Thursday, December 21, 2017

In Pursuit of Scars: Vicky Roy’s New Photography Series

(Vicky Roy)

We live in a world where a majority of us are ‘trigger-happy’; most of us are equipped with a shooting machine. The irony is that often we shoot at ourselves; we call it selfie. In that sense selfie is a sort of semi-suicide, a death that never takes life but make life eternal or we think so. There was a time when people thought of camera as vile equipment, a click of which would take a part of us away; again a speck of small death, a photograph. Yes, photographs anticipate death; it is a preamble to the text called ‘our death.’ And along with us, our backdrops, our front drops which are called nature too die a slow death in the act of taking photographs. All of us do not think of photograph is these terms. When we aim at us or the nature in front of us, we think we make it eternal but in fact continuous photographing process also connotes a series of deconstructing the death; a sort of self portrait by artists to capture the effect of the changing seasons and passing years in the person. This is what exactly the noted young photographer Vicky Roy does in his latest solo exhibition titled ‘The Scarred Land: New Mountain-scapes’ curated by Ram Rahman at the Vadehra Gallery, New Delhi.

(from This Scarred Land)

These photographs tell us the stories of the mountain-scapes in Himachal Pradesh. Understanding about a particular state in India also comes with a pictorial image or sense. When we talk about Kashmir we visualise it as the essence of Kashmir’s visual quality filtered into our cultural consciousness through various sources including calendar pictures, honey moon photographs and the films that were shot against the heavenly landscapes of Kashmir before terrorism hit the state and dissent became stony projectiles. When we talk about West Bengal, despite the over presence of Trinamool Congress, we imagine it as a place where the Howrah Bridge hangs dissolved in the mist of Hoogly River like many a bridges across Istanbul’s Bosphorus River. When we talk about Kerala unnecessarily we think about boat races and Kathakali masks and a lot of greenery. Similarly when we talk about Himachal Pradesh, the pictures of huge mountain scapes loom large over our consciousness. Many people remember the British colonial period, many other remember their annual vacations, devotees remember the shrines that the state houses and the readers remember the good old man, Ruskin Bond.

(from This Scarred Land)

Once you see the pictures taken by Vicky Roy and the predominant greys that cover the images like a layer of dust and their sadness your idea about Himachal Pradesh definitely would change. This is a scarred land, obviously the curator likes it to pun with the ‘sacredness’ comes as a package deal with the name of the state. Behind the folds of the hills and meadows, along the askew pathways that wind up hill, within the tiered lands where habitats have been sheltered as well as punished by nature, a new reality has been in the making for so many years. Earthmovers and biting machines work round the clock to dig up properties meant for multi-storied buildings, expensive and highly in demand. The irony is that each building that comes up bring a little of city along with it, slowly filling the erstwhile sylvan land and the land of solace and divinity with total urban profanity and changing the land into a memory which could lovingly turned into wall papers for these apartments. Though Vicky has not lived in this part of the world continuously like the Roerichs or the colonial photographer Thomas Bourne or the traditional painter Nainsukh and several other pahadi miniature artists who are denied their names despite of the hard work of historians like B.N.Goswamy, whenever he could visit the state, a trigger-happy artist,  clicked pictures of the spaces which he had seen in the previous visits but had changed the complexion through external aggression. 

(from This Scarred Land)

Human beings are a strange sort. They seek peace and silence, a bit spirituality supported by ample amount of wealth in the hills and they make cottages and settle there to lead a simple life. But the flow of the wealth is not always from up to down; rather it is from down to up. Wealth moves from the planes to the hills and sea shores and much deep into the forests. In those places they make Jacuzzi retreats and apartments for holidays. When you have all these, you need to develop infrastructure. With infrastructural development, you carry a city into the forest, pushing the forest further inside or to extreme peripheries. You fill these places with vehicles and diesel gas. Then you create malls, schools and high end hospitals. By doing this, you cut forests to make space for these and collapse the ecological balance. The last point of it is that you complain about the growing concrete and abstract populations in those sylvan areas. What Vicky documents is this irony. These pictures taken by him as tell tale evidences to this human avarice. In way, Vicky’s photographs in this solo exhibition are the registration of damage that the human beings have inflicted on the body of nature. And these are also the photographs of the silent cry of the earth. It is a real time movie documentation of the denuding and tonsuring of the earth’s head. That too is done with coarse blades, scarring the head with many cut marks.

