A series of five exhibitions celebrating 50 years of Chemould Prescott Road
Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai
19 March - 17 April, 2014
Dhruvi Acharya, Atul Bhallla, Jayashree Chakravarty, N S Harsha, Reena Saini Kallat, Desmond Lazaro, Lavanya Mani, Gulammohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh & Fayaz Ahmad Jan
Among the several imaginaries conjured up by Floating World, there is cosmology and a revolving earth-world; oceanic flows and cartographic representation of the globe’s topography; and an incremental growth in migration, transmission and transcultural traffic. There are vistas of turbulence, buoyancy, levitation, explosion - and passages across.
[In art history, Floating World is the translated designation of Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcut prints produced during the 17th to 19th centuries in Edo/Tokyo for a wealthy trading class in liaison with courtesans, actors and eccentrics - with themes extending also to landscapes, mythic tales and historical narratives.]
In the present exhibition, the sense of being afloat is diversely manifest, and who better than Gulammohammed Sheikh to inaugurate the theme of traverse: he names his practice, ‘walking the world’. Inspired by the medieval Christian tradition of constructing and containing the earth-world in a spherical map, Mappamundi  (at once body of Christ and a diagrammatic melding of sacred
location and speculative ‘knowledge’ - of geography/cartography), Sheikh populates his own series of Mappamundi with epic and mythic, creaturely and human life-forms. He then lets their assignations weave a web of itineraries wherein the artist, as the beguiled lover, must lose and find himself. What distinguishes Sheikh is the way he tracks vast and varied histories of art - live encounters supplemented by images culled from books and manuscripts, which he now ‘animates’ through painterly relay and digital cloning. Through the act of re-presentation and, more, through declaring the image as very nearly constitutive - in phenomenal and spectral ways - of the manifest world, Sheikh allows iconography another chance: magical reflection and recursive knowledge
that are carefully wrought but forever deferred. You crack the maze and navigate the labyrinth to emerge, but in Whose World, he asks with the title of one Mappamundi, and then declares it Troubled Terrains. The world proceeds with its ‘pogroms, ethnic cleansings and destruction…’ he says; and he adds: ‘As a lion roars and a bull charges, the dervishes keep whirling, invoking the sky with an upward and the earth with a downward hand.’ This, I believe, is Sheikh’s version of the secular citizen: dispossessed perhaps but evolving and steadfast.
I propose a paradox by placing before Sheikh’s subversive Mappamundi, Desmond Lazaro’s Blue and Gold: a block of gold lettering set within a deep indigo-dyed cloth mounted like a sacred backdrop similar to the Pichhvai (Lazaro apprenticed himself in Jaipur to the Pichhvai tradition). Here, he invokes ‘Maha Rasa Lila’, the great circular dance in the forests of Vrindavana on a full moon night in autumn where the principle of divinity as singular/multiple is revealed by Krishna to his devotees. But it is a verse from the Bhagavata Purana  that is the icon here, and embossed gold lettering is the ‘body’ of the absent beloved. This is a formalist move, and very suggestive: the blue-and-gold is a ‘universal’ colour coda courting infinity (Krishna is blue, the figure of Mary is draped in a blue robe as though by the sky); hereon, Lazaro embarks on several acts of transposition. He references the medieval Christian aesthetic of illuminated manuscripts, Baptism records found in ledgers in local churches and thence to a communitarian ethos that offers belonging. While Blue and Gold poses questions - is the text enunciative? is it an iconic body to be touched and felt as much as read? is this the sacred or is it a form of conceptual transcendence where there may be aura without image? - Lazaro moves on to seek a humbler poetics; about which, later.
Placed nearby is Lavanya Mani’s painted, printed, dyed ‘sail-tent’ that relates to the travelling/mapping impulse in Sheikh and complements the use of cyan in Lazaro - but less for symbolic purpose, more as an aesthetic developed in certain textile histories (especially Kalamkari that Lavanya Mani is trained to practice - though here it is not indigo but cyanotype on cotton fabric that gives her the blue). She is interested, she says, in correspondences between ‘textiles’ and ‘text’, and in metaphors such as ‘to spin a yarn’, ‘to follow a thread of narrative’, ‘to embroider a tale’ and to ‘fabricate’ - as a way of making ‘history’. Her overall series, Traveller’s Tales, develop visual narratives on the interest and acquisition of Indian textiles/spices/all-things-exotic by the imperial powers. Of equal interest is her construction of metaphor-laden drapes, demonstrating craft as grammar; fabrication as art - propositions which K.G. Subramanyan has made seminal in the discourse of Indian art.
And as to a webbed, navigated and much traversed world, there is, in the mode of cartography, a world map strung up by Reena Saini Kallat on a vast gallery wall. Knitted, knotted and crocheted with electric wires, the map shows routes of migration and lines of communication that link continents, cities and peoples. Like a nervous system under stress, the wall-map hums and screeches; this hyper connectivity, the artist says, is not only irreversible, it also offers the possibility that humans, once they pass through cruelly guarded borders, form new collectives. And that one day they will listen and thence learn a new and complex code that transforms wired connectivity into free speech.
