Science Gallery Bengaluru’s online exhibition ‘Contagion’ explores diseases, behaviours and emotions

‘Contagion’ features 16 interactive exhibits and more than 40 live programmes

A house is marked for victims. Officials carry out searches, isolating infected people. Authorities attempt to disinfect a man by spraying a chemical from a hose. Beds in hospitals are well distanced from each other. A mass of people depart the city on foot with their belongings. A man lies on the graveyard, hugging a tombstone.

Ranjit Kalgaonkar’s sprawling interactive drawing — showcased at Science Gallery Bengaluru’s online exhibition, ‘Contagion’, from April 30 onwards — shows a city disrupted by a disease.

Despite the painful familiarity the aforementioned scenes’ description evoke, they have nothing to do with the ongoing pandemic. The artwork, completed in 2017, is a depiction of events from the Bombay plague in the 1890s.

‘Drawing the Bombay Plague’ has scattered markers which, if clicked on, open texts, photographs and drawings about the city during the outbreak. Ranjit, who lives in Mumbai, is interested in urban landscapes. His projects, such as ‘cityinflux’, ‘Gentricity’, ‘build/browse’ and ‘Stories of Philanthropic Trusts’, map vulnerabilities within the redevelopment strategies of urbanisation, record anomalous histories, and document markers of a city that’s unraveling.

As part of his work, he has been studying pandemics for about six years now.

A part of Ranjit’s ‘Drawing the Bombay Plague’

History repeats itself

“There is a series of things from the plague that was repeated during this pandemic, almost uncannily,” he says over the phone from Mumbai. One of the examples he elaborates is migration. At the onset of the plague, there were around 800,000 people in Bombay — many of them migrants.

According to Aditya Sarkar’s The Tie That Snapped: Bubonic Plague and Mill Labour in Bombay, 1896–1898 (published by Cambridge University Press), within a year, almost half of the population fled to a countryside which itself was ravaged by famine. This was, the author notes, in response to the administration’s attempts to survey, control, and attack congested neighbourhoods of the city’s working poor. The migrant labour crisis that unfolded during the nationwide lockdown last year, Ranjit says, bears an eerie resemblance to this.

“I saw on a friend’s Instagram page that doctors in Varanasi, which now seems like ground zero, are leaving the city in fear. It’s interesting to me because, in one of the Hindi Punch [an English political magazine that ran between 1878-1930] drawings of the Bombay plague, a mechanic pulls out a man’s tooth using a plier because all the dentists have fled the city.”

There is another parallel he makes: between fears regarding the fax machine in the Surat plague of 1994, and the recent claims that 5G phone signals transmit COVID. “Traders messaged each other on the phone warning against sending faxes, as the 90s saw the advent of the fax machine as a new technology,” he says.

Though there are plenty of other changes, human behaviour hasn’t changed.

This is one of the points that ‘Contagion’ attempts to underscore, according to Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director, Science Gallery Bengaluru. The 45-day exhibition, she says, will help visitors explore the transmission of diseases, behaviours and emotions to make sense of our uncertain times.

“Whether visuals speak to you, stories speak to you, research speaks to you, mathematics or a playlist on Spotify or games — whatever be your starting point, we are offering resources through those points to arrive at the same place, which is to understand how diseases, ideas and behaviours are spread,” says Jahnavi, a science historian.

‘Contagion’ features 16 interactive exhibits and more than 40 live programmes. It will also have a public lecture series with tutorials, film screenings, discussions, masterclasses, workshops, and a live research project. The exhibition is developed in partnership with the Robert Koch Institute, the German national public health institution.

Lothar H. Wieler, the President of Robert Koch Institute, says, “I think that the world can profit a lot from what we have learnt during this pandemic. Not only for this pandemic, but also for resilience against many other challenges [in the future].”

COVID-19 is not the first major pandemic the world has faced; it is unlikely to be the last. Experts have already rung the warning bells.

Ranjit recalls a quote by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santiana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Ranjit knows this all too well. For, in his note four years ago, he wondered, “If connectivity by ships and mercantile routes could cause global pandemics spanning years and that kind of death toll (although of course medicine has made advances as well and myths have been dispelled), then what are the consequences of the hyper-globalised model where connectivity isn’t an issue? What is the outcome of that scenario?”

Three years later, he, along with us, is in the midst of that scenario.

‘Contagion’ can be accessed at bengaluru.sciencegallery.com/contagion for free until June 13


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