Sunday, 30 December 2018

Excavating the Sacred Everyday, Every Way, Serendipty Arts Festival 2018, curated by Ranjit Hoskote

“What do I mean by this new sense of simplicity, of it seeming clear that Christ was God and man, and that he symbolized the oneness in each of us? If oneness is what we seek that we may have roots to nourish us, at the same time knowing there is a division in that oneness, then where am I, where am I?”  

                                                                                 -  Florida Scott-Maxwell



Living in Goa roots me, albeit infuriatingly, in the domestic and mundane. This, along with being so far from the hulchul of living in a metropolis means that the quieter, quasi-rural life-style is seeping into me. A three-day Lit Fest (GALF)and friends visiting the weekend before, plus multiple rounds of the RTO to renew my driving licence, sent my back out of gear such that I missed out on the first few days of The Serendipity Arts Festival, 2018 edition. But, I rested, sorted it out and went on Day 6, almost at the close of the fest. Although miffed at having such little time to take in all that was offered in terms of art, craft, dance, music, drama and more,  I was quite pleased with this late start when I realized there were fewer people, so no jostling for viewing space as one did last year, at the onset of these events.
Jesus at the Temple from the Issanama
by Manish Soni, 2017
Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation
My first stop was Ribandar, to see part of an exhibition housed in a 17th century church –‘The Sacred Everyday: Embracing the Risk of Difference’. “An exploration of the interrelationship between the divine, cosmic and sublime, and the realm of the human intimate and the domestic”, had been curated by Ranjit Hoskote. His near exhaustive presentation spanned large galleries that took one along the estuary of the River Mhadei or Mandovi flowing into the Arabian Sea. It was showcased partly at the Church of Santa Monica in Ribandar and the Adil Shah Palace in Panjim. Driving alongside the river at low tide with exposed mangrove roots and lots of birds in view, on a sunny December afternoon, I knew I'd made the right decision to keep the urbaneness of Panjim for later. Carrying forth the serenity of a week of relative silence and healing, I approached the painted, white, fortress-like façade with its unusually wide and unadorned buttresses, walking under them into the basilica (named after St. Augustine's mother) with its high-vaulted ceiling and decoratively painted stone pulpit, to begin my exploration of what emerged as a curatorial feat. Known particularly for the miraculous Weeping Cross, the Church of Santa Monica also houses the Museum of Christian Art, currently under extended renovation. Therefore the nave itself was the site for one section of this exposition.
The Baptism of Christ from the Issanama
by Manish Soni, 2017
Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Nestled in the curves of the undulating, hilly landscape and serene surroundings, with the silence of worshipfulness inaudibly reverberating inside the vaulted sanctorum, the blessedness of the location created a sense of  awe in viewing. The most significant work in this segment of ‘The Sacred Everyday’ art exhibits, was the work by Manish Soni, a contemporary miniature painter from Rajasthan whose family hail from the lineage of the legendary Badrilal Chitrakar. Soni's rendition of the ‘Issanama’ (Story of Christ) had been produced in collaboration with Paul Abraham of the Sarmaya Arts Foundation and was, rather ironically, inspired by the chronicle of adventures of Hamza and his men battling the enemies of Islam; a the 16th century commission of the ‘Hamzanama’, by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. Soni has worked, quite deliberately, in a style that fuses aspects of miniature painting drawn from Mughal, Rajput, Pahari and Safavid locution, depicting key events in the life of Christ. The paintings had a unique touch whether it was Mary dressed in a Kurta with chooridar pyjama (actually, could even be leggings) and Joseph and Christ wearing diaphanous muslin robes favoured by Mughal nobility (in the ‘Nativity scene’ and ‘Prayers at Gethsemane’ respectively); the anionic Islamic tile patterns of 'Jesus at the Temple' or, the ‘Baptism of Christ’ in a distinctly Asian landscape. These touches lent insight into speculation voiced by the late architect Charles Correa of what Christianity would have looked like if it "had not been headquartered in Europe, but stayed in Asia, where it originated." Correa made this point in relation to architecture and ‘church topography’ within the perspective of the Salvacao Church, which was built for the Archdiocese of Bombay in 1977, but it opened up possibilities of engagement, specifically within the location of Christianity in Goa. Whose rituals and feasts are peculiar to the region, arising from the fervour of conversions spearheaded by St. Francis Xavier to bring in the flock and with Jesuit interventions to sustain the worship of converted Hindus by incorporating many local traditions and ideas.
Birth of Chirst (Nativity) from the Issanama
by Manish Soni, 2017
Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation
Contrasted with the lushly detailed Issanama in Indo-Persian style, was the ‘Christ Series’ by Vishwanath Nageshkar, a painter of Goan origin. His angst-ridden, austere palate of watercolours with near total elimination of detail, conjured  inner torment expressive of the Norwegian painter Edward Munch.  In ‘Divine Light’ (1950), a curiously creative feature of a long-armed hand akin to a shaft of light, presumably the hand of God, reached out to lift the figure of Christ, encircling his body in the clasp of fingers and palm. Antonio Piedade da Cruz (mid 1950’s) at Adil Shah Palace, rendered the same theme in a more conventional representation of the figure rising up into the light, enabling one to glimpse the freedom with which themes on Christ have been developed. Hoskote also includes church furniture such as alms boxes and portable altars (Adil Shah Palace).  As well as icons of the Virgin Mary crafted by local, Goan artisans who, in reproducing objects brought by the Portuguese inevitably imbued them with their own cultural and aesthetic sensibilities. Altogether making for a rich tableaux of expression centring on the era of Christ. The imagery was supported with extensive texts, but unfortunately one could merely grasp an ounce of the scholarship behind such a collation, as one ambled through the visually engrossing arrangement. The video with Soni and Abhraham describing the process of conceptualising and making the ‘Issanama’ series was most informative, especially with details of how the pigments are sourced, ground and applied. As also the unusual layered canvas of paper and fabric carefully devised to ensure the many appllications of pigment are received and absorbed, enabling fine detailing with the squirrel hair brushes still in use by this school of  painters.
Divine Light by Vishwanath Nageshkar
Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation

