Escape in a Diorama | CONA
20 May 2017

At THE WHITWORTH, Manchester
20 May 2017 - 3 June 2018

To escape from or to escape in a structure underlines the nature of that act- the prior being the void in the structure and the latter forming the recluse of the structure. Dioramas become illustrations of history forming a micro cosmos partially fictionalising the forms within it.

Form here attempts to revolt against itself wherein, the established systems of engagement become merely a construct of the mind and propose a fictitious setting. It positions itself in opposition to the accepted histories. What if we were to unmark these? Let them collapse, and come to be known as failures of sorts. Why to historicize these constructs? Rather, why not attempt to deconstruct them to forms of revolt? Can transplantation of histories become a strategy of defacement through aid and patronage? Is reiteration a tool of emphasis or that of purgation? What if we as participants from ‘postcolonial India’ decide to subvert this act through selection of certain representations that discontinue or puncture the narrative of clichéd orientalist representation of objects in museums especially where the colonial model becomes rhetoric?

In fact, the underpinning of setting up secular centers of collaboration, which destroys hierarchies of art and craft, blundered in the opposite direction. Here “the artisan and craftsperson reduced to a listless drudge instead of slowly growing into an artist of sorts” [1], itself became a problematic stand. The assumption, that these hierarchies have dissolved- eventually surfaces onto systems of capital reinstates this blunder. How do processes of authentication function, where the idea of authorship and provenance are relaxed or to an extent even dissolved? Can we, as practitioners exist in two economies where authenticity is dictated by factors other than their inherent claim to value? It is here that KATCONA Design Cell intervenes into the Museum shop with works of six artists. Through this intervention, it attempts to open conversations around ways of disseminating their practice. What does it mean to exhibit in a Museum Shop? Does it out throw our notions of how and where we perceive art? Could it propose a certain shift in the power structures and baffle the agencies that participate in those value systems?

KATCONA’s objective is to titillate the environment where pressures of production and consumption have marred our ability to realize that culture can never be a commodity but is rather a quality of the human mind, which influences our communications. Titillation can happen through reordering our production systems, consciously diverging from the trends, where they escape themselves to become something else. As Subramanyan rightly says about societies of today, “...whether in developed or developing countries, societies are too involved with the “trees” of day-to-day problems to be aware of the ‘wood’ of existence. This is overwhelmingly so in the developing countries where these ‘trees’ are of gigantic proportions.”[2]

In the 1950s, Pupul Jayakar established the Weavers Service Centre in response to the shifting economic and social situations of the then times. In one of the exhibition catalogues of the Weavers Service Centre she writes, “...whether the creative perceptions could absorb new skills and technologies without a diminishing of an original creative ground.”[3] According to Art Critic Dnyaneshwar Nadkarni, employing artists in the centre’s studios brought in their own cultivated aesthetic sense to bear upon designing. This exhibition includes works of various artists active in the 1900s at the Weavers Service Centre Offices, mainly Mumbai, Delhi, and Ahmedabad. Alongside we also present the works of block-printers, textile designers, and weavers who later self-consciously started identifying themselves as visual artists and painters.

Conforming art to a few does not necessarily indicate an intention for obscurity but rather a complex situation of being enthroned on a higher seat. Contrary to this, the format of the art fair was introduced at the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University, Baroda to bring art to the public. Nilima Sheikh says,

“It was a time when the artist community extended itself to find creativity outside the classroom and studio, outside its stereotypical notions of its own creativity, for that matter. Mrinalini Mukherjee was a painting student at Baroda during the late sixties. Little did she know while she was busy grappling with locally available fibres like sun and hemp ‘to make something different’ – rugs and wall-hangings for the fair- that this would be the feel and tension which lure her into making sculpture – of the same materials but of massive volume and proportion – for the next twenty five years.”[4]

Thus, several questions are raised here. Do such events become a playground for artists to find their own grounding? Do they mean anything to the community outside of the realm of ‘art’? Does it “become a trade fair of some kind or a carnival or exhibitionist work-out? Or is it just a temporary concession to current populist trends?”[5] Subramanyan could understand the modalities of such exercises and the effortlessness with which he transitioned from one to the other without following any hierarchical patterns. He thus was able to create these transgressions within the system through versatility in action channelled by a common thought thus never letting these operating systems affect him.

