Essay: The Journey is the DestinationBy Kamini Sawhney
06 Mar 2016

This exhibition is a narrative of journeys - the journeys of 8 artists who are all part of the Jehangir Nicholson collection. Anju and Atul Dodiya, Baiju Parthan, Nalini Malani, Sudhir Patwardhan, Sunil Gawde, Vivan Sundaram, and Zarina Hashmi were all artists that Nicholson admired and pursued during his lifetime. The practices of these artists have undergone a significant change over the years. The exhibition juxtaposes a work by each of the artists with a work that conveys their present concerns.  In each case, the difference or distance between the work in the collection and the recent work marks the shifts that the artist has made, the twists and turns in the paths she or he has explored. The exhibition does not presume to a comprehensive exploration of each artist’s practice but serves to highlight the journeys they have experienced and the consequent changes that have reflected in the country’s art scene.

The central idea of Journeys recalls one of the core strengths of the Nicholson collection- several artists are represented by a body of work that trace the development of their practice through different phases. The Progressives who form a significant part of the collection are strongly represented in their journeys. Tyeb Mehta’s heavy impasto stokes evoking the early falling figure or the trussed bull, shift to radically altered canvases divided by the diagonal into flat planes of colour and the fragmented form.

The work of artists who are part of the exhibition were bought by Nicholson at various stages in his process of collecting. Some like Zarina Hashmi and Nalini Malani were acquired in the 70’s and 80’s while younger artists like Anju Dodiya and Baiju Parthan in the 90’s. The collection stopped actively growing with his death in 2001 but this exhibition carries forward the conversation of journeys that were once reflected within its framework.

The works from the JNAF collection by both Nalini Malani and Zarina Hashmi reflect their early concerns that have grown over the years to cover a wider canvas.

Cage(1970), one of her Zarina’s woodcuts, reflects the claustrophobic confines of an enclosed space and the multiple meanings that “home” can assume. There is a keen political consciousness that underlines her work, related in part, to the violence in the aftermath of India’s partition and the disruption it caused to families like her own. Her travels across the world, reinforced the sense of displacement, and her body of works explore themes of memory, identity, nostalgia, and migration.

Primarily established as a printmaker, Zarina emphasizes the “sculptural sensibility” that underlies printmaking through the act of carving a wood block to produce her woodcuts. Her interest in this form led to three- dimensional works with paper pulp, gradually working her way into sculptures in bronze.

In later works that explore geographical, territorial, and social boundaries ( Atlas of My World, 2001 and These Cities Blotted into the Wilderness, 2003), imagery of maps and charts are used to explore personal recollections or feelings of dislocation within a diaspora.

Her more recent works have taken on a spiritual tone where the use of gold, sculptural tasbihs and precious materials seek to direct the viewer’s mind to explore questions of eternity, divinity or possible nothingness.

The title Companions of the Night is a translation of an Urdu couplet from the Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Shaam-e-Firaaq’   The work seems to echo the sense of cultural loss and isolation expressed by several Urdu poets. The stark black  surface  of the woodcut dotted with tiny white flecks conjure up an image of the vast constellations of the universe and the insignificance of man.

Among several themes that Nalini Malani’s work has resonated with  - globalization, religious conflict, gender-based violence, marginalization of the vulnerable – the image of the woman destroyed has remained a recurring one. She has drawn on myth, legend, cultural history and literature, recreating archetypal figures like Sita, Radha, Medea and Lewis Carroll’s Alice to retell stories of women’s suffering.

 Woman Destroyed 2, 1986, belongs to the earlier watercolours that she worked on while she was at her studio in Lohar Chawl, and spoke of the woman within a dense network of family interactions. By the 1990’s Malani’s work surged in new directions as she introduced installation, theatre and video into her practice.

Her mutant series that she introduced in early 2000, depicted creatures that seemed to share some human aspects yet mutated into “post human” forms with truncated limbs and swollen bodies. These mutants seemed to reflect Malani’s concerns with the continual violence perpetuated against the female body as well as the devastating fallout of nuclear and technological advancement on human kind, reflected in the more recent work that is part of the exhibition – Murmur of Maternal Lamentations.

A similar journey is reflected in the work of Vivan Sundaram who has weaved his way through drawing, painting and photography, to video and installation art.

Eclipse, 1991, the work in the Nicholson collection marks the beginning of a change taking place in Sundaram’s practice and was possibly his earliest attempts to move into three-dimensional work.

