At the opening of the exhibition “Cartography of Narratives”, actor Nasser Abdulla, with glasses resting on his nose bridge, pored over Noor Ali Chagani’s mixed media work Janamaz, for a considerable amount of time, perhaps, wondering how “rigid” terracotta bricks could be turned into a “flexible” prayer carpet acrylic canvas. Waswo X Waswo was standing next to his digital prints (black-and-white photographs on hand-coloured archival paper) of a pheriwala and the Bengali idol-makers of Udaipur, speaking excitedly about how his collaborator Rajesh Soni has learnt the Waswo ropes.
At another corner, displayed on a shaky stand, the comic-strip scroll Being Vulnerable, fell thrice owing to onlookers’ brushes. Part of Yogesh Ramkrishna’s new series Badlands, the hand-painted etching and aquatint on paper is peppered with dialogues in street-slang Hindi, with flawed isms: North-Easterners, “Go to China”; women, dress modestly, “save our culture”; secularists, “Go to Pakistan”. Ramkrishna is one of the 16 participants showcasing their recent works in the exhibition at Delhi’s Bikaner House, presented by Latitude 28.
A red, threadlike line, standing for the marginalised subaltern, cuts through the landscape of hierarchical practices in Om Soorya’s triptych Thin Red Line. Hazara artist Khadim Ali and Pakistan’s Waseem Ahmed employ traditional miniature styles to speak of war and conflict. In an Ahmed work — part of his “Myths and Realities” series — the goddess wears a garland of decapitated skulls, reminiscent of Kali, and has a cannon passing through her. In an untitled work, Ali’s minority Hazara men are being thrown into fire by fauns. “We have a role to play in what is happening today around the world. Artists are not meant to beautify the walls but to document their time,” says Goa-based Ryan Abreu. Artist Ketaki Sarpotdar, who is showcasing her work Nobody Knows, agrees: “Without social and political comment, I don’t think there can be any art.”
A falling building being held by branches of a bare tree, a building resting on the peaks of two melting glacial mountains, or a flowing tap of a pipe jutting out of an apartment — Gigi Scaria’s five watercolours, Comfort Zone, have no beginning, middle or end, but are fractions of stories. Buildings and rides moving clockwise and anti-clockwise — like cogs in a wheel in motion at a factory production unit — in his video installation Amusement Park. The 2009 work comments on how “rural resources are being diverted to run big cities”. “For profit, the Capitalist agenda will sell ‘development’ and ‘religion’, but nobody is willing to address what will happen, say, in 50 years. There is water crisis and mountains are being wiped away — even though you discard nature, it is the only thing that holds. Without nature, nothing can function,” says Delhi-based Scaria.
Myths also come to the rescue of the artists. The “world supplies a historical reality to myth” and “myth”, in return, gives “a natural image to this reality”, Roland Barthes wrote in Mythologies (1957). Subrat Kumar Behera’s watercolour diptych Hell of a Paradise creates the myth of a futuristic world, where lions eat grass and humans are assigned heaven or hell on the grounds of “good or evil”. Sitting in judgement are Genghiz Khan, Wright Brothers, Saint Teresa, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln.
Allegorical etchings are MS University of Baroda graduates Sarpotdar’s and Abreu’s chosen medium of expression. The allegorical art of Gustave Doré and Alfred Kubin, George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945), ST Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834), war documentaries and photography, informs Abreu’s works. The “surreal approach of the black and white of printmaking”, which helps create the “sombre and grotesque”, drew Abreu.
Drawing from past masters such as Francisco Goya and Honoré-Victorin Daumier, Punch magazine and Panchatantra, Sarpotdar weaves in fables as a metaphor in her anthropomorphic “linear drawings”, Nobody Knows. “Back then (when Panchatantra was written) donkeys were donkeys, but in the current political context, donkeys may not bray like donkeys. Nobody knows who’s acting like whom. I wanted to create that mystery, without being preachy,” she says.
Abreu’s animal-human amalgam plays up traits, like a crocodile’s ever-readiness to pounce. A skeletal horse is a veiled reference to “the historical Trojan horse and the city of Troy” and what’s happening in Iraq and Syria.
The chiaroscuro and surreal imagery of Abreu’s etchings on copper plate — hands down, one of the most stunning pieces in the show — have a film-like, non-stagnant, moving quality that will pull you in, into its dark folds, and linger on your mind for a long time. “But my work is not very hardcore. Every work needs to have a certain intensity that makes a person uncomfortable,” he says.
The show is on till April 14 at Bikaner House in Delhi