If ever we speak of the earth-world today, there is inevitable reference to ecology and to entropy that are both cosmologically defined and guaranteed by our election of an exterminating angel named progress. So it is said. There are no doomsday oracles in the show but we have two artists who speak about the poetics of survival in a contaminated world. Jayashree Chakravarty floats an
architectural earth-fold - monumental paper sculpture constructed layer by layer with clay, jute, cotton fabric, pigment, to resemble a landscape that is parched but luminous, arid yet protective. The fold, suspended with a cluster of glistening wires offers shelter: a fakir’s cave that protects the insect-world and perhaps, by proxy, me - a solitary human. Atul Bhalla’s photo-diptych is an emphatically wet image. His obsession with water-bodies, polluted rivers and underground waterways takes him on walks - most persistently along the Yamuna (whose banks supported the city of Delhi from ancient times). He once ‘sunk’ himself in the river slime like a large water animal. This double-image shows the Yamuna at dusk in asublime blue-grey haze, and a solitary figure - in silhouetted profile and precisely duplicated reflection - standing waist-deep in water. The boy has taken a dip, performed a river sacrament; the river ripples and prompts my fantasy. Even as he rose from the water and pushed back his wet hair, two wisps stiffened to become tiny horns, turning him into a river devil.
There is a preponderance of horizontal works in the show and three of them offer transmitted/transmuted traditions for contemporary purveyance. Taking inspiration from the Japanese Emakomino - horizontal scroll - Dhruvi Acharya draws/paints/collages a personal narrative notating twenty years of her life; though it could, like all scrolls, permit endless recount - erasing, stalling, overcoming a further encounter with death. Like the eastern scroll tradition, narrative is continuous but the imagery often sparse and held in place with intervals. Dhruvi works in several
registers to release self-mocking pathos and ballooned utterances; birds, animals, foliage, city fragments; and, interstitially, a fractured doll-soul. The floating world is a fairytale as much as it is a confessional poem: she borrows from the Japanese art form, Kintsugi, and ‘inlays’ gold filling in the tears of an occasional photograph from her diary.
At the other end of the room is the sweep of Nilima Sheikh’s paint-laden brush - finely ground pigment and translucent surfaces of casein on board. There is characteristic iridescence in the lightly dragged colours, and just enough descriptive detail to turn painterly expanse into a mountain city. The work, titled Route(s), makes subliminal reference to funeral wakes and mourners’ journeys in Kashmir. Over the last decade, Nilima has developed what may be called an ‘ethical’ transposition of available and invented iconographies that embody beauty and pain - and, likewise, fluid channels between formal conventions (including the artisanal) and untrammelled abstraction. Here she works with the Kashmir artist Fayaz Ahmad Jan, whose black-and-gold papier mache panels together with her painted passage produce a curious format: a sanguine spread of paint bordered with strict ornament (soft-hued painterliness with glossy relief). Mimicking the image-hashiya relationship in medieval manuscripts, the work introduces the difficulty of designating the inside-outside of a compound image. What we do get by a disjunct-junction of languages and motifs produced by two hands and two types of skills is a version of a manuscript conundrum enlarged to the scale of an
Desmond Lazaro has a long paper scroll on the same wall as Nilima Sheikh and Fayaz Jan, where he charts twelve miniature houses, centred and floating like clouds in the narrow running space, each inscribed with a fragment of a legend about the blue house. Here is an intimate, barely decodable metaphor of what a blue house might be, what it wants and does to survive and give shelter. Rather like Dhruvi Acharya, this is a delicately rendered fairytale to bewitch as to give succour; it is also a lexicon about home that may have archival value in community records and family lore.
From this set of horizontal works, we are invited to ‘surrender’ to N.S Harsha and his floor drawing. From lofty cities and suspended homes to sleepers on the ground, here is an itinerary for a monk who chooses to lay himself down - a bodily need bound by a modest gesture. Harsha is no monk, and his figures are not necessarily humble. They are common people who take their rest wahan se idhar, idhar se udhar. They are not socially marked as homeless - just sleeping gently and in gratitude for a space in the world. Harsha’s sublime drawing of sleepers perfects their ordinariness, and suggests without undue persuasion why hierarchy kills compassion and how a prone figure intimates in favour of a non-hierarchical world. A floating world?
Hema Upadhyay’s matchstick chandeliers are crafted by crisscrossing thousands of matchsticks with pale splints and blood-red tips. They turn into giant lilies with extended stamens pointing to the ground. A massed pendant of flints and fused splinters, the presence in this exhibition of ornamental explodable lamps triggers maverick speculation. Hanging behind Dhruvi’s Japanese-style scroll, they flaunt a mannered affinity through their labour-intensive aesthetic. A double-take and they are cluster bombs suspended in a hostile world. They complement Reena Kallat’s intricately hand-crafted world map which signals how connectivity and the communication buzz is equally a network of flashpoint battles. With these filigreed chandeliers that are potential fusillade - I introduce (somewhat inadvertently) a curatorial anomaly and a detonative effect in the phenomenology of an otherwise even-handed exhibition.
With all its thematic allusions, Floating World is an exhibition calling attention to the surface of the image and image as surface; more precisely, to formal attributes of the artwork: surface, support, frame and structure.
The constellation of works in Floating World offers material fragility, subtle rendering, and a hovering between the sacred and the profane: a paradigmatic trope in civilizational histories as in structural anthropology and indeed psychoanalysis. Like other agnostic secularists, I regard the profane as key in that it prises open what the sacred codifies, thereby also reifies. This is precisely my ‘aesthetic bind’. Possessed by the aesthetic (embodied in experience, object, image, but inclined always to exalt lightness of spirit, material immanence and sacred gift), I struggle to undo the bind. Not to auratize meaning, I try to face the upsurge of contradictions that continually reconfigure the world, return it to history. With the same disposition and along with discourse, I trail in the deep vein - and here is a contradiction - meanings forged in the ‘smithy of the soul’.
Text by Geeta Kapur.
 Sheikh’s interest was sparked when he came across a postcard of the Ebstorf Mappamundi, made in Italy circa 1234 and destroyed in World War I bombings.
 From the Bhagavata Purana: Chpt 33, Book 10.