Turning the Wheel: Traditions Unbound

Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Gate No.2, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110003
20-26 October 2005

What is Art? It is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real. Rabindranath Tagore

As we proudly participate in the observance of UN 60 in India, we also celebrate India – the land of many culture. Within this edifice of cultural contrasts there are many subtexts that flow as we travel across the length and breadth of the country. There is a perceptible change in terms of morphology, people, food and clothes. These changes also manifest themselves in the art and culture of the regions, involving several vernacular languages of visual representation. In the face of contemporary India where boundaries have blurred, and the North-South divide is more about physical distance and less about conceptual distances, technology has to a large extent homogenized cultures.

The richness and originality of Indian culture distinguishes itself from the linear evolution of Western culture by the multiplicity of representational idioms and styles, which over the centuries have not necessarily interacted with one another, preserving a pristine form of their own. Over the ages, artists in South India have by and large managed to preserve the traditional arts unlike those in the Northern regions of India which have witnessed the incoming of numerous intruders, leaving an indelible imprint on the art and culture of the region. This cultural intrusion, be it Islamic or Colonial in nature, resulted in a rich hybridity and translation, a phenomenon which in many ways has influenced the South less.

It was only by the 19th Century, that some South Indian artists came under outside influence, resulting in unexpected and often charming combinations of East and West, old and new. Art salons provided space for British artists working in India to show their work. These increasingly featured Indian artists as well. Exemplary of India’s new salon artists was Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), an aristocrat widely hailed as a genius. He is acclaimed for his naturalistic portrayals of the Indian elite and of Indian mythology and history. Varma opened a printing press with his brother, and popularized his work through print media. His prints strongly shaped the popular taste of the coming century.

In spite of various upheavals, Southern India has retained its own identity and ethos. Away from the invasive wars, its creativity by and large blossomed within traditional boundaries. This can be seen in the art and craft of the region. Traditions, myths, histories, cultures, shamanistic practices, rituals still are an integral part of the collective imagination of the South. While creativity abounds, it is still vested within tradition rather than hastily relying on interventions from ‘outside’ cultures. Creativity within traditions and the inroads of technology have transformed South India’s language and created yet another multilingual identity, arriving within itself at a cosmopolitan identity.

What makes the art from South India distinctive? How does it retain its two cultural specificity and how is it a bearer of an international cosmopolitanism?

While still involving indigenous visual representation and simultaneously opening up to newer trends of the burgeoning media culture, how do South Indian artists fray their way and assert an autonomous place in the contemporary cultural scene?

Or, in other words, when looking at the homogenizing effect of the commodification of art in relation to developing economies, how do they venture to the center-stage while retaining the characteristics of their traditional ethos? In what visual devices do they restate and revalue the interface between the arts and crafts, between personal and collective mythologies within the contemporary discourse.

These are questions that are continuously being probed and analyzed in the cultural setup of contemporary thinking. As the 21st century begins, with its own neurosis, its own cultural labyrinth where the artist is forced to respond to new conditions, it is significant to explore the position of the artists residing in the Southern region of India, where the texture of the cultural production changes from the regional to the international, while remaining essentially indigenous, whether there is a new intervention happening in the South or is it still rooted to its traditional and mythic past?

Cultural pluralism exists when all groups within a society keep their unique cultural identity. The positive result of living in a pluralistic society is recognition and tolerance of cultural and ethnic diversity. India epitomizes such a pluralism, and the wheel is its most faithful symbol, in terms of Buddhism and Hinduism. In this exhibition the ‘Wheel of Time’ we are dealing with is not just from the point of view of the wheel – we’re going beyond. It is being used as an omniscience, in which different approaches have their place contributing at the same time to nurture and enlarge it.

