A photo-walk through Dadar’s Parsi colony in Mumbai

How do you escape the non-stop movement of a metropolis like Mumbai, while living in it?

Well, finish that Sunday brunch of yours and head out to Dadar’s verdant Parsi colony area for a countryside-like experience, ironically, in the centre of Mumbai city. Dotted with tree-lined pavements, the colony is more than a hundred years old, and is seen as a “paradise” of the endangered Parsi community; a fading remnant of its glorious past.

In 2015, the colony made it to the news as its residents protested an official onslaught on their heritage, which would have cluttered this pristine area with hawkers and street stalls. The plan was soon withdrawn.

The exclusivity of this enclave, where around 10,000 Parsis live, has remained intact. In 2009, its residents won a six-year-long lawsuit that restrained a builder from selling flats to non-Parsis.

When compared to the rest of an over-crowded and polluted city, the Dadar Parsi colony appears unreal and suspended in time; its old-world charm fragile in its existence. The threat of hawkers and an urban redevelopment is part of the existential crisis confronting Indian Parsis today.

“Locally, this central urban enclave is everything that this great Indian city [Mumbai] is not: low-rise, languorous, its 25 acres embracing 14 gardens, its roads lined with pavements and 30 species of trees including the rare mahogany and ebony. Bird-call triumphs over traffic-honk. Most exceptionally, it is untouched by Mumbai’s signature slums…but for how long can this urban idyll remain?” wrote Bachi Karkaria, a Parsi, in The Guardian.

The Indian Parsis owe their ancestry to Zoroastrian refugees, who fled Iran due to the Islamic persecution and arrived on the western coast of Gujarat around 8th century. The Indian census of 2011 put their number to less than 60,000, from more than 100,000 before the independence. Mumbai has the largest concentration of Parsis in India, and according to some estimates they are numbered around 45,000 in the city. Parsi colonies are located in different parts of the “Town”, as it is popularly called; some enclaves are also situated in suburban areas such as Andheri and Goregaon.

A culturally refined and entrepreneurial race, this close-knit community’s contribution to the making of colonial Bombay has been often documented. However, a “combination of racial pride and fear…of being appropriated by half castes” has blocked the ethnic community’s expansion.

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Alibag’s artsy affair

It was an advertisement of an art exhibition that led me to Alibag, a sleepy coastal town south of Mumbai.

Famous for its scenic beaches and sprawling properties of the rich, Alibag is also a holiday destination for art and culture aficionados, besides being a weekend respite for Mumbai residents. I spent a day looking at — collectibles and contemporary art-works at The Guild gallery, the multi-disciplinary repertoire of artist Dashrath Patel, and a permanent showcase of Vinayak Pandurag Karmarkar’s sculptures.

IMG_0800The Guild art gallery, Alibag

IMG_0805Collectibles at The Guild

IMG_0804Collectibles at The Guild

IMG_0806The Guild courtyard

IMG_0845Dashrath Patel Museum, Alibag

IMG_0842Painting by Dashrath Patel

IMG_0831Sculptures by Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar

An elaborate brunch awaited us at Bohemyan Blue, a garden café nestled in the wilderness of Alibag. Sitting in the verandah, we gorged on a large meal, which comprised of scrambled eggs, aloo paranthas, chicken sandwich, pots of coffee, and carrot beetroot juice. It poured heavily; there were no other guests to be seen, besides a friend and myself. As we ate, we beheld the luxuriant foliage of the property, and found ourselves captivated by the stillness of Alibag.

We walked towards a patch of wild vegetation, near the café, which hosted the stay area of a dozen luxury tents for tourists. The land had a swimming pool and an al fresco restaurant, where the radio was playing. There were no listeners, however.

IMG_0765Bohemyan Blue café

IMG_0771Bohemyan Blue café

IMG_0767Bohemyan Blue café

IMG_0799Bohemyan Blue gift shop

IMG_0797Bohemyan Blue café

The Alibag spell was soon broken when we reached Mumbai the following night. We grabbed a table at Café Universal, one of the city’s famous Parsi restaurants. The century-old café’s charming interior was a sight of redemption amid the stadium-like boisterousness of the guests.