“For Subramanyan the fair was the best occasion to vindicate his several obsessions: the mobility between art and craft practice, between studio exercise and working in situ, between painting and the physically more projective arts, between varying scales and different materials , and finally, between art as serious business- and as fun.”[6]

Hemendra Bhatt’s toys made from wooden combs, designed during the Baroda Art Fair, find a place within the same diorama of many other assorted objects, all held in suspension, raising questions of where they belong or rather is there a need to belong within certain set configurations. Subramanyan’s ability to oscillate between mediums and situations is a testament of his views “to recognize various categories of creativity with varying inputs and varying functional structures and that they serve the diverse expressional needs of a sensitive human being.” [7]

In order to dabble into craft or operate as a designer, do situations like Weavers Service Centres become just a mere job, a matter of security, a distraction, or a burden for artists? What does it mean for these two worlds to stand in disparity or is there a possibility to find affiliations?

Gopal Adivrekar, Shyamendu Sonavane, Gautam Waghela, Bhupendra Desai, all trained artists who contributed much to the Weavers Service Centres have always seen their practice as separate from the job. Similarly, Prabhakar Barwe too always expressed his desire or rather resisted from his art adapting any aspect of design within it. Although if one clearly observes, the element of design, a certain geometry, calculation and composition became a part of Barwe’s language. Two drawings made at the Weavers Service Centre and one block printed silk saree made outside of the centre are on display thus outlaying his engagement with tantric and geometric forms, which he gradually and consciously tried to remove from his personal practice later.

Bhaskar Kulkarni, who graduated from J.J.School of Art, was a maverick in the true sense, where his own practice and identity dissolves into the idea of highlighting that of the Madhubani and Warli communities. He brought both these forms on the international map thus in ways blundering to the agenda of the systems of power, systems that had vested interests in commodifying culture and Indian crafts at the cost of service to the nation and/or income generating schemes.

Toofan Rafai, a graduate from J.J.School of Art as well, took up a task of developing and working with natural dyes on hand spun cloth, following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi. His work lies at the crossroads of being art and non-art/textile. Similarly, with Ajit Kumar Das - who also dabbled with natural dyes - was in fact a block printer, and adopted the skills and the courage to paint outside of the centre under the guidance of Martand Singh. Das’ work - much like Rafai’s - falls in-between, at the threshold of art and non-art/textile where the value of the work is ambiguous.

The series Bihagkul Mastak is a series of bird heads which does not fall under the Vishwakarma series based on the work of Salim Ali; although they do find resonance in some of those then developed works. Thus it becomes a very important contribution which brings about the ideas of who can claim authorship considering there could be multiple owners of such series, with tiny variations or versions, stylistic and compositional differences.

Riten Majumdar, Nelly Sethna, and few others did diverse projects in the 1960s in attempts to reconfigure arts and crafts. In the 1980s Riten moved to Santiniketan and side stepped his Design Consultancy for Art Practice. According to Harji Malik, “He made a series of paintings in dyes on stretched silk. He combined blocks and/or used one in repetition, since for him a single unit can be used to produce an endless variation of designs. Thus devising a whole from parts rather than imagining a whole that is subsequently divided into parts.” The works in the exhibition belong to different period, representing in ways the shift from existing in one system and urge to exist in another.

Nelly Sethna, whose practice as a weaver falls into a hybrid space, where although it lies within the 2-dimensional space, it still transcends disciplines and enters the realm of textile sculpture. Monika Correa had experimented with the construction/structure of the loom thereby tinkering with the reeds to attain an illusion. It is interesting to see the transition of two weavers who falter to find a position in the mainstream art economy until recently. Thereby bringing in the conversation of whether value is inherent in the work or in the positioning of the work?