As the exhibition unpacks and starts a re-reading of traditions through the pictorial language, it has a three-tier effect to it. The traditional artists who have been following both a traditional training and representation like Ramesh Gorjala, Suresh Muthukulam, Suresh Nair and Vijaya Hagargundi, all continue with their journey of tradition peppered with the intervention of the ‘now’. Jean Letschert contemporaries the mandalas in an intelligent and insightful manner. The figurative strategies from the urban realm construct a decisive bridge by evoking the personal, political and popular with KT Sivaprasad, Pushpamala, Clare Arni, Murali Nagapuzha, Suresh Jayaram, Shantamani and Aditi Nayar. Abstract mediations of Biju Joze, Hariraam, Johan Benthin bring an eclectic International modernity as a counterpart  to the excess of figuration. They invoke abstraction that is nurtured in our soil with the poetry of colour, gesture and lines. This diversity of visual art practices are a strength and create a tension beyond the tradition. These artists have been carefully selected by Jaya Mani of Dravidam, Suresh Jayaram, Principal of the Karnataka Chitra Kala Parishad and myself. An offering as rich and diverse as Southern India.

Dr. Alka Pande
Curator

Imaging Materiality

Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, Gate No.2, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110003
14-19 March 2005

Gesture of The City

“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterday bear date with the moldering antiquities of rest of nation – the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would no give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”

Mark Twain, following the Equator, 1897.

Contemporary India is a country dotted with paradoxes where tradition and modernity, urban and rural, Margi and desi coexist. From the ancient to the modern, from modern to the post modern and the post colonial India finds itself enveloped in the inherent duality and bi – polarity of a multi- culturalism.

In painting and sculpture there is an underlying thread of continuity with fractures and ruptures at moments in history. Post colonial India has brought with it its own neurosis where in contemporary art, geographies are changing. There is also a constant movement backward and forward across continents. The texture of the cultural producer changes from the regional to the international. We in India are witnessing a conjunction between the charting of space and the charting of knowledge.

A nation is usually an amalgam of mythic cultures built in the minds of its citizens, which finds expression through its artistic endeavor. The duality and the paradoxes that exists in India’s living, breathing, tangible, creative contemporary culture is enriched by its myths, hierarchies, genealogy, the fractured and ruptured and interrupted moments of history.

21st century India becomes even more special, virtually a continent within itself. Which India do we address? North India, South India, Urban India, Metro India, Rural India, Folk India, Tribal India, there are many India’s in the Idea of India, The reservoir of India’s wealth lies in its villages. The materiality of the country has a rare bio – diversity leading to its own cultural diversity. From hemp to man made filament, Indian fabric is undergoing a powerful revolution where khadi and polyester are seen side by side in the ramp. Thus the Indian fabric becomes the metaphor for the emerging dynamism of the country.

The city is the dominant organizing structure of modern culture, It becomes the key place of interest for a variety of disciplines, focusing on numerous issues i.e. control, mapping, transportation, memory, inclusion and exclusion. The city thus becomes a crucial1y intricate construction born out of the intersection of diverse social, economic and cultural tempers. A source of multi valiant layered experiences, playing itself in various keys across diverse visual regimes. The city now occupies the mind of the artists in various arresting poses. Different trajectories have developed their own methods of orientation in the study of the city. It has also become a meeting-place, a site of encounter and exchange between inter – disciplinary perspectives.

Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Pune are emerging as vibrant centers of visual culture. These cities represent increasingly important cultural and the intellectual wealth of the nation. Here, a whole new world of images, sounds and gestures is evolving and gaining ground. Kolkata has its own unique energy, where tradition and modernity are still at cross roads, where an intellectual trajectory is part of its meta narrative. Mumbai is pushing towards a new dynamism in its cultural endeavor while Chennai celebrates a kind of ‘tradition’ and ‘religion’. New Delhi is slowly turning into a melting pot for new ideas, where consumerism and commerce playa vital role.

New Delhi having entered the mainstream of the global phenomenon is producing and celebrating a difference. Being the capital, it is where the brightest and the best of film, fashion and food come together.

