Shanay Jhaveri curates a show probing the influence of Indian classical music on modern and contemporary art.
“Everything we do is music” explores the ways in which artists have created works inspired by Indian classical music, ranging from the abstract to the conceptual and the subliminal.
Sandwiched between storage units and international freight companies, the high, steel door of the Drawing Room in London opens to the exhibition “Everything we do is music”. The context of imports, exports and coffers of unknown items chimes with an exhibition where antique Indian mystical traditions are found in continuum with contemporary international culture.
The exhibition unfolds from three Ragamala Paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. Ragamala are figurative works at the intersection of art, poetry and music. They evoke the ragas of classical Indian music, creating the moods, suggestive of season and time of day, and are populated with the Hindu deities associated with specific compositions.
In the exhibition, one of the Ragamala is unfinished. On a scrap of fibrous paper, it shows two figures, delineated in a sepia line of ineffable delicacy. With both precision and ease, it feels as if the drawing has picked up an exact design already present in the randomly interlaced strands of the paper. Other works too seem to have occurred as a result of sensitivity to normally imperceptible resonances. The contemporary departs at many tangents from the tapestry of classifications that define the musical raga, ranging from tonic, to structure, cadence and narrative.
In the exhibition, the bond between drawing and music is a momentum where drawing is both act and outcome. Raga recitals can be sampled on headphones staged around the gallery. A recording of Raag Desh, the late evening rag associated with the monsoon season, can be heard beside a work it inspired, Composition (1988) by Sabah Husain, in which a vivacious calligraphic mark, traversing two sheets of Kozo paper, distills the extended passage of music into a liquid calligraphy. In another instance, a series by Michael Müller, commissioned for this exhibition, interacts with a variant of the early morning Raag Todi. Like the music, Müller’s works are built of layers and sections with an ordered pallet. A subtle patina on multiple individual pieces of paper seems to correspond to the harmonic drone. An irregular window frames the sheets; composed of right angles it implies the modal structure or thaat. Its flat colour is also suggestive of mood. Across these rectilinear elements a gestural line alludes to the descent over the drone in the music.
Curator Shanay Jhaveri, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, has previously produced books and exhibition projects that concern Indian artists connected to Europe, as well as American and European artists and filmmakers residing in India. In this exhibition the transaction between artists from different cultural backgrounds vindicates his comment, in an interview with Verve magazine:
I always try to formulate relationships between works that would never appear alongside one another, developing a constellation which asks questions instead of offering definitive statements.
Jhaveri is active in programming film as well as curating, so the moving image also plays a part here, most prominently in Pakistani Shahzia Sikander’s Disruption as Rapture (2016). The projection, with a vertical orientation, overlays animation directly above images from the Gulshan-i ‘Ishq (‘Rose Garden of Love’) manuscript, produced in the Sothern Indian Deccan Region in 1743, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The movement of new elements bring the ancient works vividly back to contemporary life.
By contrast, works by Lala Rukh, Vidya Sagar and Prabhavathi Meppayil hover at the limits of visibility and seem to echo the quietude of earlier aesthetics – their surfaces punctuated with understatement. Rukh’s series of “Hieroglyphics” (2008) are elongated horizontal rectangles that appear almost black. Painted in silver on carbon paper, disks represent precise intervals, like the whole notes of western musical notation detached from the staff lines, they maintaining dignified independence and respect for the discrete poise of their neighbours.
In twenty six seventeen (2017) by Prabhavathi Meppayil , copper wire, like the strings of a sitar, have been embedded in the surface of a gesso panel. The artist’s act of smoothing and caressing the gesso reveals glints of bright metal. Drawings on paper, all Untitled (1992-3), by Sagar similarly just brush the surface with graphite leaving ghostly traces, entities forming but refusing to linger as images.
would draw late into the night listening to Hindustani classical music. Observing the asymmetrical grids and floating diagonals of the artist’s pristine compositions, it is hard not to wonder what relationships might be found between the artworks and the melodies and vibrations of the music.
Indian classical music served as an inspiration for mid-century avant-garde composers and underground art-makers, such as John Cage, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in the United States and Tania Mouraud in France. The exhibition includes the posters Zazeela produced between 1978 and 1984 for Raga performances by Prandit Pran Nath.
Mouraud’s Initiation Rooms were unfurnished and completely white. The artist proposed that to experience music performed in such an environment created heightened self-awareness. A representation of this transformative effect can be seen in Argentinian Claudio Caldini’s movie Vadi-Samvadi (1976). The title refers to the notes of a raga and the film has a soundtrack of Indian classical music. Caldini sits at a desk operating a strange device where steam pressure turns a wheel; the scene gives way to a sequence of fast cut images that suggest a psychedelic experience.
Playing on the same monitor, placed directly on the floor of the gallery, is the video Kanku Raga (2007) by Hetain Patel. The work uses the artist’s own body but only his torso appears, repeated four times in a row, first from the front and then a back view. Hand gestures and slaps on the body, sometimes leaving pigmented marks, correspond to stroke of the tabla drum. It is a direct demonstration of correspondence between rhythm as sound and a cultural rhythm, repeating through the body of an artist, in Patel’s case, a British body rooted in Indian identities and traditions. Writing on Patel’s work for METRO, Wayne Burrows comments that it “operates not only in the grey area between East and West, but between different mediums, times and creative possibilities”.
The tabla player, Zakir Hussain, is the subject of photographs by Dayanita Singh. A photo book is shown in a vitrine in the centre of the gallery. She writes:
Unlike Western classical music, where all the notes are fixed and you interpret rather than elaborate, here you have these fixed notes on which you have to elaborate. It’s a question of how you combine these notes, and that’s your genius.
The exhibition highlights the ways in which artists have expanded the potentials inherent in the raga form. The collection of works seems to be diverse but it shares a unity, founded in treasuring the music.
“Everything we do is music” is on view from 30 November 2017 to 4 March 2018 at the Drawing Room, 8 Rich Estate, 46 Willow Walk, London SE1 5SF UK.
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