The iconic Hall of Nations at Delhi’s Pragati Maidan was razed last month on a dark night. Built to celebrate 25 years of Independent India, curator Roobina Karode notes how the building designed by architect Raj Rewal was years in the making. Now, with it demolished, she mourns its end as she scans through the original engineering drawings by Mahendra Raj and photographs that Madan Mahatta took of its construction. On display at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi, the photographs share space with documentation of the work of three more architects — Kuldip Singh, Habib Rahman and AP Kanvinde — spanning over two decades, from the 1960s to the 80s. The landmarks include the Inter State Bus Terminal, New Delhi Municipal Council Building and the Lalit Kala Akademi. “When there is something new with regard to culture it first reflects in architecture, it is the most visible form of expression,” says Karode, who has worked on the project with photographer Ram Rahman.
Part of a larger exhibition titled “Stretched Terrains — A String of Seven Exhibitions”, the showcase juxtaposes architecture and art. “The aim is to get viewers to think about new directions that art is headed in today. Why do we always see architecture in isolation from other art forms? Many artists and architects worked together. The idea was to open up boundaries, create room for fluid conversations and have counterpoints and juxtapositions,” says Karode.
She turns to three masters from the famed Progressive Artists Group — FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain. “These artists were important in setting new trajectories in modern Indian art. Souza is representing the rebellious spirit, Husain is for complete synergy and unity, and there is Raza, who leaves the figure behind and goes to deeper symbologies of Indian tradition,” says Karode. The narrative, fittingly, begins with Husain. The section dedicated to him, titled “Yatra: The Rooted Nomad”, has his female figures with toys and rural landscapes that he painted early on in his career. Souza’s works are categorised in the sub exhibition “Man Grinding his Teeth”, featuring some of his early paintings as a member of the communist party with his now famous distorted heads, female nudes and the acclaimed 1955 work Birth. There are works of the young SH Raza too, under the title “The Black Sun”. Here, Karode puts out works from the period when the master was still to discover his trademark bindu, and was experimenting with landscapes, cityscapes of terrains stretching from Malabar to Rajasthan, and the forest greens of his birth place in Madhya Pradesh.“Instead of a group show, we decided to show each of these artists in-depth, in order to understand the nature of their practice, and what were their concerns regarding nation-building,” says Karode.
Through the exhibition, Karode not only attempts to make art historical investigations, she also discusses modernist experiments in architecture and art. So a section is dedicated to the Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), a revolutionary space for interdisciplinary experimentation and collaboration that artist Akbar Padamsee initiated at his Nepean Sea Road apartment in 1969. It sustained only for three years, but the series of workshops resulted in several films, most of which are lost. The display at KNMA has some of Nalini Malani’s photograms, Nasreen Mohamedi’s photographs, burnt drawings of Padamsee’s film Syzygy, and archival material of correspondences and exchanges. Karode notes, “We were always taught that Indian modernity was completely male driven, but certain interventions were very important. VIEW was one of them. For the first time, women artists, Nalini Malani and Nasreen Mohamedi, were invited to to explore new technologies. They shot photographs, Nalini made films for the first time here.”
There is also the contemporary, as Karode tries to establish links between the past and the present. She chooses artists and artwork that respond directly to the past. There are Parthiv Shah’s photographs of MF Husain in “Sadak.Sarai.Sheher.Basti”, where the Delhi-based photographer follows the veteran artist, reading the newspaper in a busy market, roaming the streets of Nizamuddin, and in conversation with Ram Kumar at Humayun’s tomb. In another section “Interpositions: Replaying the Inventory” she showcases works of four artists who gained prominence in the ’90s — Atul Dodiya, Mithu Sen, Navjot Altaf and N Pushpamala. If in her “The Native Type” series, Pushpamala reenacts images from pre-Independence India and responds to Raja Ravi Varma, Mithu Sen’s works are in conservation with Bhupen Khakhar. Atul Dodiya has Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan at the Mahatma’s funeral. “There is reverence and irreverence when you work with your past,” notes Karode, who rather successfully builds a narrative that transcends genres and generations.