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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mexican Corn & an Indian Comrade

An ongoing photo exhibition in the Capital brings together corn,revolutions,ideals,art and three continents.

Written by Seema Chishti | Published: October 17, 2012 2:31:45 am

An ongoing photo exhibition in the Capital brings together corn,revolutions,ideals,art and three continents.

Nearly a hundred years ago,there was the Mexican Revolution. But beyond the Zapatista impact on land holdings,the revolution had an impact on the art world and the Mexican renaissance that followed,with people from various parts of the world engaging in entirely new kinds of art and photography. It was the time when Leon Trotsky was taking refuge there,having escaped from Russia; it was the world of Frieda Kahlo and David A Siqueiros. It was also when the legendary Diego Rivera was feverishly painting murals and changing the way the world was seen.

Now,a slice of those heady,lively and often troubling times has been brought to Delhi as part of an ongoing photo exhibition at the Italian Cultural Centre,which was inaugurated on Monday.

What makes the exhibition special is that it also brings to life the involvement of an Indian caught up in that phase. The photographs are part of the collection of Dr Pandurang Khankhoje,scientist and revolutionary — a Wardha-born freedom fighter,who co-founded the Ghadar party and found himself,quite by chance,in the Mexican wave of the 1920s. Having completed his studies in the US,initially a follower of Lokmanya Tilak,Khankhoje landed in Mexico,working as a biologist,where he focussed on corn — to study this extraordinary Mexican invention of nearly 6,000 years before Columbus landed there.

Identifying and building new strains of corn that made it more robust,Khankhoje — with his Communist inclinations — chose to dedicate his discoveries to the Mexican peasants. However,while working in the 30-odd free institutes of agriculture that he helped Mexico set up,he came in contact with Rivera and Tina Modotti,the idealistic,beautiful and talented Italian photographer.

The three comrades in arms met in Chapingo,when Khankhoje became a member of the Mexican Communist Party. They interacted and contributed to each others’ work. In one of his larger murals at the School of Public Education,Rivera has portrayed Khankhoje as epitomising knowledge,distributing bread to the poor people of the world. Modotti also clicked nearly 60 photographs,several out of those went on to make up illustrations in Khankhoje’s science catalogues,while others remained a part of Modotti’s collection.

Khankhoje was to return to India with his Belgian wife,Jeanne,and daughters Savitri and Maya in 1955,and died in 1967. His collection of papers and these photographs were preserved carefully by Jeanne and then by both his daughters,only to be revealed now as part of the exhibition,which has been held in collaboration with The Mexican National Institute for Anthropology and History and the Italian Cultural Centre. 

The black-and-white photographs clicked by Modotti are spectacularly framed,with a large white backdrop in each frame almost serving to re-emphasise and focus on what has been captured. Zooming in on ordinary people may seem quite routine at first in the 21st century,but these come from a time when wrinkled hands of labourers or peasant women carrying gourd or a man carrying bananas were rarely seen as worthy subjects. The rich and important or beautiful as simply understood were easy choices,and it is for this reason that Modotti’s frames make this collection special.

Savitri Sawhney (74),whose private collection this comprises,and who has also written the biography of her father,Pandurang Khankhoje,says,“My father did his work as a scientist in Mexico in the 1920s,but even there,the emphasis was on helping poor peasants. He was painted by Rivera and photographed by Modotti. He,in turn,helped the two to understand and appreciate the world of the poor peasants,their food and their concerns.”

The exhibition also serves as a useful crash course for all those wanting to revisit this particular phase in not just Mexican but also world history,especially with an Indian twist,a time when so much was thrown in the mix — politics,science,photography,workmen and women,food and seeds. 

“Fire does Not Die; Art and Revolution” is on at the Italian Cultural Centre,Chankayapuri,till November 15.

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