Updated: Jan 2
by Ranjan Kaul
The magnificently landscaped two acres of Art Centrix Space in South Delhi, housing the main gallery space and sculpture garden, provides an ideal setting for their new group show, "Circle of Life". The ongoing exhibition was conceived in pre-pandemic times in February 2020 to mark its tenth anniversary. The Director of the gallery Monica Jain says, “At that time, we didn’t know that the future would be fraught with such disruptions.”
While all the artists earlier selected for the show were retained, the thematic for the show unsurprisingly underwent a transformation. A question that was uppermost in the mind of the Manchester-based curator Alnoor Mitha as he conferred with Monica during the process of ideation for the show was how artists kept themselves motivated during these troubled times. This is how “Circle of Life” came to fruition. In his curatorial essay, Mitha draws an analogy of art practice to the balance of yin and yang as influencing health and order for both the individual and the society at large. “This analogy also relates to the notion of ‘Circle of Life’,” he says. “When Life traverses its natural journey through the prism of artistic enterprise, taking life as its healing resource – making art and life a true circle that embeds the human experience.”
Ranjan Kaul (left) exchanging ideas with Alnoor Mitha
He also envisaged that the pandemic would impel the artists to take a fresh look at their art practice. He gives examples of how pandemics have impacted art through recent history: during the Spanish Flu Edvard Munch in 1918 drew his mentor Gustav Klint on his deathbed; photographer Morton Schaumberg in 1917 captured ghostly cityscapes of empty streets from the rooftop; Californian photojournalist Edvard A “Doc” Rogers took hospital shots. (Those interested in more examples may like to read my essay Kissing a History of Death and Devastation.) The show takes an interdisciplinary approach, with the artists displaying a range of expressions via a mix of genres including film, painting, drawing, installation, photography, mixed media, and sculpture.
Gallery views of “Circle of Life”, (Photos courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)
Gallery views of “Circle of Life”, (Photos courtesy of Aakshat Sinha)
Standing from left to right: Ranjan Kaul, Alnoor Mitha, G Ravindra Reddy, Gigi Scaria, Monica Jain,
Ruchika Wason Singh; Sitting: Tehneema Firdos, Aakshat Sinha
Mandalas, Ruchika Wason Singh
Ruchika Wason Singh uses the imagery of mandalas to symbolize the world that turned into chaos during the pandemic. She explains, “I have taken the form of the mandalas or the cosmos as a point of take-off. The mandalas with a core are suggestive of emanation, expansion and reduction. In current post-Covid times, the mandala which stands for our world has been destabilized.” To create her body of work, besides aquarelle paper, Ruchika explored the Indian wasli paper to serve as a substrate for her ideation. Her process involved starting with the core and expanding to a small surrounding space where the self can feel grounded, safe and hopeful, followed by free-hand drawings of the dishevelled, girdle-like circular spaces outside of the core. In the final work we thus get a sense of the imbalance and instability of the external pandemic world, juxtaposed with a calmer consciousness at the centre.
As Ruchika states, “By rejecting the conscious mind to guide the drawing process, the otherwise equidistant, parallel and uniform realms of the mandala are let loose, to be re-configured through an intuitive process of drawing. In these outside spaces the elements of desire, anxiety and fear grow, all of which are suggestive of our current times.”
NRI’s Home, Tom Vattakuzhy, Oil on canvas, 60" x 84", 2022
Cat and Fish Bowl, Tom Vattakuzhy, Oil on canvas, 76" x 61", 2022
A deep sense of pathos is palpable in Tom Vattakuzhy’s works, which he worked on during the lockdown. As the artist states, his “interest is in exploring the visual possibilities of bringing art closer to the inner realities of the human condition, its uncertainties and predicaments.” Locating his paintings at the borderline of the real and surreal, Tom uses simple imagery and pictorial elements to invoke a psychological and yet elusive mood. In his painting NRI’s Home, the girl on the tricycle faces the door with light streaming in while the older sister holds a ball. But they appear unmoving, stationary, positioned in front of their bare-chested, forlorn-looking father, who holds a toy baby on his knees; at the same time he is watchful to ensure the girls do not leave their home. In the haunting two-part work, Cat and the Fish Bowl, on the right we immediately notice the cat peering at the bowl, dreaming of the absent fish perhaps, while the imagery of the sunlit landscape that we see through the window in the distance parallels the human experience. On the left a man wraps his arm around a pillar, desperately holding on for support, looking down at his mobile perhaps to remain connected with the outside world, while the disinterested dog looks away. The yellows and magentas on the walls lend to the psychological mood.
Iceberg, Gigi Scaria, Acrylic on canvas, 60" x 60", 2020
Lockdown, Gigi Scaria, Brass, 90" x 9" x 5", 2022
Gigi Scaria’s painting, Iceberg, is suffused with irony and satire, depicting the tragedy that unfolded during the pandemic. In the work we see an iceberg at the top set against an azure blue sky and reddish and deep cavity pits housing vacant hospital beds below, suggestive of the untold Covid deaths – those that were formally reported dead were a mere tip of the iceberg (here seen literally!) as many went unreported or unrecorded. In his sculptural work titled Lockdown the brass almirahs are placed haphazardly, facing different directions, signifying the chaotic world during the lockdown when humans were locked out from social interaction.
