Launch of 'take us as we are' Exhibition and
Roundtable: Polyphony and Poiesis
GRID Heritage Network UK Event 2022
Artists, academics and heritage practitioners came together to launch an exciting online exhibition, 'take us as we are', involving Indian and South Asian diasporic artists that were hosted by SOAS South Asia Institute. Based on the exhibition, 'all canaries bear watching', at the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the online exhibition expands its remit to include both India-based and UK-based artists. The title, 'take us as we are', draws inspiration from a line in the poem collection, When Angels Speak of Love, by bell hooks.
Navtej Purewal’s (SOAS) welcome was followed by a talk by Anand Chhabra (Black Country Visual Arts).(15) Online exhibition launch 'take us as we are' and Roundtable: Polyphony and Poiesis 07 April 2022. - YouTube (see 2:50 to 35:46 mins in recording)
Anand Chhabra is a founder, director and the Chair at Black Country Visual Arts and has been involved in the arts as a photographer for over twenty years. At the inaugural note to the launch of 'take us as we are' exhibition, Anand unravels the rich content of the Apna Heritage Archive: Building Mother India placing the family and individual photo collections in the narrative context of marginalisation and intersectionality emerging from within the archive. The case studies under the rubric of the iconic Indian popular film, Mother India, project the irony that often men capture the images in families, yet it is the women who are the gatekeepers to memory. The images speak a thousand words about the early years of migration for Indian wives and mothers.
Rare photos provide an insight into the demographics and relationships of migrants in Wolverhampton. The pride in material possessions within the context of family albums reveal the sapna or dreams of migrants that were also relayed back to Punjab. For women, marriage becomes a major point of contemplation and draws out the comparison of roles in the Indian household, nestled within expectations of egalitarianism. The complementary role of women in a marriage, and topical themes covering workplaces, schools, factories, and city life are juxtaposed with inherent tensions of hidden and indirect discrimination, at a time when the Race Relations Act of 1968 was only just beginning to take effect in UK’s Black Country terrain.
ANAND CHHABRA PRESENTATION
The online gallery tour and talk by Sanjukta Ghosh (SOAS South Asia Institute (SSAI), SOAS University of London, 36:00 to 1:52:16 mins in recording) featured films by George Chakravarthi, Seema Mattu, Tanima Dhar, Rezia Wahid, Bhajan Hunjan, Amarjeet Nandhra and Raisa Kabir. Diasporic echoes during the break came from Mohinder Bhamra, Sonia Panesar, Bishi, Sohaya Visions and Mukul & Ghetto Tigers.
The Roundtable, ‘Polyphony and Poiesis’ (1:52:30 to 3:22:26 mins), chaired by Parul Dave-Mukherji was joined by Premjish Achari (curator and art critic JNU; 1:55 to 2:07:46 ), Chandan Mahal (British Library; 2:07:58 to 2:21:20 mins), Lata Desai (Subrang Arts; 2:21:20 to 2:31:34 mins), Debojyoti Das (SOAS; 2:31:36 to 2:41:50 mins), Bisakha Sarker (Chaturangan; 2:41:51 to 2:49:19 mins), Amina Khayyam (Amina Khayyam Dance Company, AKDC; 2:49:21 to 3:01:10 mins), Janine Shroff (designer and illustrator; 3:01:12 to 3:09:48) and Meenatchi Gopal (Kalaimaiyam UK; 3:09:49 to 3:17:20 mins).
Discussing heritage objects, ancestral places and family history, Chandan Mahal makes use of collections at the Royal Geographical Society (associated with the Institute of British Geographers). Her research explores the relationship between family history, place and diaspora, working collaboratively with people of Punjabi descent living in London. Her talk makes the connection between materiality and memory through the lens of family stories, personal heritage objects and ancestral places. Family archives contribute to physical and digital community-led archives. She presents oral evidence of weaving dhurries in courtyards situated at the centre of the house. The place would come alive with threads, strings and products like bedspreads and throws – all lined up among friendly faces. She also cites examples of mapping the ancestral place of Punjabi soldiers.
