The Cases of L. N. Tallur



By Dr. Holly Shaffer


One of the glass and teakwood cases in L. N. Tallur’s exhibition, Quintessential that was on view at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 2011-2012, was not like the others. Its display was a mound of dust. When the machine switched on, the case became the stomach of a vacuum cleaner, inhaling the particles that had settled layer by layer across the museum. As the dust puffed up in cyclones, it became a cosmic reminder of the life and decay of objects, of our own bodies, indeed everything that emerges from and returns to matter. Thatwamasi, as Tallur titled the piece, that thou art.
As a machine (a vacuum) that uses a material (dust) to produce a product (particle swirls), this artwork winks at the founding principles of its space of exhibition, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which was formerly known as the Victoria & Albert Museum, Bombay (present-day Mumbai), and, before that, at its foundation in 1858, as an Economic Museum inclusive of Natural History and Pleasure Gardens. In 1872 when the museum opened to the public, it was, and still is, situated in a botanical garden and a zoo followed in 1888. The space that displayed manufactured goods as an inspiration to future artists and designers was thus situated amidst the raw materials cultivated for their production in a measured symbiosis between science and art. Yet, the making happened elsewhere. In artisan’s workshops and colonial art schools, in industrial factories and textile mills.
Tallur returns making to the museum. The art objects, the museum goer, the machine, the artist are all invited to participate in the realization of a new state of being in which an object hovers in between animation and emptiness. This quintessential fifth dimension questions the premise of the institution and of our worship of things.
Take the elephant in one of the key proofs of the concept, the piece aptly named Quintessential. In the nineteenth-century, the rock carved temples and sculptures on the island of Elephanta were an attraction for devotees as well as British colonial officials curious about ancient art and culture. Some of the latter were in fact so ravenous for acquisition and display, that they sought to remove loose or stand-alone sculptures such as the ceremonial stone elephant from Elephanta to put on show in London. But, in this case, the carved animal broke in transit. Helpless, the officials placed it next to what would become the Bhau Daji Lad Museum where it still stands today as if a warning about appropriation and mismanagement.
Tallur reveals such an ‘elephant in the room’ of colonial plunder and pedagogy in his museum display. At the center is a large wooden replica of the elephant constructed as a puzzle. Each piece weighs around ten or twelve kilos since it was cut from the wood of the jackfruit tree, which is hard, heavy, and repels insects. On the surrounding walls and cases documents of the stone elephant are displayed – in the end, this was the only way that the elephant traveled. These include colonial-era prints of the elephant standing at attention in its original location, at Elephanta, and a live CCTV video of the stone elephant waiting patiently outside its second home, the museum. By consulting the various representations, the museum visitor-laborer in the twenty-first century can restitute the elephant piece by piece from British plunder. Though literally and metaphorically weighty, the spirit of the game, and therefore of revivifying and reforming the past, is one of pun and play.
A key to Tallur’s philosophy, Quintessential also opens a window onto his associative method of creation through material problem solving. After forming the concept for the elephant-puzzle, he had to figure out its execution. For this purpose, he visited a saw blade factory and was startled by the blade’s flexibility. He peppered the artisans with questions: how is the blade stabilized, how is it carried, how is it sharpened? These not only came to inform the making of the elephant but also an entirely new project. Counter-intuitively the saw-blade can be folded; there is a tension between its spring and substance. Tallur would loop the saw blade over and over around a blade-sharpening machine to make a stunningly abstract and terrifying configuration, Threshold, which when turned on…click, click, spark, click…became animate.
Machines have a vitality, hissing and humming, creating, but they can achieve their production in decidedly non-human ways. They repeat the same task with mesmerizing efficiency. They do tasks one wouldn’t imagine necessary – as part of an accumulation of parts to make a final product whole – and they do them in ways as intricate and obscure as the fabrication of other types of divinity. Take Tallur’s Enlightenment Machine. If you push the pedal, the grinding stone wears away that which is placed against it, in this case, an icon of a god of which many in bronze and stone, sandalwood and ivory, are on display in the surrounding cases of the museum. Is the man who works the Enlightenment Machine an iconoclast, drawing attention to the dull and material nature of a representation of god? Is he satirizing the mass production of commercial icons? By grinding away at a reproduction one can in fact make a unique object. Or is he commenting on enlightenment’s association with a mechanic quality of repetitive action?
