Sanctum Sanctorum by V. Ramesh – A Corner For Four Sisters

Nishad Avari shares an essay by Georgina Maddox on artist V. Ramesh’s new gallery-size installation

Mumbai: V. Ramesh’s latest installation, ‘Sanctum Sanctorum: A Corner For Four Sisters’, takes up an entire gallery. The multi-canvas piece debuted at the India Art Fair in February this year in a single-artist booth, and was later shown at Gallery Threshold in New Delhi. Georgina Maddox, journalist and independent curator, writes about this epic installation, illuminating the influences that shaped the creation of Ramesh’s magnum opus.

Artist V. Ramesh

Artist V. Ramesh photographed in front of one of the Sanctum Sanctorum canvases

Paintings in prose

Artist V Ramesh’s fascination for the poetry of four women Bhakti poets has led him on a visual journey that captures their spirit. Georgina Maddox examines his musings over divinity, mortality and corporality.

Sanctum Sanctorum:  A Corner For Four Sisters, is a visual journey executed through the prism of devotional passion, fervour and intimacy. In his recent body of work artist V Ramesh appropriates the voices of four mystic women poets: Lal Ded from Kashmir, Karaikkal Ammiyar from Tamil Nadu, Akka Mahadevi from Karnataka and Andal who also hails from Tamil Nadu.

These famed Bhakti poets could not be more varied in their approach to verse. However they have been untied by their act of oral or spoken word poetry that is read as passionate dialogues with the supreme one. Scholars have categorised this kind of writing as Bridal Mysticism: a style that engages with God lovingly, teasingly, plaintively and sometimes with an air of severity.

The Vishakapatnam-based Ramesh has been fascinated and enraptured by the poetry of these women poets because of the transgressive nature of their acts—they all left home to wander as poet-saints, spreading their poetry and musings on divinity.

They eschewed earthly ties like marriage in the face of great opposition often at the cost of their lives, and they challenged notions of modesty and surrendered their conventional place in society as ‘respectable women’ since three of them even revoked wearing garments.

In assuming their tone and voice, Ramesh breaks gender binaries and embraces a genderless position from which to enunciate his devotion. In many ways one could say that each painting that Ramesh creates has so much of himself in it, that it could well be seen as a self portrait—especially in this body of work, and though he uses the voices of others it is really about the self that he is speaking. Extending that logic further, one could view the entire exhibition as a self portrait, though the artist’s actual reference to the self portrait is a single canvas.

“For the last ten years I have been interested in impermanence, not just of life itself but also of people. I’m fascinated by that moment of crossover when a personality goes from being ephemeral and human to becoming eternal and mythological,” says Ramesh.

The exhibition was first mounted at the India Art Fair in February 2013, where the suites of seventeen larger-than-life canvases were arranged in an L-shaped room, changing the viewing of the works to an intimate tête-à-tête with the canvases.

Now the exhibition continues at the Threshold Art Gallery, where the works have been mounted over its two floors. The central image as one walks into the gallery is of a large Banyan tree. The gigantic diptych of the tree spreads its roots and branches onto the ground creating a fortress. “I see the banyan tree as a kind of an anchor that will draw all the various canvases together,” muses the artist. The Banyan tree, inspired by a cherry blossom tree captured by an Israeli photographer Ori Gersht is central to the exhibition because it is the holding image that knits together these various strands of the narrative. The image also leads up to the canvases that feature the women poets.

V. Ramesh, Untitled

V. Ramesh, Untitled (diptych), oil on canvas, 84″ x 120″

Flanking the central canvas on either side of the Banyan tree is a canvas with four blooming lotuses afloat on a dark pond of brown, while another emerald green canvas catches crows taking flight. Both these images are indirect tributes to the poets but they’re also a celebration. In most cultures ravens or crows are seen as good omens, godly and even the creator of man. However in the Mahabharata they are considered messengers of death. In Greek mythology the crow is condemned to eternal thirst; Ramesh brings these multiple interpretations to the table in this elegiac work. Further on a sunset yellow canvas captures an emaciated mendicant on a skeletal horse; it may be read a comment on our spiritual bankruptcy as a people.

