Formed in 2003 by the husband and wife team of Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal, “Chatterjee & Lal” is a leading gallery based in Mumbai’s thriving art district of Colaba. A particularly fascinating artist on the gallery’s roster is Nityan Unnikrishnan (born 1976), who grew up in Kerala within an intellectual milieu populated by left-leaning filmmakers, painters, poets and academics.
Unnikrishnan—a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad—draws upon a variety of sources: urban culture, history, myth, art, his childhood and working life.
The dreamy cityscapes of his two recent exhibitions—“The Way Out” (15 March to 27 April 2019) and “It is Getting Louder” (13 November 2020 to 2 January 2021)—look at once familiar and foreign. We know the world he displays and yet something is amiss. He digs deep in the subconscious, and transfers individual and collective idiosyncrasies and anxieties onto the landscape, often creating labyrinths that hover between vividness and grotesqueness. Here, the colour and chaotic explosion of Hieronymous Bosch meets the existential rawness of Francis Bacon.
There are references both Eastern and Western: somewhere Michelangelo’s “David”, at another location, the goddess Durga. Some of the statuary is unrecognisable. People bathe. An upside down horse is suspended on a plinth, a crowned, multi-limbed body builder tops a monolithic structure. People sit absorbed in themselves in a restaurant with images of Gandhi and Nehru. Industrial buildings emit thick smoke, degrading the environment. Disillusioned middle-aged couples look away from each other, having lost passion and purpose.
Phalluses rise—one, two, more. The massive, monstrous erections—sometimes stately, sometimes banal—are the centres around which everything in society must revolve. The paintings simultaneously expose and satirise the mechanisms of dominance and power.
Interestingly, the artist, who now lives in Goa, is a man of few words. “I lead a very normal life,” he says. “I wake up in the morning, have coffee, get angry reading the newspaper, and then get to work. I lead a normal life. I go for walks, I shop for groceries, I cook. I like cooking, but not for large numbers of people.” He leaves much to interpretation.
Links: Gallery website (chatterjeeandlal.com/artists/nityan-unnikrishnan)