Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Ajanta cave murals: 'nothing less than the birth of Indian art'

The paintings are possibly the finest surviving picture galleries from the ancient world. Now, the oldest in two of the caves – hidden for decades – have been painstakingly restored to reveal their true beauty

William Dalrymple
The Guardian , Friday 15 August 2014 15.00 BST

Detail from one of the murals in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Elegance and compassion ... Detail from one of the murals in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

In the early summer of 1819, a British hunting party was heading through thick jungle near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra, western India, when the tiger they were tracking disappeared into a deep ravine. Leading the hunters was Captain John Smith, a young cavalry officer from Madras. Beckoning his friends to follow, he tracked the animal down a semi-circular scarp of steep basalt, and hopped across the rocky bed of the Wagora river, then made his way up through the bushes at the far side of the amphitheatre of cliffs. Halfway up, Smith stopped in his tracks. The footprints led straight past an opening in the rock face. But the cavity was clearly not a natural cave or a river-cut grotto. Instead, despite the long grass, the all-encroaching creepers and thorny undergrowth, Smith was looking at a manmade facade cut straight into the rockface. The jagged slope had been painstakingly carved away into a perfect portico. It was clearly a work of great sophistication. Equally clearly, it had been abandoned for centuries.

A few minutes later, the party made their way gingerly inside, as Smith held aloft a torch of burning dried grass and his companions clutched their muskets. A long hall led straight into the rock, flanked on either side by 39 octagonal pillars. At the end rose the circular dome of a perfect Buddhist stupa carved, like everything else, out of the slope of the mountain. 

All over the walls, the officers could see through the gloom the shadowy outlines of ancient murals. On the pillars were figures of orange- and yellow-robed monks with green haloes standing on blue lotuses, while on the rock walls facing on to the side aisles were long panels of painting filled with elaborate crowd scenes, rather as if a painted scroll had been rolled out along the wall of the apse. In the light of the flickering flame the officers crunched over a human skeleton and other debris dragged into the cave by generations of predators and scavengers. The party advanced until they reached a pillar at the far end of the hall, next to the stupa. There Smith got out his hunting knife and inscribed over the body of a Bodhisattva (a previous incarnation of the Buddha) the words: "John Smith, 28th cavalry, 28 April 1819."

Detail from a mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Otherworldly beauty ... A mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

In the decades to come, first other hunting parties, then later groups of Orientalists, archaeologists and Indologists followed in Smith's footsteps through the jungle to Ajanta as word spread that in this most remote spot lay 31 caves that collectively amounted to one of the great wonders of the ancient world. The walls told the Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha in images of such extraordinary elegance and grace that they clearly represented a fragment of a lost golden age of Indian painting. They were utterly lovely – but they were also utterly alone: with a very few fragmentary exceptions, there is almost nothing else surviving from the ancient Indian past to compare them to. The murals of Ajanta are now recognised as some of the greatest art produced by humankind in any century, as well as the finest picture gallery to survive from any ancient civilisation. Even today, the colours glow with a brilliant intensity: topaz-dark, lizard green, lotus-blue.

From almost the beginning, scholars working on the site came to the realisation that there were two quite distinct phases of work at Ajanta. The cave that Smith first walked into, later named cave 10, lay in the centre of the cliff face; it and the five others flanking it were datable by inscription to the first or second century BC. 

However most of the Ajanta caves, and almost all the murals, date from nearly 600 years later, during a second phase of construction. This was at the height of India's golden age, when in the Gangetic plain, the fifth-century Gupta dynasty was filling their capital of Kannauj with some of the greatest masterpieces of Indian sculpture, and when Kalidasa was writing his great play, The Cloud-Messenger.

From this period date the rich picture cycles of wall painting in caves one and two. Here among handsome princes and bare-chested nobles, princesses with tiaras of jasmine languish love-lorn on swings and couches, while narrow-waisted dancing girls of extraordinary sensuousness, dressed only in their jewels and girdles, perform beside lotus ponds. Nearby are painted very different images of stark ascetic renunciation – a shaven-headed orange-robed monk lost in meditation, a hermit seeking salvation or a group of wizened devotees straining to hear the words of their teacher. Dominating everything are portraits of bodhisattvas of otherworldly beauty, elegance and compassion, eyes half-closed, swaying on the threshold of enlightenment, caught in what the great historian of Indian art, Stella Kramrisch, wonderfully described as "a gale of stillness".