The women poets engaged with range from the Ash-covered terrifying ‘Rudra Avatar’ of Lord Shiva to the puckish playfulness of Lord Krishna. The women poets have been rendered on the canvas in both figurative and symbolic manners. For the poet Lal Ded he has chosen the motif of a delicate shawl inlayed with the map of Kashmir and laced with red—a symbolic bleeding that straddles time.

Next we are presented with the terrifying image of Karaikkal Ammaiyar over-laid by a supplicating skeleton, a flaming tree and lines from a poem that extols Lord Shiva as the supreme creator. Those familiar with the myth will know that Karaikkal Ammaiyar was known as Lord Shiva’s daemon devotee. She begged for the boon of being seen as emaciated pey (daemon) rather than a conventionally beautiful woman and was freed from the restrictive gaze of men that often imprison its women as beautiful objects guarded like chattel or property.

If the canvas of Ammaiyar glorifies how terrifying devotion can be the canvas dedicated to Akka Mahadevi celebrates the calm and beauty that this poet was known for. Akka appears to float in a sea of blue her face covered in a diaphanous web of tresses, which covered her entire body. A shower of white jasmine flowers stand out in heightened three-dimension in this canvas dedicated to the poet from Karnataka.

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The fourth poet in the narrative is Andal, a 9th century Tamil poetess and saint who is considered to be an incarnation of Bhu Devi. Ramesh embeds an entire narrative into a single icon when he paints a large, luscious garland of jasmine and rose flowers, rendered in a photorealist style, with a strand of black hair stuck to it. This personalised garland is meant for the Lord Vishnu / Krishna and was worn by his devotee Andal.

Ramesh’s interest and knowledge of the hagiographies of the women poets and mythologies associated with them is something he does not serve up to his audience simplistically. Instead he nudges one toward examining and pondering the possible narrative behind the images presented.

Ramesh’s celebration of the women poets also exposes the fact that our knowledge of them, as opposed to popular male Bhakti poets like Kabir and Faiz, is very limited. This is because even within the paradigm of a poetry form as subversive as Bhakti, the lens of gender is selective in highlighting the works of male poets. It is not surprising that they occupy the domain of the popular and that it has taken considerable scholarship and research to revive the forgotten histories of women poets. The exhibition at Threshold empowers those who have been silenced over time and through erasure.

V. Ramesh, Karaikalamma

V. Ramesh, Karaikalamma, oil on canvas, 96″ x 66″

Georgina Maddox is an independent critic curator interested in art practices that examine issues of gender, sexuality and marginalization. Her writings have appeared in several magazines like Take on Art, Art India, Biblio, Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Man’s World and newspapers like Indian Express and the Times of India. Her essays are published in Articulating Resistance edited by Shivaji Panikkar and Deeptha Achar and published by Tulika Books and the Phobic and Erotic edited by Brinda Bose and published by Seagull Books.

India Art Fair 2013: A Great Success

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart reflects on an interesting article on the India Art Fair by Girish Shahane

India Art Fair

India Art Fair. Image Credit:

London: For people who like me sadly could not make it to the India Art Fair 2013, Girish Shahane, Mumbai based art critic and curator, wrote an interesting blog post about the exhibit.

Comparing this edition to last year’s, the author notes that the fair was much clearer on its purposes and better organized. Some international galleries such as Houser and Wirth, Lisson and White Cube preferred not to join the fair again, partly because of the stringent Indian regulations and partly because they found the market underdeveloped. However, this withdrawal was not necessarily a negative move since it opened up space for other galleries such as Daniel Besseiche who was showing Bangladeshi artist Ahmed Shahabuddin and was appreciated by the Indian art lovers.

Shahane pointed out that this year the fair was more accessible to everyone. The subject matter of the exhibited works was more easily recognizable and the colours and visible skills of the artists took over from last year’s conceptual works which were appreciated only by a few. In addition, the occurrence of many galleries in one place was a great time saver for the people looking to purchase artwork but who didn’t want to spend the entire day roaming around Delhi or Mumbai.

Although this year the art fair was made for a wider audience, many events and parallel exhibitions were organized around Delhi for the art experts. A Nasreen Mohamedi Retrospective was held at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art and other exhibitions at the British Council, IGNCA, National Gallery of Modern Art, Khoj Artist’s Workshop and the Devi Art Foundation.

