Thursday, 5 July 2018

A Painter from Goa: Being Introduced to Antonio Xavier Trindade

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

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

Saturday, 17 February 2018

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

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

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


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




 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

That Inescapable Sea of Pain - Day 3 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017




Looking at so much art, seduced by the natural landscape, the Kerala Mundu, Arabian Sea and delicious beyond delicious Malyali cuisine, my senses were satiated - well, close to being saturated. But, there was more to see - a hell of a lot more. How does anyone see it all, I wondered as I made my way back to Aspinwall House for the nth time.
 
Of the many nationalities, from Egyptian to Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese and Dutch, who came to Kerala in search of spices to trade, an Englishman by the name of John H. Aspinwall, stayed and made Cochin his home. Originally used for the business of Aspinwall & Company Ltd. established in 1867, this historic building today, is home to many significant art works in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
 
Aspinwall House
 
The title given for the 2017 Biennale, by curator Sudarshan Shetty, ‘Forming in the Pupil of an Eye', referring to the eye which is concurrently physical and metaphysical, evolved with the art experience, to be an apt one. For the last three days, each artwork seen, led by the sensuous-loving physical eye, I had absorbed sounds, images and words, with the ‘eye’ simultaneously becoming an invisible mirror to reflect and let the particles of the seen and perceived vision sink deep into the abyss of being; finding oneself - in empathy, in curiosity, unresponsiveness and even playful competitiveness.
 
 
Mundus and only mundus, lined up, pile upon pile
 
The evening before, I'd bought myself a white Kerala-style man’s ‘mundu’ (loosely translated as lungi) with a simple black border, promising to wear it to the next day’s Biennale viewing. And I did. The salesmen at the shop on Churchlanding Road in Ernakulam had been amused at my quest to learn how to wear it, and each of the seven or eight men in the shop took turns in showing me how to wear it. Each thinking that they would get me to understand what the other had failed to communicate.  I was keen to wear it pulled up, from the ankles up to the knees, which was a tad complicated and my efforts gauche and awkward to say the least. The experience had been hilarious for all, me included, even if a little embarrassing. Anjalee and Maggie tried to distance themselves from my keenness to learn how to pull it up, like we had seen men on the street do quite effortlessly. Anjalee had gone so far as to quietly inform the salesmen that I was ‘mad’. That afternoon, the day after the mundu madness at Kasava Kadu, when the three of us met outside the ‘Pyramid of Exiled Poets’, at Aspinwall House, I in my pristine white mundu teamed with a sleeveless black T-Shirt, willingly posed for the ‘must-have’ photo and then we proceeded to look for Raul Zurita's much acclaimed installation - The Sea of Pain', which I'd been dying to see but hadn't yet got there.
 
I'd seen images on Facebook. I'd read reviews and my expectations were therefore loaded. Drawing on the Syrian refugee crisis, this installation by Zurita is dedicated to Galip Kurdi, the brother of 3yr old Aylan whose body had been washed ashore a Turkish beach in September 2015. The much-photographed image of Aylan becoming synonymous with the tragedy of the refugees who weren't granted asylum. Gurdip, his brother and their mother drowned when their dinghy capsized in its attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos, via Turkey. When the sea got rough, the Turkish smuggler, paid to bring them ashore, abandoned the boat, which capsized. Born and living in Chile, using his art as a vehicle to convey a political message, Zurita makes this crisis a moment of awakening for all. His audience, walking through the installation, bare feet, mid-calf steeped in dark waters, is compelled to listen within and to question what they would do in a moment of such a crisis.
 
Maggie and Gopika immersed in Raul Zurita's, Sea of Pain
 
As you wade through a long, dimly lit gallery filled with water that looks black, taking one solemn step at a time, for walking through water cannot be a hasty stride; it comes naturally to look around, to turn here and there. And the helplessness of being abandoned tugged at something in me, heightened by piercing questions, that called out silently but accusingly, from high walls that framed the long and narrow room: Don't you listen? Don't you look? Don't you hear me? Don't you see me? Don't you feel me? Are you never coming back - never? Never?
 
