Adversary is Rahal’s second solo exhibition at Chatterjee & Lal. Widely recognized as one of the most interesting artists to have emerged onto the contemporary art scene in the last few years, he has been widely exhibited both in India and internationally. Participation in past and future exhibitions include, 2016 – Setouchi Triennale, Japan; Liverpool Biennial, UK; Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas; 2015 – Jewish Museum, New York; 2014 – Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi; Vancouver Biennale; Galleria Continua, Le Moulin, Paris. The artist was the recipient of the 2014 Forbes India Art Award for best debut solo show. In 2013 he was awarded the Zegnart Award in association with the MACRO Museum, Rome. He has undertaken residencies at spaces such as Gasworks, London; FUTUR Foundation, Zurich and will soon be part of the Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart.
Adversary: A Misleading Introduction
In 2014, George Lucas came to Mumbai. He was only here for a day. His purpose was revealed to no one . . . no one, that is, but Sahej Rahal.
The resoundingly negative response to the Anakin prequels had hit the director hard. He spent his days, morosely, buried in the darkness of his private theatre at Skywalker Ranch, with a bottle of brandy at his side, watching and rewatching the original trilogy, looking for the spark, the clarity of voice that made the first episodes sing, before his baby was dressed up in wretched digital frosting and made to prance on the stage like a minstrel puppet.
Slowly, it dawned on Lucas that all had gone wrong on Endor. These pygmies in the redwoods, this Amazon in his backyard, this was not him. He was not a primitivist. His beginnings were elsewhere, like Luke’s, on Tatooine, the desert planet, a world of scavengers, smugglers, bounty hunters, slavetraders, veiled belly dancers, and sultans so disgustingly fat that they suggest to the mind oversized land slugs. Alex Raymond, Lucas muttered once. Alex Raymond, he said again, louder, enlightened. Out of his recliner Lucas lifted himself, as fast as a pickled man can. He stumbled into his elevator, pushed 5, and ascended into his library. Flash Gordon, he screamed into the intercom. It required help from his wife, his cook, and his personal trainer (one in the same person), but finally he found the old comic books buried in the back of a shelf, musty from disuse, yet of course still grimy and tattered from the love he repeatedly made to them long long ago. He ran his fingers over beautiful Mongo. No, he was no primitivist. Orientalism, that is the mother of me.
A few days later, Lucas was in India, a country that friends assured him still resembled the planets of the Outer Rim in its ways of business and rule of law, and where the common man still believed in the Force.
According to Sahej, it was while “picnicking” in Land’s End that he spotted the director standing on the foundations of ruined Castella de Aguada, gazing out upon the Arabian Sea, looking pensive and little sad. Sahej nervously introduced himself, asked the white afroed genius if he was staying at the Taj (he was), and then, after a moment of awkward silence, offered him some of his bhelpuri. Starstruck though he was (and who wouldn’t be), somehow Sahej marshaled a moment of clairvoyance. “Mr. Lucas,” he said, with a wave of the hand, “this is not the fort that you are looking for.” Mr. Lucas said, “This is not the fort that I am looking for.” And when he broke out of his stupor, the master of space operas found himself flying up the Bandstand on the back of Sahej’s Enfield, howling with laughter as the pedestrians cursed and scampered, and fantasizing about leaping like Luke across the rushing void into a rickshaw and hurling the bastard driver out.
After three hours of lawless driving and two nostrils worth of pollution, Lucas and his escort arrived at Vasai Fort. There, Sahej regaled Lucas with tales of Vasco da Gama’s debauchery and the valiant feats of Maratha kings. He showered Lucas with kisses meant for the Catherine of Braganza. He bounded from block to block, losing himself in the glories of Indian martial prowess, and almost threw Lucas from a parapet (he momentarily mistook him for an East India Company man) while narrating the Anglo-Maratha War.
As the sun began to sink in the sky, Sahej (now in chiller tones) mesmerized Lucas about other stupendous monuments of the motherland. He told him about the evil modernist empire of Chandigarh, the villages of simple hardworking folk that had been razed by the terrible Darth Nehru, and how a single man, Nek Chand (with a Jedi name, no less), had secretly constructed a kingdom of magical rubble in Chandigarh’s shadow, decorated with archaic symbols telling of the coming rebellion, and hosting a dormant army of ceramic and concrete warriors. He told also of the great tangerine man from Gujarat, the hero with the 56 inch chest, who sold tea as a child without the help of droids, before training with the elite Jedi academy and committing his life to keeping the dark side on its knees. Sahej, not only a master bullshitter but a seasoned armchair traveller too, wove the wonders of India into stories from elsewhere in the galaxy: Mussolini’s Cinecittà, the Ben-Hur sets, funky Shodoshima Island, and finally Cremaster – at which point Lucas was reminded of his jet lag, and asked Sahej to take him home.
“What I am looking for,” said Lucas, at the threshold of his hotel, “is something raw. Never mind Hollywood. I am weary of big cameras, blue screens, beautiful women, and Chinese SFX studios. As long as it’s real, and from the heart. It can even look a little dumb. Think of, say, Yoda as a young man. I am too old to do it myself, too confused. Sahej, will you be my muse?”
And so with a briefcase of undocumented dollars wedged snugly between his thighs, Sahej motored back to his studio as what seemed like light speed. High with inspiration and with the prospect of finally escaping the tractor beam of the art world, he immediately and furiously set to work. What you see here, in the present exhibition, are the fruits of that labor: the movie pilot, the costume concepts, the maquettes of new beasts, even (so painstaking was Sahej’s imagination) drawings of the fungi on which the future Jedi master would subsist in his harsh days of training. A legend reborn, right here in Mumbai.
Thus it came as an atomic shock to Sahej when, at a top secret get-together at his studio to unveil his proposal before a group of his closest friends, one of them said flatly, “Dude, Lucas sold out to Disney, like two years ago man.” The room exploded in laughter, which continued through the night. Word got out and went viral. The hectoring got so bad that now Sahej only has a landline. Fortunately, Master Mortimer and Princess Tara Lal (another Jedi name!) were due a studio visit before Sahej had a chance to set fire to the lot, and so Episode Zero lives on, in a new form, in a new life.
And that is the absolute true story behind the present exhibition. If you are lucky enough to meet the artist while this show is up, you will probably find him a gentle and friendly fellow. But know that behind that smiling visage, the dark side has awakened, and that from morning to night, and even in his dreams, Sahej thinks of nothing other than destroying Mr. Lucas in revenge.