Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Viraj Naik's Imagined World, Sunaparanta Goa Centre for Arts, Goa

The first time that I saw the works of Viraj Naik, was at Gallery Nvya in New Delhi, at the start of the millennium. The recent solo exhibition titled ‘Ordinary Superheroes’ curated  by Leandre D’ Souza, was the Goan artist’s first showing after a hiatus of fifteen years, and was hosted at Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts, by its patrons Dipti and Dattaraj Salgaoncar. The collection of ninety-five ink drawings, etchings and sculptural works on display, was a continuum of his fascination for the anthropomorphic forms of animal-man, which follows a primeval tradition.
pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 29cm,  2018
In the modern world, he is preceded by Picasso, who not only painted the ‘Minotaur’ or ‘Bull of Minos’ (conceived by Minos's wife when impregnated by a bull), but is said to have identified with the human and animal principles of the creature that donned the head of a bull on the body of a man. However, ancient man was also familiar with such human hybrids, depictions of which were present in antediluvian lore, appearing in cave paintings as early as the Late Stone Age, approximately 10,000 to 50,000 years ago. Ethnologists conjecture that these portrayals - of beings with human and animal features were not necessarily physical representations of mythical hybrids, but were most likely  attempts to depict shamans in the process of acquiring the mental and spiritual attributes of various beasts or ‘power animals’. Of reaching altered states of consciousness, in order to perceive and interact with the realm of spirit, channelling these transcendental energies into the physically manifest world.
enkindle, Etching, 10cm x 8cm, 2016
Remains of mythological hybrids have also been found in prehistoric burial sites, where skeletons of horse-cows, sheep-cows, and a six-legged sheep had been formed by joining together body parts from carcasses of different species. A practice that is believed to have been an offering to ancient gods.
pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 29cm,  2018
In the midst of viewing this exhibition, we  were celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi across Goa, with much faith, fervour and colour. Known as Ganapati, Vinayaka, or by numerous other names, this elephant-headed god of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings is one of the best-known and worshipped deities of the Hindu pantheon, especially in Maharashtra and Goa. A short while later, I was in Delhi celebrating Diwali which in North India is a celebration of Rama’s return to Ayodhya. In the epic Ramayana,  the simian god Hanuman is credited for aiding his victory over the demon Ravana and safe return of Rama’s consort Sita.  Both Ganesh and Hanuman are part animal, part human. Animals or their anthropomorphic forms are an integral part of the Hindu pantheon as either god's in themselves or vahanas or vehicles of god's. Many of Vishnu's avatars are also part human and part animal -  Matsya, sometimes portrayed with a  human head  and torso with a fish body below waist, saves Manu the son of god from the great deluge. Kurma appears in the form of a tortoise or turtle to support the foundation for the cosmos and the cosmic churning stick (Mount Mandara) for the Samudra Manthan.  Others, are Varaha (with a boar's head) and Narasimha (with lion's head). In addition, the mythical cow, Kamadhenu, who is considered the mother of all other cattle, is often portrayed as a cow with human head, peacock tail and bird wings. There are many such examples where much of this culture and worship is said to have arisen from a policy to protect animals.
 pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 15cm,  2019
While Naik concedes his fascination with the study of mythological gods with animal-like figurines - be it Hindu, Greek or Roman, he also says that it is his perceived relationship  between human and animals that emerge in his hybridisation, bringing out the animal instincts that he feels all humans possess. “For instance, if I feel a person is aggressive like a tiger I would depict him with a head of a tiger" says Naik. Adding a simplistic, contemporary angle to the mythological ‘untamed lion man’ ‘Urmahlullu’  who was, contrarily,  a guardian spirit in Mesopotamian mythology, where  its image was used to ward off destructive demons, including the ogre of death. He is also found in seals of the Indus Valley, evolving into a lion-centaur goddess wearing a head-dress with a long pendant whose body merges with that of the tiger. An image that has similarities to what later became associated with Durga, the goddess of war.
