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Stamp over Mumbai

Fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna debuts in India with Reena Kallat's cobweb on morphing identities

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

The rubber stamp, so ubiquitous in India - a symbol of its overbearing red tape and bureaucracy, but for artist Reena Saini Kallat, also a potent palimpsest of the validation and legitimacy it represents for its citizens - is a recurring motif in her work. As the artist sets out in search of identities - of people as well as of cities - she usurps the rubber stamp as an emblem that both identifies as well as obscures, diminishes as well as enhances the present and the past, linking the twin identities across a mesh of continuity and change.

It is just such a web that Mumbaikars can now glimpse as they traverse Byculla where the 19th century façade of the restored Dr Bhauji Daji Lad Museum (formerly the Victoria and Albert Museum) is strung with what appears to be a gigantic cobweb composed entirely of specially created rubber stamps bearing the names of Mumbai streets that have been changed as a process of decolonisation. As the city continues to shed its colonial skin, Arthur Road becomes Sane Guruji Marg, Churchgate Street is Veer Nariman Road, Flora Fountain is Hutatma Chowk, Victoria Terminus is Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus - and the changed name of the museum where it hangs memorialises the altering shifts in its history even while its geography is being re-labelled.

Kallat's claim to the past arises from a constant exploration, whether of "lost" monuments that she evoked in the form of a gigantic, "theatrical" fallen pillar at the Kennedy Centre using 30,000 rubber stamps with the names of Indian monuments that had gone "missing" under the Archaeological Survey of India's watch, or earlier as an attempt to recreate, or obscure, the identities of migrants. More recently, that took the form of a web that consisted of the names of those who had been denied visas and therefore the freedom to travel or engage in a livelihood, all of it leading eventually to Cobweb/Crossings, marking her rubber stamp across the face of Bombay/Mumbai, as it were, the result of an unusual collaboration between Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, the Mumbai-specific Dr Bhauji Daji Lad Museum, and artist Reena Kallat who, among several peers, won the award for the project.

The Milan-based house of Zegna chose India over China as its first port of call for its ambitious ZegnArt project based on commissions and residencies between countries with emergent cultural programmes and institutions with "respect and focus on local culture" as a defining point, according to CEO Gildo Zegna. Its teaming up with the former Victoria and Albert Museum was happenstance - Zegna had previously met managing trustee and honorary director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta socially and it was to her they turned when the project was conceived a year ago, while for Mehta what pleased her was the group's "due diligence" that set the ball rolling.

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To start it off, Mehta and her team of local curators shortlisted 20 artists to work on a project that defined the two organisations' common vision of emerging, contemporary art concerns, going on to select seven - A Balasubramaniam, Atul Bhalla, Gigi Scaria, Hema Upadhyay, Sakshi Gupta, Srinivasa Prasad, besides Reena Kallat - before picking Kallat for the commission of an artwork Zegna eventually gifted to the museum last weekend. Another work by the artist has been commissioned for its already impressive collection in Milan. It must have been a difficult choice, though Zegna insists "the choice of artist came out smoothly", made easier perhaps by Kallat's "analogy of identity and conversations about changes that are physical as well as about ownership of the city".

Mehta's museum is already en route to becoming the crossroads of contemporary art, reflected in another project by Guggenheim-BMW that concluded recently - no wonder it has been able to persuade the city to give it 60,000 sq ft of adjacent space where it will make the first addition to its premises since it was established in 1872. Any wonder that Kallat should remark, "The only way to understand the present is through the past", though, of course, her nod is to the larger city rather than the particular museum where "the change that is taking place is not merely cultural but also political".

Kallat's installation that weighed over a ton and "required a crane that we had to requisition at the last minute" will stay on the façade for two months before it is removed to be sent on tour both nationally as well as internationally. And even though its specificity viz Mumbai is obvious, it should strike a chord in other habitats with shared histories of colonisation where geographies and identities are being similarly obliterated and rebuilt.

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As for ZegnArt, which had to prove its credentials as something more than just a fashion house for its maiden project in Rome, the next stops are interesting with Istanbul in Turkey as the immediate port of call later this year (the Mumbai project was to have debuted in 2012) where it will coincide with a biennale, making its curatorial process easier, especially since the theme, according to image director Anna Zegna, "is coincidentally public art". An India junkie - Anna Zegna supports a slum project in Vijayawada and has "adopted" five children there, and identifies with the cultural continuity in the country over, say, China, where its lack created a break - she is enthused about the dialogue that has emerged as a result of these collaborations in Mumbai, Istanbul, and, in ZegnArt's third year, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a 100-year-old fashion house "with strong values" that began collecting art under three generations ago, its chief executive officer says, "I hope the message of a cultural discourse will travel by word of mouth from India to Turkey and then to the world, so as we move ahead, I hope that the seed we have planted in India will grow into a forest." Zegna's reference is to art that he hopes will start a cultural dialogue between countries - not bad for a business house involved in the commerce of fashion.

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First Published: Fri, March 08 2013. 21:42 IST