One step at a time, I walked up to the end of the long rectangular space, to be reminded that a human tragedy is never just someone else's it is also our own, especially when Zurita states: "I am not his father but Galip Kurdi is my son"
 
Walking back to where our sandals were left, Maggie and I were reflective but in our out-ward path a young girl danced in the water, lifting her dress and pirouetting daintily; her playful form silhouetted against the daylight. There were now many more people entering the installation space, but an experience that touches at the level of soul cannot be thus distracted from its message.
 
 
Orijit Sen, 'Go Play Ces'
 
As we left the installation, pausing long enough to dry our legs and feet, the next gallery that beckoned my companions was Orijit Sen's 'Go Play Ces'. I protested that it was too much of a contrast after such a solemn, soul-stirring experience. But, followed them nonetheless and was completely taken by the mixed-media installation games that we were invited to play. Visiting the vibrant Friday, Mapusa market in North Goa, is an experience that I've enjoyed first hand but, the details that Sen has captured come from deeper observations than a cursory holiday visit. It was like a virtual journey through liquor shops, the fish and flower sellers and much, much more. And to ensure that some essence of this experience remains, Sen tempts you to answer five questions to win a printed card of his drawings. So, totally engaged in this playful experience, I expected to forget Zurita's poignant plea, but despite exulting at winning two cards, the impressions of being in the ‘Sea of Pain’ remained.
 
Orijit Sen, 'Go Play Ces' - The Mapusa Market Game

 
Savouring deliciously sweet, fleshy, golden jackfruit for breakfast the next morning. I found the questions returning: "Don't you listen? Don't you look? Don't you hear me? Don't you see me? Don't you feel me? Are you never coming back - never? Never?" Abandonment is something we have all experienced at some juncture of our lives. Abandoned by family, friends or lovers in moments when we've possibly felt a need for human succour the most; in a gesture of defensiveness and self-protection, we may have internalised this angst.  Therefore, reliving it through art can be cathartic and healing. Even though Zurita had a specific basis for his questions, they are common to the human condition, each with our own personal experiences to remember as we walk through this universal sea of pain.
 
Desmond Lazaro, Family Portraits, Aspinwall House

 
When sorrow is celebrated - and expressing it through art and poetry is about celebration rather than suppression, is where I am reassured that the exalted premium that contemporary society has accorded on happiness, hasn't eroded our capacity to experience its lamenting brother.
 
‘Dance of Death’ by Yardena Kurulkar at Aspinwall House writes her date of birth with light bulbs that keep going off, to have all the lights go out at the end of the Biennale
 
Each day in Kochi has been an enriching and enlightening one and I want to gush with enthusiasm like a teenager, but restrain myself. Walking through the extensive galleries at Aspinwall, I walked into the ‘Dance of Death’ by Yardena Kurulkar, passed the ‘Family portraits’ by Desmond Lazaro and entered a large hall which had a painted mural in progress.
 
 
Desmond Lazaro, Family Portraits, Aspinwall House

 
Sitting on raised platforms, two artists, assistants of the painter P.K. Sadanandan, were engaged in completing a mural which depicts a story called 'Paraya Petta Panthiru'. A young gallery guide told us, this is the story of inter-caste marriage and how each child, of the twelve progeny born of this marriage, was abandoned by their father at birth - trusting in the force that created its life to care for it.
 


artists at work, P.K. Sadanadan, ''Paraya Petta Panthiru', Aspinwall House


This translated into each child being brought up and/or adopted by families of varied castes - from Brahmins to carpenters and wandering minstrels. It's a powerful legend to educate people on the universality of being - free from caste and religious dictates. The father of the abandoned children was Vararuci, a Brahamana scholar in the court of Vikramaaduthyan in 57BCE. Featuring narratives from mythology, masterfully painted in the Kerala mural style augmented with inspiration from the cave paintings of Ajanta and Ellora, although Sadanandan's art, is known well known for his presentation of teachings and practices from across India, it was my first encounter with this painter’s oeuvre.
 
Anjalee viewing the large scale mural by P.K. Sadanandan
 
The intermingling of abstract experiences with vibrant traditional forms in art along with sensory experiences of tastes and smell that have been a simultaneous 'degustation' of the Biennale experience, echoed the philosophical thought in Bose Krishnamachari's essay, in the Biennale Guide. "The river is everywhere" says Bose, quoting Hesse from 'Siddhartha', in a 'A River called Biennale’ as he expounded the likeness of a river to that of the human experience. "We are born of a river's origins and like a river flow toward an end. A river is the root of our existence. All great civilisations were born on the banks of a river". The river is where all things merge. Situated in Kochi, on the banks of backwaters that lead to and come inland from the Arabian Sea, especially at Aspinwall House which is a sea-facing property, it was easy to make this connection of a river's origin flowing into the sea and on its journey carrying the silt of experience, merging into the oceanic current, into the being of non-being - that vast ocean of one-ness.


