Saturday, 3 August 2019

Connecting the Threads, to Re-Connect with the Warp and the Woof

‘Connecting Threads, Textiles in Contemporary Practice’,  was an exhibition held in Mumbai earlier this year. “Tracing textile practices, traditions and histories”, it sought to present “contemporary art practices that engage textiles as a medium, metaphor or process.” These fabric-inspired works were  showcased at the iconic Bhau Dadji Lad museum in Byculla East, where the opulent, restored interiors and artefacts navigating the history of Bombay, its facets and cultures, became the site for contemporary art-works that were placed on and alongside the stairwell and beside the glass-boxed objects of the museum,  as well as within the quieter, reflective spaces of a dedicated viewing gallery.
Manisha Parekh, Enshrined, 2016. Handmade paper on wool, silk and velvet.
In this work, Parekh responds to her visits to pilgrimage sites in various cities including Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka and Varanasi in  India. Taken by the sense of detail and tactility imbibed by the adornment within such religious spaces, Parekh creates sculptural works that represent personal shrines. Intricate small, solid forms made of fabric, including velvet and silk, are carefully organized within the structures.  The geometric shape of the outer box structures contrast with the organic sensual forms made of fabric, giving it a sense of precariousness.
 It had an impressive line-up of artists from Anita Dube, Anju Dodiya, Lavanya Mani, Manish Nai, Manisha Parekh, N. Pushpamala, Nilima Sheikh, Paula Sengupta and Reena Saini Kallat, among half a dozen others. Textiles were represented in their art, in diverse ways. Few had devoted their procedures to the art of cloth-making, fewer still were makers in themselves and some had just featured painted renditions and photographs, rather than fabric itself. This was in keeping with the curatorial concept which proposed a choice of material and processes that prevalent art praxes suggested, towards “a nuanced understanding….of the art form” encompassing “the traditional, the modern and the contemporary.”
Archana Hande, All is Fair in Magic White (image courtesy BDL)
Hande uses fabric as a medium to narrate a satirical story that comments on the rapid urban growth and aspirational plans for the revitalization of Mumbai that are rooted in the history of  class, race and power in the city given its colonial and industrial  history. The story moves to Dharavi, Mumbai, the second largest slum in the world, with the largest conglomeration of sweatshops and small-scale industries in  India.  The work features traditional wood-block prints to  create a series of works on cloth that form a storyboard depicting characters, landscape and topographies of the city.

An interesting intercession by Monali Meher, wrapped the  ornate railings of the central staircase with red yarn. This installation was overhung with paintings by Anju Dodiya. The day I visited, the museum was abuzz with activity. Curious to see how many people engaged with this macabre intervention, I was surprised to find that not one of the chattering groups, that passed by me observing them from a relatively silent corner, even noticed there was something uniquely odd about the stifling of a lovingly re-established Victorian aesthetic. Nor did they even glance up at the adjacent walls, to be disturbed by the melancholia of Dodiya’s canvasses that, nevertheless, looked down upon them as they ascended or descended the grand stairway.
Monali Meher, Running Thread, 2018,
Red wool wrapped around the Museum's grand staircase,
temporary site specific installation - a detail (image courtesy BDL)

This apparent lack of interest, in these museum goers, to engage with something so incongruous and disquieting as dark red, bloody hued thread wound around the gilded insignia of the V&A as also the delicately fashioned metallic leaves and florets that surrounded it, (built in 1872, BDL was Bombay’s own Victoria and Albert Museum), was thought provoking. Was it something to do with the viewing public or had the exhibits themselves failed in  their attempt to garner attention and even question the merit and/or activity of contemporary textiles as art. Were they even meant to, is the uncertainty I was left with.
