Art News & Views

The Odysseus Journey into Time in the Form of Art

by Sarmistha Maiti

The year 2012 has in store many unknown chapters to get uncovered as time passes with the biggest premonition that the world might come to an end. Many such things are taking place that might have no relation and relevance with time and space. The year begins with the flavour of monsoon in the extreme of winter. Well, such alternatives and differences that are coming in are not limited to just the weather conditions and its forecast; there are many other incidents taking place all around which usually don't take place in one such hour. Is it just for the sake of a change, or is it leading towards a process of natural evolution that is always initiated through a mechanism of decay and demolition? The question remains open in all spheres of life  natural and/or human-made and in every aspect of any kind of practice including all sectors of trade and commerce. And thus one such small change has been brought in the calendar of the formal pattern of exhibitions organized by the Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata. This year Birla Academy curates a show in its full grandeur bringing out a range of exhibits from its own collection.

Odyssey  a Journey into Time with the Collection is what the exhibition has been titled as, which showcases a complete trail of the development of art from its ancient times to the present in the Indian context and the contemporary manifestation of art in the 20th century across the globe. The collection which comprises of exhibits in four floors/halls of the Birla Academy is just a minuscule presentation of the huge collection it has made over the years. The show has been an endeavour of three deputed curators who have categorized the collection in a tripartite segment to allow the journey into time in an order. The ancient and medieval art of India has been curated by T.K. Biswas, the modern and contemporary art of India has been curated by Nanak Ganguly and the third category is a collection of works conserved from the International Collection of Modern Art by the Birla academy which has been curated by Shaheen Merali.

To begin the journey, let's take a movement inward or in the descending order. The most contemporary highlights of the show was in its international section that meticulously attempted to encompass almost all the forms of art that had come up in Europe and America through different movements developing different 'isms' and genres from within the personal collection of the founders of the Birla Academy, Sarala and Basant Kumar Birla. The collection includes more than fifty print portfolios by European masters, including works by Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin and Gustav Klimt. Some of the highlights in the exhibition include an early bronze sculpture by Louise Bourgeois and an oil painting by Andre Masson which are presented alongside a suite of twelve etchings by Jean Arp among the best. This segment was designed not in a chronological pattern but more as integrity of the formal development of art and hence the exhibition categories were 'The solitude of the collective (Towards a new figuration)', 'the detail (The explicit ornament)' and 'Form and language (Fresh Expression)'.

In the Indian art section, the ancient and the medieval art included paintings, miniatures and sculptures from the collection that simply carried a wow factor to make one spellbound of the richness of Indian heritage and tradition. As the curator, T. K. Biswas stated, "I have tried to include those works which are the rarest of the rare and in the collection of the Birla Academy, like the 'Kantha' that carries the Kalighat-pata style painting stitched all over, which is one, unique and only of its kind.” The display of the miniature paintings had been done in such a pattern gradually sprouted a travelogue of this form of art indicating to each 'gharana' or school from Persian, Mughal, Rajasthani, Pahari miniatures, but this was not all. What made the narrative flow in a smooth way is when the curator brought out the significant facets of these artworks in specific segments which the miniature artists used to do as a whole to emphasize a subject related to their own time and context. “Rasika-priya” (different types of romantic heroines in the medieval period), “Barahmasa” (the twelve months), “Ragamala” (types of ragas or musical notes) were such subjects that the miniature painters profusely dealt with and many of its kind are present in the collection of Birla Academy which had been put on in this show.

In the modern and the contemporary Indian section, there were many things in bits and pieces trying to engulf the journey in entirety yet this section bred a bit monotony where as the scope was enormous in respect of Birla's profuse collection. It began with Raja Ravi Varma, the forerunners of Bengal School, the Tagores, Santiniketan, Amrita Sher Gill (an interaction with the European Modernism), the successors of Bengal School, the Progressive Artists Group and its associates till the contemporary with the pioneers of the society of Contemporary Artists, Calcutta Painters and so on. Everything was there yet certain things were in abundance that could have been avoided quantitatively to boost the range more qualitatively. Covering the walls with Tagores definitely speaks about the propensity of Birla's choice towards Tagorean art but what a couple or a triplet of artworks could have invoked in an exhibition of this kind, all of sudden a huge number of such works created a space of its own catering to an independent or sub-exhibition within the same boundary of the exhibition premises. But there is no doubt about the fact that the Ganesh Pyne, Jogen Chowdhury, Ganesh Haloi, F N Souza artworks with many others was unique and rare of its kind in this collection.  The curator must be applauded to select these works as a part of the show.

Overall, the exhibition has propagated a journey inward into time and the title, Odyssey is quite apt in the present relative dynamics operating the art world. Going back to my introduction where I had mentioned about this year 2012 which might be the great year of destruction, Odyssey could be the Birla Academy's new journey as Odysseus had undertaken after the fall of Troy in the epic. May be the world doesn't remain to view such a grand collection of artworks under the same roof at one go. So don't miss your chance as the show remains open for all till February 12, 2012. But jokes apart, there is a serious undercurrent to be observed behind the onset of such a journey. T.K. Biswas, the Director of Birla Academy of Art & Culture, also one of the curators of this exhibition precisely stated, “The decision of not holding the Birla Annual Exhibition has already generated an amount of anguish in the art circuit. We then planned to go for this journey of 'Odyssey' with whatever we had in our store.” Isn't this a hint towards the soaring situation of the art market with its baggage of setbacks from the recession to decide upon what's waiting ahead and how much risk can be really taken? Odyssey a Journey into Time with the Collection  Birla Academy's exhibition in place of its Annual Exhibition can be considered as an alternative answer or a resultant of this situation.

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