All the 12 artists in the exhibition have lived largely in the city of Delhi. At some point in time they have all had a movement backwards and forwards, whether from the rural to the urban or from within to without. Questioning their own geographical position in the city, its multilayered existence, which is seen in their works and personalities. Bringing together a new genre of artistic practice, imbued with a new cosmopolitism the artists exhibit a crossing and blurring of boundaries and mediums.

The availability of new media, materials and technologies has brought about a number of innovations in the form and framing of each artwork. Their performative gesture now engages in a response- expectation circuitry with the audience. This innovative appearance in visual culture has come to be applied with multiple art forms. The idea of bringing together the dispersed elements in a fresh ensemble becomes the singular language of the exhibition. A reliance on interdisciplinary skills in collaboration with heterogeneous materials brings about a new dynamism – a home coming of the material.

The words material and materiality carry ambivalent meanings in vernacular English. On the one hand, material is defined as “things that are material, ” which emphasizes the physical aspect of things; on the other hand, it means “something which can be worked up or elaborated, or of which anything is composed. ”

Charged with philosophical and aesthetic implications throughout the modern period, the multivalence of material, often accompanied by the word “materiality,” has surfaced as one of the crucial aspects framing the characteristics of media.

Although the focus of the argument lies in the new mode of production that marks the advent of the modern era, the discourse on the “material turn” in the field of art in the early twentieth century can hardly be missed. Clement Greenberg, made an enormous effort to redefine the value of the work of art. “It is by virtue of its medium that each art is unique and strictly itself. For the visual arts the medium is discovered to be physical; hence pure painting and pure sculpture seek above all else to affect the spectator physically.” Greenberg’s emphasis on the significance of physicality in visual arts as such came out of his defense of the avant guarde art that was undergoing the tendency to reveal the “materiality” of pictorial space often times through the use of incongruous materials for the effect of differentiating the surface. The battle reveals that the focus of the discourse on material was shifting dramatically. Material that had been merely part of form, as opposed to content meaning of an art, became the defining factor of what is art and what is not.

‘Material turn’ entailed multivalent factors and an equally complex reception in the early twentieth century. The material aspect of things thus blurred, the very meaning of material becomes associated with the abstractness of things,’ which prompts the use of its nominalization, “materiality” in the late twentieth century.

The notion of materiality plays a crucial role in locating the media as a paradigm, which IS articulated by its relationship to form and content of a medium.

The “surface effect” is one of the multifaceted features of the texture of modern media, which implies that “any medium can be translated into another.” Manovich underestimates the common ground shared by modern media and “new” media.

Increasingly, however, the breakdown of absolute notions of space is transforming traditional cartographic practices.

The multidimensionality and the multi-directionality of cyberspace mapping shifts us from absolute to navigable space, and from the assumption of one homogeneous space to multiple overlapping spaces relative to the users and the practices involved

Media – and, in particular, digital technologies – have altered our relationship to the material world.

The new frontier of craft, decorative arts and design, where the boundaries among creative disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred. This probing and experimental foray into the significance of the applied arts and design as they relate to the human body crosses traditional boundaries among the arts and embodies expanded mission.

Not only does this new emergence in art practices give India a new reading and making of art history, but it also creates a bridge between the cultural divide. Bringing in of a new trajectory, while retaining its cultural traditions. The Indian cultural sphere seems to be in a debate between conservative and the liberal, the revivalist and the progressive, the socialist and the consumerist, the indigenist and the international. The multiplicity and disjuncture’s which exist in India empowers her. Where the ancient and cyber- space coexist.

From a bowl of spiritual ideas, the land of Buddhism, Gandhi, Vendatic thought and Yoga a paradigm shift has happened. India has become the largest bowl of technological outsourcing, to consumer markets. Confusion and clarity compete with each other. In a world of dizzying technological advancements, identity is becoming an important issue. The technological revolution has obliterated time and distance, resulting in the breakdown of boundaries and the inclusion of foreignness within culture. Rebellion and conformity form the two extremes that challenge this generation. This energy felt in the urban centers, is doubling at a rate, which is breathless. It is this breathlessness which is also refreshing and enervating.

Dr. Alka Pande
Curator