Matter of Life, Arunkumar HG, Upcycled wooden table, old toys, stationeries, electronic waste, glue, cement, etc., 49" x 62" x 39", 2022
Close up view of Matter of Life by Arunkumar HG
Arunkumar HG’s remarkable work that is placed on an “upcycled” wooden “working” table is replete with discarded objects – toys, electronic waste, stationery, even a pair of dark-lensed spectacles placed upside down (that intriguingly takes centre-stage along with a curvy plate), unwilling to pay attention, as it were, to the undulating mountain formations of waste and garbage. Titled Matter of Life, each of the elements in the sculptural installation are human-made with the entire work covered with cement, dismal and dreary, bereft of the joy and brightness of nature. While the debris are placed randomly, the landscaped surrounds of steps and familiar sites are constructed with deliberation, alluding to how human habitat has wreaked havoc on the planet.
G. Ravindra Reddy is well known for his iconic monumental heads and voluptuous sculptures – the brightly coloured carved deities and other figures we at times get to see on the outsides of temples in South India has been among his influences. Blending religion, contemporary pop, and other cultures, the artist has been creating these stunning large heads and figures in a very individualistic style for quite some time now. The two women heads on display are representative of his unique body of work. I was particularly drawn to the head-dress and the golden bun in his work, Blue Head with Golden Bun. I was reminded of a recent exhibition held around the theme of women deities in the Bihar Museum, where among other works, tiny terracotta pieces of women wearing elaborate headdresses and gears from the 3rd to 2nd century, sourced from Buxar, Bihar, were on display among other works including one of Reddy’s works as well. (See The Power of the Feminine.)
Responding to my query as to how he located his works in the thematic of the show, the artist waxed into a philosophic vein: while the pandemic affected everyone, he realized that sooner or later normality would prevail, the cycle of life would go on as always. So, he didn't really feel compelled to make any change in his art; he continued working in solitude in his accustomed style and aesthetical temper.
Blue Head with Golden Bun, Ravindra Reddy, Painted and gold gilded on bronze,
24" (h), 17" (w), 24" (d), 2022
Silent Pond (Night) and Silent Pond (Day), Kundan Mondal, Water colour, gouache, ink, reverse painting on mic mineral, natural pigment, soft pastel, crackle paste, gesso, 24C gold leaf, casein, hand-dyed Nepalese paper on paper affixed on panel, 70" x 46" each
Kundan Mondal’s two complimentary works, Silent Pond, with floating images are rather nuanced, though seemingly quite abstract. The artist has been exploring materiality for some years now, engaging himself with representations of colonial imageries and the politics of power. He achieves this he says by "deconstructing representations of power (history) and bringing them on a plane with images of resistance (anti-history), which could offer conflicts to be opened out and lead to a possibility of reconciliation.” In his work on display, the silent pond becomes a metaphor for the circle of life – oceans, travels, connections, the cosmos itself with the ornaments (weapons) and artefacts of the colonies found in museums floating in the cosmic waters.
Tree is the Dream of a Seed, Ranbir Kaleka, Archival inks and oil on canvas, 2022
Another series of works by Ranbir Kaleka
Ranbir Kaleka uses the metaphor of a seed to symbolize nature, perpetuating the cycle of life, in his work, Tree in the Dream of a Seed. He depicts the seed as sustaining life in the sky (birds) as well as on earth (insects), while the tribal deities serve as protectors of agriculture. Using technology, Kaleka uses multiple layers of digital images, collapsing and printing them using archival ink onto the canvas, which he then overpaints selectively in oil, lending vibrancy and luminosity to the work. In another related series of works in muted sepia tones, the teapots represent the ritual of drinking tea, suggesting the "circle of life".
Walking towards National Museum, Riyas Komu, Recylced wood, concrete and metal,
108" (h), 47" (l), 39" (w), 2022
Riyas Komu's powerful sculpture at once assumes multiple meanings and interpretations. Using recycled wood, concrete and metal, the forward foot is brutally bolted to the ground, restraining any kind of movement. The act of walking being held back forcefully represents several of the “unfreedom” events through Indian history – struggles for independence including Gandhi’s Dandi March, the country’s search for identity, other acts of defiance and dissent, and of course the migrant labourers and their families walking to their villages during the pandemic because of job loss. At another level, we can interpret the title, Walking towards National Museum, as alluding to the decision of the government to shift the National Museum from its historical structure on Janpath in New Delhi to the North and South Blocks on Raisina Hill.
Rises from the Small Life, Tehmeena Firdos, Acrylic on canvas, 23" x 30", 2022
Close up of Rises from the Small Life by Tehmeena Firdos
Tehmeena Firdos explores the dynamics of private-public spaces in relation to her own personal space, creating contradictory feelings, translating words to visual imagery and images to invisibilities. Working with multiple mediums – painting, collages, miniature sculptures – for her explorations, she uses visual clashes and historical references, juxtaposing opposing ideas, associations and emotions, to discover different genres of reality.
“I see floating subjects within geometric and geographical spaces,” explains Tehmeena Firdos. “My work is full of visual poetry and subtle and extreme emotions.”
Barring a few exceptions, the artists in the show have remained quite faithful to the overarching curatorial theme. However, we do not really see the emergence of a completely new visual language, as the curator had wished for. At the same time, a good number of the displayed works are an honest documentation of the Covid pandemic rendered with a creative mindset, imagination, and an aesthetic expression that makes the traumatic times more palatable for viewers. Decidedly more subtle and layered in terms of representation and sensibility, the works are a refreshing change from the kind we have been seeing of late related to the pandemic.
The exhibition at Art Centrix Space will remain open till 12 January 2023.
(All images are courtesy of the respective artists and Art Centrix Space unless stated otherwise .)
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
website: www.ranjankaul.com; insta: @ranjan_creates