Sunday, 10 March 2019

Tearing The Heart Out

Navjot Altaf -  A Life In Art, curated by Nancy Adjania, NGMA, Mumbai


 It was in 1997, while working on a textile revival project in Bastar, that I first heard of Navjot Altaf. While driving from Raipur to Jagdalpur, when we halted at Kondagaon,  I learnt of the project she had recently started there. I was intrigued because the villages of Bastar were unlike any other in India. The poverty and worldly innocence I had witnessed proved a tremendous test of conscience in resepct of the assignment I’d been hired for, and I wondered about her experiences.  Reading about her art and seeing some videos and sculptures at galleries in Delhi and on visits to Mumbai, had not been enough to get to the nub of her contribution or challenges.  So,  when I heard that Nancy Adjania had curated a retrospective of her oeuvre, slated for viewing in December 2018, I co-ordinated my travel plans to Kutch, returning via Mumbai, to ensure that I didn’t miss seeing this exhibition :‘The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out.’
Displayed  within  the semi-circular, multi-level galleries at the historical Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall – a late-colonial, Science Society building subsequently converted into the National Gallery of Modern Art, were paintings, drawing, prints, posters, sculptures and videos rife with an emphatic express. Of a radical artist, who as a young schoolgirl, “while running wild in the pine-covered valley of Dalhousie…..felt the first stirrings to be an artist”. And her art, spoke evocatively of an innocent soul’s, almost violent response to a perceived violation of that sense of freedom. Where, as curator Adjania pointed out “She will fight every sullen bureaucrat, hostile censor and pursue every clue until she has a kaleidoscopic view of the situation at hand.”
Emergency, Silk Screen Print, 1977, 20 x 15 inches
Her artistic yearning to break free, from the binds of authority, gender, caste, tradition and even the physical confines of the body, was seemingly heightened by the spiral stairway - its coils contributing to the excoriated angst, rising towards an imagined goal of liberation. Beginning with images from pre-college years, intermingling with experiments in the socio-economic dialectic of Marxism, weaving through the politics and ideals of feminism, meandering towards the life, livelihood and art making of the Adivasis of Bastar; culled from an art-practice spanning half a century, was a rather overwhelming exposition of over two hundred art-works. Snaking their way up five levels of the gallery, culminating with the iconic dome-ceiling projection of a sublime video.
A ‘transcultural’ artist, travelling between Bombay and Bastar, while also collaborating or interacting with artists and researchers across Europe, the US and Latin America. Navjot Altaf’s trajectory could well be termed a quest, centred not on the pursuits of the unseen, abstract notions of self - beyond the physicality of form. But, more like a mission to understand the political dynamics of an unequal social milieu and locating herself, through this exploration.  Defining the tonality of her own voice - speaking from within spaces that were not as privileged; facilitating their discourse vide her own indignation.
Video Still of ' Soul Breath Wind'
The title for the exhibition is cited as a tribute to voices suppressed by apathetic authorities, presented in the film ‘Soul Breath Wind’. Of assertions of the people of Chattisgarh denouncing unregulated mining of their land in connivance with the State. And where, Nirupama, a farmer from Chattisgarh, in warning of the disastrous outcome of displacing them from ancestral lands and of disemboweling the earth, says: “Purein dharti ka kaleja nikaal diya”. And,‘ The Earth’s Heart, Torn Out’ also becomes symbolic of Navjot’s creative outpouring.
Ancient Water Sign, Nalpar, Bastar
At the base of the dominant, spiralling, chrome stairwell leading from the ground up into the impressive vaulted ceiling, spanning the fulness of its generous curve and not unlike graffiti, was an odd sort of marking. The blue symbol painted on freshly white-washed, cemented walls turned out to be an ancient water sign. It was part of the Nalpar project in Bastar, which had matured from studying the parallel but different modes of art making, (her own and the Adivasi’s) into creating innovative public sites where women, children, and men of all ages come for the mundane job of drawing water for domestic or other usage. In studying the significance of signs, symbols and objects incorporated by the communities during rituals and social functions, their integration and continuance, over centuries of living and in their spiritual life, this symbol became one of the structures designed in collaboration with the Adivasi artists. Transforming hitherto uncomfortable and unhealthy modes of collecting water into an aesthetic activity. An unusual art project where the participant was also a viewer as well as, a possible, future user of the site.
How Perfect Can Perfection Be, 2015-2018, Water colour drawing on Wasli paper and PVC transfer on acrylic, 22.5 x 32 inches each

There was no specific chronological order to the display. Adjania placed Altaf’s photographic series ‘Abdul Rehman Street’, shot during her student days in the early 1970s, alongside recent, millennial water-colours, on the ground level.  Emphasizing the non-linear progression of the artist’s creative development, she collated various other phases, on subsequent ones. With her portrayal as a young woman through Marxism and JJ school of Art on the third floor and effects of ‘violence on sociality’ on the second. Structuring the show such that each phase is self-consistent within its space/level and the curatorial mise-en-scene allows for conversations across the various levels in the spiral-shaped NGMA building. 

