Art in Calm and Chaos: My Week in New Delhi

(Left) Balasubramaniam (aka Bala), Stone Waves, Fiberglass and sandstones Dimensions Variable / 2010-2011. (Center) Vesela Sretenovic and Bala in front of his work, Nothing From My Hands. (Right) Balasubramaniam (aka Bala), Dead-line, Iron and jute 48 x 19 x 105” / 2011. Photos: Vesela Sretenovic

Recently I had the challenging pleasure to spend a week in New Delhi.  The occasion: artist A. Balasubramaniam (or as we  know him “Bala”) opened a solo exhibition at Talwar Gallery concurrent with the 4th edition of India Art Fair. My experience of the two places could not have been more different. Bala’s show was pristine, solemn, and inward, an oasis for quietude and reflection. The art fair, much like other art fairs, was hustle and bustle, only this time with unusual suspects (numerous non-western dealers and artists) and with intensified colors and scents unknown to New York, London, Paris, and Madrid. The untamed energy of New Delhi and the potential of art coming from the region was fascinating, perplexing, and the future will tell if this potential gets fully realized.

But to get back to Bala, I was thrilled to be able to see the follow up—and much, much more—of his artwork that we had on view last summer and still remains in our courtyard. See photos of the installation and de-installation of his sculptures at the Phillips.

Entitled Nothing From My Hands, Bala’s exhibition at Talwar (a gorgeous, four-story gallery in south New Delhi) features different bodies of the artist’s work spread through separate indoor spaces and an outside garden and roof. These works include sculptures emerging from walls (Nothing from my Hands, see photo above center); wooden, organic forms displayed on the floor (Stone Waves, see photo above left); an eight-foot thorny spiral made of rusting metal hung from the ceiling (Dead Line, see photo above right); a six-foot diameter sphere made of spokes from bicycle wheels, similar to the one that is currently at the Phillips (Embryo), and a large scale outdoor piece made of granite (Nothing from my Hands). In short, experiencing Bala’s work in the midst of a super-sensorial city was like a breeze of fresh air that brings you back to life, the inner life away from the street crowds and noise, continuous cars’ honking, and an overwhelming dust in the air.

I am still bewildered by the contradiction between the outward chaos and inward peace in people. As a friend of mine—who is originally from Delhi but spent almost 20 years in the United States—said upon returning to her hometown, the city’s chaos gave her a new sense of freedom. Although I can’t go that far, Bala’s exhibition did give me an opportunity to experience both the “outside” and the “inside,” which is what his work is about all about.

Vesela Sretenovic, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Hodgkin and Holi: An Unmistakable Connection

This work from the collection of the Freer Sackler Galleries illustrates the tradition of Holi. A Holi festival. 19th century. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper. H: 28.9 W: 19.2 cm India. Gift of Charles Lang Freer F1907.25.

As I was giving a recent tour of Howard Hodgkin’s monumental prints As Time Goes By, a docent at the Freer Sackler Galleries pointed out the possible relationship between the prints, which are characterized by exuberant areas of intense color that appear to be thrown onto the surface, and the holiday of Holi, the festival of colors, which takes place throughout India and other South Asian countries in early spring. Holi was originally celebrated by farming communities as a ritual expression of hope for a good harvest and a collective rejoicing in the spring.

Holi is also thought to have had various mythological beginnings whose narratives usually have a moral. One originates in the boyhood of Krishna, considered one of the most human of the gods. When Krishna was playing with Radha, a girl in his village, he noticed that her skin was fair and his was dark. When he complained to his mother, she suggested that he throw color on Radha’s face so that the difference could be erased.

During Holi, participants, who dress in white, throw colored pigment and water on each other. According to the myth, people do so with the aim of erasing differences of color, creed and religion, hoping to create a truly equal society. Hodgkin has traveled extensively in India and collects Indian art.

Watch the videos below for a glimpse of the modern celebration of Holi.

Karen Schneider, Librarian