High Street Phoenix (HSP), or the Palladium Mall, in Mumbai’s Phoenix mill, Lower Parel, has always tried to draw its customers in through enticing displays, art installations, and charged shopping galas in its festival square. For months we have been grappling with the exigencies of the pandemic. And public places like Mumbai’s upmarket shopping destination, also dubbed ‘Phoenix Mills’, as a moniker for the spacious mall there, have taken the opportunity to depict art which voices concerns. Concerns about the safety of the people and of health workers when COVID-19 had started to spread its tentacles across the city.
To do that the Palladium mall has installed thoughtful sculptures. One example is the life-sized sand installation created by artist Narayan Sahu at the premises. The artwork pays tribute to COVID-19’s angels — the doctors and the policemen, and also smartly talks about ‘being safe’ and ‘keeping distance’. The installation which uses white sand took Sahu and a few of his assistants 36 hours to make, which they did at the mall itself. The sand for the gigantic piece was brought in specially from Gujarat. The installation which was inaugurated in August shows a woman doctor with a stethoscope clutching the globe; and the block lettering on it about keeping safe is hard to miss. It has always been Sahu’s endeavour to speak up for social causes through his art.
Over the years the sand artist has showcased his larger-than-life sculptures across the world, from the Maldives to Saudi Arabia to Goa. At festivals like Saudi Arabia’s Diriyah Oasis Festival and the Goa Sand Art Festival. Ultimately it is the self-motivated artist’s dream to give Maharashtra its very own sand museum. “My dream is to start a sand art museum in Mumbai. This was the dream before corona struck in March. Now the dream will have to be postponed by a few more years. I want to depict famous figures like Saibaba of Shirdi or Shivaji and Sambhaji in the museum. (Personalities that are dear to Maharashtra). Since the museum will be based here. But because tourism has not quite re-started, the plan will not materialize anytime soon,” Sahu says.
Last year Palladium hosted an exhibition celebrating the spirit of Bombay where the artist created massive installations of dabbawalas and commuters hanging from trains. For this time in history, the mall has added graffiti to its space. The steps leading up to the stores have been painted with the same words like on the sand art – ‘Be Safe, and ‘Keep Distance’.
Falguni Mehta is another city-based artist who was particularly inspired by the COVID-19 crisis. She has created three series dedicated to the crisis. The first one revolves around the migrant workers. She was moved by the TV images and started painting what she saw. City labourers struggling to reach home somehow. Her paintings include images of people huddled behind a barricade waiting for food, images of older parents being carried by piggy back as workers try to walk home.
The second series dedicated to the pandemic is about health workers. Showing them carrying coffins and even locked in a warm embrace, complete with their PPE kits. Her third series of lockdown paintings is about her own life during Corona. The pictures revolve around a hand – the hand that cleans dishes, video calls friends instead of meeting them, or grabs at a quick takeaway pizza ordered during lockdown!
Mehta has used water colours for her paintings, which she says is her most-preferred medium. By her own admissions Mehta doesn’t watch the news much but this time, it was different. The news drew her in to paint. Starting with the migrant crisis. “I live in my own world. I don’t care about the news. However I was really touched by what was going on during the pandemic – and the unexpected long vacation we had. I started painting everything I saw on TV, and the words to describe each of my paintings simply poured out. And I’m not even a writer! I was so touched….”
Mehta is of the opinion that her COVID series do a good job in documenting history. “I think this series includes pieces of work most people can relate to. Once the virus is behind us, I think people will want to buy these paintings, because it will help them look back on the COVID era. After the crisis is in the past, I think the value of these paintings is likely to shoot up.”
Anju Dodiya on the other hand has painted the ‘news getting uglier everyday’ and uploaded an image of the work on her Instagram page. The painting shows a seemingly frustrated artist, perhaps herself, looking visibly angry and appalled at the news. Hashtags #visualartistsrise and #ifwedonotrise accompany the post. Indeed. This is how artists are protesting to the ugly turn the electronic news has taken during the pandemic. Possibly.
Another artist who has in a series of 33 paintings, the title of which is Painting in the time of Corona’, shown a wide variety of pandemic and lockdown inspired themes, is Dhruvi Acharya. She started painting on the Junta Curfew day and worked almost 10 or 12 hours a day to produce one work each day. Her son had come back from the US and she had a lot on her mind during that dark time. Her medium was water colours and as she says, “it felt good to get things down on paper.”
People started contacting her on Instagram to book her paintings and she and her Bombay gallerist Shireen Gandhy, Director of the Chemould Prescott Road art gallery, got together to donate almost 50 % of the proceeds to NGOs working for corona. “It was a project that came into being quite organically. There were no plans to make these paintings during the lockdown, but I was moved to paint after the reading about how people were affected during that time. The work focussed on health, the human body, and on the people who were going hungry because of the loss of their livelihoods, and on our amazing healthcare and essential services workers. Also, there was very little social interaction then which affected everyone. Today, almost everyone knows someone who has been sick with the virus, or has passed away due to the virus… My work was about the sobering reality of this pandemic. How nature ultimately fights back because we human beings have disrupted the balance with nature too much.”
Hence one sees that art has been quite expressive during the blue phase of disease. Painters have poured themselves out on paper, while being isolated. From sending people messages, to telling people to stay safe, the art of today is trying to be smart. And hence if we get it, make sure when you leave the house, you don’t really let your guard down. Or rather mask down.