(from This Scarred Land)

Vicky makes the portraits of a widow called earth. His works are not really eco-political alone. It is a stand in metaphor for the women all over the world; their productivity, their calmness, their sense of happiness and their right over their bodies are vandalized and they are forced into a sort of unwilling widowhood. Widowhood of the earth is not defined the death of her husband. On the contrary it is a collective death of righteousness and morality of the politicians and policy makers. Each frame in Vicky’s pictures raises this question: Who allows this vandalism? Hence this body work becomes a strong political critique raised at the face of the politicians and the land mafia. May be the curatorial intervention of creating two backdrops with the images of Roerich’s and Bourne’s works is just to limit this critique which is sharp enough to incise painful lines on our conscience and contain it within the artistic/visual discourse itself. But I believe that we need not restrict the works into that ‘terrible beauty is born’ format. The silent screams of the land would reverberate in our ears and moral agitation of the artist becomes palpable when we stand in front of these works. Vicky does not train his camera at the iron arms that dig the land nor is he focussing on the skeletal concrete structures that come up at every nook and corner of the mountain scapes of Himachal Pradesh.

(from This Scarred Land)

When there is an earthquake, a flood, a landslide or a manmade mishap we wail on the lives that lost. We often say that it was where this or that building stood. But we never say that it was where once a beautiful hillock or stood before the building came up there. Our visions are limited by the existence of concrete and city. Nobody asks what was there before the malls came, the roads came and the hospitals came. In planes we have only one answer to it; agricultural fields. We don’t ask what was there before a resort had come up. The answer is a forest. Where water tanks stand tall today once ran a stream with crystal clear water. In the hills the answer is always a piece of beautiful nature. Hence, the works of Vicky are forensic evidences of immeasurable loss caused human beings. They are visual FIRs that find no police station to file. Hence they come to a gallery wall. We cannot predict where these pictures would go. The historical irony could be that these works would travel in stranger than fictional routes and end up in the walls of palatial apartments that have just come up in the hills. Vicky Roy as an artist wouldn’t be able to stop that. But that is the beauty of art; it turns into silent but beautiful reminders of the human beings who ‘caused’ that art. Oblivion is strength and an art collection is a confession. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Sculptor who Chiselled a Smile: Nagji Patel (1937-2017)

(Nagj Patel- the last picture from Bulgaria)

Nagji Patel is no more. Three days back, from Bulgaria, where he had been in a sculpture symposium, like the ones that he had been attending throughout his creative career, he had updated a facebook profile picture. I was worried when I saw it; something was not quite right about that picture. In the yellow light of a hotel room, Nagji Bhai was sitting, leaning against the bed head. He held his hands folded across his chest, a sense of resignation painted across his sagging cheek muscles, which always used to hold a smile in an upward curve. That warm smile was missing on his face in that picture. Nagji Bhai was not my friend as I stand separated almost four decades from him in age. However, in different occasions, I have had these wonderful moments of pleasant interactions with him. So the unsmiling face in the facebook profile picture sent out some ominous premonitions to me. I thought Nagji Bhai was not well.

That internal gaze of his; how could I erase from mind? That unsmiling face; how could I reconcile with that unsmiling face? I knew whenever I met him, sometimes as an art historian and sometimes as a friend of his son and artist, Chirag Patel, his approach towards me was that of love and I used to think that he was quite amused by my controversial comments on art and the artists in this country though I had never said anything hurting about him. Let me contrast two faces; the faces of Jeram Patel and Nagji Patel. I hardly know anything of the so called dynamics of the Baroda art scene, which is otherwise known as the Baroda art politics. I have never been a party to it and would never become one. However, thanks to some benevolent friends in Baroda, I had the chance of meeting both these artists and even I had done a twenty four minute long ‘documentary’ on Jeram Patel. He never smiled; neither to the camera nor to me despite the fact that I had been making several visits to his home and spending good number of hours talking about his life and works. Nagji Patel always smiled even when he was chiselling away wood pieces sitting at the courtyard of his studio somewhere near Kanoria Centre, Ahmedabad.

