1 December, 2022


Artists Of South Asia Tell A Tale Of Two Cities

By Dev N Pathak

Dr. Dev N Pathak

The art project A Tale of Two Cities is scheduled to reach Colombo, Sri Lanka, in August this year for an exhibition at Red Dot Gallery of Theertha Artists’ Collective. Based on it’s recently concluded show at Indira Gandhi National Center for Arts in New Delhi in March 2017 the following rumination could be an anchor for the Sinhala audience.

The artists in South Asia are beginning to make concerted effort toward creating a discourse, that can become stimulant for scholars of cultural politics in the region. An effort of similar kind is an art project titled A Tale of Two Cities began in 2015. The project brought together artists from Sri Lanka and India to revisit two cities of profound civilizational significance, Anuradhapura and Varanasi. These cities belong to folklore, history, and memory immaculately coloured with religiosity. But then, they are not frozen in time and space, and hence they have acquired novel facets in the scheme of contemporary. The art project hinged on the insightful conceptualization of Renu Modi (Director, Gallery Espace, Delhi) resulting into over a yearlong collaboration of Serendipity Art Trust (Delhi), Theertha Artists’ Collective (Colombo) and Gallery Espace (Delhi). In the kernel of the concept was the idea of ‘sacred geographies’, an intellectual stimulus for the artists to explore the two cities in this research-based art-making process. A collaborative project of this nature is indeed a befitting response in the wake of cultural globalization. It yields a possibility to re-imagine artists’ South Asia, entailing border crossing, nuanced networking, and empathy for the socio-cultural and political contexts across the modern cartographies. The artists and groups ought to be commended on this front of engendering artists’ regionalism, a nebulous institutional arrangement for more creative version of solidarity in the wake of endangered international relations of nation-states.  The aesthetic consequence of the project is exhibition of artworks, first held at Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa in December 2016, second at Indira Gandhi National Center for Arts in New Delhi in March 2017, and third is scheduled in August this year at Red Dot Gallery in Colombo. The exhibition makes an emphatic statement for an art-lover, critique, historian and anthropologists of art: shared sacred is more important than security threats in the region of South Asia!

Image courtesy: Gallery Espace, New Delhi

Nature of Shared Sacred

The exhibition persuades that the idea of sacred is not enshrined in the religious canons alone. The artists’ tale of two cities brings about a fusion of personal subjectivities and impersonal sacred emblems. Thus, the notion of sacred arising from the exhibition connects histories, biographies, and philosophy in the larger anthropological framework. Anoli Perera’s work titled Geographies of Deliverance dwells upon the famous twentieth century Sinhala song Dano Buddhunge (Those who know Buddha’s Dharma), in order to narrate what she calls ‘mental mappings of the pilgrims’. Anoli underlines an emotionally rooted and experiential sacred in her artworks. It amounts to enabling the artists to narrate- what they saw, what they believed in, and what shook their belief. Pala Pothupitiye, another critically acclaimed artist from Sri Lanka, goes to the extent of suggesting that ‘history of Sinhala Buddhism has been history of violence’. And thus his installation, Victory Dome, performs a meaningful heresy of doubting the presence of any sacred relic whatsoever in the aggressively protected Buddhist domes in Sri Lanka. Gazing at Bandu Manamperi’s Moonstone and Charcoal, one begins to believe that belief in sacred is as vulnerable as the materiality of the signifiers. For anyone versed in the language of semiotics the ensemble assumes poignant promises.

Image courtesy: Gallery Espace, New Delhi

The shared sacred receives intimate narration from the usage of textile in Paula Sengupta’s The Plain of Aspiration, divulging contested histories associated with the sacred sites. In the form of a wooden Pankha hanging from the ceiling Sengupta serves the imagery of a colonial South Asia in which indigenous means were utilized for bodily respite in the tropical climate as well as for narrating tales from the inner chambers of everyday life. In the similar vein, Manisha Parekh’s Home Shrine and Chants enlarge the notion of sacred by mingling personal sentiments with philosophy of thoughts. Not to dabble in another drab epistemology that interests pundits of past and present, nor are they to relate a chronology-heavy history. For them, it is the personalized composition of history and philosophy in which the idea of sacred is the mainstay.

