/ 15 September 2009

History lost and found

Visual narratives are a “living tradition”, according to Anjana Somany, the curator of the Painted Narratives from India exhibition, on at the Durban Art Gallery.

Wandering around the exhibition, it is difficult to disagree. Many of these centuries-old art forms — from murals to manuscripts painted on cloth and paper — are still being practised today.

And they retain a contemporary relevance: A Bengali patachitra (a long vertical scroll) draped languidly on the gallery wall addresses issues of sex and voluntary testing and counselling for HIV/Aids. The United Nations estimated that about 2,4-million people were HIV-positive in 2007.

Used by the Patuas (the itinerant community of painter-singers who travel from village to village, singing as they unfurl the scrolls before patrons), the comic-strip-like boxes of this particular patachitra are filled with scenes of courting, seduction, a phalanx of erect penises and visits to a clinic. “[Artists] continue to innovate and adapt according to the time and need, with topics of social relevance providing the subject matter,” says Somany.

“During a time of censorship by the ruling British, mobile narratives played an important role in our freedom struggle. The scrolls of Bengal served as a propaganda tool. They were discreetly carried from village to village and narrated satirically to reveal the atrocities by the British.”

Yet this exhibition which, through photographs of pieces and actual works from private collections or by artists such as Shantilal Joshi, traces the visual narrative history of India from 20000-year-old rock art through Buddhist, Jain and Mogul art to modern Indian kitsch, breathes not just because of the adaptive capacity of its creators to respond to their situation.

Gazing at the photos of murals that are more than 2000 years old, one feels the pounding of humanity’s heartbeat, echoing from previous generations.

There are ancient murals from the Ajanta Caves and swirls of action painted during the 16th-century Battle of Haldighati, where Chetak, the horse of Rana Pratap of Mewar, is reputed to have heroically charged the elephant of Raja Man Singh, the commander of Akbar the Great’s Mogul army. There are the common threads of religious belief and perceptions of the divine, as well as of cruelty, sex, the mundane everyday, messy relationships and family affairs — at the Battle of Haldighati, Rana Pratap is said to have finally reconciled with his estranged brother, Shakti Singh.

The works, divided in this exhibition into painted cloth hangings, wall paintings, mobile narratives and floor paintings, also appear to point to the indomitable nature of the human spirit and a shared global history.

Somany notes that migrations (such as that of the Aryans between 1300 and 500BC, who composed the hymns of the Vedas) and invasions (by Muslims or the British) all impacted on India’s art history through cross-cultural exchanges. Then there’s repression: Jain manuscripts became mobile after the Ghaznavi invasion of 1088, allowing them to be hidden and transported.

“Narratives, and more so when painted, give us an insight into the material culture of the times. They talk about influences from across the world. The multiethnicity, the arrival of new people, and so on, are revealed through the paintings. They are certainly a shared history of mankind as a whole,” she says.

In the exhibition, some of the photographs of actual works also point to colonialism’s modern-day legacy. Many are housed in private collections in the West. The Padshah Nama, the visual history of Shah Jahan’s reign as documented by Abd al-Hamid Lahori in the 17th century, is stored in Queen Elizabeth’s private collection at Windsor, for example.

Somany says “many important entire bodies of work are today housed in the West” and there have been “no attempts to repatriate” these. But, she admits, there is a tendency in India to allow significant works, especially sculptural narratives, to fall into disrepair.

“India, sadly, is a tragedy of riches. We are unable to look after the vast riches and treasures that are on Indian soil. Moreover, those in the West are well cared for and intact. One day when we mature to a position of looking after our valuable treasures we should attempt to get them back,” she says.

Painted Narratives from India: Preserving History through the Art of Storytelling runs at the Durban Art Gallery until September 15. The exhibition will move to the Johannesburg Craft and Design Centre from September 20 to October 5