Myth, History, Identity and 'A Tale of Two Cities'

The exhibition is a culmination of a two-year long project in which six artists from India and five from Sri Lanka traveled together to Varanasi in India and Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka.

A Tale of Two Cities, an exhibition that opened on March 8 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in New Delhi, is not just a showcasing of the works of a group of artists. It is an exploration of myth, history and identity that functions at many levels, that takes from the past, is rooted in the present and gestures towards the future.

The exhibition is a culmination of a two-year long project in which six artists from India and five from Sri Lanka traveled together to Varanasi, India, and Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The artists visited sites during the day and in the evening, shared research and process, which then informed their individual creations. Varanasi and Anuradhapura were chosen, according to Ruhanie Perera, the exhibition’s curatorial advisor, for being cities of ritual and pulsating urban trends, sites of heritage, myth, history and memory but also living cities. A Tale of Two Cities therefore seeks to “ask what informs the artistic approach to the city; these cities in particular”. The artist becomes “provocateur”. The final exhibition becomes a dialogue between multiple perspectives, methodologies and narratives, at the levels of individual, communal and official.

Pradeep Chandrasiri 'Return to the Sensory'

Pradeep Chandrasiri ‘Return to the Sensory’

On first consideration the open-endedness of such a project – the slightly clichéd linking together of two places with quite different histories and contemporary contexts without clearer questions and frameworks – may seem problematic.

But visiting the exhibition makes it clear that sometimes such open-endedness can be desirable. Bring together a group of artists with varied styles and backgrounds, give them a ‘theme’ and the most unexpected, interesting and important connections can be found.

The exhibition is arranged across several small halls, creating an area both spacious and intimate that reflects the project’s simultaneously collaborative and individual nature.

Pala Pothupitiye 'Venerated, Ruined' detail

Pala Pothupitiye ‘Venerated, Ruined’ detail

Sri Lanka-based Jagath Weerasinghe’s striking acrylic paintings on canvas, entitled Teertha Yatra, open the exhibition and lead towards Pradeep Chandrasiri’s Return to the Sensory, created with gold acrylic, ash and turmeric on canvas. Columbo-based Chandrasiri is one of the founders and directors of the Teertha International Artists’ Collective, which envisioned and organised A Tale of Two Cities in collaboration with Gallery Espace, New Delhi, and Serendipity Arts Trust, over several years. Alongside Chandrasiri’s work in the central hall hang a row of fans by Paula Sengupta (India), a work entitled The Plain of Aspiration, made of wood, grass matting, and appliqued and embroidered silk.

Entering the farthest hall, an enormous white disc broken in two halves startles one for its simultaneous solidity and way in which it seems to lift off the floor. This fiberglass and resin sculpture, created by Sri Lanka-based Bandu Manamperi and entitled Moonstone – 1, replicates the symbols that constitute popular iconography. But through its own unconventional materiality and broken frame, the work investigates the systems of meaning generated around that symbolism in spiritual spaces and through which the pilgrim becomes a consumer of image culture. 

Bandu Manamperi 'Moonstone - 1'

Bandu Manamperi ‘Moonstone – 1’

Behind Manamperi’s work hangs a series of seven luminous six-foot tall tapestries, translucent and printed in shades of beige and saffron. Painter, sculptor and installation artist Anoli Perera, Sri Lankan-born and now Delhi-based, created these as an exploration of how the private and the institutional interact in religious spaces. Entitled Geographies of Deliverance, the tapestries feature images of visitors to the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, including the artist’s mother and a bhikhuni or female monk. One of the tapestries is covered in small, colourful scraps of cloth, the kind that people use to tie their blessings and vows in the Bodhi compound.

Anoli Perera 'Geographies of Deliverance'

Anoli Perera ‘Geographies of Deliverance’

Perera explains, “People create intimate spaces out of institutionalised religious spaces. Institutionalised religious entities sustain those intimate spaces. People don’t want to deal with ‘exterior’ things, which is what the institutions deal with. Without each other these two cannot exist.”

The delicacy of the tapestries and their layered, tangible materiality effectively capture the complexity of the religious space and experience that is both personal and impersonal.