On the ferry to Ernakulam
 
As we'd walked around asking for directions to Zurita's 'Sea of Pain', we'd observed someone blindfolded and being guided in a most aesthetic way. I had been quite taken with what I had seen of this audience-interactive performance. The participant could not see, but I'd watched Jijo guide her to stop or move forward, relinquishing his touch through enchanting, dance-like gestures. Steered by sound (headphones) and touch alone, where goggles shut out the visual, I had watched her being led in and out of spaces at Aspinwall House. Intrigued and attracted by the lyrical gestures of Jijo, her guide, I signed up for the experience and hurried back from lunch at a nearby water-front restaurant, with a quick look at Praneet Soi and an interesting marble sculpture by Jonathan Owen at Pepper House, to participate in this performance.
 
 I hadn't given much thought to what I had set myself up for, but as I waited for the performance to start, I reminded myself how much I rely on the visual to experience life. I'm exceedingly sensitive to sound, but it's the visual that's been my metier. Would that bother me? Soon enough, a hand reached out from behind me and put large white goggles covering my eyes, obscuring everything but a sensation of light. I was now completely at the mercy of my touch-guide and the recorded soundtrack played through the wireless headphones. In anticipation of being taken through 'The Sea of Pain' as part of being masked and walked through familiar spaces, I requested Jijo to turn up my mundu. Thankfully Maggie and Anjalee weren't there to tell me how ridiculous I may have looked and I surrendered to the ‘Symphony of a Missing Room', choreographed by Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, enacted by Jijo and myself.
 
Blindfolded, I was led by suggestive hand gestures, aided by the recorded soundtrack, which alerted me to take slow measured steps or to stop. Pause a bit, then move forward, take a step up or down or touch a wall - telling me I had reached a dead end. The soft, predominantly female voice, played through the wireless headphones, occasionally urged me to see the light within, to imagine the art works I had seen before this, but each time I tried doing so, I could only visualize tall, bending trunks of lofty coconut palm trees, their pinnate leaves moving with and creating a gentle breeze. From the onset of the performance, as soon as the headphones were put on, I also had this inexplicable urge to sleep. I wasn't sure if this was brought on because I was tired or because I found the spoken tract a little naive and didn't connect with embracing change through the Biennale, which I now viewed without sight. There was a shift but it was making me sleepy. I'm aware how fear of facing things does create this illusion, but there had there been no real fear. Not about the performance in any case. I walked with caution but I also knew that I'd be led safely. Maybe it was a deeper fear surfacing, or maybe shutting out the visual created a familiar, sleep-inducing space. Each day had been packed with stimulating experiences, so it could just be that – the surfacing of a latent desire to sleep!
 
When I was asked how the experience was, the only word I could summon was 'weird'. I hadn't had any kind of spiritual epiphany of experiencing myself at a deeper level of knowing, nor I had I recollected the art works seen in days or even hours just passed. The sensation of wanting to sleep overwhelmed, and the coconut palms all around me, dominated my subconscious.  I fought the urge to sleep - I had to, I mean, how could I sleep standing up?  As I walked, unknowing where I was, I did experience various degrees of darkness and light, which led me to think I was going inside or coming out into the open which brought about the shift regarding the levels of light. At the end of the half-hour session when the goggles were removed I was standing calf-deep in Raul Zurita's 'Sea of Pain'.
 
Returning to that inescapable Sea of Pain
 
Overwhelmed by the urge to slumber, I headed out of Aspinwall in search of some South Indian filter coffee to find none. I returned to my room in Thoppumpuddy to get my camera and rushed back to Fort Kochi for a Kathakali performance and make-up session. While the experience was photographically enriching - watching them do the make-up was novel, the whole performance was designed for touristy kind of viewing and I was possibly the lone Indian among fifty foreigners.
 
 
doing his own make-up


The man who played the female lead should have retired a long time ago, but hogged the limelight while the younger man who was more interesting in attire and fluidity of movements as well as elegant facial gestures, so vital in Kathakali, was relegated to the background.
 

