KALYANI MAJUMDAR explores Sarnath Banerjee’s ongoing exhibition, which brings a trove of stories from the supernatural realm that engages with the city of Mumbai

Every city has its fair share of ghost stories. I remember when I first arrived in Mumbai, I was told stories by people coming from various walks of life about certain buildings and roads in the city that are associated with apparitions. The Spectral Times is an exhibition of works by the Berlin-based renowned artist and graphic novelist, Sarnath Banerjee at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL). The exhibition brings forth stories that take the visitors through a wonderful journey into the temporality of haunting, wherein, the past and the present seems to overlap. The exhibition is curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee of BDL, and co-curated by Himanshu Kadam. This is part of the museum’s decade-long series, Engaging Traditions, which invites contemporary artists to engage with its archives and history.

The exhibition space

From the entrance of the BDL Museum, and through the hallway on the ground floor you make your way up a flight of stairs onto a hall that leads you to a room with an interesting choice of lighting that creates a strong contrast of dark and light, very different from the rest of the museum space, lending it a feel of an old painting or a photograph with chiaroscuro lighting. It has a cabinet filled with a collection of objects such as a man’s head, a book on Arabic surgeries and so on. There are few chairs arranged in a circle for the visitors to sit. The exhibition area is divided into three sections. The next section of the room showcases Banerjee’s artworks. The illustrations combined with sound installations narrating fictional tales that mostly have an eerie ending, creates an engaging environment. The exhibition commands full engagement of all your senses as it is recommended that once you listen to the narratives, you must revisit the artworks, and see the characters come alive and you as an onlooker become a part of the process of storytelling. The third section of the room is separated with a black curtain, you step in the section and sit on one of the chairs arranged facing an old radio. While you sit and listen to another story with an anticlimactic ending with the storyteller being a woman with the severed head, you can’t help but take in the surrounding of the room with a derelict spiral staircase at the corner that has lost its functionality with time and you wonder how the theme of the exhibition fits the museum space as the past keeps reasserting itself through the stories. Narrated in the form of a magazine interview, Birjis Bari, a fictional reporter continues to provide us scintillating tales through the news periodical, The Spectral Times.

Haunting Notes from Mumbai: Exploring Sarnath Banerjee’s supernatural exhibition

Magic of storytelling

The exhibition uses the radio component and takes us back in time when the only source of news, entertainment and information was radio. Now, we have videos for everything, however listening to a story in a radio provides us the freedom to imagine the characters of the story, the atmosphere and everything else. It has its own magic.

Illustrations and narratives

Although almost all the stories have eerie endings each story also depicts city life and its people. For instance, there is a couple that meets at Dom’s Guesthouse. Even though they belong to the city and yet they ritualistically make it a point to spend few days at the guesthouse and experience the city as two strangers. Of course, there is a spectral angle to this narrative as well. Then there is Shehri Adamkhor that recounts the story of a man, who has shifted cities and is trying to quit smoking and talks about his cannibalistic behaviours. The narration is laced with dark humour. Then there is an artwork titled, Milk Colony, that has a narration revolving around the Aarey forest wherein several auto-rickshaw wallas share their experience of spotting a ghostly figure that appears out of nowhere and sings a very famous Hindi movie song. However, there are some stories that are more unsettling than the others, like the Fidaly Mansion.

After spending a good amount of time soaking in the dramatic atmosphere accompanied with the narratives, when you step out of the room into the hall with its bright light and merge into the sea of visitors to the museum, there is a sort of longing for that atmosphere that you just left behind in the room with its spectres and their tales. You are forced to wonder about this inherent fascination that we have for apparitions and the unexplained phenomenon. Is it the ghost narratives that are merely reasserting itself in our stable present that makes it unsettling for our logical understanding of concepts that are linear? Or, are we just fascinated by the idea of temporality of haunting, through which events and people return from the limits of time and mortality? Perhaps, both!

Event details:

On till May 26, 2019

Timings: 10 am– 6 pm (Wednesday closed)

Venue: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Ranibaug, Byculla East, Mumbai