In a globalised world of strange violence, where the plurality of societies is being replaced by “monochromatic dullness”, how do artists project and protect their “roots” from where consciously or unconsciously their creativity originates? The exploration of this idea forms the centre of a unique exhibition at the India International Centre in Delhi.
“Carrying Roots Around” is curated by Manish Pushkale and organised by the Raza Foundation as part of IIC’s ongoing Festival of the Arts. Puhakale says the participating artists, Ganesh Haloi, Mona Rai, Veer Munshi, Jayashree Chakraborty, Akhilesh, V. Ramesh, Jagannath Panda, Atul Dodiya, Manisha Parekh and Nancy Adajania, have all created a “pictorial enquiry of the roots of their existence, of the turmoil all around and within all that, their own personal characters, their swabhaav.”
The exhibited works depict a range of experiences, personal and sometimes painful, of the notion of “rootedness” — geographical, cultural, intellectual and even aesthetic in both metaphorical and physical sense. Mumbai-based cultural theorist Nancy Adajania’s work, for instance, critiques her own Parsi community’s “fear of contamination and obsession with ethnic purity” by pointing to their original plural identity and cosmopolitan connections through archival materials.
Managing Trustee of the Raza Foundation Ashok Vajpeyi, who has conceptualised the exhibition, notes that much of the most powerful literature and art of the 20th Century had been produced by displaced people.
“There is no doubt that a lot of modern creativity and imagination have emerged out of an agonising condition of displacement and migration. Yet there are significant instances when the artists have carried their roots along even though they have displaced from their locations,” he says. Art, in fact, has become a site where the roots could be rediscovered. The American critic Susan Sontag has asserted that “what good are roots if you cannot carry them along?”
Many of the exhibiting artists spoke of their own ideas of being “Rooted, Uprooted and Rootless” at a panel discussion organised at the IIC. Veer Munshi, whose forcible displacement from his homeland of Kashmir 26 years ago is the inspiration for his pain-filled “Shrapnel” series and works depicting the loss of his heritage, describes rootlessness as “homelessness”, a condition that, according to him foretells the death knell for a community.
Like the Parsis who were forced to migrate from Persia to escape persecution centuries ago, he believes his own community of Kashmiri Pandits faces the threat of extinction from being uprooted. “When a root is cut, the fruit becomes rotten by and by. There is never a reverse migration, so it has to go extinct. Similarly with our community, the culture will go, the language will go, because you become a drop in an ocean and everything will go with time.”
Geographical displacement is also a peripheral theme of Jayashree Chakraborty’s work in which she represents the urbanisation and ecological degradation of city landscapes, in particular the Salt Lake area she resides in Kolkata, a transformed marshland which originates from a now forgotten place known as Kuchinan that was destroyed by a hurricane and earthquake in the 18th century. But the idea of rootedness is not just about geography.
It can be other art forms, movies; whatever influences or inspires me or makes me happy. As an artist I don’t want to get too rooted, but neither do I want to fly away. My work carries the imprints of my family origins from Kathiawad in Gujarat and the mother tongue. So when I paint Gandhi, I don’t just paint a great statesman, but a fellow Kathiawadi,” said Atul Dodiya.
Artist V Ramesh, who is originally from Andhra Pradesh, says he has not had a traumatic migratory experience but still struggles to find a geographical root owing to the fact that his family travelled all over India on account of his father’s work.
“I feel we all need to trace our roots to our basic sense of humanity. We are all connected underneath by humanity. If we understand this, and acknowledge this, the turmoil and violence will lessen.” His works, based on the idea of “Bhakti and Devotion”, explore his thoughts inspired by his early childhood. “Mythology is a gentler way of examining life.
I recollect and remember the stories told to me by my grandmother,” he says. For Manisha Parekh, who “relishes working with the purity of materials”, her artistic roots trace back to her early days at Art School and especially her teacher and artist Nasreen Mohamedi.
“She was my first teacher in art school. I learnt from her that white space in art is as important as the drawn space — it is something I follow still. She was alive to the tactility of materials was the beginning of my recognition of the language of materials, of the relationship of the artist with the material. Encounters with such people become your roots,” says Parekh.
The roots of art and aesthetics are similarly explored by artists Akhilesh, Ganesh Haloi and Mona Rai through eye catching abstracts inspired by memory, experiences and fantasy. Jagannath Panda, whose imagery consists of animal motifs and their dramatic juxtapositions to draw attention to the issues of ecology and urbanisation, believes that the roots are preserved in memories.
“When you return to a place you have left, you are attracted to its memories, people and landscapes. These memories are essential to art,” he says.