The Story about In-between(ness)

Dilpreet Bhullar
National Modern Art Gallery, New Delhi , 26.04.2016

In the hands of the raconteur, the matrix of the art of storytelling and the narrative maze unveils the unknown to her audience. The chance encounter with anonymity more than often anchors our need to recognize the reasons and factors shaping the sense of obscurity. The twin exhibitions Painted Encounters- Parsi Traders and Community and No Parsi is an Island at the National Modern Art Gallery (NGMA), New Delhi India open the doors to the life of the Parsi community since their arrival to the Indian subcontinent in the precolonial era and the aesthetic rendering of their journey through post-independent India.
  The promise of hybridity in the land of in-between, as Homi Bhabha states, transcends the fixed notion of origin and purity to the idea of plural identity. Eschewing the impression of marginality, the exhibition Painted Encounters- Parsi Traders and Community takes the viewer to the sojourn of the Parsi community or the followers of Zoroastrianism which started in the Iranian city of Yazd. At the turn of the seventh century, with the dominance of Islam in Iran, the Zoroastrians migrated to the city of Bombay, the present-day city of Mumbai, India. Considered as the minority community in South Asia, the Parsi continues to leave an indelible mark on the cultural map of the city of Bombay, and larger India. As the title of the exhibition aptly suggests, the display is a fine blend of mercantile wealth and cultural aesthetics. Invariably making the Parsi a close explorer of the opium trade in Canton and a companion of the East India Company.

Framji Bhikaji Panday Fig. 1

  The towering marine ship, taking center stage in the exhibition hall, acts as a prologue to the rest of the exhibition: the Parsi as a traveler to the colonial land of India and finding economic independence via one of many enterprises like ship-building. The magnanimous self-portraits of Parsi men by Chinese artists, the sartorial finesse of Parsi women painted on Chinese porcelain, and the intricately carved wooden chest and standees bespeak the affluent history of the Parsi. The textiles and artifacts create nostalgia for the bygone era. Unseemingly, the ensemble allows you to take an inside view of a Parsi home of the nineteenth century.  The narrative that draws its meaning from the juxtaposition of self-portraits with artifacts asserts the multiple cultural modalities spread across the colonial era. The exhibition reinvigorates the pages of history to trace the loss of the community, struggling for its survival from the meta-narrative of modernity. 
  As we enter the second exhibition titled No Parsi is an Island: a Curatorial Re-Reading across 150 Years while reading the poem titled Migration by K.K. Daruwalla, playing at the entrance of the second exhibition hall, the concerns about up-rootedness and settlement capture our attention.

Migrations are always difficult: 
ask any drought, 
any plague; 
ask the year 1947. 
Ask the chronicles themselves: 
if there had been no migrations
would there have been enough 
history to munch on?

Migration, Map-Maker (2002)
K.K. Daruwalla

  The conspicuous similarity of the exhibition’s title with John Donne's poem No Man is an Island maps the journey of fourteen modern Parsi artists from 1800 to the present: Pestonji Bomanji, Mehlli Gobhai ,Gieve Patel, Shiavax Chavda, Nelly Sethna, Jehangir Shapurji 'Jean' Bhownagary, Homi D Sethna, Homi Patel, Adi Davierwalla, and Piloo Pochkhanawala, Sorab Pithawalla, Jehangir Lalkaka, and M F Pithawalla. While the first exhibition focuses on the spectacle of Parsi identity formation under the umbrella of financial wealth, the second display capitalizes on the Parsi’s aesthetic sensitivity towards the newly independent India. Known for their foray in the field of Indian theater and cinema, the investment made at the end of the Parsi community has been instrumental in building the art institutes across the city of Bombay.
  The term “re-reading” aims to reinvestigate the past—not with the eyes of a micro-minority—by emphasizing the wide spectrum of artistic practices which are duly informed by and instrumental to the imaging of the social, cultural, and political fabric of postcolonial India. The re-reading also moves a step closer to drawing a relationship between the Parsi community and the larger existing Indian communities. The association of Indian aesthetics with the European style does not go unnoticed from the collection, especially with the painting In Feeding the Parrot by Pestonji Bomanji. The favorite theme of the aristocratic artist, i.e. the world of Parsi domestics, carries the touch of European academic realism. Under the mentorship of the famous illustrator John Lockwood Kipling, the artist Bomanji practiced the art of Ajanta murals. Interestingly, a careful eye cannot but notice the element of Ajanta mural lurking in the backdrop of this painting.

