Monday, October 10, 2016

Curious Objects - The Western World and Mughal Miniature Art

I wrote this article for the September 2016 issue of Jetwings
Nur Jahan holding a portrait of Emperor Jahangir, about 1627; 
borders added 1800s. Mughal India. 
 The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund; From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, 2013.325 (recto).

Maharaja Savant Singh's Tears Irrigate the Garden of His Poetry 
India, Rajasthan, Kishangarh, c. 1750-1775
Gift of Anna Bing Arnold
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.89.51.2.
Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA
Perhaps it’s the influence of Bollywood movies like Jodha Akbar that brought the luxuriousness of the Great Mughal Dynasty to people’s attention; or the rub-off effect of recent art and textile shows at the Victoria & Albert  Museum, London; Reitberg Museum, Zurich and the Metropolitan Museum, New York or just India’s tendency to unexpectedly charm people; but across America, three very different exhibitions are currently focusing on the grandeur, delicacy and humor of 15th-17th century Indian art -  Divine Pleasures: Painting from India's Rajput Courts at The Metropolitan Museum, New York; The Enigmatic Image: Curious Subjects in Indian Art at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio which is celebrating their centenary with an exhibition called Art and Stories from Mughal India.

Layla and Majnun in the wilderness with animals,
from a Khamsa (Quintet) of Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (Indian, 1253–1325), about 1590–1600.
Attributed to Sanwalah (Indian, active about 1580–1600).
Mughal India, made for Akbar (reigned 1556–1605).
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift in honor of Madeline Neves Clapp; Gift of Mrs. Henry White Cannon by exchange; Bequest of Louise T. Cooper; Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund;
From the Catherine and Ralph Benkaim Collection, 2013.301 (recto).

Saturday, October 1, 2016

A Space for Pedagogy

With the death of K.G. Subramanyan and the retirement of great pedagogues like Gulammohammed Sheikh and Jyoti Bhat, the MS University in Vadodra, once the home of some of the great artist groups of India like Group 1890 and Baroda School, is left with only a few known practicing artists like BV Suresh, Vijay Bagodi and Vasudevan Akkitham.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Collector's Space - Manisha Gera Baswani: Documenting the Dreamers of the Subcontinent

Probir Das
This article came out in Business Standard on 24th September 2016

Manisha and Rahul Baswani are collectors. Their house is filled with expensive artworks from across India and Pakistan. But, alongside, there's also collections of kitschy owls made of all materials, feathers, honeycombs, carpets and lampshades. It's got so bad that they've had to move into a larger house so that they can house their collection.

Manisha is also a painter. In a way, that's a collection as well, since her work harks back to miniatures, starting with Safavid and Iranian ones.

Riyas Komu
But her third collection, as an artist archivist, is arguably her most interesting.

Rekha Rodwittiya
Bal Chabbda

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Revisiting Beauty - An Exhibition of Modern Day Miniatures

Is beauty a ‘bad’ word in the age of cutting-edge, anxiety -ridden art; and does the concept of beauty decide imagery for artists – were some of the questions that 10 Contemporary artists from India & Pakistan have come together to answer. The fact that they are all working with the miniature art tradition, and come from different countries and different generations, is what makes this exhibition a multi-layered discussion.
The first question that rises from the exhibition is how artists from a single tradition, but with divergent influences, take forward a six hundred old tradition like miniature art, and what are the different ways in which they interpret it. The second layer is about current politics and its role in a tradition that was itself founded by Mughal Emperors to eulogize their bravery and emphasize their divine right to rule. And the third question is, of course, the one about the role of beauty today.
Some artworks, with their surface prettiness, lend themselves more easily to this last question. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Food Fanatic in Florence - Part II

Another of the reasons I love Florence (apart from the art) is because it's also the cradle of modern food, as we know it. Florence’s most famous family - the Medici’s, laid the foundations of what most of us understand as modern gourmand food. Apart from eating meals off plates instead of hard bread, they invented a new utensil called the fork - which was originally frowned upon by the church. They even ate many of the same foods as we do today, including pasta, polenta and new world ingredients like potatoes, peppers and exotic spices. So, in this part of the world, the recipes served to you in Florence have been perfected for six hundred years. 

Sometimes it feels like you're back in India. Eating is a public and often communal activity. Every Italian ‘mama and papa’ proves their love by feeding you. Since most restaurants are family owned, elderly owners and handsome waiters will often ‘recommend’ things from their kitchens that aren’t even on the menu and you could, if you like, make a meal from their generous free ‘samples’. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Best City in the World

Waking up in Florence is like waking up in the middle of a living history lesson. After all, here in the Historical Centre, the roads - all the way from the Medici Chapels till St Croce on one end and Palazzo Pitti on the other, were built during Roman times. When you walk down the road called Via Roma between the Duomo and Piazza Signoria, via Piazza Republica, it's interesting to think that these roads and squares had already been there for 1100 years by the time Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Machiavelli, Galileo and the rest of the Class of 1500 (I'll explain the concept a little later), walked on them. 

It's equally interesting to know that you could trust Roman road building so completely that even today, if you walk straight down Via Roma, you'll reach Rome in a few days. 

And when we call Florence the birthplace of the Renaissance, we don't just mean the Renaissance of 1500. We've all heard of Lorenzo the Magnificent - the Medici Duke who brought together the great names I mentioned above, but he was just the person who spent the Medici fortune and was the last ruler of a stable Florence. The greatest collector of all times and the man who initiated the Renaissance was his grandfather, Cosimo de Medici - banker to the Popes and so humble that he refused to stand for elections in Florence, the cradle of democracy, because the citizens may have thought that he was becoming arrogant.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Risktaker - Bose Krishnamachari

The theme Bose Krishnamachari has chosen as curator for the first Yinchuan Biennale at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Yinchuan, China is ‘For an Image, Faster Than Light’. It’s based on the Sanskrit chant Tamsoma Jyotirgamaya which loosely translates into ‘out of the darkness into the light’. 