That night, on my way back to my apartment from the café, I thought of the early morning in Alibag. It was a little before 6 a.m., when I had woken up to the sight of palm fronds soaked in rain. The morning felt crisp and tranquil, as if I’d never been tired. The short trip made me realise what we’re missing out on by living in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, and the harm they are causing us.

IMG_0756Drive around Kihim village

IMG_0761Drive around Kihim village

IMG_0859Sasawane village 

IMG_0856Varsoli beach

IMG_0852Varsoli beach

IMG_0860Varsoli beach

The 50:50 Home – Journeys beyond Mumbai and back

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A new art exhibition in Mumbai explores the circular journeys of migrant families between the city and their villages in Maharashtra’s Konkan region.

The title of the show, “Mumbai Return: Journey Beyond the City”, personifies a life divided between the twin spaces of the adopted home (Mumbai), and The Home (the migrant’s place of birth and early life). By implication, the exhibition is also an ongoing narrative about themes of home, belongingness, ancestry, and alienation from the migrant’s perspective.

However, the scope of its inquiry and research is not only limited to the familiar themes of home and dislocation. Curated out of a research project by an urban planning collective and a think-tank studying the future of global mobility, the exhibition analyses the transformation of cities and villages as a consequence of migration.

What does home mean to the migrants? Can a migrant belong to two different cultural and geographical spaces at the same time? What is the impact of that migration on their ancestral home? How do the “circular” migrants’ cultural roots shape their life in a new city? The exhibition, on view at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, seeks answers to these questions through mixed media art-works such as installations, films, architectural models, photographs and the traditional Warli painting.

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“For many Mumbaikars, home is here and there, stretched between two inescapable and complimentary polarities,” says the exhibition’s curatorial note. Just as the village house is transformed into an “aspirational city house”, thanks to the new money, some residential areas in Mumbai emanate the communal atmospherics of rural life. The transforming village home and the city flat constitute “the two inescapable and complimentary polarities”, cemented by the migrants’ desire to simultaneously belong to both these spaces.

Such “homegrown” neighbourhoods are Bhandup, Ghatkopar, Naigaon, Shivaji Nagar and Dharavi, the exhibition shows. The community of migrants in these areas live in close proximity to each other just the way they would, back in their villages, according to urbz architect Marius Helten. However, the proximity may also have to do with the city’s space constraints, unlike a village that has a lot more open space.

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Public transport systems of the railways, auto-rickshaws, and buses inevitably contribute to the paradigm of the circular migrant’s life. Artist Sandeep Bhoir essays this back-and-forth movement of migrants onto a large circular “canvas”, placed at the exhibition’s entry. Bhoir’s traditional Warli art-work represents two worlds, the idyllic pastoral life and the rhythmic chaos of cities. The folk element, which personifies the Warli art form, pervades the city-village representation. Perhaps, it’s an implicit pointer to the fact that the memory of “the historical” never fades, irrespective of a migrant’s present geographical location.

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The question of belongingness continues to return, or haunt, the migrant’s narrative. In one of the documentaries shown at the exhibition, a man says he belongs 50 percent to his village and the rest to his city home. The belongingness, he adds, is complete.

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The exhibition closes on July 31, 2017.  

Sculpting stillness in Alibag

A visit to the museum of Indian sculptor Vinayak Pandurang Karmarkar can be a surreal experience. Located in a sleepy, narrow lane of Alibag, a coastal town south of Mumbai, this permanent museum showcases sculptures of famous and common people, in different moods and garbs. The first floor of Karmarkar’s house has been converted into the museum, called Karmarkar Shilpalaya. The property was deserted, except for an old caretaker woman who led us into the museum.