Tucked in a small corner, behind the elegant ‘Issanama’ display was ‘The Holy Rosary’ conceived by Mumbai based book-artist Priya Pereira, as pages of a miniature-sized manuscript loosely held together with a thread  - the moveable sheets akin to its beads. And, precious few water colour paintings by the legendary twentieth century artist Angelo da Fonseca. A pioneer of the Christian cultural renaissance in Goa, he painted Christian themes in Indian settings with the Konkani Madonna in swarthy skin-tones wearing a sari.
Madonna and Child by Angelo da Fonseca
Courtesy The Leonard and Naomi Menezes Collection
Born a Hindu, I  grew up in  an Irish Catholic convent boarding school and whether it was music exams or ISC Board exams that I asked for success in, it was the school chapel one went to pray. Attending mass with the nuns at 5 am, we may have sung along with Christian hymns, but we didn’t receive the sacrament and I don’t recall praying to Christ. God was God or Bhagwan, neither Jesus, Krishna, Shiva nor Rama, and prayer was prayer, regardless of religion, temple or church. The idea of an Indian Madonna seems perfectly in keeping with this and befitting in view of the many other adaptations that pervade Christianity in Goa. A cultural shift that would be entirely legitimate for a Goan Christian. Neither an intellectual construct nor the subconscious influence of crafting fingers infusing the subject matter with a deeply rooted sensibility, but a profound grasp of the divine and its physical manifestation in the likeness of self. Though much criticised for this ‘offensive’ depiction in the first half of the last century, Fonseca’s work which epitomizes a cultural amalgam of religion, becomes one of the hallmarks of Hoskote’s curatorial commentary critiquing the politicising and  owning or disowning of religions without much thought to the very  concept of faith and the impartial divinity that enjoins us all.
 
Keith Gretton Album
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Maybe it was the space in which I viewed these works and the relatively blank mental state that absorbed intricacies and minutiae which enriched the looking; perhaps renditions of Christ within a centre of Christian worship brought in an element of veneration, but this was my favourite gallery of ‘The Sacred Everyday artefacts.
Gram Devata 
 from the Goa State Museum

At the Adil Shah Palace, I felt intimidated by rooms leading to more and more rooms filled to the brim with works that ranged from calendar art, to colonial water colours, the Bengal school, Kalighat paintings, Jain and Tantric interpretations as well as sculpted Goan Gram devatas, Saptamatrikas and more Christian art,  alongside modern paintings, contemporary art and installations. And I know that I didn’t do justice to the works exhibited. It really was too much of a sensory overload.  But even so, a few works stand out and though not a fan of the Prince of Travancore’s oeuvre, I was enchanted by the way textiles had been used to embellish the oleographs by Raja Ravi Varma and the many schools inspired by him, that were on display.
Kartikeya by Raja Ravi Varma
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Hoskote tells us that when “Ravi Varma democratised worship in India by bringing religious iconography within the reach of the masses, he also changed the contexts within which people engaged with gods and goddesses” enabling them to create a puja room or altar at home, using prints bought in a store. And, the impulse to adorn, interestingly, arose from the credence that ornaments which embellish and add beauty also protect the body from inauspicious elements. It is likely these creative additions were the work of household women who owned the prints, though they could have been the work of a cottage industry which employed women to decorate them. The 3-D facet that these prints acquired through the use of fabrics, sequins, beads, salma-gota and such-like, evoked a hint – and just that, of the elaborately ornamental Thanjavur painting tradition, with its essentially devotional themes and inlay work of glass beads and semi-precious stones.
Ram Sagar Darpa Haran by Raja Ravi Varma
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Other lesser known, but illuminating art-works were Chinese-style paintings (Swaraj Art Archive), a result of a flourishing Opium trade between India and China, during the 18th and 19th centuries. With Europeans settling in and around Canton, Chinese artists familiarized themselves with Occidental physiognomies and evolved a hybrid characteristic, later employed for reverse glass paintings depicting portraits of  Indian royals, courtesans and dancers. This mode of art apparently found its way into palaces and abodes in Kutch, Mysore, Indore as well and collections in Bombay. Here, Devi, Shiva and Vishnu are not presented in familiar avatars but, as with the Madonna icons (Church of Santa Monica) that were infused with an Indian aesthetic, these figures had a distinct Chinese touch. And, reiterating the use of diverse influences in Manish Soni’s ‘Issanama’, attributes had been culled from  Rajputana and Gujarat, Mughal courts  as well as South India. In these fascinating depictions, Devi looked more like a princess than a goddess, Shiva was more benign than the familiar ascetic and intimidating destroyer of the universe, and Vishnu was certainly of mixed parentage (Chinese and Indian). What was evident in these portrayals was the detachedness of the painter, who was clearly not in awe of, nor a devotee of these idols. Without the impress of devout articulation these paintings assumed the quality of secular documentation rather than that of  religious personifications. Chinese influences courtesy the Opium and other trade routes have continued, however sparingly,  in the embroidered Parsi Gara and other textiles such as the famed Tanchoi silk brocades of Benares. But regrettably, this Occidental-Chinese-Indian style of painting declined after the first Opium war (1839-1842).
Chinese-style art, Shiva
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Chinese-style art, Vishnu
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Leading  from  this, via the many manifestations of ‘Calendar art’,  one came across ‘The Keith Gretton Album’ (Swaraj Archive) featuring a series of small scale watercolours based on the ‘Thiruvilayadal Puranam’ - a series of devotional stories around Shiva and his presence in the mortal world, apparently to test his devotees. Written in the 16th century by the saint Paranjothi Munivar, it  incorporated vernacular legends  and  tales that formed part of the Skanda Purana attributed to Rishi Vyasa. These were done in Company-style painting, similar to the ‘Trichinopoly Album’ (Swaraj Archive). The latter featured ‘Kamadhenu’,  the wish-granting cow, in iconography that excerpts from the Buraq or Celestial horse of Islamic legend, Krishna floats on a banyan leaf and other gods and deities are featured in a “narrative that is as cosmic as it is domestic” as well as visually and ideologically interlinked through differing systems of belief.
Trichonopoly Album, Kamadhenu
Courtesy Sawaraj Art Archive

