Songs of a Fallen Warrior

by Sonali Bhagchandani

As an unprecedented pandemic ravaged the globe, grief and death shrouded populations whilst they scrambled for spaces to resist, mourn, and perhaps even heal —albeit in vain. Three years ago, an accidental virus propelled a nation-wide lockdown; at that moment, our lived reality mutated into an alien phenomenon, all within a fleeting instant, at the blink of an unsuspecting eye. The comfort of familiarity reluctantly ceded to an absurd — yet all too real — existence, mired deeply (and anxiously) in the unknown. Up was down, intimacy turned fearful, movement became petrified, and more importantly, capitalist production came to an abrupt standstill, a first of our modern times. The dark underbelly of modernity was exposed with a singular catastrophe that struck communities in unequal measures; the marginalised remained, yet again, vulnerable and fatally neglected. Hordes of abandoned migrants walked tirelessly across borders to reach their homes, whilst functional trains and buses were deliberately closed. Thousands perished en route; hospitals overflowed, and mass graves soon layered the surface of our soil. Joan Didion once wrote on the tenuous relation between existence and death: “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”[1]

 

Caption: Shakuntala Kulkarni, Antaheen (Endless), Dermatograph pencil on museum acrylic sheets, 2019 – 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Photograph by Anil Rane.

Over time, this precarity dissolved and a ‘new normal’ emerged. But even so, what remains of their lingering despair, the silenced echoes of the (un)dead in the aftermath of a catastrophe? As capitalist forces compel (with haste) an unparalleled speed towards a ‘new’ future yet to arrive, artist Shakuntala Kulkarni grasps at the derelict ruins of our receding past. Quieter Than Silence — her solo exhibition at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai — evokes the affective charge of a time capsule with darkened tales. Composed of 7 series of drawings, each frame captures melancholic contours of a silenced battlefield in the aftermath of violence. Anguish pierces the gallery space, for a prematurely buried narrative is now exhumed, exposed, and laid bare. Yet somehow, more than this despair itself, an air of despondency — the palpable sense of fatigue — becomes the most potent thread of Kulkarni’s probe into the fallen warriors of our time: precarious labourers, displaced migrants, and the female body. So how does this seemingly banal effect of fatigue turn radical in our contemporary impasse?

 

Caption: Shakuntala Kulkarni, Fallen Warrior, Dermatograph pencil on museum acrylic sheets, 2019 – 2021. Image courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.

In times of oppressive violence, overpowering visuals depicting (and inciting) overt resistance dominates contemporary discourse. Be it the emblematic and resilient female body or the lone protesting wage labourer, an individualised romanticism ‘to overcome’ inequality is conditioned as the only adequate response, and thus, the only potential antidote. But far too often this remedy fails, for despite all our ‘radical’ defiance, structural violence persists with ease. Put differently, a cruel optimism permeates our contemporary time; wherein repetitive cycles of crises continue to unfold, with momentary respite – the ‘new normal’ — necessarily stunted by inevitable failure, whilst oppressive regimes remain unscathed. The radical alterity of Kulkarni’s recent drawings lies here, at the ebb of a dwindling crisis, interrupting our neatly constructed narrative of triumph. Shakuntala Kulkarni’s fallen warriors linger in the aftermath of violence, not as the symbolic figure of a revered hero, but rather, as ordinary fatigued human bodies in entropy, exhausted, and at the brink of disintegration.

 

Caption: Shakuntala Kulkarni, Quieter Than Silence (Compilations of Short Stories), Installation View, 2023. Image courtesy of the artist and Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai. Photograph by Anil Rane.

Kulkarni’s oeuvre is inseparable from the presence of armour. Cast in the domestic materiality of cane, her ornate yet fierce exoskeletons evoke empowering visuals of a feminist revolt. However, woven into this forceful weaponry, are intricate threads slowly hinting at fragility that underpins the entire structure itself. But out here, Kulkarni’s armour shifts into a different register; in her new drawings, the formerly elated armours now morph into heavy appendages that weigh down upon the subject — and with this departure, the undertones of exhaustion and fatigue are profoundly heightened. For instance, in Stuck in the Shadow, we see a striking female protagonist rendered in dark monochrome, her body tilts slightly backward; one is instantly enraptured by her baroque headdress, yet as you inch closer, you feel its absolute burden on her shoulder, refusing to budge.

Thus, an exhaustive energy echoes in the artist’s two series — Stuck in the Shadow and Fallen Warrior — as each frame relentlessly strives to capture a bodily movement, yet it simultaneously retains an irrefutable stillness. And in this momentary encounter of a tense silence or defeat — Kulkarni’s protagonists embody a radical conception of fatigue, one that opens up spaces to cut into capitalist notions of linear time. Philosopher and film theorist Joan Copjec brilliantly expands on this singular phenomenon of fatigue itself: “Fatigue installs a lag or interval within existence, a present, that interrupts the link tying the moment before to the moment after.” [2] In turn, this brief interruption compels a necessary distance from our preconceived ways of thinking — a halting pause— and for just a salient moment, you might think (and hear) differently, through the songs of fallen yet beloved warriors.

[1] Joan Didion. The Year of Magical Thinking (London: Collins Modern Classics, 2021): 63.
[2] Joan Copjec. ‘Battle Fatigue: Kiarostami and Capitalism’. In Lacan Contra Foucault: Subjectivity, Sex, Politics. eds. Nadia Bou Ali and Rohit Goel (London: Bloomsbury, 2018): 156.

Sonali Bhagchandani is a writer and curator based in Mumbai, India. She obtained an MA in History from Goldsmiths, University of London (2021) and a BA in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College (2016). Her research explores the intersections of narrative strategy, emotion, and memory through the material history that consolidates ‘postcolonial’ India.

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