Drawing on the visual language in Mohini Chandra’s new artist commission, curator Dr Sushma Jansari reflects on the poetics of Belated (2020) and how the pandemic may shape our understanding of the past, present and future.
For Autograph’s project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, we commissioned ten UK-based visual artists to create new bodies of work in response to the wider context of the global pandemic. We then invited ten writers – each paired with one of the artists – to produce a short reflective essay contextualising the new artworks made.
Inspired by the silenced bells of her local church in the historic rural market town of Totnes in the South West of England, Mohini Chandra created a new film work entitled Belated (2020) that weaves together traditions of language and dance. During her daily walks along the River Dart, Chandra experienced an intensified appreciation of nature and began to look into local histories which led her to nearby Dartington Hall, an estate that once welcomed the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore during the 18th century. Replacing the church bells – fallen silent under the national lockdown – with the recorded chime of ankle bells performed remotely by a classical Indian dancer, Chandra emphasises the connection between her local surroundings and her wider cultural heritage.
Below, curator Sushma Jansari takes us on a poetic journey, reflecting on how the sentiments inspired by Chandra’s film may transform our perspective of time, self and place.
As I encounter Mohini Chandra’s moving image piece Belated, I reflect on the delicate shimmer and sound of the dancer’s anklets chiming alongside the poetic melody of Tagore’s words...
As I stand at the crossroads of my life, I turn over in my mind the questions that may guide my movement. What will I find when I take this step? Will it be towards the future, or perhaps a welcome retreat into the past?
It would be easy to wallow in the comfort of what has been before, to smile at memories of happier times and a normality that we did not even know was normal. We could frown at the current physical manifestation of horrors that we have never previously encountered. Touch has become an abnormality; smiles are hidden behind masks. Our communities have fractured yet further now that our encounters have moved from the physical and personal to the digital and distanced.
Shall we then be guided, unthinkingly, into a cycle of ever-decreasing circles of encounter, or do we brave a step into the physical realm towards our humanity?
It is no easy choice for us to consider and face challenges alone in today’s world, especially when the outcomes are uncertain and our potential interactions with one another are untested. I struggle with the decision to move into a space that may bring me before the judgement of others and their fearful reactions to my movement through what used to be our public space. My belief in our shared humanity and our deep-seated psychological and physical need for one another sparks my first step. The new world begins.
My travels have brought me to a hallowed place where the water flows and the grass grows. As the water beckons and I walk along the riverside, I pass the ancient church ringed with yew trees in the springtime. Tagore’s footsteps preceded mine. While we saw the same things, not all our senses are engaged.
In my world, my touch is restrained: after all, I can fill my pitcher but I may no longer share my water with you. Sound is broken, too. The church bells, like so many of us, are encased in a stone tower, alone, and they have fallen silent. Their joyful, confident peal no longer echoes across the green landscape to inspire the poet. Even the water rushes quietly.
I stop and wonder which deity now reigns here? For whom do I play the raga?
Rain clouds part to reveal the sun and the fresh blue sky. I tilt my face up. This is the same light that bathes us all, encouraging flowers to blossom. Perhaps it is time to create something new; something that you cannot touch. No music plays in the underworld, but it plays in my heart.
I let the pitcher drift away and wrap the dancing bells around my ankles.
When I dance, the bells that shimmer and sound around my ankles conjure the past and evoke our future.
These are the rhythms that move with me. The tune is not a monotonous drone that echoes in perpetuity. No. The bells absorb and transform the intangible experiences of life as the world and I dance together and change one another.
The new tune is the expression of a wondrous alchemy that reverberates through my senses. It embodies the merging, entwining of my inheritance with the excitement of movement and the potential for change. What a joy to experience transformation and anticipate a new future, a time that is still unwritten and has yet to unfold.
It is the sound of constant creation, destruction and renewal once more. The blessedly endless cycle that drives us into the future. Into experiences that mere words cannot encapsulate.
Through the bells that I bring to life through my dance, I care for you. Do you care for me?
Dr Sushma Jansari is Tabor Foundation Curator: South Asia collections at the British Museum. Jansari was instrumental in the redevelopment of the British Museum’s Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia which opened in 2017 and she is the lead curator in the team developing the Manchester Museum South Asia Gallery in partnership with the British Museum (opening 2022).
Jansari is writing a book for UCL Press titled Chandragupta Maurya: The Creation of a National Hero in India. She is the founder and presenter of The Wonder House podcast, which shares innovative ideas for people-centred projects to empower and inspire us all to learn and experiment – one conversation at a time.
See the full artist commission by Mohini Chandra
Read an in conversation with the artist and Autograph's curatorial project manager Bindi Vora
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibitions are now in development
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Image captions: 1) Mohini Chandra, Belated, 2020. [detail]. Video, 12' 49" © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other.
Other page images: 2) Courtesy Dr Sushma Jansari.