Trichonopoly Album, Krishna on leaf
Courtesy Sawaraj Art Archive

Seeing these and other such diverse works on adjoining and adjacent walls, room after room on the first floor of the summer abode of Adil Shah of Bijapur constructed in 1500, and now Panjim’s oldest surviving building, history saturated the spaces between the art works  permeating  one’s soul. There was so much to learn, so much that one had missed seeing and making connections with. So much more to look back and glean from. Art, for me, is never just an ocular experience. Studying an assemblage of this scale and dimension, notably with a subject matter that is at the core of being, there is a simultaneous interrogation of one's own practice and understanding, religious upbringing and values and how they translate into the present: of how the exposition informed and expanded the parameters of comprehension of such matters. There was history, there was a storyline in text and in the pictorial as well as juxtaposition of images and evidences that had the possibility of redefining and relocating pivotal convictions. Even if one doesn't see with that intent, the very act of viewing itself, is capable of altering perspectives. The questions that arose pertained to the scope this kind of curatorial register had, if it was merely preaching to the converted, of what kind of audience this exhibition had attracted and where would it's most influencing scope lie.  Thus ruminating one was confronted, quite unsuspectingly, with a burst of contemporary art.  And, I was stunned into acknowledging the present with a jolt.
Hibiscus River by Smriti Dixit, 2015
dimensions variable
fabric & mixed media

The blood red of ‘Hibiscus River’ by Smriti Dixit, assaulted with its visceral blobs of magnified bloodshot globules descending from the ceiling. My response was to step back. I was struck, as if by a bolt of lightning, by its  bold, larger-than-life, graphic exploration of the female menstrual cycle. In her letter accompanying the artwork, Dixit brought into site Kali and Durga whom she asserts are too far from the earth. And they are, quite simply, because women are squeamish in accessing the powers these goddesses epitomised. Her installation amplified her outrage that these volatile and powerful female deities of the Hindu Pantheon are far removed from the context of devotion they were created in. Pertinently so, within the bounds of the present epoch of an “ effectively patriarchal society” which interprets women undergoing the hormonal cycle as unclean for worship in temples.
Hibiscus River by Smriti Dixit, 2015
dimensions variable
fabric & mixed media

Even as I did take a step back and walked away at first glance, I retraced my steps to confront my own practices and memories surrounding the monthly menstrual cycle, when my sisters and I would take turns to light the diya and do the aarti in mummy’s mandir at home, on the days when she was ‘down’. This was up until the mid-1980’s which was not that long ago. And the complexity of the on-going Sabrimala debate on barring women from entering the temple premises was heightened with this illogically ingrained dictum that had been and probably still is integral to puja in other households too.  Where, Dixit’s indignation expressed in textile, fruit, metal and poured paint, compelled one to think again and accept how we are complicit in such ideas being carried forward at a personal level, without due probing. ‘Hibiscus River’ was not an endearing work of art such as the many water colours and artefacts I had viewed until then. It whacks you fairly and squarely, and repulses. Some may walk away, some may brave the language of colour and form to examine their own involvement within the stated premise . I wonder how many did the latter, and how many departed from that corner, averting their gaze from its awkward truth; or in reviled incomprehension.
Gram Devata 
 from the Goa State Museum

Woven in between myriad painted and printed compositions hung on walls - spanning centuries and across the topography of the country, below eye-level, were placed rugged and aging, greyish stone sculptures of Gram Devatas, Devis and  Khandoba, a folk deity and kuldevata (family idol) of the Deccan region, also known as Mallari – vanquisher of the demon Malla, who was later adapted into  traditional Shaivism as Martand Bhairava. These sculptures (courtesy Goa State Museum) popped up in one’s optical field like sentinels, causing one to pause if not always to reflect. In re-imaging these deities who were guardians of health and prosperity, of the home, fields, water sources and forests, originating with the worship of Yakshas - the benevolent but occasionally mischievous caretakers of the natural world hidden in the earth and tree roots, or Kshetrapala - a god of the farmland, one pondered the genius and practical nature of such  worship in an agrarian culture. As also the fluidity of religious icons from one sect of Hinduism to the other, signalling that nothing had been rigidly sacrosanct, but an on-going amalgam and adaption which forms the core values of  any tradition anywhere in the world.  Added to these were figures from the cult of Saptamatrikas or the Yogini cult  – of seven mothers as shakti or female counterparts of a male god (where Brahmani is wife of Brahma and Maheshwari of Shiva). With this constant churning of the eye and intellect, doubling back and forth with religious histories and their visual intersections, Hoskote recreated a complex tapestry illustrative of manifestations of faith across philosophies and expressions of belief, exemplifying that the sustenance of an iconography or system of worship is ever-changing and emphatic propriety cannot be dictated nor imposed.
Gram Devata 
 from the Goa State Museum

The curator also brought in shadow puppets or Tholubommalata – the leather puppets of Andhra Pradesh (Sarmaya Foundation). These captivating life-sized puppets used in performances of the epics, prospered under the rulers of 16th century Vijayanagara. And, were reportedly popular until about sixty years ago because farmers believed that a performance of the Ramayana had the power to call on the blessings of the rain god. Made from skins of the goat, deer or buffalo which were beaten to a film of translucency and coloured with pigments, with strategic holes that appeared as jewels during a performance; this novel art steeped with the power of faith, dwindled with the onset of travelling cinemas making their way across rural India.
Tholubommalatta leather puppet of Hanuman
Courtesy Sarmaya Arts Foundation

And, there was still lots more - from Gulam Rasool Santosh’s canvasses awash with Kashmiri Shaivism and Tantra, to Sacred Geography. As well as Tanta-style art - of contemporary paintings made by anonymous artists in Rajasthan, which included masks and mantras, devised by these centres of production to appeal to tourism’s interest in  the cult of the exotic. The more one looked the more there was to enthral and link with, but it was becoming impossible to compute. An exhibition of this scale of knowledge needs to  be repeated and shown across the country, perhaps in smaller sections as separate events, elaborating on the varied elements of religiosity  included here. Although the  salient, yet unconventional and unorganised features of worship; quirks of modelling and re-modelling faith and how inventive and progressive devotion and the devotee was and can be, do permeate the narrative, one’s evaluating tended to get weighty and unwieldly. Therefore, more comprehensive presentations would be more accessible and informative for the relatively casual observer. Especially within the context of a multi-disciplinary event such as The Serendipity Arts Festival.
GR Santosh
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Human dedication to the forces of being, however we image them, is a very personal and intimate affair. Whose systematizing is impossible, most especially, in our age that celebrates the individual. Therefore, such a revelation of diverging ideas hallowed through and highlighting the concept of creativity itself, as embodied in various forms of art, is crucial information in our currently fraught environment imbued with exceedingly fragile notions of faith that threaten to engulf us in our unknowing.
The Valley of the Moon Castle by Youdhisthir Maharjan