The property’s lawns greeted us with some of Karmarkar’s works draped in plastic sheets because of the heavy monsoon. As we climbed up the stairs, we walked into a corridor lined with more than a dozen sculptures. The corridor led to a large, sunny hall housing the full collection. We spotted Mahatma Gandhi, Lokmanya Tilak, PC Ray, CR Das, Chatrapati Shivaji, and many members of the Karmarkar’s clan, including the artist’s “self-sculpture”.

The museum was shrouded in stillness, accentuated by the overall serenity of Alibag, a popular weekend getaway for Mumbai’s residents. Despite the ambient stillness, the sculptures evoked a living quality, and perhaps that is where lies Karmarkar’s mastery over the form of sculpture.

In 1964, the Alibag-born artist received the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours awarded by the central government. The award citation recognised him as one of India’s outstanding sculptors, whose repertoire includes a 14-feet high bronze statue of Shivaji in Pune.

A student of the Bombay School of Art and the Royal Academy of Art in London, Karmarkar toured Europe to study ancient and modern Western art, the citation added. His sculptures have been acquired by private collectors in England, Germany and the U.S. He died in 1967.

Despite being a well-known artist, there are only a handful independent blogs about his art. A Wikipedia entry has a brief bio-data, there are no news articles either. Like its obscure location, the museum has been reduced to a tourist spot on Alibag’s map.

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Rani Bagh, Mumbai’s green haven

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If you simply like looking at the trees, their twirling branches and the shadows they create, this is the place for you! This historical botanical garden, more than 150 years old, is Mumbai’s largest open green space and home to hundreds of species of plants and trees. This green haven in central Mumbai, spread over an area of over 50 acres, has multiple names. The garden’s original name is Victoria Gardens, which was renamed to Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan. It is popularly known as Rani Bagh, and has survived its original glory despite a multi-crore plan by the BMC to redevelop it.

A successful campaign to save the Bagh by a group of women culminated into a book, Rani Bagh: 150 Years – Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo. Released on the 150th anniversary of the Bagh, the book chronicles the Garden’s historical journey, the campaign to rescue the area from being destroyed, and its relationship with Mumbai. Given the fact that the Garden has been named after women, it is only befitting that a group of women decided to save it from extinction.

The Garden, adjacent to the Victorian-style Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla area, also has a zoo, a Sufi dargah or shrine, and some quaint spots to escape the overwhelming city humdrum. The best time to visit is, of course, during the monsoon season.

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Glimpses of Slovenian contemporary art in New Delhi

A new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art not only opens up an opportunity for showcasing Slovenian contemporary art to Indians, it is also a reflection of the artistic ambitions of a relatively new republic.

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Cultural Death II (or A Culture of Death II), Tina Dobrajc. (Photo – Ankush Arora)

Mounted inside the sprawling colonial-era building of New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) is a collection of artworks by artists from Slovenia, a small country in Europe that declared its independence from the erstwhile Yugoslavian federation not very long ago. It’s a rare artistic showcase to engage Indians with the rich contemporary art practices of the central European country that celebrated its 25th independence anniversary this year.

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New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. (Photo – Ankush Arora)

The exhibition, titled “Slovenindia”, is also part of the cultural exchange programme between India and Slovenia, and is supported by the National Museum of Slovenia.

The artworks form a heterogeneous mix of creations by established as well as young artists from Slovenia. Created with mixed media materials like acrylic, oil, duct tape, photographic prints and even backlight, the exhibition is also a reflection of the artistic thinking and ambition of a relatively new republic. A quick walk through the gallery of more than a dozen artworks reveals Slovenian artists being preoccupied with wide-ranging themes and questions – from the interpretation of natural landscapes to the more intense existential, creative and feminist topics; along with spiritual and abstract explorations.

Feminist, Existential, Creative Angst

The most striking painting– and perhaps the least abstract also – has been created by Tina Dobrajc, who shows a half-naked woman, wearing a Slovenian folklore headgear, and holding a pig in her arms. The image appears to give an impression of shifting vulnerabilities and strength of the two figures depicted on the canvas – the woman and the animal – and questions socially conformist ideas of female identity and sex. This uncanny work overturns “stereotypical female iconographies”, by placing the woman in “inappropriate and unexpected situations”.

