A confluence of narratives

An ongoing art show sheds light on relationships between unlikely geographical regions says, Pooja Savansukha

Mumbai Art Room’s exhibition traces meaningful connections between Norway, Tibet, and India. Featuring works by Sri Ananda Acharya, Kari Christensen, Devyani Krishna, Kanwal Krishna, Rune Schytte, Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, The Past is Present, curated by Marianne Hultman, director of Oslo Kunstforening, will be adapted into a larger exhibition on Tibetan-Norwegian exchange at the Oslo Kunstforening and Trondheim Art Museum in 2021.

The exhibition integrates various personal accounts with, “the Himalayas being mutual ground in all narratives.” Material sources like films, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and books highlight how individual experiences enable sensitive considerations of history, politics, and cultural collaboration. “Kanwal and Devyani shared their destiny and love for Norway with Sri Ananda although they never met and lived through different times. Kari Christensen and Knud Larsen similarly shared their curiosity for Tibet and India with Kanwal and Devyani, and with Ritu and Tenzing,” elaborated Hultman in an interview with The Hindu.

Travel documentations

In her curatorial essay, Hultman describes how she met architect Knud Larsen in 2017 through her colleague, a friend of Larsen’s late wife, ceramic artist Kari Christensen (1938 - 1997). Christensen, instrumental in renewing Norwegian ceramics, was inspired greatly by her trips to Tibet that were prompted by Larsen’s engagement with artists Devyani Krishna (1910-2000) and Kanwal Krishna (1910-1993) whom he stayed with in New Delhi during a visit to India organised by their son, Norway-based architect Aashish Krishna. In the gallery, Christensen’s intricate sculptural studies depicting Mount Kailash are presented alongside photographs from Kanwal and Devyani Krishna’s travels in Tibet.

Hultman, who studied Devyani and Kanwal Krishna’s archives in New Delhi, thoughtfully exposes a narrative that has been lost. She expresses, “works by the Krishnas need an introduction; they need to placed in a specific time and space to be understood. They carry histories, presenting motifs from Norway, India (Sikkim) and Tibet (Lhasa). How are these places connected to one another, that’s the key here I believe, and the people behind these connections.”

Kanwal, a founding member of the Delhi Shilpi Chakra (Delhi Sculptor Circle) was among the first artists to record life in Tibet, and the first Indian painter who was granted permission to attend and document the Dalai Lama’s enthronement. In contradistinction to Christensen’s travels to India and Tibet, Krishna also travelled to Norway during his trip to Europe between 1951-3. On the walls of the gallery, his watercolour paintings from Norway that portray a snowy street, a portrait of young girl, as well as his paintings of Tibet (that relate to Christensen’s sculptural study) are juxtaposed against Devyani Krishna’s watercolour paintings from Sikkim, the Himalayan-state bordering Tibet. The paintings bear stylistic affinities and seemingly portray similar places, revealing how diverse regions could share commonalities based on comparable terrain. Notably, Sri Ananda Acharya (1881- 1945), the Bengali philosopher, yogi, and poet (known as Baral in Norway), experienced a revelation to travel to Europe during his excursion to Lake Mansarovar, Tibet. In 1915, he accompanied his friend to Oslo and later settled in the Norwegian Mountains (that later inspired Kanwal Krishna’s paintings) as they resembled Himalayan peaks.

War and peace

Rune Schytte’s trailer for an upcoming documentary Baral Star displayed besidesphotographs and books about and by Acharya, traces his journey through war-ridden Europe to Norway where his lectures on peace and friendship had a significant influence. Sri Ananda Acharya envisioned a University of Peace at Mount Tron, Norway for which Larsen drew sketches based on authorised descriptions by Swami Paramananda. Hultman describes, “Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s films add another layer to the narrative, what came after the Second World War, a consequence of the Cold War and a new power structure. Sarin and Tenzing travelled with the Dalai Lama to Oslo when he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, and were commissioned to make a film about his stay in Norway. They bring the narrative forward, while Acharya draws the narrative back in time, being a forerunner of both Kanwal and the Dalai Lama. The film is comprised of footage taken by Kanwal of the British delegation’s journey to Lhasa.” In their second film, The Shadow Circus, The CIA in Tibet, Sarin and Sonam document Tibetan resistance against Chinese forces. Between 1957-1969, the CIA funded and trained Tibetan guerrillas who operated inside Tibet, and upon the Dalai Lama's escape to India in 1959, from a base in Mustang, Nepal.

Through their documentarian nature, the films highlight rarely discussed or unknown details surrounding conflict and the subsequent endeavours for peace in regions that are not ostensibly associated with belligerence within the global context today. The innocuous landscapes visible in works by Kanwal, Devayani and Christensen, subvert political premises of war.

Delicate diplomacy

Hultman describes how the Dalai Lama’s visits to Norway posed a threat to Norwegian-Chinese relations, particularly when he became an advocate for the rejection of Chinese rule in Tibet. The Dalai Lama visited Norway as a private individual to avoid governmental involvement; yet on every visit since the 1980s, “he met representatives from the Sámi community, always supporting their cause,” states Hultman. The regions share, “a long history of solidarity albeit tentative: academic and educational support; artistic support; political support. But it has not only been unilateral in that the Dalai Lama has lent his support to the Sámi people. Scandinavia has lent support in developing a methodology to be used in mapping and recording Lhasa, as it was and is undergoing enormous change, and mapping and recording murals and sites of religious, spiritual or cultural significance to Tibetans, which in itself is a diplomatically sensitive task.”

Recognising the “the care that must be taken to extend solidarity but not condescension to support the Tibetan cause without offending the Chinese, and to record and preserve a culture that is rapidly disappearing,” Hultman prescribes “free expression of complex ideas, histories and entanglements.”

Where generalised narratives fail, personal accounts as seen in this important exhibition, highlight how idiosyncratic, individual experiences conjure nuanced views of regional histories and cultural relations.

The Past is Present is ongoing at the Mumbai Art Room, Colaba until December 21

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 11:58:42 AM |

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