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Set Adrift on Memory Bliss: Preview to Abstraction

by Aakshat Sinha

Exhibition poster

Set Adrift on Memory Bliss, curated by Myna Mukherjee, features meditations on creativity, art and memory, and brings together seven influential art practices in encounter with the eminent geometric abstractionist SK Sahni’s prolific body of work spanning five decades. The exhibition to be held at and in association with India International Centre, New Delhi, from 6 to 18 June 2024, works towards a broad cross-disciplinary examination of abstraction’s inherent radicality, its oppositional and critical possibilities, around creativity, the queerness of time and the marginalities of ‘age’. Artists Shobha Broota, Puneet Kaushik, Reshmi Dey, Anumeha Jain, Harshit Agrawal, Adil Kalim, Indranil Garai & Associates (IGA), in dialogue with SK Sahni as ‘Engendered’, explore the advent of abstraction as both a historical idea and a constantly emergent practice using the fulcrum of an ‘inter-generational interventionist show on abstraction.

"The exhibition intersects works that vary in their force and aesthetic complexity, their heterogeneity, even incoherence, but together embrace a radical contemporary moment in the present that allows for a more nuanced reading of abstraction in both form and philosophy’” says curator Myna Mukherjee.

The exhibition mirrors the roots of the ideology where the shift from iconography to abstraction marked a resistance to a contemporary assimilationist politics centered on legibility. Thus, “the limitlessness of abstraction” is as queer as postmodernism. Proponents of abstraction understand it as a method to explore questions related to embodiment, relationality, time and materiality without resorting to an established, and perhaps reified, iconography.

Collage of SK Sahni's works

Quite often, the artist in representation is inescapably culturally marked. Abstraction is one tactic used to refuse the power of this marking and to resist the visual taxonomies through which people are recognized and regulated. SK Sahni, diasporic and prolific at 87 (diagnosed with Parkinson’s, cancer and gradual dementia) remarkably lends abstraction to both his body of work and to himself by breaking all stereotypes of productivity and age. He shows up to his studio everyday and creates art with the passion of a dreamer. A significant amount of work in the show is new and created in the past two years post the diagnosis of his illness.

In an essay on his work, Roobina Karode writes “He has spent more than five decades of his life, chasing the line as a constructive tool to create his world of geometric abstractions. One is aware that a straight line does not exist in nature. It is an abstraction, something invented by humans as a tool for measure, delineation, rendition and expression. For Sahni, it is an extraordinary tool to envision the beauty of form and structure by defying the conventional sense of the picture plane, with a single vantage and vanishing point and the line of horizon.”

The kind of artist that he is, SK Sahni has followed different styles and mediums over his long career, working as a print maker and figurative artist in the first half of his career and then turning to abstraction and minimalism. Having started out as a figurative painter after having studied at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, he soon moved to drawing biomorphic forms, playing with the spontaneity of the hand and the informality of organic lines, and eventually moved to what he is best known for – minimal linear abstractions in space with the precision of architectural draftsmanship and a sublimation of tantric geometry. His works are in the National Gallery of Modern Art, the Museum of Geometry in Dallas (USA), private collections and several corporate acquisitions both in the East and the West.

Space D by SK Sahni, 2011

Space - X by SK Sahni, 2013

Drawing No,149 by SK Sahni

Senior artist Shobha Broota's (born 1943) 'woven paintings' are an exploration of colour and texture. Broota stretches knitted wool over canvas, producing intriguing patterns and subtle variations that create a sense of rhythm and a complex, meditative surface. The experiential of materiality can be seen in her work, which explore the abstract nature of expression through fabric. Since her early days Shoba has worked across genres and engaged with various mediums. She has developed her art into a form of meditation, as she believes that the blank canvas must be approached with a clean and uncluttered mind. We see this manifest in her work that touches upon her deeper exploration of herself through mediums like thread, wool and other materials. It is this aspect of her work that connects up to Sahni’s work, capturing the conversation with minimalism, materiality and biomorphic form.

'Woven Paintings' by Shobha Broota

Puneet Kaushik (born 1972) is an artist who is intensely personal, and defines abstract expression in his emotional, mental and social space. While he draws on multiple sources like folk and tribal art, he also expresses his contemporary explorations of materials like handmade paper, wire, fabric and weaving techniques. His works take off from his fascination with the human body in all its visceral detail, including an abundant use of the colour red. He also addresses larger issues of existence and space through his installation work that explores linearity and minimal forms. He enunciates scale in his sculptural work through the delicate use of wire-mesh along with traditional textiles and materials. Kaushik manifests duality through a fine balance of light and shadow, gravity and lightness, silence and speech, and most importantly, of the inner and outer self. This exploration of the self through linearity is what speaks to Sahni’s more linear expressions and it is here that the dialogue begins between the two artists..