Image courtesy: Gallery Espace, New Delhi

While post-War Anuradhapura is source of subjective complexity, Varanasi appears in it’s stereotypical forms in this exhibition barring a few exceptions of artworks. But, the idea of a debatable sacred stays on as one encounters Jagath Weerasinghe’s Theertha Yatra and Among the Ruins, placed at the very start of the exhibition-space according to the curatorial design of Ruhanie Perera. Theertha Yatra depicts Jagath’s subjective rumination upon Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi. A little familiarity with Varanasi enables to understand the overwhelming impact of the interplay between cosmic and mundane, sacred and profane, ephemeral physics and transcendental metaphysis, that Manikarnika offers. Jagath, one of the pioneers of contemporary visual arts in Sri Lanka, plays with colours to bring about this sense on his larger than life size canvas. So does Pradeep Chandrasiri in Return to the Sensory, cathartically connecting Anuradhapura and Varanasi through the wavy lines drawn on fragments of panels seamlessly put together as one complete artwork. One however experiences a socio-political vacuum in such artistic flight of personalised experiences. For, Manikarnika ghat embodies a social world ruled by dom raja, the untouchables in-charge of funeral pyres. It is also a social domain of ritual crying competing with the crescendo of cremation. It is not merely the sacred, but profane and mundane that spring up for immediate attention in the domains of metaphysics on such occasions in the city, also known by the folk as Banaras. 

Image courtesy: Gallery Espace, New Delhi

Moreover, in an exciting series of works titled Restored Poems, Manjulal Kamath reveals the complexity of sacred between the two cities. The sculpture of conjoined Buddha and the termite of time leaving a sense of excavated figurines remind us of non-linear tales. This trope of anxious engagement with Buddha and politics of religion persists throughout, including Riyas Komu’s helplessly out of place Gandhi, and Ram Rahman’s hasty chronicles in the form of posters.  If Kamath plays with profundity of metaphors, others seem content with the simpler rhetoric. With ifs and buts of a critical beholder, the artworks drive home a clear message: the shared sacred is debatable. It may or may not be equally retrievable from the debris of time for all the artists though.

Image courtesy: Gallery Espace, New Delhi

Does it succeed in telling a tale of two cities? Partially, yes, as a tale of shared sacred in the two cities, adequately debated in the wake of violent encounters, which has been intermittent in the region of South Asia. In the same breath, as an art-project, it is a success story in forging new alliances across borders and thus artists with varied orientations have come together with their works of art in the exhibition. But then, could this be sufficient in the tale of two cities? What about the complex trope of cities in our times populated by hetero-normative worldviews? What could be an imagination of a city such as Banaras, where people may dream of the Japanese bullet trains as a marker of development in ‘Modified’ India today? Are Banaras and Anuradhapura sites of metaphysical salvations alone? Particularly, Banaras is a city of folklore dotted by the signifiers such as Bhang, Ganja, Jalebi, Puri, paan and everything that invites indulgence. How can one forget courtesans’ mujras, thugs going by the epithet of Banarasi babu, and many more characters who may have regaled us in Apur Sansar, a film in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Even though, it is a tale of two cities pertaining to the shared sacred, it is difficult to ignore Muslim weavers making Banarasi saari using the Buddhist motifs from the stupa at Sarnath. How to bring about manifold mundane in the scheme of contemporary artistic visualization of the cities of yore in South Asia? There may not be immediately available answers to layered curiosity stemming from the project and it’s consequent exhibition. Suffice to say, A Tale of Two Cities occasions debates, enjoining upon the artists of the project due responsibility for just representation. Else, it may end up executing a new lease of orientalism!    

*Dr. Dev N Pathak – Department of Sociology, South Asian University, New Delhi

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Latest comments

  • 0

    As usual Pala’s work is by far the most powerful and political.
    The rest is tired play and rhetoric – in the internet age a bit passe.
    Jargon filled mental mastubaation from SAU included!

  • 0

    Congratulations for Sri lankan artists who are unique in their work.

  • 0

    Too much conceit, saffron and un-Buddhism, not enough multiculturalism and diversity here.. it seem
    There was a lot of cultural diversity in A pura and B nares that has been erased by the nationalists, what happened?

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