It could possibly be a statement about his life. Already an artist, curator, writer, mentor, speaker and architect, he and sculptor/artist Riyas Komu have been placed at Number 83 (up 3 places from last year) on a UK publications list of the 100 Most Influential People in the Contemporary Art World, 2016 - mostly for co-founding the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Saddest painting in the world

 I have a confession. Although I’ve been a Leonardo Da Vinci fan for over twenty years, and I’ve made my pilgrimage to almost every city where Leonardo’s works are displayed (barring St. Petersburg and Krakow), I didn’t actually want to see the Last Supper.

The painting has been notoriously badly treated over the past six centuries, including by the painter himself. He created his own doomed technique for mural painting so that he could spend three years painting each detail perfectly on the brick wall of the dining hall in the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The bricks reacted to changes in temperature, humidity, and moisture and the pigment broke loose from the base. A process of decay set in, and within twenty years of its completion in 1498, it had begun to decay. Within 50 years, The Last Supper was an unrecognizable ruin.

Things didn’t improve for the painting. The monks cut a doorway through the bottom of the painting, which they later bricked up. Then, a curtain was hung over the painting to protect it. Instead, it trapped moisture on the surface, and whenever the curtain was pulled back, it scratched the flaking paint.

Over time, the room was used as an armory and then a prison. French troops threw stones at the painting and climbed ladders to scratch out the Apostles' eyes. A restorer who thought it was a fresco damaged the center section, which he then tried to reattach with glue. And during World War II, it was used for target practice by American soldiers.

The topic is equally sad. The painting portrays the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them has betrayed him. As someone who loves food, I always wondered why he would announce this over dinner, and why Leonardo would think that this was an ideal topic for the monks to look at while eating.

But somehow, things conspired to put me in front of the painting. I had no plans to go to Milan and tickets to visit the painting were sold out months in advance. But I spotted an offer of one ticket to see the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, the second oldest public library in the world, and The Last Supper. It meant that I’d have to travel to Milan alone for a day to see the painting, but who said pilgrimages were easy?

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The beauty of Chinese Charcoal

In 625 AD, a Chinese pilgrim called Xuanzang came to India and went back 16 years later with 657 Buddhist scriptures packed in 520 cases. This became the basis for the most important school of Buddhism in China. In 2016, the Chinese government decided to return he favor by sending us some of their National Painters.

As Shi Wen Sheng - a visiting professor at Oxford and the Columbia International Universities as well as a Council Member of the People's Artists Association of China says, “After the Open Door Policy came up in China; many countries want to know about the arts”. Therefore, in 2001, the Premier formed a consortium of China’s top traditional artists skilled in charcoal and watercolor calligraphy and paintings. Their aim was to travel to 28 countries, using art to further an understanding of the Chinese culture; and open a new Silk Route – but this time from the east to the West. Since India lies to their West, a group of 16 masters have come to India in this, the fourteenth year of the World Tour Exhibition. They include Guo Youhe – the Vice President of The Beijing National Academy of Painting and Calligraphy; Lin Zhong Yang – who teaches calligraphy at the Chinese Military School as well as the Northwest University, China;Xuefeng Mao - the founder of the Xinjiang (Northwest of China) heavy-color style of landscape painting and Xie HuangHong – a national  artist. Lin Zhong Yang’s calligraphic artworks, for example, have been given by the Chinese Government to 15 Heads of States.  

The paintings don’t actually have much to do with the Silk Route as we know it – an ancient network of trade routes that connected Asia and Europe from China to the Mediterranean Sea.Instead, they range from abstract art to sculpture, focusing mainly on traditional Chinese paintings with landscapes or animals against light colored backgrounds with soft edges that are so familiar to most middle class Indian households (thanks to the Chinese lamps, crockery, scrolls or if you were lucky (or Parsi) items with Chinese embroidery that most of our families had). The exhibition leaves out the modern images of Chinese nonconformist art that has filled most art spaces across the world for the fineness of these traditional works (although there is a rather garish Shiva with the TajMahal behind him at the entrance to the exhibition).

Friday, July 8, 2016

In search of India’s Cosimo de Medici

I’ve been fascinated by stories of Baroda’s Siyaji Gaekwad III (left) ever since I cracked open my first book on Raja Ravi Varma[i] and read about how the 19 year old Maharaja invited the painter to Baroda on the suggestion of his Diwan, Sir T. R. Madhvarao (right). 

The painter was to only make the Maharaja's ceremonial portrait for his investiture, but he stayed on there to paint some forty-four of his best works there over the next four years.

Legend has it that the young Prince agreed to the painter’s request to display his mythological paintings for the common people of Baroda before they were exhibited in the Darbar Hall of the newly built Lashmi Niwas Palace. More than six hundred people shuffled through the Darbar Hall quietly every day, staring at the paintings and leaving behind a pile of coins next to the art. They had never seen these Gods and Goddesses outside a temple before.

This, then, it seemed to me, was the point at which art made religion accessible to the common man. And it was brought about by a young king who had been raised as an illiterate cowherd and adopted by the widow of the previous king not even ten years earlier. Incidentally, Ravi Varma had such regard for the Maharaja that many years later; he wanted him to be the chief guest at the house warming of his new bungalow in Kilimanoor. Unfortunately, he died before it was complete. But it still shows that, even in an age of great men (and the turn of the century produced many great men – perhaps it’s because Giants are raised on the shoulders of other great men), there was no greater patron of the arts in India. 

Art with the Masters