Rakhi Peswani, Fruits of Labour (A Monument to Exhaustion)
Cloth fades, bleeds, stains and dyes. This work attempts to take such material attributes of textiles and transform them into spatial metaphors, engaging the viewer with cultural narratives seeping from the physicality of the medium of fabric. The rudimentary impression of the work is derived from temporary relief shelters/tents pitched at the site of displacement, constructions, migrations, devastations and various intensities of these situations.  These social ruptures of modernity are microcosms that our world witnesses closely and repetitively. Embracing the viewer within the space of the museum, the work opens up an experiential realm within this cosmetic, cultural, public space. The work as a temporary shelter carries an association of (a) larger body that stands desolately…..yet looms above our fragile individual selves.
Curated by Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the museum’s director and Puja Vaish, these materials that are inherently definitive of culture through their fundamental relationship with aspects of the human existence, had left little or no impression upon the average visitor, such that I had been able to witness. The tall, slim, colourful columns of Manish Nai’s collected and compressed fabric, on the first floor galleries, found perplexing glances by ‘shikha’ donning, saffron clad Brahmin pandits and Paula Sengupta’s ‘River of Blood’, had me right confused.  It had been so well-camouflaged among the general  exhibits of the museum, I had to double-check, if it was indeed part of ‘Connecting Threads’, or an earlier acquisition. And how I felt about it positioned thus.
Paula Sengupta, ‘Rivers of Blood – Caste Baidya, Village Kalia' 2010, ( A detail)
Wood and Fibre-glass almirah, found objects, corn-fibre paper lining, hand block printed wallpaper lining, hand-embroidered bed linen and shirt, wooden hanger and vinyl stickers.
‘Rivers of Blood’ is a tactile diary, filled with stories documenting the artist’s travels through Bangladesh to discover her roots across the border - a mere two-hour drive from her Kolkata home, where she discovered the fabled nakshi kantha. This brought back memories through which she reclaimed the process as the script for her narrative. Her grandmother and mother are inheritors of the tradition where women quilted layers of used textiles with kantha stitch, for domestic use. And she had learned from them too.
This choice of locating the works of a specifically curated exposition in the midst of the museum’s general display, with walk-ins that created an almost, traffic-jam-like viewing situation, barely leaving room for serious contemplation, was as peculiar as it was disturbing. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted to look without the ‘noise’ of everything else. After all, there has  barely been such a day, in all my decades of working with textiles, that one has been able to walk into an exhibition in an Indian metropolis,  which is dedicated to the modern-day language of cloth and its skeins as markers of cultural residue, with significance in the world of contemporary Indian art. I didn’t take well to the approach, even as it made me trace histories and revisit and review my own perspectives. More particularly, since I had just travelled from the desert, hand-crafted textile haven of Kutch, where I had occasion to notice many revised parameters generating query and concern. And this exhibition added its share of dilemmas, provoking much internal debate.
Paula Sengupta, ‘Rivers of Blood – Caste Baidya, Village Kalia' 2010, detail, (image courtesy BDL)

When I first started working with textiles as art, in the early to mid-1990’s, it was an anomaly. I seemed to be going against the grain of time-honoured conventions where art was primarily utilitarian and the very idea of this becoming the medium for self-indulgent expression an anathema; arising from philosophies of  the ancient world that had nurtured the rich legacy of textiles, we are fortunate to still have amongst us as a living tradition. My reason for venturing beyond the accepted practice arose from my work as a designer that took me into rural spaces where textiles and their makers were struggling to survive the rigours of the modern world.
Weaver's village, Kotwa, Banaras
What struck me was that we, as  they, were concerned primarily about the product and how to present it to buyers in the ever-expanding global village. And, little attention was being paid, if at all, to the life-style that was essential to those that worked with an expert dexterity of techniques passed down through successive generations. A way of living that was capable of stepping back from the chaos of the world to indulge in painstaking labour of love, simplifying necessities and focussing on what fostered the spirit of making with the hand. In my myriad experiences as a textile-designer, I learned that if I could bring any value, if I could find any means to contribute towards sustaining this inheritance, then maybe I could do so, by becoming a craftsperson myself. I chose the role of an artist-craftsperson to add value to age-old skills by lending the dignity afforded to contemporary art, as much as attempting to adopt the pared-down lifestyle of those that crafted with the hand. I ‘painted’ with hand-embroidery techniques without seeking to match prevalent skills, which have taken many generations to master.