Ajanta cave murals
Striking ... the Ajanta cave murals. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

Such was the celebrity of these fifth-century masterworks that most scholars, and almost all modern accounts of the Ajanta caves, have all but ignored the earlier picture cycles. These paintings were not only more fragmentary, they were also more smoke-blackened than the almost pristine later murals, and perhaps for this reason seemed to invite the attention of early graffiti artists and tourists who wanted to leave a record of their visit.

By the time the Nizam of Hyderabad sent the leading art historian of his state, Ghulam Yazdani, to produce the first photographic survey of the murals in the late 1920s, the murals of caves nine and 10 had already been irreparably damaged. The Nizam also sent two Italian conservationists to help restore them. Unfortunately their efforts only obscured the murals further: they coated the pigments with a thick layer of unbleached shellac that sat on top of at least two existing Victorian layers of varnish. The shellac attracted grime, dust and bat dung, and quickly oxidised to a dark reddish brown that totally obscured the images from both travellers and scholars. Less than a century after being rediscovered by a British shooting party in 1819, the figures of caves nine and 10 had been lost again. For the rest of the 20th century they remained effectively hidden, invisible to the naked eye, forgotten by all.

Then in 1999, Rajdeo Singh, the Archaeological Survey of India's (ASI) chief of conservation and head of science at Aurangabad, began work on the restoration of these murals. Manager Singh, as he is always known, had been in charge of conserving the paintings of Ajanta for a number of years, but the work in caves nine and 10 was, he knew, especially difficult, and of the greatest importance: "The paintings were so fragile that in some places there was a great fear even to touch them with the hand," he wrote later. "At some places the pigment was found completely detached from the ground plaster and stone surface."

However a painstaking restoration of the paintings from 1999 onwards using infrared light, micro-emulsion and cutting-edge Japanese conservation technology succeeded in removing 75% of the layers of shellac, hard soot and grime from 10 sq m of the murals. "Particular care and precautions were taken not to alter even a grain of pigment," he wrote.

Manager Singh's work revealed for the first time since the 1920s the images that are now on open display. Remarkably for so famous a site – Ajanta is one of a handful of world heritage sites in India, attracting 5,000 visitors a day – their wall paintings have never before been properly photographed.

India. Maharashtra. Ajanta Caves.
The Ajanta caves. Photograph: Getty

I stumbled across them on a visit to the caves in March. The ASI does not have much of a tradition of public outreach, and even internally there is perhaps little recognition of what Manager Singh has achieved and uncovered. For his work is nothing short of a revelation: Singh has uncovered the oldest paintings of Indian faces – with the exception of a few prehistorical pictograms of stick men and animals left by paleolithic hunters in the wilds of Madhya Pradesh. They are also the oldest Buddhist paintings in existence, dating from only 300 years after the death of the Buddha.

More exciting still, this earliest phase of work is not just very old, but very fine indeed and painted in a quite different style, and using markedly different techniques to that used in the rest of Ajanta. The murals of caves nine and 10 represent nothing less than the birth of Indian painting.

The extreme antiquity of the caves is clear, though their exact dates remain elusive: from the paleographic evidence they can be securely dated to between the second century BC and the first century AD, but most scholars believe that between 90-70BC is the most likely period of construction. This meant they were excavated shortly after the collapse of Ashoka's great Mauryan empire, which once stretched from Kandahar to the Vindyas. They are roughly contemporary with the spectacular Buddhist stupas and gateways at Sanchi and Bharhut, built during a period of political disruption across India but also one of great artistic and intellectual ferment.

Inscriptions in cave 10 record the many small patrons of these masterworks, like sponsorship tags on television today. One mentions a Kanhaka of Bahada, presumably a nobleman, others monks named Dharmadeva and Sikhabhadra, the latter "in honour of his mother and father". This was a period not of royal but of community patronage, and appropriately the murals were a crowded, vibrant narrative art, teeming with people and alive with drama.

