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Sarnath Banerjee explores the supernatural in new exhibition

Some of the best historical figures are sometimes the least known. Comic artist and graphic novelist Sarnath Banerjee discovered Thomas Browne, a Scottish scientist from the 17th century, though book recommendations from friends, two years ago. “Browne coined words like ‘medicine’, ‘electricity’ and ‘bedside manner’,” says the artist. “He also wrote a book called Vulgar Errors, which refuted common mistakes of that age.”

Browne makes an appearance in the central hall of the Bhau Daji Museum, as part of their new show Spectral Times, featuring old and new works by Banerjee. Browne is featured on a gigantic illustration alongside naturalist Charles Darwin and scientist Gregor Mendel, who are shown using their gardens as a field of inquiry.

Spectral Times is part of the museum’s Engaging Traditions series, in which artists are invited to showcase work connected to the museum’s collections and archives of more than 400 rare books and manuscripts. “I brought out this work to connect it to the fact that the museum was originally meant to focus on natural history,” says Banerjee. The show also features the museum’s sixth edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (from 1872), the artist’s older paintings and illustrations, and radio plays as part of audio installations.

“The museum is a treasure of objects, which tell stories about what you see around you,” says Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, honorary director and managing trustee of the museum. “But Sarnath’s stories take a different turn after the central panel. It’s like looking through a key hole, and into the life of a character in a post-truth world.”

That character is the fictional Bijis Bari, a reporter and former fact-checker doing a series of interviews with people who have had otherworldly experiences in Mumbai. Through seven stories, all new works, Bari records a different side of the city, its history, sociology and mythology. One interviewee has had an encounter with ghosts at the Asiatic Library. Another is a severed head narrating the story of its death.

For Bari, and for those viewing the works, it’s cheeky and surreal to see the fact-honouring man suspend disbelief to record stories from another realm. Banerjee juxtaposes sound with the illustrations and text to create eerie narratives in the form of radio plays. Also on display are original pages from Banerjee’s earlier graphic series, and stories inspired by time he spent in Japan, titled Zen Tub.

The show has been curated by Mehta and Himanshu Kadam. There are also special exhibits put out by the museum, that reflect the investigations that took place around Darwin’s time. A page from a 19th century book, Oriental Memoirs, features an illustration of the Portuguese marine animal, the man of war. A book with drawings of now-extinct animals has been opened up to a page featuring a bone from a sivatherium, a giraffe-like horned animal that used to roam around India and Africa. The book also features illustrative studies of the animals’ jawlines, leg bones, and other parts. There is also a book that records, through illustrations and notes, the physical features of races and tribes of from Africa, Asia, Northern Europe and South America.

First Published:
Feb 25, 2019 20:15 IST

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