In the work of the young contemporary artist, Youdhisthir Mahajan of Nepal, we saw a very interesting analogy that could speak well for the institutionalization of religion. He explored the material specifics of language, exploiting the texts at a “molecular level”. In responding to titles of books or stories within books bought at thrift stores, Mahajan turned legible language into dense blocks of mark and texture, rendering the book and its otherwhile familiar content “frustratingly illegible” and therefore meaningless. In thus questioning the institution of language – its process of mark-making and meaning, he could well be challenging the same in the ethics of organized religion with its obfuscated formalities and dogma.
Keith Gretton Album
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

Before I close, I must mention another work by Smriti Dixit. In a quiet corner behind her passionate ‘Hibiscus River’ was one more installation, which to me was the essence of devoutness, such  that Coomaraswamy noted and wrote about extensively in reference to the ancient art traditions of this country. That interplay between the sacred and the everyday – where worship was not necessarily a ritual but the work of the artisan was his ceremony of veneration.
Yatra by Smriti Dixit
Mixed Media, 2018

‘Yatra’ is poignant with layers of memory, of questions, of wishes and stories. Innocuous anecdotes about an ordinary day in the artist’s existence which has the capacity to become extraordinary through her inner rendering, externalised as art. As if drawing from the quintessential karma yogi who pursues profession as a means for self-knowing, Dixit creates an arrangement of everyday objects – relics of a biographical path. And, in its simplicity lies the essence of reverence one also caught a glimpse of in the locally crafted Goan ‘Gram devatas’ and ‘Devis’ - uncomplicated, immersed in the authenticity of a physically manifest reality and something which cannot be ritualistically structured. Back to back with ‘Hibiscus River’ we thus saw two opposing facets of the artist, echoing qualities of the quintessential woman as both volatile and benign. In keeping with the various facets of the feminine deified  as Devi, Durga, Parvati, Kali, Lakshmi, Shanta Durga and her other avatars.
Keith Gretton Album
Courtesy Swaraj Art Archive

For this afternoon of viewing, the rooms of Adil Shah’s palace took on a character akin to halls of worship. For one could not negotiate icons of veneration and art-works provoking and questioning concepts of faith, without imbibing a sense of the piety through their expressions of an inner quest, not unlike one’s own. Yet,  it didn’t have the same quality of silence, absorption and reflection that was facilitated at the Church of Santa Monica. In some sense this characteristic and its contrast, intensified the dialogue within, as also the  awareness of how religion fails when the setting changes, when it becomes befogged in time or incomprehensible with overtly intellectualized assertion. Just as art does, without the capacity for involvement with self-discernment – the very basis for art-making and viewing that render it sacred.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

A Painter from Goa: Being Introduced to Antonio Xavier Trindade

Mr. Amor, Portuguese Agent, 1919.
 Oil on Canvas, mounted on a panel, 22 x 14.5 inches
I woke up this morning to the sound of slushing, smothering, dunking rain. The weather forecast had predicted storms and showers and while there was no thunder, the rainfall was intense and delayed everyone and everything. I had planned to drive into Panjim for a talk on the Goan artist Antonio Xavier Trindade. I wasn’t familiar with his paintings or the context of Bombay in his art, which was the subject of the talk by Mr. Suhas Bahulkar, painter, curator and Director of the Modern Art Gallery in Mumbai. Lapping up the natural habitat in Siolim, cycling and walking miles in the slithering monsoon rain, I also needed something to stimulate the mind. So thought it a great idea to discover a painter I didn’t know and rediscover Fontainhas, the Portuguese quarter of Panjim, where the Fundação Oriente which houses a permanent collection of Trindade, is located. The rain had cleared up after lunch and I was hopeful it would continue to stay dry.
 
Fundação Oriente, Fontainhas, Panjim, Goa, displaying 'Preparation for Puja' 1923
 
As a tourist I have taken long walks through the narrow streets with quasi Romeo and Juliet balconies and colourfully daubed facades, with the Ourem creek flowing alongside. I was looking forward to another stroll, but housekeeping chores took better part of the day. Even so I left in good time but, I was flagged down, en route, by a woman who looked in pain, requesting a lift because she couldn’t wait any longer for the bus. And on and on little things kept taking time away from the scope of an amble. And by the time I reached Fundação Oriente, locating the Fiilipe Neri Xavier Road it was on, aided but unaided by google, who really did get me into quite a spot, it was already 6 pm. And, the moment I opened the car door, it teemed down with rain; almost as if this was the trigger to some unseen bucket that overturned, the instant I opened the door. In Delhi I may have had a different response but, my frequent walks in the drenching rain have imbued getting wet with a sense of fun. It’s liberating to pop open the brolly and walk, always remembering never to wear anything other than plastic shoes or slippers during the monsoon.
 
Slide Illustration by Suhas Buhalkar, displaying a sketch of Trindade at the easel
done by his contemporary M. V Dhurandhar
 
An umbrella however, isn’t guaranteed to keep you one hundred percent dry. I walked in, to be introduced to Antonio Xavier Trindade, “a painter from Goa” who lived and worked in Bombay (1870-1935), with rain splatters on my cropped pants and my white floral croc slippers humming an ungainly pachar-pachar of residual rainwater smudging against stone.  Alongside his contemporary, the trailblazing Raja Ravi Verma whose success as a professional painter reframed the context of artists in the Indian milieu, Antonio Xavier Trindade too played a key role during these formative years in the history of modern art in India. Born Roman Catholic in Sanguem, Goa, and raised in Portuguese occupied Goa, “he received a European cultural education……at the British Bombay institution, the Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art.” A famous portrait painter who was popular with European and Indian patrons, his works featured regularly in Bombay Art Society exhibitions, gaining public recognition. He was also awarded the gold medal for the rather unconventional  representation of his wife entitled ‘Dolce Farniete’ (Sweet Tranquillity) executed in 1920.
 
