Framed | Society

Pressure cooker on the roof: Punjab’s outlandish water tank art

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink  

These water tanks present a dazzling and unexpected view of oversized birds, military tanks complete with artillery man, cars, wrestlers and more

It could be considered homegrown art, but many may not even agree with that. Nevertheless, it has taken a Canadian art critic and curator who is an expert on Chinese contemporary art and an Indian photographer to track down this phenomenon.

Over weeks, against the background of stubble burning across the State, Keith Wallace, editor of the Canada-based Chinese journal Yishu, and Mumbai-based photographer Rajesh Vora have travelled by road to 40 villages in Punjab, researching and documenting the odd Punjabi rural phenomenon of the ‘water tank’. Perched high on the top of the house, the Punjabi water tank has spawned a small industry that includes contractors, fabricators, engineers and a healthy dollop of the houseowner’s own narrative.

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink  

Driving across the highway, or sighted through train windows, these water tanks present a dazzling and unexpected view of oversized birds, military tanks complete with artillery man, cars, wrestlers and more. Vying for attention are also oversized pressure cookers, trucks, tractors, entire aeroplanes, complete with a ladder to ascend or descend, and bullock carts that celebrate a farmer’s success. Wallace also sighted the Statue of Liberty and, in two instances, the Eiffel Tower.

Working towards an exhibition and an extensive publication, the duo set up a no-fuss, direct method of research. Stationed in a hotel on the highway outside Jalandhar, they would drive to different villages every day, and ring the doorbell of the selected house to enquire about its water tank. Wallace speaks of the extraordinary warmth and welcome that each family accorded and the stories that they shared.

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink  

Signs of aspiration

Usually built without the benefit of an architect, with local talent that specialises in tanks, the water tanks are a document of aspiration. From the oversized birds, horses or lions, seen as auspicious symbols, which were part of the early trend, to newer elements that seem to mark the social history of the State, there is a wide range of designs. Families spoke to Wallace and Vora of the tanks as a part of their personal history: a successful migration to the West perhaps, and the replica of the plane that carried them to mark the event, a pressure cooker that marked the opening of a restaurant overseas, the first Maruti car, or the first tractor in the village. Some accorded nostalgia for the Armymen in the family with water tanks in the shape of soldiers or tanks or helicopters in blazing military green. Kangaroos mark a relocation to Australia. Each symbol serves as an enormous calling card, whereby their home may be located and read.

The phenomenon of the water tank is not new, and indeed it may have peaked with the Punjabi migration wave of the 80s and 90s. Vora first undertook the journey across Punjab in 2015-16, traversing nearly 6,000 km in the Beas area. His journey resulted in the exhibition ‘Everyday Baroque’, a riposte to the term ‘Punjabi Baroque’ famously coined by architect Gautam Bhatia to signify the architectural aspirations of Delhi’s nouveau riche. Vora introduced Wallace to the related phenomenon of the Shaheed Baba Nihal Singh Gurdwara or aeroplane gurudwara just outside Jalandhar, where those desirous of travelling abroad or overcoming visa or passport issues, come and make the offering of a toy aeroplane.

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink  

Transnational interest

Wallace, with extensive curatorial experience, including in exhibitions of contemporary Indian and Chinese art, believes that this study lies at the level of transnational interest. Based in Vancouver, he traces direct links between Punjabi households and migrants to Surrey, the wealthy agricultural suburb of Vancouver with a substantial Sikh population. It is these migratory patterns that are embedded in the images, and which raise questions about how and why such a popular highly localised art form started.

Wallace traces it to migratory patterns from Punjab: two waves of migration, in the 20s and 60s, followed by a decisive wave in 1984. Successful migrants, who went abroad and made a fortune, are credited with coming back and marking their success with these elaborate structures. In turn, local artisans, who make these water tanks and have a running business of small statuettes called ‘showpieces’, have kept abreast of trends. Now, three decades after the trend for fancy water tanks first caught on, perhaps it’s showing the first signs of decline. Certainly, two generations later, the novelty of cars, ships and planes has worn off. NRI remittances to Punjab may no longer be directed to such extravagances, the younger generation has a less celebratory ethos, and most importantly, many villages are emptying out as migration continues, unabated.

The writer is an art critic and curator who runs www.criticalcollective.in.

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink

Photo: Rajesh Vora/ Photoink  

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Printable version | May 18, 2020 5:39:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/pressure-cooker-on-the-roof-punjabs-outlandish-water-tank-art/article29862820.ece

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