Long after their passing, Mumbai still mourns the erstwhile mills. When land use regulation laws were amended in 1991, 58 mills closed and the famous din of industry faded. The 602 acres of land they occupied, leased at cheap rates by the British to promote mostly cotton textile production, were allowed to be sold to developers of modern offices, apartments and malls. A few structures have remained abandoned, worn by the forces of nature and prolonged legal battles. They are surrounded by greenery but their seediness renders them inaccessible to the public. Artist Meera Devidayal's new exhibition A Terrible Beauty reminds the viewer of these incongruities.
In another irony, before the Shakti Mills compound became notorious as the scene of two gang rapes last year, its soaring walls and dense foliage inspired numerous artists. Devidayal frequented it to gather material for three years from 2010 to early 2013 as it was the "most open and accessible" of all the mills. She had taken a few pictures of mill edifices for a previous exhibition in 2000, which she decided to expand on while looking through old works for inspiration. The Shakti Mills complex is a part of several photographs, videos and paintings in her latest showcase. A former mill worker had even been her local guide, suggesting lesser-known locations for the shoot.
Among the installations is The Silent Wheel, a collage of images of rusting mill equipment. These had been captured by Shekhar Krishnan, who loaned them to Devidayal because all machinery had been removed by the time she started on the project. Videos of functioning cotton-spinning machines play in two hollow spaces of the frame; the yarn that emerges from them metamorphoses seamlessly into the cobwebs seen shrouding the tools on canvas. In Levelled Playing Field, a group of local kids plays cricket on a derelict level of the mill. In the gaping windows of the structure, Devidayal plugs in videos of an international cricket match and later advertisements with models twirling gracefully. As night falls and the kids leave, a mill tower in the background transforms into a glitzy high-rise.
Equally intriguing is a set of images manipulated with the paintbrush. Devidayal enhances pictures of Gothic mill ruins, the "residue of a dream world," with paintings of overbright skies and flowerbeds. Yellow and orange tulips, a symbol of indulgence in the Ottoman empire, are rarely grown in India so Devidayal was fascinated by their abundant presence on posters sold on Mumbai's roadsides. In her painting, these mythical flowers trapped within a sinister structure tell the story of the interplay of dream and reality.
Despite the controversial history of the mills, Devidayal says her exploration is neither comment nor lament. "I did not want to be overtly nostalgic or romantic. It only signifies the cycle of life - we think some things will last forever but they inevitably come to an end and are replaced by other things." In its pokerfaced execution, the work develops an eerie quality. Historian Gyan Prakash, who wrote an introductory essay on the exhibition, draws a parallel between her pieces and Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project. Benjamin's writings documented life in 19th century Paris, specifically the iron-and-glass topped markets that were being destroyed during the renovation.
Before Devidayal married and moved to Mumbai from Kolkata, she was "a Sunday painter." She began taking the hobby seriously after motherhood when she felt the need to get back to it. While she took casual classes at the JJ School of Art, Devidayal says she is mostly self-trained. In the 1970s, the artist moved from painting to mixed media, making collages with popular kitschy images much before the form became overused. Mumbai is a constant protagonist in her pieces. Before this, Devidayal had worked on stories of migrant labourers and taxi drivers.
But she is done with working on computers for a while, says Devidayal, "I think I will go back to paper for my next project."
A Terrible Beauty is on display at the Chemould Presscott Road art gallery, Fort, Mumbai till July 9, from 11 am to 7 pm