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Between Body and Imagination

by Ranjan Kaul

The solo exhibition titled Between Body and Imagination, featuring 48 artworks of multi-media artist Shovin Bhattacharjee created over the course of the last four-odd years is displayed on two floors of the Dhoomimal Art Gallery, New Delhi. Hailing from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, Shovin understandably underwent a ‘culture shock’ when he moved to New Delhi about 15 years ago; he missed the abundance of nature that he had grown up with, as he settled in the jam-packed Indian capital with its concrete structures, frightfully busy city life and swarming populace. Viewing his works it becomes immediately apparent that he was never able to get over the shock because the vapid, unplanned, rapid urbanization has over the years become one of the major thematic concerns that he has addressed through his art.

The artist and his art

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

(Photos courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

Shovin providez a bird’s eye-view of the crowded metropolis even as he identifies himself as ‘the other’ and comes to terms with his new surroundings, bereft of the abundance of nature that he grew up in. Cuboidal structures on spherical shapes using a variety of mediums and materials – stainless steel, aluminium, wood, digital as seen in this exhibition – have become recurring motifs in his art. So has his ‘self-portraits’ within his compositions become part of his oeuvre – finding a way to accommodate himself (by Just Being Me-4) he treads a delicate balance (Balance-1) as he learns to live in his new impersonal habitat. He often uses the same cast of his self in differing ways to get his meaning across. I’m reminded of the works of the British sculptor, Sir Antony Gormley, who is internationally acclaimed for his sculptures and installation projects that explore the relationship of the human body to space and time and has been a major influencer of the path contemporary art has taken over the last few decades; Gormley too has often used multiple casts of his own body in his installation projects but this is where the comparison with the works of Shovin perhaps ends.

Just Being Me-4, Stainless steel and aluminium, 24 inches x 27 inches x 56 inches, 2021

Balance-1, Stainless steel and aluminium, 12 inches x 12 inches x 26 inches, 2021

Explaining why he portrays himself within his compositions, Shovin says, “I feel the artist is always a part of their art but using the self has now become ‘a metaphor’, for it is not just symbolic of the self but it also represents the ‘other’. The common man can connect immediately to my work and my situation where I am engaging with my surroundings to discover the mystery of life.”

As regards his process, Shovin clarifies that he initially creates small-sized maquettes of the sculptural pieces prior to putting together the larger assemblages. “Stainless steel is a medium that I enjoy working with even though it is very demanding and unforgiving,” he says. “Unlike bronze that may be melted and recast and reused, in stainless steel, when one makes a mistake, one usually has to junk the entire piece and start afresh.” For this reason, his works require considerable planning beforehand and meticulousness, so that the finest details are created with great care and precision. The shiny steel with its reflective quality serves as a mirror to society to evoke an immediate, immersive participation among the viewers; I experience this as I stand to study his circular work, Make a Mark I. Here, while the two cuboid structures representing the globe sit on a hemispherical slices with the 'karma yogis' bearing their weight, the mirroring effect of the steel plate behind them doubles and accentuates the visual experience.

Ranjan Kaul studying Make a Mark I

Make a Mark I, Wood, stainless steel mirror and aluminium, 48 inches x 48 inches x 9 inches, 2021

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

A few smaller works portraying the artist in different postures of the self – atop steel ‘eyeballs’ in a calm, meditative pose; another more relaxed; a third of himself beneath the sphere, afloat or carrying their weight as one may interpret – leads us to largest sculptural installation on display in a corner, titled Perspective of Life. The shiny installation of eyeball habitats ‘strung’ together and hanging from the high ceiling with his self metaphorically representing the various stages of life –flying in air like a trapeze artiste, another ‘just being himself’, and yet another that of a yogi. For Shovin, the Karma Yogi, the doer, is the true yogi, and we see him, again and again, representing the hard-working ‘others’ taking the weight of the mechanized, concrete world on their shoulders.

Perspective of Life, Stainless steel and aluminium, 144 inches x 120 inches x 384 inches, 2021

Karma Yogi I, Wood, stainless steel and aluminium, 14 inches x 14 inches x 56 inches, 2021

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

Explaining the raison d’etre for creating his sculptural work, Blossom of Spirit, he says that it is about “the connection between the body, mind and spirit . . . we are all more than just our thoughts. We are also our bodies, our emotions, and our spirituality . . . all these combine to give us identity, determine our health and make us who we are.”

