Overview

Essay

Initially Shaurya Kumar’s oeuvre can look rather baffling as he uses such a variety of mediums and diverse set of tools and processes. The distinct conceptual underpinning of his research requires one to engage with the premise to get the full import of his works. An artist born and bred in New Delhi but living in the US since 2004, the idea of India, hangs heavy on his consciousness. An ancient civilization in transition where marginalization and loss of history is an everyday commonplace occurrence.

The stunning visuality of the work that shares the title of the show is an exquisite porcelain work. Oi mandire kono debata nei ( There is No God in the Temple) in Bengali type font is paraphrased from a poem Deeno Dan by Rabindranath Tagore, penned in 1900. The poem is about a sage who refuses to worship in a grand sky-scraping temple that the king has built spending “two million gold coins” in a year when his subjects are struck by a calamity. They were turned away by the king when they came to seek alms desperately. The miffed king asks the sage why he refuses to pray in the purpose-built grand temple. The sage replies – it has no God in it but is filled with the king’s vanity.

The knotted threads that cover the text fonts can be seen in many shrines across the subcontinent. Devotees tie these knots in the hope of wish fulfilment or mannat as this practice is popularly known across north India. The whole construct is then dipped into porcelain slip and fired. Once the wooden letters and the threads are burnt away what is left are the eggshell thin hollow skin of the porcelain, so fragile and delicate that from a distance it is easy to mistake them as lacework or brittle bones! The obvious ramification of the poem’s content in a country that is keen on showcasing a grand temple as the centre piece of its project to redefine national identity amidst the unspeakable sufferings of the pandemic is unmistakable.

Gold has traditionally been associated with the Godly in most cultures around the world. In the course of our conversation, Shaurya mentioned witnessing worshippers in Saranath smuggling in tiny bits of beaten gold leaf to paste on their object of devotion to earn merit even though it was expressly forbidden. Seen together with graffiti/vandalism and expressions of piety, commonly seen in our public monuments, lead to the set of works where 4 x 5 inches squares of gold leaves are placed in the centre of white kitakata paper measuring 19 x 14 inches titled ‘In a Sacred Land a Traveler…’. Trained originally as a printmaker at Delhi’s College of Art Shaurya’s graphic interest is perhaps most self-evident in these works. The gold is scratched away to arrive at fragmentary imagery associated with the sacred.

Very similar in scale to ‘If in a Sacred Land..’ is Shaurya’s most recent manifestation of playing with gold foils is a suite of eighteen works, titled ‘Deeno Dan’, the title of the aforementioned Tagore poem. Roughly translated Deeno Dan stands for – Donating to the destitute but conversely, it may also be read as – donation by a destitute! In the eponymously titled work, Shaurya quotes the text body of the poem but in a barely legible manner. In a minimalist mien, the ghostly text simultaneously appears and fades from our vision. The ephemerality of the powdery soot with which the text is imprinted on the shimmering gold background, leaves traces in its wake, turning it into a veritable palimpsest.

The piece titled ‘It’s Mine, No It’s Mine, Now It’s Yours, No It’s ours, Now it’s Missing’ is based on the ancient Indian board game that played a pivotal role in the epic Mahabharata in humiliating Draupadi and defrauding the Pandava brothers that ultimately lead to the war of Kurukshetra. A game whose metaphoric potential to denote deceit, manipulation and greed is easily understood in this part of the world. How Indian temples and places of worship were denuded over the years of their deities and other sacred objects which found their way to museums and private collections in the Global North and the more recent debate on the repatriation of stolen artifacts were the triggers. Kumar’s research revealed over fifty thousand such objects were smuggled out of India, in relative peacetime, unlike many war-torn countries.