Cave 10 contains a supreme treasure that has only recently been identified: fragments of the oldest surviving painting of the life of the Buddha and an image of the first sermon at Sarnath. Next to the latter lies a depiction of the legend of Udayana, a tale of two rival queens, one virtuous and one evil. The most dramatic, and best preserved scenes however show two Jataka stories: the "Shyama Jataka " is about a forest dweller who was fatally hit by the poisoned arrow of the king of Varanasi. Next to it is the "Chaddanta Jataka ", which tells of a virtuous six-tusked elephant that is killed at the instigation of a jealous and vindictive queen.

In illustrating these stories, the artists of Ajanta open a window on to an age about which we know little. We see the costumes of this very early period: the king of Varanasi, for example, wears a white cotton tunic of strikingly central Asian appearance, wrapped around the waist with a cummerbund, while on his head he wears a turban. He has a bow and a full quiver of arrows. His guards are bare-chested and are armed with spears and bell-shaped shields decorated with half-moons and shining suns. The turbans of the different ranks are shown with great care and seem to be an important indicator of status, the different materials – some with red or gold stripes, others pure white – and the different styles of wrapping are delineated with the greatest care.

Much about the clothing is identical to that worn by the sculptures at gateways of the Great Stupa at Sanchi , and there is the same interest in detail, yet the style is in feeling and temper subtly different. In Sanchi, the images are animated with a wonderful joie de vivre. Here there is a sadness in the programme of painting, which is concerned with justice, peace and non-violence: one image tells of a war breaking out over the Buddha's relics – something that went totally against the grain of everything he taught. 

A mural in cave 10 of the Ajanta caves.
Two kings from oldest surviving painting of the Life of the Buddha. Photograph: Prasad Pawar

There is also something very different in the style of these faces. Their physiognomy and the world in which they are depicted may be utterly Indian, yet the artist's long, bold brushstrokes, the use of perspective and three-quarter profiles, the play of light across the large brown eyes and cheekbones, and the technical aspects of the work with its choice of pigments and use of lime mortar all show a hint of Hellenistic influence.

This is hardly a surprise: after all, at this period Indo-Greek kings controlled as far south as the Punjab and were deeply integrated into the Indian world. This intimacy, classicism and striking realism, combined with the haunting wistfulness of the features of these faces, is not a million miles away from the distant, melancholy world of the later first century AD encaustic wax mummy portraits from the Fayum region of Greco-Egyptian Egypt, which were also the products of the Hellenisation of the east. In both, we are in a world so lifelike that even today, even in reproduction, they can still make you gasp as you find yourself staring eyeball to eyeball with a silently watching soldier who could have fought the Bactrian Greeks, or a monk who may have seen the sculptures at Sanchi being carved.

So realistic are the faces of the people depicted that you feel these have to be portraits of real individuals. There is none of the idealisation or otherworldliness you see in the later images of the bodhisattvas. Instead there is something deeply hypnotic about the soundless stare of these silent, often uncertain, Satavahana faces. Their fleeting expressions are frozen, startled, as if suddenly surprised by the king's decision to loose his arrow or by the nobility of the great elephant breaking through the trees. The viewer peers at these figures trying to catch some hint of the upheavals they witnessed and the strange sights they saw in ancient India. But the smooth, clean humane Indo-Hellenistic faces stare us down.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the people in these murals is that they appear so familiar. Two thousand years after they were painted these faces convey with penetrating immediacy the character of the different sitters: the alert guard, the king caught in the excitement of the hunt, the obedient son fetching water. Indeed, so contemporary are the features that you have to keep reminding yourself that these sitters are not from our world, they are depictions of a court that vanished from these now bare hills more than two millennia ago. 

Yet these are self-evidently the same people who inhabit western India today: looking at these images you cannot help but feel the great distance of time separating them from us; and yet we find in their eyes an emotional immediacy that is at once comprehensible. While the glass coverings were being removed to allow the photography for this piece, the guards joked among themselves about which painted figure looked most like which guard. The women on the cave walls wear the same bangles that the Banjara tribes of these hills still stack along their forearms, and their dupattas are decorated with fringes of taarkaam or Paithani still popular in Maharastra today, as are the fish-scale kham textiles that clothe the hunters in the Shyam Jataka. It is eerie to stare into the eyes of men and women who died more than 2,000 years ago; but odder still to feel that their faces are somehow reassuringly recognisable.

Friday, August 08, 2014

‘Mughal Painting’: Tiny works tell a story of vast wealth

A review of “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” exquisite miniature paintings from the wealthy dynasty that ruled India for hundreds of years. At Seattle Asian Art Museum through Dec. 7.

