19th-20th century printmaking from India and Pakistan
The history of mechanical reproduction in South Asia is interwoven into the originative narrative found in every scholarly work on modern South Asian artistic practices, from Partha Mitter's Much Maligned Monsters to Christopher Pinney's recent research on the development of popular print culture, yet there rarely has been an exhibition devoted to this long and fascinating history. Realizing this void, a dynamic pairing – of gallerist and curator Camilla Chaudhary with print scholar and artist Dr. Paula Sengupta – set out to choreograph the densely imbricated history of prints and printing practices in South Asia through an exhibition displaying an amazingly encyclopedic array of both historic and contemporary prints.
Chaudhary and Sengupta's resulting exhibition – Trajectories: 19th-20th Century Printmaking from India and Pakistan – was a monumental project that has already become a milestone in the history of print exhibitions. Trajectories is certainly the most comprehensive exhibition of prints from South Asia ever organized. Camilla Chaudhary's connections in the worlds of curating and collecting, as well as her first-hand knowledge of printmaking in Pakistan, combined with Dr. Paula Sengupta's expertise as a scholar of South Asian printmaking in addition to being a print practitioner herself within the contemporary printmaking scene in India, gave the exhibition an extraordinary visual and historic depth. Because of their insider intimacy with printmaking worlds in both India and Pakistan, this dynamic curatorial duo was able to borrow prints from institutions and collectors in both India and Pakistan. This gave the exhibition a refreshingly balanced consideration of artistic development across borderlines, where previous histories usually skew modernist narratives along nationalist affiliations.
This ability to cross what some construe to be cultural divides also allowed the exhibition to open with an in-depth look at prints produced during the historic beginnings of printmaking, when colonial India was undivided. To view and compare nineteenth century chromolithographs produced in Karachi, Punjab, Delhi, Lonavla and Kolkata in the same room gave an instant insight into the broad range of print production in South Asia as well as to the variety of communities that would have bought and used them. Interestingly, in this section we see a continuation of varied uses for prints that were transferred from the world of miniature painting, where images could project royal or mythological narratives, or be activated through religious devotion and even musical performance, as in the case of a print of Ragamala Kakubha.
For anyone familiar with this print history through reproductions in books, it was revelatory to see the size and actual color of early lithographs by Narrotam of the S.S. Brijwasi & Sons that began publishing in Karachi before moving to Delhi as well as master painter turned lithographer Raja Ravi Varma's famous Shakuntala Writing a Love Letter print. Who knew that these prints were larger than usual, when were you able to investigate the combinations of colors, see the images' contours, or read text printed in their margins? To be able to scrutinize details in these actual prints was a visual epiphany.
This section of the exhibition unfolded historically, every room filled with explosive discoveries, at times of material never known about, others of famous prints known but never experienced live. We may have known that printing was introduced at Mayo College of Art in Lahore in the early 20th century, but who had ever seen prints made there? When were we able to feast on prints from all the great masters who were trained and taught at Shantineketan – Mukul Dey, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Nandalal Bose and Zainul Abdin. Within this section it was incredulous to see the entire volume of Gaganendranath Tagore's twenty-two page limited edition book Realm of the Absurd / Adbhut Lok printed in 1917. We all may know one or two reproductions from the masterpiece, but to view an intact copy of the entire book, this was a very rare treat.
At this point the exhibition moved into periods when printmaking transitioned from an illustrative craft to a more artistic practice. Chronologically this also was when South Asia was divided politically and artistic bloodlines began to diverge, with institutions and later individuals beginning to identify as either Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani. Yet here the curators very deftly did not let the political narrative jar or even visually interrupt the curatorial unfolding of their exhibition. Quamrul Hassan and Zainul Abdin, who ultimately became founders of artistic traditions in Bangladesh are shown alongside artists they worked and were familiar with who remained Indian.
Seeing the work of Zarina Hashmi in this context was utterly illuminating. Taking ideas from her Indian and Muslim heritage she ultimately mapped Urdu script onto her new cultural home of Manhattan, where she remains recognized as a major contemporary printmaker. We visually can trace her negotiating through a community or national identity to one that engages in global art practices.
Given the monumentality of the Trajectories within the history of exhibitions of South Asian modern and contemporary art, the exhibition needs to travel to additional venues. Ideally it would be viewed in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, so that artists and the public can appreciate not only the deep and long history of their shared artistic bloodlines, but also the dynamic new artistic practices that continue to develop across borders.
Trajectory, a most appropriate title for the exhibition, here takes on resonance. It is the different trajectories that contemporary artists in South Asia, be they from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, which became the exhibition's greatest revelation. More than half of the exhibition's 150 prints are from contemporary artists in India and Pakistan. What was most fascinating was the many innovative techniques and formats being explored by artists across these borders, some incorporating photographic techniques, others using installations that include three-dimensional objects. The most spectacular of these was the installation I woke up out of a whirlpool by Nurayah Sheikh Nabi that included a 3.6 meter wood cut print hung behind a brass sphere that was etched upon. In both objects Nurayah includes the same imagery of metamorphosis and fertility. She magically transforms her wood cut's two dimensions into a three dimensional presence for printed imagery. It is these final contemporary projects that become the exciting take-away from the exhibition: print practices in South Asia are taking brilliant new trajectories.
Interestingly, this outstanding exhibition was organized for the Sharjah Art Museum, in an emirate well known for its large South Asian community, where Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis comingle in everyday life. Just as Sharjah was famous as one of the few places where South Asian sports teams could play each other, with Trajectories it became a place where art from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan could be viewed and talked about in the very same spaces.
Luckily we have a heavy tome of a catalogue which will remain as a record of the exhibition and a reference volume for anyone interested in South Asian art. The catalogue, in addition to reproducing all the works in colour, includes brilliant essays, one on the long history of printmaking's evolution in South Asia co-authored by the curators Camilla Chaudhary and Dr. Paula Sengupta and another by Aasim Akhtar that appropriately applies Homi Bhabha's notion of negotiating new identities to the practice of contemporary printmaking in South Asia.
In both their exhibition and companion catalogue, Camilla Chaudhary and Paula Sengupta signal innovative ways to critically study and visually appreciate the longue durée of modern and contemporary art practices in South Asia without falling into the fault-lines of nationalistic discourse. This new trajectory they have initiated, advocating for a more nuanced and detailed history of art practices, will continue to be a model for future scholarship on modern and contemporary South Asian visual culture.
Trajectories: 19th - 21st Century Printmaking from India and Pakistan ran its course at Sharjah Art Museum, September 10 to November 20, 2014. Camilla H Chaudhary and Dr Paula Sengupta jointly curated this seminal exhibition and wrote the catalogue preface.
DR WOODMAN TAYLOR is Chair of the Department of Visual Communication and Associate Professor of Art History at the American University in Dubai.