The arrest of Subhash Kapoor, one of the lynchpins of the smuggling racket in 2011, brought to light the elaborate modus operandi of the smuggling operation involving casting replicas, forging certificates of craft objects and a system of creating fake provenances. These cultural artifacts plucked from their original contexts and bereft of their purpose and meaning become mere pawns in political, diplomatic and economic power plays. The colours in the checkered squares of the woven cloth base (the board) subtly hint at the national flags of the countries that hold these booties of systematic loot. The objects themselves are modelled not on the basis of the actual objects, which were inaccessible to anyone outside the charmed circle, but on grainy photos published in news articles. These then were 3D printed in plastic. The results are akin to miniaturized souvenirs often found in touristy shops near historically important sites. These plastic replicas only add to the poignancy of loss and destruction caused by the violence of removal and the contextual displacement, appropriation and human intervention. Obvious fakes standing in for the missing originals.

Similarly, in the ‘Case of the broken hands’ forty scattered fragments of hands made in stone are 3D printed on an ivory-coloured plastic base. These are modelled from a published black & white photo from the ASI archive dating back to 1914-15. These shards are tantalizing, they do invite the viewer to mentally reassemble them and imagine them as parts of a whole. Many of Shaurya’s works seem to silently raise posers that reflect on the reality as well as possibilities – would these objects be returned to their original abodes or to Government collections? Which ones would be chosen for repatriation and what will be the criteria? A conundrum that haunts even the demand for repatriation.

The set of works closely referencing Basholi and Kangra miniatures dealing with divinities and divine spaces, where the main object of worship is conspicuously erased is perhaps the most literal translation of the idea of the loss and emptiness caused by the missing image. Radha and Krishna are only seen in the mirror reflection while their corporeal bodies have disappeared. In the Ramayana panel supposedly depicting the Rama & Lakshman duo all one gets to see are the flora on a luminescent yellow background. Where have the Gods gone? Are they pushed out of the frame or simply vanished into the margins of our consciousness? The question can be further extended into the metaphysics of dealing with the nature of things. These modified approximations that are executed by Shaurya’s collaborator traditional Rajasthani painter Raja Ram Sharma. They are already self-consciously one step removed from the originals which they are referencing. A commentary on absence reinforcing a spectral presence.

The artistic project of Shaurya Kumar raises questions and pushes the ontological possibilities of his chosen objects, especially objects that have a connection with the sacred. How our understanding of history, culture and the spiritual shifts its locus and how we are subjected to constant distortions, amnesia and reinterpretations are areas of deep engagement for Shaurya. The visual pleasure of the works, the labour-intensive methods and his engagement with materials counterbalance Shaurya’s rigorous research methodology and conceptual heft. In the process one is left with an acute awareness of a world pushed to the margins and on the verge of disappearing forever.

Indrapramit Roy

October 2022.

 

Notes

Artist Note

The act of touching and gazing, the tactical and visual engagement between the Hindu devotee and the divine, is critical for religious and spiritual realization. Manifestation thus leads to the latent, and each is incomplete without the other, if not entirely meaningless. It is the engagement between the subject (the devotee) and the object (the idol or the artifact) in the designed space (the temple or the sanctuary), with faculties of sight, smell, taste and touch (Darsan) that the work comes to its conclusion. Without the right context, the experience is incomplete and the subject and the object remain unfulfilled.

So, what happens after the temple walls have crumbled, the columns have been carted off to distant sites, and the tombs have been emptied? What happens, in other words, after the material form is dissipated; the cultural artifact has vanished without a trace, or has been broken down, and transposed to a white cube museum or a mantle of a private collector?

What happens to the devotee when the idol, the divine, is enervated, looted and the temple is left in ruination? How does a culture that has for generations shared the thought, feeling, and sensation through the act of touching, the religious seeing, or Darsan deal with the loss? Is the memory of the object, its fragment, or even the documentation “sufficient in representing those histories where there is no evidence [of the original context] remaining – no longer a thread of continuity, a plenum of meaning or monumental history – but rather a fracture, a discontinuity, the mark of which is obliteration, erasure and amnesia?”

History, especially when represented through material objects, has always carried value with it. With Given Time, the value changes. As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects to see what they disclose about history, society, nature or culture – above all, what they disclose about us.)”[1] We look through them as codes, but we can only catch a glimpse of it. When these objects are fragmented, destroyed or distorted, that glimpse is only smaller, and the void only becomes larger.

Venue

Threshold Art Gallery

C-221 Sarvodaya Enclave,

New delhi – 110017

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