Artwork by Puneet Kaushik

Reshmi Dey (1975) is an abstract artist who brings her exploration of the abstract to glass art. Dey began as a math and economics teacher, but she soon turned her back on teaching as a profession and dived wholeheartedly into art. She engaged with intense effort with the generations-old business families of Firozabad, the “Glass Capital” of India, to hone her proficiency with the medium. She took her journey with glass further when she embarked on a formal training in glass techniques and technology with a specialization in hot glass blowing at The International Glass Centre in Dudley, United Kingdom. She now has a studio in the Capital where she shares her extensive insight and experience of over one decade in the creative glass industry. In this body of work she explores glass as a biomorphic form in a large format work that speaks to Sahni’s biomorphic forms, in a three-dimensional format. The delicacy of glass is explored while bringing to the medium a multiplicity of physical and emotional qualities.

Glass works by Rashmi Dey

In the context of the show, Reshmi says, “As a creative person, with the medium of glass I do not get a chance to be meditative while working because of the very nature of the material (hot glass) as well as the process I use . . . However, I am going to contradict myself by saying that the process of turbulence is my meditation. And abstract expressionism is the very basic of human expression. It starts there before we put multiple layers of our thoughts to shape up something more definite.”

Indranil Garai (1977) is a cross-disciplinary artist who works with a Pune architectural firm, to bring about a dialogue between art and design. His concepts inspire channels of meaningful exchange and a seamless transition of ideas between art and human kind. He is also an entrepreneur who founded Indranil Garai and Associates (IGA) in 2009 which is one of the largest art consultancies in the country that creates sculptures solely for public spaces. Indranil believes that art is a commitment that transcends definitions, known parameters, and dimensions of space and time to negotiate and result in a deep bond with society. His works featured in this exhibition brings a minimal expression to form that is geometric and precise yet illusionistic, all aspects that are essayed in Sahni’s more recent work.

Artwork by Indranil Garai & Associates

Anumeha Jain (1982) a promising abstract artist from New Delhi. She finds inspiration in the dynamic colours and movements of the ‘universe’. In her artistic exploration, she delves into the intertwined nature of life and death, perceiving their constant coexistence. Every moment becomes a canvas for the birth and passing of cells, mirroring the unfolding events in the world. The internal exploration of form that her work engages in speaks well to Sahni’s biomorphic period where the formlessness of colour and form leads to an exploration of energy. Jain’s work explores this unveiling her inner-world — one that is destroyed only to be born again.

Within Beyond by Anumeha Jain, 4' x 6' (24 x 9" panels), Acrylic on Canvas, 2023

Harshit Agarwal (born 1992)in collaboration with Dhoomimal Collection is an artist known to work with artificial intelligence and emerging technologies and whobrings a historical aspect to the new media. Through his practice, Harshit explores what he calls the ‘human-machine creativity continuum’— the melding of human and machine creative agency. In this body of work, he examines the works of iconic abstract artists in India, counterpoising them with abstract artists in the West as well with the Indian Diaspora. His intention is to provide a commentary on AI by interacting with Dhoomimal’s collection of works of abstraction including those by SH Raza, VS Gaitonde, Sohan Quadri, and other masters.

Harshit Agarwal's AI intervention with Dhoomimal's Collection

Adil Kalim’s work can be seen as a queering of queer art. Working in abstract expressionism, often considered hostile to identity politics, Adil firmly embraces his identity as a Muslim queer person and insists on prompting queer aesthetics to reconsider its preferred means of self-representation for a more nuanced conversation about form as such. He argues that if queerness can be too easily “read” on its surface, then it can be homogenized, trivialized, and perhaps commodified.

Adil Kalim's works

The exhibition will be a sweeping survey of more than 200 artworks from seven different bodies of art production, who encounter SK Sahni’s prolific body of work. Hailing from different locales with different philosophical foundations, the artists traverse a broad range of mediums and materials, including paintings, drawings, prints, glass blown sculptures. AI explorations, queerness, site specific installations, recordings, music and even food art (a chef’s table on food and abstraction is planned to be laid out during the course of the exhibition, presented by the first Indian/South Asian woman -Michelin star awarded chef, Surbhi Sahni).

The show 'Set Adrift on Memory Bliss' will be held at India International Centre, New Delhi 6 to 18 June 2024.

(All images are courtesy of the curator Myna Mukherjee and the respective artists.)


Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.

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