Breaking the mould

Manav Gupta says pottery indirectly tells us how humankind often misuses natural resources.  

In German-Swiss poet and novelist Hermann Hesse’s prolific book Siddhartha (1922), the potter’s wheel takes the form of a profound metaphor: as the wheel sculpts clay into art, it allegorically moulds the protagonist’s [Siddhartha’s] life into a spiritual journey.

One can possibly extend this metaphor to Delhi-based artist Manav Gupta’s series of contemporary environmental installation works titled Excavations in Hymns of Clay . While a precursor to the installation was displayed at Pretoria’s National Museum in 2012, Delhi saw ‘Rain, the Ganga Waterfront Along the Time Machine’, the maiden work from the series, last year.

During the first quarter of 2015, the plaza steps of the India Habitat Centre in the capital witnessed an overwhelming bustle of people, a footfall of almost a hundred thousand. Here is what intrigued onlookers were gazing at: a torrent of chillums (clay pipes used for smoking intoxicants) woven together in billowing cascades along the brick walls, akin to a waterfall flowing ad infinitum; and thousands of diyas (earthen lamps) and kulhads (earthen cups) branching out into stacked clusters along the steps, almost representing the kinetic flow of tributaries of a river: an arrangement that generates constantly shifting perspectives.

Gupta says, “The river is the basic archetype of our living environment. Over the ages, rivers have nurtured civilisations across the world.” While the gargantuan, concept-driven work, devoid of any epigraph, is an idiom for the Ganga, it transcends geographies and is ascribed to a larger global context. According to him, the clay objects ‘denote the symbolism of the passage of time as the river flows’. The pottery indirectly tells us how humankind often misuses natural resources. Frequently sold in heaps along the road, these commonplace clay objects suddenly become sacrosanct when placed at the altar during religious ceremonies, but are eventually discarded into the Ganga in the guise of offerings. For his installation, Gupta orders the earthenware in large numbers from the local communities of potters scattered across Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, and in doing so, helps the potters to sustain themselves thorough a model of micro-finance.

As part of the Global Public Art and Museum Project for Sustainability and Water, Gupta will deliver a lecture at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS), shedding light on the aforementioned riparian terrain of the installation and how he metaphorically repurposes clay objects in his pursuit of environmental sustainability.

Gupta’s practice straddles painting, poetry, filmmaking and creating installation pieces. “The act of painting,” says Gupta, “was always a solitary one for me. However, by taking the process to public spaces, I have broken the mould of engaging in painting all by myself.”

During 2010-2011, Gupta initiated the creation of a massive, almost theatrical, mural spanning 11,500 sq. ft. at the headquarters of a telecom company in Delhi. “I was probably being watched by around 3,500 curious corporate employees. It then struck me to invite all of them to paint as well. As much as I think solitary painting is nirvanaic, the experience of getting together so many hands over the subsequent three months became extremely fulfilling for me,” he shares.

The shaping of his artistic sensibilities can perhaps be attributed to his childhood in Calcutta. He grew up in the lap of nature, surrounded by swathes of greenery. “The National Library campus was close by, and so were the horticultural gardens. My foray into art began with sketching the barks of trees,” recalls Gupta.

Gupta’s ethos is sensitive to the space each of his works inhabit. For instance, the placement of each installation is site-specific. “The work is created and arranged as organically as possible, so as to embrace the existing architecture of the space and not intrude into it. The process of assembling the clay objects is never rigid, but fluid and flexible,” he elucidates.

The participation of the viewing public is now of utmost importance to Gupta. “It is like a dialogue or conversation that happens at the waterfront,” he says, in the context of the installation. “I find it deeply engaging and immersive when people willingly participate in my work. We tend to undermine the intelligence of the common man but have we exposed him to quality public art at all?” he adds contentiously.

However, it is his interaction with students that he feels humbled by. “While dealing with young minds, I am constantly learning. It is a process of exposing one’s art and imbibing and experiencing their many responses,” he says.

For Gupta, Excavations in Hymns of Clay is an ongoing, evolving series. “The ultimate idea is to have some installations housed permanently within a soon-to-be-developed museum space, and a few which will travel to cities across the globe, in order to engage with larger, more diverse audiences,” he reveals. According to him, art has several roles to play, the potential of which hasn’t been explored fully so far. “Art has the capability to add value to a space, to enhance and mould a space,” he encapsulates.

Excavations in Hymns of Clay takes place today at the CSMVS auditorium, Fort, at 6 p.m. Entry is free.

The author is a freelance writer

While dealing with young minds, I am constantly learning. It is a process of exposing one’s art and imbibing and experiencing their many responses

Gupta’s practice straddles painting, poetry, filmmaking and creating installation pieces

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 7:30:08 PM |

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