Tale of Two Cities: Artists from India, Sri Lanka mine Varanasi, Anuradhapura for inspiration

India and Sri Lanka share a history, that is both bloody and beautiful in patches, but continuous nonetheless.

From the '90s rivalry in cricket to the miscalculations of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the political precedent has been ever present. There is of course, the skewered, little explored history of the ancient past as well, of Hinduism and Buddhism, and how eventually overlapped the other. A new exhibition titled Tale of Two Cities attempts to fill the gap of this cultural inquiry, and it begins with the two cities that embody the two countries like no other – Varanasi and Anuradhapura. Through the exhibition, artists from Sri Lanka and India, try to interpret and channel there inferences of each other’s home stretches. The findings are both intriguing and challenging for their political and cultural interpretations.

Anoli Perera, Geographies of Deliverance

Anoli Perera, Geographies of Deliverance

Tale of Two Cities has been some time in the making. The idea of mining inspiration from a city or a town that best embodies a culture, is not new. What is new is the context, that allows exchange like that between Hinduism and Buddhism, India and Sri Lanka, through history that is both politically charged, and aesthetically curious. “In 2001, I had taken four artists to Haridwar, including Bhupen Khakkar to Haridwar, and they were to give me a show based on their reception of Haridwar. I have since then been wanting to do a show along similar lines. My association with Sri Lankan artists, prompted me to choose Sri Lanka for this idea,” Renu Modi, who has conceptualised the project, says.

Jagath Weerasinghe’s Theertha Yatra, is a provocative take on the holiness of the journey, as compared to the destination — journeys that come to symbolise the quest for some form of a natural end. Weerasinghe’s work, done on large canvasses, is a play on colour, the spirit, rather than the body. The colour orange, significant both in the case of Hinduism and Buddhism is a prominent presence. And it indicates to the importance of symbolic choices of colour and objects itself. Colours and objects that are regular tropes in Varanasi and Anuradhapura. “We chose Varanasi because it sort of embodies the culture. And it is not limited to a kind. There is of course religious and political element, there is also the music that comes out of the Banaras gharana. Similarly, Anuradhapura, forms the nucleus of cultural inquiry in Sri Lanka,” Modi says.

Bandu Manamperi, Moonstone

Bandu Manamperi, Moonstone

As part of the project artists from Sri Lanka responded to the experience of Varanasi while those from India responded to that of Anuradhapura. But the political context overlaps, as is best exemplified in Ram Rahman’s The Man, The Word, The Tree, The Lotus, where the concerns are immediate. Rahman offers a contrarian take on the evolution of Buddhism and its ideals by juxtaposing images from Anuradhapura, with text that holds together the principles, with clippings of news articles or events that provide a comparative collage. It is a very post-modern, even Dadaist way of collating the contrasts. Severely political, it powers home its message of irony, and contemplation which is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

The Sri Lankan artists on display, address not only their sensory experience, but also a personal history of violence and conflict that they have been raised in. Varanasi then, presents the chalice where they deposit their concerns, often finding answers that are definitive, or merely inspirational. “We have to understand that most of these artists have seen some conflict and violence. Politics and art to them, often overlap. Bandu Manamperi and Pradeep Chandrasiri, were both youth activists. Pradeep has even been jailed and tortured. Bandu continued as an activist. So their responses are bound to be political,” Modi says.

Pala Pothupitiye, Venerated, Ruined 2

Pala Pothupitiye, Venerated, Ruined 2

Bandu Manamperi’s Charcoal in a Glass Box, is a caustic representation of the violence, of the value of life itself. It is an overt way of contemplating the value of life itself, of freedoms that are now increasingly to difficult to hold on to. It is almost as if preserving the remains of something that lived, when it actually might be the containment of something that someday might die. Such is the listlessness of life in conflict. Anoli Pererra’s Geographies of Deliverance pays homage to the pilgrimage that is Varanasi, and also to the textile industry that comes out of the place.

The overriding feeling of the exhibition is of mutual consideration, a very energetic approach to miming a place for inspiration. For some, it is a way to finding a resting place for the turbulence within. For some it is a way of finding beauty in so. In Manisha Parekh’s Shrine, which ties the knot between medium and inspiration, and her work on canvas, is curious, often intriguing work of minimalism. Parekh, as if having acquired microscopic sight, finds the in between colour, pattern and wood, a balance of odd symmetry, and of sacredness. The idea of the shrine borrows from that of the sacred, and in her abstract works, Parekh finds an intriguing balance between colour, material, geometry and aesthetic. Neither of which she overcharges with carrying something definitive.

Ram Rahman, Vesagiri

Ram Rahman, Vesagiri

Such balance is rare and it perfectly emboldens the experience of visiting two cities, that somehow, despite what happens on the outside, remain rooted. Which begs the question — how would these artists respond to a Pakistan or a Bangladesh. “Pakistan has always been on my mind. Bangladesh as well. But the current political climate won’t allow us to do anything of the sort. It does, though, remain something I want to do, “ Modi confirms.

Tale of Two Cities presents a novel way of addressing politics and that of cultural exchange. One only hopes, that projects like these prosper, and there remains the potential in querying histories that are nearer, and rather more uncomfortable.


Published Date: Mar 12, 2017 08:43 am | Updated Date: Mar 12, 2017 11:00 am


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