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.)

In search of India’s indigenous modernist art through ‘Group 1890’

A review of the latest exhibition at DAG Modern, New Delhi – ‘Group 1890: India’s Indigenous Modernism’

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Introduction

The genesis of the 20th century India modern art, as with others form of modern art in West a century earlier, lay in challenging the existing order of artistic expression. In India, then, local artists were beginning to question the dominance of art forms, mainly done in realistic portrayals in oil on canvas, which were introduced by the colonialists. The struggle for a new, indigenous vocabulary and identity in 20th century Indian art took the form of several art movements and collectives, including Bombay’s ‘Progressive Artists’ Group’, and Calcutta’s ‘Santiniketan’ and the Bengal ‘school’.

One of the significant, but short-lived, collectives was ‘Group 1890’, formed in 1962 by a group of 12 artists, led by Marxist-leaning J. Swaminathan. The group got its name from the venue of their first meeting – House No. 1890 – in Bhavnagar city of Gujarat state. ‘Group 1890’ held its only – and highly successful – exhibition in 1963 in New Delhi. It was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

None of their works were sold, and not long after the group faded into oblivion for ever. However, given the radicalism of their works, beliefs and pronouncements on art, they gained much attention and left a legacy that gave fresh direction to Indian modernism.

The daring artistic imaginations of ‘Group 1890’ is the subject of the latest show at New Delhi’s DAG Modern, previously called the Delhi Art Gallery, which boasts of being “one of the largest repositories of Indian modern art anywhere in the world”. The exhibition at this gallery follows last year’s retrospective ‘The Art of Santiniketan’, which is associated with Bengali artists Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij, and Benode Behari Mukherjee.

The current show, according to the gallery, is the first ever commemorative on ‘Group 1890’. It seeks to re-examine their story, historical significance, and traces their importance through Indian art practices and the positions they advocated. “The group rejected any artistic belief system behind its formation save the creation of a vibrant, new art. Many of the artists worked in the abstract mode,” wrote curator Kishore Singh of DAG Modern in an article.

For example, in their quest for a new artistic idiom, Gujarati artists Himmat Shah and Jeram Patel attacked the very foundation of art-making by using singed paper, often done by a lit cigarette, and, in the latter’s case, burning sheets of plywood or puncturing it with holes. Despite its transience, artworks of ‘Group 1890’ symbolised a kind of methodical madness that seems to suggest, in their experimentation, a limitlessness of form and achievement.The exhibition, on view until Dec. 14 in New Delhi, showcases works by 10 of the 12 artists of ‘Group 1890’.

J. Swaminathan (1928 – 94)

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Untitled (Bird, Tree and Mountain Series), 1972

Shimla-born Swaminathan returned to painting much later in life, despite being trained in it, thanks to his disenchantment with politics – he was an active member of the Communist Party of India in the post-independence period.

He was the first Indian modernist to explore “tantra-inspired” imagery, which comprises of staple such as the triangular, squarical and circular shapes. He deploys idioms of folk and tribal art; in one artwork he adds ritual graffiti seen on village walls, juxtaposing it with brown colour and dribbling the canvas with paint. During the 1960s, he moved to study Indian (Pahari) miniatures after experimenting with tantric art: in the “Colour Geometry of Space”, he juxtaposed earthy colours with geometric shapes.

His “Bird, Tree and Mountain” series, which held his creative interest for a long time, is known for its visual delight in the form of its “chromatic brilliance”.  Eventually, the artist moved to a simple, abstract style, using water colour on paper, marking a return to his early style.

Ambadas (1922 – 2012)

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Untitled, 1964

Born in Maharashtra, Ambadas pioneered the non-representational style of the post-independence Indian art, in which colour played a significant role. His works are redolent of the “earth process”, and by implication he uses earthy tones. And he shows what appear to be geological movements, involving the soil, wind, water, and maybe the tectonic plates. He works in the abstract mode; but his individualistic brushstrokes arrange themselves to give the semblance of an image. In the 90s, however, he returned to his early love – water colours. This shift brought a fluidity and lightness to his canvas, a dramatic departure from the subterranean worlds of his earthy tones.

