Sea Link: An Art Show Examines The History Of The 1946 Naval Uprising In The City

The Naval Uprising Memorial in Colaba, Mumbai.

The Naval Uprising Memorial in Colaba.

Many passing by the Naval Uprising Memorial would have wondered about it. The sculpture of a seaman working a ship’s wheel on a pedestal ensconced in a modest patch of green near Cooperage stadium in Colaba marks the uprising of 1946, a major event in the history of the city and India. Oddly enough, the episode, which ended with the death of over 200 people, has been largely forgotten. If at all the moment is remembered, it’s as a failed insurrection by Indian seamen against the British.

“Maybe the so-called failure allows it to exist as an unanswered question,” said Bangalore-based cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha who has collaborated with Delhi-residing artist Vivan Sundaram on an installation that examines the history of the event. Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 will open at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya on Friday, March 17 and be on display until Saturday, March 25.

On February 18, 1946, seamen on board HMIS Talwar, a signal training ship docked at Bombay harbour, protested the poor living conditions and substandard food they had to suffer. There had already been a series of small mutinies by British Indian soldiers over similar issues in preceding years. In two days, the strike had spread to other ships anchored in Bombay and naval establishments in ports around the country. Supported by trade unions, it spilt on to the streets of the city where civilians rioted.

From an uprising over living conditions, the strike became a nationalist struggle. However the strikers didn’t receive the kind of support they expected from political leaders such as Nehru and Jinnah, who, anxious that nothing should hinder the process of Independence, urged them to surrender. After the mutineers surrendered five days later, on February 23, 1946, the leaders of the revolt were interned at a camp in Mulund.

Naval uprising 1946, Mumbai

The metal structure containing the art and sound installations.

The installation is a 40-foot steel and aluminium edifice fashioned after a ship’s hold. Inside is a mural, a collage of copies of news articles on the uprising. The centrepiece is a 40-minute sound work by British sound artist David Chapman that will be played on the hour. Visitors can listen to the work while seated on benches inside the structure. The installation has audio recordings such as the voice of B. C. Dutt, one of the leaders of the uprising, reading from his book Mutiny of Innocents; former admiral Vishnu Bhagwat talking about the episode; activist Syeda Hameed and poet Namdeo Dhasal reading poetry and other archival material. “I had not thought I would collaborate on an art project,” Rajadhyaksha said. “But the nature of art has changed and is able to taken on larger ethical issues. It’s a forgotten incident but there’s a whole history that can be written up. The communists will say one thing (about the insurrection), the British another. What’s interesting is that there’s no agreement.”

Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 will run from Friday, March 17 to Saturday, March 25 at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Kala Ghoda. Tel: 022 2284 4484. Open daily, from 10am to 6pm. The 40-minute sound work will be played on the hour. Get directions here

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