Dolce Farniete, 1920, Oil on Canvas, 31.25 x 46.5 inches
 
While all this is fascinating, I am not intrigued by his Western style painting, nor why  the JJ school of art, starting out in response to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, designed to improve the arts and industry of India became instead, the epitome of Western classical tastes and techniques of painting and sculpture. Maybe it should interest me, but what grips me about these naturalistic canvases is the capacity artists had then, to eschew personal expression to focus on observing the subject at hand and portraying it with insight as well as accuracy of physical attributes.
 
Forsaken, Oil on Canvas, 35.5 x 28.25 inches (undated)
 
The painting that I am particularly captivated by is ‘Forsaken’. In this rather large oil on canvas (35.5 x 28.25 inches, undated), Trindade has depicted a woman dressed in a blue saree seated on the floor in a tired and dejected stance. Behind her a lamp-light flickers pale, suggesting that she has waited all night for someone, but waited in vain. In the catalogue to an exhibition of Trindade’s works at the Georgia Museum of Art, USA, the text informs that this could be seen as a westernized interpretation of the rejected lover or nayika, popular in numerous Sanskrit texts. This typified pining beauty was in vogue with early 20th century painters of the Bengal school and may have influenced Trindade rather than the subject matter being part of his instruction at the JJ school of art. In fact, the style of painting that he was tutored in, foreshadowed the emergence of the Bengal school which arose as a kind of protest of the exclusion of Indian art practices and themes in British run art schools in India.
 
I suppose, one could surmise through her downward glance that she is forlorn, but she could well have fallen asleep leaning against the diwan or sofa. The dextrously detailed drapes of the folds of her simple indigo blue saree is contrasted with a softly tinted blue-white blouse bringing the viewing eye to rest on her bosom – ample and sensuous. To my mind, this is hardly  a typical nayika – a  young and expectant maiden brimming with sexy youthfulness. Her fingers and toes are long and elegant, her body is filled out, her demeanour mature and not necessarily disappointed but tired, making me deliberate on who was the inspiration behind this. Who was the woman modelled on and, although not much is known about her, could it have been Trindade’s mother? Although the painting may have been inspired by Indian literary traditions, or that the prevailing trend encouraged the saree clad figure in the style of the nayika, but the image also brings to mind the self-sacrificing and dutiful Indian wife who never ate nor slept until her spouse came home, whatever time that may be.
 
Temple, 1931, Watercolour on paper, 38 x 31 cms
 
Trindade has painted this with such poignancy, making me wonder, how an artist can project feelings that must have been totally alien to him both in terms of gender and also situation. But, getting to the know the story behind his life, one is introduced to his own tragedies and pain and realise that this is probably how some of it may have been sublimated in themes that required him to delve into his own agonies.
 
Portrait of Dr.Anne Besant, An English Suffragette, 1927.
Oil on Canvas. 11.25 x 8.5 inches
 
His portrait of the Theosophist Annie Besant is fashioned in a completely different way. While the Hindu woman is represented as a full length figure, with Besant, he zooms in.  We see up-close, the face of this well-known, colourful and politically powerful personality. A British woman who eventually joined the Indian National Congress and allied herself with anti-raj activists. Not only does the full frontal gaze of the sitter reflect a similar stance of the painter and therefore a confrontational posture but, one that is evocative of familiarity rather than the distance of being the public figure Annie Besant was. He chose to present the human  being rather than the persona and it is noted that he probably captured her likeness in person rather than from a photograph, which may well have given him important insights to bring these facets to the fore. His portrayal of Besant, is in direct divergence to the woman in the blue saree, thereby highlighting the contrasting attitudes prevalent in India in the early twentieth century – an India grappling with identity and independence, frequently revisiting the past to define its nationality.
 
Preparation for Puja, 1923. Oil on canvas,35.5 x 17.25 inches
 
As a contemporary artist, who works with a medium that veers very naturally towards abstraction and an introspective stance, honed into a very personal expression, the work of Trindade is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is the discipline of an artist who wields paint with brush to bring to life another human being with verisimilitude, necessitating inordinate concentration and skill, that creates the sense of awe, pulling my attention into the detail of the brushwork. It is not that I have had been trained in another art aesthetic. It is not as if my education was any less a “European cultural” one, because studying in London, it was exactly that. I loved figure drawing of live models, and exulted in  sitting for hours together,  portraying the delicate veins of a Champa leaf. But, I have moved so far from this exacting mastery of co-ordinating hand and eye, and keeping oneself out of the picture so dedicatedly. The crowded mind of our millennium, has compelled the self to express, to observe within rather than without. Personal history, identity and opinion are the hallmark of our milieu and Trindade in this context is like a breath of fresh air, akin to walking in thundering rain and allowing it to wet you from head to toe. What I experience, is not  a simple admiration for how it was done, a yearning to acquire the skills, but respect for the relative quietude of mind that facilitated it. Along with appreciation for these vistas of a time, when photographs were a rarity and therefore they serve as historical, visual records of dress, attitude, landscape and architecture - of what has changed and how.
 
Goan Beggar Saying His Beads, 1927
Oil on Canvas, 23.25 x 19.25 inches
 
His brushwork is relatively informal. We can see the strokes. it is not all about photographically refined textures in the tradition of Vermeer and Rembrandt, who are constantly referenced in the writing around Trindade and his work. In ‘Goan Beggar Saying his Beads’  ( 23.25 x 19.25 inches, 1927) he paints a close-up of a wandering mendicant, adding this Christian man to his repertoire which also includes the fakir and sanyasi. The beggar grasps a spiral  shell, known to be carried by religious nomads, in his right hand. His shirt is dull grey, emphasizing the sombre facial expression of a bearded countenance, with the light in his sad eyes accentuated to reflect the hardship born. Rather than bedraggled and pitiable Trindade presents a simple man living outside mainstream society. Clutching his shell and touching the rosary worn around his neck, in remembrance that where all else fails there is divine grace, lends a modicum of respect to this poverty stricken human being.
 
