Joining the Dots

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Movements and conversations of modern Indian art

DEATH AND redemption, meditations and drama, the epic scale of Mahabharata and Ramayana and other poetries are some of the themes at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Noida. Kiran Nadar and KNMA curator, Roobina Karode have never shied away from imagining the infinite canvas. “I used to teach many of these works in college but I’d never seen them ,” Karode says. “I’m lucky to actually get to see these works— something that Mrs Nadar and KNMA have made possible.”

That’s precisely the feeling you get when you walk into this exquisite exhibition from KNMA’s 4,300 (approximately 6,000 if you count each artwork in a series separately) strong collection of modern and contemporary Indian art that ranges from the late 19th-century miniatures to rare works by Raja Ravi Varma to international names such as Anish Kapoor and Raqib Shaw. Karode, a leading curator in India, is using recent acquisitions in Kiran Nadar’s collection as an opportunity to relook at the existing collection and find new germinations and thoughts in Indian art through the configurations. You understand the weight of the task in front of her when you see the way she has built this exhibition so that it maps movements, times and conversations. You also understand the weight of her choices when you realise that over 200 South Asian artists are represented in KNMA’s permanent collection, encompassing a diversity of time-periods, art historical contexts and relationships.

The conversation with KNMA starts even before you enter the exhibition. KNMA Noida is situated within the vast HCL campus building, where it shares space with the large cafeteria. Guards at the gates have grudgingly learnt to allow in guests, but it’s still sobering to realise that works by seminal artists, which should have been preserved by government museums, are finding a home in a private building and often overlooked by techies as they rush to have their lunch.

The second conversation is regarding the direction KNMA. Kiran Nadar has been inspired by the Guggenheim, MoMA, and the Whitney, which started out as private collections and this exhibition is supposed to connect the dots between the past of India’s art history and the future. It is important that art is brought closer to the larger public. KNMA has a huge responsibility in filling that gap. And how we shape our mandate for the future,” says Karode.

In the near future, KNMA has an ambitious programme planned where a gallery at the Saket branch will host week-long programmes with young art practitioners. But at the present exhibition, the artworks are astounding. As Karode says, “These are landmark works in the careers of these artists.”

Krishen Khanna’s incredible Pieta (1988) is juxtaposed against A Ramachandran’s Anatomy Lesson. Made in 1971, the year of the Indo-Pakistan war and Bangladesh’s Liberation and when Ramachandran’s reputation as a social commentator was at its peak, the painting distorts Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp so that the Good Doctor in the original is turned into Hitler and the doctors watching become morally dead spectators of an orgy of blood and gristle.

Another legendary 1970 work by Krishen Khanna—Che Dead: The Photograph can also be found here. Despite the 18 years between Pieta and Che Dead, the colours, workmanship and the themes create a juxtaposition that focuses attention on the value of a dead hero, destruction, redemption and sacrifice.

But Karode doesn’t let you wallow. The theme shifts from the unearthly and metaphysical to the earthy and material as you’re faced with a fantastic early Souza called The Family. This is one of the few works at the show that KNMA has displayed at earlier exhibitions, but it’s still stunning, overshadowing even the Himmat Shah sculptures and Avinash Chandra paintings next to it. The Himmat Shah sculptures have never been displayed in Delhi before. They were cast in London and came to the artist after the KNMA retrospective in 2015. Early works by Ram Kumar (the show is dedicated to him) Padamsee and KK Hebbar’s The Tile Factory show both the change in styles as well as the early brilliance of the Progressive artists. Karode mixes in sculpture as well, with Somnath Hore’s tiny Boy with Cloak.

And then you come to a room that, even in this exhibition of classics, burns itself onto your retinas. Karode, who belongs to a family of architects, has created a special space for Imran Qureshi’s red-and-white You who are my love and my life’s enemy too. “It’s so powerful that it kills other works, so I decided to shorten the room and make the room of the same colour as the painting, so that we distil the essence of the painting. We also added a painted white frame to make it quieter and more meditative, but the painting still erupts with the spatter of blood. It talks about the scale of human violence. Though the work is disturbing, there is hope for salvation too in the petal of flowers appearing,” she says.

A room full of Meera Mukherjee sculptures, as well as artworks by Jamini Roy, Arpana Caur and Biren De reveal repetition and resurrection, as they lead you to a beautiful Aisha Khalid twin carpet tapestry that was made by the artist after the 2014 terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar. Steel and gold-plated pins create identical designs on two carpets to create In two forms and with two faces—with one soul, Thou and I. One carpet is made of red velvet while the other is a washed-out military fatigue cloth. Between the two carpets is an almost iron maiden-like torture chamber made of thousands of pinpoints.

And with this begins the wonderful women’s section of the exhibition. The golden beauty of Lal Ded’s verses on Nilima Shiekh’s canvas is juxtaposed by an unexpected early Arpita Singh untitled work from 1971 that is awash with colour and Nalini Malani’s Ecstasy of Radha II (2004). The opposite wall has a huge meditative abstraction by Zarina. It counterpoises an Aisha Khalid and a textile series by the recently deceased Priya Ravish Mehra and immediately establishes the continuity of the abstract tradition despite the different materials and countries.

The exhibition also moves beyond the usual Delhi, Baroda, Bombay, Lahore and Dhaka-based artists. Karode has included a series of works by J Sultan Ali and Reddeppa M Naidu who were active in the south. Ali’s work uses folk art for inspiration and blends the real and the fantastical with text and symbols. An entire room is devoted to 15 colourful panels from Naidu’s seminal 18-panel Mahabharata series—one for each Parva or canto of the epic, executed between 1972 and 1974 and shown in Delhi in 2006. Children love the Naidu room, it seems, but on a more abstract level, both artists return to folk art and text as an important part of their work.

This return to folk art symbolism is reflected in K Laxma Gaud’s Toran—a huge sculpture that was last seen at the India Art Fair in 2018, and Mrinalini Mukherjee’s macramé Van Raja II, which was a part of her retrospective in 2015 at NGMA. Pushpamala’s 2012 photo-series on Sita’s abduction in the Ramayana bring us full circle to Khanna’s Pieta. This sets up another interesting juxtaposition of themes, including the epics and the gaze of gender.

Nadar and Karode are responsible for helping India embrace a number of artists like Zarina, Nasreen Mohamedi, Nalini Malini, Himmat Shah, Rameshwar Broota , often through retrospectives. It’s a responsibility that involves loans, insurance policies, no- objection certificates, and sometimes even restoration and refurbishments. But it’s an essential part of maintaining the art history of a country, especially since they’ve taken on the additional role of educating school children. “Unfortunately, in India, we’re lagging so far behind. There are no rigorous contemporary museums. One museum isn’t enough. We’re doing an injustice to ourselves, to the immense talent in India,” laments Karode. In the meantime, this exhibition is a reason to celebrate the best of Indian art and an intelligent collector.

(New Configurations runs at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Noida, till July 31)