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Columns
January 28, 2014

Speaking To The Future

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Madhu Jain contemplates the relationship of past, present and future, as we step into the New Year

Ah no, he was just a calendar artist!” she said rather sniffily, adding, “I only respond to what is really contemporary and new…none of the fuddy-duddy stuff for me. I have just come back from Shanghai and South Korea. Now, those artists are really in the present….” Her voice trailed off. This was in response to my question asking a friend of long standing, who prides herself on being an aesthete and is quite au courant about art and all things cutting-edge, if she was planning to go to the Raja Ravi Varma exhibition intriguingly titled When High and Low Art Meet. She might as well have added how low do you go, judging by the look of utter scorn she threw my way.

The high road for her was all about installations, digital art, video art, light art or performance art. “Painting,” she muttered as she turned to go, “is sooo over. It died a long time ago.”

Well, she left me speechless, totally ignorant – despite her following the art glitterati to an endless stream of art fairs, seminars, bienniales – of the fact that painting never breathed its last. In fact, it was even more vibrant in various meccas of contemporary art the world over.

PAST PERFECT
Curated by Rupika Chawla and held recently at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi, this tease of an exhibition that she had pooh-poohed included the work of 33 contemporary Indian artists. Each of whom had used the work of the late 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma as a springboard for his or her imagination – from senior artists like Jogen Chowdhury, Anjolie Ela Menon, Waswo X. Waswo and V. Ramesh to younger ones like Atul Dodiya, Riyas Komu, Manisha Gera Baswani, Jagannath Panda, Manjunath Kamat, Sunil Gawde and N. Pushpamala – and even photographer Rohit Chawla known for his work in fashion.

An aside: my friend’s use of the word ‘calendar art’ to describe the paintings of the Travancore artist who had indelibly put a face and stunningly detailed and delectable apparel onto many of the gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon is misconstrued. Those who came later and were ‘inspired’ or just copied paintings and oleographs to make what can be called calendar art – the kitschification with all the glittery stuff came later.

Now, why did I use the word tease? Perhaps the curator meant to ‘tease’ the artists – several of them cutting edge – into contemplating or confronting Raja Ravi Varma. And why did I begin this column by discussing an art exhibition if I were not writing about art for this column? The point I want to make is that the past can never really be exiled to oblivion. Modernity does not begin with the now. The past, tradition or whatever, resonates, and even converses with the present. You see, the Travancore painter, who died in 1906, was able to ‘speak’ to artists living in the second decade of the millennium. And this, despite the fact that a few of them thought him irrelevant to their work and their times until they started to look at his oeuvre.

NEW BEGINNINGS
By the time you read this column another year would have just begun; 2014 would have been rung in. The most ubiquitous image of the beginning of the New Year is of an old, bearded and bent Father Time (draped in a cloak and carrying a scythe and an hourglass) making his way to the exit from the stage of life as a baby, yet to bear the scars of time, coming in his place. Presumably, in this scenario poor Father Time has gone forever; there are no encores or second innings. It is an image I find depressing, as if the past were cut off from the present, and the present from the future. When, come to think of it, new beginnings are really ‘rebirths’.

To get back to art for a moment…Pablo Picasso is arguably, or at least considered by many, to be the father of modern art. With his distorted visages and bodies (Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was made interestingly in 1907, a year after Raja Ravi Varma died) Picasso broke the syntax and grammar of European art.

But, there was a grammar to begin with. The artist was coming out of a tradition. The Spanish painter broke the rules. But there were rules to begin with. Whereas, a large number of Indian artists offloaded diverse traditional vocabularies of art and image-making and hopped on to the hurtling bandwagon of European art in their pursuit of newness, and of modernity. Modernity became the new mantra for many artists, writers, architects, designers, and theatre and film directors in the afterglow of Independence. Actress Nadira’s wickedly impish number Mud mudh ke na dekh mud mud ke in Raj Kapoor’s film Shri 420 could easily have been an anthem for some.

Today, we no longer talk about a single modernity. The buzz phrase is multiple modernities – from the corridors of academia to the institutes of art and the globe-trotting arterati. And, these are no longer just sprouting in the Western hemisphere; there are many routes to modernity. The millennium has witnessed a veritable onslaught of art works from Asia, Africa and the Middle East. These have now found a place at the High Table of Art.

It is also the time for retellings – we seem to be going back to the future in India with a vengeance. Not only are we revisiting our epics in art, fiction, cinema and television, we are refashioning them to suit our times and temperaments. This takes the high road and the less high road. From retelling Raja Ravi Varma to chicklit: Draupadi in High Heels, is the title of a new novel.

As for Father Time moving to the exit as 2013 fades into 2014, well, he’ll be back – he’s just taking a break!

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