 
When I bought my ticket and a young man guiding me to my seat, softly asked why I was wearing a man’s dress; was it because it was ‘Women’s Day’? I had forgotten I was wearing the mundu, I had forgotten it was the 8th of March and reminded of both in this way, I forgot to tell the young lad that, in the normal scheme of things, I wore a ‘man’s dress’ more often than what is narrowly designated a ‘woman’s dress’.
 

The interplay of life with art heightened by such unexpected occurrences, my third day at the Kochi Biennale ended with a delectable bite of figs and roasted almonds coated with a delicious dark, dark chocolate. I headed back to my homestay in Thoppumpudy in an auto, reaching just in time before it started pouring down with rain. Although I was relieved to not have been caught in the downpour, it did flash through my mind that Kerala has two monsoons - the south-west monsoon in June and the north-east in October, bring plentiful rain which means that unlike other parts of the country it is never parched. “Falling Down, pooling up, /Out of the sky, into my cup. /What is this wet that comes from above, /That some call disaster, and others find love”, wrote the poet Mitchell. D. Wilson, echoing the paradox where the falling wetness may irk but water and especially rain, is also an integral part of the Kerala landscape. In addition to the extensive shoreline of the Arabian sea on its west, Kerala also has a network of rivers and lagoons with tranquil stretches of backwaters, all of which add to its lush greenness and abundance of natural birds and other species.
 
Early morning birds on the Vembanad

And as I readied for slumber, I reflected on the irony that rain, rivers, backwaters, tears of laughter or grief - all form an integral part of our existence. The human existence in it its many facets, brought forth to ponder upon through the art extravaganza of the Biennale, is fraught forever with error and misguided evaluations leading to pain, inflicted by self or others. Whether it was walking through the Pyramid of Exiled Poets, reflecting on the changes in society brought about by imported ideas, the fragility of nature, haunted memories of an abandoned past or redefining gender, all these expressions arose from a some kind of an ache. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale art was therefore a constant reminder that the ‘experience’ of life, which eventually salvages the lost sense of self in our knowing, almost always come through the mistakes we make in our unknowing. That the nature of human consciousness is one that merges or emerges from that proverbial 'Sea of Pain'.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Turning, Returning, Reclaiming: Day 2 at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, 2017





Breakfast in Kochi was a soul indulging experience and a habit that could be hard to break. Each morning, I sat out on a verandah with gleaming red tiles that lead to a handkerchief-sized emerald green lawn, which overlooked the backwaters. Watching the coconut palm bending towards the Vembanad as I nibbled sweet, ripe, golden jackfruit or sipped some tea, beyond a white picket fence, I could also see the Thoppumpudy Bridge that crosses over the backwaters into Ernakalum. More often than not, it was packed bumper to bumper with traffic. But although I wasn’t too far, the water acted as a buffer and I could barely hear the urban cacophony. In the heart of this historic buzzing port of Kerala, I was fortunate to begin my day watching fishermen and birds on the large expanse of water gently rippling along with the tide, its fluid surface shimmering in the subtle light of morning. The empty plastic water bottles and polythene bags that were carried with the tide were disconcerting, but I was told that it is better than it used to be and people are becoming more conscious about such things.

