“Nalini Malani: Transgressions” at Asia Society Museum

New York: The Asia Society Museum in New York is currently showing their latest contemporary exhibition, “Nalini Malani: Transgressions”. Malani received her technical training in painting at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Mumbai and throughout her career has focused on a number of controversial topics such as feminism, race, gender and global politics. This was especially powerful in the 1980’s when feminist topics were less prominent in art on the Indian subcontinent. In her process the artist is inspired by myths and allegories from a variety of cultural backgrounds including Hindu and Greek. “Transgressions” is no exception as it brings forward a strong narrative depicting globalization and transnational current events focusing specifically on the powerful western influence in postcolonial India.

Transgressions II by Nalini Malani. Source: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/nalini-malani-2/

Transgressions II by Nalini Malani
Source: http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/nalini-malani-2/


I was fortunate enough to slip into the Asia Society thirty minutes before closing, the ideal time to experience the central installation of the exhibition: “Transgressions II”. This enchanting piece, created in 2009, is part of the Asia Society Museum’s collection and depicts cultural negotiations in India. The piece consists of video projections combined with shadows utilizing three large transparent cylinders. “Transgressions” is both playful and visually haunting with the multifaceted use of a variety of mediums and sound. Each aspect of the work is an independent artistic expression that when combined, brings forward a dramatic multisensory experience for the viewer. Malani’s paintings on the transparent cylinders are in homage to the Chinese reverse glass painting of the 18th century and are aesthetically engaging all on their own. Viewers can walk freely through the projections and examine these dynamic paintings individually. The only other additions to the exhibition aside from the large installation are a selection of books by the artist depicting the drawing and painting technique in full. This addition invites Malani’s audience into her artistic process. Holistically, the work creates an engaging contrast between histories of seasoned storytelling and modern technology.

“Transgressions II” by Nalini Malani Source: Asia Society

“Transgressions II” by Nalini Malani
Source: Asia Society


As a viewer, I felt fortunate to experience the work completely alone and be ensconced in the ever evolving and shifting visuals of animals, characters and designs. Accompanying the moving colors and imagery was a poem written and read by the artist. Both the painting and poem touched on the artist’s central topics of colonialism and world politics. However, the visuals rarely depicted the poem in a literal sense, creating a dizzying, dreamlike quality. “Transgressions II” is an all-consuming and enthralling installation that allows Malani to fully absorb her audience in her multiple levels of creative expression and storytelling. This exhibition is a uniquely beautiful success for both the artist and the Asia Society Museum. While in New York this summer be sure to take in “Nalini Malani: Transgressions”. The exhibition will be up through August 3rd 2014.



Kanika Pruthi of Saffronart highlights some of the prevalent plant and flower motifs in South Indian jewelry

NEW YORK: In Indic religions and philosophy reference to plants, fruits and flowers abound signifying the relationship man shares with nature. Since antiquity myths and iconography pertaining to flora and fauna has been a central part of Indian belief systems and their actual use and their reference in present day rituals and faith based practices proves their continued significance in Indian society. Plants and flowers are often time associated with deities, presented as offerings in rituals and symbolically represented in daily life through various means.
South Indian jewelry present a ripe example of the continued reference to plants and flowers in Indian faith systems and the development of intricate motifs laden with meaning, still in use in present day India. Our current exhibition “Jewels from South India” display an array of motifs associated with plants and flowers.
A Jasmine Bud Necklace

A Jasmine Bud Necklace

The jasmine bud necklace, known as mullai arumby malaii, adapts the tender buds of the fragrant flower in its design. The result is a piece of jewelry that conjures images of delicate and prestine creations of nature, the carnal scent of the auspicious flowers with erotic connotations enhancing the beauty of the wearer. There are many myths that chronicle the mystique of this tender flower.
Manga malai necklace