In Sladana Mitrovic’s painting, the feminist overtones acquire an overtly abstract quality, by exploring the relationship between the female body, corporeality and identity. In her use of a bright blue colour in the background, with splotches of what looks like golden o brown, Mitrovic seems to be attacking the very notion of representation, and the cultural problems that arise out of a depiction when associated with the female body. In her feminist project, she goes a step further and questions the limits of the visible itself.

In Brina Torkar, who is also the curator of the show with Breda Sturm, the feminist, the existential, and the mythological overlap. The result is a painting of a natural landscape, titled “Atlanta”, which shows a woman meandering her way through a dense forest – as if she’s asking “where is my place on earth”. The myth of Atlanta, a virgin huntress abandoned by her father because he wanted a son, contributes to the feminist theme. At the same time, in the depiction of the person lost in wilderness, the microcosmic world of a human is juxtaposed with the so-called bigger happenings. In that larger juxtaposition, the feminist question of “where is my place on earth” gets transformed into an enquiry of the human being.

Within this trope of the personal angst, a unique abstract painting by co-curator Breda Sturm – which is titled “Turn on a New Page” – confronts the anxiety of a poet/artist, when he or she starts a new project with a blank page. Using mixed media on canvas, Strum, therefore, depicts the pre-creation stage of an artistic project on her canvas.

Creation (and by implication, the universe) takes on a stunningly exuberant artistic expression in the mixed media paintings of Spela Laela Cvetko. “Her way of seeing the world is playful and sunny,” according to the exhibition catalogue. Through the use of elemental symbols such a big dark yellow sun in the near-centre of the painting, she juxtaposes the so-called outer space against a circumscribing chaotic world. A samurai’s sword over-arches our view of Cvetko’s painting “It is all yours”, adding a playful quality to the whole artwork which may have otherwise looked more intense.

Cvekto’s two-worlds theme figuratively extends into Sergej Kapus “Inside the Cut”, that seeks to take a “flight beyond the terrestrial globe”. Apart from acrylic, the work uses digital prints of photographs to show the surface of Mars, a form of artistic “interplanetary voyage”.

Slovenian Wilderness

Of course, no discussion on creation is ever complete without talking about nature. And rightly so, especially if the artworks belong to a nature-rich country like Slovenia. The country, sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia, is home to Alpine mountains, thick forests, the Adrian Sea coast, and historic cities.

The representation of wilderness has a flirtatious narrative of its own in “Slovenindia” – so much so that the motif subsumes other parallel themes. For example, Simon Kajtna’s creation of a forest, with its atmospheric colours and phantasmagorical essence, has been likened to the Garden of Eden; and its art “reminiscent of the tradition of post-impressionism”. While Peter Gaber’s treatment of the forest is comparatively different, for the sake of artistic inquiry he may be somewhat like Brina Torkar’s mythologically charged painting “Atlanta”.  In his acrylic and sort-of abstract work “My Place in Nature”, Gaber paints “the artist’s relation to nature”. The painting has parallel brown lines that look like trees, done against a soft green background – in that geometry, and title of the work, there is probably an existential theme lurking somewhere.

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Forest in Red Light, Peter Gaber. (Source: artist’s website)

If Gaber’s working of nature is gentle and minimalist at the same time, Mito Gegic’s portrayal of “Autumn” and “Winter” might come across as typically gruff. His radical use of duct tape all over his acrylic work accentuates the coldness of the scene, combined violence, often represented through scenes of hunting. The pervasive duct tape also creates an impression of distorted reality.

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Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Mito Gegic. (Source: artist’s website)

On the other hand, the colours of nature explode in Andreja Erzen’s backlit works “Summer Afternoon” and “Night”. In their interaction of colour and light, these effervescent works are created in a kind of “painterly magic realism” style.