The only drawback was that the last of the three pavilions at the fair was not as good as as the others, but still managed to attract many lesser-known art dealers.

All in all, the fair has been a great success for the galleries, viewers and the organizers, perhaps a sign that the economy is slowly raising up again.

Click here to read the full Girish Shahane’s blog post.

Must-Attends: Beyond the India Art Fair

Manjari Sihare shares details of some must-attend exhibitions and symposia in New Delhi coinciding with the India Art Fair 

New Delhi: If you are in India right now, Delhi is the place to be. The art world is gearing up for the country’s biggest annual art extravaganza, the India Art Fair starting on Friday, February 1 (with a preview the day before). Each year since its inception in 2008, the fair has grown larger. The 5th edition is bringing together 105 exhibiting galleries from 24 countries, presenting over 1000 works by some of the most exciting artists from across the world. But the action is not just limited to just the Fair. Outside of the Fair, there are some collateral exhibitions and events that I believe are MUST ATTENDS. Here is my list:

KNMA Noida EInviteA private museum for modern and contemporary Indian art, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) is known to line up an ambitious program each year to mark its birthday (three years ago in January 2010, KNMA opened its first location in the HCL campus in Noida, on the outskirts of Delhi). The museum lives up to its reputation once again this year by unveiling an ambitious series of events. The first in line to open on January 18th was Zones of Contact an exhibition curated by three young and dynamic curators, Deeksha Nath, Vidya Shivadas and Akansha Rastogi. The curatorial note for the show notes that it is an attempt “to envision the museum as a site and an idea in flux, as a catalyst that by undergoing redefinition allows for concretized notions and experiences of modernity and post-modernity to be revisited and rethought.” In a country where there is really no state owned museum of contemporary art, an exhibition such as this one speaks volumes of the mission this private museum has set for itself to showcase and re-define contemporary art in the region.

On view from today is Difficult Loves , a trilogy of exhibitions curated by the Director and Chief Curator of KNMA, Roobina Karode. This includes the largest retrospective ever of the late Nasreen Mohamedi, an artist whose minimal works leave an unforgettable impression on the viewer, a tribute to India’s Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil, and a group exhibition featuring iconic installation works of seven leading contemporary  women artists – Ranjani Shettar, Anita Dube, Sheba Chhachhi, Bharti Kher, Dayanita Singh, Sheela Gowda and Sonia Khurana. My personal favorite is Sheba Chhachhi’s Water Diviner, a version of which I first saw at the National Museum of Natural History in 48’c public. art.ecology curated by Pooja Sood and organized by the South Asian Network of Goethe Institutes in 2008. This series of shows promises to be spectacular. Not to miss at all!

KNMA exhibition

Tomorrow, the museum will be hosting two talks under the Critical Collective Symposia conceptualized and organized by veteran Delhi based critic and curator, Gayatri Sinha. The first of these is panel discussion between renowned South African contemporary artist, William Kentridge and Indian veterans, Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani. The second one is a talk by UK based art historian, TJ Demos, who is best known for his published work on the conjunction of art and politics.

KNMA talkThe India Art Fair always ends with the opening of an exhibition at the Devi Art Foundation. This time, it will the third and last edition of the Sarai Reader, an exhibition conceptualized by the Devi Art Foundation and Raqs Media Collective. Sarai Reader 9 is a nine month long project envisaged to draw on ‘exhibition’ as an evolving process, introducing new forms of creative thinking and methodologies. Invitations were open to anyone and everyone with an interesting idea and an engaging means of presentation, limited to a fixed duration and applicable within a space. The first  episode opened for viewing on 13 October, 2012, followed by another on 15 December last year. Read more about these episodes. This current episode will be on view until April 16, 2013. For more information, click here.

Devi Art Foundation - Sarai Reader

All the activity is not limited to Delhi only. Mumbai will see the opening of the first ever exhibition of William Kentridge’s work in India hosted by Volte Gallery. Of South African descent, Kentridge has exhibited worldwide in major venues such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York. His works mostly deal with subjects of apartheid and colonialism. This show featuring Kentridge’s eight multichannel projection installation, sculptures, drawings, tapestries, videos and prints, promises to be a blockbuster. The exhibition will be on view from February 6 to March 20, 2013.

William Kentrdige @ Volte Gallery
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