Monsters are relevant because when things go wrong we need them to call out the truth through the mirror of their grotesque forms. The unspeakable or the threatening breathes through them. Monsters rampage unseen and emerge from their covert addresses from time to time to warn us. These anomalous creatures embody difference and otherness. “Monsters provide a tangible site for exploring the problem of what constitutes acceptable human identity,” claims Alexa Wright in Monstrosity: The Human Monster in Visual Culture. Through their presence, we are offered an opportunity to rectify the self.
Rahal is not the first artist to use monsters to depict squalor and discord. Pablo Picasso’s 1935 work Minotauromachy addressed the issue of toxic masculinity through the figure of the Minotaur. Closer home, Vivan Sundaram held us hostage with an army of strange creatures in his Emergency series. Bomb Cluster depicted an angel of death with a bomb as its body and an array of bullets as wings. Rhino showed a rhinoceros wearing a bandolier strung across its body with weapons jutting out of its thick, metallic carapace.
What happens when surreal monsters become part of the mainstream? What if the formerly unnameable, feral beings get an identity card and institutional support? In recent years, the country has witnessed lynch mobs, fake news and persecution of minorities. This has resulted in a world distorted by mass delusions and popular phobias. Truth has lost its value. In such a world, Rahal’s monsters seem like “realistic reportage”, as Hannah Arendt described George Grosz’s cartoons.
Another reason why Rahal’s fiends cannot be seen as characters from a book of imaginary beings, after Jorge Luis Borges, whose brand of fabular fiction has been a source of inspiration for him, is because of their colour scheme. These monsters’ emergence cannot be read apart from the saffron brand of politics that has swept the country in recent years. In a direct contest, Rahal’s imaginary beings recall the angry Hanuman stickers that have been glowering from bikes and cars in several cities recently. In the viral sticker, the benevolent Monkey God is rendered as a macho, wrathful figure with strong frown lines. It was soon co-opted by right wing groups as a symbol of muscular power.
Rahal’s imagery, although menacing, critiques the horror of militant and hyper-masculine Hindutva. It is through the layering of his images that Rahal makes his point. His beasts are assemblages that draw from a range of influences. The sculptures that look like grand, regal weapons, are made from salvaged detritus and found materials like incomplete idols and legs of forsaken tables. Final Mother, a goddess of trash, fashioned from sheets of compressed plastic, aspires for a multi-layered history through its stratified body. Even the blob-like form in his video, named Juggy, at each reset, takes different paths, grows different appendages on its journey, is thwarted by different obstacles, and is reincarnated again and again. Rahal’s works are polymorphous and against the notion of a pure, original or unitary self.
The same goes for his monsters, whose bodies are like complex cartographies. They make contradictory impressions and are steeped in difference. If you look at any monster closely, you feel that despite its bravado, swag and stormtrooper-like vibe, beneath its pelt of thick hair and for all its weaponry, their hides a sad, pathetic, an almost comical figure with its nakedness exposed