Anti-Memoirs: Locus, Language, Landscape

Curated by Ranjit Hoskote for the Serendipity Arts Festival 2017 

They tell us that we have a single past, a past painted in one colour. They tell us that we have a single future, a future painted in one colour. But the present troubles and perplexes them. Because the present refuses to be painted in the one colour of which they approve. It resists being constrained into dogma. It rejects the one-way street of ideology. The present, especially in India, is a crucible where many pasts spark together, are reshaped, and allow for the articulation of plural futures.

How do our artists address the rich challenge posed by these many pasts? How do they work with, celebrate, and renew memories that are embodied in the vigorous  inheritances of artisanal lineage, poetic idiom, livelihood, folk wisdom, urban legend, pilgrim testimony, rite of passage, print modernity, the stylisation of place in image, poetry and song?

Memory, in this context, is not reducible to simple memoiristic remembrance or anecdotal recalling. Rather, it is an urgent form of recollection that may be figured as premonition, prognosis or agency. It is an act of looking back to look forward – closely akin to Walter Benjamin’s conception of history, which he sees as a memory to be “seized, as it flashes up at a moment of danger”.

And so I have named this exhibition ‘Anti-Memoirs’. The title is that of the legendary 1967 book by the writer, soldier, diplomat and politician André Malraux, which traverses his 1965 journey to the East: to Egypt, India, China, and South-east Asia. Of this work, Malraux wrote: “I have called this book Anti-Memoirs because it answers a question which memoirs do not pose and does not answer those which they do.” As the critic Roger Shattuck observes, Anti-Memoirs is not concerned with “events exclusively but with a particular relation between them: privileged moments”. In this spirit, the exhibition will essay a “creative autobiography” of contemporary India, by transverse means.

In ‘Anti-Memoirs’, we present artistic practices in which three distinct emphases come into play, interlocking in varied combinations: locus, language, landscape. These are not identical archives of association and nuance, nor do they dredge up the same time  horizons as incarnated in technology, literary manner, or iconography. Locus can manifest itself as ritual, season or debate. Language can appear as a measure of silence or music. Landscape can insist on its deep geological or oceanic strangeness, like the tidal sand that pulls away from under our feet.

Artists/ Practices

In the work of the colonial-era Bombay artist M V Dhurandhar (1867-1944), society painter and pedagogue at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy School of Art, India is glimpsed as a kaleidoscope of social imaginaries. The India of late 19th- and early 20th-century  modernity is conveyed variously as posture, costume, ornament, episode from folklore or epic, comedy of manners, fragments of a detective story, and ground of flux between the sacred and the erotic.

We approach the photographic documentation archive of the British scholar, curator and aesthete Philip S. Rawson (1924-1995), as a form of art-making in its own right. Here, the images of various monuments and objects – among them temples, ceremonial gateways, masks, chimeras, icons, figurines – suggest the potential grid of a Wunderkammer, a cabinet of curiosities that exerts a magical spell over those who assemble it. The photograph is at once testimony and enchantment.

Elmer Underwood (1859-1947) & Bert Elias Underwood (1862-1943) were commercial pioneers of stereography, a technique that rendered photographic images viewable in seemingly three-dimensional depth and solidity. The stereoscope, which made this illusion possible, was sold in the USA and globally by Underwood & Underwood, who were for a while the world’s largest producers of stereo-views. In their Indian stereo-views, the monument is invested as much with exotic fantasy as with archival discourse.

Zarina Hashmi (b. 1937) premises her art on the originary experience of a loss of home, homeland, and belonging. She invokes the lost home(land) in every register of love, longing, and regret – as map, word, and mnemonic. The act of holding on to places, things, experiences and sensations by naming them recurs in her art. Hashmi’s  printmaking, collage, and sculpture are informed by the trauma of the 1947 Partition of British India.

The lost home(land) is a ground note in the art of Veer Munshi (b. 1955), an exile from his ancestral homeland, politically turbulent Kashmir. His paintings, sculptures, and multi-media installations invoke the lost cosmopolitanism and the artistic plenitude of Kashmir as it was, before the long-running conflict between the State and the forces of militancy reduced it to cinders. In his recent work, Munshi has collaborated with traditional papier-mâché craftspersons from Srinagar.

In his photographic suites, Ravi Agarwal (b. 1958) orchestrates an interplay between nature and the domain of labour and technology, through the ligatures of survival, replenishment, and despoliation. His subtle eye rests on the moon-dictated tide, the salt pan, the machinery of mobility, the seasons of classical Tamil poetry, and the habitats in which traditional fisherpeople make a precarious living, threatened by factory ships and an unpredictable nature, distorted by human depredation.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh (b. 1972) is committed to the polyphonic, percussive encounter between text and image, between images culled from radically diverse ecologies within visual culture and print modernity. In a series of mixed-media works, Ghosh subjects the archive of Nripendra Kumar Basu (1898-1979) to palimpsestual annotation. An active figure in Bengali popular culture, Basu wrote detective novels and was an intellectual entrepreneur who specialised in dispensing advice on private, even intimate life.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.