It is February 1946. Two young boys arrive at the office of the Free Press Journal, then located at Horniman Circle in Bombay, to meet the editor, S Natarajan. They had seemingly jumped the wall separating the Castle Barracks and the Mint nearby; a close shave from a brutal exchange between the ratings and the Naval police. The boys first went to the office of the Bombay Sentinel but were turned away. The editor, BG Horniman, asked them to meet Natarajan instead. The Free Press did not have a special evening edition, while it was a routine affair at the Sentinel. Natarajan obliged and agreed to listen to them. According to him, “there was nothing to be gained by saying that 700 ratings wounded and a couple of hundred dead were not probable, and that we in Dalal Street and most definitely the friends in the Sentinel office could hardly have lived through all the shooting in ignorance.” Natarajan’s description comprises the foreword in BC Dutt’s first-person account, titled Mutiny of the Innocents (1971). The trouble the boys spoke of was the Royal Indian Navy’s mutiny.

During the tumultuous February of 1946, the Free Press Journal became a significant newspaper – or perhaps one of the very few, along with the Evening News – publishing regular reports on the rebellion launched by the seamen on the HMIS Talwar, the shore establishment of the Royal Indian Navy docked at Colaba, Bombay. A crucial but eclipsed incident in the history of the city, and pre-independent India, the Mutiny broke out on February 18 as a protest against the poor living conditions and below par food, which the ratings had to endure. Lasting only for six days, the undercurrents of the protest soon spread at full throttle across 66 ships moored at the Bombay harbour, as well as naval establishments at ports around India, killing more than 200 ratings. BC Dutt, in his comprehensive tome, aptly writes, “...we had our battleship Potemkin but no Eisenstein.”

Mutiny of the innocents (1971)

Armature of an overlooked history

These strokes of protest and dissent, relegated to mere footnotes of history and erased from public memory, are manifest in a collaborative art project Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946, conceived by Delhi-based artist Vivan Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, along with British sound artist David Chapman and film historian Valentina Vitali. A 40-feet long cavernous container made out of stainless steel and aluminium, designed to resemble the watertight hull of a ship, is buoyed at the centre of the Coomaraswamy Hall at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya, forming the kernel of the exhibition. It seats about 40 visitors at a time; the 42-minute-long sound piece comes close to performance, or theatre, or what is called immersive theatre. “It is almost a discursive space for a second level of performance,” said Sundaram.

The origins of the project can be traced to the landmark site-specific exhibition, Structures of Memory: Modern Bengal, by Sundaram, held in 1998 at the Durbar Hall of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta. “Since most of my works through the years have been very informal, or made using everyday material – perhaps like a form of Arte Povera – I thought this must have a more structured, professional, industrial production quality to it,” he shared.

When Minimalism started developing in the United States during the late-1960s and early-1970s, the focus was not on the aspect of craft but on that of lending an industrial quality to the work. The idea, then, was to take the Minimalist aesthetic and introduce certain elements as “conceptual interventions” in a single-standing structure.

The eight-channel audio track, created by Chapman, begins dramatically – the resonances of a turbulent sea, the crash of the waves, the roaring of the engine to a start. In the distance, a foghorn wails; the roaming beams of what could be a lighthouse pierce the shadows. Sounds indicative of impending danger, punctuated by sirens, resound in the vessel. The recordings include an operatic piece, Namdeo Dhasal reciting poetry, collective chants of protestors, and verbal accounts from the witnesses of the turmoil – all conjuring up scenes of the anti-colonial mutiny. “We definitely wanted it to be a concentrated, intense experience,” added Sundaram.

Constructing the archive

Along the periphery of the sculpture is a long mural created using cuttings from newspapers and journals from 1946, which carried reports of the Mutiny, along with a series of archives comprising books, letters, telegrams and even a rare painting by Chittoprasad, which captures the naval officers’ revolt against the British. The first written accounts of the Mutiny were published in the late-1950s, largely by the People’s Publishing House in Bombay.

“We used the Imperial War Museum’s audio archives to access the voices of British officials, along with interviews and historical recordings,” said Rajadhyaksha. The archival material was sourced from nine institutions, both in India and Britain, including the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, the PC Joshi Archives at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and the VV Giri National Institute, which has recently started digitising its collection.

