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Adventures through Parallel Cities

By Tansy Troy

Poster of 'Parallel Cities'

The poster for the Italian Cultural Centre’s ongoing show ‘Parallel Cities’ echoes the 1997 Vintage reprint of Italio Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the novel which the curators say inspired them to mount this exhibition.  With its towering letters, tall as Noida skyscrapers, against a purple-orange background uneasy as a city sunset, there is one startling difference between the poster and the original book cover: vowels from the exhibition’s title have been extracted and placed either above or below the main headline so that the viewer reads ‘A I’ before all else, then the bare-boned consonants P_R_L_LL  C_T__S below, stark as derelict towers.

Those with cryptic crossword minds may find themselves trying to make words like ‘precincts’ or ‘peril’ (or even Love’s Labour’s Lost) from the remaining letters.  Whatever you read, there is a sense of spaces in between, empty, invisible, spatially altered, before you even reach the exhibition.

Once through the complexities of the Cultural Centre’s strident gate, there is a little confusion about where the exhibition actually begins: through glass doors and into a central lobby space, the viewer is confronted by Ayesha Singh’s delicate Hybrid Drawing, a giant stainless steel outline of an ornate doorway, perhaps of an antique haveli – or perhaps the entire façade of a mosque or temple. I experiment with putting my hand through the ‘outline’, experiencing the space between exhibit and gallery and wondering whether touching air constitutes the forbidden touching of exhibits. Ayesha’s work has understood the ‘invisible’ through this intriguing, ongoing sculpture.

Is touching air a forbidden experience? The reviewer interacts with Ayesha Singh's hybrid drawing, 'Stainless Steel'

Mariam Suhail’s mirrored halves of a dissected wheelbarrow (Folding 2) planted face downwards on the floor some distance away is equally puzzling, equally pleasing, reminiscent of a Duchamp ‘object trouve’, yet somehow more illusory through its reflected shape.

Mariam Suhail's 'Folding 2' (Wheelbarrow), Metal and tyre

How does it work? Mariam Suhail's 'Folding 2'

Hanging like a backdrop, Stefano Arienti’s giant paper-and-cloth ground-plan continues a dreamlike atmosphere of illusory or semi-invisible city and has me asking, Is this it? The parallel city in three works?  But the concierge has arrived and ushers us downstairs, for there is more, si signora, so much more.

Alice Cattaneo Untitled, Light and shadow, Murano glass, black ceramic, wood, cotton thread

With gallery note in hand, I begin to feel more earthed, more connected to the exhibits. My ten-year-old daughter makes a beeline for Diwik Singh’s ‘portrait’ of Kasturi Devi, which includes a threaded sewing machine complete with reels of cotton, a trunk of clothes, an old-fashioned wireless, bindis, earrings, all of which we may imagine are belongings of the lady in the framed photograph hanging on the wall.

Diwik Singh's personal treasures, public offering, framed portraits, bindis and jewellery

The intimacy of each object and the gallery space in which they are displayed make for an uneasy juxtaposition between private and public, concealed treasures and shared narrative.  The mere edifice of a sewing machine provokes dual resonances of female emancipation and labour, private income for the women of a household and an inevitable binding to the wheels of industry. For my daughter, who has not grown up in a household where such a machine plays a vital, central role, it is an object of wonder, vast potential, autonomy, power and masterful engineering.


Observing how they turn, 'Wheels of industry 3' , part of Diwik Singh's 'Portrait' of Kasturi Devi

On the facing wall, Part II of Mariam Suhail’s work, photographs and narratives about Pieces of a Ceramic Vase encourage the viewer to contemplate a range of different scenarios or possibilities about how the broken pieces of the vase ended up scattered on the stones of a garden path. My favourite potential narrative is of the possible tiff between lovers, during which the vase gets smashed in a fit of pique and its remnants thrown out of the window.  (The idea of a vase shattered in this way recalls Ai Wei Wei’s iconoclastic vase smashing series.)

