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TRACING INDIA at BASEL

India has marked its presence at the prestigious Art Basel with two compelling galleries – Shireen Gandhy's Chemould and Sunitha Emmart's Gallery SKE – that showcase the array of dynamism focal to Indian art today, writes Uma Nair.

At Art Basel in Basel last week, the most impressive of India's artistry got on their guest list to rub shoulders with the world's best with two top of the line galleries, Shireen Gandhy's Chemould and Sunitha Emmart's Gallery SKE.

While Shireen Gandhy had a robust suite of works featuring Anju Dodiya, Atul Dodiya, Bhuvanesh Gowda, Desmond Lazaro, Gigi Scaria, Jitish Kallat, Mithu Sen, Ritesh Meshram, Shakuntala Kulkarni and Varunika Saraf – Sunita Emmart had Sudarshan Shetty, Avinash Veeraghavan, Astha Butail, Martand Khosla, Sunil Padwal and Prabhavati Meppayil.

Anju Dodiya

Queen of the metaphor in paint, Dodiya describes her work: "Mattresses belong to the domestic terrain and here, I continue to explore their surface as a base to paint images of the home, dream and body. Desires and aspirations are just a flip second away from the real. The process of staining and marking with watercolour and charcoal on the unbleached cotton, which resists, is playful. The geometric shapes and lines refer to the modernist minimal art of the 70s, while the elements of the lamp (after Carlo Mollino) and the landscape (after the Italian primitives) betray my attitude of devouring images from diverse sources and spilling them onto my work." These drawings with the humility of the mundane, exist between the mysterious moment when all is familiar and yet nothing is – in the artist's studio, in the bedroom or in love.

Atul Dodiya

Yet another master of compostion, Atul Dodiya excels with his Painted Photographs/ Paintings Photographed, or Mahatma and Masters showing his interest in the first half of the 20th century in India and Europe. Dodiya says: "I have juxtaposed two totally different movements in history, arranging them side-by-side. In the first half of 20th century Europe, a huge dramatic shift took place, particularly in France, with artists like Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, who changed the whole notion of art. During this period, India was fighting for freedom, which resulted in the Independence from British rule and ended with Gandhi's assassination. Photography has a key role to play in this body of work. Gandhi's life in the context of India's freedom is available in written words and in photographs. Here, we have those images painted in oil on canvas. Conversely, the original paintings and sculptures by modern Masters, which were created during that period, are what we see here in the form of photographs. I was interested in this reversal of photographs getting transformed into paintings and paintings/sculptures being seen here in the form of photographs."

Jitish Kallat

Jitish Kallat's elemental, meditative works titled Wind Study (Hilbert Curve) and Wind Study (Gosper Curve) derive their form from clusters of Hilbert Curves and Gosper Curves, which are continuous fractal-like, space-filling curves named after mathematicians David Hilbert and Bill Gosper respectively. A single curling line that extends across various dimensions of curves forms each of these drawings. Each small fragment of the curve is overlaid, one line at a time, with an inflammable liquid and set aflame. Within moments, the ignited portion of the line undergoes phase transition from liquid to semisolid to fire, to finally arise as dark fumes that record for posterity, the movement of the wind at that moment in time. Functioning like exploratory instruments to eavesdrop on invisible atmospheric flows, Kallat describes these evocative drawings as "transcripts of the silent conversation between wind and fire".

SHAKUNTALA KULKARNI

The brilliant sculptural intonations of Shakuntala Kulkarni never fail to entice. Her decade long research inspired by the idea of protection for the female form, the Terracotta Army, and the contemporary societal set up, has led Shakuntala Kulkarni to create a multimedia exploration. She learnt the craft of cane making to make the armour she adorns while being digitally recorded through the lanes of Mumbai, and as a part of her film Julus. Deconstructed into these pedestals here, these cane sculptures now carry the embedded memory of having been a part of her journey as a Zen warrior traversing and reclaiming an important narrative of history. Her two sculptures create dynamics in dialogue bringing forth the past and the present in a quaint yet quixotic medium like cane.

Sudarshan Shetty

At the center of the deeply charismatic yet minimalist moorings of Gallery SKE's booth are a pair of colonial charactered stools with birds (pigeon, Himalayan quail) on branches, while the fragment springs out of the stool. Sudarshan Shetty creates inchoate perceptions with this pair that move beyond finite practices of interiors and functional furniture even as it deals with the transitory. One recalls his extinct bird sculptures done in reclaimed wood at Miami 2015. In adding this pair of birds to inanimate objects like two stools, he creates a corollary of counterpoints that makes us think even as we are attracted to their symbolism. Regeneration and transformation and death and loss, lead us to his unique and rare aesthetic sensibilities. Shetty, who plays with old mediums and material to create new organic patterns by improvising on existing objects, believes that the "old can be used to tell new stories about the same subject."

"I am constantly looking for possibilities of presenting the same things through different ways – and bring in an element of human vulnerability," he said to me at the India Art Fair this year.

Sudarshan is one of the very few artists in India who can manage, with gentle adroitness and formal command, the interplay between superficial surface and mysterious depth. Uncanny how he opens up possibilities for a world of images and techniques.

"Sudarshan is a very rigorous artist. To see Sudarshan's work, you have to work a little bit yourself and know that all his work is based on research," says gallerist Emmart.

Astha Butail

Ingenious in inspiration are Astha Butail's mixed media works created with handloom cotton muslin, acrylic on archival paper, MDF, teak wood and book. Last year, Butail won the BMW Art Journey at Art Basel Hong Kong. The installation consisted of 322 small wooden frames in assorted geometric shapes. Each frame housed hand-woven muslin pulled taut across archival paper; the fabric was striped and featured two muted tones, an eggshell white and a soft brown. Here, at Basel, her works are arranged on two walls. The frames arranged in sequences that suggest abstract, and minimalist representations of systems of communication.

Avinash Veeraraghavan

Threads beads and sequins on silk and you get the magical momentousness of Avinash Veeraraghavan's works that look like postcards for posterity. Over the decades, Veeraraghavan's art has engaged closely with the mystery of consciousness and how it generates a seemingly real self. Often, the images that he uses and creates are intensely personal, bordering on the solipsistic and tell of a particular journey. The autobiographical work Origins Unknown is a reflection on a long and arduous journey traversing the oceans, and arriving back at shore, battered but wiser. Through embroidery, the artist employs an ancient craft and labour intensive technique, to relate the weaving of tales and stories to an exploration of the psyche.

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