OF SURVEYORS AND SURVIVORS, MIGRANTS AND GUARDIANS: Annotations around Zameen

October 15, 2014

 

By Ranjit Hoskote

1. Lost Maps of Memory
Thirty years ago, as teenagers on vacation, my cousin Dhananjay and I would sometimes cycle from Saket to Mehrauli, which in those days was a vast expanse of scrubland punctuated by relics of Sultanate architecture and the encampments of itinerant artisans. Once in a while, we would hear the sky-wide cry of a peacock, echoing from beyond broken tombs, carrying across the windy emptiness. One of my favourite spots in Mehrauli was the tomb of the 13th-century Aibak vizier and later emperor, Balban. Its rubble masonry conveyed the rugged character of the man who lay there in eternal peace, attended by archways that had weathered seven centuries, although the tomb’s dome had long ago fallen in, leaving it vulnerable to casual vandals and the elements. Today, when I pass Mehrauli while driving between Gurgaon and Delhi, I can no longer identify this once familiar terrain. It has been overrun by a stampede of temples, hospitals, workshops, designer boutiques and furniture showrooms. 

It was with a small shock that I learned from a locality map, while preparing the present exhibition at Art District XIII in Lado Sarai, that the gallery was not far from Balban’s tomb. With an equal shiver of recognition, I realized that the little village through which my cousin and I would sometimes make a detour in the early 1980s – with its villagers taking their ease on charpoys outside low-slung houses, remnants of mirror-encrusted earthenware buried in the parched earth at their feet – is now, in fact, Delhi’s emergent arts quarter of Lado Sarai. 

The processes of gentrification and urban expansion; the inexorable spread of the metropolis as it swallows but cannot fully assimilate the villages formerly at its periphery; the adaptability shown by Gujjar and Jat landholders charting the transition from a village economy to a web of landlord-tenant relationships that links them to gallerists, artists, designers and art dealers; the variant claims to habitation and neighbourhood; the interplay between ownership and migrancy: all these are elements in the grand narrative of zameen, the deeply evocative and richly resonant Urdu word that gives the present exhibition its title. 

2. Exhibition as Constellation
To me, an exhibition is never simply an ensemble of art objects. Rather, it is always an occasion to convene a set of perspectives and conversations, focused on urgencies or shaped around questions. While the most immediate aspect of an exhibition is indeed the mise en scene that frames a set of works, this physical manifestation gains its significance from inhabiting a larger constellation of ideas and concepts. This constellation may well be invisible at first glance, but it becomes manifest as a set of interrelationships that develop among the artistic positions and works exhibited, the degrees of convergence or dissensus among them, the narratives that hold them together and give them coherence. 

The word that acts as the prompt for this exhibition project contains entire archives of sensation, intuition, memory, hope, loss and desire: zameen. While many of its subliminal reserves of meaning may resist translatability, this Urdu word can be parsed to occupy a range of connotations: earth, soil, territory; the boundary-marked ancestral land, the migratory cultural zone of belonging; the topographical or emotional guarantee of identity, genealogy or historical location.

 Zameen also carries with it the aura of exile and diaspora, when regarded across a chasm in space or time, unbridgeable for reasons of historical trauma, upheaval or displacement. It can assume acts of journeying towards or away from the hope of anchorage: the traveller may be guided by sensory signals, visceral talismans; by smells, the remembrance of a touch, the thread of a melody, the flavour of food once eaten everyday, now impossible to find in an ecology of estrangement. Zameen encodes a multitude of associations, also, with regard to the earth, to the fructification or poisoning of soil, to strife over the control of land, water, routes of traversal and natural resources. Now palpable, now spectral, zameen is a profoundly fraught concept as well as a compelling experiential reality. 

3. Husain’s Zameen and Ours
At another level, my choice of title for this exhibition refers to a specific precedent in the history of postcolonial Indian art. In 1955, the pioneering Indian modernist M F Husain (1915-2011) created a magnificent oil painting, Zameen, which won first place in the very first National Exhibition organized by the Lalit Kala Akademi (the institution had just been founded the previous year). Of seminal importance, Husain’s Zameen now hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art. It enshrined the artist’s sustaining belief in India’s rural life, admittedly imagined and phrased in idyllic terms, emphasizing folk festivity and the rhythms of labour in an agrarian society. Formally, its pictorial structure was inspired by the narrative devices of Jain miniature painting and the Basohli school. Both thematically and in formal terms, the painting symbolized its maker’s investments in a particular vision of India as space of affiliation, homeland, stream of existential continuity, and matrix of culture.