Jyoti Bhatt (1934)

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‘Problem’, 1956

Gujarat’s Bhatt had a versatile training in art. He studied painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. In Rajasthan, he learnt mural and fresco painting. He went to Naples, on the Italian government scholarship, to study printmaking. It was in Italy that he first encountered abstractionism.

Under the influence of his teacher N. S. Bendre, he created flattened representation of still life in the cubist trope, which was a strong element in his early pictorial vocabulary. Faces and human profiles are a recurrent motif in his oeuvre; he works with them in different styles, sometimes repeating them in rhythmic pattern in a single work. In other “Faces” works, he stylistically inserts into them imageries or calligraphic forms such as Urdu words or Tibetan text. He does his human profiles in the Indian miniature mould, or the Egyptian painting trope. This graphic printmaking technique is also seen in his magnificently intricate work “Remains of the Old Bungalow”, which shows rich pictorial construction that seems to convey the artist’s commentary on themes of life, society and self in a disarray.

Gulammohammed Sheikh (1937)

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‘Horses’

Contrary to some of his fellow artists in ‘Group 1890’, Sheikh, who was also a fine arts graduate from Baroda, rejected the abstract for a more socially relevant art form that was closely linked to the concerns of people. He was more interested in exploring the visual language instead of working under a particular style or ‘ism’. His “socialist” sensibilities can be seen in “Speechless City” that eponymously highlights the surreal disquiet of an ordinary existence.

A prominent feature of his works is also the depiction of horse-driven chariots from his town of Sundernagar in Gujarat, probably fueling the inspiration to paint more horses in his landscape art.

Eric Bowen (1929 – 2002)

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‘Sacred Relics’, 1994

The geometric paintings of Allahabad-born Bowen, inspired by the theory of “constructivism”, stand out in the Group’s search for pushing the boundaries of modern art-making. With the minimalist layout of lines in a grid, he creates intense patterns of blacks, blues, whites and browns that often invoke spiritual and tantric overtones.

Jeram Patel (1930)

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Untitled, 2004

A graduate of Sir J. J. School of Art in Mumbai, Patel changed the Indian art landscape of the 1960s by formulating a new visual identity and method abstraction through deliberate distortion of form and imagery. He enriched the then contemporary art with unusual and fascinating works done through blowtorch (a portable device that produces hot flame) on wood; and ink drawings (some of them in black and white) that stood out for their startling content charged with imageries of eroticism, sickness, decay and death. In his amoeba-like works, he also attempted “surrealist doodling” that Gulammohammed Sheikh likened to “foetal darkness”.

In his search for a novel expression, he attacked the surface an artist would normally work on, by burning it with acetylene (a combustible gas) torch, hammering down nails on it, or puncturing wood surfaces with a network of small holes.

Himmat Shah (1933)

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Untitled

For Shah, who also studied at Sir J. J. School of Art (Mumbai) and M.S. University (Baroda), the journey towards an indigenous route of modern art began where he was born. The terracotta available in Gujarat’s Lothal village, which was one of the Harappan civilisation sites, has engaged him extensively throughout his career as a sculptor of “sublime perfection”. So much so that it is a preferred medium for him, seen in the vast sculpture series “Heads”, for example. He also created conventional round pots, urns, bottles and abstract sculptures.

While he saw himself primarily as a sculptor, he was a versatile artist, having interacted with European modernism during his stay in Paris for two years under a French government scholarship. He experimented across forms and medium, besides the sculpture, creating collages through burnt paper or cut-outs of printed text; monumental murals; and ink drawings of brilliant workmanship as well.

He developed the technique of the “singed paper” as he sat idle in an office waiting for a friend to arrive. All he needed was a cigarette and a paper; the pale brown marks of the burnt paper pleased him. Perhaps it offers an insight into his disinterest in the conventional styles of modern art-making.