By Nancy Worssam
Special to The Seattle Times

One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. He <br/>was
One of the major figures depicted in “Mughal Painting” is Akbar, shown on horseback in this 17th-century painting. 

Emeralds and empires, rubies and royalty, pearls and power. In the early 16th century, Muslim invaders from the West swept into Hindu India and established a dynasty that lasted into the mid-19th century. These Mughal emperors became immensely wealthy, enabling them to commission astounding artworks and jeweled adornments.

The small but dazzling collection now exhibited at Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Mughal Painting: Power and Piety,” offers a peek at the lifestyle and history of the Mughal Empire and an insight into the extent of its wealth.

The paintings are miniatures, an art style that fuses Indian and Persian art traditions. They were created by hundreds of the finest artists of their time working in ateliers set up by the Mughals to produce art that honored the royal line and depicted its epics, triumphs and daily life.

Not only are the paintings artistic jewels, but jewels were incorporated within the materials from which they were made. Gold paint is prevalent, and the blues are made from lapis lazuli.

Though shown in this exhibit as framed paintings, at the time they were created they were preserved in albums or within manuscripts to illustrate texts. Of course, the Mughal and his court reserved these for their own use. Sadly, over time most of them have been lost, a fact that makes this exhibit especially important.

Complementing the paintings are a number of extravagant cultural items such as daggers, a mirror, a pen case and walking-stick heads. They are made of the finest jade and crystal, each adorned with gems and gold. They remind one of the collections at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

Look carefully at the displayed paintings and you will see similar items. Fortunately, the museum has provided magnifying glasses in the gallery so visitors have an opportunity to compare and marvel at the detail.

One of the major figures depicted here is Akbar, the third in the Mughal line, reigning at the same time as Elizabeth I of England. Akbar was amazing in many ways. A man of great intellect, he couldn’t read. Scholars today suggest he was dyslexic, but that never crushed his quest for knowledge. He commanded his artists to create these classic and historically important images. Written explanations were mounted on the rear of the pictures and read to him.

Akbar demanded realism as his artists depicted religious narratives and conquests and illustrated the milestones of his life. One of the miniatures depicts Akbar’s son Jahangir saluting his father.

Akbar respected the Hindu maharajahs he conquered, allowing them to rule their lands as long as they loyally tithed and provided armies for him when they were needed. He also saw the value of marrying one of their daughters and allowing her to retain her own religion.

In a world of religious intolerance, he respected others; among the miniatures on display is one of the Virgin Mary, while another depicts the Hindu god Krishna in a battle scene.

Because works on paper cannot be exposed to light indefinitely, another exhibition of SAAM’s Mughal art will replace this one in December. I look forward to it.

Nancy Worssam: ngworssam@gmail.com

Tagore's art remembered in distant Slovenia

This June 4, 2011 file photo depicts 'Peacock', ink and water colour on paper, by Rabindranath Tagore displayed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty
An exhibition of prints of selected paintings by Tagore and his contemporaries begins on Thursday, his death anniversary, in Slovenia.

