Different strokes

MTV?s irreverent humour and Kandagaon?s traditional iron craft come together in an exhibition that takes contemporary art to the edge of desire, Namita Bhandare.

HT Image

MTV makes its debut at the National Gallery of Modern Art. A sweeping exhibition that captures a decade-long perspective on ‘contemporary visual practices’ in India runs the gamut from desi cool to folk traditions.

Through 80 exhibits, including photographs, videos, installations and paintings by 34 artists and two collectives, Edge of Desire: Recent Art in India comes to the NGMA after having travelled to Australia, the United States and Mexico. In India, it marks the launch of the Asia Society India Centre.

From the metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai to the rural region of Kondagaon, Edge of Desire seeks to encompass a variety of visual cultures. It is organised around five themes — Location/Longing, Unruly Visions, Transient Self, Contested Terrain and Recycled Futures.

But, points out Chaitanya Sambrani, head of the Art Theory Workshop at the Australian National University in Canberra, “This exhibition does not purport to offer a survey of masterpieces from the last decade of Indian art. Experimental and contingent work that may not have been possible under normal market circumstances is a vital aspect of this project.”

So, MTV with its frequently humorous, always irreverent portrayal of urban youth culture in globalising India is acknowledged for its role in creating a visual revolutions on television, at least.

The visual contribution includes also Nilima Sheikh’s Firdaus series that looks at political strife and gender violence in Kashmir while seeking to reclaim the beauty and rich imaginative history of the state.

Pushpamala N and Clare Armi explore the various stereotypes in their performative series on Native Women of South India.

Atul Dodiya’s ironic triptych Tomb’s Day with the Taj Mahal as the backdrop features signature visits by the Putins and the Clintons. The series ends with the vision of magician PC Sorkar making the Taj vanish.

If the exhibition falters, it is in its one-sided portrayal of contemporary art.

To be fair, Edge of Desire does not “pretend to a ‘potted history’ of recent Indian art. Rather it is hinged on a particular — and necessarily partisan — perspective on recent history,” writes Sambrani in the exhibition catalogue.

That partisan view comes through only too amply.

The undeniable trauma of secular India dominates. Vivan Sundaram’s installation — a memorial to the crumpled body of an unknown riot victim photographed by Hoshi Jal is encased in a transparent tomb, with nails and bricks surrounding him. NM Rimzan’s Speaking Stones is centred on a crouched man surrounded by a circle of rough stones under which black and white photographs document a succession of horrors.

Even the traditional folk art forms from Bastar iron works to the Mithila paintings of Bihar conform to the secular view. Sonadhar Viswakarma’s Bastar iron works follows the progression of the rath yatra that culminated in the toppling of the three domes of the Babri Masjid while Santosh Kumar Das uses the Madhubani form in a series of paintings that show the Muslim-Hindu divide in Gujarat.

The political correctness, informs Shilpa Gupta’s video installation Blame, is “tastefully packaged in small bottles for your convenience”.

The outcome of a project conducted on the streets of Mumbai and in commuter trains, Blame is a response to the events in Kargil, George Bush’s ‘war on terror’ and violence against Muslims in Gujarat.

Edge of Desire is an important landmark. Its ambition and scale is overwhelming. And, if nothing else, you have to applaud the government-run NGMA for its courage to put up MTV on its hallowed walls.

Email nbhandare@hindustantimes.com

The art of sealing

As the art season gets going in the city, gallery owners begin scouting around for new locations, reports Namita Bhandare.

HT Image

Less than 12 hours after its wine and cheese opening of artist Aditya Basak’s exhibition, the walls at Anant Art Gallery in Defence Colony had been stripped bare, the paintings sent into storage.

The culprit? The ongoing sealing drive. “We persuaded the landlord to allow the preview but took the paintings down the next morning,” said gallery owner Mamta Singhania.

The art boom in the city has seen a mushrooming of art galleries—an estimated 100 with a vast majority in residential areas. Now, despite art prices hitting the stratosphere and at the height of the ‘art season’ when exhibitions clutter the city’s cultural calendar, galleries simply don’t know what the future holds.

Singhania’s neighbour, Purnima Dhawan who owns Gallery 302 is scheduled to kick off a Subodh Kelkar show on November 29. She’s keeping her fingers crossed. “We really don’t know what is going to happen, there is no clarity,” she said.

“Only a handful of galleries are commercially zoned,” said Sunit Kumar Jain of Kumar Art Gallery, one of the oldest in the city. Many of the newer galleries, Art Alive in Panchsheel Park, Polka in Defence Colony and Palette in Golf Links (which also houses a designer boutique) are in residential areas.

Kumar Art Gallery had begun hosting art events at its premises in 56, Sunder Nagar, since its own gallery in Sunder Nagar market is rather small. This year, it has moved the venue for big openings to Sainik Farms; on December 9, KS Kulkarni’s works will be previewed there before shifting to Sunder Nagar market.

Some galleries have already moved. Vadhera Gallery shifted from Defence Colony to Okhla Industrial Estate in January, while Chawla Art Gallery in Defence Colony has a new address at the Square One Mall at Saket. But, says Dhawan: “Once you move into a mall, next to shoe shops and food courts, the character of an art gallery is lost.”

Anant plans to set up an 18,000 sq ft art centre in Gurgaon. But this will not be ready until January. Meanwhile, Singhania has a group show planned for December with no venue in sight. Institutional spaces like the Lalit Kala Akademi, Triveni and the Visual Arts Centre at the India Habitat Centre are booked, sometimes, two years in advance.