Redappa Naidu (1932 – 1999)

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Untitled, 1987

For the Hyderabad-born artist, the definition of the modern in the Indian context was derived from reworking the Hindu Gods and Goddesses through different styles and perspectives, mostly rendered in free lines and dry brush strokes. That explains his series on epic mythologies Mahabharata and Ramayana in the mid-1970s. In his characteristic style of dry brushstrokes and free lines, he also painted a tableau of musicians on stage, which was part of a series. The annual December season of Carnatic music festival probably inspired the ‘Musicians’ series.

The other two artists that the exhibition showcases are Raghav Kaneria (1936) and Rajesh Mehra (1932). Gujarati sculptor Kaneria experimented with a lot of junk material and welding technique. An untitled bronze sculptor (image below) at DAG Modern shows a thin column rising from what appears to be a lingam as if to suggest energy flowing outwards from a small ellipsoid-looking form sacred to Hindus.

In the 1960s, Delhi-based artist Mehra embarked on a phase of calligraphic abstraction using letters of Urdu alphabet and geometric shapes on quasi-spiritual themes. It was an experimentation adopted by his colleagues (like Jyoti Bhatt) in ‘Group 1890’.  S.G. Nikam and Balkrishna Patel, who are not part of the show, were also members of the collective.

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(Raghav Kaneria, untitled bronze sculpture)

Conclusion

One of the inescapable takeaways from this exhibition is the influence of Western modernism on Indian artists who sought to break away from an artistic idiom imposed by foreigners, including the colonisers. There is little insight in the show about whether these artists looked at this conflict with irony or dilemma, and what effect did it have on the larger politics of the Indian modern art movement. This is because the artists travelled a lot, in Europe and United States, which had already begun to witness significant artistic churning in the form of movements that questioned tradition.

Art review: ‘Alice from Switzerland’, National Museum, Delhi

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She came to India in the 1930s, made it her second home through much of her life, and left a legacy that globalised the country’s ancient and modern art forms such as dance, music, and architecture. And yet, questions still remain whether she has got her due more than thirty years after her death.

Switzerland’s Alice Boner made the exploration of India’s diverse culture the singular goalpost of her life. Her life, including the artists she worked with and the ancient structures she explored in her writings, is the focus of the latest art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum.

The exhibition, inaugurated on September 4, has been organised in collaboration with Zurich’s Reitberg Museum, which holds an exhaustive repository of Boner’s sculptures and miniatures, her diaries and manuscripts, and 30,000 photographs shot by her and others. Varanasi’s Alice Boner Institute, originally her home in India, has also contributed to the show.

The exhibition, “Alice from Switzerland”, chronicles Boner’s early life as a patron of the arts in the European country; her entrepreneurial years with Indian dancer Uday Shankar; and her intellectual inquiry into Indian architecture, particularly sculptures and temples, and the spiritual/religious themes emanating from them.

The art show, on view until October 30, has mounted several photographs, sketches, paintings, sculptures, and personal recollections that map the life of a person whose oeuvre cannot be slotted into a single occupation. And that is because of the nature of her artistic curiosity and probity that brought her to India.

She was a writer, painter, sculptor, translator, patrons of the arts, and a cultural ambassador, who showcased Indian art to a global audience in Europe and the United States. She observed the Indian life closely, and her photographs served as a foundation stone for much of her work. Her lens captured Indian weddings, religious festivals, caravans, fellow travellers, and colleagues, especially performing artists; and well-known figures such as Rabindranath Tagore.

Early Life, and Passage to India

Her upbringing was immersed in art. Born in Italy in 1889, she studied painting and sculpture in Brussels and Basel in her early years. She moved to Paris in 1928, where she worked on sculptures with materials such as way, wood, bronze and stone.

