When the proposal for “Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art” — on view at Princeton University Art Museum November 19 through February 5 — came across the desk of assistant curator of Asian Art Zoe S. Kwok, she saw it as an opportunity. Why not display these works of the 20th and 21st centuries alongside the traditional arts of South Asia? The answer was “Contemporary Stories: Revisiting South Asian Narratives,” also on view at the museum through January 15. And the result is an opportunity for area museum goers to explore.
They can also participate and celebrate in a number of events. For example, Shahzia Sikander, one of the five artists in the contemporary exhibit whose work has also been commissioned for the university campus, will give a talk on Thursday, November 17, at 5:30 p.m. in 10 McCosh Hall.
On Saturday, November 19, at 5 p.m., Marika Sardar, associate curator of Southern Asian and Islamic Art at the San Diego Museum of Art, will give a lecture. And on Saturday, December 3, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be a South Asian Arts and Music Festival at the museum, with storytelling, traditional cuisines, and creative activities for all ages, followed by a performance by dancer Ramya Ramnarayan with live instrumental accompaniment at 10 McCosh Hall at 5:30 p.m.
Through printmaking, paintings, and video art, “Contemporary Stories” presents the work of five renowned artists — Chitra Ganesh, Nalini Malani, Nilima Sheikh, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, and Shahzia Sikander — and shows how contemporary practitioners draw on the past while grounding their work in the present. Their art reinterprets the storytelling, techniques, and styles of earlier traditions, such as those presented across the hall in “Epic Tales,” with its 91 paintings representing the major schools of South Asian painting from the 16th through 19th centuries.
“Contemporary Stories” is guest curated by Rashmi Viswanathan, an independent curator and specialist in contemporary South Asian art, with PUAM’s Kwok as the organizing curator.
“Rashmi is extending the story of the traditional artists, focusing on those who are practicing now but rooted in South Asian materials, modes, and great cultural epics,” says Kwok. “They are bringing in contemporary issues, so it is like a dance of old and new, ultimately creating something new.”
The contemporary artists span two generations. Born in Gujarat in 1937, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, the only male artist of the five (and also the spouse of Nilima Sheikh), was actively involved in founding a group in the 1960s that sought to make a critical intervention in what they perceived as the mainstream of a stale national art practice. Known for his experimental narratives, Sheikh culls his works from diverse sources, including the late medieval works of Italian artists Giotto and Duccio, and the aesthetics of Pahari (the people of a specific mountain region in India) painting, which flourished in the Himalayan hill kingdoms during the 17th to 19th centuries. He intertwines history and myth to rethink Indian and global legacies of colonialism, according to exhibition materials.
His work here is a kind of a map that redraws the boundaries and combines hand painting with manipulated digital imagery, joining pre-colonial and contemporary technologies of artistic production. In his collage of references we see Mary Magdalene from a 14th-century fresco by Giotto, and Majnun, the star-crossed lover of the classic story of Layla and Majnun, retold by 12th-century Persian poet Nizami.
“He’s intermingling motifs,” says Kwok, pointing out a scene from the Hindu epic “Ramayana,” in which Rama chases an enchanted deer, as well as St. Francis giving his sermon to the birds.
Sheikh’s wife, Nilima (born 1945), draws from mythology, folklore, and personal history, addressing contemporary issues of sectarian violence as well as women’s rights. Her etching, “Majnun Bereaved,” part of a portfolio commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Asia Society and recently acquired by PUAM, uses mica pigment, from traditional Indian painting, that gives the work an iridescence. It, too, is based on the doomed lovers, Layla and Majnun.
“Her father declined to give Majnun Layla’s hand, and so he wanders the wilderness in despair,” says Kwok, who compares the relationship to that of India and Pakistan. “When the border was drawn in 1947, there were contentious relations between the two, like lovers with a shared tradition torn apart.”
The work itself takes the form of a traditional preparatory sketch, finely detailed and devoid of color, and is itself a finished work, depicting the compassionate animals surrounding Majnun. Above is a flying figure, an apsara — a Buddhist flying deity — with a stern face and a menacing bow-like device. “He is the harbinger of discontent hovering over the scene,” says Kwok.
Both Gulam Mohammed and Nilima Sheikh have influenced the younger generation of artists, their practice setting the tone, says Kwok. “Their success inspired others.”
