An evocative tribute to Australia’s songlines at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi

Walking Through A Songline at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is an immersive digital experience of an ancient practice of the Aboriginal Australians

Updated - June 20, 2024 02:51 pm IST

Published - June 14, 2024 01:01 am IST

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Some 65,000 years ago, the native inhabitants of Australia developed a complex tool of communication — songlines, or “dreaming pathways” — not only as a means to map the histories and geographical routes of the tribes crisscrossing the vast country, but to also build pathways of knowledge which contained within them advice on sustainable living, seasonal vegetation, and how to survive in the great Australian outback.

These songlines have been passed down generations orally for many millennia, but in the absence of written text, have become increasingly difficult to preserve.

Based on a component of the National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) internationally acclaimed exhibition on aborigine songlines, which took eight years in the making, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), Delhi, has come up with an immersive digital experience that is a call to save the oral art form from the looming threat of mitigation.

Through years of painstaking effort and collaboration with the elders of several Aboriginal tribes, the NMA’s exhibitionpulls off an experience like no other. The show features several spaces dedicated to visual storytelling of the oral traditions — through short films, puzzles and DIY stickers — in a way that celebrates their original identity. The show represents the work of over 100 artists.

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

“Aboriginal communities involved in this exhibition are integral to it,” says Margo Ngawa Neale, Emeritus Curatorial Fellow (First Nations) at the NMA. “We could not proceed without them. They are the owners of the story, the custodians of their parts of the songlines, and have the responsibility to keep them alive and keep their retelling correct,” says the Canberra-based curator through an email interview.

The show at KNMA is primarily centred on the Seven Sisters songline — a story of seven sisters who make their way from east to west Australia while running from a shapeshifting sorcerer who seeks to entrap them. The sisters’ journey, while mapping the contours of the country, also comes to signify themes of creation and sustenance.

The first few exhibits feature short films narrated by tribal elders. Naji, for instance, depicts how spirit beings awoke the dry, barren land, creating life and water as they travelled through the continent. Footprints captures how a group of young Aboriginal men on the verge of losing their songlines discovers that a neighbouring tribe still remembers some of their cultural songs. An especially immersive section, titled Travelling Kungkarangkalpa, brings to life a version of the Seven Sisters story.

To view the audio-visual experiment, one must lie flat on the ground and gaze up at the spherical projection on the ceiling, which uses animations modelled on paintings from Aboriginal artists. Another section allows visitors to work on a thousand-piece puzzle of ancient artwork.

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi

Songlines of Aboriginal Australians in an immersive experience at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The final exhibit is a dizzying experience featuring a dark room that comes alive with projections of the masterfully animated abstractions of the Seven Sisters songline, which whoosh past the viewer and fade away. “NMA has tried to capture this oral tradition by incorporating features of dancing and painting — both of which came long after songlines first came into existence. The exhibition is abstract for a reason, because the Aboriginals viewed time as cyclical, not linear, and thus we are only able to depict fragments of this tradition,” says a member of the KNMA team.

At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, 145, DLF South Court Mall, Saket; Till June 30; 10.30 am to 6.30pm (Mondays closed)

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