In the irregularly shaped, converted antique store that is the Clark House Initiative, “Social Theatre,” a show of unassuming works by young Mumbai artist Amol K Patil, came across as smartly soft-spoken.
On a table was Postcard Conversation (2012), a pair of portable Walkman cassette players with a single loop of magnetic tape running between them. One device had its recording head switched on to capture the gallery’s sounds, which were then played back through the second machine, creating a scruffy, barely audible whisper. On the wall nearby was Detritus (2012), a motorized piece constructed from the internal parts of another Walkman. A wad of black hair spun perpetually on the take-up spool. The device seemed to be trying to communicate through desperate physical gestures despite having been designed to do so only through sound, like a Tinguely méta-mécanique confused as to its true purpose.
Behind this low-tech absurdist theater is a rich personal history. Patil’s father and paternal grandfather were both regional performers. His grandfather was a powada shahir, an itinerant bard who sang heroic ballads in the villages of the western state of Maharashtra. In appreciation of his recitations, the British presented him a large piece of land near Ratnagiri, a few hundred miles down the coast from Mumbai. A handful of works in “Social Theatre” were dedicated to this forebear, including the exhibition’s centerpiece, Asylum for Dead Objects (2013). A short black-and-white video, it shows Patil, digitally multiplied, executing odd, repetitive gestures while standing in the doorways and lying on the floor of his grandfather’s house. Photographs from an untitled 2013 performance record Patil tracing out upon his grandfather’s land a square plot the size of his family’s later tenement room in Mumbai. Mounds of white chalk, recalling that used for stage blocking, sit at each of the four corners of the plot. As Patil treads through the piles to cover first the area’s perimeter, then its center, he himself gradually becomes coated from toe to head in white. Each photograph is situated in a brick of nutrient coco soil, used for houseplants in India—presumably a further reference to his family’s own transplanted roots.
If these works are reminiscent of postwar European and American performance—Bruce Nauman’s studio-bound walks of the late ’60s and Samuel Beckett’s movement piece Quad (1981) come to mind—it is not due to direct knowledge, Patil claims, but rather to the mediating influence of his father. After moving to Mumbai to work for the municipality as a clerk, his father became an avant-garde playwright and leader of a Marathi-language theater troupe addressing issues like migrant labor and the city’s textile industry. Several works shown in “Social Theatre” stem from one of Patil’s father’s plays from the early 1980s, Postcard, about a mill worker pining for his family in the village. In Maquette (2013), Patil has combined, in an accordion booklet, photographs of a performance of Postcard in the 1980s with his own abstract graphite drawings inspired by architectural motifs in the play. In Social Theatre (2013), one of these photos has been blown up and traced in white outlines across six freestanding, black-painted wood panels. Set on either side of the projection of Asylum for Dead Objects, the panels created a three-generation family portrait of performers, and a window onto the possibilities of popular theater as a resource for Mumbai’s contemporary art.