Gangaba, Bhujodi, Kutch - pakko stitch on Maggie Baxter's textile
In Kutch, I had been travelling with an Australian artist who’d been engaging with the fabric and artisans of Kutch for over twenty years.  I was a bystander to more than just the unusual long-distance collaboration. I had returned to the region after three decades and the socio-cultural shifts were telling. As I wandered with Maggie, to hand block-printed units and  artisan’s homes, I noted many changes.  A middle-aged, bespectacled embroidery artisan from the Sodha clan, with faint strands of white on otherwise, well-oiled  black tresses, sat cross-legged on the currently fashionable tiled flooring of her home, on a two-coloured plastic floor-covering - woven vaguely along the lines of the customary bamboo chattai. Her fingers, with chipped, dull-bronzed-maroon nail-polish, deftly handled the ‘sui-dhaga’, working the distinctive Sodha ‘pakko’ stitch, following instructions in Kutchi, passed onto her by Sandhya, a local Jadeja girl, who was assisting Maggie.  Gangaba covered her head with the pallav of a mill-printed polyester saree imprinted with multicoloured polka dots and mock ombre-dyeing. Unlike the conventional garb of her people that once comprised a ghaghra, richly embroidered kurti-kanjari and tie-dye odhani that was usually paired with abundant silver and gold jewellery, closely resembling costumes worn in the deserts of Rajasthan.
 Vankar Shamji Vishram , Bujodi Kutch, at the indigo vats
Outside, carelessly strewn on the balustrade of the staircase leading up to the rooftop of the single-storey home, was a traditional, local-wool shawl with its definitive extra weft effect – in hues of beiges and brown and a hint of vibrant red tones; part of the garb that once defined the Rabari community of Kutch, usually worn by men. It’s casual placement on the steps of a Sodha home, in close proximity to a saree clad woman washing clothes, carried the implication of  belonging to her. Making one note how patterns that earlier demarcated gender and communities, now blended into a generic Kutchi dress-code. Their attire, choice of colours and fibres, the way they lived and the things they filled their homes with, no longer had an organic feel nor distinctive touch.
Manish Nai, Unititled I-VIII
Nai comes from a family of textile artisans and he frequently uses discarded fabric and clothes to create minimalist forms that vary in colour from exuberant to meditative, inviting the audience to reflect on the extraordinary potential of art to renew and rethink the mundane. These works use old, discarded clothing that Nai collected from his mother and other relatives, that he compressed in a mould, using heat to ensure they remain consistent in shape. The otherwise versatile nature of fabric, in terms of shape, is altered, as the clothing is moulded into a series of slender poles. Displayed within a frame the works tread the line between painting and sculpture.

The room we sat in led into the kitchen area – a semi-open-plan arrangement where glass, stainless steel and plastic utensils lined shelves that had been placed in a large void in the soft-green painted hues of a wall, adjoining the kitchen, behind the bold colourful, geometric-patterned, mill-printed sheets covering the aluminium and polyester-niwar ‘manji’ that Maggie was seated on. Whilst this wasn’t the real cause for concern, what bid me ponder was how much farther could these living traditions sustain themselves, when what they make is no longer of use to them, nor are they emotionally or creatively invested in the evolution of the fabrics sewn by their dextrous fingers.
