Sculptures documenting the past and the present come together in Pushpamala N.’s latest solo show at Gallery Sumukha, Bengaluru (March 12-April 16, 2022). Titled Epigraphica Indica, the exhibition consists of two groups of copperplate works. The first is Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets (2015-2018), a collection of a hundred sculptures that carry inscriptions in old scripts from the Indian subcontinent. The second series is called Nara (2020-2022) and contains 50 works that draw on poems and slogans from recent protests in India. Both these sets are engraved on copper sheets and treated with coloured patinas. They are a continuation of the artist’s investigations into public history and archives as well as the creation of her own archive.
In the Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets, ancient inscriptions and scripts gain new life as Pushpamala copies them by hand onto copper tablets. These ‘new’ objects straddle between the past and present-they are old records into which the artist, in some cases, has inserted new elements such as illustrations and drawings from different sources. According to her, “I started earlier with the idea of making something on land because what I found in the archaeology museum were records. I’ve been very interested in the situation about land-a lot of the protests are about land; a lot of the corruption is about land. But then I got interested in the scripts themselves.”
Pushpamala explains how she had never connected calligraphy with Indian scripts and lipis: “With Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Japanese etc., there is a whole tradition of calligraphy. When I started looking at all these inscriptions, it was so interesting…. I love the form of the scripts and how they keep developing over several centuries. Sometimes they are quite different, and the same language in the script can change from one century to the next.”
The sculptures carry text in more than 35 scripts, including Kharosthi, Old Tulu, Brahmi, Old Kannada, Grantha, Nagari, Oriya, Hebrew and Middle Persian. The artist wished to focus on how multicultural and diverse these sources are, and her work is a celebration of these scripts. “Whatever I take from any ancient reference, it always has reference to the present. And I want to talk about the whole cosmopolitan culture because so many scripts are next to each other, sometimes in the same document,” she says. One of the scripts used is ’Phags-pa which has a fascinating story. A Tibetan monk created ’Phags-pa for a Mongol emperor who asked him for a script that could be used for the whole of his empire. However, since the empire spread from the Middle East to China and was multilingual, this idea soon proved to be impractical. Today, ’Phags-pa survives in only one or two manuscripts.
Pushpamala’s artistic practice has in the past also engaged with historical documents, especially those related to nineteenth-century anthropology and ethnography. She explains how she included archaeological references in a body of work called Excavations (1994), consisting of sculptures made between 1992 and 1994 with materials like paper and found objects. According to her, the works in Epigraphica Indica are similar in approach to Excavations, which used the idea of ruins and Walter Benjamin’s concept of looking at the present as a metaphor for archaeology.
Typical of Pushpamala’s art, Epigraphica Indica also includes photo and video performances. Here, the very act of transcribing and copying, as carried out by scribes in the past, becomes a performative act. The artist recalls the task of copying the inscriptions, “I would sit from morning to evening in my studio, from 10 to 5. I was sitting and copying these things and these letters. One has to be careful while copying them since you can make mistakes because some of the letters look like present-day letters even when they have no connection. So, you have to concentrate and do it properly, and I wanted them to be authentic.”
In some inscriptions, drawings have been “playfully” added from different sources. For instance, the artist inserts figures from Francesco Goya’s etchings, which look curious when placed alongside Indian subcontinental scripts on the tablets. These range from a winged bird-like creature to a character with the head of a man and the body of a plucked chicken, borrowed from Goya’s “Ya van desplumados” (There They Go Plucked) from the series Los Caprichos. Illustrations of plants and roots from medieval European botanical manuscripts also make their way into some of the copper plates. Other drawings on the inscriptions include the humped Zebu bull from a Harappan seal, a dog and cow from folk tales, and emblems of dynasties such as the Chalukyas.
Making further connections between this exhibition and her previous works, the artist discusses her interest in archives: “…I have been working with making archives and working with the idea of using the archive and my own archive as well. And then there is this whole thing of copying. Many of my works are like recreations of existing images, you know. This, in a way, connects to all that.”
While Atlas of Rare revisits the past, Nara engages with present-day politics and records history as it is happening. The copper plates in this work carry slogans and poems such as “No Farmer No Food” and “Dalit Women’s Lives Matter”, borrowed from recent protests and activist movements in the country. They are framed in a way that make them appear like slates used by school children. Slogans, images and posters which would have originally been created on fragile materials such as paper, or circulated online and lost in the diluge of social media, now become etched in engraving. According to the artist, this is an attempt to “memorialize them”.
Epigraphica Indica comes at a critical juncture when political and cultural debates surrounding the use of a single language versus multiple languages have once again taken centre stage in the country. Where the Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets becomes a testimony to the plurality of numerous languages and scripts that have co-existed and flourished in the subcontinent since ancient times, Nara focuses on a different kind of language-that of popular protest and resistance-to give it some kind of physical permanence. Both sets of works become part of the artist’s efforts to make and remake a public and private archive.