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Summer Afternoon, Andreja Erzen (Source: artist’s website)

The show thrives on such artistic innovations, where artists seek to push the envelope of their creative energies. In the end, you can argue that this project achieves a rare feat – that of hosting artworks by foreign artists in an Indian gallery, which is a irregular practice.

The current cultural exchange program between India and Slovenia also opens up the opportunity to showcase Indian art in Slovenia. While such national-level projects expose artists to a wider audience, such initiatives are few and far between.

Dipping into monochromatic memories with Indian modern artist Krishen Khanna

Review of a new permanent gallery inaugurated by Indian art auction house Saffronart in New Delhi

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Untitled; Krishen Khanna (Source: Saffronart)

Home to some of India’s best-known art galleries and museums, New Delhi witnessed the inauguration of a new permanent gallery in the centre of the city last week. The gallery opened at The Claridges hotel on Thursday, and is owned by Indian art auction house Saffronart. But it isn’t just another gallery where socialites and connoisseurs alike schmooze about artworks over cocktails. While the socialising bit may be an imminent possibility at any art event, what this new gallery does is celebrate works of one of India’s last surviving modern artists – Krishen Khanna, who was once a member of the radical Progressive Artists Movement.

Known for his larger-than-life expressionist style of figurative work, with its flat forms and extremely bold colours, Khanna turns to monochromatic drawings in his latest exhibition. His use of graphite (or Conte as a medium) and charcoal on the canvas creates an impression of a man “returning to his memory bank of images with a display of astounding energy, even grandeur.” (Gayatri Sinha, exhibition catalogue.)

“I have used monochrome because if there is something I want to say, it is best to avoid the dynamics of colour.”
– Krishen Khanna

About 30 artworks have been mounted at the present exhibition. Ninety-two-year-old Khanna, known for being an unschooled artist, made these drawings over the past four or five years. The works have been sourced from private collections. The exhibition comes after a recent series of his works at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, showcasing a mix of his black and white drawings, and some colourfully exuberant oil paintings.

The underlying motifs of Khanna’s present series are journey, dispossession, conflict and narratives of the battlefield – all rooted in historical events (India’s partition in 1947, which he witnessed when he was 22) and mythological/religious texts (the Mahabharata and the Bible) that have inspired him a great deal. In some of his works, the narratives of the real and the textual fuse together, and take the form of a kaleidoscope of the human condition. As he stretches the limits of the human form and animals (drawing on his expressionist influence), the canvas offers a peep into the artist’s consciousness. By implication, the artist transforms real-life events and a career-long preoccupation with these texts into an intensely subjective artistic experience.

“I have always tried to capture human emotions in my compositions – not make life studies.”
– Krishen Khanna

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‘Benediction on a Battlefield’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In ‘Benediction on a Battlefield’, a diptych painting, Khanna shows the Pandavas wishing farewell to Bhishma Pitamah before his death in the Mahabharata. It’s an image that the artist has worked on for decades, according to Sinha, and stitches together the narrative of the partition into the epic themes of heroism, conflict and “monumental” errors.

In the Benediction painting, Pitamah is seated on a chariot as he blesses the Pandava brothers. The wheel of the chariot has a special figurative significance not only because it is a recurrent motif in Khanna’s works, but serves as a pre-partition reminder of an important 18th century landmark in Lahore city. The “majestic canon”, also called the Zamzama, represents conquest and war. It may have been, Gayatri informs us, “reduced in Krishen’s childhood to a play thing for children.” After all, Khanna was born in Faisalabad (earlier called Lyallpur) in 1925, not far from the city of Lahore, a former British colony.

If the Zamzama is a reminder of the battlefield, it’s also a catalyst for displacement and mass migration, a common occurrence during India’s partition – which witnessed one of the greatest migrations in human history.

