One of my favourite galleries is New Delhi-based “Nature Morte”. Interestingly, it was founded in 1982 in New York’s East Village by American artist-turned-dealer Peter Nagy. It closed in 1988, and was revived in 1997 in New Delhi as a commercial gallery and curatorial experiment. Since then, it has represented some of the most innovative Indian artists and regularly participates in prominent international art fairs.
Currently curated on the Nature Morte online viewing room is the photographic series “The Sapper” by Bharat Sikka. Sikka, who was born in 1973 in New Delhi, studied at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He is known for projects that document cultural residues and societal transformations within India. On the one hand is tradition. On the other, India’s changing identity and regionality. He speaks of Kashmir in the series Where the Flowers Still Grow, of the tide of globalisation in Matter, and of masculinity Indian Men.
“The Sapper” is at once a personal and universal undertaking; it narrates the relationship between a father and his adult son. The title literally means “a soldier responsible for tasks such as building and repairing roads and bridges, laying and clearing mines, etc.”—named after the older figure who happens to be a former “sapper” of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.
The bond between parent and child is not displayed through direct shots of moments spent together, rather through simple yet deeply poetic visuals of things that indicate the influence of one upon the other. “The Sapper” is a expansive term; it can be stretched beyond the particular designation of this father to become a metaphor for any father anywhere. Every father is responsible for building and repairing through life—and passing on those skills to his son. Also, every father operates within the protective enterprise of the family, just as the sapper functions within the defence force of the army.
In Sikka’s imagery, we see objects and arrangements that hint at construction. Rulers and stensils, an encounter with thorns, wooden window and door frames, yellow markers upon huge sandy bricks. (There’s nourishment of fruit and drink in the middle.) The slices of time and space call to mind Umberto Eco’s belief that what we become is formed from the “little scraps of wisdom” that fathers teach us unwittingly and indirectly.
We do not know much about the projects—perhaps some have been paused, or stalled. What’s certain is a sense of shared endeavour—the sapper and photographer are, in their own unique way, into the art of assembling and ordering. The final effect is that of equality—the talents of each mirrored in the other, the hierarchy within the relationship dissolving into a creative friendship.