Chandan Mahal Presentation
Addressing one project enquiry as to how can we use gender and intersectionality lenses to empower individuals and communities to build upon their heritage sustainably, Lata Desai gives the example of Subrang - an organisation that engages particularly with women in various participatory programmes like music, dance, arts, crafts and heritage. By nurturing their artistic talent through collaborative creative sessions, she explains how activities related to transnational experience have a positive enriching influence, empowering women to build upon their heritage in a manner that also sustains the next generation. This is also captured in their multimedia work on digital platforms that can be accessed by wider audiences. ‘Gujarati Yatra – Journey of a People’ and ‘Roots and Changes - Gujarati Influences’ both explored the migration story of the Gujarati diaspora spanning continental routes - India, East Africa, and England that influence across generations as is evident in the diverse range of embroidery stitches used to sustain household incomes.
Lata Desai Presentation
Referring to the issue of discrimination felt by art practitioners with respect to their identity and heritage, Debojyoti Das delves into the diasporic life of Kamal Chowdhury and his paintings whose career as a naturalist painter developed in Uganda, prior to settling in Britain. His life presents the myriad implications of mobility in changing ethno-racial and regional contexts. Kamal’s journeys straddled Asia, Africa and Europe and established multiple lines of belongingness with fellow artists with whom he shared his ideas in Shantiniketan, Kampala and in London Roehampton borough where he lived for the last part of his life. Heritage objects and practices had varied homes whether they be in India, UK or Africa that were imprinted in his work, memory and life.
Drawing on diverse heritage, Debojyoti then explores another off-the-grid example associated with marginalised people of the remote Sunderbans in the Bengal delta. Khitish Vishal’s paintings depict the pirs of Bengal (syncretic cult) that speaks of Hindu-Muslim unity. Such portrayal by a Dalit artist goes largely unrecognised among middle-class elites. The value of ‘hidden heritage’ is raised to a platform where they can be visible in stark comparison to their international counterparts.
The event was also marked by Reflections and a commemoration of a distinctive artist from India. Parul Dave-Mukherji started with an emotive commemoration of Dukhashyam Chitrakar India DUKHUSHYAM CHITRAKAR | GRIDHERITAGE, the veteran chitrakar (painter) in the Naya village patua (painted scroll makers) community in Bengal, passed away in March 2022 (3:22:30 to 3:32:50 mins). Parul said; ‘On 9th March, 2022, I had to grapple with the sad news of Dukhashyam Chitrakar passing away in his native village. I had known him since my student days. He was one of the dynamic folk artists who moved with the times and his painted scrolls on the 9/11 catastrophe along with other scrolls on contemporary events travelled to different parts of the world. Yet during the pandemic, I got desperate phone calls from him about how difficult it was for him to survive during the lockdown.’
This homage was in the context of transnational reflections critical to the theme of polyphony as multiple voices resonate with both a poetic and political tenor that formed the basis of Raminder Kaur’s wrap-up on GRID Heritage Futures (3:33:00 to 3:49:15 mins). The concluding remarks point to the expanding definition of heritage constituting memory and its evolving significance through tangible and intangible forms in diasporic lives that are built on horizontal connections of ideas and practices. The roundup by Navtej Purewal was followed by Transnational Lalon Lyricism (Sohaya Visions and Mukul & Ghetto Tigers) and an extract of the cross-cultural dance film, ‘Catch the bird who won't fly’ (AKDC) (3:49:30 to 4:01:15 mins).
Premjish Achari is a curator and art critic based in New Delhi. He has started an in-depth curatorial platform called Future Collaborations aiming at theoretically and politically informed curation. He is the co-curator of the Bhubaneswar Art Trail in 2018. He currently heads the programme and the editorial for the exhibition ‘Lokame Tharavadu’ organised by the Kochi Biennale Foundation and teaches art history and theory at Shiv Nadar University. He is the winner of the Art Writers’ Award 2021 issued by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, along with TAKE on Art.
Debojyoti Das is an anthropologist and photographer who has specialised in the borderlands of eastern India and the Indian Ocean world. His published works include the book, The Politics of Swidden Farming: Environment and Development in Eastern India, 2018. His interdisciplinary work bridges ethnographic research with visual media and oral sources. The ‘Environmental Refugees’ project incorporates several photo exhibitions on fishers, forest dwellers and seafarers of the Bay of Bengal littoral areas.
