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Rooted, but branching out

Roots En Route, an exhibition put together by eight young artists, pushes the boundaries in art practices.

WHAT SETS Roots En Route apart from other art shows we have seen in Bangalore? Its sheer high spirits. Its easy belonging within the framework of globalisation. Its unafraid forays into new media and faraway horizons with the wide-eyed daring of a universal child. Its search for roots through bylanes and foreign climes; and unconcealed delight in hop-skip-jump explorations and detours for détente.

The show, curated by Alka Pande and Sushma Bahl for the British Council, encompasses the work of eight young Indian artists who have trained in the U.K.. On at the Gallery Sumukha till June 5, after touring New Delhi and Chennai, it will move to Mumbai on its last leg in August.

Though an almost I-ching-like randomness seems to have governed the selection of pan-Indian artists, the curators observe in their tantalising books-in-a-box catalogue: "Routes En Route is an attempt to speak of cross-cultural influences which have given these artists a `new' visual vocabulary, a new way of looking at their inner and external spaces, as well as the confidence to experiment with diverse materials and techniques, both local and global."

How does their overview apply to this almost celebratory exhibition? Ravikumar Kashi, who did a three-month stint at Glasgow, returned home to "pulp fiction", quite literally. At this show, he uses moulded paper pulp to present aspects of contemporaneity through T-shirt fronts depicting Gandhi's walking stick or the burning carriages of Godhra. Or TV "screens" holding our transient world of double-edged messages and fleeting attention up for introspection. Or even personalised diaries showcasing flitting media views, sandwiched between ruminations.

Pampa Panwar from Shantiniketan, mentored in London, reacts with four evocative, lyrical acrylic on canvas works representing the four English seasons, a far cry from our monsoon-centric existence.

Kolkata-based Eleena Banik abandons her paintings in a tropical palette in favour of installations such as the work of global memory titled The Dream Land after the Milky Way, which threads paper bags and collected lullabies together, or a work of gaily unfurled umbrellas trembling with lyricism. Elsewhere, she hangs giant paper boats filled with poetry against painted acrylic boxes in Memory Park.

Mumbai's Bose Krishnamachari, noted for his breakaway installations, veers away to commandeer British signage and poster art to his own ends, upending advertising creeds with the subtle thrust of his outsized watercolour and pencil billboards-like works. Rajnish Kaur, now based in New Delhi, reacted to her London experiences with a painted tent, though rather crude, perhaps suggesting the notion of waking up within a painting. And acrylic and oil paintings on boxboard that appear to signal seething upheavals within the domain of colour, the play of light.

Ranbir Kaleka, who shuttles between London and New Delhi, shares a six-minute looped DVD video installation with sound within a hand-painted frame on wheels, initiated at the 2002 Khoj workshop at Mysore. Yoking together popular notions of romance and theatre, he creatively unites popular Hindi film songs with aspects of communal disharmony in a quirky, irresistible work. Currently on a residency in Amsterdam, Saharanpur-born Sonia Khurana pieces together a single channel 26-minute video work deceptively titled Sweet Nothings. Delving deep into aspects of displacement and notions of home space, she intersperses the faces/ voices of an elderly British woman shattered by war and her Punjabi counterpart devastated by the Partition, tracking their emotional trajectories as their stories reconstruct their lives up to today. It is a poignant, deeply human document, challenging at a conceptual level, though not technically brilliant.

Andhra-based G. Ravinder Reddy, instantly recognisable for his distinctive female forms, continues along his chosen track with outsized, painted polyester resin and fibreglass heads. Individualistic as always, these vivid-hued sculpted large-eyed icons in orange or blue delight with their ornamentation, crossed with faintly Elizabethan headgear, but otherwise show little of the impact of his sojourn abroad. Perhaps it reinforced his feeling of Indianness, his current assertion of identity.

As for Samit Das from New Delhi, who studied Book Art in London in 2001, his contribution to the show's textured feel is its unconventional catalogue. Based on a box, held together by multi-coloured batik fragments and overlapping flaps, it brings together backgrounders on the artists and jottings by them, glimpses of some works, and essays by the curators. That's besides pieces by London-based independent curator, Catherine Lampert, and her counterpart in Mumbai, Arshiya Lokhandwala, and an illuminating dialogue with artist-pedagogue, K.G. Subramanyan.

How was this exercise in art sans frontiers voiced by its practitioners? How have they adapted to easy access to distant cultures, to notions beyond libraries through museums, to being allowed the dignity of individuality? "I've learnt that art cannot be neutral," emphasises Kashi, reflecting on his current preoccupation with art as a tool of conscious communication. "It is political to an extent. So is history, which is inevitably linked to the economy."

In a written conceptual note, Banik expands: "I'm working on the concept of my voice against violence as a woman.

I feel it is my duty to deliver my message of peace and creativity. I'm trying in my own humble way to soothe the world."

At last year's Khoj, Kaleka had said: "I treat video art as a democratic tool, almost like a sketchpad, toying with ideas I've had for a while. In India, video art still lags behind the West. It's useful to look at art within its age, time, and context."

Where will Roots En Route lead? To notions beyond the homegrown in art interpretation.

To flexing boundaries of art practice, cross-media, cross-cultures, perhaps even cross-gender. To questioning the veracities propounded at art schools, upturning concepts and conventions too long enshrined on pedestals.

And inevitably, to a destination unknown, seldom visualised, but a hazy conceptual dream.

ADITI DE

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