Husain’s 1955 painting incarnated the vision of India that impelled early Nehruvian India. The dirigiste elite of this newly liberated country set about the task of engaging with modernity as a republic, with its sights set on the fruit of industrialization and scientific inquiry. At the same time, it also wished to demonstrate the organic linkages between postcolonial India and its historical past. The turbulent and plural nature of that past – which, indeed, we might visualize as a diversity of ‘pasts’ – was sought to be dissolved, at a symbolic level, into the evocation of an ‘eternal India’ premised on the life, economy of production and ritual cycles of its villages. Husain’s 1955 painting articulates this latter aspect of the Nehruvian vision.

In the six decades that have passed since Husain painted Zameen, the nation-state has been subjected to numerous pressures, some productive, others schismatic. Regional power centres have established themselves as a counter to central authority; varied caste alignments have emerged, all generated by the logic of modernity with its re-distribution of value and resources through such instruments as the Green Revolution; the emergent metropolitan services economy has transformed the psychology of the citizen into that of the consumer; economic asymmetries have triggered off conflicts over land, water, electricity and access to entitlements; and subnational aspirations, being neglected or denied, have exploded in the form of insurgency.

How do contemporary Indian artists engage with questions oriented intimately around the concept of zameen? What perspectives to they adopt towards these? On what urgencies do they focus? What strategies do they develop to invite their viewers into an encounter with these overriding existential questions of where, how and to what to belong or claim for one’s own?

4. Travelling Territories of Thought
These were the questions I resolved to frame and address when Kapil Chopra, Mentor of Art District XIII, invited me to curate an exhibition for this promising new art space. As fellow pilgrims, I brought together 15 artists with whom I have had the privilege of sharing friendships, conversations, projects and journeys both geographical and conceptual; and who have been preoccupied with the questions of territoriality and exile, belonging and dislocation, or the politics of land and its products, its mnemonic connotations. The artists convened in this constellation are Atul Dodiya, Baiju Parthan, Jagannath Panda, Gigi Scaria, Veer Munshi, Zarina Hashmi, Ravi Agarwal, Ranbir Kaleka, Arunkumar H G, Gargi Raina, Ram Rahman, Ashim Purkayastha, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Praneet Soi, and Ryan Lobo.

These artists have articulated their explorations of zameen through diverse media, including the woodcut, the painting, the digital print, the photographic series, the sculpture installation, the interactive installation and the research installation. Some of their explorations have also found expression in other domains, whether the blog, the graphic novel, the research archive, the activist bulletin, the artist book, or the additive memoir into which a sequence of Facebook posts can develop. Taken together, I regard these outcomes – whether manifest or latent, exhibitionary or discursive – as travelling territories of thought.

Atul Dodiya and Baiju Parthan engage with the ideological and aesthetic resources of the contemporary Indian subjectivity, the varied pasts from which we in the present may derive critical inspiration rather than inflated pride. Dodiya’s diptych cusps the painting of an iconic photograph of Gandhian satyagrahis with the photograph of an iconic painting culled from the history of modern art, Matisse’s 1909 Dance of Life. The concatenation of figures in both panels marks a gesture of solidarity and resistance, a life-affirming myth. Parthan’s paintings counterpoint an imagined Golden Age with an epoch of terror: the mythic image of the kirtimukha signifies the universe consuming itself, time cannibalizing its own tenses; the certainties of being vanish into the maw of the cosmos, only to emerge again in disquieting avatars.

Jagannath Panda and Gigi Scaria phrase hymns to despoiled environments and their endangered denizens and silenced mythologies; their paintings gesture towards the syndromes of war and expansionism. Panda’s work addresses the twin processes of rapid urbanization and ecological degradation, which destroy eco-sensitive traditions, render species extinct, and rupture the continuum between humankind and the natural world. Scaria’s work addresses the counterpoint between the very different claims to land made by colonizers and indigenous communities, the expansionism of the former drawing blood while the wisdom of the latter affirms a symbiosis between humans and their environment.

Lost homelands preoccupy Veer Munshi and Zarina Hashmi; both artists explore mnemonic forms, Munshi through portraiture and Hashmi through cartography and the symbolic image. Munshi has long been preoccupied with the historical predicament of his native Kashmir and the suffering visited on its people in recent decades. His work, a grid of one hundred portraits rendered in sepia tones, memorializes individual Kashmiris ranging from poets, teachers and artists to family, friends and ordinary citizens encountered in daily life. Using an austerely elegant imagery and Urdu annotation, Hashmi has wondrously blurred the conventions that separate word from image, and establishing a homeland for herself in a nomad language, rather than in a territorial nation-state. The act of naming – of invoking places, things and sensations just as they are about to vanish, to save them from evanescence – recurs constantly in her graphic art.

