“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant -
Among other things – or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret”
T.S. Eliot ‘Four Quartets, The Dry Salvages’
Over the last two decades, the work of the early twenty-first century Indian artist Sahej Rahal has arguably been unjustly overlooked. Rahal enjoyed some modest critical success in the mid teens of this century but subsequently faded from the art scene. He ended up living as recluse in Goa where he combined his increasingly sporadic art practice with a career as an EDM DJ specialising in layering Indian devotional songs over beats from what by then was a fading western music scene. The archive on early twenty-first century Indian art at Zuckerberg MoMA Archives in Rockport, Massachusetts, contains a screen grab of an Indian website stating that Rahal died defending his nightclub in Arambol during the Chinese-Indian war (2024-2026) armed simply with a shehnai, a musical instrument common in the Indian subcontinent before the war, that we might now recognize as similar to the Chinese huangshe. The screen grab, was purportedly taken before references to India were removed from the internet and the web was restyled as the Loopnova following the conclusion of the brutal war. However it has not been verified as real news or for net neutrality by the Zuckerberg’s team of Community Data Champions. It is a possibility that the artist, who would now be approaching 50 years old, still lives. Rumours currently circulate on the rogue CYCLADES network of attacks on the Chinese by the Free India Rebel Army in the Western Ghats, carried out by a group dressed in oversized white turbans, robes and found objects which are consistent with the mid-career output of Rahal.
The recent revival of not just locobot but genuine critical interest in Rahal’s previously ignored oeuvre comes at a moment in time when China’s grip on South Asia, Africa and Europe looks like loosening. The surprising rise of the Marxist-Leninist Thousand Flowers Movement have meant that the Empire’s focus has been on domestic discontent. As a consequence it is a moment when curators and critics can begin to articulate theories about the tectonic shift in international relations and politics that for many years was off limits, which is commonly termed the Great Abandonware. A new generation of curators have positioned Rahal as a key artistic figure articulating the shift from order, rationality and progress of the late twentieth century to the chaos, disorder and disintegration of these last decades. Rahal’s shambolic and sometimes chaotic invocation of the shamanic is key for them.
For these curators and critics Rahal is a Charon-like figure, ferrying us across the Styx to our gloomy endings, a deliberate snollygoster whose lack of guiding vision and knowingly ironic conlang is emblematic of an age where fake news, clicktivism and haterade would ultimately render academic and political discourse craptacular. For them, Rahal is important but amoral. They compare him to an earlier artist who also invoked the shamanic – Joseph Beuys – who they argue ferried us in the other direction from war to peace, making performances and objects that marked the beginning of a long-ago twentieth century post-war consensus that lasted in the west until 2019. Rahal is the anti-Beuys: A shaman bearing testimony to the destruction of the world and a gleeful truther ushering us towards an unhinged era.
Whilst I welcome the timely recovery of Rahal’s career, I would argue that this positioning is a throw-shading of his admittedly sketchy oeuvre. Recently re-discovered works such as the modeflick ‘Dry Salvages’ (2017) instead suggest that the artist can be seen as more of a Cassandra figure giving us warnings that went unheeded. Or perhaps should we see him as a figure who recalls Brahma’s warning to Ravana that ultimately the demon king of Lanka would die at the hand of a human? The innocent western teenagers stretching out on the tarmac of a sports court in Rahal’s ‘Dry Salvages’ have no idea what portends when Rahal, dressed in shamanic garb, appears waving his Indian woodwind instrument vigorously and mysteriously. They ignore him but I would argue that he is there to give warning. These are kids lost in their mumblecore, who conceivably could have grown up to be soldiers in the doomed USA 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade whose wholesale destruction at Osan Air Base in Korea marked the beginning of the end of President Trump’s administration. What was the hooded figure trying to tell them? The clue surely lies in the title of this film, carefully etched into the cover of the CD-Rom that I stumbled across lying in one of the many jobox-files left open to public scrutiny when all the public museums in what was then the United Kingdom of England and Wales, were de-acquisitioned.
There is little doubt in my mind that Rahal’s title references T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Dry Salvages’ which forms the third part of ‘Four Quartets’. In fact the poet was a source for so much of the thinking of Rahal, who found a surprising kindred spirit in the High Anglican modernist poet. Eliot writes: “That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray/Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret.” This is a future that posits time as an inevitable circle rather than linear progress – there is no final destination. In Rahal’s film, similarly the promised destination is never reached. What is the fence that the artist scales whilst the innocent teenagers go about their everyday activities before civilisation airballed? He is never seen reaching the top. Like so many early twenty-first societies the destination is a mirage. Europe collapsed, China and Japan clashed, the USA was drawn in over both that conflict and Korea. China invaded India. Instead of showing us the artist reaching the top of the fence, the film cuts to what looks like a slabdrill or even old-fashioned warhead in flight. In my mind I hear Robert Oppenheimer on realising what the firehorses he had helped create would one day do, by idiosyncratically translating Krishna. Kalo’smi loka-ksaya-krt pravrddho; “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Our shaman however doesn’t choose to become the destroyer of worlds. The film segues to a mysterious interlude about a DJ, a clear autobiographical reference and a clue as to what Rahal would go on to do as both his artistic career and the world around him disintegrated. And finally the film lingers on a ghost ship, drifting aimlessly, waiting for its moment to return to the world.
And what of the woo-woo objects that Rahal allegedly exhibited next to ‘The Dry Salvages’? There is little record of them as most were made for small public museums later abandoned or destroyed. There is no trace of the venue in the middle of New Albion where Rahal exhibited in 2017, although it is a fair guess from secondary accounts that it was in a less known city that stood at the upper north-east corner of where Bowmer-Kirkland’s Dà Chéngshì Kaloolon Settlement 43 now occupies. All that remains is a recording transferred to tape cassette, which I found in the same jobox as the CD-Rom of Rahal loheckling to a visitor to the exhibition about the works which correspond in timing and numbers to the show in question. The artist talks of temple ruins, parts of citadels, sculptural weapons, tools and heavy-looking objects that have no particular function. At the end the visitor replies with one line: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” before the tape runs out. Did these now lost objects speak of a past that was disappearing, cobbled together from found elements of whatever city Rahal was exhibiting in? Or were they objects to protect us against the future that was just emerging, a future where history did not unfold in the neat linear progressive way that we had been taught it would? Did the objects disappear to a stronghold in the Western Ghats stored for the day when our shaman would return wielding them and triumphantly leading daring attacks on a fading Empire? Do we dare to hope?
- Niru Ratnam