Leading artists across generations present their world view while delving into traditional art practices.
Curated by Veer Munshi, the exhibition was on display at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai until 19 January 2018 and will be on view at Art District XIII, New Delhi from 1 February to 15 April.
Weaving tradition into art
A close interaction with tradition as integral to the development of new artistic expression is embedded in the evolution of Indian art from the early 20th century, when artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Jamini Roy of the Bengal School rejected the sterile, imitative style of western academic art and sought inspiration in folk-art and ancient Indian painting. In post-colonial India, while artists also looked westward in order to adopt European modernism, abstraction and other elements so as to make them more relevant on the International stage, several artists continued to revitalise India’s cultural heritage and spirituality, using indigenous elements in their paintings.
At the turn of the 21st century, with artists having explored every idiom and every medium, there is once again a need to infuse an originality and singularity into the world of Indian art and aesthetics. In most contemporary artistic endeavours, seeking inspiration in tradition has often been critiqued as a loss of creativity – with traditional and folk art being associated with derivative, imitative and repetitive iconography and imagery. “Presevering Traditions – The Warp and the Weft” showcases the works of 14 Indian artists who, at some point of time in their practices, have fallen back on tradition to broaden their artistic expression and oeuvre, and have been successful in their attempts.
The exhibition explores the variety of ways in which these artists have borrowed from, or been inspired by, traditional forms, languages and iconographies while still remaining relevant in a contemporary context. The participating artists represent a broad gamut of art practices from stalwarts like K.G. Subramanyan, one of India’s pioneering modernists, and art educator Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, to younger artists like L.N. Tallur, Manjunath Kamath and B.R. Shailesh.
Conflating the old and the new
Upon entering Sakshi Gallery, on the first wall were a series of six works by Anju Dodiya with whimsical titles such as Sufi’s Walk (2010), Bed Under the Stars (2010) and Pillar Lullaby (2010). Dodiya uses her usual style of referencing various traditional sources in her work – from Renaissance paintings and Indian miniatures in the past, to Victorian-style wallpaper backgrounds in this series. The draughtsmanship skill and the meticulous detailing of Mughal and Pahari painting are recognisable in the work of both Gulam Mohammed Shaikh and Jagannath Panda – in the interspersed motifs of the former’s Portraits of Artists (2014) and the latter’s Trance Land (2017).
B.R. Shailesh’s motorised installation Kshira Dhara (2016-17) is a sardonic twist on the cleansing Ayurvedic treatment of the same name, while Manjunath Kamath’s untitled, half-broken, terracotta wall-art celebrates India’s storytelling culture with the artist’s characteristic satirical wit. It is this underlying sense of humour and an element of absurdity that adds an interesting twist to many of the exhibits, as they remain true to their traditional roots – in the multiplicity of motifs of Surendran Nair’s Alibis of the Cognates (2015); the conflation of Indian-miniature iconography and photography in Waswo X. Waswo’s The Observationist at Leisure in a Stolen Garden (2017); the simple folk-art style of K.G. Subramanyan and the fantastical surreal world of Madhvi Parekh’s Man Curving a Bird.
In another homage to the history of Indian art, N.S. Harsha’s large untitled watercolour works, Rekha Rodwittiya’s multimedia paintings Matters of the Heart (2013), L.N Tallur’s Sunken History – Two (2017), Ravinder Reddy’s wide-eyed woman’s bust and V. Ramesh’s oil painting of a mythical half human-half tiger divine creature – all draw on a spectrum of traditional Indian painting themes and techniques.
Art Radar spoke to the curator, Veer Munshi about how “Persevering Traditions” was conceived and his curatorial experiences during the realisation of the project.
In a country where tradition is the common thread in all aspects of creative enterprise, how did this exhibition come about? Could you share with Art Radar the genesis of this idea?
An art practitioner is self-critiqued about art and its dynamics. Curation on the other hand offers the chance to address some of the overhanging issues in the mind during the walkthrough of art history. In “Persevering Traditions”, roots are the central theme. Art practice in modern times is conditioned around either rootedness or up-rootedness .
What was the curatorial vision that you used while choosing the 14 artists represented in the show, and what was your own creative process in the final choices of the works on display?
The modern meaning of tradition can be seen as having evolved in the European discourse in the last two hundred years or so. Yet artists in “Persevering Traditions” are connected in one way or the other to rootedness and my research revolves across generations, to bring these 14 artists who have been carrying their roots along. I try not to choose artists who are influenced directly or indirectly by western practices – whose art has emerged out of agonising conditions of migration and displacement in post-independence India. There has been a shift from the practice of tradition, post the Bengal School and Kalighat periods. Maybe Jamini Roy was the last one to carry traditions holistically.
This exhibition attempts to delve into and explore ways in which various artists have borrowed from, been inspired by, negotiated with or plainly imitated traditional forms, the language of tradition and its different facets while still remaining relevant in a contemporary context.
In the exhibition, you have explored how artists have borrowed from the aesthetics of the past, in various ways, while still remaining relevant in a contemporary context. Was the underlying inspiration from traditional elements that you saw in each work different from the artists’?
Art is an extension of the Self, which emerges from belongingness, tradition, heritage and experience. Though it is generally agreed upon that interaction with tradition is integral to the development of new artistic expression, in most contemporary artistic endeavour, tradition has often been portrayed as a contrast to creativity – with traditional and folk art associated with unoriginal imitation or repetition in the context of modern art practices, which are valued for being ‘original’ and ‘unique.’ Language or medium are the paths one uses in different times.
Each of the artists have explored possibilities in their own language, balancing the modern and contemporary with equal strength, with traditional values intact. See K.G. Subramanyan, who explored material and imagery so well from tradition, yet remained contemporary. So simple yet aesthetically blessed.
As an artist yourself, how do you draw from Indian tradition in your own practice? Do you see the thousands of years of history and civilisation that we have inherited as a boon or is it a challenge that artists face in modern art practice?
Coming to my own practice, my experiences transformed my visual sensibility – the personal turns political. Presently, I am collaborating with traditional craftspeople to connect their art with contemporary imagery – to speak of the present turmoil in conflict areas, yet keep the richness of their craft and skill intact.
When I show “Pandit Houses” I raise concerns about vernacular architecture and heritage and related to that, preserving our history, which germinates from an ancient civilisation, Aryan culture and the Vedic way of life. Kashmir, the land of sages and sufis, that is the strength one looks to derive from.
How are contemporary artists today different from artists of the early 20th century in their interpretations of traditional art and aesthetics?
I believe contemporary artists question and explore their own roots more than those in the past, who more or less thrust personal emotionality on their art, side-stepping its effects on the social and political spectrum. The present generation draws their advantage from their roots, they are globally connected yet carry their roots along.
While on the topic of conflating the old and the new, what is your personal wish list for the direction you would like to see Indian contemporary art take in the new year?
I believe we need to take our legacy forward. The main thrust will be to delve deeper into our tradition and heritage – the strength as we know in our craft, textile or folk music flowing from our cultural moorings. That is our core competence in the world. It is more important to look in rural areas where there artists who are more connected to their roots and who need to be encouraged, rather than limit art to the elite in the cosmopolitan areas.
“Presevering Traditions – The Warp and the Weft” is on view from 1 February 2018 to 15 April 2018, at Art District XIII, F-213C, GF, Old M B Road, Lado Sarai, New Delhi 110030.
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