Shahzia Sikander, born in Pakistan in 1969, studied Indo-Persian miniature painting in Lahore and earned an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design. She frees miniature painting from its role as a carrier of traditional cultural heritage, bringing historical and feminized myths into a contemporary practice. In her work one can find gopis — female worshippers of Krishna who fall in love and follow him about. A mass of gopis can be seen blindly following him. “She uses it as a device to talk about women in society,” says Kwok.
Alongside a work on paper of a composite elephant, Sikander has animated the mythical, fantastical animal in a video, telling a story as the different elements add onto each other and then disappear. A traditional version of the composite elephant can be seen downstairs in the South Asian galleries.
In one especially extraordinary work, Sikander, who won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2006, turns the Indo-Persian miniature on its head, rendering it as an oversized work on paper, more than five-feet-by-six-feet in dimension. “The Elusive Motif” reproduces the format of the muraqqa, an Indo-Persian album that is a patchwork of artistic and calligraphic elements, with a flattened perspective of mountains, borders, and black line work.
The swirling bird-like forms are gopis, used to show the struggles that women have to assert power. Upon closer inspection one sees they are not birds at all, but hair coifs, lifted off bodies and brought together in swirling masses. “On a basic level it is a sumptuous object and speaks to the global artist who mines art history archives to create contemporary art,” says Kwok.
Two site-specific works by Sikander — a 60-foot mosaic and 25-foot luminous multilayered glass painting — will be permanently installed at the newly renovated 20 Washington Road, the former Frick Chemistry Lab that is the new home to the Economics Department. These are Sikander’s first forays into glass, and she collaborated with Mayer of Munich, a German studio specializing in stained glass and mosaics, for both projects. The window was created by hand-painting ceramic colors within thin layers of glass.
Artist Chitra Ganesh — last year’s visiting artist in residence at the Center for Women in the Arts and Humanities at Rutgers — is interested in the intersection of ancient myth and popular culture. Using drawing, mixed media, and site-specific as well as text-based works, the artist draws from Hindu, Greek, Buddhist, and 19th-century European portraiture to comics, Bollywood, anime, and contemporary art. Her multimedia practice explores alternative narratives of consciousness and sexuality.
Born in Brooklyn in 1975 to parents who emigrated from Calcutta, Ganesh went to Brown and earned an M.F.A. at Columbia. While in India with her family one summer, Ganesh, a voracious reader, discovered Amar Chitra Katha, one of India’s best-selling comic series, which retells stories from the great Indian epics, mythology, history, folklore, and fables. “The authors and illustrators were concerned that young people in India didn’t know their historic and cultural traditions, so retold them in the series, but in the retelling gave a slightly different version,” says Kwok.
Mythical figures and disembodied forms emerge and comingle in Ganesh’s graphic novel-esque work, with allusions to Hieronymus Bosch and alternative visions of the world, in which women may have three arms or three breasts.
Nalini Malani was born in 1946 in Karachi in present-day Pakistan, a year before the partition of India. Her family’s refugee experience informs her work as she looks at alternative histories. “In Search of Vanished Blood” takes its name from a poem by revolutionary Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, lamenting those most susceptible to war and injustice, and is indeed the color of blood, with demonic figures swirling about the lines of the poetry: “No one had the time to listen. No one the desire. It kept crying out.”
With a solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston and an exhibit planned for Paris’s Pompidou Center next year, Malani’s work about the drawing of borders is in demand. “It’s all about violence and innocence lost, at the fringes of society who are not recorded in history, disembodied bodies intertwined with text,” says Kwok.
The art of South Asia is one of the world’s richest visual traditions, notes PUAM director James Steward. These five artists remind us why those traditions still matter.
Epic Tales from India: Paintings from the San Diego Museum of Art, Princeton University Art Museum. Saturday, November 19, through Sunday, February 5. Free.
Contemporary Stories: Revisiting South Asian Narratives, through Sunday, January 15.
Shahzia Sikander Lecture, McCosh Hall 10. Thursday, November 17, 5:30 p.m.
Marika Sardar Lecture, 10 East Pyne Hall. Saturday, November 19, 5 p.m. A reception follows in the museum.
South Asian Arts and Music Festival, Saturday, December 3, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; performance by dancer Ramya Ramnarayan, 5:30 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.