N. Pushpmala, Tryptich, 2000
Portrait of a Hindoo woman, Portrait of a Mohhamedan woman, Portrait of a Christian Woman,
From the Bombay Photo Studio series
I have always held that the great crafting traditions of this country arose not only through enlightened patronage but because of the ingenuity and passion of the maker. I have noted again and again that commerce alone, no matter how lucrative and well-paid, doesn’t lend itself to excellence, but personalised involvement of the artisan can create unimaginable magic. But, much of what they make today, if not all, is not for their own personal use. It travels to unknown people in faraway countries - features of the products dictated by the markets they are destined for. Becoming increasingly  removed from the intimate needs of the maker and the aesthetic sensibilities that crafted them. Developing more and more into a commodity and the craftspeople relegated more and more to becoming just skilled labour. The traditional dual role of artist-producer is no longer pursued, leaning of extraneous design inputs which, while assuring better market-share are also contrarily stifling the artistic voice vital for the sustenance of this labour intensive work.
Anita Dube, Silence, (Blood wedding)
(image courtesy BDL)
In this work Dube transforms a skeleton, formerly used by her brother while studying medicine, into objects including a garland, a fan, and a flower, among others, wrapped in red velvet. The bones embody a juxtaposition between notions of  death and  when covered by the opulent fabric. Wrapped in red velvet and decorated with embellishments including bead and lace, the works represent a wedding trousseau. The objects symbolizing death take on a new meaning, embracing the fragility of life, love and beauty, through the second skin that they are provided.
Textiles as art is not something new, it is as old as history itself, but our definition of art has altered. The history of Indian textile-making is proof of the kind of respect this art once earned. In the Indonesian islands, these fabrics were deemed a form of storing wealth, ascribed with magical properties and elevated to the status of heirlooms. In fact, the Indian maker was called ‘Klinga’ or God. It was such value and veneration that created the impetus for cloth as currency on the famed spice trade-routes. It was such worth and honour that sustained the impetus to make, even when their handiwork was separate from their personal utilization.
Reena Saini Kallat, Walls of the Womb
(image courtesy BDL)
Autobiographical in nature, these works speak of the artist relationship with her mother, whom she lost aged eight, and were arrived at through frequent contact with her sarees that remained in a cupboard for 27 years. Kallat collaborated with Khatri families in Kutch for the process of tie-dye, which evoke Braille-like translations of her mother’s hand written recipes. Associations of motherhood are carried through the usage of 12 sarees and the recipe books evincing notions of nurture and nourishing. The language on the cloth remains inaccessible echoing Kallat’s bond with her mother, which is based on fragments of inscrutable memory.
Beyond the utilitarian, fabric as contemporary art expressiveness, is also not an innovative quirk of the millennial digital world, but draws its antecedents from the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the arts and craft movement in England that  was the impulse for highlighting the craft of making, celebrating the ‘simple life’ synonymous with rural traditions and hand-craftsmanship. This, in turn influenced the Bauhaus outlook and pedagogy. And, it was in the studios of the Bauhaus in the early 1920’s that Anni Albers, a pioneer of the modern art fabric, discovered the wonders of the woven grid along with fibres and the loom, through which she found  “ways to regain sensitivity towards textile surfaces: texture” and an expression of modern life. As mechanization made textile production cheaper,  the preciousness of cloth and clothing rendered greater artistic experimentation viable, and the younger generation of contemporary artists like Shonibare, Do-Ho-Suh and others have used the pliable drape, abundantly,  as compelling and dramatic metaphors to make private and socio-political statements about displacement, colonization and more.

Shakuntala Kulkarni, Of Bodies, Armour and Cages
(image courtesy BDL)
Kulkarni’s ‘ wearable sculptures’ as she calls them, traverse a space where historical objects like armour and the elaborately designed costume/dresses of different communities are brought together in a contemporary context by re-articulating the usage and the medium, collapsing and metamorphosing the two, thus blurring cultural and visual boundaries. Armour of the yonder days were worn by warriors to  protect themselves during encounters and war. Made of metal and leather they were designed to look grand. Although the cane armour/costumes on display speak of that grandeur but these elaborately structured costumes are also feminine, linear, fragile and organic. This work attempts to address the relationship of the body to notions of protection and the notion of being trapped.