Like pre-partition born artist Satish Gujral, the bifurcation of India in 1947 is a dominant theme in Khanna’s oeuvre, who often draws migrants and their cattle undertaking a journey through patches of agricultural fields and water bodies. Given the magnitude of the artist’s canvas, his depictions offer a cinematic quality to these real-life events, without ever romanticising a tragedy. In the sheer scale and ambition of his partition series, what is conspicuous is the tentativeness, the uncertainty and the secrecy of such journeys, that may or may not lead to a home.

As Khanna marks a thematic shift from the epic/heroic to the everyday/mundane – although both are depicted in massive artistic proportions – he comes across as a champion of the subaltern on the canvas. While the engagement with the subaltern is the product of his left-leaning Progressive Artists Group, his works are distinctly un-abstract, compared to some of his peers from the collective.

“I used to do abstracts earlier and I have now moved on to human forms. I thought that the person or the individual is being neglected – the person in a particular situation who is influenced by the conditions around. I want to now emphasise the human beings caught up in their particular condition.”
– Krishen Khanna to Saffronart

Somewhat influenced by the Indian miniature painting and childhood memories of the hunt, Khanna draws the falcons and their masters – as if to suggest that themes of hierarchy, persecution and journey exist not only in historical events or grand epics, but on the streets as well.  A similar artistic and thematic trope is deployed in the largest artwork at the exhibition, a triptych, which shows a lion and an elephant engaged in a wrestling fight. Both the animals are common subjects in Indian miniature paintings. Another drawing, ‘Gaja Moksha’ (The Elephant’s Liberation), shows a crocodile slaying an elephant, who is bigger than the reptile.

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Untitled (Source: Saffronart website)
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‘Gaja Moksha’ (Source: Saffronart website)

In a career spanning around seven decades, Khanna, somewhat like another modernist Bhupen Khakhar, has found artistic inspiration from people who belong to the fringes of the bigger social and historical narratives. For example, he has drawn the loaders on city trucks, daily wage earners, dabba walas, refugees, masons and carpenters. His Bandwallas series, seen at the Vadehra Art Gallery, particularly stands out in its treatment of exuberant colours with a “muralesque” touch. In fact, the quality of the mural, far exceeding the idea of an art form as purely a living room showcase, is seen through much of his oeuvre, including the present exhibition.

The subaltern in Khanna acquires a metaphorically layered representation when he draws Draupati being dragged by Dusashna, which is an episode from the Mahabharata. The two characters, locked in a potentially sexual conflict, are seen wearing working-class clothes which makes the whole scene resemble a street side crime or violation. In the “subalternisation” of an “epic crime”, Khanna reinforces his artistic intent of unmasking the realities of the human condition, instead of going abstract.

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Untitled; Draupati being dragged by Dusashna to his lap (Source: Saffronart)

In the end, one can argue, Khanna takes a leap from his (historically and literary rich) storytelling to drive home certain fundamental truths – the impermanence of life and lurking death, irrespective of social background, class and even era. In “The Graves – A Fine and Quiet Place,” bodies of a man and a woman are kept shrouded inside a coffin, with their hands clasped to each other.

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Untitled; Signed and inscribed ‘Krishen Khanna/ K Khanna/ Garhi-1999/ Andrew Marvel “The Graves A Fine And Quiet Place” (Source: Saffronart website)

While the theme of death is unmistakable in the drawing, the clasped hands and the subtitle (The Grave A Fine and Quiet Place) are an unambiguous departure from restless narratives of Khanna’s other drawings in the same series.

From displacement, migration, loss of home, conflict and persecution, the artist finally moves onto the landscape of home (in death, however), belongingness, and a sense of things settling down. The artwork serves as a metaphorical culmination of the narrative of journey that has fed Khanna’s artistic imagination.

(Note: The exhibition will be on view until November 13, 2016 from 11 am – 7 pm. A series of works by artist Ram Kumar will be mounted at the gallery from December 14 – December 31, 2016. The gallery will also host more exhibitions and auction previews, apart from art talks and events with other galleries.)