In 1936, she rented an apartment in Varanasi, which had a terrace overlooking the Ganga river. Her house was the meeting point of artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals; where they engaged in art through concerts and conversations.

India was to be her home for more than forty years.

The beginning of her lifelong journey in India had its roots in a meeting with Shankar in Europe, in 1926, during one of the cultural shows that she was organising. As a common interest in promoting art brought them closer, in 1930, they embarked on an extensive trip to India to scout for talent for their overseas tours. This initiative led to the birth of a dance and music troupe, which they co-directed. Shankar, who was heavily influenced by traditional Indian dance forms such as Kathakali, Bharatnatyam and Kathak, provided artistic content for the troupe’s performances. Boner, true to her entrepreneurial skills, worked as the financial manager, advisor and manager.

Zohra Sehgal, who later became a household name in India because of her appearances in Hindi films, also performed for the group. Legendary Indian musician Allauddin Khan – father of sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan, and teacher of Uday’s much younger sibling Ravi – was a soloist for the troupe. Ravi, then in the first decade of his life, had begun to be an early performer for the troupe as a dancer and musician, before he became Allauddin Khan’s disciple.

Fallout with Shankar, and “The Third Adventure”

The working relationship of Boner and Uday lasted a little less than a decade, but their team contributed immensely to the renaissance of India art domestically and abroad. During that period, they organised shows in Europe, United States and India, until a misunderstanding caused their split in 1939. The split didn’t stop Boner from collaborating with or offering patronage to other Indian artists, musician and dancers. Indian classical dancer Shanta Rao (1928-2007) was one of them.

Given Boner’s large body of work, the joint venture with Shankar seems a smaller part of her larger connection to India. From the 1940 onwards, she began cultivating an interest in Indian temple architecture, and principles of composition in Indian sculpture – a foray that was to be her “third Indian adventure.”

“Now I am on my third adventure. The first was Indian dance. The second was Indian sacred sculpture. The third is Indian temple architecture,” she said.

In India, she documented pre-medieval era caves of Ajanta and Ellora, located in the Aurangabad region of Maharashtra, the ancient structures in Tamil Nadu’s Mahabalipuram town, and Odisha’s Sun Temple.

The analysis of Indian architecture, including temples, has a special place in Boner’s oeuvre, in which she sought to find a connection between designs in Indian architecture with the bigger, and often complex, themes of universal existence.

Her scholarly publications revealed a spiritual temperament, triggered by her life in the heavily religious and faith-driven city of Varanasi, believed to be one of the oldest cities of the world. Fascinated by the geometric forms, she researched symbols and forms in the ancient structures, and believed these were archetypes of all living forms.

Through the magnificent water colours series “Prakriti” (or creation), she depicted the “cosmological ideas about the Indian cyclical understanding” of time, represented in the much mythologised events of creation, maintenance and destruction. The triptych was thus titled in the same order: “Srishti”, “Sthithi” and “Pralaya”. The Goddess of Kali, similarly associated with the destruction of evil, preoccupied her work a great deal, resulting in large water colour paintings depicting versions of the divine feminine.

Alice Boner, the Seeker  

“Each day my eyes are opening a little more…” Boner said in 1930, the year she first travelled to India with Shankar. She was a true seeker. For example, during a trip to Kerala, she was taken in by the Kathakali dance form, then under the threat of being extinct, so much so that she began studying the mudras or postures. She also explored the dance form in water colours, the exhibition shows. More than thirty years later, she would explore Shiva Nataraja too, the cosmic dancer, in a scholarly work.

In the first decade of her stay in India, she met Tagore in Bengal in 1935, who read from his book “Gitanjali”. She recorded the meeting in a photograph, showing Tagore in his quintessential robe and flowing white beard. A year later, she photographed the gigantic religious gathering at the “Kumbh Mela” in Allahabad, located about 100 miles from Varanasi.