Manga malai necklace

Another common motif in South Indian design is the Manga Malai– the necklace of mangoes. Similar to the persian booti or paisley design, mango tree has long held mythic associations in Indian society. The mango tree is believed to be a wish-fulfilling tree and a symbol of fertility and long life. Mango leaves which are believed to hold protective powers are still used in actual rituals in India, also commonly found strung across the entrance of an house. Stylized motifs of mango have been adapted in South Indian jewelry, lending not only a meaning but decorative elements to the jewelry pattern.
The rudraksha bead is often times adapted in design of beads or used as it is in South Indian jewelry. It is believed to be sacred to Shiva and is commonly worn by both men and women with Shivite affiliations all over India. They are believed to hold the creative energy of Shiva, bestowing the wearer with similar powers. Symbolically the seed is believed to represent Shiva’s eye (Rudra=Shiva & Aksha=Eyes). Myths abound that reference the rudraksha.  One of them tells of how Shiva went into the state of penance for 1000 years in order to destroy evil in the world and when when he finally opened his eyes a drop of his tear on the ground resulted in the germination of the tree bearing the rudraksha fruit. The seeds are considered highly auspicious and are adapted in designs in multiple ways.


A gemset Jhumki or earrings

A gemset Jhumki or earrings

A gemset necklace

A gemset necklace

A closer look at jewels from our collections show the many ways floral motifs are adapted in design- their presence abounds. From three petaled blossoming flowers, to floral vines adapted in design, the significance of rendering plants and flowers in jewelry can be traced back to centuries and continues to the present day- a melange of traditional beliefs and modern practices.

Why You Should Consider a Textiles Course

Rumal from Kashmir, Featured at Saffronart, November 2012

Rumal from Kashmir, Featured at Saffronart, November 2012

London: When was the last time you walked into a store and marvelled at an intricately designed shawl, or a beautiful saree? Those delicate threads intertwining, forming pleasing patterns that you know would instantly uplift you. Or perhaps you walked in and decided there was nothing to your liking, and you’d rather design your own shawl. Or salwar. Did you ever think, I’d love to create something like that if only I had the time? Or the talent? Or both time and talent, but patience? All of the above?

Then your solution is here, packed compactly into two short courses on Indian Textiles and Asian Arts at the Morley College in London. And you may thank Jasleen Kandhari for that.

The Indian Textiles course will focus on India’s rich textile traditions. You will learn about regional variations of Indian textiles from the Punjab and Gujarat to Bengal and the Coromandel Coast, understand and appreciate the designs, patterns and techniques of stitching as well as the stylistic development of the designs like the boteh or paisley design in Kashmir shawls and discover Indian trade textiles to the west like chintz and to the east in South east Asia.

The Asian Art course will examine the vibrant arts of China, Japan, Korea, South Asia, South-east Asia and Tibet during visits to museums, galleries and temples in London and Oxford. You get to  explore a range of designs, artistic techniques and materials including paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, textiles and decorative arts in tutor led discussions and object study sessions.

Sign up while you have time.The courses begin soon, so drop an email to  Jasleen Kandhari or visit the Morley College website.

Four Animals You’d Spot In South Indian Jewellery

Most already know that animal motifs aren’t included in jewellery simply to beautify. So what do these animals mean? Rashmi looks at how religion and symbolism extend to South Indian finery to form a part of daily life.


Animal motifs have been consistently popular down South. I’m not just pulling this truism out of thin air, though. The timing is perfect. The folks at Saffronart Delhi are holding an exhibition, “Jewels from South Indiatill April 30. For those who know their South Indian jewellery, you’re already familiar with the numerous stylised animals and gods you find on necklaces, earrings, rings, bracelets etc. Today, I’ll be looking at four animals, beginning with…

1. The Peacock

South Indian pendants effortlessly imbibe the motif of the peacock, and it’s not just because of the bird’s beauty and elegance. Talking about why the peacock is so important in Indian culture is almost trite—there’s no dearth of representations and allusions to the bird. In South Indian (especially Tamil) mythology, it is the vahana (vehicle) of Murugan/Kartikeya, the God of war, victory, love and wisdom. Readers familiar with the works of Raja Ravi Verma will recall his paintings of Kartikeya seated on a peacock with his two consorts, Valli and Deivayanai, and of Goddess Saraswati seated, while a peacock looks on. Known to spread its plumage at the start of spring, the peacock also gains metaphorical importance: it symbolises the blossoming of love.

2. The Parrot

In Hindu mythology, the parrot is associated with Lord Kama, the god of love. The bird is found as a motif in South Indian temples. Parrots symbolise fertility and desire—definitely worthy of imbibing in jewellery designs.

