FRIDAY REVIEW

Moments of excellence

GAYATRI SINHA

IRONY MATTERS Himmat Shah's sculptures deals with complex visual fields.

IRONY MATTERS Himmat Shah's sculptures deals with complex visual fields.  

Masters of the Cloth, Indian Textiles traded to distant shores from the TAPI collection, is one of the more enriching exhibitions of recent times. Certainly it indicates the way shown by private collectors towards retrieving, conserving and now exhibiting aspects of India's `lost' past, in this case, its rich textile wealth.

As early as the 4th Century, Pliny of Rome wrote of the wealth of spices and fine cloth that came from India, bemoaning that Rome's reserves of gold were now all flowing into Indian coffers.

The TAPI collection concentrates on textile trade with the western world, as well as the East, which had an appetite for painted and patterned cloth matched only by the wealth and diversity of what Indian weavers and artisans could fashion.

This exhibition covers 700 years of this mercantile activity, which carries the narrative of not only a craft excellence, but the artisan's comprehension of the aesthetic and ritual needs of different cultures.

The earliest exhibits on view date to Gujarat in the 13th Century, and the translation of painting or block printing, or even temple and architectural motifs on to cloth becomes evident. The retrieval of Indian textile from Fustat in Egypt, or Maa clothes from the Toraja culture of Sulawesi that date to the 16th Century demonstrate the ritual usages to which Indian cloth was put.

Other examples of such natural cultural transference are the richly coloured geometric Madras cloths, which had in turn become a mark of the identity among the Kalabari tribes, or in southern Nigeria, where these cloths were known as George! A shift in aesthetic tastes is seen in the European part of the collection, a grand paisley shawl retrieved from France, so breathtaking in its beauty and intricacy that one actually comes away with a deep sense of gratitude.

This is the authority and influence that the collector can bring to Indian art, in both the classical and contemporary arena.

A substantial body of black and white nude photographs mark Akbar Padamsee's entry into this medium. Threshold gallery's display seeks to draw similarities between the drawings and the photographs, revealing in a sense the very considerable transition the artist has made, from studio studies, some of which look like notes to himself, to the highly composed photographs of female nudes.

Arguably this is the first time any Indian artist has made this foray into a specialised area. But while Akbar's nudes have a non-formal quality, his photographs are very much within the domain of pictorialism that has dominated nude photography since the early decades of the 20th Century.

Akbar tends to use the soft focus, the classical postures and the evocation of painterly surfaces that have been the mainstay of nude photography.

Another senior artist who has been on view is Himmat Shah (Anant Art Gallery).

This is a thoughtfully curated exhibition by Roobina Karode, who has chosen to give his more well-known and somewhat predictable heads far less importance than the idiosyncratic, individualistic pieces that make up the bulk of the show.

It is interesting to learn that Himmat was born in Lothal, one of the richest sites of Harappan civilisation in its yield of terracotta artefacts. Himmat Shah in this body works primarily with terracotta, using a variety of unfinished surface textures to suggest the tactile passage of time, the ravages of sun and water.

He also draws on a complex body of personal experience or, to quote the catalogue, "the childhood memory of horse borne dacoits who shot and crippled his father, the disintegrating Jain household, running away from home into the Gir forests, living frugally in the Thar desert, homelessness in his urban life in Baroda and New Delhi, and his Garhi studio lived and worked for more than twenty years."

This exhibition demonstrates the sculptor's ability to see possibilities in unusual cognate forms. You can move from an egg-like orifice that yields a miniature monument to Morandi like bottles that mutate into organic accretions, or sprout plastic flowers.

Animal, vegetal forms and industrial detritus are reinterpreted to yield the landscape of our times. Himmat Shah is never predictable, and deeply ironic in the manner in which he uses his sculptures to interpret the complex contemporary visual field.

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