View from Ginger House Restaurant, looking onto a naval base

                         
While today Kochi may be the busiest port, historically it was Calicut, modern day Kozhikode, that dominated in trade.  When Vasco da Gama landed on the shores of Kerala, it was in Kappad in Calicut that he disembarked with his crew, in May 1498. Calicut, then under the rule of the famed Hindu Rajah known as the Zamorin of Calicut, was the archetype of commercial prosperity and hosted merchants and goods from every trading nation in its lively bazars. But the Zamorin and Vasco and his crew didn’t hit it off and the Portuguese eventually sailed out to Cochin to load their ships. It was through the Portuguese that Kochi came into prominence prior to which its history is not well documented. The Rajah of Cochin befriended the Portuguese and with his help many battles were fought against the Zamorin who, with the help of the Dutch, eventually conquered Cochin in 1663. However, after the retreat of the Portuguese, the Dutch assumed the mantle of protecting the Rajah of Cochin and in various other ways by interfering with the prevalent trading practices, undermined the Zamorin’s powers. Although the Dutch had a longer stint in Cochin than the Portuguese, they didn’t stay too long either. Weakened by constant wars against Marthanda Varma of Travancore the Dutch eventually surrendered to British forces that marched from Calicut to Cochin in 1795, as part of the larger Napoleonic Wars between Holland and England in Europe. By the end of the 17th century Calicut’s pre-eminence and glory faded, and Kerala’s great age ended by the turn of the 18th century with the dawn of the colonial era.
 Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi
Fascinating as history can be, and walking through Kochi one cannot help but notice various colonial influences, nature is a powerful magnet. And, as if by design, a big chunk of Day 2 of the Kochi Biennale 2017 experience, was viewing works on nature. ‘Landscapes and Silences’, an Indo-Canadian Project curated by Tanya Abraham and Wayne Baerwaldt presented artists who explored the changing relationships between artists and nature in art, re-looking at the moral and aesthetic values towards nature in a changing rural landscape.


Terry Billings, Adjusted Landscape, 2006, Acrylic on archival digital-print paper

Within this exhibition, Terry Billings, created an aural installation, recorded in Saskatchewan and Kochi, of a 'Dawn chorus' - of birds singing at the start of the day, which was placed at the entrance and stairwell of the Kashi Art Gallery, an old Dutch house in the Fort Kochi area refashioned as a cultural space. This gentle, twittering chorus followed us throughout the gallery, sometimes complimenting, sometimes contrasting and sometimes overpowered by the art works on display. The natural landscape was presented in its many guises.
Regina Horowitz, Starfields and Fields, detail
Through black and white photographs made by a pin-hole camera, Regina Horowitz created images that brought a sense of timeless transience in the natural world through her wispy, grainy images in shades of grey and black. Gabriela Garcia-Luna photographically documented the seen and unseen in natural vistas to index personal memories, presenting them in a circular format as quasi-abstract imagery which drew its impetus from foliage and trees.

Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina, Canada, a detail



Gabriela Garcia-Luna, Regina,
 Canada, Set of 3
The unending circumference around the colourful photographic landscape, evocative of a seamless merging of the inner and outer world was a compelling visual metaphor that drew the viewing eye inside the form and then, further within, into the self, to create an intimate viewing experience. Zachari Logan's portraiture of wild plant-life, though reminiscent of botanical drawings of an age gone by, were not necessarily biologically accurate but were created as deliberately provocative, imaginative hybrids, referencing the four seasons.
Zachari Logan, graphite and pencil on paper, 15 in x 15 in
I'm irrepressibly drawn to plant-life and enjoyed these art-works immensely. Walking around Kochi, I've also been mesmerised by the over-arching, larger than life, flowering 'Rain Trees' that line the streets around Fort Kochi. Kerala, is abundantly blessed with natural munificence and the large water bodies around the city bring in many birds. I've seen Seagulls, Heron, Kingfisher, Cormorants, Eagles, Kites an abundance of crows, as well as unique small birds that I can't identify. Here, nature, the mechanical and man-made co-habit with ease. There are no 'green' auto-rickshaws and taxis around, as seen in Delhi but, the debris floating out to the Arabian Sea is a constant reminder of how careless we become when nature sustains us so effortlessly. Walking out of these exhibits expressive of a dwindling natural habitat, I wondered how much impact could the subtle voices of these Canadian artists have on the collective consciousness in Kochi, and, as artists, are we merely speaking among the converted - is that as far we can go?
David Hall, Cafe, Fort Kochi
Nearby, David Hall - also an old Dutch bungalow that has been restored and redesigned as a cultural centre, cafe and gallery for contemporary art, had actually been the first Biennale venue I visited that day. My hitherto languid mid-morning, after breakfast overlooking the Vembanad, had been confronted by Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016, where she sought to redefine gender roles through the depiction of love and longing in classical dance. Intrigued by the rhythmic chant and free-flowing but tightly controlled body gestures of women dressed casually in sarees, evocative of western modern dance with mudras from classical Indian dance, I sat on the wooden bench and watched three simultaneous videos being screened. It's never easy to impress upon your audience, in the matter a few moments, the essence of ideas that have engaged an artist for many years. The language becomes personal and thus codified and needs deeper engagement and more time than such a large-scale Biennale viewer can spare. I can't say I understood what she was saying but I was intrigued enough to watch and listen and carried with me a sense of its power, even if the real meaning eluded my grasp.
Padmini Chettur's multi-channel video, Varnam, 2016

In an adjoining room, this idea of a codified language was also voiced by Dana Awartani, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, a large-scale (200 x 200 x 200 cms), white on white panels of hand embroidery on silk. I was curious about these love poems and who had done the embroidery. I searched on the internet and discovered that I share my alma mater of Central St. Martins with the artist and therefore assume that Dana does the embroidery herself. 
 