Head of a Bald Man, 1914
Graphite on paper, 11.75 x 8.25 iinches (sheet)
 
 
Trindade belonged to a large family with strong ties to the church. His father Zeferino had five sisters and four brothers. Their ancestral home in Assonora, Bardez was known among locals as the “house of Friars” because two of his brothers were Dominican Friars. Although intending to join their ranks himself, Zeferino left the seminary  to join the Customs department in Goa and was posted in far off places where he married, but returned to live in Sanguem where Antonio was born. While he lived, his family was well taken care of and much attention was paid to education but, after he died the tutors were dismissed and many creature comforts discontinued. Trindade was just sixteen years old when his father passed away.
 
 
The Artist's Family by Lamplight, 1916.
Oil on Canvas, 28.5 x 22.5 inches
In ‘The Artist’s Family by Lamplight’ he illustrates a rather shadowy scene, where a strong light from a table lamp illuminates the tableau of his children studying at the table, overseen by his wife. Unlike the sensual interpretation that won him a gold medal, here his wife Florentina is dressed in  a long dress, with full sleeves and the painters glance is indulgent. As if benevolently appreciative of the care being given to his children – of enduring love. The canvas is executed in the tradition of painted interiors such as those of Jan Van Eyck’ or Velazquez, where the artist establishes his presence by leaving a token. In this case the picture of a man above the crockery arrangement,  though vague, can be assumed to be a self-portrait. The painting of the artist’s family is mentioned by his daughter Angela Trindade (also an artist), as a  record of “a special time” when his children were young. Before the hardships that World War I were to bring and before the family faced the premature demise of his younger son Gabriel. It is however curious that the household is depicted in such failing light, even as the subject matter is an everyday scene, the dark umber tones of the canvas are foreboding. Or perhaps carrying forth the distress of the time after his own father had passed away, subconsciously bringing those dark memories to life.
 
Nasik Scene, 1931. Watercolour on paper, 12.25 x 19 inches
 
In addition to portraiture, Trindade created landscapes, still life’s and nudes, in oil on canvas as well as with water colour. In four water colours done in 1931 of ‘Nasik Scenes’, the freedom of his oil strokes takes on a whole new dimension enlivening everyday street parades of vendors, bathers and pedestrians in the city of Nasik. And while he was commissioned for portraits of the rich and famous, he also chose to paint his cook John. Virtually a member the family he posed for an aging Trindade, who rendered his image at the age of 61 years, with his  uncanny facility to bring character to each of his delineations with undisputed authenticity. The cook  is portrayed with profuse brush strokes, less refined than elsewhere, adding to his lower social status. His look is unkempt, mouth open, eyes that are lowered and jacket which is torn. In fact the only real detailing that Trindade indulges in here, is to reveal the texture of the torn cloth with exacting particularity.
 
Portrait of John, the Family Cook, 1930
Oil on canvas, 15.25 x 11.68 inches
 
After the talk by Suhas Bahulkar, there was a brief, impromptu solo violin concert. The violinist played a medley of pieces from Bach, Kriesler, and Jules Massenet among others, as an educated guess of what may have been played in salons of Bombay during Trindade’s time. He stood in a corner, with his back to four portrayals that could very well have defined the portraiture of Trindade.  Flanked by Mr. Amor, Portuguese Agent and Mrs. Miranda and Child on one wall, with Annie Besant and John the family cooked alongside each other, on the other. If it hadn’t been for the soloists’ unconventionally informal attire of a T-shirt, time could have stood still for those pleasurable moments as I allowed the familiar strains of music to help me mull over my recent acquaintance with Trindade, his family, his India and painted oeuvre.
 

 
 
 
Lady Meherbai Tata, 1931.
Oil on canvas,32.5 x 23.5 inches
But, before I end, I must mention the smiling visage of Lady Meherbai Tata, mother of Ratan Tata of Tata Sons Incorporated, and the most intriguing Miss Ferns, a writer.  While Lady Tata is regal and statuesque as befitting her social stature, Miss Ferns is perhaps the most delightful of all the portraits on view at the Fundação Oriente, a collection donated by the Esther Trindade Trust, also known as the Antonio Xavier Trindade Foundation, in 2004.  A young, unusually attractive European woman, self-consciously clutches the collar of her dress, as if it revealed too much of her flesh. And has turned her eye away from the artist, as if unable to bear his piercing scrutiny. Her young writers intuition knowing therein lay more than a painters skill, because Trindade’s gaze went beyond the physical façade to uncover psychological depths, privy only to those who have fathomed themselves well enough.
 
Miss Ferns, A Writer, 1925
Oil on Canvas, 33 x 29.5 inches
 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

It Is But A Matter of Course……Isn’t It?

'Sensorium' - the end is only the beginning, was a multi-gallery presentation at Sunaparanta Centre for the Arts, a non-profit arts initiative founded by Dipti and Duttaraj Salgaonkar. Sometimes, Viewing art can be akin to a pilgrimage, and this exhibition certainly took me into deeper reaches of one’s existence and beyond.
 
Dhruvi Acharya
 
The last time I’d visited the centre was months ago and I had never driven there before. As luck would have it my maiden attempt was confusing and disorienting because the Jio Wi-Fi dongle acted up. And when I did have signal, google map was confused by the on and off signals such that I was taken on a long and needlessly winding route. When I finally got there, the painted blue and white  facade was indeed a welcoming sight. Located atop Altinho Hill, Sunaparanta overlooks the city of Panjim and you can also catch a glimpse of the Mandovi River. The arts centre is housed in a large Portuguese-style villa with lush foliage and flowers overhanging the entrance and courtyard. As a venue for compositions pontificating the concept of that which doesn’t have an end, but is just another beginning, this colonial bungalow showcasing contemporary art, was an apt location, in more ways than one.

Art work Jacob Fellander - Bodega Cafe
 
After seeing some of the art,  sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea at the Bodega Cafe housed in the inner courtyard,  I mulling over the works seen,  I couldn’t help but notice how alluring Dhruvi Archarya’s, canvases, expressive of her inimitable wry humour, appeared, when framed by green Areca fronds in the foreground, and bordered by the undulating edge of a traditional, Khaprael-tiled, darkened terracotta roof above. Desmond Lazaro’s polaroidic images, musing on family and personal history, glanced over my shoulder as I relished a slice of carrot cake, as if nudging me to talk about my own.  Standing up to take a closer peek at the framed images, shadow-like lines of the courtyard and it’s various surfaces were reflected on the glass. It made for a rather pleasing juxtaposition, however unintended this may have been.
 
