The Hindu

Friday, Sep 16, 2005

Many journeys of the mind through time

by Gayatri Sinha

Exhibition Crosstown Traffic - Apeejay Media Gallery, New Dehli, India

With its new display that lends a heightened emphasis to the art of the Indian subcontinent, the Musee Guimet Paris has been engaged in a long dialogue with the Department of Culture to send an exhibition of Gupta period artefacts to Paris. In the interim, the French have sent one of the most comprehensive manuscript collections in the Guimet, The Dream of the Inhabitant of Moghul, to the National Museum. This manuscript of illustrated paintings by the Lahore artist Imam Baksh Lahori is relatively late, dating to 1827. But more than its artistic value, this collection of 59 paintings with their accompanying fables enjoys a unique position as an instance of the 19th Century artistic efflorescence between India and France. The manuscript owes as much to Maharaja Ranjit Singh's character as a warrior-aesthete ruler of the Punjab as his relations with the French. At the time of commissioning the manuscript, Ranjit Singh had extended his empire up to Peshawar in the north, united the Punjabi misls under his rule and offset the British might with an organised army led by the French generals Allard Court and Ventura. At their initiative, the fables of La Fontaine came to be illustrated by Imam Baksh Lahori, an artist of Ranjit Singh's court, combining an oriental vision with a European aesthetic and sensibility.

Imam Baksh Lahori's paintings are fascinating for the detail that he achieves in a very small format, as well as his palette and style that suggests European influences. France has had its own rich tradition in the painted miniature, such as the magical paintings of Jean Fouquet, (1415-1480), which are housed in the collection of the Chantilly museum. Imam Baksh Lahori translates La Fontaine into a Punjabi landscape and the decorative architecture of early 19th Century Lahore. Nevertheless he also introduces subjects uncommon for the Punjab painter - the cats, rats, foxes and bears that throng the French fables, as indeed the occasional European figure - reminding us that these charming tales have here been located in the company period. In the present period, these are visions of an occidental Panchantra, rendered in the landscape of a pristine, 19th Century Punjab.

New media art

Apeejay Media Gallery and the British Council collaborated on Crosstown Traffic: 15 Years of FACT. Curated by Eddie Berg, the Founder of FACT, the exhibition in a sense signals the role of individual conviction and entrepreneurship in pushing for new media art practices. At a time when video art had limited respectability as a fringe activity, Berg raised 11 million pounds to establish the FACT building in Liverpool, setting up a leading site to screen video art and installation. The exhibition on view at the Apeejay represents nearly 15 years of the FACT reality. If there is an overriding impression, it is of the general low-key tenor of the art works, the relatively few risks taken in terms of the language used to construct a new language. What becomes evident is that humour and media perceptions are very rooted in cultural specificities, as evident in David Hall's take on the earliest television programmes in Stooky Bill TV (1990). Mark Lewis' Algonquin Park (2000-2001) is a poetic work that mimics Impressionist painting and the visual sweep and evocation of cinema. The vision of a mist swathed lake marks the slow passage of a boat across the screen, intent only on its journey between two indeterminate points.

Judith Goddard's very determinedly feminist piece, Garden of Earthly Delights (1991) and Dryden Goodwin's Wait (2000) also cohere with some of the larger theoretical preoccupations within contemporary discourse. Wait examines the act of looking and being looked at in public spaces, the ennui, the excitement and just the everydayness of spectatorship. The work succeeds because Goodwin is able to exploit the potential for theatre contained in the act of looking, because the viewer begins to devise narratives, seeking to enter the lives of the artist's subjects.