Muses of the mountains
Bharat Rai's ongoing exhibition ‘Whistle Blower’ at Ekantakuna's Wind Horse Gallery is a quasi-surreal take on the world of tourism and mountaineering. His first solo show of 35 paintings do not show Himalayan peaks but the often-overlooked state of tourism, modernism and consumerism.
You will find few mountains here. The white background in the canvases is the closest thing to snow and clouds. The real protagonists are the mules, donkeys and the burden on their backs. We can almost hear their rusty bells punctuating the silence of their unsung endurance.
One of the first paintings that comes into view as visitors climb the staircase to the vast gallery is called Lale: a brown mule leaping with its tail up in the air. Its dark, melancholic eyes gaze ahead as the blue sacks on its back weigh it down. A long rope attaches the mule to a sealed Coca Cola bottle with crystallised rocks inside.
The artwork is striking, and whimsical — a leaping animal tied to the ground by an empty bottle of soda. The bells around the neck and shoulders in the colourful harness look harmless at first, and we instantly recognise that these are the beasts of burden that make trekking and mountaineering possible, allowing those selfies on Kala Patar and summit certificates.
But what of Lale, frozen as it tries to jump and break free, despite being held fast to the ground? Another mule, Dhurbe, is leaping off the back of a blue pick-up truck. Yet another looks dolefully at a miniature version of itself lying on its back with legs flailing upwards.
It may not be immediately noticeable, but the atmosphere of the paintings is indeed that of a false levity, draped in a foreboding silence of suffering.
Silence pervades Rai's art: silence not volunteered but forced, and silence caught in motion. Rai's muses are mules and donkeys — always in the act of moving, whether away, towards, or in circles. They are flying, rolling and dancing even. Their desired destination is up the trail, but they appear to be protesting through their contortions — and their silence.
Rai grew up around these equine heroes, spending over a decade in their company. His family profession was moving cargo on mule trains up and down the Solu Khumbu trail before motor cars and jeeps took over. He has shared his feelings and worries more with mules than humans, and this very empathy influences his art.
'Most visitors and strangers would tell me about the creatures', writes Rai in his statement, 'saying that they would cry if they did not get heavy loads!' But, as evidenced by his paintings, the mules do not look happy to be carrying all those sacks and cylinders.
On the contrary, they are tired, beaten and eager to break free of their tethers. The animals have names, distinct characters and personalities. In a way these downtrodden animals are symbolic of the silent disenfranchised citizens of our country. Abused, exploited, excluded, collectively derided.
The effect is twofold. While the animals are taken as symbols of simplicity and foolishness (and thus abused), by using them as metaphors Rai draws our attention also to the cruelty and micro-aggression directed towards the people living on the margins.
Melody of Shovel (left) and Hero (right)
Some paintings depict items scattered around mountaineering camps: steel plates, cylinders, rusty wheelbarrows, a yellow excavator and a sewing machine practically falling apart. One canvas has a rolled-up roti held together by a safety pin. There is a larger statement here against the recklessness, entitlement and egotism of mountain visitors.
Despite these undercurrents, ‘Whistle Blowers’ is not a pessimistic show. It is more a call to action to be more mindful, more conscious. Our four-legged mountain friends are not indentured servants, but beings with dreams and hopes of their own.
We are conditioned to imagine nobility in horses and ridicule donkeys. Rai subverts these notions by inviting us to look into the eyes of mules as muses.
by Bharat Rai
Wind Horse Gallery, Bhanimandal-Ekantakuna Road, Lalitpur
10am-6pm (closed on Mondays)
Limited visitors in the hall. Masks mandatory.
Till 17 January 2022.
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