The Art Column: May 25th, 2018, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit

(photo credit: The Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, Rekha Rodwittiya)

 

Rekha Rodwittiya’s art underlines a strong feminist position and engages with the socio-politics of the world, says Anjali Purohit

Rekha Rodwittiya has been known to be a painter who engages with the socio-politics of the world, its contradictions and inequalities. Her art underlines a strong feminist position as also her reaction to the many issues that confront women.

In the artist’s words, ‘… I hold as consistent the desire to examine the feminine space of survival, the spirit of female endurance and the empowerment of pride and self-dignity that centuries of feminist oral histories are infused by, as the territory from which my work takes shape’.

The Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, is presenting her work at the show, Songs from the Blood of the Weary (Dialogues of Peace), which will run until mid-August.

Songs from the Blood of the Weary was first created by Rekha as part of an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the United Nations at Geneva in 1995 which brought together 12 paintings in the form of a painted room. Additional works from the collection of Sakshi Gallery form part of the present show. Together they provide us an understanding of the artist’s journey and the issues that are central to her work.

Rodwittiya says, ‘…in a world where atrocities are committed against women in the name of upholding traditional values, a focus to redress this is vital if we are to define true liberty for all humanity…’.

However, there are ways art can pose a challenge, be disruptive, confrontational and subversive without being destructive. The entire oeuvre of Rekha’s work demonstrates this very fine balance. Rich and nuanced, her paintings do not ‘explain themselves’ or offer a singular narrative but suggest meanings through the placing and character of the figures and the use of metaphor.

The metaphors consist of objects (often repeated like a refrain in a song) and the relative size and structure of human figures on the canvas especially that of women. The woman in Rodwittiya’s paintings is strong and corporeal. This confidence comes from laying claim to a heritage of feminist practice which she has elsewhere described as her ‘gifts of legacy’ where, in her words, ‘my complete belonging is within the womb of my feminist ancestry…’.

A collection of these metaphors is what Rekha describes as her ‘lexicon’ or vocabulary through which she creates her art. Objects such as a spade, fish, scissors, leaves, locks, dice, boats and airplanes, maps, are infused with significance when juxtaposed with human figures that play out a dramatic statement on each canvas—the position and ‘pose’ of the hands and fingers acting as clues or prompts (or ‘mudras’, as Rekha calls them) to the script.

The palette, predominantly red, brown, yellow and grey has been put to great effect in her haunting work, Burnt Earth Yields Strange Fruit. This is the artist’s articulation of her outrage at honour killings, female infanticide and dowry deaths. The title bears a disquieting throwback to the Abel Meeropol poem (sung by Billie Holiday) Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit, about lynching in the Jim Crow era. This becomes even more chilling for us today because of growing instances of brutality that have a real danger of becoming ‘normalised’ and not being ‘strange’ any more.

Finally, I leave you with this.

This show is at the JNAF Gallery, which is itself housed in the CSMVS. Tourist buses bring people from the mofussil on a Mumbai Darshan. They are impressed by the ancient museum pieces and then sometimes a family, wanting to investigate what lies in the east wing of the second floor, stumbles into the art gallery. One such large family with several unruly children was there when I visited the exhibition. While the other children ran about chasing each other through the space, I noticed one eight-year-old girl standing, quiet and absorbed, in the ‘painted room’. It was one of those rare private moments that pass without much notice. She didn’t want to leave even after several calls from her father. I believe that while art criticism must play its part in placing an artwork in the context of art history and aesthetic theory, being privy to the sight of this little girl was significant validation as well. I don’t know who she was but did send out a silent wish to her saying, ‘may your tribe increase’.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

The column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here –  http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/burnt-earth-yields-strange-fruit/article_223596

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The Art Column: May 4th, 2018: Three Storeys of Art

(photo credit: The Delhi Art Gallery-DAG)

 

A show such as this bears several visits to soak in the richness that it holds, says Anjali Purohit

Tucked away at the Kala Ghoda precincts, in the by-lane off what we knew till now as the Rhythm House, is a charming, finely appointed home for art that had quietly opened its doors in Mumbai five years ago. In a beautifully restored colonial era building, the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) has successively offered some exceptional art collections in India.

Spread over three floors, a visit to the gallery is especially captivating because this tiered placing of the artworks gives a discerning gallerist great manoeuvrability to experiment, each floor of the compact space offering almost a canvas on which to place the curation of the show as a work of art itself. One is then taken through the exhibition in stages, the works on the ground floor yielding to a different vista on the first floor and then reaching the top in conclusion. Having viewed the three tiers, you descend, again to view the earlier tiers and perhaps ‘see’ the art works there in a new light making the experience much more immersive and participative than if the entire collection was placed in one large and open gallery space.