Sundaram’s work elicit’s the viewers participation, creating a space for the construction of a cultural product or a debate rather than paintings to be admired on walls. He seeks to resurrect personal memories, pieces of history and create new ways of seeing so that the installation area becomes a speaking space that the artist and the viewer/participant create together.    He is not just artist but activist, storyteller and historian.

To draw a line uses video work that Sundaram had shot at a workshop at the studio of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda. The workshop, To Draw a Line: In Memory of Bhupen Khakhar and Nasreen Mohamedi,  was conceived as a multi-dimensional project that protested the violence against an art student’s work.  It invited teachers, students and the public to come in and draw all over the 60 -foot sheets of paper that lined the walls and floor of the studio. The site-specific installation was created to co-incide with Independence day and on the evening of the 14th August, participants were asked to either burn or bury the drawings as Nehru’s historic independence speech was read.

“A performance-event comes to an end. It has served its purpose. A site-specific installation is usually destroyed. Its after-life survives as the creative video document” – Vivan Sundaram.

Sudhir Patwardhan’s journey is far more gradual, the changes subtle and nuanced. His work has oscillated between portraits of the poor and marginalized to intricate depictions of towns and urban landscape painted in minute detail. The subject though has remained largely the same – the dispossessed migrant overwhelmed by the challenges of life in a brutal urban environment yet dignified by his struggle for survival. But the Bhayya of his earlier work (1999) has mutated over the years into the Migrant who can lay claim to very little else, other than the space her body occupies. He traces the bhayya’s lineage to the Flemish paintings of the 15th Century while the sturdy body of the migrant recalls Manet’s early images of the industrial poor, clothed in dark hues mired in dirt and dust.

“Such references to and borrowings from the traditions of painting, both Western and Eastern, help in giving me a sense of continuity. Change in my work is usually gradual.  As I experience a change in my relation to the outside and a change in my own needs, the language evolves or undergoes mutation”- Sudhir Patwardhan.

Among the younger artists whose work features in the exhibition, Anju Dodiya’s journey has been equally nuanced. While her earliest work was abstract, Dodiya  discovered that the figurative mode best expressed her concerns. A large body of her work focuses on the creative process and the artist’s angst over the process of creation. Her delicate watercolours construct elaborate masquerades, where every object in the frame plays its part in the narrative.

“I used ‘myself’ as a character in a novel. To build narratives I use the emotional temperature of color and the sharpness of forms against the ambiguity of the stains of water and charcoal” – Anju Dodiya.

My Family echoes the feelings of insecurity an artist might possibly experience and her empathy with insignificant creatures. Her imagery turns far more aggressive as she enters the 2000s, her props turning into swords and whips, her protagonist’s stance more belligerent, her beautiful colours tempered for a period, by grays. A few years later the artist was experimenting with embroidered mattresses as canvas and in 2007 she came up with her first site-specific installation, Throne of Frost set in the Durbar hall of the Baroda Palace. The work consisted of double-faced wooden boxes with watercolour images on the inner side and embroidered mattresses or tapestries on the other. They enclosed a space strewn with large shards of glass mirrors reflecting the chandeliers and ornate ceiling above and the images of the watercolours on the sides.

Color Chart (excerpt from a skinalog), 2012, provides yet another twist a in

Dodiya’s journey, where she draws on family photo archives to record the physical changes she experienced over the years as the result of a skin ailment. Alternating with reworked images of her previous works, the marks echoed the stains of her watercolours creating a ‘skinalog’ of then and now - a journey of both her personal experience and the unfolding of her craft.

Her husband Atul Dodiya draws on external impulses as intensely as Anju’s gaze is inward looking. All through his career, Dodiya has resisted a distinctive style preferring to constantly experiment and push the frontiers of his own artistic practice. Earth 1991, bought by Nicholson from an exhibition at Chemould, was something of a milestone in Dodiya’s journey.  It was painted during a scholarship in Paris(1991-92) which initially left him overwhelmed by the majestic craft of the renaissance artists and contemporary masters like Picasso that he was exposed to. But it was Paris that gave him the courage to explore new working methods as he moved from photorealism to a more flexible mode of image making, allowing his work to reference all the major influences in his life – cinema, literature, popular art and culture, artists and art history.

His exquisite series of watercolours on Gandhi  in 1999, where he pays homage to a leader who was a self proclaimed “artist of non violence”, again reflected the changes he was incorporating in his practice. He switched from heavier oils to the more translucent watercolours and his work acquired political overtones, largely absent until now.