The relationship between making a form and the spirit within the form is seen in another work, Pedestal on Pedestal. Each part of an icon is made separately and then welded together in a bronze workshop. Some artisans only produce hands, others legs, others faces. The pedestal, for instance, consists only of the tiered base, the feet, and the ankles of what could become a deity ready for sanctification. Tallur upends the module to weld six pedestals into a new form that is no longer a base upon which a figure rests weighted by gravity, but closer to an asteroid hurtling through space or a maze.
A familiar form can be reused cleverly to access its deeper function. Pedestal on Pedestal is rooted in a story told to Tallur by his mother. While the fourth-century emperor Chandragupta Maurya was in jail, he was given a four-way pipe joined at the center. If he could figure out how to make a thread emerge in the shape of an L he would be given his freedom. He tied a piece of thread to a rice grain, which he placed near the window. An ant came, took the rice, and therefore the thread. Chandragupta guided the ant into the pipe and closed two of the openings so that the ant would thread an L. The moral is to push past the limits of form. The modular assemblage of an icon in a factory can undermine its sanctity, just as its relocation from a temple to a museum can change the direction of devotion, but when a form is challenged new paths can emerge.
Tallur often takes the challenge of form on material terms. In Pedestal on Pedestal artistry reframes artisanship, in Graft artisanship remakes nature. A tree grows out from its central heartwood in rings, each year marked by a cycle of seasonal growth in light and dark colored cells. The slice of tree in Graft seems to reveal the years of a its life in mesmerizing jagged concentric circles, except on closer inspection the configuration is produced not by the tree but by an artisan’s careful application of different shapes and shades of woods cut to mimic tree rings through the craft of marquetry on display in examples from the museum nearby. A space of wonder opens up in between the slice of tree and its ingenious reproduction. Tallur worked with a factory to produce this piece, which has streamlined the method of hand-cut and inlaid wood through computer and laser technology to achieve similar looking results. At once a craft and a technology, grafting then is also where Tallur thinks both like man and like machine. What is old is sutured to what is new through a commercial intelligence, an efficiency that guides the results to look like, rather than to be, the same as the original in a never-ending cycle.
To inspire artisanal innovation by looking at older forms and methods to create new ones undergirds the premise of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. With Graft a visual genealogy of the material source (wood) and method (marquetry) is left intact, and is, in fact, the crux of the piece; in other works Tallur motivates material and method towards an interrogation of the content it upholds. The idea behind Hatha Yoga originated in a ricochet between a wooden sculpture of an angel holding a nail to crucify Christ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and a small clay figurine of a yogi lying on a bed of nails in the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. This installation includes four parts: an Indianized replica of the Met’s wooden angel with the nail; the early twentieth-century figurine of the yogi on a bed of nails made for the BDLM; a second winged figure, Garuda, pinned to the ground; and a machine that manufactures nails. This type of machine can produce 5000 nails a minute, but Tallur chose an early model that pulls the iron rod into the machine and cuts one side on a sharp slant and hits the other to produce the head of the nail. Slowly and with clear procedure the product is ejected.
What is the relationship between the object of pain (the nail), the representation of god (in man or man-like form), and deliverance? To Europeans, the yogi on the bed of nails has long been a stereotype of India’s trickery, and this clay sculpture is one of many figures in the museum that identify, if not stereotype, the people, manners, and customs of an India the British aimed to rule through colonial control. Here, the European angel carries the nail that will crucify, and the Indian winged god Garuda has been nailed down. The machine makes the nail with unceasing hits and slices powered by the human foot. We produce and encourage the myths by which we are suppressed.
Yet, the yogi on the bed of nails is coy; he floats above the nails that distribute his weight. The man who made him in the early twentieth century likely also made other clay sculptures outside of a colonial context, which filtered into his process. In a related project, Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), Tallur worked with a sculptor to make figurines of yogis alongside clay tiles that had originally been produced in a colonial tile factory. The sculptor, named Rajesh, was trained in a tradition that specializes in clay and plaster figures of the elephant-headed god Ganesh who is worshipped during an annual festival in the region. Tallur noted that while he looked at the historical figurine to approximate the musculature and technique that had derived from life models, Rajesh assessed the same figure and through his traditional method of coiling and pressing the clay was able to systematize a production that resembled the historical one rapidly, making four or five figures in an hour, but by different means.
