Aban Raza’s solo exhibition of large-format oil paintings is dominated by bodies—bodies bearing the charge of dissent, bodies engaged in constant labour, and the invisible but ever-present body of the Constitution as a site of contestation. Running from November 3 until December 28 at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai, Raza’s show, titled “There is Something Tremendous About the Blue Sky”, serves as a memory log of the events that have marked public life in India in the past two years, charting both the excesses and assaults of the state and the widespread civic eruptions that challenged these. Nestled between the great events are ordinary moments, depicted through train journeys, construction work, or the after-hours of a wedding celebration. Made between 2020 and 2022, the period darkened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the paintings are marked by a refreshing publicness; they look outward and are consistently social, drawing attention to those who could not afford to retreat into safety in the fractured republic.
Delhi-based Aban Raza (b. 1989) held her debut solo exhibition titled “Luggage, People and a Little Space” at the same gallery in Mumbai in 2020. “I paint because I feel the need to respond to events and also because this is all I know,” she says. Having studied painting and printmaking in Delhi College of Art, she has held exhibitions at Art Heritage, New Delhi, and the Lalit Kala Akademi, Lucknow. Currently Visiting Faculty in the Graphics Department, Faculty of Fine Arts, Jamia Millia Islamia, Raza curated “Celebrate. Illuminate. Rejuvenate. Defend the Constitution at 70” in 2020, and “Beyond Dispute: Landscapes of Dissent” for SAHMAT in Delhi in 2018. She received the Somnath Hore Award in 2013, the AIFACS Award in 2014, and a Lalit Kala Akademi research grant in 2013-14.
For a just society
Raza’s paintings in the current exhibition alert us to the realities of the lives of the socially disadvantaged, who continued working at a time when the privileged could isolate and distance themselves. They underline how class and caste locations determine the worlds we inhabit. For instance, in “Rajpath, Delhi” (2022), work on the Central Vista goes on during the pandemic: we see four labourers who dig the earth and carry the debris in pans perched on their heads. In the background there are two JCB machines and two familiar monuments—India Gate and Rajpath—the latter recently renamed Kartavya Path by the government, in a reminder of duty. The painting raises the question: whose duty? While the labourers’ safety was under threat during the pandemic, work on the project went on unhindered. The JCB machines, infamous now as a symbol of demolition-based nationalism, also signify the constant churning of capital—its insatiable desire for “creative destruction” which fuels vanity projects such as this.
Raza’s paintings invite patient observation—gazing upon a few canvases, one realises that the background, while apparently distant, is close enough for the figures there to be recognisable. The background is flush with details that render the worlds of the subjects in the foreground startlingly real. In “MKSS Yatra, Rajasthan” (2021), a group of women, some of them holding pages resembling official documents, stand before a wall showing rows of financial accounts. MKSS is the acronym for Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a non-party organisation that played a pioneering role in getting the Right to Information Act, 2005, ensuring transparency in governance, passed in India. In the painting, which was made made after Raza’s visit to one of the pilot villages where the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was implemented, the wall is a site for shared social accounting. Next to the wall is a road on which progresses a vehicle conducting a voter awareness rally. It carries a large puppet and a loudspeaker, with the word matdata (voter) inscribed on it. Raza says: “I toured multiple districts in Rajasthan where the MKSS has been actively advocating and developing systems of social accounting and distributive justice.” The painting tells this story through the details. Regarding her practice, Raza says: “As an artist, my primary objective is to support a commentary which encourages actions for a just society.”
Women with documents are seen again in “Devdungri, Rajasthan” (2022), where village women, their faces under ghunghat, are gathered before a hut. While the veil suggests the patriarchal society they live in, the papers in their hands might convey a degree of awareness created by social campaigns. Here, as in her other paintings, Raza records life as she sees it. But she trains her eyes on women, who are often foregrounded. Raza says that in the course of her travels all over north India, especially Rajasthan, she was struck by how much of labour, both inside and outside the household, is performed by women. But much of it remains invisible and unaccounted for: in that sense, Raza’s paintings make us “see” the unseen.
Fraternity and care
Nearly all her subjects are dressed in bright colours, which also suggest daylight and the hours spent under the harsh sun by labourers. The colours deepen subtly in works such as “Sleeper Train, Jharkhand” (2021), “Sleeper Train, Karnataka” (2020), and “Passenger Train, Karnataka” (2022), showing the interiors of packed train compartments. The unique blue that marks the berths of Indian Railways tinges the paintings with a coolness that seeps into the colours of the passengers’ garments, giving us a muddied and sallow palette. The figures are slouched, bent, or slumped together—a reminder of the duration of journeys and the intimacy of unfamiliar bodies in crowded spaces. They also suggest the fragility of rest for labourers—even in slumber they look tired.
Minutely observed details invigorate “Shaheen Bagh, Delhi” (2022) and “Tikri Border, Delhi-Haryana” (2021), depicting the protest sites where Raza had been present in person. In “Shaheen Bagh, Delhi” we get a panoramic view of the shamiyana under which sit-in protests and cultural programmes were held in Shaheen Bagh. Depicted in vivid red in the foreground is the ordinary razai, which sustained the anti-CAA protesters during the cold nights of December 2020 and January 2021. The razai gives a feeling of fraternity and care and so evokes the women who led the protest. Women lend kineticism to “Tikri Border, Delhi-Haryana” as they raise their fists while travelling in a truck during the farmers’ agitation in 2020-2021. Looking closely, we can see the phrase “Jai Kisaan” written on the truck. The shared razai reappears here: Raza’s elongated figures seem to dissolve under the razai in a warmth quite different from the unwanted closeness of packed bodies from the train series.
In “Singhu Border, Delhi-Haryana” (2022), an elderly person sleeps in a makeshift tent. Clothes are hung everywhere, suggesting a home created faraway from home by the protesters who stayed at the borders for months on end. The life of a protester is one of displacement, but it also creates a rootedness as new bonds are forged with strangers united by the cause. Even while depicting solitude, as in this painting, Raza gestures at community, and it is among people that her work is defiantly located.
Arushi Vats is a writer based in New Delhi.
- Aban Raza’s exhibition titled “There is Something Tremendous About the Blue Sky”, serves as a memory log of the events that have marked public life in India in the past two years, charting both the excesses and assaults of the state and the widespread civic eruptions that challenged these.
- Delhi-based Aban Raza (b. 1989) held her debut solo exhibition titled “Luggage, People and a Little Space” at the same gallery in Mumbai in 2020.
- Raza’s paintings in the current exhibition alert us to the realities of the lives of the socially disadvantaged, who continued working at a time when the privileged could isolate and distance themselves.
- Many of her paitings feature working-class women, who are even more “invisible” than their male counterparts in Indian society.
- In this painting, Raza gestures at community, and it is among people that her work is defiantly located.