When Ebrahim Alkazi staged Girish Karnad’s play, Tughlaq , on the ramparts of Purana Qila in 1972, he was in a way anticipating the 1990s’ embrace of the great historic monument as a site for contemporary art. Seen as an alternative to both the white-cube gallery and the museum, the historic structure has been reimagined as a site for a newer experience of art, for a collision of sensibilities that can be magical — or, more commonly, frustrating.
The most famous such instance is that of the Versailles Palace, which threw open its doors to contemporary art in 2009, hosting solo shows of world-famous artists, and receiving praise as well as angry petitions of protest.
India may well have come up with its own answer to the idea of a compression of past and present histories, occasion and spectacle in the staging of art. The Madhavendra Palace, perched above a long-winding road from the city of Jaipur, has been spruced up to receive a transnational contemporary art group show as India’s first sculpture park.
Curated by Peter Nagy and helmed by Aparajita Jain of Saat Saath Arts Foundation, the exhibition occupies the compact rooms of the palace, completely overtaking the conventional protocols of viewing. Built like an uneven grid, with unpredictable narrow passages and courtyards, small windows and stained glass, the palace was constructed during the reign of the “photographer king” Ram Singh II (1835-1880) and his successor Madho Singh II (1862-1922), his adopted son who became the adept builder of modern Jaipur. He brought an engagement with a more cosmopolitan European sensibility to extremely conservative values. He famously travelled to England by ship with four large silver vessels of Ganga jal to avoid ritual pollution.
The nine apartments he commissioned, mainly for the royal zenana , constitute nine sets of rooms placed around a long rectangular courtyard. This means stepping in and out of each ‘apartment’-like space in order to view the display, and the architecture of the site, its grandeur and history become intrinsic to the viewing experience. Nagy presents the palace as a new template for placing art. For the thousands of tourists and visitors who never make it past the doors of a white-cube gallery, the art works here are a compulsory encounter, invoking an element of surprise, even puzzlement, within this historic backdrop.
Against the painted ornate walls, the context is reconstructed along aesthetic and historic lines. Well-known French-American artist Arman, who was acknowledged for his “rages” against everyday objects, is seen with sculptural objects that appear to have a charred, blackened afterlife. Titled ‘The Day After’, Arman’s creation is a cast bronze cabinet and other objects that appear ravaged by fire.
These works resonate well with the sense of obsolescence that pervades the fort, in a conflation of histories.
Placed in a provocative cultural conjunction, the palace courtyard has a version of the Ambassador car by Subodh Gupta; massive carved wings in marble chips and resin, like a grounded epiphany, by Thukral and Tagra; a dramatic bronze image of the humors titled ‘Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholy, Sanguine’ by Bharti Kher.
Stephen Cox’s sombre even melancholic ‘Rishi I’ (1988) in basalt with oil, not unlike an anthropomorphic Shani icon, stands within the palace, as do Anita Dube’s velvet covered root-like structure projecting from a wall and Reena Saini Kallat’s cobweb made entirely from stamps.
In the backdrop of acute farm distress and recent farmer agitations, Benitha Perciyal creates a composition that seems to memorialise the Indian, and particularly the Tamil farmer.
Set within the Nahargarh Fort, one of the three major fortifications of Jaipur, the setting of the Madhavendra Palace creates multiple filters for the viewing of the works. The exhibition draws attention not only because of the altered protocols of viewing but also because it insinuates a reading of the past into the present.
The Rajput rulers of Rajasthan allowed themselves to be influenced by the British but set limits to modernity. Thus, even while Calcutta or Madras embraced European architecture, Rajasthan adopted a nationalist model of its own that encouraged local craft and merchandise.
As Vibhuti Sachdev has written in an essay, “The School of Art in Jaipur ‘taught pottery ( kumhari ), turnery ( kharad ), carving ( misrikhan ), inlay ( jadiya ), goldsmithy ( sunari ) and drawing ( chitrakari ).’” A rigorous ecosystem of artisanal enterprise fed into the construction of hospitals, temples, and palaces.
Today, as a new system of patronage and viewership comes into being, a broader application of the arts as they occupy newer ground becomes a critical necessity.
The author is an art critic and curator who, while preoccupied with her art website www.criticalcollective.in, is also contemplating a book