ART SPEAK

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Ex­hi­bi­tion in­spired by the old Ro­man set­tle­ments in south In­dia

Mon­ica Jain, cu­ra­tor-direc­tor of Art Cen­trix Space brings to light a two thou­sand years old Ro­man set­tle­ment in south In­dia that in­spired her to cu­rate a new ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary In­dian art in Delhi

“I de­cided to work on this as a con­tin­u­ous project that would ques­tion the lack of con­ti­nu­ity in cul­tural pa­tron­age in In­dia, the im­por­tance of rivers in the light of a flour­ish­ing econ­omy due to an­cient trade and the cur­rent state of ex­treme pol­lu­tion of our wa­ter bod­ies.”

On a trip to Puducherry last year, one of the key places on my to- do list was Arikamedu. Hid­den in plain sight, but well marked on Google maps, Arikamedu is just seven kilo­me­ters off the main city of Puducherry along the river Ariyankup­pam at the point where the river joins the Bay of Ben­gal. The site has been iden­ti­fied with the place name Po­duke cited in the Periplus Maris Ery­thraei and the ‘Podouke em­po­rion’ men­tioned by Ptolemy ( 150 AD). As I ap­proached the site, my mind con­jured up im­ages of ex­cep­tional an­cient ob­jects sur­fac­ing in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs - an en­graved em­blem of em­peror Au­gus­tus, an ivory han­dle, ter­ra­cotta fig­urines, terra sig­illata cups and plates, typ­i­cally Ro­man ex­quis­ite roulet­ted ware, wine am­phorae, blue glazed faience, Ro­man clay lamps and Mediter­ranean clay ob­jects, shell beads, gems, gold, ter­ra­cotta, bits of semi­precious stones, red frag­ment of a Ro­man lamp shade and pieces of Ro­man glass bowls. In fact, it is said the Ro­mans de­cried the loss of sil­ver on In­dian im­ports that were in great de­mand in those times!

Ex­ten­sive ex­ca­va­tions were car­ried out here in the late 1930s by the French and in the late 1940s by the Bri­tish un­der

Sir Mor­timer Wheeler such that it came to be re­garded as the most im­por­tant site for study­ing Indo- Ro­man trade in the an­cient world. More ex­ten­sive re­search was con­ducted by Vimla Be­g­ley who as­cribed the pe­riod of 2nd cen­tury BCE to 2nd cen­tury CE when trade, man­u­fac­tur­ing of prod­ucts for ex­port and im­port of sev­eral com­modi­ties from the Mediter­ranean flour­ished. The set­tle­ment, it seems, con­tin­ued well into the 7th cen­tury CE.

The present brick struc­ture how­ever, is an 18th cen­tury French mis­sion­ary build­ing but could have been raised us­ing an­cient found bricks. Most vil­lagers re­port hav­ing used old bricks in their houses and even now an­cient glass beads sur­face in the wa­ters of that area. Although now pro­tected by

the ASI, a lot more work needs to be done around the ex­ca­vated wa­ter reser­voir, the 50 m long wall of the ‘ware­house’ and the port fa­cil­i­ties as the set­tle­ment of Arikamedu grew along the river bank and ex­tended more than 480 m north- south dur­ing its peak.

As no one I met knew or had heard about it, I de­cided to work on this as a con­tin­u­ous project that would ques­tion the lack of con­ti­nu­ity in cul­tural pa­tron­age in In­dia, the im­por­tance of rivers in the light of a flour­ish­ing econ­omy due to an­cient trade and the cur­rent state of ex­treme pol­lu­tion of our wa­ter bod­ies. It was ini­ti­ated at an ex­hi­bi­tion of con­tem­po­rary art at my gallery in­au­gu­rated by the Am­bas­sador of Italy, HE Lorenzo An­geloni. Bright in­digo pow­der marked the out­doors much like a river flow­ing along its course that led the art con­nois­seurs to the gallery. Per­haps in­digo was used as a colour to stain the robes of Mediter­ranean women! The painted linen works of Ekta Singha de­picted the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­search and find­ings whereas se­nior artist Man­ish Sharma cre­ated an in­stal­la­tion called ‘Mu­seum Shop’ with ob­jects of mem­ory painted in gold. It was taken fur­ther through an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Em­bassy of Italy with the idea of light­ing up the past. Mon­u­menta by Rahul Mo­dak, a pair of metal cage- columns filled with del­i­cate ter­ra­cotta leaves sym­bol­ised the brick struc­tures of the an­cient Ro­mans and an in­stal­la­tion of ter­ra­cotta pots re­minded one of the finds in Arikamedu.

The show is on view through this month.

Mon­ica Jain

Cha­ran­jeet Singh

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