The anniversary of the passing away of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore will be remembered in Slovenia from August 7, his death anniversary, to Sep 4, with a unique exhibition of prints of selected paintings by Tagore and his contemporaries —— provided by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi.
The exhibition displays representative works of Rabindranath, Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore, along with those of Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Jamini Roy and Amrita Sher—Gil.
The uniquely curated exhibition will be on display at the house of culture in the world heritage village of Smartno in the municipality of Goriska Brda on the western border of Slovenia with Italy, according to a statement issued by the Indian embassy in Slovenia.
The village of Medana in the municipality of Goriska Brda was the natal home of poet and jurist Alojz Gradnik, who was the most prominent translator of Tagore’s works into the Slovenian language from 1917 onwards.
Gradnik’s translation of “Gitanjali” into Slovenian was published from Ljubljana in 1924. The memory of Gradnik is kept alive by the international festival of poetry and wine at Medana every August and by the “Gradnik evenings” in November each year.
This is the first time that the memory of Tagore is being so honoured in the birthplace of his major Slovenian translator after Tagore visited Yugoslavia in 1926. Slovenia, a country of two million people in Central Europe, is one of the breakaway countries of the original Yugoslavia.
By 1926, the Indian Nobel laureate’s works, translated by Gradnik and others, had generated an unprecedented response in Slovenia. Slovenian identification with Tagore and his people derived from a perceived common goal of striving for political and cultural independence.
“One of Tagore’s aphoristic poems has been carved into a signpost in the mountains above the town of Polhov Gradec. Maribor city has installed a bust of Tagore in a central park,” said Sarvajit Chakravarti, the Indian ambassador to Slovenia, and the brain behind the exhibition.
The Slovenian ministry of education, science and sports hosted the first commemorative concert of Rabindra Sangeet in Ljubljana on Tagore’s birth anniversary May 7 this year. The municipality of Maribor also hosted an exhibition of prints of paintings by the three Tagores.
Following the widespread influence of Indian spiritual ideas in the West, British art teacher Ernest Binfield Havell attempted to reform the teaching methods at the Calcutta School of Art by encouraging students to imitate Mughal miniatures. Havell was supported by Abanindranath Tagore, a nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. Abanindranath painted a number of works influenced by Mughal art, a style that he and Havell believed to be expressive of India’s distinct spiritual qualities, as opposed to the “materialism” of the West.
The mantle of the Bengal school was taken up by Santiniketan, a university focused on the preservation and uplift of Indian culture, values and heritage, which Rabindranath Tagore established. It included the art school Kala Bhavan, founded in 1920—21.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Manet's 'Le Printemps' poised to reach record auction price

By Patricia Reaney
NEW YORK  Fri Aug 1, 2014 4:08pm EDT
A Christie's employee looks at Edouard Manet's 1881 celebrated portrait ''Le Printemps,'' at Christie's in New York August 1, 2014.

(Reuters) - Edouard Manet's 1881 celebrated portrait "Le Printemps," which has been owned by the same family for a century, will be auctioned for the first time this year and could fetch up to $35 million, Christie's auction house said on Friday.
The rare profile painting of the young Parisian actress Jeanne Demarsy, one of Manet's most famous works, will be among the highlights of Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art sale in New York on November 5.
The sale follows Christie's best spring auctions in years and a boom in the global art and antique market - sales last year rose 8 percent to $65.9 billion, the highest level since 2007, according to the latest report from the European Fine Art Foundation.
If sold for $35 million, the high pre-sale estimate, "Le Printemps" would surpass the record $33.2 million paid for Manet's "Self Portrait with a Palette" in London four years ago.
Adrien Meyer, international director at Christie's, said the painting is one of the last museum-quality works by Manet to come to auction.
"The way it is painted and the way the woman stands out from the painting is breathtaking," he said.
Manet is considered one of the giants of Impressionism and was known for his portraits. "Le Printemps," which depicts Demarsy as an allegory of spring wearing a floral outfit, gloves, bonnet and lace-edged parasol against a background of rhododendrons, is considered among his best known and most widely-produced works.
It is one of two paintings, along with "Un bar aux Folies-Bergere" the artist submitted to the Paris Exhibition of 1882 that led to success and recognition. "Le Printemps" has had only a few owners, including the unnamed American family selling it after a century of ownership.
"This was a celebrated work of the exhibition and widely reproduced afterwards, and it is so rare to find a work that was so important and widely celebrated in its own moment in history and still available to be acquired by a private collector today," Brooke Lampley, the head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie's, told Reuters.
Manet had intended to paint his depiction of the four seasons, but "Le Printemps" and a nearly finished L’Automne are the only ones he managed to achieve before he died in 1883 at the age of 51.
"His work is incredibly rare to the market. It is scarce," said Lampley.
"Le Printemps" has been on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and has also been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Meyer said the painting is in extremely good condition because it has been in the same private collection for a century and has no retouching to its surface.