Desmond Lazaro
 
In the gardens, at the entrance to the centre, Riyas Komu had constructed an ode to his father’s balcony in Thrissur. Chancing upon this oddly styled sculpture-installation at the very start was bewildering. It was only after I’d seen the rest of the works that,  I was able better to appreciate its facets . Seen from different angles it took on varied shapes, where the contours got distorted or enhanced. Although the artists intent was to enable spectators to experience their immediate surroundings through an altered perspective by climbing up onto this  “ideological balcony”, I was more fascinated by walking around and noting how the model was re-crafted from each observed point. Created with metal and recycled wood the isolated balcony seemed to stand on its own. The structure that surrounded it and from which it rose above, was a crudely built house-like façade with a nave raised at one end and dropped at the other. This edifice used simple, monopoly-type house,  ‘building’ blocks. Rusted metal crosses also made their appearance within this house of houses. All in all, it conjured a most curious tribute to a parent who was cited as a strong influence. It was when I stood at the end closest to the bungalow (farthest from the entrance gate), where the nave was laid on the floor, and thought how it resembled a quirky ‘Noah’s Ark’ that, I got a sense of Komu’s relationship with his father and of his fathers’ relationship with the world: an embracing refuge, yet not built on this external validation, but standing on his own - powered by a potent inner self.
 
Riyas Komu, My Father's Balcony
 
My reading of this visage as a could-be Noah’s Ark, may well have been suggested by Gigi Scaria’s video ‘The Ark’. In this 3 minute,  single channel black and white projection, Gigi takes us back to the biblical myth as “an abode of continuity in a terrain of utter destruction”. Shown on a relatively small screen,  one was compelled to peer closely at the moving images watching a primitive, wooden,  luggage-carousel-like-contraption, leaving the ark-ship which stands marooned on cracked, dry mud. This moving bridge enters a large chamber that’s spewing grey smoke. It struck me almost instantly as an asphyxiating gas chamber, evocative of what our polluted cities are becoming. I could only discern luggage as passing from the ark into this threatening space - were there no people, I wondered. And then, what’s the continuum?  But, perhaps the artist suggests,  that carrying forth untended emotional baggage, this is where mankind is headed - the end of the world as an envisioned reality? While using Noah’s Ark as a symbol of continuity (that life on the planet survived the engulfing deluge thanks to the rule that only two pairs of each kind could enter, to procreate and ensure continuity of their species), Scaria also refutes the impression that the end is a new beginning. He doesn’t see a continuance to the Ark and its implied notion of survival. Gagging with toxins, breathing the poisonous air of a crowded metropolis, it’s probably too difficult to imagine one.
 
Gigi Scaria - video still
 
Numerous interesting  works were on display, making untold demands on the viewing eye: Michael Muller from Berlin, Juul Kraijer from Holland, Julien Segard from France and Jacob Fellander and Pers-Anders Pettersson from Sweden, Iftikar Dadi from Pakistan in collaboration with Elizabeth Dadi from USA, Munem Wasif of Bangladesh, along with Belgium-born Srilanka-based artist Saskia Pintelon, made up the international quorum, while Indian artists from Jammu to Kerala, Tamilnadu and Bengal presented their work.
 


Saskia Pintelon
 
Reminding us of how mindlessly traditions are can be carried forth, Saskia Pintelon’s ‘Faces’ were inspired by matrimonial adverts in Sri Lankan newspapers. In series of collages with obliterated faces, (using smileys or empty egg-shells and other such interventions), she reworks old photographs (studio portraits), highlighting marital discord and the naivety of traditional choices. Above all, her comment resonates with the fact that traditions are kept in continuance, often without understanding the merit they were devised upon or for, or their relevance in contemporary times.
 
Shreyas Kale, Ascending Descending and 5mm
 
Minimal, precise and incisive, Shreyas Karle subverts norms of perception. The two mirrored brass stairways of ‘Ascending Descending’ was quirky but it was the two brass pipes entitled '5mm' that compelled me delve deeper. What were those two parallel pipes depicting? If the simply presented visual hadn’t  commanded attention, one could have missed the whole point. Intrigued by it, I glanced through the accompanying text and learned that the pipes were once of equal length, but one of the pipes had been cut into 6 parts and re-joined, which altered its size. The change is minimal and barely noted and the entire premise of cutting a pipe, joining it and placing the uncut and cut-and-joined bits, one above the other, seems almost absurd. But such works take art beyond that of visual delight, bringing into play psychological implications of parity versus identity and how a simple thought can alter this. At the physical level it’s an insignificant change. But, in an emotional capacity, and thereby the mental realm, what are the ramifications? How will this impact entities which once belonged as a whole or homogenous group, are separated by lines of caste, creed, religion, and then brought together as a single entity again? A seemingly banal play of ideas stimulates thought and debate.
 
In a similarly abstracted and quixotic mould was Jitish Kallat’s ‘Rain Studies’. A unusual group of black and white drawings, denote ‘rain’ notations made by the artist when he stepped outside, during seasonal showers; holding the drawing paper skyward, turning them into unusual receptacles of rainwater. By virtue of the patterns formed on them by descending raindrops , these graphite and acrylic epoxy presentations on Arches paper become suggestive of planetary constellations. I’m uncertain of whether the undertaking was purely accidental and based on rainwater impacting drawings already done on graphite, if there’s a happy marriage of happenstance controlled by imaginative meanderings and how much of each is deliberately orchestrated, if at all. The initiative intrigues and highlights the potential of artistic endeavour to open up possibilities and creatively address issues of life, death, continuance. Where it is said to have all started with an astronomical explosion, by invoking the astronomical through the atmospheric, Kallat reminds us how energy destructed to recreate, paving the way for life as we know it. Suggesting that existing is but a ‘matter of course’, even if form and matter are reconstructed and re-formed, that the continuance lies in the life-force flowing into one altered form and the next. Thus revisioning age-old philosophies about past lives and reincarnation.
 
