An Artistic Reimagining of the Naval Mutiny of 1946

Artist Vivan Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s collaborative artwork exploring the 1946 Bombay Mutiny will be displayed at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai, from March 17-25.

A meandering drive into the depths of Aya Nagar in Gurgaon leads one to the improbable temporary home of contemporary artist Vivan Sundaram’s latest project, titled Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946. Regarded for his politically entrenched artwork that engages themes of history, activism and subaltern identities, Sundaram, along with reputed cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, will bring to audiences on March 17 a mammoth exploration of the contested narratives surrounding the 1946 Bombay Mutiny.

Perched on the cusp of Independence, the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) mutiny was a rebellion launched on February 18, 1946, by seamen  on the HMIS Talwar, the signal training establishment of the Royal Indian Navy in Colaba, Mumbai. Around 10,000 naval ratings took charge of 66 ships and on-shore naval establishments. During the course of the strike, more than 270 of them were killed. National leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Vallabhbhai Patel reacted with shock and preached non-violent action, whereas local leaders such as Aruna Asaf Ali expressed support for the mutiny. Party lines aside, the mutiny had, for a moment, plunged the empire into silence.

Historians recognise the Bombay Mutiny as one in a series of key events – Quit India, the Indian National Army’s heroism, workers’ strikes and peasant upsurges – that signalled the beginning of the end for British rule in India. Yet, unlike other movements, it does not figure as prominently in popular discourse.

For this reason, Sundaram and Rajadhyaksha’s collaborative art project, ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’, underpinned by the exemplary soundwork of David Chapman, seeks to revisit an incident that has eluded textbooks and state-held discourses to this day. To be housed in Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), between March 17-March 25, the project realises a unique overlap between theatre and installation. It presents the audience with a remarkable sensory experience by rendering in sound, light and narrative the historical blind spot that is the seamen’s revolt. In Sundaram’s words, ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’ puts forward “another level of performance”.

36 people can be seated inside the ship, creating an intimate theatre. Credit: Geerish GV

36 people can be seated inside the ship, creating an intimate theatre. Credit: Gireesh GV

The nucleus of the exhibition is a colossal ship-like mobile sculpture conceptualised by Sundaram, the inside of which serves as a kind of intimate auditorium. The audience is invited to enter and inhabit the unusual performance space for a 40 minute-long sound and light show scripted by Rajadhyaksha along with University of East London film studies professor Valentina Vitali.

A piece in the broader exhibit, a 40-foot mural created from multilingual newspaper snippets, evokes the historical and political landscape of the time. It situates the Bombay Mutiny at the centre of anti-imperialist movements erupting in almost-independent India. The official launch in Mumbai will feature a designated archive room that will offer further historical context, in addition to copies of the eight books that have been written about the RIN Mutiny since the 1950s, including the reissue of B.C. Dutt’s Mutiny of Innocents.

As a whole, the exhibition encompasses an immense bricolage of archival and found material of various media, including text, dialogue, poetry and song. “Archive has always been an important part of contemporary art-making strategies. Memory is treated as an archival document,” says Sundaram.

Drawing history into the public sphere, the show encourages viewers to think through the politic of an emerging republic, 70 years down the line. As the impassioned voices of Indian seamen jostle against that of their colonial masters, interspersed with music and poetry in different tongues, the audience cannot help but feel implicated. Although the event at the crux of ‘Meanings of Failed Action’ is nestled in the folds of time, its reverberations are felt to this day. Beyond offering a compelling excavation of a site of political protest, by dwelling on the potential of what is widely regarded as a “failed” rebellion, the exhibition also charts compelling routes into many possible futures.

“The title itself leaves a question. Today, is there an interest in uprising? Through new technologies, people all over the world can connect and express their feelings. They can do all this without the interference or knowledge of any kind of political leadership; we have seen examples of this across the world. This [exhibition] could tap into the pulse of young people,” says Sundaram, reflecting on the act of reimagining, through interventionist art, an event like the Bombay mutiny.

As one walks out of the performance space, a sense of anticipation hovers in the air. ‘Meanings of Failed Action’ leaves one perhaps with more questions than answers. In a global political climate replete with competing notions about the nation-state, government, and neo- and post- colonialisms, Sundaram, Rajadhyaksha and Chapman’s cross-cultural artwork culls out a distinct and nuanced narrative of an unresolved history.

In India and the world at large, artists and academics are wrestling with complex issues of race, identity, citizenship and dissent in creative ways. ‘Meanings of Failed Action’, in its vibrant and multivocal take on the RIN mutiny, shares in those extraordinary cultures of protest and expression.