(a monumental sculpture by Nagji Patel)

I always thought both the men were hurt by something. Today, I understand that they were hurt by their art. Only those who love you deeply hurt you deeply. Look at the spouses; they are like disgruntled warriors perfecting their war machines just to hurt the other. Devoid of other means in the mundane lives, they find sharpened words and acidic deeds to hurt the spouses, thinking that the deeper hurts would etch the love deeply into the minds. The imprints taken later would be clear, the chisel mark clearer and the smell of colour still sharp. Nagji Patel was in love with his art. And this art, like many a spouses in the real life did not pay him back the way he expected. As Indian art scene couldn’t respect him beyond being a reckonable name, Nagji Bhai had to take off from Baroda at regular intervals to countries elsewhere with marble and granite blocks waiting for his chisel touch. Nagji Bhai’s sculptures might have earned him respect in this country but little money; and he had to sustain himself doing sculpture symposium throughout his life. Thinking of it, thankless we are as we fail always to celebrate a living artist and lament once he flips the curtain and vanishes as if in a magical act.

(the illustrious Banyan Tree sculpture by Nagji Patel)

The smile on his face was the smile that hoodwinked the hurts that he faced in his personal as well as artistic life. He loved stone so much because he could carve his pain making the right incision on them. And Nagji Bhai perfected the art of incision; the sharp cut that would bring the sculpture out of the cocoons of stones. I remember the days of lying down under the Banyan Tree, staring at the silver sky with my vacant eyes. Fatehganj was the one that you see today. Whenever I felt lonely, I went to this sculpture and sought shelter under the shade of it; surprisingly never thinking of its possible connection to enlightenment other than going by the out layer of meaning that Baroda had derived its name from Vad Vrukshas (Banyan Trees). This sculpture had defined Baroda in those days. The opening shot, a panoramic one with Kaki’s chai lari and cosmopolitan restaurant where the legends said biriyani was served.

(the dismantled Banyan Tree at Space Studio, pic by JohnyML)

In 2015 February, the controversial Vat Festival took place in Baroda. I had contributed one article about Jeram Patel in one of the books and I was living in Mumbai for a short while. I drove down to see the festival. From there I went to the Space Studio where Parag Sonarghare was preparing for his solo exhibition. At the far end of the ground, I saw the disassembled pieces of the legendary banyan tree by Nagji Patel. I felt sad. Upon enquiring about its dethronement from the centre of the city, I was told that the sculpture was a victim of the ‘development’ mantra that these days all the governments follow. They could uproot a culturally rooted Banyan Tree sculpture of a famed artist, dump it in a ground and dangle a promise saying that it could be reassembled/re-installed at some other city square, far away from its original place. Nagji Bhai did not make any public statement; even if he had I did not get to see it (mea culpa). Of late, there have been negotiations to carry it to another state in Indian South and house it with due respect. Nagji Bhai was about to feel good about it. But man proposes and time disposes.

(the hidden signature of Nagji Patel from under the Banyan Tree sculpture. Pic JohnyML)

Nagji Bhai, came to do a solo show in a private gallery in Delhi, almost a decade back. I met him there and found a couple of works installed just outside the gallery. I knew it was not a well thought out curatorial decision or a decision by the artist himself. It was done out of the TINA factor; there is no alternative. The works were huge and did not go into the gallery. I thought it was a complete lack of professional negotiations from the side of the gallery. The gallery should have thought about it before letting him send those works. What I heard later was a lot of complaints about the money the gallery had to spend on transporting those works. I met Nagji Bhai, talked to him; even in the height of that personal as well as artistic crisis, he was smiling, warming up to me, asking about my health and life in general, then explaining his works. In fact, when I look at his works and life, like many other artists of his generation, he too had very little to talk (about their works). It was a divine mission that had goaded them into work and words couldn’t have done justice to them. Now we live in a time where words envelope deeds and ‘hillify’ the moles. Nagji Bhai worked on the ideas that prevailed in the artistic Utopia, the forms that derived from an oriental sense of being one with nature and the monumental imaginations that worked on the essences of matter, space and place and imparted identity to the places where those works were placed.

(Nagji Bhai Patel in a work site)

Our art scene has tremendous amount of mandatory-ness and ad hoc-ism. I have a collection, I need this, that and Nagji Patel too. That’s the way we collect art. We do not have the habit to consistent collections as in the case of the pioneers of art collecting in our country. So, perhaps, every art collector in our country must be having a Nagji Bhai work in their collection often kept on a stone pedestal as a non-descript garden sculpture. Modernist and minimalist sculptures have suffered this fate in many of the Indian collections both in the public and private sector. Unable to decode the meaning of these minimal germinal and semi-erotic forms they remain as ‘piecemeal’ sculptures in the gardens or in the corners of large collection. Nagji Bhai was known for his monumental works. But his studio was not producing monumental stuff alone. I am sure someone would make a revisit to his works than just doing lip service to his memory, exactly the way I am doing now. Nagji Bhai wanted to promote artists of various kinds so he established a gallery called Nazar Art Gallery. He also was in the process of developing a large art studio and centre for art somewhere along the Baroda-Mumbai highway. Nagji Bhai was a good artist with a wonderful soul. He needs more space in the Indian art history.  

