Terra Cognita?

Curated by Ranjit Hoskote for the Serendipity Arts Festival 2016

You are here. Look outside the windows before you look at this immersive collection of maps, engravings, prints and photographs that form this archive installation. You have entered a neighbourhood traversed by lines mapping a coalition between global power and transnational finance. The building you stand in, the Old Secretariat, has been the seat of power in Goa for many centuries. It was once the Palacio Idalcao, from where the Adilshahi dynasty of Bijapur ruled Goa. Later, it became the seat of power for the Estado da India, the official residence of the Portuguese Viceroy or Governor General. And yet, just across the street, visible from the Governor General’s office, is the Mhamai Kamat house. The Mhamai Kamats were an influential Goan family who dominated trade and financed the Portuguese empire in India.

Another marker of transnational and transcultural connections, in this neighbourhood, is the statue of the Goan-origin monk, scholar, researcher, hypnotist and questor into mysteries – the Candolim-born Abbe Faria or, in Portuguese, Abade Faria (1756-1819), who became celebrated in European popular culture and fiction, most famously in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

This triangulation – Idalcao, Mhamai Kamat house, Abbe Faria – is of the most vital importance to Terra Cognita? Its spaces designed to suggest the meandering of a river punctuated by lakes – a surprise awaits the viewer around every bend in the mise-en-scene – this archive installation proposes a provisional psychogeography of Goa.

Terra Cognita? Three Moments in Printmaking: India 1556-2016 draws on the holdings of three remarkable collections: the SWARAJ Art Archive, Delhi Capital Region; the Jamshyd & Pheroza Godrej Collection, Bombay; and the Kalakriti Archives, Hyderabad. It also includes a memorable photographic installation by the Kerala-born and Goa-educated artist Baiju Parthan, who lives and works in Bombay and cyberspace. Terra Cognita? courses over the itineraries of the printer’s art and the printmaker’s art in India. Its visual, spatial and literary narrative is developed around three specific tendencies or projects drawn from the rich and complex history of the graphic arts and their usage in the Indian subcontinent: the mapmaker’s art, the dream machine of visual knowledge, and the modern printmaker’s self-assertion.

The inaugural date that forms part of the subtitle refers to the arrival of the Western-style printing press in Goa – 1556 AD – and forms a useful starting point for our journey towards the horizon of the present. It cues us to the inauguration of print modernity in India, with its panoply of pamphlets, gazettes, bulletins, journals, newspapers of record, lampisteries, volumes of poetry, fiction, essays, travelogues, scientific investigation, librettos, musical scores, and chromolithographs.

The graphic image runs through this history as record, residue, interface. It encodes the interplay of comprehension and misunderstanding, the accumulation of knowledge as well as prejudice, a measure of empathy for the Other as well as a legitimation of the subjection of the Other. The focus of this archive installation is the mutual gaze of coloniser and colonised, foreigner and native, ethnographic observer and subject of ethnographic scrutiny, artist and technician, demonstrating the blurring of such conceptual binaries across a period of nearly five centuries. The question mark placed after Terra Cognita signals that this exhibition is not only a collection of objects assembled for aesthetic delectation but that it also assumes the form and purpose of an open-ended inquiry.

The images and texts that comprise Terra Cognita? are foci of intensity, provocations to the viewerly imagination, invitations to reflect on the ambiguities of the mutual gaze, the entanglements of motive, affinity and curiosity that underwrite the interface between strangers who formed relationships of mutuality, antagonism, collaboration and translation in a fraught cultural and political contact zone.

Terra Cognita? takes the view that we may not know this contact zone and its outcomes in image and language as intimately as we often think we do, confident as we are in our possession of the ready optics of the colonial encounter and postcolonial resistance. Perhaps there are complicities and overlaps here, which await tentative re-mapping.

The mapmaker’s art

The map plays a pivotal role in the colonial and imperial imagination. It promises to represent the extent of territory possessed and gestures towards the expanse of terrain yet to be acquired. It translates fantasy into reality, but also sometimes reality into fantasy. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, the rapidly developing technology of printmaking informed the evolution of cartography as an art, as practised in several centres including Amsterdam, Antwerp, Venice and London. The cartographer was an active participant in the projects of power and knowledge: of exploration, exploitation, empire-building and knowledge production.

Among the maps included here are representations of Western and Southern India: images of coasts, routes, geographical features and battle plans. If the map was the premier device of empire, the cartographer was also inspired by an inquiry into the distant, a driving curiosity about the strange. We dwell, here, on these dynamic and mixed motives.