Presently, the DAG is showing its gallery collection, Manifestations of Indian Art. If the three floors have been used to display photography, figurative art and abstract art respectively, then one would subconsciously expect the abstract to be on the highest floor. However, it perhaps is one of the aims of curation to be disruptive (of expectations) and subversive (in content) as this show begins with abstraction, moves to figurative and ends with photography.

Abstract art from artists like S H Raza, Natwar Bhavsar, S K Bakre, Ambadas is on display. J Sultan Ali’s painting Festival Bull (reminiscent of the bull on Indus Valley seals) is especially striking, incorporating as it does tribal art, mythology and folklore against the suggestion of an agrarian setting.

Ascending the wooden steps, the intermediary landing space bridges the abstract and the figurative sections by four truly remarkable woodcuts from Hiren Das. At a time when the popular conception of ‘art’ did not go beyond painting and sculpture, it was the brilliance of printmakers like Das, Somnath Hore and Chittoprosad, in the mid-twentieth century that placed printmaking firmly in the realm of art. These three artists from Bengal were witness to the horrors of the Bengal famine but, while Hore and Chittoprosad’s work reflected these conditions in all their painful and brutal starkness, Hiren Das chose to focus closely on the depiction of the details of a quieter rural life.

The human body is the focus of the next tier with paintings such as M R Achrekar’s brilliant watercolour and K H Ara striking gouache on paper, depicting the female nude at rest, inward looking and unselfconscious. Other works include F N Souza, Akbar Padamsee and, surprisingly, two beautiful nudes in oil from Chittaprosad, the great chronicler of human suffering and political art.

However, for me, the most arresting and haunting canvas is the one from Sunil Das from his Prostitute series. The scribbled-on walls, an overhanging naked bulb, the lack of colour but for an all-pervading grey, highlight the squalor of Sonagachi and the posture and eyes of the two figures (evidently the prostitute and her customer) are deeply revealing as well as disturbing.

The next section consists of the photography of Nemai Ghosh who was a close associate of Satyajit Ray for over 25 years, recording with his camera almost every moment of Ray’s cinematic life. Much before movie stars were particular about which profile to show the camera, great trust with photographers meant that they were often photographed off guard and in candid moments. Accordingly, we have candid and beautiful portraits of actors such as Sharmila Tagore, Smita Patil, Simi Garewal, Amjad Khan, Jaya Bhaduri, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and others.

One then descends again from the ‘realism’ of the camera, through the figurative interpretation of the human body and, after a final look at abstraction, walks out of the DAG into the ‘real’ world knowing that such a show bears several visits to soak in the richness that it holds.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

This column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here: http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/three-storeys-of-art/article_222270

The Art Column: April 20th 2018: A Montage of Masterpieces

(photo credit: Gallery7)

As Indian art encompassing 150 years goes on display and sale, Anjali Purohit draws up a personal wish list

The New Year Sale exhibition at Gallery 7 offers a collection that reflects the keen eye of a gallerist who has spent over four decades in promoting and showcasing some of the best names in the art world. It reflects a discerning yet eclectic aesthetics and offers a montage of Indian art through the past 150 years. It is, then, an opportunity for us to view the original works of a whole (I’m almost tempted to say, ‘pantheon’) representative sweep of Indian art as it evolved from the early twentieth century to the present. Names we have heard, artworks we have seen in pictures but now have occasion to see in the original. Additionally, if it will tempt you, the gallery is offering these works at rather generous discounted prices ranging from 25 to 75 per cent of market price.

It is impossible to describe 100 works by 50 masters in the space of a column. Instead, I give you my own personal ‘wish-list’ from the show:
On display is a set of ink drawings by F N Souza, one of the founding members of The Progressive Group, which are exquisite suggesting as they do the tension within the man-woman relationship and an impatience with the quotidian. These demonstrate how restraint and an economy of line can still result in such a powerful statement.

Bikash Bhattacharjee’s mix media painting Doll is sinister and disturbing. This is from his subversive Doll Series which were in response to the violence, disquiet and turbulence that could not have escaped anyone living in Bengal in the early ’70s. As in all of Bikash’s works, these paintings too are rich with suggestion, strong yet nuanced and offer multiple narratives that draw the viewer into its vortex.

Several works by the artist, printmaker and sculptor Somnath Hore are on show. Hore is known for his works that were a reaction to the severe times that he witnessed in Bengal during the first half of the 20th century, namely, the Bengal famine of 1943 and the Tebhaga movement. I saw at least four drawings in ink by Hore, one (untitled) suggesting figures inalienably tied to their land and their plough and then two works on ecru paper that has ‘Runglee Rangliot, the legendary Darjeeling tea, nothing else is quite the same’ printed on it. On this paper, then, is a drawing of a defeated figure slumped at a table on which stands an empty glass and an overturned bottle and the other is a skeletal vendor with a beedi between his fingers squatting with an empty basket behind him. The irony cannot be missed and this itself is that which makes these two drawings particularly distressing and poignant.

