There are 34 of us huddling in the dark, cramped hold of a ship, as a siren shatters the silence. Spotlights sweep over our heads as we are buffeted by waves of sound — hydrophone recordings of ship’s engines, the clatter of textile machinery, the crash and bang of ocean waves meeting rock, and then a loud explosion. “News came in that the Royal Indian Navy Ships in Bombay harbour had mutinied,” announces a crisp English voice, which I later learn belonged to Mervyn Jones, son of psychoanalyst Ernest Jones and former member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. “And in support of them the trade unions in Bombay had declared a general strike. So, it was a terrific crisis and I felt I really must go down to Bombay and see what’s going on, I’ll never forgive myself if I missed the opportunity of this historic event.”

Thus begins the sound installation that is the centrepiece of Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 , a mammoth art project that explores the events and historical narratives around the 1946 Bombay Mutiny. Put together by veteran artist Vivan Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha — and featuring sound-work by British artist David Chapman — the show is on display at the Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Sundaram has channelled his experiments with immersive theatre and concepts from minimalism to create a steel-and-aluminium ‘ship’, which serves as the performance space for Chapman’s sterling sound-work. The installation is accompanied by a 40-foot mural of photos, news clippings and headlines from that turbulent pre-Independence era, as well as an extensive archive of books, photos and police correspondence dealing with the incident. The project is an experiment in what Rajadhyaksha calls “liminal history, that is, history where you have to find ways to address the ghosts of the past using terms and modes that are not of conventional historians.”

On February 18, 1946, 1,500 sailors aboard the HMIS Talwar, the signal training establishment of the Royal Indian Navy in Colaba, went on strike, ostensibly to protest against the terrible conditions they were forced to work in. A day earlier, the ratings had demanded decent food only to be told by sneering British officers that ‘beggars cannot be choosers’. But this was no mere food riot. The strike quickly took on the hue of a nationalist insurrection, with the ratings demanding the release of all Indian political prisoners, better living conditions and the end of British rule. By the following morning, 60 ships and 11 shore establishments pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the three flags of the Congress, the Muslim League and the Communist Party. Pretty soon, the insurrection spread to Calcutta, Karachi, Madras, Jamnagar, Visakhapatnam, and other Navy stations, eventually involving over 20,000 Indian seamen.

Despite being condemned by both the Congress and the Muslim League, the uprising gained immense popular support, especially in Mumbai, where thousands of workers joined in and took to the streets to participate in a general strike called by the Bombay Students’ Union and the CPI. As the British Empire brought the full extent of its military might to bear on the mutineers, the lack of support from political leaders and the strike committee’s political inexperience led the ratings to surrender on February 23, 2016. The workers’ strike was crushed as well, with 217 people dying in police firing on a single day. Though the mutiny was widely considered a ‘failure’, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee later said it was one of the major events that led to the decision to leave India, much more so than the Quit India movement. Yet the latter remains a much-celebrated milestone on the march to Independence, while the mutiny has become a historical footnote.

“Despite the erasure, the incident keeps popping back up again and again, refusing to die,” says Rajadhyaksha, who undertook extensive research in India and London for the installation and its accompanying archive. “As a result of its refusal to die, it attaches to larger and larger and more and more complex questions. We want to open up this historical incident as a symbolic space around which all these different positions revolved. The idea was to try and look at this incident and build an art project around it that opens up a huge number of questions — both of form and history.”

Indeed, there are many parallel, contesting narratives revolving around the mutiny. The British first tried to dismiss it as a food riot, though a 1948 inquiry branded it as part of a “larger communist conspiracy raging from the Middle East to the Far East.” In the sound-work, Jones talks about its potential to be a major insurrection in the grand tradition of socialist uprisings. Historian Sumit Sarkar imagines the different possibilities for Indian independence that the insurrection success could have thrown up. On the other hand, you have what Rajadhyaksha calls the “bitter cynicism” of BC Dutt, one of the main players in the naval strike committee, who speaks of there being no future for the mutiny.

The incident also threw light on the schisms and limitations of the Congress-led nationalist movement, and its inability to accommodate popular nationalism outside of its ambit. The lack of support from leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah has been condemned as a betrayal. “On the other hand, there are genuine intellectual positions that Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and Jinnah took which are in themselves quite defensible,” says Rajadhyaksha. “The Congress party found itself in a very difficult position because they hadn’t anticipated the insurrection, especially not the scale of support for it.”

Interspersed with quotations and reworkings of folk songs and poetry inspired by the mutiny, the sound-work throws these unresolved, conflicting histories in sharp contrast through the words of witnesses and protagonists. The intention is not to solve the problem, but to get listeners to imagine the many possibilities — of different nationalisms, different histories, and romantic revolutions — that it throws up. At a time when the country is struggling to deal with ever-narrower definitions of nationalism, Meanings of Failed Action could not be more relevant or necessary. You won’t leave with answers, but maybe you’ll finally know what questions to ask.

(The show is on display at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. It closes on March 25)