Inarguably one of the most radical artists to emerge in contemporary India, Navjot Altaf is more synonymous with Bastar than Mumbai. While the big city shaped her academic foundations at the Sir JJ School of Arts, Navjot left Mumbai in the 1990s for Bastar. It wasn't a retreat, but a new base for a “studio”.
Navjot's collaborations with Bastar's Adivasi artists are part of her first retrospective, The Earth's Heart, Torn Out-Navjot Altaf: A Life in Art, which opened last month. Cultural theorist and curator Nancy Adajania has brought together over 200 works spanning five decades, on a variety of media, including new media. Adajania says, “Normally, when we talk about political art, the history of the left-wing students movement in 1970s Bombay, of which artists like Navjot and her husband Altaf were active participants, remains invisible. The retrospective corrects this art-historical lacuna. Here we see rare political posters made by Navjot against the Vietnam War and the Emergency and see clearly the relationship between ‘art and practical politics'.”
Navjot's art is remarkable for its stark sociopolitical themes, her feminism and engagement with leftist philosophies. Adajania's curation rests on the observation that Navjot wasn't interested in making “masterpieces”-a prerogative primarily of the male artist-and was intent on disrupting her “achieved” style. “Navjot's work has never been medium-centric but process-oriented. She had the courage to give up a flourishing practice in painting in the 1990s and initiate a long term collaborative project with Adivasi artists in Bastar,” says Adajania.
The retrospective marks the first exhibition of a living woman artist at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai. A significant work at the exhibition is Links Destroyed And Rediscovered (1994), made shortly after the Mumbai riots. The installation hosts footage of the riots as documented by film-makers such as Teesta Setalvad and Madhushree Dutta.
The Earth's Heart, Torn Out-Navjot Altaf: A Life in Art is on at the NGMA, Mumbai, till 25 January.