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Rajeev Sethi, Scenographer
curatorial

At its earliest conception, ‘Liminus 2’ was the name I gave the artwork program for the Mumbai International airport, Terminal 2, now known as Jaya He. Derived from the Latin word liminalis, liminus refers to the threshold, a space of transition between two different realms. It is a place where boundaries dissolve, where we can rest a little while we ready ourselves for what is about to unfold. The liminal is, by its very nature, populated by myriad symbols of departure and arrival, separation and assimilation, navigated anew each time.

In it’s most tangible physical sense, the airport serves as an interstitial passage – located in a specific fixed site yet almost a world unto itself. It is in the most literal sense, a portal to a place elsewhere as well as a necessary pause on that journey. The airport thus slips between the global and the local, between public use and private experience, between work and home, commerce and culture.

Airports today are also the hub of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis, holding the key to our imagination. The ambitions of a city fly 30,000 feet above the ground. Its reality grounded in and around it’s airports. The Mumbai International Airport straddles these three worlds of imagination, ambition and reality. Situated not in a suburban precinct but in the midst of a sprawling city springing up around it, this airport is an urban renewal program unlike any other, operating in the heart of Mumbai even as it continues to beat. It is said that what vanishes beneath the tarmac resurrects around it. This is the aviation industry’s inconvenient but inevitable truth. Airports may displace many and settle many more. They may give us a vivid and at times disquieting insight into instant cities in the making, the complex problems they present to our environment and to our usual way of life...and the opportunities they offer to those who can use them creatively.As a true city of its times, will the airport’s centripetal population circling around its notional centre gain access to its heart?

For T2, the answer to this question is an unequivocal yes. As early as March 2009, Sanjay Reddy, Vice-Chairman of GVK, had articulated his vision for the terminal. “We have lost a sense of space, a sense of being. I feel no different at Shanghai airport from when I am at Dubai. I do not want the Mumbai airport to be so.” As Sanjay had so poignantly articulated, airports the world over excel in offering travellers highly functional spaces that bear little reference to their physical location. Designed as though to help travelers sleepwalk from one plane to the next, the airport as a space remains largely unmediated and inconsequential. In India, however, we mark and celebrate every rite of passage, particularly in travel – each threshold and doorway is enriched by ritual, consecrating the journey through it. Our challenge then was to bring this sensibility to the airport, enlivening the kilometres of walls and huge spatial volumes of the Mumbai International Airport with meaning.In each of the preceding centuries, Mumbai has produced one iconic public building that has symbolized entrance into the city whether by land, as in VT Station (1887), or by sea, as in the Gateway of India (1921). Following this tradition, T2 is envisaged as a 21st century counterpartto these illustrious forerunners – a gateway to the subcontinent for the millions whonow travel by air.

Amid the sea of anonymous spaces the global traveler encounters while hopping flights and continents, where the memory of one airport blurs into that of another in a jetlagged fog, how can T2 become an anchor?

Developed as a response to this mission, the artwork program was conceived as an initiation into the immediate environment of the airport – the city of Mumbai – and of India as a whole. Reflecting the many-layered narrative that is India, the artwork program evolved into an immense multi-disciplinary endeavour. Defying conventional notions of art- craft or traditional-modern as binaries, the artwork program brought together designers, artists, artisans, architects, art historians, anthropologists and conservators with the best technicians… all working together on curatorial concepts that distil and interpret India, culturally, aesthetically, historically and socially in a 21st century manner that leaves visitors with no doubt that they are in India.

Arguably India’s largest public art initiative Jaya He, GVK New Museum, Artwork Program has been conceptualised as two distinct sections. The artworks commissioned for the section known as Layered Narratives in the Arrivals Corridor, unfolds before the disembarking guest as they walk towards the baggage claim area. Each commissioned work reveals layer after layer of the changing landscapes, dreams and dynamics of the urban India that awaits the traveler beyond the doors of the airport. Referencing the fluid life of the city, many of the works incorporate kinetic elements and interactive technologies or interpret the theme through the lens of Mumbai’s urbanscapes. Designed primarily as an architectural device to direct and control circulation of passengers, the architectural Slot wall that runs through the terminal is home to the Artwork Program we have called Thresholds of India. Although it’s design provided niches to house artefacts, I was quite determined at the onset that this Slot wall would not become a hanger. I wanted the wall itself to become an artwork…an immense tableau of India’s plural cultural legacy, living traditions and contemporary artistic expression.