Maggie and Anjalee distracted while viewing Dana Awartani's,
 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, (200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Standing in front of the eight embroidered panels, or walking around, I found myself drawn into their depths, but that I was precluded from entering its inner recesses or sacred space. The white panels placed in the manner of eight receding doorways were hung from the ceiling and raised from the floor level and only a spirit floating inwards could possibly access the inner sanctum, as experienced by the poet. Ibn Arabi was an Andalusian Sunni Scholar of Islam, a Sufi mystic, poet and philosopher, regarded by Sufism as "the greatest master" and a genuine saint who wrote:
"The mystery of that is that in the world of subtle beauty
people are only infatuated with the world of form.
Were they like me in love, they would be satisfied
and they would witness his essence in every form of belief;
for they would be [sharing] in what my vision determines
if they were in love from the world of direct observing.”
[Translation anon]
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016,
(200 x 200 x 200 cms),detail
In concurrence with the aniconism reflected in the poem and the poetry of geometry which the Islamists believe created the universe; as an act of reviving the practice of Islamic geometry and its highly codified mathematically derived forms, Awartani embroidered familiar patterns from the Islamic repertoire. “Using the tradition of Saudi textiles” and creating “genealogies of meaning that act as a form of meditation, praying and search for the inner spirit”, with white thread on white Moire silk, Awartini delicately envisioned the purity of a spiritual encounter”, recalling Ibn Arabi’s experience at the Ka'aba in Mecca. I am a fan of Islamic art and was once a keen student of the concepts of geometry and mathematics that defined it. In Awartini’s “act of revival” of its highly-coded language, I had hoped for some contemporary light on the precepts that formulated this art, especially to decode the mystery of symbols embroidered in her work and their particular relevance with the poems of Ibn Arabi, but I was disappointed.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, 2016, (150 x 100 cms),
In another gallery within David Hall, walking across the hallway and once again encountering Padmini Chettur's video performance on my way, were large, embroidered tapestries on organza by Avinash Veeraraghavan from Bengalaru. In 'After the End' 1 and 2, 2016, (150 x 100 cms), he used traditional embroidery techniques to evoke notions of what could have been an abandoned childhood - harking back to the past, through the present recording of absence - the absence of human form. Forgotten playgrounds, going to rust, were lushly portrayed with sequins, beads and thread work, seemingly celebrating rather than lamenting the empty and abandoned spaces. His use of padded beadwork to raise and highlight the relatively shining metallic structures of a rusting slide and carousel was most effectively contrasted against the organic and rough texture of the rest of the tapestry. And even though the extravagant use of material in the elaborately sequinned landscape, of fallen autumnal leaves and the sky, raised many questions about the shimmer and shine, there was, nonetheless, a haunted quality to the embroidered tapestries that evoked an emptiness which the gleaming plastic sequins could not disguise.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1, a detail
Although I inferred that the execution had been done by artisans, it wasn't stated whether Veeraraghavan had embroidered the works himself or employed skilled craftspeople to assist him. The Biennale Guide text references embroidery with its ancient tradition as a vehicle for reclamation of the past. But, do those continuing a tradition need to reclaim it, or is it for us now removed from such practices, to find ourselves through that tradition? In this instance, I am not sure how that could have been achieved, not unless the artist undertook to learn the skill and execute the embroidery himself. In addition, the absence of credit given to those who may have worked with him in continuance of the tradition of this embroidery practice, detracted from a statement that was also not corroborated visually. From the perspective of craft revival and enhancing the value of working with the hand, the craftsmen employed could well have been exposed to newer ways of using age-old techniques that would augment their vocabulary of form and texture and enhance the scope for embroidery. And, I was happy to see thread used so extravagantly and find its place in the third edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The skilful execution of these two tapestries was also a significant feature that attracted and sustained my interest.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 2, a detail
Looking at so many works of art needs frequent pauses and the galleries at the Biennale are well located among cafes and restaurants to create a viewing experience that includes quaint lanes and expansive vistas of a charming city, its history and multi-layered culture. Quite naturally Maggie, Anjalee and myself sat back and relaxed in the natural environs of The David Hall café to natter and mull over the art we’d just seen. Filter coffee, Kerala style, with an impeccably cooked French toast using banana bread, was the perfect punctuation after some intense art viewing. The swing, hung by coarse rope from a tall tree, was just too good to miss out on and taking off from Veeraraghavan’s embroidered playground, swinging high, I reconnected with a childhood pastime.  However, the eerie viewing of a chicken’s dismembered foot on the garden path as I walked past, created a horrified Eeeks! for the reality of everyday living, to offset the aah’s of art appreciation.