Paula Sengupta 'The Plain of Aspiration'

Paula Sengupta ‘The Plain of Aspiration’

Perera’s previous work deals mostly with memory, so this project was a step into the unknown. She reflects, “For the first time I was able to observe these spiritual places as an observer. This was something I never got to do growing up, going to these places as a pilgrim, a participant. This time I got to see the politics and different perspectives of how people, including us the artists, relate to religion.”

Delhi-based photographer Ram Rahman’s poster series, titled The Man, the Word, the Tree, the Lotus, covers the walls of the next large hall. On first impression it presents a sharp contrast from Perera’s delicate and very material installations, in both style and concern. Fusing digital image and text, the posters are flat and framed, and tell a sweeping narrative of Buddhist history and contemporary politics, covering thousands of years. But at the same time, they are somewhat installation-like themselves in the way that they emerge from print into physical space, incorporating entire walls and the whole hall into their project. And a closer look at each poster reveals the finer threads that make up the metanarrative.

Ram Rahman 'The Man, the Word, the Tree, the Lotus'.

Ram Rahman ‘The Man, the Word, the Tree, the Lotus’.

Rahman says, “I am interested in context and history, so that is why I used found text – newspaper cuttings, excerpts from the Buddhist texts and Ashokan edicts – alongside images. The photograph alone doesn’t give you the context.” As for Perera, so for Rahman, this project meant a new way of looking at the world and himself. “I was in a real dilemma with this project because I’m not a believer,” he says, “It was a struggle for me to figure out the context and my own interest in it. This is what emerged.”

The narrative begins with the story of the Buddha arriving at the deer park in Sarnath to preach his first sermon to the initially skeptical five monks – Rahman brings this story into modern times through a recently-taken photograph of five monks at Sarnath, praying in front of the Dhamekha Stupa at Sarnath. He then shows us close-ups of an Ashokan edict, inscribed in Buddhist Brahmi script, and the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura.

As you turn the wall, the posters move on to contemporary politics, prompting us to ask how the symbols of the tree and the lotus have evolved since those earlier times. We are shown video grabs of the LTTE attack on the Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, which, in Rahman’s words, “transformed the site from one of peace to one of sectarian conflict”. We then see a collage that juxtaposes Modi’s controversial 2014 selfie outside a polling booth in Ahmedabad with an image of the Buddha’s intricate, lotus-covered feet inside the Dambulla cave temple in Sri Lanka. The legend is that with every step the young Buddha took, a lotus bloomed.

Ram Rahman 'The Man, the Word, the Tree, the Lotus' detail of monk

Ram Rahman ‘The Man, the Word, the Tree, the Lotus’ detail of monk

Rahman next brings Ambedkar “into the equation of modern Buddhism”, with an image of Rohit Vemula outside his hostel at the University of Hyderabad shortly after being evicted, holding a large painting of Ambedkar among his other possessions, and another of his mother and brother after Rohit committed suicide and they converted to Buddhism. “You know, I didn’t know that it was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who finally inspired Ambedkar to adopt Buddhism as a form of political resistance to the state of Dalits in Hinduism,” Rahman says, “So you see, these strange connections started emerging as I searched.”

He explains his narrative, from the Buddha’s sermon to Rohit Vemula’s suicide: “It’s a cycle that starts out with the word of the Buddha, which was essentially a moral philosophy of peace and a way of living, and goes on to explore how that philosophy has evolved in modern times and given rise to political violence. I came to this cycle through the collection of images and researching contexts in both places.”

And what has he taken away from this project of collecting and putting together? “The sad fact of how on the one hand, modern politics has infiltrated belief systems – all over the world,” he answers, “and on the other, the faith that ordinary people continue to have in the philosophies they follow. How easy it is to twist those philosophies into violence and difference, which none of them are really about.”

Rahman’s final image is perhaps his most memorable – a young monk has just emerged out of a cave in Vesagiri, Sri Lanka, and stands unposed against the rock. “There was a magic about him, a sense of peace, in his relaxed hands,” Rahman says. “He symbolises what Buddhism really was, or should be.”