Drawn largely from the Kalakriti Archives, Hyderabad, the maps presented here include rare, prized and distinctive exemplars of cartographic history. You will find, here, a map of Goa made by the legendary Frankfurt cartographer Matthäus Merian; maps from the Dutch East India Company’s ‘Secret Atlas’ of the Konkan, Kanara and Malabar coasts, produced by Johannes van Keulen in Amsterdam, 1753; Jean-Claude Dezauche’s battle plan of the Siege of Cuddalore, 1783, a turning point in the military relations between France, Britain and Mysore; James Horsburgh’s 1806 plan of Bombay Harbour; and the English geographer Aaron Arrowsmith’s 9-sheet map of India, published in 1822.

The dream machine of visual knowledge

The earliest printed materials, scrolls bearing woodblock-print copies of a Buddhist prayer, date back to 8th-century Japan. The earliest surviving and complete copy of a printed book bearing a date in its colophon is the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, published in Dunhuang, China, in 868 AD. Yet, under the influence of Eurocentric history, we customarily date the advent of printing to Gutenberg’s innovation of the moveable-type printing press in 1439.

Terra Cognita? reflects on the formative role that the print – as engraving, lithograph, chromolithograph, woodcut, and photograph – has played in the creation of our postcolonial cultural consciousness with all its vexations, paradoxes and exhilarations. This archive installation has extracted, from the extraordinary and encyclopaedic holdings of the SWARAJ Art Archive, Delhi, an ensemble of print materials that take as their subject the ethnic types, castes and occupations, deities and heroes, customs and festivities, and other aspects of Indian society and culture as observed by the Western, ethnographic, soi disant sovereign consciousness.

In this domain, science meets and sometimes becomes indistinguishable from fantasy. Desire, fear, curiosity, and other emotions shape the production and distribution of the image under the sign of the exotic. Importantly, many of the materials in this zone of the archive installation are ephemera, on which the practices of collection and archiving have conferred an afterlife, a fragile permanence, a perpetuity in the imagination.

The modern Indian printmaker’s self-assertion

Printmaking was decried as a minor art by the arbiters of taste who dominated canonical discourse in India from the 1850s to the 1990s, across the long slide from a paradigm based on the decorative and industrial arts, through the Beaux Arts and various idioms of Orientalism, to modernism and its successor formations. These arbiters were fixated on the oil painting as the crown of creative expression. And yet, printmaking in India has been carried forward by a committed community of practitioners and some inspired patrons and supporters.

Within this all-too-often ignored history, the XAL Praxis exhibitions and the portfolios of graphic art that they produced remain an unregarded benchmark. The XAL Praxis project marked a fruitful collaboration between Pheroza Godrej, art historian and visionary founder of the Cymroza Art Gallery, Bombay, and the artist Akbar Padamsee, a prime mover of the XAL Praxis Foundation, whose other trustees included the industrialist Ajay Lakhanpal and the psychotherapist Udayan Patel. The XAL Praxis printmaking project achieved traction during the early 1990s, with two major exhibitions held in 1990 and 1992.

Under the sign of XAL Praxis and Cymroza, a loose coalition of printmakers, active across India, found a platform to articulate their chosen form as a legitimate site of artistic agency, experiment and exploration. Terra Cognita? pays homage to this lost history that took place at the cusp between the canonically ‘modern’ and the ‘contemporary’ phase of Indian art. We are invited to think, here, about the assertion of a ‘minor art’ as a major contribution, and of artistic practice as an axis of community formation.

Baiju Parthan: ‘Arpeggio for Abbe Faria’ (2008)

The artist Baiju Parthan’s 58-part photographic installation, ‘Arpeggio for Abbe Faria’ is an insertion into the visual, conceptual and narrative space of Terra Cognita? It triggers off a fascinating relay between the exhibition and the neighbourhood where it has been mounted. The first version of this work was originally created by the artist for ‘Aparanta: The Confluence of Contemporary Art in Goa’, an exhibition I curated at the Old GMC Building, Panjim, 2007; it was expanded to its present form and shown in ‘Retrieval Systems’, an exhibition I curated at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, 2009. ‘Arpeggio for Abbe Faria’ now appears in critical adjacency with its subject, the monument dominating the public space adjacent to the Idalcao Palace, and has accomplished a homecoming.

Baiju Parthan (born 1956) has long been fascinated by this statue of the philosopher-adventurer. Through it, he invokes Goa’s Indo-Iberian history, the circulations that link India and Europe, and also encrypts autobiographical resonances and explores the interplay of dream, memory and desire. Structured as a cycle of fragments that build into gestalts, this installation dramatises the gesture of remembering as ‘re-membering’. When Parthan first arrived in Goa, a fugitive from botany and engineering who wanted to study art, it was the high noon of the counterculture. He recalls being entranced by the sight of hippies dancing around the statue as though it were a cult idol. Faria, a recurrent figure in Parthan’s art, belongs to that global underground of occultists, alchemists, clairvoyants and border-walkers which has inspired generations of young people to spiritual awakening and political mutiny.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.