On our way to The Kashi Art Gallery, we walked through ‘The Passage Malabar’ to stop by and check out the merchandise at ‘Cinnamon’, a designer retail outlet. In the Passage, we encountered some curiously manipulated photos, as visual essays on the palaces of India, imagined by Karen Knorr where the inhabitants were creatures of the animal kingdom. It was part of a collateral event presented by Tasveer.
Meydad Eliyahu, The Box of Documents - Kadalassuppet, 2, Kashi Art Gallery

Some of the other art that I engaged with, included an installation at Kashi by Meydad Eliyahu [Jerusalem] who explored a lost personal history and connection to Kerala Jews, through ‘The Box of Documents/Kadalassuppet’, a compelling series of photographs by Endri Dani [Albania], at TMK Warehouse, expressing how people subvert the homogeneity imposed by totalitarian leadership, and Margaret Lanzetta [USA] speaking colourfully at Kashi, about the ‘Folded Language’ of patterns that have migrated through trade in textiles.
Endri Dani [Albania], CM 182, from a series of photographs,
 TMK Warehouse,
Margaret Lanzetta [USA] ‘Folded Language’, Kashi Art Gallery
Yesterday, Maggie and I had a sumptuous lunch at ‘Oceanos’ on Elphinstone street, where the ‘Thiru Kochi Mango Fish Curry’ and the ‘Syrian Catholic Fish Pollichathu’ were beyond delicious. Today’s choice was the Ginger House Restaurant in Mattanchery, which also houses an antique store.  Sitting on the waterfront, upon and among antique furniture including the tables, chairs, counters, pillars, door frames and traditional Kerala artefacts, the museum restaurant was a perfect counter point to contemporary art viewing and a reminder of the cultural palette of the city hosting it. 


365 days of Shringar, Nathdwara Pichvai,
Heritage Arts Antique Showroom Mattanchery, 2