Despite the antiquity that precedes his anthropomorphic renditions,  Viraj Naik is not deifying his forms.  Nor is he enacting some shamanistic ritual to connect with any power animals. Some of his depictions are socio-political statements about the animal nature of the contemporary human race, including quirks  that materialize through his imagined beings.  Societies are populated by all kinds of people. Some, aware of their socially undesirable behavioural patterns, manage to project a carefully cultivated but false personality. Presenting his etchings and drawings as a mirror  to detect deceitful, fearful, foolish, conceited or angry animal traits within the homo sapiens frame, Naik could also be suggesting that, like animals we too possess the ability to sense or ‘sniff out’ such untruth.
However, his  ‘Super Heroes’ are not necessary pleasant to behold. If you allow yourself the indulgence to get squeamish, it’s like beholding creatures that somehow got mixed up in the creative process. You wonder if the forces of life are experimenting, if Naik is using his own artistic ingenuity to consider what kind of species he would like to inhabit the universe. Speculating, why these perversions would find any value in a world where men and women have devised ways to perfect any perceived imperfections in their bodies and, where animals that presently pervade the planet, do not remotely resemble the organisms that Viraj envisages.
pen, ink and graphite,
20cm x 15cm,  2018.
What can one make of a fish-face with humanoid teeth, wearing a necktie – or it could have been a fin protruding from inside the buttoned-up white shirt and black suit-coat, of the monochromatic interpretation. Imagine being a  gill-bearing aquatic craniate who swims freely in the vast Arabian Sea, and you force yourself to wear a necktie and suit. But without the biceps and triceps of the human arms, empty sleeves of the jacket hang listlessly. Whether the fish-man had legs or tail is left to conjecture as the drawing focusses only on the torso. While the image generates a sense of the absurd and even as the implied vision of a slippery creature caught within the confines of a corporate suit, does percolate through, it doesn’t really seem odd because the proverbial world of commerce is rife with such characters, isn’t it?
Not all the animal features were as easily identifiable. There was one face wearing a cap too small for his head. This, in turn,  was too large for its  quadruped body, which was part animal with fur and paws in the forelegs and two sturdy and stocky hind limbs with their feet shod with socks and shoes. His profile displayed a smallish eye, pointed nose and a smile that seemed a bit too cheesy. He was surrounded by trees and shrubbery and I had the distinct impression that he had just stepped out for a game of golf or some such, when the artist transformed his body thus. And, the man remained smiling or unaware, or plain simple didn’t care what he looked like or was seen as. He seemed blissfully absorbed in the machinations of his own extra-large head to care what anyone thought, or notice if anyone else even existed.
pen, ink and graphite, 29cm x 20cm,  2019
For most part however, Naik focussed only on presenting the face, with no body to distinguish the kind of animal he intended. The eyes in one or two such portraits were definitely shifty. One face donned an adaptation of a fez cap, clenching his teeth, and the other had short horns on his head – actually the horned face didn’t look nearly as shifty as the other, more like the furtive glance of someone scared. If this wasn’t enough to  intrigue, you were confronted by a the otherwise menacing apparition of a boar with an unusually docile, subjugated expression. It had an alligator or crocodile’s body that was stood upon by a diminutive elephant and an oversized parrot with relatively shortened horse legs and hooves, but nonetheless, gleefully towering above the dwarfed tusker, who glowered.

What kind of world is this? What's the necessity of contemplating such unlikely forms that colonize Naik's creative biosphere. If it weren't for Viraj's perfect drawing skills, these images would merely intrigue on an intellectually superficial plane. But precisely because his technique was so marvellous, one got up close and peered at lines, crossing, hatching and layering to create form and shade and superlative textures. His marks were masterful and this ensured that the viewer didn’t  leave the gallery space horrified, disgusted or plain bored. It was through the process of observing, of examining those lines and their gradations that one became less conscious of the oddness of these anthropomorphic and zoomorphic creatures, to maybe find empathy, parity and perhaps some insight, whilst acknowledging the artist’s prowess to  draw you into his weird-weird world.