A century after Albers’s fabric inspired a generation of modern weavers, and a hundred years after the industrial revolution, where automation didn’t just evolve a refined aesthetic and produced fine goods, it also made our choices clonish. This facet is now among others, the incentive to renew corporeal parameters. Such that  the unique, the original and the imperfections of handmade are  fashionable, precisely because we have lost the sensibilities of feeling, holding and handling things before couriers from Amazon or Flipkart deliver them at our doorstep. Further heightened by the digital ‘touch’ of our smart-phones, and lack of physical engagement in socializing through social media, we are no longer compelled to touch the texture and glaze of the cup or bowl, run our fingers through that scarf or saree, or see if we actually enjoy sitting in a that funky looking chair or Avant Garde sofa. Fostering a growing disconnect with the dynamic physicality of being.
Shahzad Dawood, Point and I will Follow (a detail)
Dawood interweaves histories, realities and symbolisms to create richly layered artworks. The original textiles, from which Dawoods works are based, were created by nomadic weavers of South Asia, throughout the 1970’s . Composed from discarded scraps from textile factories, his vintage textiles form a key element of the artist’s multidisciplinary practice. Intervening on quilted surfaces, Dawood adds layers of screen-print, paint and shorthand to create a bricolage of elements. By working with the textiles’ pre-existing narratives and highlighting their resonance with other cultural phenomena, Dawood questions the established binaries between different value systems and cultures.  
For Albers, weaving offered a means to regain connect to a bodily existence. This ideal becomes an important consideration in an era where we are we no longer making things for ourselves, nor engaged in everyday kinaesthetic experiences. It was especially pertinent while viewing this exhibition devoted to textiles within a contemporary Indian art ethic, where, despite a rich, unparalleled and ancient lineage of making, intellectual concepts prevailed over the tangible intricacies of fabric construction. Of textiles in modern-day art practices that were largely removed from the warping, weaving and embellishing of the cloth that, most of the artistic precepts presented, were fashioned on and by.
Priya Ravish Mehra, rafoogari on Pashmina cloth.
Growing up in the 1960s, her summer vacations were spent at the family ancestral home in Najibabad, in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh, home to many rafoogars. These early interactions with them,  inspired a life-long dedication of  researching and documenting this art form. For Priya, a rafoogar, was not just a darner of torn textile but “ a healer of damaged cloth”. Diagnosed with cancer she used the act of ‘visible’ as opposed to their ‘invisible’ repairing in her thread-work, to creatively speak of her own inner transformations during periods of recovery.  Conjuring the saint-poet Kabir who poetically meshed the tangible with the transcendental, she said that, “to revive darning is not just a revival of skill and craft……it is also about healing suppressed past emotions connected with memories and the mending of cloth.”
These insights, coupled with my recent observations in Kutch, left me pensive and perplexed. Still grappling with the expanding gulf between textiles in art and the art of textile-making, as also the lives and sensibilities of practitioners on either end of the spectrum, I travelled to Banaras, the mecca of textiles.
Nizamuddin at the loom,  Ramnagar, Banaras
Engaging with weavers from all faiths and reminded of the vast difference in the ‘feel’ of fabric made by human hands and manufactured by machines, I was reminded that in the Indian tradition, the weaver or ‘julaha’, has always occupied a low station in the social hierarchy and even the wisdom of the weaver-saint Kabir hasn’t been able to alter that. We recite his ‘dohas’, laud the vitality of his verse and its pertinence centuries after he passed on, but we don’t seek to emulate the life-style that inspired his sagacity, nor uplift the makers, even as we celebrate cloth in our existence and art practices.
मन दीया कहीं और ही, तन साधन के संग ।
कह कबीर कोरी गजी, कैसे लागे रंग ।।
Mn diya kahi aur he, tan saadhan ke sang
Keh Kabir kori gaji kaise laage rang
When the mind digresses
from the task at hand, and
the body continues robotically,
it weaves an un-hued cloth
(trans: gopika nath)
A peek into the interior of
Nizammudin's home

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.