Anusundana, Tallur says, “we take something, but we also give something and go with the flow.” This applies to improvisation of technique and material but perhaps also to an object’s ability to mock, or be friendly, to cajole, or to improvise. The nail and the machine that made it are symbols of torture, of redemption, and of artifice; they are tools and agents.
The same might be said for a machine Tallur built, an “Anger Therapy Machine,” ATM for short. Like an ATM machine where you put in your card and get cash, here you put in the labor of pulling a large fan or punka, with the person sitting across from you, and you receive therapeutic relief in the form of a breeze (perhaps worth the carved symbol of a rupee on the fan). A massive wooden structure, the machine redesigns the employment in the colonial era of a punkawalla, the servant who fans the king or official in the heat that Tallur saw at the court of Kundapur. Rather than a hierarchical relationship, here two people must work together to pull this way then that to make a cool wind through rhythm, which aids in expelling the anger at the colonialism of the surrounding museum. Many who pull the fan explode in laughter rather angst.
They might also feel wonder at the object itself, for is the towering stand-alone wooden machine old or is it new? The notion of a fan is ancient, but a punka is usually attached to a ceiling of a building; here the structure has been built solely to support the fan. Connected to extant architecture, or architectural fragments displayed in the museum, the Anger Therapy Machine seems antique. It consists of a post and lintel wooden structure with deeply carved floriated arabesques, chain links, and elephants in relief. Yet it is pockmarked with holes as if termites had been burrowing for centuries and includes novel design elements like the rupee. Though akin to the antiquity of objects in the museum that Tallur has studied, it is a product of mechanical grafting as seen earlier. Tallur scanned the termite-ravaged surfaces of wooden objects, and their accumulations of mud and dust, and digitally layered the scans onto models, which were then scanned again and carved by a CNC machine to make this machine, an ATM. Dominating the central hall of the museum, the Anger Therapy Machine seems of a piece with the cases and objects that surround it; yet it is in fact a mockery and an homage.
In two cases, Tallur has Temporarily Removed for Restoration an unknown series of objects and replaced them with what might have been their original source: rough hunks of stone, mottled grey and red-pink. Yet these materials are also an object, a gravestone. Milled by an Italian firm that specializes in such grave markers, Tallur has redirected a company’s expertise. Further, the materials don’t allow us to see what might be carved from them (an icon, a pot, a comb?), in the same way that a slurry of concrete and one-rupee coins has replaced the form of the god Shiva in Chamber B. Connected to an occurrence in 2011 at the Anantapadama temple in Kerala where the coffers were opened, Chamber B is the part of the treasury that the priest portended would cause havoc if opened. The god’s iconic figure is blotted out by a fury of humble materials that do not belong together and confound their intention. Rupees in cement don’t work, rough-hewn cement doesn’t have value, a god like a hurtling asteroid does not act as one desires for a god to act. The treasure of a temple, an offering of rice, does not belong in a museum, yet money should equally not be sacralized in a temple.
A form, a coin, an icon offers an association between king and wealth, god and devotee; it enables something to be housed within or without. In Password, Tallur remade the metal symbols that a priest would heat and press to brand the body with a sectarian affiliation to mark one with a note of currency. At once branded with money, the visitor might also be afflicted with a fear of money, Chromatophobia, but Tallur has a solution to “bring the rhythm back.” Simply pull a log studded with coins on wheels as one would pull a temple’s icon on a wooden ratha cart. Though cheeky, this prescription as well as others throughout the show is rife with a spiritual longing that has been tripped up through form and the worship of the momentary shape of an ideal, be that the representation of a deity, of an ancient stone elephant, or a national hero.
Eraser Pro offers a different kind of antidote. The iconic form of Gandhi on the Salt March has been cast in bronze and then slowly erased through grinding, as if set against the great stone grinding wheel of the Enlightenment Machine. The ideas that motivated the movement for independence seem to slowly be erased, as if emptied from Gandhi’s form at the very moment it solidified into iconic sculpture. The grinding machine has given the bronze a glint, as if a weapon. Tallur indeed displayed this work in the arms and armor section of the museum, which also lack the bodies necessary for use. Form is true only if capable of maintaining the vitality from which it sprung; materials are one path to keep getting there and to what lies beyond.
Museum visitors, artists, artisans, devotees rethink the space of the museum, the temple, the workshop, the street, Tallur seems to say. Animate and participate, with joy and process, but think too, not just here but everywhere that dust puffs up into air.