Mariam Suhail 'Pieces of a Ceramic Vase,' Wood, glass, print

From the (peaceful and turbulent) domestic to Martand Khosla’s metal and wooden Continuum I, III and IV series of drums, wheels and rollers pierced with designs reflected in sand, cement dust, red earth over the gallery floor, marking patterns of human footprints – of pilgrims, passersby, citizens, building site workers?  The viewer decides. The continuum remains, perpetual footfall and motion, made eerily still, or possibly serene by this extraordinary sculpture of matter in its various forms.

What do you think this one is made out of? my daughter asks of Elizabetta di Maggio’s untitled sculpture – two long, milky cuboid blocks, carved with designs like the intertwining roots of a tree. 

We ponder over whether the blocks are made of bone (perhaps camel) before discovering that they are in fact savon de castille (soap).  Once again, the unease of things not being entirely as they seem…

Martand Khosla 'Coluds over the Megapolis', Photographic print on canvas and The Continuum I, III and IV, mixed media sand, cement dust, wheels

Footfalls 1, 3 Is mine the same as yours?Martand Khosla's 'The Continuum I', Mixed media, iron, sand

Ranjan Kaul observes an interior of a forgotten church by Anup Mathew Thomas, 'Bethlehem'

Wandering into the third room, the masterful lens of Anup Mathew Thomas captures the grandeur and simplicity of several South Indian religious interiors. The room also includes a wall-wide brocade curtain, the same fabric as seen in Scenes from a Wake. My daughter discovers a secret passage behind this curtain which highlights the illusory and once again impermanent fabric of this vision.

Anup Mathew Thomas, 'Scenes of a Wake'

A secret passage behind the brocade curtain, part of Anup Mathew Thomas's installation of photographs, printed stories and fabric

Snuggled amongst these large photographic dramas and captivating narratives, a single plinth bears a folder of newspaper cuttings, several months of daily columns from Delhi’s much-loved chronicler and photographic artist, Mayank Austen Soofi (aka the Delhi Walla).  Here, in a microcosmic image and tale, we find the entire city of Delhi, its cast-away objects, lesser-known spaces, the stories of its people told often in their own words.  Next to the folder of articles, a tablet with @thedelhiwalla’s live feed in real-time.

Finding ourselves in the Delhi Walla's articles - Newspaper articles in ring bind folder

Framed and looking down on the stories, Soofi’s precious copy of Proust’s first novel surveys Soofi’s own woven chapters of a city: the viewer imagines how Proust might feel about this documentation of a city other than his own, in another era, at once so distinctly different yet similar (as all cities are) in its intricacies, social niceties, intimacies.  Like Proust, Soofi’s meticulous eye for detail offers the viewer stories within stories, layered, revisited, unfolded gradually, telling a tale of historic endurance, of eternities of wingbeat across city skies, of material finality.

Portraits of the artist, Mayank Austen Soofi, with his exhibits, courtesy of the Delhi Walla Archives

As Calvino says of his own novel, both the book and the cities’ conclusions ‘are everywhere, written along all of its edges.’

May your footsteps lead you to the parallel universes of these enlightened artists, some of whom remain unseen in this review article (surprises await).  Having visited their realms, you will come away with deeper understanding and compassion as to how the many stories of a people, a place, create histories both visible and invisible. 


Where: The Italian Cultural Centre, Chanyakapuri, New Delhi

When: 10 am to 6 pm, Monday-Saturday until 3 March 2024

(The images of the artworks and gallery are courtesy of Tansy Troy with permission from Italian Cultural Centre, unless mentioned otherwise.)


Tansy Troy is a poet, performance storyteller and maker of bird and animal masks, which she shares with audiences at Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, and other parts of India. You can read her poetry in Ratnakosha (Red River, August 2023), and her articles in The Apple Press, a young people’s eco journal which she edits and curates. Her poetry and stories have been published widely in newspapers and magazines. She lives with her family and many other beautiful birds and animals between Delhi, Rohtak and a nest in Manali.

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