(Editing by Paul Simao)

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sculpture mystery: Stolen Indian artwork in Canadian custody raises minor diplomatic storm

By BHAVNA VIJ AURORA, ET Bureau | 22 Jul, 2014, 04.47AM IST

NEW DELHI: The Department of Canadian Heritage has had an item in storage for the past three years that's decidedly not North American in origin. It's a life-size, red sandstone statue of a woman with a parrot on her bare shoulder. The voluptuous nature of the figure and various other unmistakable features clearly declare it to be a 12th century Khajuraho sculpture.
The Canadians have no problem returning the work but they're apparently unable to do so because no theft was ever reported and therefore India can't prove ownership.
 The picture of the statue — dubbed 'Parrot Lady' — is now being circulated to all field offices of the Archaeological Survey of India, but nobody seems to have a clue how it ended up several continents away. "The picture of the statue was first sent to the Bhopal circle office since Khajuraho comes under its jurisdiction.
They have reported that there is no record of any theft of such a statue," said ASI DG Rakesh Tiwari.The survey has also asked the CBI to check whether any complaint has been registered with the agency. "ASI wrote to us just about a week ago. There is no complaint with us and since it appears to be a case of trafficking of cultural heritage property, we are enquiring into it," CBI spokesperson Kanchan Prasad told ET.
"The statue is clearly a product of the Bundelkhand region and fits in perfectly with the other sculptures of Khajuraho but we can't do anything till we can show Canadian authorities proof of ownership," said a senior ASI official. Such proof would include an FIR reporting the loss or theft, details of investigations carried out and a certificate showing that it was actually registered either with the state concerned or ASI. The sculpture has been with the Department of Canadian Edmonton, capital of Alberta province, since 2011.
Canadian customs hasn't said how it came by the item. Interestingly, Canadian Heritage wrote to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa at the time. The Commission took three years to forward the message.
Experts said it appears to be clear that the statue was taken out of the country illegally. This is not the first time that ASI has been faced with such a predicament. The organisation discovered that a stolen idol of goddess Durga was on display at a museum in Stuttgart, Germany, only after they were told by New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, arrested for smuggling and deported to Chennai. He's currently lodged in jail there. But in that case ASI is on stronger ground. Its J&K office had reported that the registered antiquity had been stolen from a temple in Pulwama in the late 1990s. The only hitch is that it's not registered as an idol of 'Durga' but under a local name.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

An exclusive edifice

Shuvaprasanna. Photo: Courtesy: kamalendu bhadra

Painter Shuvaprasanna dreamt of setting up a museum for Bengal art and the result is Arts Acre, Museum of Bengal Modern Art.