Personal life, death, and legacy

Her professional life was borne out of an intense curiosity to know more about art and culture, and in that she never walked a scripted path. Her personal life too defied convention. During her long stay in India, she developed an intimate friendship with Monu Mitra, who played a multi-faceted role in her life as a fellow traveller, manager, advisor, besides being a confidante.

The exhibition shows photos of Mitra, in which he’s either by himself or with Boner or their co-travellers. The pictures characterise him as an intense-looking, handsome, but a mysterious man. He died of a heart attack, much before his companion breathed her last in Zurich in 1981.

Boner was awarded Padma Bhushan, one of India’s top civilian honours, in 1974, for her contribution to art.

Even in her death, Boner returned to India in what appears to be a definite homecoming, and the end of a very exciting life. She was cremated in Varanasi, her home through most of her life, and her ashes, by Hindu custom, were immersed in the Ganga river that she lived by.

This is the first major retrospective/exhibition of Boner more than thirty years after her death, and it is perhaps an indication of the artistic and intellectual attention due to her. The exhibition travelled from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, where it opened last year. However, it is yet to reach Varanasi, Boner’s second and final home, according to this review by Nandini Majumdar, because of lack of financial support.

“Kapoor & Sons” and a brief history of “family” in Bollywood

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Shakun Batra’s “Kapoor & Sons” (2016) is the latest example of how Bollywood’s portrayal of the family is changing dramatically.

The film is about the Kapoors, living in Tamil Nadu’s Coonoor hill station (nobody knows how these Punjabis landed there). The husband and wife (Rajat Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah) play a perennially quarrelling married couple, who have differences over money, or the lack of it; the man’s alleged closeness to a certain Anu aunty that eventually turns out to be an affair; and his opposition to his wife’s plans of starting her own bakery. Also bring in a wacky,  horny (despite being seriously unwell), eager-to-die and over-the-top grandfather in the name of Rishi Kapoor; and his cantankerous grown-up grandsons (Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra) who are not fond of each other either; a love angle between Malhotra and Alia Bhatt; and a gay man (Khan) being “outed” by his mother when she looks at his laptop.

That pretty much sums up the film that shows extremely high-decibel fights between family members who don’t seem to agree on anything and have skeletons in their cupboard that invariably tumble out towards the end.

The fights are ugly, nearly breaking down an institution long glorified in Hindi cinema – say thanks to the Sooraj Barjatya school of film-making, for example, with their modern-day Ramayana like too-good-to-be-true characters.

“Kapoor & Sons” can be seen as an extension of “Dil Dhadakne Do” (2015), Zoya Akhtar’s family drama that’s set on a cruise during – don’t miss the irony – the wedding anniversary celebrations of an unhappily married couple (Shefali Shetty and Anil Kapoor) . Their dysfunctionality peaks when, in the end, they spar bitterly that is made to look like a slugfest between family members probably not shown before in Bollywood.

Add “Piku” (2015) – a funny film about a single woman (Deepika Padukone) and her potty-obsessed, irritable father (Amitabh Bachchan) – to this list of heightened family melodramas and you realise that in the depiction of present-day urban family situations there is so much that is unsettling. If it is unsettling, it is probably true and in that these films also hold a mirror to our lives. But these films seem to suggest that the mask of utopia seen in the portrayal of families, especially towards the climax of many films in the past, has come off.

Of course, children rebelling against the family and discordant relationships have been done-to-death themes in Bollywood. There are umpteen examples, but to name a few the following come to my mind: “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”, “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”, “Dil”, “Maine Pyaar Kiya” etc.

These films are a far cry from the day when Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) in “Kabhi Kabhie” and “Silsila”, Yash Chopra’s large-scale and his most famous romances till date, would put family honour and duty above his relationships with Pooja (Rakhi) and Chandni (Rekha) in both the films.

“Humein koi haq nahin pahunchta ki hum apni khushi  ke liye apne maa baap ke armaanon ka gala ghont dein, unki lashon par apne pyaar ka mahal banayein,” he tells Pooja as she is about to marry Shashi Kapoor in “Kabhi Kabhie”.