It was also the venue for a Biennale collateral event presenting the Nathdwara Pichvais of Rajasthan where the highlight was a series of miniature-scale line-drawings depicting the various modes and forms of ‘shringar’ captured by an innovative artist.
Boats and a Boatyard, and Naval  ships in the distance, Mattachery
Thinking, about the art I had seen over the last two days, of being surrounded by the Arabian Sea, with large Naval ships and fighter aircraft flying above, I was waiting for my companions inside the antique store, seated on a darkly polished rosewood sofa-set with an ornately carved, large than life, Garuda backrest, when I glanced around me and found that I sat amidst dulled brass face and body masks used for dance performances, larger than life painted but faded wood carvings and other antique artefacts.
The Garuda backrest Sofa and brass body and face masks,
Ginger the Museum Restaurant Mattanchery,
In a city where civilisations have colluded and collided over trade and warring princes paved the way for colonial masters; where a culture once seeped in mythology and lore of an indigenous ethos had imbibed much yet ignored a great deal of the foreign influences of ruling factors, choosing to stay rooted in their own unique culture, I wondered how this city would be, or could be impacted by the world of International contemporary art and artists it was hosting. I wondered about the very language of art and its capacity to move others - especially the uninitiated public. Some of the artistic concepts that I had engaged with had been deep and required total commitment to viewing, letting go of preconceived ideas and just being part of the experience. This kind of viewing is a practiced art that comes from years of looking and making art, how then do others engage with such expression?
Alex Sexton [AUS] 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse].
Though tired from stretching my mind to contextualise the art already seen, my day had not yet come to a close. Egged on by Maggie and Anjalee, I dragged myself to yet another Biennale venue to be utterly awed by Alex Sexton's 'Refuge' 2015, [TKM Warehouse], which highlights the struggles of those seeking political asylum. Powerful as the work is, I may well have overlooked it, not because it wasn't striking but because in my fatigued mind it appeared as if a tarpaulin fabric had been draped and cast in plaster of paris, so no big deal! But, as Maggie read out the details of the work posted on the walls of a run-down, possibly out of use warehouse, my senses perked up. Did she say carved marble statue? Yes, it was indeed carved as if the human being it draped had left a hollow of its earlier presence. By choosing to depict a single figure Seton [Aus] personalises the story of the refugee. The empty space could have been, or could be occupied by anyone, including myself.  His use of classic form, skills and material connecting to the history of sculpture that heralded the figurative and realistic representation, added another dimension. Not only did the concept gain strength through my admiring attention of its skilful execution, but the power that skill and excellence in execution has in drawing us into itself, was brought to the fore. In another, adjacent gallery, six, large (167 x 670 cms) water colour paintings by T.V Santosh compelled my attention in much the same way, marvelling at the technical expertise of using water colour at such a large scale.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour
Yesterday too, despite relating to and thoroughly enjoying the deeply philosophical and socio-politically motivated conceptual art works at Aspinwall House, it was the lighter-veined, innovative drawings in a collaborative work with Madhubani artists, at a collateral event at OED gallery on Bazar Street, that had been just as memorable. Skilful in execution, imaginative in content and subject matter, with a lightness of being, were the hallmark of artworks that I found exceptionally attractive – be it embroidery, drawings, water colour or sculpture. The capacity for excellence in execution and presentation couldn't override the notions an artist explored, but somehow, it seems that conviction in the idea is often communicated and made consummate by the level of commitment in its execution, even if not done entirely by the artist him or herself.
Godh - in the lap of nature 2016, detail 2
The acquiring of a skill and facing challenges encountered in traversing newer conceptual terrain, is also about making a pledge to excel. Even where the artist is not the skilled executor, getting traditional craftsmen to interpret the concept and provide just the right technique and texture requires a tremendous level of commitment. It is perhaps this depth of engagement which can and does grip the imagination of even the uninitiated in art, leading to curiosity and awe and through this to impactful and far reaching dialogues - beyond that of the converted preaching to themselves. I am always moved by art that takes me deeper into myself, that enables an experience beyond the sensual. Yet, the sheer materiality of the embroideries, skilful water colour paintings and marble sculpture were breath-taking, even though the subject matter may have alluded to desolation, loss and trauma.
T.V.Santosh,(167 x 670 cms) water colour, panel of six
Indigenous art had found ways to incorporate a gamut of human emotional experience by embracing the disgusted and grotesque with as much power as the lovelorn and romantic. And these rasas became a highly-codified language now intelligible only to scholars and that ilk. In the realm of textiles, emphasis lay in the exquisite exploration of skill in making and embellishing fabric, prompted as much by trade as by a spiritual quest towards discovering greater and greater heights of excellence in human endeavour.  The ancients in India, had devised an art practice which eschewed personal glory by extolling the gods or creative forces of the universe that blessed the hands that created in its name. This encountered its own set of complications in the modern world dominated by western ideals of art making compelling a shift in the practices of art making in the subcontinent.
Dana Awartani, 'Love is my Law, Love is my Faith', 2016, 
(200 x 200 x 200 cms)
Towards a return to traditional practices, Dana Awartini alluded to such ideals by emphasising the dominance of the art over the artist. However, in an era where personal glory is prized, such ideals are hard to sustain and her art, in keeping with the practices of the contemporary world, was presented with her individual identity. Placing technique at par with concept or of art over the artist, are ideals of the past, and perhaps in reclaiming the past, as Veeraraghavan attempts through the extravagantly embroidered abandoned playground, they become ideals for the future.  It is however, reassuring to see that no matter how tentative their steps, the masters of skill are beginning to find their feet in our contemporary world.  But, before renouncing identity to extol the forces of the universe that creates through the human form, they must  first find their place in a world of contemporary art that has overshadowed humble anonymity to exalt human vanity.
Avinash Veeraraghavan, After The End, 1,
a detail