When social scientist and thinker Prof. Ashish Nandy visited Arts Acre, painter Shuvaprasanna's long cherished dream of creating a museum of Bengal Modern Art, he marvelled at the creation and remarked, “Shuvaprasanna has secured a place in the annals of history. This is a watershed in Indian Art.”
Arts Acre, Museum of Bengal Modern Art, is perhaps the country's first private museum and art centre, largely funded by an Indian painter. Located in the Rajarhat Newtown area in Kolkata, this self-contained mini city for artists and art lovers is situated amidst over four and half acres of lush surroundings.
Lifelong passion
The Arts Acre project is the brainchild and lifelong passion of renowned painter, sculptor, educator, writer and art activist Shuvaprasanna. Shuvaprasanna or Shuva or Shuvada as he is fondly called, is one of India's foremost painters and the city, it's urban milieu, the agony and joys of the people who live here has featured prominently in his work. Keen on experimentation, he continues to engage with new themes, media and forms. The scrap-metal installation on Arts Acre campus featuring his favourite crows, a recurrent motif in his work, is a case in point.
Shuvaprasanna's spouse, Shipra Bhattacharya herself a well-known painter, has been an unflinching source of strength and support since the inception of this dream and has worked tirelessly to realise the long cherished goal of her husband.
Says Shuvaprasanna, “Paintings and sculptures are human resources. As compared to other countries, there is a huge apathy and ignorance in India about our fine arts. When I visited Europe for the first time in 1974, I saw museums at every nook and corner. They know how to preserve their arts. I aspired to do something similar here but did not know whom to approach and if at all anyone would be interested to help. So, I have invested my own savings and earnings to create this exclusive edifice on Bengal Art. Many friends too came along and contributed. Anybody from the creative arts is most welcome to come and work here and I invite people from all walks of life to be part of this experience.”
The centre comprises four galleries with permanent display of over 300 art works voluntarily contributed by more than 100 artists and private collectors, thus chronicling Bengal's rich and diverse art history. All the artists featured in the museum, were either born in Bengal or had worked/ studied there at some point in their lives.
From English landscape painters, Thomas and William Daniell to several members of the Tagore family including the bard himself, from representative figures of the Bengal School to Kalighat and Battala paintings and a plethora of big names of the contemporary arts scene such as Jogen Chowdhury, Shakti Burman, Paresh Maity and Shuvaprasanna himself are part of the permanent display here.
Besides, Arts Acre is equipped with a Restoration centre, exhibition halls, workshop and studio spaces dedicated to various art practices such as sculpture, painting, graphics and ceramics, living quarters for artists, cafeteria, library and a state-of-the-art indoor auditorium, which has already begun to attract artists across disciplines. The accommodation and gallery rental charges are nominal to enable young, up and coming artists and other creative groups to showcase their art.
Arts Acre was originally conceived as an institution for nurturing artists in the field of visual arts. On March 3, 1984, Pandit Ravi Shankar laid the foundation stone for the initial Arts Acre site (in North Kolkata). Gradually, the campus became a shelter for budding artists and rendezvous address for intellectuals. Nobel laureate and Shuvaprasanna's long time friend, Gunter Grass visited the old Arts Acre campus in 1987 and held an exhibition of his drawings. Chintamani Kar, Mrinal Sen, Bhabesh Sanyal, Subhas Mukhopadyay, Ashok Mitra, Santosh Kumar Ghosh, Arun Mitra, Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh, Sibnarayan Ray, N.S. Bendre, Annada Shankar Ray, Satish Gujral and Manjit Bawa visited the campus on many occasions to encourage the artists. Invitee artists from around the world came and worked here. Exchange of ideas and workshops became a regular affair.
An exchange programme with international artists eventually led to exhibitions by Arts Acre artists in London and Washington. The new Arts Acre village is an enhanced edition of that vision. Inaugurated on March 6, 2014, by Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee, the arts were adequately represented by stalwarts such as Pt. Birju Maharaj, Mahasweta Devi, Dr. Karan Singh, Dr. Balamuralikrishna and Anjolie Ela Menon.
Kolkata-based sculptor Samir Roy says, “I cannot even begin to tell you how grateful we are to Shuvaprasanna. This is a huge platform for all of us. Under one roof, you can see the entire history of art in Bengal. Any collector, curator visiting Kolkata now has access to our work. This is immense exposure to all artists.”
Independent curator Sounak Chacraverti remarks, “This is actually a great moment not only for Kolkata but also India's cultural history. Paritosh Sen used to often tell me that Shuvaprasanna will touch the sky one day. I think Shuvada has done that with Arts Acre.”

- KUNAL RAY

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Three curators who are changing the face of Indian art

Written by Vandana Kalra | New Delhi | June 29, 2014 3:33 am

Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum holds its head high thanks to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta.

Three curators who are changing the way Indian art is viewed across the world

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, 60
Till a decade ago, Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, lay forgotten in the Victorian greens of Byculla, Mumbai, completely hidden from the art scene. Today, thanks to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, it holds its head high, like the monolithic basalt elephant — once at the gates of the Elephanta — at its entrance. The carved doors open into imposing interiors with Palladian columns and richly painted ceilings, reflecting the green that envelops the museum — the colour chosen by Mehta to dress the space.
Every artefact on display is hand-picked and gives the 19th-century museum a new face. It merged the past with the present, the colonial with the contemporary. “We want to showcase contemporary culture the way the museum did earlier,” says Mehta, the managing trustee and honorary director of the museum, who reopened it after extensive research and renovation in 2008. The project was a public-private venture funded by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group. Soon, artists were invited to showcase their works. Sudarshan Shetty erected his own life-size statue next to the marble statue of Prince Albert and Jitish Kallat presented the city as an unfinished national project with makeshift scaffolding and rioting figures. “It’s about creating a dialogue between the museum and the city,” says Mehta, a JJ School of Art graduate.
She went on to pursue a degree in liberal arts from Columbia University, which was followed by a post-graduate diploma in modern art from Christie’s and a PhD on the establishment of museums and schools of art from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been working in the field of art ever since. Among other things, she was the governor of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority Heritage Society and the vice-chairman of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
In the six years since the reopening of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, there has never been a dull moment. “Curating is also a form of art, which, unfortunately, is not understood in India,” says Mehta. The biggest challenge, though, is interacting with the artists. “Artists can be very possessive about their work,” says Mehta.
Having learnt the fine art of maintaining a distance, and yet being involved, she makes active interventions in most projects at the museum. For instance, in Kallat’s 2011 exhibition, Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was Here Yesterday, the boxes that housed miniature resin figurines came from Mehta’s office. “He wanted them on the floor,” she says. Kallat yielded to her idea when she showed him a box they had. She has also worked closely with his wife Reena, who designed
the strings of rubber stamps trellised to form a cobweb that hung from the facade of the museum. Each stamp bore the name of a street in Mumbai changed as part of the renaming and decolonising of the city.
Efforts are now being made to bring the west to the east. Tie-ups with the Victoria & Albert Museum are in place. The museum is booked till 2017. Mehta, though, is booked far beyond.