To put it less melodramatically, these lines simply mean – we have no right to put our dreams over our parents’.

In another Chopra production with a typically ensemble cast, “Waqt” (1965), the reunification of Lala Kedarnath (Balraj Sahni) and family, who are torn apart by an earthquake, is the underlying theme and the eventual aim of the film. Ten years later, in “Deewar”, Bachchan’s now-institutionalised dialogue “Mere paas maa hain” simply shows the premium Bollywood stories gave to the representation of the family and its celebration.

In the late 1980s, just on the cusp of India’s liberalisation and the subsequent advent of modernity, “Sansar” (1989) would talk about the difficulty of a joint family sticking together because of a showdown of egos and varied interests. In “Avtaar” (1983), Shabana Azmi and Rajesh Khanna play an older couple, who are neglected by their children. In the end, Avtaar (Khanna) dies of a heart attack and leaves the will in the name of his wife Radha.

Somewhat inspired by this Mohan Kumar film, among other influences, “Baghban” (2003) would attempt the same – disown the children who don’t look after their parents. The final speech of Amitabh Bachchan speaking of his hurt as a neglected father is part of the comparatively lesser-heard perspective of the older generation about their children.

Now, dialogue in films like “Kapoor & Sons”, “Dil Dhadakne Do” and even “Piku” show the acrimony has acquired a shrillness and madness not seen earlier. Whatever little was left of the gentleness and covert questioning has vanished completely, making way for a filial discord that is unabashedly in-your-face.

Perhaps, upcoming film R Balki’s “Ki and Ka”, starring Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor, may provide some comic relief from the non-stop ghar ghar ki kahani in showing a full-time “house-husband”, whose wife is “the man” in their marriage.

Reading “Carol” and “Fire” together

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The most everlasting feature of American film-maker Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is Cate Blanchett. In the film, she is Carol Aird, a charming, but unhappy woman suffering a bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).

While seeking out a younger woman, Blanchett acts out Carol’s seducing skills with stunning brevity – an affair that has repercussions for her family. [Review by The Telegraph]

“Carol”, based on novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, is set in the New York of the 50s. In its writing, direction, performance and – let’s not forget – the clothes, it’s a beautiful film; a modern-day Casablanca, you can say, in its attention to style and dress.

But it’s a sad film too.

One day, ahead of Christmas, Carol buys a present for her daughter from a department store, where she meets a shop girl by the name of Therese Belivet (Ronney Mara). That meeting – between a costumer and a saleswoman – arouses their curiosity for each other, leading to a secret love affair that eventually jeopardises Carol’s demand for sharing the custody of her daughter with her to-be-divorced husband.

Therese is unsure of her feelings towards Richard, her so-called boyfriend who wants to marry her. Almost dumping the man, she takes a road trip with Carol, where the women drop all restraint and have sex for the first time.

A detective appointed by Harge tapes Carol’s and Therese’s stay at a hotel room. The warning of exposing Carol’s homosexuality – she had had a relationship with best friend Abby years ago – becomes the reason for Harge to seek the sole custody of their daughter Rindy.

On hearing the news, Carol flees the hotel, leaving Therese in the company of Abby, who drives the girl back home. Except for a letter by Carol, the women remain incommunicado for sometime.

In the end, Carol moves to an apartment and becomes a furniture buyer. Therese joins The New York Times as a photographer. They meet. Carol offers Therese to live with her.

After her initial no, later, Therese is seen walking towards Carol, who is in a business meeting. In the final sequence, their eyes meet in what appears to be a happily-ever-after ending.

It’s an end that does not have men in it. What if Carol had been dating a man? Would it still have merited a “morality clause” in the divorce petition? Of course, it has a lot to do with the taboo of homosexuality that existed in America 60 years ago. That was decades before the American Psychiatric Association removed the mention of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s, even though the discrimination against gays persisted.