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

When Fear Makes You Laugh: About Two Shows in Mumbai

Recently I was in Mumbai. I could watch two interesting shows. One, an (art) history based show at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, curated by Naman Ahuja titled, India and the World - A History in Nine Stories, and the other one titled 'Sub-Plots Laughing in the Vernacular' at the NGMA (hosted by Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai) curated by Meena Vaari. I thought the show at the Museum was killed by the exhibition design.

The said show is a collaboration between India and Britain. We know India is currently going through a dark period in its history. Britain too has its bleak moments in these days. I don't know whether it reflects the prevailing socio-political and cultural climates of both the countries or it underlines the beauty of darkness, as the exhibition design has too much of darkness in it and it has literally screwed up the show which has a number of interesting artefacts right from 5000 BC to till date. Each work of art is lit but the gallery remains in pitch darkness. Some garish facades are made at the entry points of each section but of no use as they are shrouded in abysmal darkness.

Exhibition design is one of the core components of any curatorial intervention in which light plays an integral part. Blackness/Darkness in galleries seems to be a postmodern-contemporary critique of the modern white cube(ness) of international gallery-museum format. Countering white with black to position art made by white as well as black artists is an interesting transgression till it has now become a sort of norm even for the local shows. Blackness in itself is a beautiful thing and as it absorbs light automatically highlights the lit objects placed against it; it gives the required contrast. But 'required' is the catch word. How much blackness/darkness is needed to see a work of art?

I remember watching a video installation done by the British black artist Steve Mac Queen at the Barbican Centre, London. The video presented the descending into the innards of earth/mines. It was an excruciatingly painful but cathartic experience as the darkness within and without the video was liquid enough to make the viewer feel the intensity of the work. So was witnessing Cornelia Parker's Exploded Home at Tate Modern. But here in CSMVS museum darkness is created for the sake of it; perhaps the unsuspecting visitors from the rural areas of Maharashtra. Seriously speaking, as a curator-exhibition designer myself, I couldn't quite understand the logic behind the employment of blackness/darkness in the whole design.

There at the Sakshi show, all the participating artists are familiar. The title set me thinking about it. All the participants are National and international if not mentioned otherwise. You just need to google their name / biodata. The show's title makes them vernacular. Otherwise, their laughter remains national or international. So where exactly is the masquerading taking place, in turning the vernacular into national or national into vernacular? What is this vernacular constituted of? And what is this national constituted by? KGS had answered this question long back when he said the regional is the new international. But I find all the participants have been made into itinerant vernaculars exactly the way they have been made into nationals forcefully by others in other contexts. Participants in this show are my friends. Yet I couldn't help asking this question: what are they laughing at?
Atul Dodiya
Some of them are laughing at the people. Some at themselves. Some are laughing at their own surroundings. Some are definitely obscure. Times are so that I don't find any nudity and laughing at the power centres. Even Harsha's monkeys look very grim. CK Rajan's fan looks pathetically out of context (the dark cynical mad laughter of his works is conveniently sanitised into a flaccid grin here. I ran away from T&T's work. I am unintelligent, dumb and stupid in front of their works. I belong to the Jurassic era of art. Paritosh Sen and KGS are forced in too. Curators do a huge injustice to Amit Ambalal as if he were an artist who is incapable of doing serious art. Amit Ambalal, ready to laugh. Tunty Chauhan with her limited understanding of art history categorised Ambalal in this way. He is still suffering. How can gay theme be a thing to laugh at or a thing that laughs at us? Bhupen is another victim. Manjunath Kamath has been laughing the same boring laughter for the last fifteen years. Tomorrow I wouldn't be surprised if I see a show titled 'vernacular weeping' and wouldn't be shocked at all if I see the same artists in that show. In fact, I don't hold either artists or curator or even gallery responsible for this. It is all about time; we live in fearful times. When fear grips at the nerve centre of thinking we all would laugh from all possible ends.

(The curator could have looked at the works of Rajendra Kapse, Farhad Hussain, Raj More, Gopi Krishna, Ratheesh, Sunilal TR, Jyothibasu, Aji VN, G Raghu, Ranbir Kaleka and so on. But not possible because they all belong to other galleries not Sakshi)

(Images have been sourced from the Internet and Facebook)