Shanay Jhaveri, 29

If Amrita Sher-Gil is one of India’s most celebrated artists, Lebanese painter and sculptor Saloua Raouda Choucair popularised abstract art in the Arab world. Both of them led distinctly cosmopolitan lives, actively arbitrating between disparate cultural and geographical spaces. They found their calling in Paris, and returned to their homelands to discover modernism. Last year, Shanay Jhaveri brought them back to the French capital in Companionable Silences, a show that exhibited the works of non-Western women artists, who lived and worked in Paris from early to mid-20th century. “Collectively, the works gesture at modernism’s cross-cultural past,” says Jhaveri.
The quest to discover the vagaries in “modernism” across the globe has come to define the practice of the under-30 graduate in art semiotics from Brown University, US. “Each programme is a mode of new learning and research. In my programmes, I try to formulate rela-tionships between works that would never appear alongside one another, developing a constellation which asks questions instead of offering definitive statements,” says Jhaveri, who shuttles between the UK and Mumbai.
It was a 112-page guidebook to Mumbai that first brought him to the limelight. Published in 2007 by the magazine Wallpaper, it explored the city from a design perspective. Three years and several reviews later came his first publication Outsider Films on India: 1950-1990 in which, through 10 films in four decades, he studied how European filmmakers responded to post-colonial India. The book led to a film programme at Tate, followed by a large three-site exhibition in the city of Brugge in Belgium, titled India: Visions from the Outside. He further explored this cross-fertilisation of ideas and influence in his much-acclaimed publication Western Artists and India: Creative Inspirations in Art and Design.
While his PhD supervisor at Brown University, Leslie Thornton, left a lasting impact on Jhaveri, he learnt his early lessons in fine art during his stint as assistant to the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Gallery, London. “There is a connection and back and forth between my writing and ‘curatorial’ work,” says the contributing editor for Frieze magazine. He is now in the process of organising an exhibition about various artistic responses to the city of Chandigarh.
With the absence of an active institutional infrastructure and very few private museums, curators in India, according to him, have to demonstrate agility and resourcefulness. “They have greater issues negotiating with the state and raising
funds than their counterparts in the West,” says Jhaveri. For now, he intends to be the bridge, linking the two parts of the hemisphere.

Naman Ahuja, 39

 Standing at  a spot within the 14,000 sq ft exhibition circumference, Naman Ahuja introduces its layout as a body wrapped around the viewers. The starting point, ironically, is from the door of “death”. This is where the curator begins his much-acclaimed exhibition, Body in Indian Art, that discusses how the body has been depicted in India through over 300 exhibits, spanning Chola bronzes to Rajput miniatures and contemporary art. He is at the National Museum in Delhi introducing the collection. Curatorial walks aren’t commonplace in India, but Ahuja believes they are essential.
The associate professor of ancient Indian art and architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University brings together pottery and archival research in his work. A student of pioneering artist-potter Devi Prasad, Ahuja hasn’t practised his art in the last couple of years. Instead, he has pored over his personal archives comprising slides of over 20,000 objects from across India.
“Curating is not just about the physical staging of the exhibition, it is also about researching each exhibit and forming a narrative,” says the former curator of Indian sculpture at the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, London, and the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford.
Being a co-curator of an exhibition, Divine Presence: Arts of India & the Himalayas, in Barcelona and his work at the British Museum helped him get trained as a curator. As co-curator of Devi Art Foundation’s Where in the World in 2010, he examined the impact of globalisation and economic liberalisation on contemporary art in India, which earned him critical acclaim.
This story appeared in print with the headline In Other Rooms, Other Wonders