Pestonji BomanjiFig. 2

  While studying the history of Indian sculptures, especially during the time period between the 18th and 20thcentury, the relationship shared between sculpture and materiality is singly motivated by predictable experiments. In such a definitive setting, the sculptures by Adi Davierwalla present a fresh view to the art of sculpting in India. Alienating a unified meaning, the scrap is molded to craft a subtle language of abstract art. The geometrical orderliness painted in black sculptures can be mistaken as the epitome of harmony and balance. On further probing, the sharp metal edges on a wooden seating, playing with Greek mythology and Christian symbolism, seem to covertly display the dual sense of anguish and acceptance on the part of the artist’s community.
  The cityscape is a popular theme imbibed by the artists and writers across the continent. When translated into the frame of the canvas, the city as a space immortalizes the world of hyper-reality. In a similar vein, the painting titled Off-Lamington Road by the artist Gieve Patel captures the alleyway of the city of Bombay: populated by a collection of individuals and familiar buildings in flat colors. Brimming with crowds of people, the collective behavior unassumingly highlights everyday life. The element of human apathy, in the shape of the child rag pickers and a barely dressed woman lying on the ground, brings social reality to the surface of an otherwise pleasantly chaotic scene. The artist as a flâneur captures the sight with the ease of a distant observer and an engaging participant.

Gieve Patel Fig. 3

  If colonial modernity opened new shores of possibilities, it also necessitated the need for agreement and assimilation of the multiplicity of discourses. Dissipating the existing social discrepancy, the façade of the Nehruvian utopia, in independent India, further deepened the gap. The concept of identity in the formative years of nation-building reinforced the population statistics to create the boundaries of majority and minority. The absence of the minority Parsi artists’ contribution from the talking points of the major modern art schools in India: Calcutta Group (1943), Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (1947), and Delhi Silpi Chakra (1949) highlights the gaps and fissures in the discourse of canon-building. The collection of artworks at the two exhibition acts as a reminder of what has been missing in the creation of the treatise on Indian modern art.
  The Indian modernist artists remain favorites among the international art market investors. For instance, the Untitled work by VS Gaitonde was sold for the price of $4,416,502 at Christie’s in December 2015. The artwork made the headlines not just because it had set a new record for the artist Gaitonde, but also for achieving the highest price ever recorded for Indian art. Under the economy of the art market, the modernist Indian artists have followed the trend of consistent success. The aim of the exhibitions Painted Encounters- Parsi Traders and Community and No Parsi is an Island to reclaim the silenced voices fills in for the absence of Parsi in globalized art. The exhibitions navigate the viewers through the aesthetic path treaded by the Parsi artists: the land of undocumented art practitioners and connoisseurship.

Painted Encounters- Parsi Traders and Community and and No Parsi is an Island
March 20 - May 29, 2016
National Modern Art Gallery (NGMA), New Delhi India

Fig. 1
Anonymous, Framji Bhikaji Panday seated on cotton bales at the Cotton Green
Photograph Courtesy: A Zoroastrian Tapestry, Art, Religion and Culture

Fig. 2
Pestonji Bomanji, In Feeding the Parrot
Courtesy: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, India

Fig. 3
Gieve Patel,  Off- Lamington Road
Collection: KNMA, New Delhi, India

Dilpreet Bhullar is working as an art coordinator at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi India.