3. The Fish

The fish gains significance from the tale of Lord Vishnu’s very first avatar: the matsya. As a giant fish, Lord Vishnu saves Manu, believed to be the creator of mankind in Hinduism, by navigating his ship through a great deluge. After the deluge is over, Manu begins life afresh and propagates the race of humans. The fish is thus seen as an emblem of rebirth. The medieval temple of Koneswaram in Trincomalee, Tamil Nadu, which was destroyed in the 17th century, housed a shrine dedicated to Matsya.

A gowrishankaram pendant flanked by two fish motifs Source: http://www.saffronart.com/fixedjewelry/PieceDetails.aspx?iid=39818&pt=2&eid=3703

A Gowrishankaram Pendant flanked by Two Fish Motifs
Source: http://www.saffronart.com/fixedjewelry/PieceDetails.aspx?iid=39818&pt=2&eid=3703

4. The Elephant

Those who know their Hindu iconography know that the elephant is one of the most revered of animals. Lord Ganapati, the bringer of prosperity, immediately comes to mind. So does Airavat, the vahana of Indra, God of Heaven. Renowned historian and fine art consultant Dr. Usha R. Bala Krishnan, and writer Meera Sushil Kumar note that animals like the elephant are “…quintessential elements of jewellery design particularly in south India….[They are] regarded as an epiphany of God” (Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India, p244). The elephant is linked to royalty, abundance, richness and fertility.


These animal motifs are important as religion and symbolic references to romance are often intertwined.  With other motifs, the function is more specific. Fruit and flower motifs are symbolic of romance. Motifs of Gods take on a purely religious function.

More to follow soon, so keep dropping by.

Souza’s Rare Book Illustrations

Do they explain, or do they simply exist to confuse? Rashmi looks at what illustrations have always meant to her before decoding Souza’s illustrations.

The other day, I stumbled upon a book with illustrations by F.N. Souza. The book is Polish writer Jerzy Peterkiewicz’s “Inner Circle”, first published in 1966, which featured in an earlier auction of Saffronart. Peterkiewicz had migrated to England in 1940, and had won acclaim for his previous novels. To summarise “Inner Circle”, it’s a triptych. Each of the stories unravels in an alternate past, present and future. An obit to Peterkiewicz in the Guardian describes the book as “…a futuristic vision of a hopelessly overcrowded Britain, without greenery”: this comes across quite vividly in Book One (the first part). It’s a hard book to categorise, with elements of magic realism blending with sci-fi and dystopia. And it’s hard to follow. I enjoy books that come across as cryptic—it gives me a reason to go back to them. But perhaps some of us crave clarity and linearity. When in doubt, I turn to illustrations.

Peterkiewicz’s “Inner Circle” sold at a previous Saffronart auction for $264, or Rs. 11,500

Peterkiewicz’s “Inner Circle” sold at a previous Saffronart auction for $264, or Rs. 11,500

Except that Souza isn’t exactly the kind of artist I’d imagine making book illustrations. Perhaps it’s owing to my partiality to delicately-made illustrations I’d find in children’s books, or accompanying folktales. And take the word “illustrate”—to shed light on, to illuminate. If Souza’s works are layered with meaning, how would his illustrations shed light on the story, especially for readers not familiar with the artist?

Before getting into this, I’ll admit I approach illustrations with a naive expectation from them. If you ask me to name an illustrated book that stands out distinctly in my head, it would have to be one with intricately detailed and impossibly delicate illustrations. Alan Lee’s illustrations for a Harper Collins edition of the Lord of the Rings surface immediately. I’m tempted to use the cliché “bring to life”, but Tolkien’s world is already replete with vivid descriptions of places, characters and scenes. What would be the role of Lee’s illustrations? Do they enhance Tolkien’s writing? Do they offer an interpretation of his writing through the mind of an artist? Does that, in turn, offer readers a filtered richness of Tolkien’s world? Illustrations are a reinterpretation in that sense: a simplification. Lee’s illustrations, through an astonishing delicacy of line and inherent luminosity, funnel the visual vibrance of the book—an added pleasure for the reader.