The inventive presentations may look unnatural, which is perhaps an effective tool to get your attention and nudge you cogitate. The images are such that, once you get involved with their characters, you cannot ignore them. Although the artist suggested we find ourselves in these forms, I for one, was unable to locate myself through the visualised hybrids, partly because, barring a few obvious associations, it was unclear what exact animal and its propensities he was expressing through them. The forms were not evocative of organisms or traits that one could easily relate to.  However, if some viewers did spot a measure of resemblance, it would not be in their outer manifestations but in their sense of self or as perceived by others.
 pen, ink and graphite, 20cm x 15cm,  2019
While employing the elemental modus of human portraiture, the artist caricatured the traditional features with animal physiognomies, which were not always jarring but sometimes even amusing. If we are indeed so, can we not see the humour in our warped-ness? After all, which one of us doesn’t carry some kind of dysfunctional baggage and subconsciously play this out to disastrous or embarrassing consequences. Within his philosophical renderings and pondering upon human-animistic inclinations Naik reminds, that biologically, humans are animals too. And like these quadrupeds, we too commit acts which are an inherent aspect of our natural disposition. But it is the moral code that he proposed, questioning whether our inborn tendencies are acceptable, simply because they are intrinsic to our nature, is where I felt  more than a trifle miffed.
For, surely it was with the wisdom of understanding that it is only through acceptance of how we are, that we can hope to control the unnatural expression of human reactions that, an ancient treatise on the arts, such as  the Natya Shastra (compiled between 200 BCE and 200 CE) listed eight bhavas (emotions or sentiments) with eight corresponding rasas (aesthetic flavour evoking emotion or feeling) where, love and laughter are depicted alongside anger, disgust, terror and sorrow. There was apparently no censoring or shaming for any expressive response in those times. Therefore one imagines a limited degree of suppression and consequential hyperbolic emotive outbursts.
But Viraj Naik is not alone in voicing such ideas. There appears to be  a growing trend in  contemporary society, to advocate suppressing rather than expressing the uncomfortable-to-deal-with feelings, like anger and sorrow. It is this, more than anything else, which creates the overstatement of passions which then manifest as ugly or unmanageable. For instance, anger as a response is not abhorrent in itself. It is a very useful feeling that reveals what appeals and what doesn’t, which aids in setting personal boundaries. This emotive response only becomes disruptive when, unacknowledged and repressed, it finds articulation as vitriolic rage.
While it was drawings and etchings that formed the major corpus on view, one small gallery was dedicated to digitally worked pictographs. I found these fascinating. And, their dark auras didn’t require much analysing or scrutiny. Spaces and mythologies were superimposed and probably came from varying eras of civilization and across cultures, but the specifics seemed secondary to the atmosphere which enveloped you within the gallery space that was occupied by these pictographs.
Raurava, pictograph, 25cm x 28cm, 2019.

Drawings and etchings require a laborious and mostly meditative process of execution - where thoughts and feelings come and go as the hand continues with its work. The correlation of hand and mind at work where the procedure is relatively mechanical, as in these imaginative drawings - of a technique perfected over years of accomplishment and experimentation, is recognised across spectra of hand-crafting to be a process that aids the sublimation of one’s emotions. In contrast to the pictographic compositions these renderings seemed too finessed, merely skirting the fringes of a much deeper hypothesis. A premise which was disclosed effectively through the dramatic tones of the digitized images. Viewing their dark and foreboding vistas, which exaggerated rather than reduced the intensity of sentiment, the ominous tonality and ghostly apparitions became an inevitable encounter with the menacing aspects of mankind. In effect, the pictographs brought to the fore, the kind of indigence that could befall our world, if humans with untrammelled tendencies are allowed to dominate the planet.

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.