Musée d'Ansembourg and the Grand Curtius Museum
12 November, 2013 - 5 January, 2014
Ravi Agarwal, Navjot Altaf, Atul Bhalla, Sheba Chhachhi, Sheela Gowda, Subodh Gupta, Prashant Panjiar, Saravanam Parasuraman, Sreshta Rit Premnath, Sudarshan Shetty, Dayanita Singh, Vivan Sundaram, Navin Thomas, Asim Waqif
“Wealthy in spoil, enriched with hymns,
may bright Sarasvati desire
With eager love, our sacrifice
Inciter of all pleasant songs,
Inspirer of all gracious thought,
Sarasvati accept our rite
Sarasvati, the mighty flood -
She with her light illuminates
She brightens every pious thought”
- Hymn III Rig Veda
In propitiating the Panchamahabhuta, or the five elements, the poets of the Rig Veda, India’s first and most ancient text recognize Water, after Agni (fire) and Vayu (wind) as life force and primary element. In its third poem, this text imbues water with the qualities of divinity, music, illumination and thought, which serve as the collective principles for the writing of this concept. That ancient India’s culture celebrated water with conceptual and literary flourish is seen in the equation between water and Sarasvati, the river deity. As the goddess of healing and nurture Sarasvati was to ancient India what the Ganges is to India today - pure, and holy in her presence.
India has historically revered her rivers, and linked them intimately to the rites of passage. Water and water bodies have been worshipped as divinity and every day life force; of the seven main rivers of India , six are personified as female deities, and one male, with their distinctive iconography in Indian painting and sculpture. As early as the 5th century, Ganga and Yamuna were iconographically represented as beautiful and youthful each bearing a water pot, (Ahichhatra, 5th century, National Museum, New Delhi). Rivers and their banks, often lined with holy groves have been the site of poetry and music: the Yamuna as the site of play for the divine lovers Radha and Krishna has been celebrated miniature painting and in the poetry of leading poets of the Bhakti period such as Jaidev and Kesavadas. The Ganga as the site for contemplation is most celebrated in the poetry of Tulsidas.
Since the late 20th century however, water has become a subject of conflicted claims and urgent discourse. At no time as the present, have our rivers been so conflicted by claims, counter claims and pollution. Once a mighty resource for trade, migration and fertility, the rivers are of India now witness to ecological degradation of the panchamahabhuta water is the most vulnerable. Ironically, the Sanskrit word for death is also for panchamahabhuta gatam or dissolution of the five elements.
In the last decade water has become a subject in contemporary art, its conflicted state echoing the artist’s emotional state. Water and its environs in domestic or public settings also reflect a psychological state, one that the artist projects on to the landscape. The slow death of the Yamuna signals the death of the love of Radha-Krishna and by extension, of spilling its effluents the poetics of Bhakti. It marks the city as a marauder of natural sources, into water bodies.
In a culture which has celebrated water as the site for rites of passage, for identity transformation, for the cosmic confluence of the calendar, the implications of such changes are enormous. To seek purification at the sites of pollution is dark and ironic. From being a water rich state at the time of Independence, India has become a water-insecure one. Water supply is unequal; rural and peri-urban areas have to supply the needs of urban centres. A once free resource, water is now bottled, and within cities the rich are better water served than the poor. With the effects of global warming water has become a vulnerable and precious resource. In effect India’s water bodies reflect this land’s encounters with the forces of change and modernity, its discomforts with globalism and its attempts to restore what now serves as a memory of the past.
The artists in the exhibition reference and interrogate India’s visual store of symbols. A geographic context for an increasingly globalizing India is also suggested through the art work. Their work may be seen to unravel and understand our new metropolitan identity of mythology as contemporary residue, of the evacuation of the promise of its narrative. In the imagining of water deriving bodies and inchoate aspiration, water then signifies the state of a society’s culture, much like the model of the rhizome in Deleuze and Guattari: “In this model, culture like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space."