Rohini Devasher is an astronomy geek. The Delhi-based artist joined the Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi (AAAD) in 1997. Since then, she has gone on several field trips in and around the capital with the group. They would observe asteroids, eclipses and meteors, among other occurrences in the night sky.
Devasher is also a science fiction fan. She, therefore, began incorporating what she calls the “deep sciences” — astronomy and geology — and also biology and the natural world, into her art. In the past five years, this integration of art and science has taken her places. She has been the artist-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany. Rohini has shown her work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the Fukuoka Asian Art Trienniale, and a few Frieze shows in the UK and the US.
The artist’s latest exhibition, called Speculations From The Field, is now on display at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla (E). Curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the director of the museum, and Himanshu Kadam, senior assistant curator, the show explores existentialist themes by looking at our place in the universe, and the idea of time. Spread out over two floors, the exhibition features a ‘terrasphere’ (a digital rendering of a terrarium), two video installations, planispheres, archival pigment prints of Shivering Sands (sea forts that were used to defend England’s coastline during the Second Word War) and a 20-foot acrylic, dry charcoal and colour pencil wall drawing that mimics rock layers (they are lighter on top, and become darker as they go deeper into the earth’s crust). Accompanying the wall drawing are fossils from the museum’s rarely-seen natural history collection, which belong to the Jurassic Period.
Perspectives on display
One of the videos — Atmospheres — is an inverted perception of earth. We are used to seeing the planet from space. So, Devasher has created a blue sphere from the ground. To record the time-lapse video, she visited The Gauribidanur Observatory, located 90km north of Bangalore. The observatory has radio telescopes that are placed on the ground. “An amateur astronomer there had a fisheye lens. So I pointed the camera [towards the sky] and shot [the video] for two days from different positions in the massive campus,” says the artist. The terrasphere, meanwhile, is “an exercise in world building”. It is made up of 59 images that are projected onto a sphere, and look like the top of a mini planet. “I have always been fascinated by the idea of enclosed terrariums and ecosystems. They seem fantastical,” says Devasher.
Time travel is another major theme she plays with. The 20 planispheres, titled Meridian, represent how the sky above the museum will look on the same date — August 20 — across a period of over 20,000 years: from 416 AD to 21,416 AD. This enables you to spot Saturn and Jupiter in one planisphere, and see Mars and the Moon in another. But, Devasher tells us, the sky more or less looks the same across the centuries.
Archival pigment prints of Shivering Sands (sea forts that were used to defend England’s coastline during the Second Word War).
The sea forts view the passage of time in a different manner. “I was amazed by how futuristic and dystopian they looked at the same time. They look like the AT-AP Walker from the Star Wars films, or like the Philae (a spacecraft) that landed on the Rosetta comet in 2014. We know they are sea forts. But what else can we imagine them to be? Fiction is important for me,” states the artist.
A sense of wonder
Devasher’s attempt is to instil a sense of wonder into the people who visit her show. By juxtaposing our life on earth to our place in the universe, she is trying to “make sense of something that is so much bigger than us”. “Deep time (a geological theory that predicts the age of earth) and space remind us that there is more [to life]. Earlier, the AAAD could just do the observations at the Nehru Planetarium, in the middle of Delhi. Now, you have to travel out of the city for eight hours to find skies that are not polluted by light. What does it mean to have a generation of people who will not see stars?” asks Devasher.
Her fellow amateur astronomers summarise the significance of why people should be curious about the world we live in. “I asked the AAAD members, who are full-time lawyers, accountants and travel agents, why they take time out to observe the skies. They said, ‘All of us know that life is banal. We all know that we live in a cocoon. But with astronomy, we can see that we’re in a cocoon.’ Knowing that keeps me sane,” says Devasher.