M V Dhurandhar was a prominent painter during the British era. Apart from mythological themes, he also depicted women captured during their quotidian occupations. A set of three small format pencil drawings from this artist is on offer and make for a beautiful vintage montage of that period framed as they are in a single frame. These are dated around 1910-11.

Then, of course, there are several works from Husain. Particularly, an oil on board, Baby Jesus and two Donkeys from his Mother Teresa Series and a mix media work in shades of copper and black called Cyprus-Ten which is rich with symbolism and vivacity.

Exceptional also are the works by Bhupen Khakker, Sakti Burman, Badri Narayan, K G Subramanyan, Akbar Padamsee, Altaf, K K Hebbar, Jogen Chowdhury and more. Don’t miss this chance to view (and perhaps own) artworks from some of the finest Indian artists.

 

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

The Column in the ADC48hrs can be viewed here – http://www.afternoondc.in/48-hrs/a-montage-of-masterpieces/article_221215

The Art Column: April 6th: The Smell of Pepper and Jasmine

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This is the first of a fortnightly column in the newspaper Afternoon Despatch & Courier. I will be posting reviews of art shows in town –

The Smell Of Pepper And Jasmine

Friday, April 06, 2018

(photo credit: Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke)

Nine painters from Kerala come together to showcase the shared locality of their artistic practice and highlight their own individual preoccupations and styles. Anjali Purohit visits the exhibition

In the frantic pace of metropolitan living there is often a wish to escape to a place that will offer some respite from the blinding reflections in the glass-chrome-concrete monolithic ideal that our city is racing towards. That is when thoughts turn to the cool, green, salubrious surrounds of, where else but, the abundance of god’s own country. Till such time as one can plan a trip there-wards, however, we have Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke that brings the lush abundance of that state to Colaba in the form of the show Nine Painters from Kerala.

These are nine painters who have had a longstanding association with the gallery but are being shown together for the first time with the belief that the exhibition will evidence the shared locality of their artistic practice as well as highlight their own individual preoccupations and styles. The artists, Abul Hisham, Aji V.N., Arun K.S., C.K. Rajan, Jyothi Basu, Ratheesh T., Siji Krishnan, Sosa Joseph and Vinod Balak hold dialogue with each other through their work which also demonstrates their rootedness in the land from which these works arise—the culture and milieu of Kerala. The paintings on display begin to offer, by the way of complement and contrast, a vivid montage of the land in which they are grounded but then further take off from this point to express their own preoccupations with themes such as social structures, self, family, untamed nature, alienation, desire, death, urban realities and politics.

Rateesh T offer us a large work, The Smell of Pepper and Jasmine, which is a heady and immediately visceral one exuding as it does not only the smell of jasmine and pepper but also of the wet earth, of desire and fecundity. It is, I think, one of the strongest images that stays in one’s consciousness for quite a while.

Vinod Balak is equally powerful with his canvas, Last Supper, where he makes an arresting statement that depicts a ‘last supper’ with local political figures but which could well be situated in any other space in the nation. The figures are typically ranged around a table that holds empty plates and an enormous, ripe jackfruit just waiting to be cut opened and consumed.

Sosa Joseph’s art engages with the complex cultural mix of people in society, specifically her own native Mattancherry perhaps suggesting the intricate warp and weft of social relations that ought not to be rent.

Siji Krishnan presents a fascinating landscape depicted in washes of water colour on rice paper reminiscent of ancient parchment rolls. The colours in Snake Crosses the Landscape are soft, soothing, pastel. Here, an almost perfect and subtle landscape of rice fields peacefully coexisting with each other, of waterways and gently undulating mountains is disrupted by a snake crossing across almost end to end from the right to the left in the foreground. Dangerous or benign? As always with fine works of art, it is best this is left as an open question for the viewer to engage with.

This exhibition is surely one that must not be missed since these individual painters might have solo shows in the future, but the pleasure in ‘listening’ to these paintings hold a conversation with each other about a love that is shared for their land, is an opportunity that might not come again anytime soon.

Do also immerse yourself in the current exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (across the road from the CSMVS Museum) where Art & Soul Gallery has curated an important retrospective exhibition of over 150 works by the legendary artist, Manu Parekh. Taken together, this show offers a comprehensive viewing of his over sixty years of extensive artistic practice and the depth, diversity and significance of his art. This exhibition will run till the 15th of April.

‘Nine Painters From Kerala’

Date March 9, 2018 to May 3, 2018

Venue The Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, First Floor, Sunny House, 16/18 Mereweather Road, Behind Taj Mahal Hotel, Colaba

Day & Time Tuesdays to Saturdays
11 am to 7 pm

Anjali Purohit is a writer, painter, poet, translator and conceptual vagabond with a yen for gadding about town.

 

(published in The Afternoon Despatch & Courier here)