Art reviews

With and without history

Recently, at Bar1 (October 15 to 17), one could watch the two new films by Ayisha Abraham which had been made for important exhibitions in France and the USA. These deal with the shaping of modern Indian history and identity as reflected in middle-class urban life and culture basing on footage from old, amateur home movies that, long forgotten or discarded, are resurrected and reassembled by her while she simultaneously reaches out for their evocative spirit and examines them from the aware perspective of today.

Continuing her preoccupation of quite a few years already, the current works take now a pair of different yet complementary approaches, one focussed primarily on gathering documentation and investigating it, the other aiming at capturing the mood behind the day, although eventually both the distanced inquiry and the empathic sensation permeate to a significant degree in either case.

Be it the accent on a specific personality or on groups of people treated generally, Abraham lets the spectator intuit suggestions of broader cultural processes in the happening over a particular time, its extraordinarily or ordinarily intimate, human anchoring enhanced by the fact that the visual material is sourced from somewhat naïve camera work that is instantly recognised as belonging to its period, while the very erosion of the film adds an emotively tangible sense of layered memory being recalled at present.

“I Saw a God Dance” is about Ram Gopal, a dancer famous locally and internationally early in the 20th century and alternates passages from a 1930s footage showing Ram Gopal dancing as diverse Hindu deities with photographs and texts contemporary to it and later interviews him as an old man, also current ones with people who used to know him.

Here the keen and co-feeling research element predominates, as the artist conjures and studies the consciously, aesthetically constructed androgynous image incorporated in this actually gay man who carefully staged his divine stage grandeur as well as his ethnic regal appearance in the everyday. Such duality can be grasped too in the underlying context of Indian-Western encounters in culture and life.

Between the poetry of the flickering, gracefully blotched dance sequences, the often spectacular close-ups of aged Ram Gopal and the more prosaic, informative bits, there is a perhaps deliberate disconnect that points to the process of piecing data and atmosphere.

In terms of a formal-expressive art work on its own, though, it may not have as much cogency as one would have expected. Maybe the quotations are too literal. The second film, “En route or ‘Of a Thousand Moons’”, on the other hand, is all evocativeness, in particular that it comprises plenty of enlarged, corroded film textures that are highly abstracted in their fragile, warm vibrancy. Recurring throughout, they finely link with the rhythms of the quickly passing landscapes and scenes with many people seen through the roughened veil of the past.

There is much, often varied movement there, since the film fragments, from the 50s or 60s it seems, were meant to capture the stories of families celebrating parties and becoming tourists travelling to modern monuments of Indian industry and to foreign lands. Enthusiasm, affirmative energy and pleasure can be recognised along with the newly found merging of indigenous and western habits, looks and social or personal values. Unobtrusively but effectively, one notices the artist-observer within and without the period.

Life-journey perspective

The several, large-size canvases displayed earlier at the CKP made an instant impact, although without allowing for depth and enduring potential to materialise. Perhaps accustomed to the need for a quick, literal readability of theatrical props and costumes: the painter is a well-known theatre director and videographer who also does sets and lighting: he anticipated similar expectations from visual show goers.

The images revolve around the boat as the symbol of the existential progress ending in an after-world, the crow representing human shrewdness and aggressive selfishness, while the dog lets one think of our passive, calm, kindly ethos. The often immense canvases are brushed fast and easily, with a good hold on realistic rendering as well as on its absorbing digital technology traits, from small, flickering, modular motifs to tremulous blurs over water colour-resembling washes and negative-like effects.

Still, they are far too concentrated on exercising a strong and concept-wise clear response in order to allow for nuances, rather resulting in repetitions with variants. The even, saturated background colours and the linear enmeshments on their surface further the excessive design tendency.

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