“Carol”, whose original text is considered to be a feminist lesbian classic, took me back to “Fire”. Released in 1996, the Deepa Mehta film had two women – wives of two brothers – walk out of their loveless and sex-less marriages to live with each other.

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We don’t know what kind of lives Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), the main characters of “Fire”, lead with each other, whether are they happy or not. Ditto with Carol and Therese. [Review of “Fire” by NYT]

But in excluding men from their lives, these women challenge the obvious authority that emanates from being married to these men. In “Fire”, for example, the husbands of Radha and Sita neglected them; one practised sexual abstinence, under the guidance of a spiritual master; and his brother dates a Chinese woman. In other words, they were at the mercy of them, not only in financial terms. In “Carol”, Richard and Harge want their women to the point of desperation.

In their rejection of men as partners, are they looking for personal freedom in their search for love and happiness?  It’s hard to arrive at a clear answer, but in the case of “Fire” it is certainly the end of patriarchal tyranny. In “Carol” the women don’t want to be with their men because they are naturally drawn to each other, and less driven by circumstances as in “Fire” and it probably has more to do with free choice. Perhaps it’s a mix of all these factors. But you do wonder if the husbands of Radha and Sita had kept them happy, would “Fire” have happened?

And you still wonder, given the open-ended nature of the endings, whether these decisions and choices are definitive? Cast in stone? Again, there are no clear answers.

Film Review – 45 Years

“The direction and screenplay is understated, but younger viewers might find themselves stifling a yawn or two at times. The slow pace however, can make 45 Years somewhat brisk run-time seem much longer. On the other hand, the film is perfect for the elderly to see, be intrigued by and savor,” The Times of India said in its review of the British film released last year.

I am young and I didn’t stifle a yawn while watching this magnificent film shot in the British countryside. But then someone would tap my shoulder and say – who asked you to read a review in The Times of India, the part-tabloid, part-news-paper. Never mind it is one of the world’s largest selling.

But this isn’t about Times of India-bashing, after all there are many others gainfully employed doing that. This is about “45 Years” – a film about marriage, isolation, and hurt.

There is a twist, however: the trigger for the fissure between the couple who’re about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary is a dead woman who existed much before they got together.

One day, when a letter arrives from Switzerland informing Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) that the body of his long gone ex-girlfriend has been found in a glacier, Geoff’s wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) grapples with a ghost from his past that drives a wedge in their relationship. This, a week ahead of their anniversary celebration.

The memory of Katya, who plunged to death during a hike with Geoff, haunts the Mercers. Geoff is somewhat shaken by the news and looks up the dictionary to understand the letter written in German. He climbs into the attic to revisit some memories. One day, Kate goes there too and finds Katya’s photos, one of them suggests that Katya was pregnant before she died.

Earlier Geoff tells Kate he and his then girl friend had planned to live together. When Kate comes to know her husband is secretly planning a trip to Switzerland, she gets upset and realises he’s drifted into the past and probably still has feelings for his dead lover.

While a moody Geoff deals with the memory of Katya by keeping to himself, his marriage to Kate suffers. In the end, he delivers a moving speech at their anniversary party, telling his wife how much he loves her. But his words, even when he brings himself to tears, do not mitigate Kate’s worries.

The most remarkable quality of “45 Years” is its implicitness, leaving many things unsaid. We don’t know what Geoff is going through, nor do we get a peep into Kate’s mind, except that she hates the way her marriage – after forty five years – has turned out, because of a letter. Although it is evident from his speech that Geoff is wants to save his marriage, Kate is on a different page.

The final sequence sums up their situation. It features a dance between Rampling and Courtenay to “Smoke Gets in You Eyes”. In the end, Kate is shown drifting into herself.

Their performance is subtle and understated, without ever slackening in intensity. The serene landscape of Norfolk serves as a befitting background to the underlying tension between the couple.

Rampling, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress award, is brilliant as the dejected wife. Geoff, also winner of the best actor award, is good too; but Rampling steals the show.