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Wednesday, June 03, 2020

The Other Side of the Raj

The pieces of rich velvet cloth,hung in large panels on the walls of a house in New Friends Colony,seem to narrate a story of regality.

Written by Pallavi Pundir | Published: August 24, 2012 2:13:13 am

The pieces of rich velvet cloth,hung in large panels on the walls of a house in New Friends Colony,seem to narrate a story of regality. But printed on this glossy surface,which has elaborate borders and striking colours,are the photographs of people who do not match this regalia at all. Even though the background is deliberately arranged to remind one of the royal portraits,the faces belong to unidentified and nameless “functionaries” in British households and offices of the colonial era.

As she stands next to these pieces in her house,31-year-old Devangana Kumar — the daughter of Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar — talks about these people whom she calls “Pageants of the Raj: The Work Force”,before she opens her debut solo show by the same name,at the India Habitat Centre today.

There is an occasional domestic help,a maali (gardener),bird sellers,mendicants,ayaahs,khidmatgars,nautch girls,“Hindoos” and “Mohamedans”,or even “witches” in Kumar’s world — people she knows through more than 1,000 postcards from the 20th century that she has collected from various places over the years.

An expert in neither history nor art,with an educational background of business and marketing,Kumar’s interest in the subject was sparked when she came across postcards depicting Indians in the flea markets of London and Kolkata,and some on the Internet. “It was so long ago,that honestly,I don’t even remember when I started collecting them. I focussed on the British stereotyping Indians and how they flaunted their status by showing huge number of servants. When I saw these,I wanted to do something bigger than just keeping these postcards,” says the artist,who does product designing and is also an avid photographer. Some of the postcards Kumar has collected date back to as early as 1901,with most of them printed in Germany.

Formally embarking on the project three years ago,Kumar chose 30 postcards to print them over enormous silk velvet material — six-feet-long and two-feet wide — for her first exhibition. “I wanted to use rich cloth because it’s a luxury that the labour force didn’t have,” she explains this polarity in her concept,even though she has experimented with these images on jute and cotton earlier.

Moreover,she has given names to these unidentified Indians,in order to establish their identities. So,we are introduced to Gyan Prakash,the khidmatgar holding a serving tray; Jamuna Devi,the water maid; and Govardhan,the sweeper. The workers are all draped in different attires and hold props that define their work. The exhibition is supported by the Flag Foundation of India and has been curated by Alka Pande.

The exhibition is on till August 31 at the Visual Arts Gallery,India Habitat Centre,and will have a second leg in Mumbai at Tao Art Gallery,Worli,from November 1 to 15

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