I travelled across the country, visiting junk shops, curio shops, homes of craftspeople, by the roadside and in private collections. From the 50,000 odd artefacts I discovered here, I selected some 6000 for the airport. Ranging from the carved façades of mansions to bullock carts, temple chariots that carried processional idols to toy cars, the collection spans the palatial and humble everyday objects, artefacts invested with spiritual meaning and those that acquire value through usage. What holds the collection together? To my mind, each artefact speaks of a particular place, period and people. Or expresses a fine combination of form, material and skill. Each artefact is an alphabet, which once placed with others, began composing themselves into sentences and eventually into stories. This collection was stored at the mock-up site spanning an area of 20,000 sq ft. Exposed during their lifetime to rain, harsh sunlight and wear and tear, many of these artefacts required special care and attention to ensure they did not deteriorate further. For this purpose, a Conservation Agency (Anupam Saha Heritage Lab) was brought in to carry out the conservation and restoration work required. Over the last year and a half, a 40- member team of art conservators and restorers have been transforming the damaged and distressed objects into their original form.

A Collections Management Agency (The Research Collective) supervised the unpacking, measuring, weighing and photography of each artefact. Every artefact was also tagged with RFID tags to allow for easy search and retrieval and was catalogued on a custom- designed software with information on its dating, provenance, history, as well as stylistic and technical features collated by trained art historians, anthropologists, and ethnographers.

Encased in the midst of high traffic and high security, these priceless treasures will reach more viewers each day than many museums could hope to do in a month. Today, when such ethnographic objects are gradually fading away from our landscape, relegated to the memories of elders or curios in antique stores, T2 is a landmark corporate initiative to safeguard an immense cultural resource from being lost for posterity. Jaya He also serves as a unique platform where these objects and the skills of artisans working in traditional idioms are given contemporary relevance through design-led interventions. Juxtaposed with the works of some of the finest of India’s contemporary artists and emerging creative professionals, we tell a story of a country that lives in multiple centuries at once, where past, present and future are reinterpreted through six thematic compositions.

‘India Elemental’ is based on the concept of the panchmahabhuta, linked to the Hindu creation myth as well as the foundation of Ayurvedic science. An installation of antique stone spouts represents water; bronze and stone lamps, fire; cosmological diagrams, space; mud architecture and shrines, earth; and canopies, flying locomotives and filigreed screens; air.

‘India Silent Sentinels ‘is composed of various architectural and sculptural elements traditionally featured in thresholds of homes, step wells and religious architecture. Toranas, arches, pillars mark the entrance, creating a space of transition and preparation for those entering or exiting. Totems, brackets, deities, guardian figures and angels carved on the façade or placed near the doorway serve as declarations of identity and belonging, as well as symbolically guard the entrance.

‘India Global’ represents an India in the making, where new forms, materials and ways of being coalesce in novel ways, the old and new coexisting side by side, spar with one another and more often than not, erupting into fantastic hybrids, at once global and local.

‘India Greets’ is presented as a tableau of doorways, façades, and porches sourced from various parts of the country. Markers of the passage from that which is outside to the realm within, these are replete with symbols of welcome and protection – lotuses, sacred geometries, angels, ancestral figures, and celestial guardian figures. ‘India Seamless’ consists of four installations, each from one corner of the country –Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, and Bengal. Depicting the myths, histories and popular culture of these regions, the installations are creative collaborations between contemporary artists and artisans from these States. Local design vocabularies and oral cultures are interpreted and reinvented, the process and the content of the works showcasing tradition and continuity.

‘India Moves’ pays homage to journeys of the body and the soul, which find diverse articulations in India’s material culture and represent a larger philosophy where one’s location is in constant flux, subject to the cyclical motions of kala or time. Antique boats, bullock carts, elephant howdahs, wedding litters and palanquins that speak of modes of transport both mundane and festive, while temple chariots and padukas evoke living traditions of deities who travel the earth, bestowing devotees with a glimpse of the divine.

Jaya He, GVK New Museum brings together these narrative trails, offering the visitor to T2 an opportunity to sample and explore them at will within the airport and hopefully, also beyond.

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