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The fervent and the sacred

May 04. 2015
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By Phatarawadee Phataranawik

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Spirituality and devotion across all faiths are explored in a touring Indian exhibition
Indian contemporary art pioneer Satish Gupta is completely at peace as he stands in front of easel, his paintbrushes and tubes of paint to one side and his blank canvas – a sheet of white paper inscribed with a few line from a philosophical poem in front of him, 
Seemingly oblivious to the art lovers around him, he meditates briefly then covers his paper with quick, firm strokes. An image emerges of a tiny Buddha image sitting inside a larger human body.
Satish created his live drawing at the opening last Tuesday of “Form of Devotions: The Spiritual in Indian Art” at Chulalongkorn University’s Art and Culture Centre.
“Creation is a two-way process, God creates us, and we create gods,” read the three-line spiritual poem explaining Gupta’s painting of the tiny Buddha image inside the bigger human body.
“I paint from the inside,” the 68-year-old artist says.
His series of five paintings of Bodhisattvas with a deep-red background contrast with the blue-painted wall on which they hang. “Bodhisattvas I-V” depict five different mudras or meditative postures and the colours are reflective of Panchatatva, or the five elements that sustain life and the universe, an important undercurrent in much of Gupta’s artscape.
His paintings are among 80 works of art by 45 Indian artists showing at the “Forms of Devotion” exhibition that have been selected from 2,000 Indian works commissioned for a new wing of the Museum of Sacred Art (Mosa) in Belgium.
After travelling around the West, the show kicked off a tour of Asia last month with an exhibition at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi. Bangkok is the first stop on the Southeast Asian leg of the tour and is part of the ongoing India Festival in Thailand. It is one of the largest Indian exhibitions ever to show in the Kingdom.
Curated by Sushma K Bahl and Archana B Sapra, the exhibition focuses on the notion of sacred and devotional in Indian art in all genres from traditional, tribal, folk, popular, and new media. Paintings are in the majority though “Forms of Devotion” also features photography, sculptures, video and installation art.
“The show aims to promote social cohesion and interfaith dialogue through the visual arts. Art is a non-threatening way for people of different cultures and religions to get to know each other and appreciate the variety of cultural and spiritual expressions,” says Mosa’s director Martin Gurvich who founded the museum at Radhadesh, Durbuy about 100 kilometres from Brussels in 2009.
“We try to present both traditional and new media from the masters to today’s contemporary artists from all over India. And we give them all equal respect by dividing their works into the nine themes,” adds curator Bahl.
“Imaging the Divine” features a selection of icons in tangible or transcendental form, which present the deity as spiritually delightful and elevating art. On display are portraits of the Lord Buddha and Jesus Christ.
Abstract paintings featuring light and shadow and Islamic motifs make up the “Present and Absence” section, representing the idol and idea in abstraction. 
Sacred art also features narratives that are at centre stage in the “Telling Tales” theme where artists rewrite scriptural narratives featuring mythological episodes and folklore. The repository visualises characters and pantheons, from Bhagavatam, Vedas, Jakata tales, Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Bible and the Koran, 
Rooted in theology, from daybreak to sunset, birth to death, each activity is linked to the Lord Krishna’s “Leela” or playful acts.
Activities of the gods and their devotees including elaborate compositions of divine deeds and ritual masks are also featured in this section. 
“The Pilgrim” section winds through the magical religious fervour of sites and cities from Rath Yatra in Puri to the legendary Kumbhmela, held in cities through which the holy rivers flow. Also featured are images of the Dargah Sharif shrine at Ajmer, the old Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi, caves at Ajanta and Ellor, Buddhist stupa sites in Sanchi and the Cathedral of the Holy Name in Mumbai, all places to which pilgrims flock in search of solace and merit.
The impressive photograph by Dinesh Khanna’s “Devotee at the Golden Temple” and “Jain Sadhvis on Pilgrimage” are among the highlights in this section.
Gopal Swalmi Khetanchi’s modern oil portrait “Gandhigiri: Power of the loom and the handmade” and the contemporary photography of Radha Gomthy’s “The Drift”, which documents her live performance video work showing her drifting in the Ganges, are highlighted in “Sacred and Secular” section. While distinct in identity and tenets, the coverage in this theme focuses on universal principles of equality, co-existence and humanitarian issues.
“The Elemental Ecstasy” features the beauty and bounty in the perennial flow of nature in abstract and realistic paintings, “Cosmic Constellations”, which affect life patterns and are vital for renewal, make recurring appearance as tantric symbols entailing yantras, mandalas, mantras and the bindi (dot) in overlapping geometric forms and diagrams suggestive of male-female polarity or as “garbhagraha”, the innermost sanctun.
“World Within” focuses on the interface between diverse religious beliefs and the dichotomy that the faithful encounter in today’s world.
“In a global world where people from different backgrounds live close together, this project serves to promote dialogue with “the other” that's essential to help diffuse tensions, clarify misconceptions and counteract radicalisation,” Gurvich says.
“Art and culture demonstrate the similar roots of Thailand and India and are especially reflected especially through spirituality and devotion. I hope this show will serve as a bridge to draw our cultures closer together,” says Sanjoy Roy, the director of the festival.
- “Forms of Devotion” runs from 9am to 5pm until Friday at the Chulalongkorn University Art and Culture Centre, near the Architecture Faculty. 
- As part of the Festival of India in Thailand, which pays tribute to Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn on her 60th birthday, there is an exhibition of the Princess’ photos from India opening on May 12. The images were captured by the Princess on numerous trips and cover various areas, including Assam, Rajasthan, Darjeeling, Konarak and Hampi. Her Royal Highness will preside over the closing event on May 25.
- Also on May 25, the Princess is to attend a writer’s meeting, which will bring together top Indian authors for the first time in Bangkok. Among those attending will be Vikas Swaroop, whose novel “Q&A” became the Oscar-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire”. He will be interviewed on stage by the celebrity writer-columnist Shobha De.

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