 Factory Series, 1982 - Ink of Board Paper, 24 x 30 inches
Here, in dramatic, high contrast black and white tones of ink onboard paper, of the ‘Factory’ series, made during the turbulence of Bombay’s labour movement and disruptive textile strike of 1982, Navjot compelled us bear witness to image-fragments that, bereft of human presence, and by implication humane ideologies, implode upon themselves. Exemplifying the militant approach of Dutta Samant - the movement’s trade union leader, which successful to a point, ended in disastrous defeat: of jobless workers and factories converted into real estate assets by factory owners.

On level four, in revealing ‘transgressions’, Adjania tells us that “Navjot was deeply troubled by the gaping lacuna in regard to gender inequality in Marxist discourse”. A question that opened up “both ideological and iconographic problems” compelling her “redefine the representation of the woman’s body… imprinted by the insidious forces of patriarchal socialisation.” Drawing inspiration from female surrealist painters Carrington and Kahlo who refused to “play the muse to male artists……foregrounding their own desires and subjectivities” Altaf appears in a self-portrait, with large spiral coils emerging from her vagina. In another painting, from the early 1990s, colouring the background of the canvas in a powerful shade of red and representing the female body through tactile, pebbled textures, was an endeavour to legitimize the act of masturbation. Navjot thus, drew attention to the pleasuring female self – rarely depicted in contemporary Indian painting.

Being an artist myself,  makes the act of viewing an informed and engaging process. But, seeing effort of this diversity, intensity and scale, one somehow overlooked the details of every canvas or watercolour brushwork and video, going beyond specifics of each, searching for the artist. Where did Navjot Altaf stand in the midst of these marks - the ridges, rents and commentary zig-zagging the complexities of contemporary society which had provoked her art. And what was the crux of her cry?
I read her commentary as a pursuit for relevance. To find meaning and purpose and also one of frustration in the inadequacy of art alone, to do this. Which almost contradicted the free-spirited run in the woodlands, awakening the artist in her.  On level 3, Through the ‘Proyom’ posters, in “Dreaming of the Revolution” art is designed for modes of public communication, but in that tonality of stark contrasts – of marks weighted with rigidness of steel/ mortar/glass and urban an imprint, it was impossible to trace even a glimpse of the free soul that once roamed the pine covered valley.
 Surfaces,  1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12,  11 x 15 inches each

 Surfaces,  1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12,  11 x 15 inches each
As I walked from image to image of strident lines and compositions, listened to the cacophony of videos competing to be heard; the responsive outcome of this audio-visual impress, which crowded and stifled my senses, was empathetic. I too wanted to see her free.
 Surfaces,  1970, Recreated in 2018. Ink on Gateway
Tracing paper, set of 12,  11 x 15 inches each
Thoughtful, I sat on one of the benches trying to clarify my insights, but multiple videos playing simultaneously with full volume, jarred. The sound of crashing oceanic waves, a woman wailing or something akin to howling and then something else superimposed on these audios, was disconcerting. But uncannily, it also evoked the artist’s many voices. A constant, conflicting inner dialogue externalised through art, overlaid on the walls at all the levels I had ambled through. An attitude that struggled and fought but intended to find a way. A fundamental vision that had the passion, the will, the courage to express its confusion and it's floundering  anxiety. And  the lacunae – not just in the attempt to listen to the testimonies of those affected in the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, but a generally pervading inadequacy. In the willingness to really listen and the foreboding of not being heard.

Lacuna in Testimony, video still of 3 channel video with 60 mirror pieces
Reminding again and again of the churning and constant thrust of unequal forces in the social fabric that intimidated and magnetized the artist to seek a larger purpose, beyond the personal. Defying the intellect and its formalized learning, as she  witnessed the fallibility of existing knowledge in tackling the inequalities pervading the socio-economics of contemporary living.

