Our traditional crafts can be so ravishingly beautiful that when they are appropriated by a contemporary artist to prove a point, they have the seductiveness to deflect all attention to themselves. At Praneet Soi's exhibition, Srinagar, at Experimenter, the first object that catches one's eyes is a set of 42 papier-mâché tiles arranged on the top of a never-ending table, for they have a touch of colour visible even from a distance. The surrounding walls are black, and on the two walls facing each other are scribbles, seemingly with chalk. On the third wall is a diagram that looks like something out of a geometry lesson. A slide-installation projects photographs of Kashmir and of pages from a book of geometric interlocked designs in walnut or deodar used in ceilings. Soi only makes oblique references to the politics and terrorism in the Valley - the various avatars of the Kashmir map and an armoured vehicle stationed in the city.
On display are specimens of the intricate woodwork known as Khatumbandh, which was introduced to this Himalayan state of paradisiacal beauty either during Mughal times or by artisans from Iran who travelled with a famed saint in the 14th century.
A handout does a lot of explaining. Of the two sets of scribbles, one is an excerpt from Soi's diary and describes his collaboration in 2014 with Fayaz Jan, the ustad of an atelier where papier-mâché objects are made, an art which "travelled to Kashmir from Iran much like the decorative patterns on Sufi architecture." The other writing on the wall is the UN Security Council Resolution 47 (21st April 1948) and also an excerpt from the Instrument of Accession executed by Maharajah Hari Singh on October 26, 1947. This decision to accede to the Dominion of India has been debated for close to seven decades now.
The diagram is an image from Leonardo Da Vinci's folio 38 (circa 1492) which speaks of "Anamorphosis, a perspective technique that causes an image to appear distorted, if not completely obscure, unless the viewer sees it from a specific vantage point or through a special device." The handout explains the rationale behind its inclusion, but any discerning viewer would realize that Soi is not making another Haider, and the only direct reference to bloodshed occurs on a tile. The trained cheetah was used for shikars and was a common enough image in Mughal miniatures. Painted on a papier-mâché tile is a wild cat wearing a collar pouncing on a stag. But instead of spots, flowers bloom on the yellow pelt of the cheetah, while creepers luxuriate on the sky blue skin of the stag.
As in the illuminated Mughal manuscripts or in silk carpets, nature is transmuted into art in the opulent decorations on papier-mâché objects, and together with the geometric designs they convey a sense of harmony that is the hallmark of all great Islamic art, as it supposedly reflects the maker's perfect design sense. Soi, who divides his time between Calcutta (from where he originates) and Amsterdam, had first visited Kashmir in 2010 when it was strife-torn. But when he returned in 2014, he sojourned there for six months in the studio of Fayaz Jan to produce together the most exquisite decorative motifs common in Islamic art. But in Soi's show they often deviate from traditions as in the case of the hunt.
Soi has a thing for flashpoints, and in the past too, he has, according to the handout, "repeatedly referenced, often subverted, conflict-zone images circulated by the media, through his works." In Srinagar, the chinar leaves are there, of course, and so are the paisley, but the delicate ornamentation inside the chinar leaves like intricate tracery is left incomplete in large sections. Wherever complete, the lines end up looking like a network of veins, and the leaves phantom hands, pallid and grey. The stone jali window at the Sidi Saiyyed mosque in Ahmedabad, with its snaking and swirling branches, so amazingly akin to Gustav Klimt's The Tree of Life, is also referenced here. The circular motion is reflected in the whirlpools and eddies of the lakes and rivers of Kashmir, which image, in turn, is painted on some tiles. That should remind one of the primordial waters in the Pahadi painting, Hiranyagarbha, by Manaku of Guler. Soi has the cross-pollination of cultures in mind.
One block has a view of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, but there is a touch of fantasy here too as the slopes are carpeted with beautiful flowers. What can be read as the only other reference to the volatile situation in Kashmir are the scraps of flowered shreds exploding on a tile.
Published in The Telegraph, May, 2015