Of identities, idiosyncrasies and more
Even as Lalit Kala Akademi downs curtains on its 50th year celebrations with a well-stacked exhibition, Ashim Purkayastha and Amit Ambalal's works paint an interesting blend in New Delhi.
INDIVIDUAL STATEMENTS Works of Ashim Purkayastha
The bedrock of the Indian nation state was based on the modern systems of administration introduced by the British as much as the movements for reform and social change that continued sporadically from the 1820s to the 1940s. A critique of these movements that extend from Raja RammohunRoy and the Arya Samaj to Mahatma Gandhi is an essentially unwritten aspect of modern history. But even a cursory glance reveals patterns of repetition, which continually temper the modernising spirit. For example, the worship of the cow extends in a virtually unbroken arc from post-Vedic Brahmanism to the anti-Brahmincal Arya Samaj to the writings of Gandhi who enshrined the holy cow as one of the principles of his doctrine of faith, to modern India.
Not surprisingly, a critique however, essentialist in its argument, emerges in art.
Ashim Purkayastha (Sakshi, Mumbai, at Shridharani Gallery, Delhi) is doggedly political. At the root of his art is a questioning of the construction of the symbols of nation, its entrenched cultural biases and sustaining economies. In his exhibitions since 2004, Purkayastha had used the Indian stamp to intervene in its bland representations, to question its affirmations. Purkayastha has spoken of his own historical displacement, as a descendant of Bengali refugees in Assam, a marked figure under the assertion of Ahom identity.
With "The original identity of the stamps, the explored/replaced identity and the aspects of travel/displacement/dislocation associated with them represents my identity of a migrator " Purkayastha urges questions around the utopian or fixed identity assumed by a paternalistic state, one that confers a sense of `home' and by extension, location and identity. Gandhi as the Father of the nation, and spiritual mahatma, and the revenue stamp bearing the symbol of power come in for sharp interrogation. Purkayastha assumes a structuralist argument by conflating Gandhi and the Ashokan pillar with a series of political propositions: a nude woman superimposed on a revenue stamp, a gun-toting Hindu solider, the holy cow, somewhat abject. Among these, Purkayastha's most successful image still is Gandhi Man without Specs, with its play on the absence of a vision for the nation, a myopic pater familias.
In overpainting/repainting the common stamp, Purkaystha assumes a perpetual displacement, or an identity, which likes the stamp, realises its value only in movement/migration. The symbols of the nation petrified in the Ashoka Pillar and the gaze of Gandhi reveal a series of failed utopias, or to use a term from Foucault, lost heterotopias. Purkayastha's art is refined and powerful, one that gains through its miniature scale and its intense concentration of energies.
Leela The Lightness of Being (Bodhi Art Gallery, New Delhi, and Singapore) marks Amit Ambalal's first full engagement with oil painting. The change of medium appears to lead to an expansion of form - and a corresponding reduction of detail, a relaxation of intent, and a dropping of guard as it were. In a career of over 20 years, Ambalal has created a unique position for himself for his sustained subversion of iconographies. His art is more in the line of the ribald folk fable rather than epic struggle, the lower registers of the temple wall where the artisan had a free reign of the idiosyncratic, rather than the solemnityof the garba griha. In short, he draws from the line of the vidushak, with his discomfiting presence, rather than the master narrative of our times.
Any study of Amit Ambalal would perhaps need to draw from the main strains of his birth as a fourth generation mill owner in Ahmedabad, his scholarly investigation into the regional art school of Krishna as Shrinathji at Nathdwara and his own emergence as a painter. The concept of leela draws richly from Vaishnav philosophy of Existential play and temporality, even as it mirrors the artist's own interest in the gesture and the momentary. This set of paintings in particular draws upon domestic happiness and its sudden incongruencies. The painting, Khakharnastrix and Co for instance, draws on the dominant strains in his art. It is a moment in the temple of Nathdwara where Ambalal and Atul Dodiya share a moment of humour while Khakhar fleshes in an anatomical detail of a tiger, copied from the temple wall. Elsewhere in the work, March for the Mahatma, the recent Dandi March in Gujarat comes in for ridicule as crows appear in procession before a prone figure. Ambalal dispenses with perspective and a ground for his figures, suspending them in continual inversions of play and flux.
The Lalit Kala Akademi has closed its 50th year celebrations with an exhibition curated by the well-known architect K.T. Ravindran. It is to Ravindran's credit that he has compensated the lacunae in the Akademi's collection - which appears to peter out from about the mid 1990's - by borrowing the works of individual artists, bringing it up to the present period. Some interesting inclusions include a video work by Vivan Sundaram based on the documentary, Hey Ram by Gopal Menon, photographs by Ayesha Abraham and a mixed media installation by Samit Das.
The Akademi's own collection built up around the 1970s, yields some gems such as early Bhupen Khakhar, K.S. Kulkarni, Tyeb Mehta and Dhruv Mistry.
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