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.