Container performance space detail

“A number of the natural sounds were recorded by Chapman to capture very elusive effects,” Rajadhyaksha explained. “As we began putting the material together, we started creating a bank of sounds. We had certain actors play certain roles; for instance, the voice of a British major from 1946, commanding the regiment on the HMIS Talwar would be sourced from the archives, and then the voice of the admiral would probably be lent by a British actor.” Moreover, the archive at the Centre of South Asian Studies at Cambridge had BC Dutt’s original voice. “This was quite astonishing, and a big kick-start as far as the sound installation was concerned,” he added. Surprisingly, seemingly small newspapers in London, such as the Birmingham, the Western Daily Press carried detailed reports of the Mutiny. Closer home, it was the Free Press Journal, where BC Dutt later worked as an employee.

Rajadhyaksha explained the process of stitching together various voices for the sound, coupled with several extraordinary pieces they stumbled upon. One of the voices is that of Mervyn Jones, a British writer and communist, and the son of psychoanalyst Ernest Jones (who was the biographer of Sigmund Freud), who was at the Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder during the Mutiny, and has a vivid description of what had ensued at the harbour, sitting at the window at the Hotel. “He then goes to Supari Baug in Parel, where he actually encounters a British vehicle spraying bullets at the crowd,” shared Rajadhyaksha. References have been taken from popular culture as well, including Utpal Dutt’s classic play Kallol (1964) which was centred on the Mutiny. “[We got] actor Shyamlal Chakravarty to recite sections of the play – specifically the entire attack on the Talwar – across locations in Kolkata, one of them being on a ferry at the banks of the Hooghly,” he said.

Ripple effect

Mutiny of the innocents (1971)

The naval insurrection captured the imagination of erstwhile Bombay, with riots spilling onto the streets, and joined by members of the working class and trade unions – beyond the locale of the harbour and into Byculla, Parel and Lalbaug. “It was incredible how a sympathetic movement caught the establishment totally by surprise – nobody had envisaged it. It was a kind of coalition that was across the board,” said Rajadhyaksha.

While the Mutiny wrecked havoc only after the World War II was over, broadly speaking, the War didn’t end in 1945 – it moved towards Asia, creating a series of events, across from India all the way to south-east Asia – such as the Korean War and the Cold War. “The idea of civil disobedience in India, or passive resistance, or the satyagraha movement were all tinged by the War,” explained Rajadhyaksha. In his book Timeless Wake: Legacy of the Royal Indian Navy during World War II, Commodore Odakkal Johnson, curator of the Maritime History Society in Mumbai, described how the British attitude towards Indians changed dramatically, for the worse, once the war ended. The Mutiny did not receive much support from the leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement either. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had a tactical disagreement with the incident, stating that failed events do not have any role to play, while Mahatma Gandhi took a more philosophical stance, expressing his disagreement on the violent turn of occurrences.

Testing the waters

Designed and produced by structural engineer Girish Kumar, the installation space is where performance, theatre, documentation, and architecture meld. “One doesn’t realise what the space has in store until one is within the space,” said Rajadhyaksha. “We’re discovering it at the same time as you [the public] are.” The project doubles as a field of enquiry and a space for encounter. It attempts to respond to the urgencies of our times; serves as a critical platform to raise issues that are politically charged and historically relevant. Anthropologist Leela Gandhi in her book The Common Cause: Postcolonial Ethics and the Practice of Democracy, 1900-1955 (2014), refers to the Mutiny as an event of “inconsequence”.

Container performance space detail

“This is a rather interesting aspect, where one is trying to research something that nobody knew anything about,” he added.

The project attempts to find a reflective space within epic structures, or attitudes, which allow one to encounter various historical problems. Through the trope of failed action, one tries to gauge what the symbolic understanding of the event will be. “It’s possible to say that you may encounter a bit of complexity; history normally deals with complex matters – this kind of a situational modern historical event does kind of lead to very specific challenges, the kind that art can handle. There is an ambition to address the urgencies of our times, though it is a slightly complicated ambition. There are ides of imagined histories versus real histories, and once you start erasing the distinction, you end up with an idea of the ‘performing archives’, or an archive that actually accounts performance,” Rajadhyaksha concluded.

Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 is on display at the Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, until Saturday, March 25.