His iconic shutter works, the most compelling from the Missing Series (2000), mirrored the security shutters of Mumbai’s shops, highlighting the fear and insecurity that haunted people after the communal riots of 1992 and the bomb blasts that followed in Mumbai. Ideas and images constantly resurface in Dodiya’s work as in the cabinet motif that he first used in Broken Branches (2004).  Objects like prosthetic limbs and crutches that recalled human pain and suffering, lay encased in vitrines, as witness to our troubled political history.

 Stag in Traffic just completed by Dodiya, marks one more turn in the road ahead. A homage to one of his favourite artists Rabindranath Tagore, it incorporates abstract forms, Gujarati text that reads almost like abstract calligraphy and the figure of the stag- a direct reference to an image from a Tagore painting. It represents the artist’s attempt to escape the figurative and   explore the world of pure form, colour and gesture.

“Stag in Traffic could also be a self-portrait.  I am surrounded in my mind by so many diverse inputs of cinema, books, literature, paintings. There is a traffic of culture, art and creativity that encircles me.

Is it possible to put things aside and create”? – Atul Dodiya

Like Dodiya, Sunil Gawde is yet another artist who has constantly reinvented himself. His journey from abstract expressionism to sculptural installation reflect to some extent, the changes in the country’s art scene. His abstract oil on canvas, 1990 that is part of the exhibition, abounds with thick swashes of pale yellow paint, smeared on with a metal spatula rather than a paintbrush. His work evokes a contemplative note inviting the viewer to immerse himself in the object presented before him.

By the end of the decade, his show Oblique revealed Gawde’s transition to three-dimensional work, where he re-examined the relationship between art objects and ways in which they were commonly situated in the context of exhibitions, consumption and interpretation. The artist combined complex philosophy and simple everyday objects to provide new ways of seeing. His playful references to art history- What Duchamp Forgot- a handful of white mothballs that recall Ducamp’s famed urinal, are reminiscent of Atul Dodiya’s irreverent versions of art history.

The Blind Bulb etc. series at Mumbai's Sakshi Gallery in 2005 marked a radical change in his studio practice.  Large-scale sculptural works with complicated systems of gears and pulleys presented new ideas and images with ‘Time’ as the subtext. Where earlier he was a ‘solo performer’ he now had to make the transition to a collaborative practice that involved engineers, technical experts, carpenters, welders and other skilled craftsmen. “I am like the architect of a building: it is my soul and their hands”.

 Like in Love Perhaps!(2011) has a winding staircase laden with red roses that seem so seductive to the viewer, almost like an invitation to ascend the spiral steps. It is only when you approach closer that you realize that the roses, a symbol of eternal love give way to a bed of nails. Gawde’s work often reflects this constant interplay between beauty and cruelty, love and loss, desire and danger.

But it is Baiju Parthan’s journey that has perhaps been the most radical, with the artist considered a pioneer of inter media art in India. An Act of Equillibrium -The Wind 1991, in the Jehangir Nicholson collection reflects Parthan’s forays into  shamanistic studies as he tried to escape the overbearing influences of western art. Many of the works done during this period examined how elemental forces involving gravity, fluidity of water or the ripples created by wind could be used in the process of art making. In the late 1990’s as communications went online Parthan swiftly made the transition to media that he felt reflected the new urban reality.

“My actual interest is in exploring the various ways in which we interpret reality to arrive at the experience we call our world. And depending on the degree or level at which I want to speak about it, I choose my medium. So at times it is painting, other times it is lenticular prints, and occasionally when I need to include ‘duration’ as an element in the work, I use computer generated video”.

-Baiju Parthan


Chorus 2, (2011) is part of a series of lenticular prints that re-imagine historic landmarks and monuments by staging a virtual event that would impact and alter the viewer’s memory of the actual landmark. 3D graphics layered over photographs using lenticular technology are used to stage the event.  This particular piece features a typical Mumbai street side dwelling or chawl instead of an architectural landmark. High above in the sky the virtual event unfolds in the form of a line of passenger aircraft charting the mythical spiral motif of 'making' and ‘unmaking’. Adjacent to this event is yet another swarm of aircraft rising up, forming the transcendent shape of a mountain in the sky. Finally, there is a pedestrian on the road who seems to be the sole witness to this unusual occurrence.


The exhibition thus explores certain significant moments in the artist’s practice and shares the discovery that the “journey” can be as exciting as the destination.