“Unfortunately Delhi does not have an arts district like other major capitals,” said Sunaina Anand of Art Alive. Located in Panchsheel, the gallery will be moving ‘ASAP’ said Anand.

Not everyone is unhappy, though. Aarti Singh of Polka—who has held all her exhibitions in institutional spaces outside the gallery premises in Defence Colony and is currently scouting around for a new location—feels there will be a shakeout with the less serious galleries closing shop. “Everybody and anybody had opened galleries. Now only those with serious long-term interests will remain,” she said. 

Email Namita Bhandare: nbhandare@hindustantimes.com

The lost world of the Maharaja

Despite the harsh terrain, the Rann of Kutch is a stretch of spectacular beauty, writes Namita Bhandare.

HT Image

I am connected to Kutch in a strange and roundabout way. I grew up in a rented apartment in Bombay in a building owned by Pragmalji Madansinhji, the former maharaja of Kutch. The building, on busy Napean Sea Road was called Symphony; though it was anything but symphonic.

Every time the double decker BEST 122 rumbled down the street, the building would shake, rattle and roll.

But the landlord was a nice enough man given to maharaja-style eccentricities: every evening his numerous little yappy dogs would be taken for a drive in one of His Highness’s many vintage cars.

Also, unlike most maharajas who claim to be descendants of the sun or the moon, Pragmalji traced his ancestry back to Lord Krishna. This, I guess, gave him some sort of super-exalted status.

Years after moving out of Bombay and Symphony, I came across Pragmalji in another roundabout way: One of his palaces, in the historic port city of Mandvi, was used extensively for the shooting of Lagaan. Of course, I was excited at seeing ‘my’ landlord’s beautiful palace in all its cinematic 35 mm glory.

It was with some sorrow, then, that I learned that the maharaja’s other palace, in Bhuj, was extensively destroyed in the January 26, 2001 earthquake. The Ranjit Vilas Palace, a private residence, is not open to the public.

The government doesn’t want to pay for the repairs of a private palace; it is equally clear that the maharaja simply cannot afford to carry out such an extensive project.

Another palace, which was also extensively destroyed in Bhuj is the City Palace. This one is listed as a monument of national importance and gets its share of both attention, and also of, apparently, funds. A Unesco report, written soon after the earthquake, talks of it as: “A lost world with extensive evidence of a rich and varied history.”

The report notes that: “Artefacts, some with evidence of not having been disturbed for more than a generation or two, were stacked or arranged in hidden rooms in these palace complexes — rooms which remained locked and protected until the earthquake has now broken them open and placed the buildings and their contents at immediate of loss and destruction.” Particularly devastating has been the damage of the library with some books dating back 200 years.

Ironically, much of Bhuj has been rebuilt but Pragmalji’s Ranjit Vilas remains in ruins. And the direct descendent of Lord Krishna now spends his time divided between Symphony and Mandvi, his summer palace.

By the light of the moon

Nothing had prepared me for the sheer beauty of Kutch. Though the terrain is harsh — every few years it sees a devastating drought — the Rann is spectacular, particular in the light of the full moon when the salt glistens white.

This year was the second year of the Sharad Utsav — three days of festivities included gems like: camel races, a handicrafts show and a night Rann safari over the full moon festival of Sharad Poornima. Everywhere, larger-than-life posters of Modi dotted the landscape.

But ‘Tent city’, temporarily constructed 35 km north of Bhuj with 250 air-conditioned tents (eight reserved for the chief minister, Narendra Modi, and his staff) constructed at a reported cost of Rs 80 lakh, was a disappointment: Tacky looking fair rides and dispirited tourists browsed desultorily through cheap handicrafts. Local media estimates put the number of visitors at the inaugural ceremony at a mere 1,500; most of them officials ‘on duty’.

You can’t talk about Narendra Modi and not feel a shudder of remembrance. Years ago I had covered the Gujarat riots, and the horror stories that unfolded from it. But travelling around Bhuj, the unanimous opinion was that Modi’s administration had actually pulled off the difficult feat of post earthquake rehabilitation.

“Gujarat has been a model in rehabilitation,” said Sushma Iyengar of the Kutch Nav Nirman Abhiyan. She spoke of the owner-driven approach to rebuilding homes where corruption was nearly absent. I visited a GIDC settlement in Bhuj city — neat one-room houses and a decentralised waste-water treatment system that provides water for neem trees and flowering plants. “It’s a model for developing slums,” said Hirji Seeju, who took me around the settlement.

Sunset over the border

Despite Modi’s attempts to develop tourism in Kutch, there really aren’t many places to stay in Bhuj. But about 45 km north, slap bang in the surreal landscape of Banni where patches of seawater marsh have turned the region to a haven for birdwatchers, is a new ecotourism resort.

Romantically named Shaam-e-Sharhad (sunset over the border: Pakistan is only 90 km away), the resort is funded by the ministry of tourism and the UNDP, and is owned by local Hodka community. Shaam-e-Sarhad offers spanking clean accommodation — I’d plumb for the circular bhungas, the traditional round mud huts of the Kutchis any day.

At Rs 2,800 a night — with all meals (vegetarian only) thrown in, it’s a steal.
What can you do here? You can visit artisan communities, take a camel safari, grab a photo-op at the India Bridge that cuts off our country from Pakistan, or take a day trip to Dholavira, India’s largest archaeological site. Or you can sit and watch the moon rise lazily over the marsh.