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.

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

The 2012 Skoda Art Prize

Anika Havaldar of Saffronart shares a note about the 2012 Skoda Art Prize for Contemporary Indian Artists.  

Mumbai: The Skoda Art Prize offers mid-career Indian artists up to the age of 45, who have held a solo exhibition in the country over the past year, an opportunity to showcase their work in India and abroad. Created three years ago and modeled on the Turner Prize (the UK award that helped launch the careers of Damien Hirst, Richard Deacon, and Anish Kapoor amongst others), the award aims to help contemporary Indian artists gain recognition in the art world.

The Skoda Art Prize 2012 winner will be announced in February 2013 and will be awarded Rupees 1 million. Past winners include Navin Thomas and Mithu Sen. The 2012 winner will be chosen by an esteemed three-person jury, chaired by critic-historian Geeta Kapur. The other two members of this year’s jury will be artist Sheela Gowda and co-founder of the non-profit Devi Art Foundation, Anupam Poddar.

The Jury for the 2012 Skoda Art Prize: Sheela Gowda (left), Geeta Kapur (center), and Anupam Poddar (right)

Two runners-up will earn month-long residencies in Switzerland, while the top twenty artists will have their works exhibited during the Indian Art Fair in New Delhi in 2013. The organizers will also recognize a ‘Breakthrough Artist’ in a separate award, comprising a Rupees 2 lakh cash prize, presented by Art India magazine.

Learn more about the Skoda Art Prize

Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern

Sabah Mathur of Saffronart visits the Damien Hirst retrospective at Tate Modern, London

Damien Hirst poses in front of his work I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds

London: Damien Hirst is quickly becoming an international phenomenon. After a brief taste of his work at the India Art Fair earlier this year, the large-scale retrospective of his work at the Tate presented an interesting opportunity for a more meaningful engagement with his artistic career. The show is a survey of the work of one of Britain’s richest and most prominent artists, who emerged on the art scene as part of the YBA movement of the 1990s. As I wandered through this ambitious exhibition of an artist who has continually been in the media spotlight over the last 20 years, I realised why Hirst’s work has always been described as controversial. While it evokes feelings of delight for some, it provokes, disturbs and disgusts others. Critics have been quick to label his work ‘con art’, but his popularity can be measured by the queues of people in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, waiting to see the exhibition.

The show comprises works spanning Hirst’s career, including photography, painting, sculpture and installation. Spread over fourteen rooms, it charts the artist’s work from his undergraduate days through to the Sotheby’s auction of 2008, where 244 new works by Hirst were presented directly by the artist for auction. The first room, containing his early work, is colourful and fun. Hirstian themes that recur throughout the exhibition are introduced: namely, death and mortality, spots, interesting titles, and, via the block sculpture Boxes, the compartmentalising of things. The rooms following this one are filled with Hirst’s archetypal works from the animals preserved in formaldehyde and the Natural History series to the giant spin paintings, the medicine cabinets and his famous spot paintings. Hirst’s tendency to obsessively repeat himself becomes quite obvious and there did not seem to be much point in including so many spot paintings and medicine cabinets in the exhibition.

The theme of life and death underpins the majority of the works included in the show. Hirst’s works are explicitly concerned with the fundamental dilemmas of human existence. Crematorium, a disproportionately large ashtray filled with cigarette butts and ash, can be seen as a reminder of the inevitability of death. What appears to be a lifetime’s accumulation of the remains of smoking can also be seen to double as the cremated remains of the human body.


Two other fantastic representations of the life cycle can be seen in A Thousand Years and In and Out of Love. The former is an installation of a glass vitrine in which maggots hatch and develop into flies, which then feed on a severed cow’s head. Many of the flies meet their end on an insect-o-cutor while others survive to continue the cycle. Hirst takes the principle of bringing real objects into the gallery a step further in this work, creating a literal enactment of birth, death and decay. He does it again in the second installation where the themes of life and death as well as beauty and horror are highlighted. In and Out of Love is a recreation from Hirst’s first solo exhibition in 1991 where in one room, with a specifically maintained humid environment, white canvases were embedded with pupae. Butterflies hatched from these and flitted around the room, feeding on sugar water and flowers, mating and laying eggs. In a second room Hirst showed eight brightly coloured canvases with dead butterflies on their surface and also placed tables in the room with ashtrays full of cigarettes on them. As Hirst has said, in this work the building became the vitrine. For some, this confinement of butterflies to one room is a melancholy prospect, while for others it is fascinating to see so many butterflies flutter around and sometimes even sit on them! Some of the butterflies certainly alighted on my shoulder, only to be promptly flicked off by the security guards.

A Thousand Years, 1990
Image credit:

In and Out of Love (White Paintings and Live Butterflies), 1991
Image credit-’s+butterfly+takes+a+shine+to+Serota/26282

Dead butterflies reappear as a symbol of beauty and the inherent fragility of life in works such as Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven where they are arranged into complex patterns reminiscent of medieval stained glass church windows. Interestingly, in I Am Become Death, Shatterer of Worlds kaleidoscopic mandala-like forms recall Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The title is taken from the Bhagavad Gita.

