THE age of industry and the revolutions that accompanied it provide a very fertile basis for all sorts of creative activity. In art, it has resulted in a couple of centuries of production of a wide variety of artworks that can vie with all the golden ages of art history put together. To create, survive and make one’s presence felt at such times is no easy task. And those who do, like Ismail Gulgee, Amin Gulgee’s father, and Amin himself, do so on the basis of a deep understanding of the development of material culture over time, its linkages with the world of ideas, and the capacity of an artist to create objects that are thought-provoking but are at the same time repositories of profound realities.
Indeed, we have traversed a long history of freeing aesthetic expression from the limitations imposed on it by religious dogma, political pressures and the blandishments of the market to tread along the winding path that links the personal with the universal and the material with the conceptual. A truly good artist not only understands these continuities but is also capable of seeing the place of each of his creations in these, both by innovating with the material of the past and by making a break from it to develop a milestone for the future.
Not everyone is capable of doing this as successfully as Amin Gulgee has done in his latest exhibition of sculpture and video art, “Through the Looking Glass”, which was shown recently at the Galerie Romain Rolland in New Delhi by the Nitanjali Art Gallery. The theme of the exhibition goes back to Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland. If the first book was a tongue-in-cheek confrontation with the wonderlands industrial society likes to blind one with, his second, published around the time of the Paris Commune, makes one playfully aware of the distortions of the truth these visions constitute.
So I was not surprised to be confronted with a large mirror chessboard with metal chapatis on it, which could also be ancient Egyptian sun discs, ranged like chessmen that one could move to “play the game with”. It is called “Cosmic Chapati 48: Hunger Game”. It invited one to enter the arena of the politics of hunger being played out in so many distortions such as the destruction of stocks in overproducing countries while there is famine in others; in grain rotting in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India and being denied to the poor “because there is no constitutional provision for it”; food aid being supplied to countries at inflated rates; or worse, food embargos being used as a political weapon, as was done against India during the Public Law 480 period and as has been done against Cuba since the 1960s and against North Korea. With these ideas shooting through one’s head, one almost does not want to play the game. But then I remembered how India did play it once: it sent a shipload of grain to Cuba to challenge the embargo, and the bread made from it was stamped with India’s name on it. So I picked up a chapati and moved it one square forward.
It is fascinating how the artist’s structuring of the sculpture not only brings to mind the struggle over food and the attempt to use it as an instrument of oppression but also reminds one how the oppressed used the same symbol against the oppressor in 1857, when chapatis were circulated among the rebels to unite them against the British. The universality of bread makes it a particularly powerful symbol of resistance. Even the oppressor cannot ignore its appeal.
This symbol of unleavened bread in the form of a copper disc with concentric circles of wire links its grain to the source of its energy, the sun, with the farmer’s effort as an unseen link between the two that the sculptor’s hand takes over from to give one a symbol he then replicates in many variants such as “Cosmic Chapati Unknown Centre”, “Folded Chapati” and “Three Folded Chapatis” to allow one to evoke not only concerns of hunger and its satiation but also the importance of food production and its link with both environmental and ethical concerns.
That this young sculptor is able to relate to and innovate on such universal iconography without damaging the beauty and simplicity of his work is commendable.
Another symbol he innovates with successfully is the crossroads, which in ancient society were necessary for barter and trade and became centres where peace and harmony had to be imposed for everyone’s benefit. This imposed harmony became an aesthetic symbol in Persian garden design as far back as the 6th century B.C. and was brought to India as the Char Bagh (four garden) pattern, enclosed by a wall.
“The Mughal gardens of South Asia can be divided into three categories: the palace garden, the autonomous garden and the funerary garden, in which the mausoleum was usually placed at the centre of the Char Bagh. In all three, the Char Bagh organised the space,” says Amin Gulgee. The sculptor explains: “The Mughals created their own style of architecture in their gardens by combining the geometric Persian influence with the organic traditions of South Asia. This combination of the geometric with the organic is fascinating for me in the context of the garden.”
This has materialised in his work as four rectangular frames, with mirrors at the top and bottom that give one an illusion of endless space, eternity if one likes, with individually crafted leaves descending like those in the European autumn or the South Asian summer. But here we have another concept at play: the structures are based on formal, universal principles, but the leaves are individual elements strung from thin wires. Here one sees him concretely presenting the relationship of the individual with the universal, the free-floating nature of the individual with the abstract nature of universal concepts of time, without losing the individual character of each concrete moment in life.
The individual, however free-floating, is only a word in a language, or, to put it in visual terms, a letter or an ideogram in a script. So it is no surprise to one that Amin is keenly involved in scripts, even inventing in a work called “Me in the Matrix”, in which individual features of the artist with their individual idiosyncrasies become a recognisable face, a form. Moreover, once the facial elements are reassembled in the social matrix, they become an identity over and above the biological being. From here, one moves to his narrative sculptures based on Quranic inscriptions.
Quite expectedly, the verse of the Quran that he chooses is the Iqra: “Allah taught man that which he did not know [Allamal insana Ma’ lam ya’ lam’].” Once more one sees consciousness imposing itself on the chaos of nature. But interestingly, the chaos and the individual solutions the artist choose to impose, on the one hand, go beyond his consciousness into the realm of the original, on the other. The cursive script relieves itself of meaning and becomes a form that the hand flows with, dredging out realities as yet unfathomed from our South Asian tradition and the artist’s subconscious appropriation of this, as in his works where the Arabic script becomes images of Ganesha and Krishna, or buffalo horns become a variant of the symbol “Om”.
“I was not conscious of these iconic images,” he says, “But I was brought up in a house full of antique sculptures and made many images of Ganesha and Krishna. So probably the hand flowed in the same direction when I made these works.”
This is an experience many artists have had, when the chisel, the brush or the pen takes its own course on the basis of the material, guiding the hand of the creator along its own lines. Often the same spirit guides the scale of a work. One may sculpt a small work first and then it demands a greater space, as his buffalo horns do or his “Dragon Spider”, which could well be a dancing Krishna, does.
It is obvious that his flights beyond the frame succeed as they do because of his training in art history, economics and architecture at Yale and because he worked with his father, who was an engineer trained at Columbia and Harvard.
It is his deep understanding of aesthetics, too, that allows him to experiment with video and performance art, as his “Love Marriage”, which not only has his training in dance behind it but also gave birth to two sculptures, “Marriage Bustier” and “Marriage Helmet”, reminding one that a good artist must show expertise and professional execution apart from having good ideas. This is Amin Gulgee’s strong point and will carry him forward to new heights because in trying times one needs works of confidence and hope that break out of the moulds of the past to create new icons for the future.
Finally, exhibiting an artist from Pakistan has a special meaning for Indians as we share a common iconic tradition going back to Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal, just as India and Bangladesh both have national anthems written by Rabindranath Tagore.
- At the same time, we share bonds of culture with Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Myanmar and China. It is a pity we do not concern ourselves enough with these to enrich our home-bred culture even after Independence, when colonial rule is no longer a constraint to extending our ties among our neighbours.