The exhibition takes us past the exquisite wood, handmade paper and silk creations of Manisha Parekh (India) and Pala Pothupitiye’s intricate acrylic, ink and pencil works on paper (Sri Lanka). A video installation by Chintan Upadhyay (India), called Silence, plays in the hall with Parekh’s works.

Manjunath Kamath 'Restored Poems'

Manjunath Kamath ‘Restored Poems’

Manjunath Kamath’s terracotta, iron and cement sculptures also engage with ideas of how myth, legend and symbol evolve. Deliberately half-finished and rendered as antiques, Kamath gives the viewer clues and tries to get them to build their own stories. He thinks of his work as similar to history itself, both “a kind of excavation”, “half-truth and half-fiction”. His works, aptly titled Restored Poems, emerged over the past four or five years and a lifetime of collecting images, symbols, and artifacts for use in his studio.

He is interested in fusing Sri Lankan and Indian iconography, in challenging neat narratives of the Buddha and “reconstructing history”. In the sculpture that stands in the centre of the hall, surrounded by other works mounted on the walls, two Buddha busts face each other, their faces completely fused. One of them is rendered as an Indian Buddha and the other a Sri Lankan Buddha. Kamath explains that the Buddha is originally from India, but he changes as you travel, looking entirely different in, say, Japan or Thailand. The Buddha thus becomes an idea, severed from his real personality and history. “All religions talk about finding yourself, like looking into a mirror. In this piece, the Buddha – an Indian Buddha and a Sri Lankan Buddha – looks within, looks for himself.”

Traveling between Anuradhapura and Varanasi, Kamath traced influences and meanings, observing the similarities and differences in stories, images, and practices, through history and the present day.

Photographer and installation artist Riyas Komu emphasises that he is “wary of myths or history, because those are easily manipulated”.

Rather than engage with “histories that are immediately available”, Komu prefers to talk about the “relevance of the Buddha today as a confused figure”. One of his pieces, a stone bust, depicts the Buddha not in his iconic form as the enlightened preacher but as Gautama the young prince. “I want to play with the idea of retrieved forms and symbols,” Komu explains.

Another one of his pieces is a stone sculpture of the Ashokan lion capital. Komu asks, “What was the dream when we adopted Buddhist symbolism into our nationalist narrative? Nehru’s idea was to represent plurality and diversity in one symbol. But in today’s time that symbol and that idea is fragmented.” Komu’s lion capital is broken and fissured and sits in a precariously tilted glass case – not the symbol of strength to which we have grown accustomed, but unfamiliarly vulnerable.

Pala Pothupitiye 'Venerated, Ruined'

Pala Pothupitiye ‘Venerated, Ruined’

A series of photographs of contemporary Sri Lanka frame the lion capital, the bust of Gautama and other sculptures. These, the artist explains, try to capture the despair, fear and tension that prevail in Sri Lankan society today, for “Sri Lanka is a militarised system.”

It is these particular readings of contemporary Sri Lanka and India that the artist says he is seeking to bring to the forefront. His work attempts to, in his words, derive a dialogue between the different political ideologies and systems of propaganda in Sri Lanka and India.

Even while his work deals so much with the conflicted and fractured, or perhaps because of it, Komu says that A Tale of Two Cities was a “very reassuring” project for him. “We live in a subcontinent characterised by conflict and this project was about mending relationships.”

Komu’s words ring very true for A Tale of Two Cities as a whole – what the project ended up achieving through the geographic and philosophic journeys of the artists – and also for the potential of such a project, why such work is vital. He says:

“This is what we should be doing with our neighbouring countries – building dialogues and friendships. The important thing about our two countries is that we have so much that we share – history, myth, conflict, water. It is very interesting and valuable to work within that tension towards trying to come together.”

Well said.

Nandini Majumdar is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and Varanasi. She also works on projects in education and the arts with NIRMAN, a non-profit organisation (www.nirman.info). She is the author of Banaras: Walks Through India’s Sacred City (Roli Books, 2014) and five children’s books, including Satya’s Boat (Tulika, 2014).