Bag End, as conceptualised by Alan Lee Frontispiece, “Chapter I: A Long-expected Party”, The Fellowship of the Ring

Bag End, as conceptualised by Alan Lee
Frontispiece, “Chapter I: A Long-expected Party”, The Fellowship of the Ring


The steeds of the Black Riders  Recto, p.192, “A Knife in the Dark”, The Fellowship of the Ring

The steeds of the Black Riders
Recto, p.192, “A Knife in the Dark”, The Fellowship of the Ring

Treebeard Recto, p.496,”Treebeard”, The Two Towers

Recto, p.496,”Treebeard”, The Two Towers


Shelob sneaking up on Frodo in Cirith Ungol Recto, p.752, “Shelob’s Lair”, The Two Towers

Shelob sneaking up on Frodo in Cirith Ungol
Recto, p.752, “Shelob’s Lair”, The Two Towers

But hey, I’m not entirely partial to sophisticated renderings. In contrast to Lee’s drawings, Tim Burton’s illustrations for his (incredibly witty) book of poems, “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy”, come to mind. When I first picked up the book a few years ago, I found the hastily-etched, flat, pastel-shade drawings “cute”, and to my taste. When I finished reading the book and observed the sketches a second time, I realised how layered the poems actually were. Burton’s drawings were definitely not a “re-interpretation”; nor were they meant to guide the reader. The poems have been acknowledged to be darkly humourous and macabre—not in the sense of uneasy, horror-inducing macabre, but a more playful macabre. And here’s where the accompanying drawings add a subtle, barely palpable unsettlement—as if made by an angry child.

“Junk Girl”, pp.88-89

“Junk Girl”, pp.88-89

“The Pin Cushion Queen”, pp.92-93

“The Pin Cushion Queen”, pp.92-93

“Oyster Boy Steps Out”, pp.112-113

“Oyster Boy Steps Out”, pp.112-113

Before I return to Souza’s illustrations for “Inner Circle”, a few thoughts on Peterkiewicz’s book. It is obviously targeted at a mature reader, not just in content, but also in construction and characterisation. The plot unravels little by little, quite treacherously as well.  The characters names and dialogues serve as cues for the reader. Here’s one from Dover, the protagonist in Book One:

“Not that we went much by names. My second wife, for instance, was September. There were thousands of Septembers whirling about in this area between the Kent coast and the dried-up marshes of London. And the month of September apparently kept returning each year, though as a rule we didn’t bother about seasons and the months that were supposed to belong to them.”

Trapped under a giant dome on an overcrowded, barren island, clinging in a cluster to a “hygiene box”, the allusion to his wife suddenly becomes metaphorical. At one point, he tells her “Remember, remember, your month is September”—an oblique reference to Guy Fawkes’ Day (remember, remember, the 5th of November); this is a future built upon the remnants of an England that once was. Being his wife, September—the month—is attached to him. “Time” is attached to him. He is only vaguely aware that seasons change; this hints that his perception of time is muddled by more urgent requirements.

Point being: How does one grasp the abstract allusions and unfolding plot? I expected Souza’s drawings to provide clarity. They did nothing of the sort–or so I thought. It took me a while to realise I was wrong. He was primarily a figurative artist (take a look at the sketches). The same corrosive scepticism with which he’d render his disfigured, pock-marked subjects announces itself here. He’s given form to most of the physical descriptions and literal meanings in his signature style, but when I thought about it, their insecurities, their ignorance, their fears come to the fore. If Souza’s art is a comment on the hypocrisy of society, these drawings expose the flaws in Peterkiewicz’s characters. They’re vulnerable through his sketches, and this is something I missed in my initial reading.

Souza’s drawings go beyond filtering the story or adding another dimension to it. They co-exist, but they’re also independent. The drawings boldly churn out character nuances and mould them in twenty-seven pages. What I did end up finally seeing was very different from what I’d initially pictured in my head.

Inner Circle, “Book One”, p.11

Inner Circle, “Book One”, p.11

It’s interesting to consider the accompanying catalogue note from the Saffronart auction for the book:

“This narrative of ‘Inner Circle’, which navigates the past, present and future, seems to draw parallels with the seamless comingling of reality and fantasy in Souza’s art. It may have been for this reason, perhaps, that Souza agreed to design the jacket for this volume, and also to contribute twenty-seven drawings relating to the text, including an illustration of the author’s dedication on the last page.”

Peterkiewicz’s style may have fitted well with Souza’s idiom. What would you make of these illustrations?

In the Hygiene Box, "Book One"

Inside the Box, “Book One”

Rain and September hang from Leeds' arms

Rain and September hang from Leeds’ arms

The Tree on the Rock

The Tree on the Rock

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