“My art is a reflection of our times – it intends to document and potentially question how we are developing as a civilisation,” said Riyas Komu, as his contemplative solo show, Holy Shiver, was being installed at New Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery. This is his first show in eight years, during which time he was busy with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which he founded with his artist colleague, Bose Krishnamachari in 2011.

The point of entry to the show – which poses questions about the current socio-political scenario in India – is a three-part installation titled Fear-1, for which Komu has digitally scanned and printed 26 pages of the Indian Constitution. (The original document had been handcrafted in 1949-1950, with artwork in the border and background of the text by artists from Shantiniketan under the direction of Nandlal Bose.) To the right of the first installation is a second set of the same 26 pages. This set, however, is an X-ray image of the original and is dark and illegible. The artist says this is meant to express the threat that the Constitution is facing today.

Holy Shiver. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery
Holy Shiver. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery

The two sets on the wall are divided by a sculpture covered with dry grass – Lion Capital – which references India’s large agrarian community and the issue of farmers’ suicides. A set of wood-cuts on the opposite wall are juxtaposed with this installation and each piece references a key event that has impacted the social fabric of the nation since Partition. Images of acts of violence and political suppression, such as the 1993 Bombay blasts or the murder of Junaid Khan last year, are a painful reminder of our collective journey.

“The works are not representing just my point-of-view,” said Komu. “It is a discourse and response to my observations in an attempt to renegotiate to make the country more powerful and more diverse.”

Artist as observer

In continuation of the symbolism and conceptual framework, his work titled I Think, There For I Am has an enormously enlarged replica of Dancing Girl, the prehistoric bronze sculpture from Mohenjo-daro. Facing it is Dancing Girl as a symbol with which to question gender roles. The chair of authority placed opposite it indicates a conversation, and the flag symbolises the state.

The title of the show references a theory of Austrian zoologist and ethologist, Konrad Lorenz, which is shared in his book On Aggression. According to Lorenz, the tendency or willingness to kill or be killed in defence of one’s community physically manifests in the tingling sensation in the spine or the raising of hair on an animal’s back as the first step in a fight with an enemy. Lorenz’s idea of “militant enthusiasm” refers to the act of eliciting participation for destruction for a fictional yet ideal cause in the service of the contriver’s aims.

Bismilla Khan. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery
Bismilla Khan. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery

For Komu, the intent behind the show is to draw parallels between this theory and the populist culture of our current political system. He examines the basis of our national identity at a time when we are bombarded with incidents of violence and suppression.

While his body of work critiques the state machinery, there is more to Komu than being an artist. Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which has completed three editions, is now firmly on the international art map and he said, “More than 30 communities live in the area where the biennial is presented. What better way to celebrate not just the arts but the pluralistic civilisation that we belong to.”

Holy Shiver. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery
Holy Shiver. Image courtesy: Riyas Komu and Vadehra Art Gallery

In keeping with his desire to contribute to the Indian cultural ecosystem, he is also involved with Young Subcontinent, an initiative that brings together upcoming artists from seven nations of the region. Its debut show was presented at the recently concluded Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. “I believe India has a major role to play, globally, but specifically in the region,” he said. “And this extends far beyond the economic and political aspects. Our rich cultural history is rooted in art and plurality.”

Holy Shiver is on until March 3, at Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi.