Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch
The underrated joys of the art binge
Rediscovering the excitement of the art hop at Mumbai Gallery Weekend
I’m still savouring the afterglow of Mumbai Gallery Weekend, a collaboration that’s more relevant than ever in its tenth year. Crawling out of the Omicron-shaped hole we’ve been slumbering in through the winter is not easy. The gift of excellent art from an eclectic range of artists, spread across the southern tip of the city, has been a real booster for the spirit. Post-lockdown, it’s freeing to lose oneself in physical galleries where nothing is expected of you but a serious-looking gaze at assorted walls, with the occasional gasp or sigh.
Abstract art and fake laughs
No matter how many books you’ve read or lectures you’ve attended, nothing prepares you for the initially forbidding atmosphere you encounter in an art gallery. In time you realise the image you’re fighting in your head is not one of an undemanding near-empty room, a serene setting in which to experience art, but the much-touted art opening, an absolute assault on the nerves and senses. Vikram Seth captures it best in his little parodic verse, Overheard at a Cocktail Party: ‘But empathy with the Id is the quintessential
Je-n e-sais-quoi–as it were–of the Existential…’
I’ll never be old or sophisticated enough to attend an art opening unironically. Something about the occasion encourages inauthenticity. People who are pleasant and engaging enough in regular life assume an unbearable air of false jollity in the vicinity of wine, canapés and abstract art. I know because I’m one of them. It is impossible for me to either breathe, smile or talk normally in the rarefied atmosphere of opening night. I’ve often found myself gushing over strangers’ necklaces and speaking gibberish to familiar faces in a bad case of artnight awkwardness.
Silence, please, this is a gallery
The trick, of course, is to give arty parties a miss. To walk around a gallery on one’s own, or with one’s own, is an urban pleasure like few others. In a city starved of public spaces, and of activities that do not make monetary demands, an art gallery is indeed an oasis. It’s a pity, then, that these spaces are accessed only by a privileged few. This is, thankfully, changing as Ritesh Uttamchandani’s A Lease of Life proves. A perceptive photo exhibition that explores the afterlife of political banners, it welcomed guests ranging from cab drivers to school-going kids with their mothers at the legendary gallery, Cymroza. A fine interplay between the art of politics and the politics of art.
Desmond Lazaro’s Cosmos at Chemould Prescott Road was a visual treat, exploring the realm of the heavens through maps and pigments, memories and myths. Midway through my starry, starry walk, I was interrupted by a musical explosion, so incongruous with hallowed art spaces. The eruption was caused by a group of twenty-somethings (from that most distant of planets) buzzing on art and beer, and in control of the sound system. A welcome break from our bland, sanitised times.
A very arty pooch
SUCH A TREAT THESE ART HOPS ARE, PLUCKING YOU OUT OF EVERYDAY LIFE AND SUBMERGING YOU IN A RIVER OF REFLECTIONS
Walking into TARQ at Dhanraj Mahal, the iconic art deco building near the Gateway of India, is a lesson in history. Inside, Saju Kunhan’s ongoing exhibition, Home Ground, features extraordinary image transfers on teak wood, evoking the nostalgia and displacement of migration. But an art show cannot merely be judged on art alone. The colour-coded chocolates lying at the door were pleasing takeaways, providing a superb aftertaste to the show when I visited.
I usually look forward to visiting Jhaveri Contemporary thanks to their perfectly framed view of the Gateway of India, and the resident black-and-white pooch, Cola. This time around, I was awestruck by Sri Lankan sculptor Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran’s multi-hued figures of “guardians, warriors, goddesses, demons, jokers and monsters” in ‘The Mud and the Rainbow’. Behind the Taj, at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinrucke, Sosa Joseph’s ‘Where Do We Come From?’ wove quite the spell with its dreamlike swirl of colours and forms from Kerala. Such a treat these art hops are, plucking you out of everyday life and submerging you in a river of reflections. Whenever the art leaves you cold, but you’re mortally afraid of either wounding or being judged by the artists standing close by, you’re saved by your mask. Luckily, none were around on this particular jaunt, sparing me the trouble of spontaneously finding something insightful to say.
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Ihave seen many tigers at Ranthambore but I never saw a single leopard. I questioned my wildlife guide who confirmed that there were actually more leopards than tigers in Ranthambore. So why, I asked the guide, did I never get to see any? He offered various explanations, all of them valid to different degrees. Leopards were nocturnal, but we were visiting the sanctuary during the day. Leopards were notoriously shy. They lived in the hills while tigers could often be found on flatter ground. Finally, I asked my guide straight out: would I ever see a leopard? He hummed and hawed but in the end his answer was categorical: no, I wouldn’t.
When I went to Southern Africa on a safari, I had a conversation with my guide there about how hard it was to see any leopards.
The guide offered the same explanations. Leopards, were shy, nocturnal etc.
Two sets of guides can’t be wrong so, I reconciled myself to never seeing a leopard properly. We go on and on about the numbers of tigers in India but we never seem to realise that there are many, many, more leopards: between 12,000 to 13,000.
Of late, when leopards are in the news, it is hardly ever in a good way. As more and more human settlements have encroached on their national habitats, leopards have been pushed to enter villages or areas inhabited by humans in search for food.
This set me thinking again. How strange is it that we keep hearing and reading about leopards in human settlements but find it so difficult to see them in the wild?
Then I got talking to Jaisal Singh. After the success of Sher Bagh, his renowned Ranthambore camp, Jaisal’s Sujan group of hotels has won a reputation around the world for combining a love of conservation with super-luxury. But I knew him in a different context. His grandfather, Romesh Thapar, one of India’s greatest intellectuals, had been very kind to me when I was a young journalist. Thapar introduced me to his daughter Malvika (Mala) and her husband Tejbir (Jugnu). They took over Seminar, the journal of ideas, from Thapar and I have often written for it. Jaisal is their son and I have known him since he was a schoolboy.
When I asked Jaisal why it was so difficult to see leopards, he told me that this was not necessarily the case. Yes, everything that I had been told was true, but nevertheless, leopards were not difficult to spot at the camp he ran at Jawai in Rajasthan.
Intrigued by his claim, I set off for Jawai which is halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur (you can fly to either city and then drive for around two and a half hours). My wife and I were picked up from Udaipur by one of the camp’s rangers Surajpal Singh along with his partner Chaggan. They told us, as we drove to Jawai, that they would handle all our safaris throughout our stay. But when I asked the key question—would we see any leopards?—surajpal was circumspect. There was a good chance, he said. Around 50 to 60 per cent, he added, but he did not want to raise our hopes.
WHY CAN YOU NEVER SEE ANY LEOPARDS? THEY ARE NOCTURNAL, BUT WE VISIT SANCTUARIES IN THE DAY. THEY ARE ALSO NOTORIOUSLY SHY AND LIVE IN THE HILLS