Ravi Agarwal shares, with Hashmi, a concern with memories of space once inhabited by family, structured by rituals of kinship and inherited ways of being and making, now disrupted by economic and political shifts. Agarwal also shares, with Arunkumar H G, a commitment to critiquing and resisting the toxic industrial threat to agriculture and the environment. In Agarwal’s research installations and photographic suites, we find ourselves contemplating the significance of food in various cultural contexts, its production and consumption, as well as the collapse of the traditional systems of holistic living in the face of accelerated consumerism. Arunkumar H G meditates on the effects of global capital on local economies and ecologies. His sculpture installation, which integrates photographic images, reminds us of the vulnerability of farmers who, although mandated with being custodians of the soil and its fertility, have been forced to abandon organic agricultural practices by the incursion of genetically modified seeds.

Land, in Ranbir Kaleka’s account, is the cumulus of the fantasies, stories, dreams and aspirations of those who inhabit or occupy it. In Kaleka’s work, surveyors and natives, humans, animals and birds, all contend for dominance in a zone intermediate between city and village, between Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel. Selfhoods are improvised and performed in this regime of enigmatic details. Fantasies of belonging also animate Gargi Raina’s work: she explores sensory memories that modulate our sense of self, working beneath the levels of waking consciousness. In her olfactory installation, which aligns painting and found objects with fresh flowers and perfume phials, Raina forms connections between Iran and her ancestral Kashmir through the scent and the presence of the jasmine flower; she registers the textures of closeness and distance, and transitions in the life of a family.

Elliptical family memoirs also define Ram Rahman’s work, which is charged with his intense experience of the neighbourhoods he has inhabited in New Delhi and New York. Rahman’s sense of belonging is mediated through the intersections between Mughal, Lutyensian and postcolonial Delhi; by the residual memory of the hospitable New York of the 1980s and 1990s, in its pre-gentrification, pre-9/11 phase; and by his ideological commitment to a liberal, secular and inclusive India, incarnated in his posters for SAHMAT. Taken together, these form a transcultural ground of belonging, a mobile zameen. In Ashim Purkayastha’s work, the family portrait encodes the circumstances of oppression and terror that have constrained private life and compromised civil liberties in zones such as North-east India, where the mandate of militarization often overrides democratic guarantees. The family portrait, with the features of its members eclipsed, suggests a portrait of the missing or disappeared, rendered victims in their own land, alienated from territory and citizenship.

Praneet Soi’s work, like Ram Rahman’s, articulates the modes by which a transcultural subjectivity anchors itself in multiple locations. Soi develops an idiom of continuity by combining ongoing research commitments and new engagements with the local. In his passionately calibrated paintings and ensemble of maquettes, he explores the conditions of free fall, torsion and precariousness, spelling out the contrary claims of gravity and mobility that the earth makes on the individual. In his mise en scene, he mobilizes a visible relay between the key images he gleans from his processes of research and archiving, and these processes themselves. His work therefore manifests itself as a set of fluid, heuristic, dynamic experiments.

The issue of the conflict over land as a resource in the epoch of vampire capital, seized at will from vulnerable villagers by the State and traded over to infrastructure projects or the developer lobby, is dramatized in Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s work. Ghosh also engages with the ludic reinvention of identity through the circulations of popular culture. Likewise, Ryan Lobo’s photographic work engages with the construction and reinforcement of ethnicity through contemporary performances that imagine a continuous identity sourced in the past; in actuality, that identity is a powerful fiction enacted in the present. Both Ghosh and Lobo record forms of community emerging within a hyperreal present dominated by metropolitan aspirations: their artistic projects capture the thrum of travelling subcultures, the momentum of societies in fast motion. Both artists work in the scintillating crossover zone between literary and visual practice.

As Zameen unfolds, we find it inhabited by recurrent figures: surveyors, survivors, migrants and guardians. Through its acts of empathetic projection, the artistic imagination anticipates public discourse in making the legacies as well as the futures of these figures tangible to us. In a deeply experiential sense, they are ourselves.

(Bombay: 3 October 2014/ Vijayadashami)

This is the catalogue essay for the exhibition Zameen curated by Ranjit Hoskote, which is currently on at Art District XIII, Lado Sarai, New Delhi