Art News & Views

Book Review

Khoj's Literary Debut

It is not very often that you find an art publication that is not only comprehensive in content but also steers clear of jargon to make for delightful reading. Khoj International Artists' Association has achieved this feat with its first book titled THE KHOJBOOK (1997-2007) published by HarperCollins. While the voluminous publication may look daunting at first, even a cursory glance would suffice to assess the labour of love Pooja Sood, director, Khoj has put in as editor of these lavishly illustrated 680 pages.

Taking a consolidated view of contemporary art practice in India during the dynamic decade of 1997-2007, the book also marks the first ten years of Khoj International Artists' Association. The book includes interviews of 101 leading Indian contemporary artists who have passed through the doors at Khoj over a decade, while five leading essays by eminent art critics and thinkers situate and critique Khoj itself within a wider art historical context.

The essays include: Mapping Khoj: idea | place | network by Pooja Sood, A phenomenology of encounters at Khoj by Geeta Kapur, Coming to terms with restlessness: An essay offered in friendship to Khoj by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Probing the Khojness of Khoj by Nancy Adajania and The unbearable confusion around the idea of institutions by Rahul Srivastava. The interviews of the artists, however, have been placed in accordance with the respective year an artist has worked with Khoj. Some of the prominent names include: Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Manisha Parekh, Jitish Kallat, Riyas Komu, Bose Krishnamachari, Sumedh Rajendran, Tejal Shah, Sheba Chhachhi, Shilpa Gupta, Baiju Parthan, Jagannath Panda, Babu Eshwar Prasad, Ranbir Kaleka, Sudarshan Shetty, Pushpamala N, Navjot Altaf, Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Gigi Scaria, Nikhil Chopra and Ravi Agarwal among others.

A must read that offers the reader, researcher, student, collector and art aficionado a rich store of material 'in the artist's own words' from which to draw their own inspiration and conclusions.

Poonam Goel 

Amrita Sher- Gil, a self portrait in letters & writings, volume 1&2, introduced, annotated & edited by Vivan Sundaram. Tulika Books.

One of the most moving pieces in Amrita Sher-Gill, a collection of Amrita's letters is her funny and frank testament to her mother, whom she addresses as “my darling little Mucika”, “Hence I am again very poor. But I shall try and make it last so that I do not have to beg from the Rozsavolgysis again…..The reason why here is because the stitching charges are so very cheap” Growing up in a multi ethnic pool of Lahore, Budapest, Shimla, educated in Europe, and then graduating a big fish in the artistic world in India (“a puddle” for her though) she remains our greatest woman painter of the twentieth century. Sher-Gil's temporary nature of human happiness fuelled, and was fuelled by relentless travel. Periods of departures, arrivals and living in Hungary, France, Shimla, Lahore, Gorakhpur, Ceylon, Harappa provided a detail of observations for her.

Amrita's nephew Vivan Sundaram, who himself has a formidable presence in our arts has been engaged with the Sher-Gil project for three long decades as a artist, curator, archivist. In these two volumes edited by him, Amrita's extant letters and writings are translated from Hungarian. For her the work of writing letters and painting would always seem necessarily, even joyously, incomplete and an escape. These letters provide a welcome opportunity for new readers as well as Amrita acolytes to join Sundaram in that energetic and enticing search. These letters open up a visual narrative around the Sher-Gil's oeuvre, complemented by a parallel text of notes that not only annotate but also entangle the personal in the web of contemporaneity. In his prologue Sundaram writes, “…just as film on Sher-Gil would select moments from her life and work to construct narratives of visuals, voices and relationships, this book brings together images and texts by and about the artist-subject in chronologically sequenced and parallel narratives. The primary narrative is made up of nearly 260 letters written by Amrita: short and sometimes fragmented pieces of writing, like the photographs in a family album…most of them are personal letters addressed to members of the family, and some to friends and associates in the art world…..A 'secondary' narrative is constituted by visual and textual annotations of the references in Amrita's letters and writings to her own art practice, to other artists and their work, and to political, social and historical events of her time.” The result is a rich tapestry that weaves through photographs, paintings and the text; as an epistolary narrative on the other, complemented by a range of information on people, places and events.

“Modern Art leads me', she wrote to her father Umrao Singh from Paris, “to comprehension and appreciation of Indian painting and sculpture. It seems paradoxical, but I know for certain, that had we not come away to Europe I should perhaps not realized that a fresco (sic!) from Ajanta…A small piece of sculpture at Musee Guimet is worth more to me than the whole Renaissance”. For her this was not an instance of misplaced enthusiasm.

Yet, in an era of choose-your- own-worship, ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies are at the top of books charts and liberal arts lovers struggle to defend the “truth” and 'beauty' that these volumes so perceptively reveal. There are full colour reproductions of 147 paintings by Sher-Gil, including her early sketches and watercolours. Sympathetic but never sycophantic, this archival effort on Amrita Sher-Gil will remain a thorough, sensitive account of an artist and her life.

Nanak Ganguly


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