The Sickinaikenpet experimentation from the Vishwakarma series of exhibitions, proposes to fracture the above thread wherein no author could claim ownership of the piece. These experiments almost erase the narrative embedded so strongly within the traditional temple canopies. Only the border is magnified, thus reducing it to geometrical divisions of two colours. These are in ways manifestations of the various experiments in the making of the Vishwakarma exhibitions, thus in turn resonating with the idea of tests; samples which propose to become something in the future, yet imbibe certain elements from the past. Taking the idea of the sample we have approached the Forbes Watson Volumes of ‘The Textile Manufacturers of India’, which not only etched the decline of our handloom industry but also makes it an interesting proposition to the idea of imagined futures. The cataloguing activity of Forbes Watson, who was the Director of the India Museum and Reporter on the Products of India for the Secretary of State, becomes crucial in understanding the history of the textile traditions of India.

When diverse objects are placed within a diorama/landscape, the lines between them become blurry within the scheme of their categories and even in the structure of creative imagination. What does it mean to bring these variants together? What has become of the intent and how has it changed the ecology of art and design using artists as mere tools? All that binds these objects in the diorama are enquiries, when at some point the objects become irrelevant in the larger scheme of things and what supercedes is the context in which they are brought together/which binds them together or even separates them.


From museum to museum shop

Madhav Imartey’s practice sprouts from his early conversations with the Bombay School practitioners contributing largely to an abstract school of thought. For the Whitworth project, Imartey has produced a few cotton bedspreads and silk scarves, which are similar in nature to the ones made during his association with Barwe. He has collaborated with Mr. Shaikh Husain (Munna) who used to be a young block printer for Barwe while at the Weaver Service Centre.

Jadhav and Mihir Wairkar’s participation underlines KATCONA’s manifesto for practitioners who would like to position themselves at the threshold, wherein the inside and the outside could be reversible/ interchangeable. Manasi has been working with a publication house for producing children’s books and loosely based on that approach she has prepared a book on the fish eating practices in India. Her book illustrates not plainly the act but rather uses the limitation of the RISO print process and the advantage of her formalistic drawing approach. Mihir on the other hand chooses to linguistically draw his thoughts. He looks forward to study or inquire about these new ways as the objects refuse to be confined in a projected shape.

Nibha Sikander’s practice occupies an in-between space- it began with a reverse journey contradictory to the popular belief of artist process. Her project much like her practice looks at the idea of the reverse- the negative spaces of her cutouts. She has been primarily working with paper cutouts- constructing layered forms of birds and insects. The leftovers of paper anatomical parts seem like lost information and thus baffles one to identify with and scavenge through this extracted material.

Sashikant Thavudoz and Shreyas Karle made a proposal towards making of tools as it generates itself into a premise to work collectively. Tools have a utilitarian purpose. They are designed with a certain purposiveness, which might not be governed by any aesthetic checkpoints. They can also become collectible objects resting on the studio shelfs. What if a set of tools designed to cater to the aesthetic norms inherent to the nature of the object, fail to materialize their purpose? What if their purposiveness were to be based on the failure of these inherent norms? Would these tools then exist in both the realms, of being tools and collectibles? Or would they fall prey to becoming an ‘art object’.


Foot Notes:-

  1. K.G. Subramanyan, Do Hands Have a Chance? Seagull Publication Kolkata, 2007.
  2. K.G. Subramanyan, Book Review: Some Aspects of Cultural Policies in India, 1977.
  3. Exhibition Catalog, Arti sts from Past to Present at the Weavers Service Centre, The Development Commissioner of Handlooms, Ministry of Commerce, New Delhi, 1985.
  4. Sheikh Nilima, Cultural Interactions: Garba and the Fine Arts Fair, A Post- Independence Initiative in Art, Contemporary Art in Baroda, Edited by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Published by Tulika, 1997.
  5. K.G. Subramanyan, Reaching Art to the Public, 1981.
  6. Sheikh Nilima, Cultural Interactions: Garba and the Fine Arts Fair, A Post- Independence Initiative in Art, Contemporary Art in Baroda, Edited by Gulammohammed Sheikh, Published by Tulika, 1997.
  7. K.G. Subramanyan, Introductory Talk at the Seminar ‘Art and Craft Panorama in India’, 1988.
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