It is said that it is difficult to feel the silence of the past, through the bustle of the present. When 12 artists from India descend onto the cosmological conceptions of Angkor Wat, you know that the resulting exercise will be an interleaving of aesthetics melded into the scholarship of the understanding of the myths that have dwelt in their own recesses and their ambience of Hindu mythology with its multiple avatars. As renowned architect Louis Kahn once said, nobody requested or needed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony before he wrote it. However, after he wrote his masterpiece, people could not imagine a world without it. So is it with Angkor. After it seared the visual memory banks, of these 12 artists, they could not imagine a world without it. Angkor is one of the great man-made places on the Earth. The site still contains a life of shaven-headed monks, saffron-robed, staring at strangers with sheepish sideways glances and posing for the camera.
Angkor is a city with an architecture of water, walls, stairs, and temples of a scale and quality unique in the world. Angkor was the blend of the thrill of extraordinary romanticism for the artists from India who are able to understand the incomprehensible labyrinths amidst the eerie past that remains in tumbled stones crushed by the embrace of twisted roots and damp green vines and mosses. Atmospherics played an important role in the scene that was captured, in the moment of the sight of the temple. For Jayshree Chakravarty it was the predawn, the reflections of thousands of stars glittering in the moat surrounding the temple – a black, silent silhouette against the night sky, a humbling reminder of the greatness and also of the smallness of man that became the most powerful memory. In her works she syncopates the foliage, the hidden tresses of the roots that intertwine through the mélange of the fungus filled crevices in the temples to bring two works that echo the mosaic of civilizations. Timeless yet timeworn, grand but intimate, oblivious to the passing centuries even as the jungle devours its huge stone walls, for Jayshree, Angkor Wat and the scores of temples that surround it hint at eternity, only to remind us that nothing is eternal.
With Jogen Chowdhury it was that first heart-stopping impression of the temples, an overpowering silence filled with the whoops and caws and cries of the surrounding jungle that, may soon itself disappear. For him it was the contours of the Apsara which he created as a floating entity, with the temple contours just resting below as if in identification of the great sovereign powers that were. It seems as if Bayon remained in Jogen’s recesses, like most other temples of Angkor, the Bayon has long since been shorn of its jungle canopy. But as the first pale light of morning touched it, and the sharp shadows of the moonlight faded, for him those strange and mysterious smiles emerged from the darkness, one after another, as the birds and the monkeys and the frogs wildly greeted the sunrise. ‘You could actually leave Angkor Wat feeling almost emptied of wonder, especially after seeing the ruins of the temple of Ta Prohm, left largely unrestored, occupied by surrounding jungle, as they must have appeared to the awestruck 16th-century Portuguese missionaries and traders who came across the site 150 years after it was abandoned.’ said Jogen about his visit.
In search of lost time, is what you think of when you see Amit Ambalal’s brilliant evocation of Nagas and Massage on Parlour. In more ways than one it seems as if Amit recapitulates what’s been a major theme in Proust’s novels: people arouse the most passion when they are not possessed, places the most passion when they are not visited. We live in the very small space between a future we anticipate and a past we try to recapture. Amit however goes a step further by distilling his essence of portraiture with an infusion of humour in the way he plays with the images that move beyond mere symbolism. Then there is his second work that looks at the historic legacy with a hint of surreal diffusion.
‘Until you walk it, you cannot imagine how big it is, how tired you get just from crossing the huge moat to the entrance; until you climb the central tower, you can’t imagine how far above the earth you are, how the world seems to lie before you vast, green, unformed, and how protected you feel being at the center of the brilliantly orchestrated stone walls, towers and water basins,’ said Vasundhara Tewari Broota But professional imaginer or not, when you are at the destination you’ve dreamed of all your life, you’re liable to be distracted by material reality in the form of T-shirt vendors and other tourists as you strive to be moved. For Vassundhara the creative imagination works best in solitude and silence and not on demand. Her works have this lithe and tonal quality of distilling the embers of time and the cycle of the man made crevices that actually changes in the ravages of time. Her lightness of endeavour is what strikes you as being somewhat like the silken streams of vintage subjectivity.
‘I went to Angkor Wat in the afternoon when it was empty, because the light is better in the afternoon. says Rameshwar Broota the creator of the form from an absolutely blank abyss, ‘ The temples I enjoyed the most were Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, where the restorers have made the decision to leave some of the jungle as it has been for hundreds of years and most of the ruins in ruins’ Rameshwar carried his camera with him. For Rameshwar it is the camera that proves the stimulus long after he has. Left a place. Sometimes I framed my pictures so the places I photographed looked deserted. Then I zoomed in human expression for me that is the most vital study. Rameshwar’s study of the human profile and the ends of steel like forms that actually speak of the Hours of concentration in the creative surge in which Rameshwar this time plays within the paradoxes that arise he gives us the contradictions on the human and geometric studies in the two distinct works speak of life’s givings.