Blossom of Spirit, Wood, stainless steel, crystal, stone, aluminium, 32 inches x 40 inches x 20 inches, 2021

Galaxy on Earth-1, Archival print on canvas, 56 inches x 144 inches, 2021

In his large digital work, Galaxy on Earth-1, we again see the unobtrusive presence of the contemplative artist. He is now amidst white-coloured, hand-pulled rickshaws that become a metaphor for the travails of those living in the margins, eking out a living by their hard work; the surrounding stark realities of the harsh, urban habitat devoid of nature are represented by ominous-looking, red, spherical shaped cuboids. As Georgina Maddox says in her curatorial note, “One can see that he has created an entire composition based on the plight of the common man, the lowest ‘denominator’ on the rung of society, the rickshaw-puller who was quite crushed by the weight of deprivation with little or no access to basic facilities.”

(Photo courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

I’m intrigued by the title of his digital work, Formicarium. I confess I hadn’t come across the word, so I looked it up in the dictionary; it refers to an ant farm or nest which contains ant colonies in a special artificial enclosure designed to study the insect. Even as we view the work from outside the formicarium that Shovin creates, the artist himself chooses to stay within to better investigate the world of his imagination. He uses the metaphor of ants, forever busy and moving, with no time to sit still or stand and contemplate, as we see him now. Here, many of the spherical habitats make way for rising hills and undulating colonies, symbolizing urban habitat – thorny and spiky, looming over you – in dismal blues and greys with masses of shadow.

Formicarium, Archival print on canvas, 48 inches x 96 inches, 2021

Exploration, Archival print on canvas, 36 inches x 36 inches, 2021

Exploration-2, Digital print on Hanji paper, 40 inches x 30 inches, 2021

In another two digital works, Exploration and Exploration 2, while he retains the three-dimensionality of the cuboids seen in his sculptures, grey shadows again loom long and large on the canvas. Curiously, a couple of the habitats are coloured green; perhaps in the hope that humans will realize before it is too late the devastation that urbanization brings in its wake. Some of the works were created during the pandemic; the optimist in him believes that post-Covid we all can have a little more compassion in our approach to life and living. “The world has changed after Covid,” he says. “Nature itself has taught us that we cannot ignore our surroundings to the point that it endangers our lives.” He also believes that, ironically, the digital and virtual world did help us survive the pandemic by keeping us connected to each other and gave us hope for the future.

A quick word about the curation: I believe Shovin chose to arrange the exhibits displayed on the two in the sequence they were created, which gives us an insight into the way of working of the artist’s mind and his evolution. The juxtaposition of the sculptural works with the digital art in the display and the lighting is appropriate and thoughtful with the shadows of the sculptural works casting shadows on the walls, creating their own drama and complementing the shadows in the digital works themselves. Dhoomimal Gallery needs to be congratulated to provide two entire floors for the exhibition, thus allowing enough visual breathing space between the displayed works; I’ve been lamenting that even better known galleries have of late been crowding the works on display in their greed to try and sell more, reducing their shows to a veritable ‘mela’.

In all his works, be they his sculptures, installations or digital works, we see Shovin the perfectionist at work attempting to co-exist and retain a sense of balance and harmony in the metallic and concretized environment that he is neither conducive with or feels comfortable in. He is not only the artist expressing himself with metaphors and mediums as he engages with the surroundings to discover the mystery of life, but also dons the hat of a social commentator giving out a strong and unambiguous message to his fellow beings: human greed has its limits and we need to find the right balance in life and learn to co–exist with nature. The successful launch of this show will I hope embolden and encourage Shovin to create larger works and take them outside the white cube to public spaces to more strongly drive home his message.

Some more works at the show

(Photos courtesy of Aakshat SInha)

As 2021 draws to a close, the underlying message of the exhibition is a fitting one for the New Year: Let us all resolve to make our planet greener and a better place to live for ourselves and our children.

The exhibition will remain on view till 10 January 2022.

(All the images are courtesy of the artist, Shovin Bhattacharjee, unless mentioned otherwise.)


Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.

His art can be viewed on

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