Doorways to the Kingdom of Heaven, 2007
Image credit:

Dead animals are used in many of Hirst’s works. Vitrines are used as devices to impose control on the fragile subject-matter contained within them. The carcasses of animals are preserved as in life, but at the same time are emphatically dead. Hirst also explores the theme of life and death through one of his most famous works For the Love of God. With this skull that is set with 8,601 diamonds, Hirst is trying to celebrate life by saying ‘to hell with death’ and has been quoted saying, “…what better way of saying that than by taking the ultimate symbol of death and covering it in the ultimate symbol of luxury, desire and decadence.”

While walking through the exhibition it very quickly became evident that this was very expensive art. A lot of money must have been paid to set the diamonds in For the Love of God, and to make the vitrine for A Thousand Years. Expense is built into these works and is part of their aesthetic. One of the last rooms stands testament to Hirst’s financial success with its glittering disco-like appearance. The works in this room, featured in the 2008 auction, are studded with gold and diamonds. However, the themes remain the same although now in a more opulent form.

Whether you consider Hirst’s work macabre or whether you are excited by it, there is no denying that it leaves a lasting impact. While some of his works may be getting repetitive, many of them remain engaging. His use of dualities is summed up by the exhibit in the final room. In The Incomplete Truth a dove is suspended in formaldehyde as if in mid flight. The dove represents hope, peace, and the Holy Spirit. Yet the title of the work remains equivocal.

Read more about this exhibition.

Take a video tour of the exhibition

The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991
Collection: Tate London
Image credit: =CKu45tHS17ACFU4lfAodBEpV0g

Dinesh Vazirani on a Panel about Contemporary South Asian Art

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart reports about the talk, “New Directions in Contemporary South Asian Art”

From left: Jeffrey Boloten, Erik Wigertz, Dinesh Vazirani, Arianne Levene and Idris Khan

London: On June 6, 2012, the Arts Club in London hosted a panel discussion on contemporary South Asian art featuring Idris Khan, a contemporary British artist with South Asian roots, whose body of work explores concepts such as authorship and time; Arianne Levene, an art advisor for contemporary South Asian, Middle Eastern and Chinese art, and founder of New Art World Ltd.; Dinesh Vazirani, the co-founder of Saffronart; Erik Wigertz,  a well known Swedish collector based in Russia with an interest in South Asian art; and Jeffrey Boloten, the moderator of the panel and co-founder and managing director of ArtInsight.

The aim of the discussion was to examine the new directions that South Asian art is taking through the different perspectives and experiences of the guests on the panel.

In the initial part of the talk Dinesh Vazirani examined the reasons that prompted him and Minal Vazirani (co-founder Saffronart and his wife) to found Saffronart in 2000.  On moving back to India in the mid 1990s, Dinesh and Minal felt there was no access, transparency nor benchmarks, especially in terms of pricing, in the Indian art market and decided to establish Saffronart to fill these gaps.

Talking about the trends relating to infrastructure in the Indian art world, Dinesh argued that after an initial lack of infrastructure and support, things were slowly changing. In fact, private institutions like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art which opened last year and the Devi Art Foundation, both located in Delhi, host regular exhibitions of modern and contemporary South Asian art and compensate for the lack of quality public institutions in the country. Arianne added that new museums and galleries, such as the one founded by Rajshree Pathy , are emerging in smaller cities like Coimbatore, spreading awareness about the arts beyond the metropolises.

The India Art Fair was another hot topic at the Arts Club, but the panel unanimously agreed that the fair had a great impact on the Indian art market, bringing together international collectors and galleries in one place, and that it also gave the opportunity to Indian collectors to meet foreign galleries and artists.

Also discussed was the fact that over the last few years, there has been a definite development and growth of an international market for Indian art. Many Indian galleries have opened branches in Europe or America, well known auction houses included Indian art in their Contemporary and Post-war art sales, and Indian artists featured in important international art fairs such as Frieze and Art Basel. Moreover, Erik Wigertz just hosted an exhibition of his collection in his native Sweden, which received rave reviews and great interest. However, a lot of the ground work for this growth was established by galleries and auction houses like Saffronart, which managed to reach non-resident Indians in various countries earlier, and helped the market for Indian art spread to all parts of the globe. Recently, however, the large established group of collectors, both individual and institutions, based in India has grown in importance and is dominating the market.

At the end of the discussion the panel was asked to make a prediction about future trends in the South Asian art world. Dinesh felt there will be a return to tradition and Indian heritage, so probably antiquities will be the next market to look at, while Arianne and Erik thought Indonesian art will be the next trend, and Idris jokingly added that he would be the most sought after artist in the coming years. So Dinesh as a joke suggested we should all buy Idris’s works before his prices reaches this peak. I guess we will have to wait to see who is right!

A very interesting Q&A session concluded the talk. One of the last questions was directed at  Erik, who was asked whether the recession and the falling prices of contemporary art ever dissuaded him from buying art. The collector promptly answered that he believes art should be bought following our personal passion and not market trends.

Audience at The Arts Club

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