At the entrance, there is evidence of a life lived. A gallery of guardians watch over a grave. This assembly, perhaps long dead, perhaps still alive as ghosts, seems to take the shape of a family. The words that artist Jahangir Jani superimposes on their bodies – as prayers, as notices, or as warnings – have been rendered somewhat illegible so that they may even have, through inadvertent error, slipped from the realm of the sacred to that of the profane.

For us, the voices of this gathering are cacophonous and unintelligible. Their discordant notes are demanding, which might well be resolved through a recourse to anteriority and in the provision of an explanation of where it all began and how it ended.

The staging of a burial as the opening act is an important one because it already encloses the narrative of the exhibition. In a grave, we are faced with a vessel to which we have no access, which hides the body, and does not allow the scrutiny of its failings. The wounds, if there are any at all, are hidden, and we cannot tell if death was an outcome of chance or violence, external or self-inflicted. If we consider the grave as a self-portrait of the artist, it becomes a useful object in thinking about the deployment of biographical details in framing art. The grave is an enclosure that hints at the existence of someone but does not reveal who it was. It makes us aware that a speaker might have to be recruited to name the body, and thereafter narrate its story. It attunes us to the evanescence of ghosts.

'Untitled': cement, stone, synthetic satin, rexine, mild steel, prints on board.

Instead of looking for or incarnating a reliable narrator, the one who may explain this exhibition through an account of the life of the artist, I am taking a detour to examine the idea of reliability itself. In the aftermath of the death of the author, the question of reliability can be abandoned entirely. That is, if a rupture is allowed to occur between intention and the authority of intention over the process of reception, a work of art can acquire multiple lives. Yet, before announcing the death of the author, we could ask who finds place as an author in the framework of a certain society or during a given time, and if authority was a precondition of authorship. That is, should we mourn the death of this author?

The use of the grave in a way evokes the problem of silence and silencing. The danger at such a site of loss, however, might be to believe sincerely in the (auto)biographical. While writing about identity, Stuart Hall reminds us that the construction of the self is always in a way a fiction. Therefore, in order to create “communities of identification” – with the nation, through ethnicity or sexuality, within the family and so on – “arbitrary closures” are required so that assembly may be possible despite difference.

'Untitled': cement, stone, synthetic satin, rexine, mild steel, prints on board.

These closures make action and speech aimed towards representation possible. It is in the acknowledgement of the arbitrariness of these closures that the posture of authenticity is rejected. Identity formation is accepted as a paradox – a process that is “necessarily fictional” but also a “fictional necessity.”

Jani’s work is primarily concerned with the vexations of belonging to a group, and the tender fulfilment of affiliation. The artist’s visual vocabulary makes these alignments and disorientations, of religion and sexuality, explicit. In the work described above, for instance, there are clues in the artist’s use of the grave, the Arabic and Gujarati scripts on the photos, and the garments of the individuals pictured within – all of which may bring forth associations immediately or after some reflection and research, depending on the viewer’s own experiences.

Jani summons visible markers of identity to evoke various past and present struggles and triumphs, not for any universalising proclamations but so that he may speak on his own behalf. This strategy is pushed to the extreme such that the narration of his own story is so particular that it turns opaque.

'Batin' series: cement, mild steel, lacquer, enamel paint.

In a series of sculptures made from concrete, we are presented with a range of ciphers. What do the numbers and letters imprinted on the tablets stand for? What kind of landscapes do the enamelled abstractions summon? Why a horse, a shoe, a fan?

To explain these private obsessions and codes, Jani uses the concept of batin drawn from Shia and Sufi thought. The Arabic word batin refers to that which is “inner, interior, inward, hidden, secret.” Batin is the foil to zahir, that which is “apparent, external, manifest,” and serves as the known and standard interpretation. To be immersed in the world of batin could be seen as a tactic of veiling and disappearance, which in offering a barrier, or a measure of distance, facilitates the articulation of vulnerability and helps make sense of the dissonance emerging from difference.

Another way of thinking about batin might be to borrow the concept of “memory traps” from Mieke Bal, keeping in mind the multivalence of the word traps – things that could be classified as personal belongings as well as devices that are used to catch and retain. Bal describes memory traps as “fragments from, or suggestive of, the artist’s past”. While these objects and fragments are derived from memory they are traps because “the memories that inhabit the work cannot really be ‘read’ as narratives.” In referring to the personal and intimate, memory traps encourage an autobiographical reading but they withhold access and make space for invention.

'6 books': mixed media on paper.

Placed on the floor, the rectangular concrete slabs resemble gutter covers. They are portals to an underworld, a place that has often been regarded as the refuge of the misfits. This landscape is imbued with seductive and abject associations in the videos that accompany the sculptures.

We see silhouettes of revellers, but we also see a rat on its last breath, fending off flies, too injured to seek shelter in the dark tunnels of its home. This underworld might be considered to be what Jennifer A González describes as an “autotopography”, that is a landscape in which the self is ‘written’ through spatial means.

Jani’s autotopographical underworld leads us to an area populated by jute and textile sculptures strung from the ceiling, which cast imposing shadows on the wall and the floor. They are soft, cascading heaps, which in certain angles look like elaborate costumes and hint at bodily presence. Their eeriness is indeterminate, in which the undertones of desire and violence intermingle. This thematic is explored at length and in profusion in the six books of collages that can be seen as a guide to the exhibition. They collapse chronology in bringing together Jani’s life-long preoccupations from the point of view of the present. They are ledgers in which the symmetry of a balance sheet is interrupted with collages on orientation and disorientation.

'Hangings': synthetic satin, burlap.

Overall, the lines that run across the exhibition often seem to assemble or dissolve into grids. They are found by the grave, on the concrete slabs, in the videos, in the arrangement of the textile sculptures, and in the books. The grid is seen as an emblem of modernism.

Yet, as Aveek Sen notes, the grid is present at large. It is fundamental to our “ways of seeing, of the everyday worlds of making, buying and selling around us.” The grid is also not as benign as it looks. The history of the word leads us back to gridiron and griddle, referring both to utensils used to cook meat and to devices employed for torture by fire. This leitmotif, anchored in nourishment and ecstasy, and threat and destruction, is just one of the many ways of choosing a point of entry into the narrative of this exhibition.

The exhibition also features takeaways called 'Drop 377'.

This essay accompanies Batin, an exhibition of Jahangir Jani’s works, on view at Clark House Initiative, Colaba, from Tuesday to Sunday 11 am-7 pm until October 7.