Dev Nathan and Vasanthi Raman, core group members of Proyom and Navjot’s friends from 1970’s, interviewed in Anand Patwardhan’s documentary, Prisoners of Conscience in 1978

The 1990s proved a turning point, as art installations paved ways for artistic collaborations that not only altered conventional art-viewer relationships, but provided the potential for collaborative democratisation. And the earlier threads of Marxism, feminism and activism, inspired by debates on demarcations between westernized forms of art and rural craft, coalesced. Where, from 1997 onwards, Navjot began an active collaboration with Adivasi artists sharing in their lives and improvising a two-way learning and art-making process. Cultural-theorist Nancy Adjania, who has followed Altaf’s work closely, informed that the transition from Bombay to Bastar was not easy. “She and her artist colleagues found themselves working hard to overcome the barriers of class, gender, location, language, education and world-view.” And, that it took two decades of engagement with Bastar, to evolve new forms of artistic dialogue through collaborative and cooperative projects such as Nalpar, at the micro-political level of village and district.
The retrospective exhibition as a whole had a profound but disturbing effect. It made me revisit my own anxieties with regard to a self-absorbed, isolated art practice. There were no pretty pictures to comfort, nor transcendence to  reassure. It was all about community and the trauma of belonging and unbelonging. A veritable abduction of the self. Yet, when she brought back hope, it was harking back to Marxism. In the capacity to live together, among each other as equals.

They Clean our Compound, 1977, Silk-screen print 21 x 14
Wading through the dark messages, doomed social inequity and cries of careless living tearing out the heart of the earth, exhausted by the gloom, I heaved myself up to the last level.  What else could there be to learn about this devastating world, where all her struggles had not achieved enough to let the light shine through – for tranquillity of soul to prevail in the accomplishment of its goals.
Links Destroyed and Rediscovered’ (1994)  Site specific installation
Reaching the last step, I was confronted with an unwieldly plethora of dark, black, plastic  pipes spilling out like the ghastly excess of sewage in our polluted cities. Contrasted with this, on the opposite side of the stepped passage was a reprieve in the minimalist, meditative grid-mesh of  ‘Between Memory and History’. Where Navjot had created a secular shrine, replacing the traditional vermillion thread prayer-knots of a dargah, with white paper ribbons inscribed with questions and words “from testimonial literature” that the viewer was invited to open.  I did, to find the telling words of “abduction” and some illegibly over-typed text, signifying a lack of clarity, so essential in finding the answer to one’s prayer.
‘Between Memory and History’, Site specific Installation
From Partition, female infanticide, to factory strikes, unregulated mining, riots and pogroms, to collaborative practices with Adivasi craftsman, the irrepressible artist-activist in Navjot Altaf had involved herself in myriad ways with a chaotic and seemingly unfair world. She had an opinion on many matters and hadn’t averred from expressing volubly.  An artistic journey riddled with the scars of a traumatic path, was an equally dark and distressing passage, for me as the viewer.  She presented  social conundrums, gender issues and artistic concerns, but the overwhelming question that I came home with, was of myself as a creative individual in such a dysfunctional and disparate society. In Fin-de-Siècle (end of 19th century) Europe, when socio-political structures had begun to disillusion, the artist, writer, composer and poet’s inner navigation had provided direction. Today, vide Altaf, this thinking was being re-aligned.  Where the artist could not take her subtle role and subliminal significance for granted, but must strive, against all the odds of an indifferent social ethos, to carve a  relevance, however tenuous.
‘Between Memory and History’, detail

‘Between Memory and History’, detail
Ingeniously projected, on the concave interior of the dome, was a video of insects and spiders working in perfect tandem. “Inspired by Gregory Bateson’s ideas about patterns which connect both the realms of the human mind and nature, and his belief that if we break those patterns we destroy both the ecology and human lives, Navjot set up a kaleidoscope that promises the possibility of inter-species communication”
Digitally fashioned this Kaleidoscope reproduced snowflake-like patterns, albeit in the colours of the natural world and not the innocence of snowy white.  Taking me back to the scientific notations of Masaru Emoto and his treatise on the ‘Hidden Messages in Water’. Of his experiments that showed that the greater perfection in symmetry, visible in the snowflake crystal formation, it reflected a higher level of purity in the water source that had been frozen.  Forming 70% of the human physiognomy, water is impacted by words and sound – the music we play and the things we say to each other. The grace and gratitude or hate and anger we express towards the semi-aqueous body of self and others, impacts through this innate feature.  In close proximity of the ‘Shrine’, the symmetrically repeating, Kaleidoscopic patterns of the natural world,  appeared as Navjot’s sublime evocation of a prayer - her life-time’s quest for lived harmony. A wish, a hope that hadn’t dimmed despite the odds - of tearing her heart out. The undying courage of a determined, optimistic soul, creatively devising her out of the wilderness.


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