Then there is the Professor who combines scholarship with aesthetics Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh. His works straddle the best of vintage with the elements of modern day technology, you almost feel as if Ghulam has made the sojourn so much in the footsteps of Henri Mouhut who came upon the ruins in 1861, trying to contemplate cosmology and civilization, or would inevitably be sitting in front of Jayavarman VII. “Visiting Angkor was a dream realized after years of patient yearning. The impression acquired through photographs, of it being real and ethereal, turned out to be incredibly true. The majesty of its structures and evocative power of its sculptures cast an immediate yet lasting spell. The monumental presence of gods and demons in the sculptures of Samudramanthan both in relief and round, especially of the free standing figures encircling the fortress of Angkor Vat, remains memorable. The myth conjured by seafaring hordes of ancient times aroused an aura of splendour and terror that extends to our times. The incredibly beautiful jewel like Angkor which the quest for ambrosia seems to have produced has got deeply etched with terrible memories of recent genocides.’ says Ghulam Mohammed. His works of course speak of the dichotomy of the entire construct of historical and political upheaval. Ghulam’s penchant for the miniature paradigms in creation make his works have a jewel like quality for the manner in which they speak of equivocal tones.
Nilima Sheikh’s works have the dulcet quality of the dawn that brings on the quietude amidst the tales that unravel in a sojourn that spans centuries. It is perhaps her experience of handling the colour tonalities with the narrative stream of consciousness that makes her works have echoes of nostalgia and the terrain of texture within syncopation of the synergy that she stimulates in a serene mode. Traveling to neighboring countries, rich and laden with complexities of their histories and cultural wealth invariably calls for a change of lens, from the one to which I am habituated.’, says Nilima. ‘The myopic ‘greater India’ vanity acquired from text books in the early sixties is corrected on every trip south-eastward. I returned from Cambodia, not simply entranced by the beautiful land and its people and heritage, but also a little freer of the definitive clutches that streamline my understanding of the multiplication of cultural accretions: better able perhaps to appreciate difference along with commonalities and to look, for instance, through a kaleidoscope – at the stories of Ravana, Sita and Rama’. Considering the experience that Nilima has in creating her series of the Jataka Tales in the past, the understanding of the oriental philosophy seems to have had an extra iota of ease for her. Nilima plays with the mystic mood and brings up a host of associations that are indeed replete with referential reflections.
Nataraj Sharma’s work is an articulation that thrives in the abstract tenor of the refrain of subtle sensations. He works on the tonalities in the manner of charming considerations, you feel as if the strokes have an odd lilt to themselves. For Nataraj Angkor was a place to inhale deeply. Angkor for him became a breathing space. It makes a parenthesis. The time of a culture and civilization is a parenthesis, and if it is shares you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue. In that vein comes the works of Gargi Raina who creates the gentility of the silent soliloquy, it is almost as if she listened, slightly mesmerized trying to keep up with the free flow of historical ideology and the oddly illuminating tangents that the temples and the scenic setting go off into. Angkor for her became a collaboration that emerged from a conversation that created a scene and went back and forth in time.
Atul Dodiya’s works blend the lyricism of his power to recall with the advent of the language of civilization that streams across his watercolour with the marble dust creating the textures of the past out of the tumultuous pages of history into the gentle sepia-washed terrain of his canvas. Atul plays with abstraction at its zenith.. A rich burnt sienna reaffirms the strength and spirit of his school beneath the ‘minimalist’ background. Luminous ochres merge into deep embers of divisional aspects of planar mutations in his My Home in Angkor.Atul is known to be a pluralist at most times, and here too it is his frequentative mood that dominates his compositions, with his symbols telling stories as he goes along. In the past too Atul has been known to draw heavily on historical influences that he both accepts and internalizes.
Rendered in graphic abstraction and drawing on iconographic influences, Atul’s work reveals his attempt to go back to his roots. Angkor for him became a time to explore the visual possibilities of his own past. To that past he added space, form, texture, and colour.
Angkor offers certain attentiveness to the world of mystic cadences; it became a vital and singular presence that provides responses akin to the imperatives of conscience. Angkor then became a creative immersion that was both unique and non-pareil. If nostalgia could be exploited in the light of history it was here. The silent centuries of Angkor also became a revelation of the quasi historical nature of the locus for cults-as they left the silhouette and set back for India 12 artists came back with the capsule of infinite memories, a striking testimony not only to the awesome power of Angkor but also to the technical proficiency and artistic genius of the common man who created for the whims and fancies of their monarchs. It also gave rise to that eternal question-how did monarchs of that time blend the devotional approach with the insight of inner awakenings?