Parul Dave-Mukherji is a professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She is co-editor of 8 other books including InFlux: Contemporary Art in Asia, 2013); Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalizing World, (co-edited with Raminder Kaur, Bloomsbury, 2014); Rethinking Aesthetics in a Comparative Frame IIAS, Shimla 2020. She has edited Ebrahim Alkazi: Directing Art—The Making of a Modern Indian Art World (2016); She has written on the impact of globalization on art theory: ‘Whither Art History in a Globalizing World’ The Art Bulletin 2014; and ‘Art History and Its Discontents in Global Times’ in Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn, eds. Jill H Cassid and Aruna D’Souza, Massachusetts: Clark Art Institute, 2014. Her most recent publication is Twentieth Century Indian Art (co-edited with Partha Mitter and Rakhee Balaram) published by Thames and Hudson.
Lata Desai is Chair of Subrang Arts – a leading South Asian Arts organisation in South London. She is the co-curator and project leader of the 'Roots and Changes – Gujarati Influences’ project. Inspired by the personal story of her family’s journey from India to Africa and Britain, she has been working in partnership with the public and voluntary sector targeting a wide range of high-quality heritage projects – ‘Indian String and Dance Exhibition’, ‘Sitar Festival’, ‘Vivekananda and Ancient Indian Civilisation’ to name a few.
Sanjukta Ghosh is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (UK and Ireland) and the Honorary Artistic Director of SOAS South Asia Institute; convenor of SSAI Sanglaap Art and Culture Series. She has authored ‘Understanding Refugee Experience as Heritage’, Keynote article in Faith Initiative: Embracing Diversity (2018); co-edited Memory, Identity and the Colonial Encounter in India (Routledge: India/London 2017) among other writings. She has produced more than forty archived programs related to cultural representations and media such as the diasporic community arts on Mushaira, and multilingual performance at the SOAS Festival of Ideas (2020). She curated the Cultural Connects Week in SOAS (2017); the wall input for the ERC-funded Brunei Gallery exhibition on road building in South Asia (2020) and is a heritage consultant to the Bikaner Theatre Art and Culture Festival (2021). She served as the coordinator of fourteen South Asian and European international non-governmental organisation interventions against caste-based discrimination.
Raminder Kaur is an interdisciplinary scholar with a specialism in anthropology, cultural studies and international development based at the University of Sussex. She is also a scriptwriter, filmmaker and artistic director. Among her publications, she has written five books and co-edited five others. These include the ASA volume, Arts and Aesthetics in a Globalizing World, edited with Parul Dave-Mukherji. She served on the Mayor's Commission for Asian and African Heritage (MCAAH), co-authored the MCAAH report, Delivering Shared Heritage, and was a member of the subsequent Heritage Diversity Task Force at the Greater London Authority.
Chandan Mahal has worked in museums and archives for over twenty years, managing and developing education and community-led research programmes for diverse audiences. She has a background in interpretation, public programming and audience development. She has worked on many gallery projects and exhibitions that have provided opportunities for the contemporary collecting of oral history and visual culture relating to community histories. She was also a member of the landmark Mayor’s Commission for African and Asian Heritage. She is currently the National Learning and Partnership Manager at the British Library for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.
Navtej Purewal is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a background in Political Science, South Asia area studies and Development Studies based at SOAS, University of London in the Department of Development Studies. She has published a number of books and edited issues including: ‘Coloniality’ edited with J. Ung Loh (2021) in Feminist Review; a co-authored book with V. Kalra (2019) Beyond Religion in India and Pakistan: Gender and Caste, Borders and Boundaries; an edited special journal issue in Third World Thematics also published as an edited book with S. Dingli (2019) Gendering (In)security: Post/Neocolonial Security Logics and Feminist Interventions; and a co-edited special issue with K. Wilson and J. Ung Loh (2018) in Feminist Review, ‘Gender, Violence and the Neoliberal State in India’.