Parul Thacker, a detail
 
There were many other presentations ranging from the very personal to political as well as abstract thought. Parul Thacker’s ‘We Penetrate Deeper And Deeper into the Heart of Darkness’, was fabulously tactile and tempting to touch. Yet too chaotic and intimidating in its hard edges, to endear. Exploring notions of eternal existence, through enmeshed monofilament fibres, raw cotton and phalanx-like, white stalactite crystals, a plethora of hardened crystal formed into  phalluses  of light, protruding horizontally from within the disordered depths of ‘symbolic chaos’, to suggest  a continued existence through procreation. A simple, well-heeled opinion, most commonly held, was presented through the deeper, more abstract dimension of light - as the infallible, age-old wisdom of life.
 
Julien Segard
 
In his multimedia installation, ‘As He Takes From You,  I Engraft You New’, Julien Segard touches on the codes of death and resurrection. He uses left-overs and fallen leaves along with plastic and other stuff that’s washed ashore. All of which he has picked up from a scrapyard in Panjim, and while walking the streets and shores of Goa. Delicately strung mobiles depicting skull bones and vertebrae among his other collected finds; hanging from the high ceiling of the dimly, but srategically lit ‘Library’ of the Centre, its not the engrafting of ‘new’ that shines through, but the concept of death is subtly reframed. From that which is traditionally enveloped by ghosts of despair, to an eerily playful event that, all which is born must face. The presentation is child-like and charming, belying the weightiness of a profound and philosophical theme.
 
Carrying forward the haunted melody through surrealist photographs, Juul Kraijer suggests alternatives to conventional seeing. Two hands, laying one on top of each other, wearing netted gloves, don’t let you ponder on the beauty of those slender fingers, the quality or craftsmanship of the fabric. But, the gaze penetrates the physicality of form imaged, to fathom another, unstated, but decipherable dimension. It’s as if an underlying essence is being unmasked through tonal gradations, which emerge through a unique  process employed by the artist. What you see, isn’t all there is to be seen. An invisible presence is felt. Placing her subjects under a cloak of darkness lends her images this sublime sense of unease which emanates from that which her subject experiences in the dimmed environment – not able to see, not able to centre, knowing she is being watched. Seemingly alone, she is not. And then, neither is the viewer, for the impression of what is perceived renders the perceiver self-conscious.
 
Niyati Unnikrishnan - The Cake
 
Exploring another dimension of the seen and the apparent is Niyati Unnikrishnan of Kerala. Tapping into a vibrant inner world, he presents fictional landscapes with the complexities that emerge in his engagement with current affairs, literature, art and the lives of the people he is acquainted with. In ‘Cake’ he brings together, sunbathing women, half-clad sadhus, yoga practitioners and socialites as part of the cake. They are seated on top, within its layers and in the surrounding scape. the soft contours of watercolour, pencil and ink on paper blur the edges of a satirical comment on the self and its counterparts in the external world. Where does it begin and end – who is who and what is what. Is it a cake or is it not? And is it the world we know, or is it not, or just an imagined space in the artist’s mind? The myriad questions that emerge, from observing this engaging dialogue of the inner and outer worlds with its apparently recognisable, figurative dimensions, lead into one’s own inner-scape.
 
Bodega Cafe - Desmond Lazaro on right.
 Kaushik Chakravarty, behind, in the adjoining room
 
The Sunaparanta Centre is a small and intimate viewing space. And each of the works were housed in what were once,  rooms of sleep and leisure in someone’s home. Walking from one to the next, the arched windows and wooden beams leaning in with their own resonances, examining art that was as disparate as the works curated in ‘Sensorium’, can be a distracting affair. The thematic content was so variously presented that it wasn’t always easy to comprehend what each said, and while this certainly brought to light the continuity of diversity, it also compelled a reference to an inner self.
 
Reena Saini Kallat 
Hyphenated Lives, Tri-khor
 
In ‘Hyphenated Lives’, Reena Saini Kallat added a series of  question marks, semicolons, colons, commas and in a contiguous dialogue.  Resembling zoological or botanical drawings of hybrid creatures that are formed through different species, enjoining to create a variegated kind. (Which our world may well have known, had it not been for Noah’s wisdom of two of each). Reena Kallat created curious hybrids primarily using the national symbols of each country, rendering overtones of political reconciliations that could be compelled into being. At the base the quasi botanical drawing, also reminiscent of a postal stamp, of ‘Rosila’ – a cross-breed  between a rose and dahlia, she writes in cursive hand informing the type as part rose,  wherein “the rose is a woody perennial of the genus Rosa within the family Rosaceae. Its name comes from  the Latin word Rosa. A symbol of love and beauty (as well as war and politics) the world over, the rose was designated the official flower and floral emblem of the United State of America in 1986.” She feels that, instead of uniting people from a region, such symbols have become contentious and reason for monopoly, with the original significance being overshadowed. She pairs the rose with the Dalhia, which draws its name from the Swedish botanist Anders Dahl and has been the national flower of Mexico since 1963. Will this genealogical marriage between the universal symbol of love and the “busy, tuberous, herbaceous and  perennial” Dahlia, espoused by its contentious neighbour, augur well for the future of human relations? Will the ‘Sun-poe’ formed of the Palestinian sunbird and Israeli Hoopoe become an ambassador of peace between two embattled nations. And will the Ti-Khor fused of the Tiger of India and Markhor of Pakistan re-unite a people so bitterly partitioned – the price paid for independence from colonial masters? These interrogations ruminate as the eye takes in the unusual forms these amalgams have birth into.
 
Reena Saini Kallat 
Hyphenated Lives, Rosila
 
A broken glass will always show its cracked joint and cut pipe ends will never quite weld to be the same length. They can exist as an extension of what once was but there is no turning back. I came away with from this presentation of many voices, humming in unison yet singing in  parts, concluding that the continuum of all which is sensory in this world, must mean that whatever the future of the world, whatever form it may or may not take; whether procreation is of same species, or hyphenated in contrived combinations, it is the same energy that breathes that itself into matter formed, re-formed or deformed. Varied and differing in facets of being, but each perfect to its aim.