Destination Departure: How Jaya He Museum At Mumbai International Airport Gives The Most Spectacular Glimpse Of Indian Art
Jaya He has conquered more than just space and challenges associated with putting out such a massive display.
It is unique, fervent, bravest and the most enriching glimpse of India’s arts – a vital element of our soft power.
India's largest public art initiative is at an airport. It is a destination in the heart of Mumbai, the city of dreams, and is no less than a mayanagri, a gorgeous city of mysteries within the city itself. At Terminal T2's Jaya He GVK Museum at Mumbai International Airport, you witness a spectacle of India's cultural evolution in colour, lines, abstraction and form.
Early during my tour of Jaya He, I am stunned and captivated by Naga totem poles displayed in the collective. It is a festival out here. The figurines stand in silence. I have not seen them before. On the wall, there is a depiction of motifs in colour. A familiar texture. In lines and colour, it appears like a thin layer of fabric on the wall. North East. Never travelled. Never seen. Never experienced. At Jaya He, travel is the only hope in an incomplete journey. Art fuels it.
Looking at the fabric-like texture created on the wall, I try to count how many artists in India's contemporary art scene have taken inspiration from traditional Indian fabrics for creating texture on their canvas. In India's valuable art narratives, traditional, sometimes, is more forward looking than contemporary. I run my eyes on the vertical display, from bottom towards the top, where the skylight illuminates the works of art. Someone standing at the upper level is watching me. She smiles. At Jaya He GVK, everyone has audience. Works of art have audience. Viewers have audience. Travellers turn audience. "In-house staff of over 30,000 people", cleaning staff, airport staff, security staff, others, turn audience. Museum volunteers and team members who look at and after these works of art day in and out, turn audience. Audience is what art displayed at public spaces deserves.
I climb back to the smiling viewer. She is Oku Takam. A student of humanities who was interning at the museum. "You must travel to the North East if you want to see Naga totem poles," she says. Takam spends a lot of time studying works displayed at the museum, especially those that "represent" other regions. Our friend of realisations is from the North East. In a few minutes, Takam and I stand facing a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in artist Andrew Logan's work Guardian Angels of India. She looks at Gandhi's portrait and smiles. The smile falls on the cheekbone in a reflection. On Gandhi's portrait. "I can see myself in Gandhi," she says. There is a pause and a quiet conversation between the viewer, the portrait and the man.
The seamless narratives of Indian traditional and contemporary art and artefacts on display at the museum bear an imprint of a creative genius. He is world renowned scenographer Rajiv Sethi, one of India's well-known design gurus. Sethi has worked in collaboration with G V Sanjay Reddy, vice chairman, GVK Power and Infrastructure Ltd. The two, together, wanted to give India a lasting representation through art and crafts, and T2 the design and language that makes it the modern "gateway to India”.
Design at T2 follows the thought and motive. The display is presented under three sections: Thresholds of India, Layered Narratives and Baggage Acclaimed. Out of these, Thresholds of India introduces viewers to the living traditions, contemporary art expressions and living traditions. It is a necessary destination. The collective has works dating back to the 11th century. "The artworks are sourced from the length and breadth of India - 28 states. All artworks are documented with certification from Archaeological Department of India," says a member of the museum team.
When Swarajya visited Jaya He GVK Museum, it had “87 installations and 5,503 artefacts”. Some viewers are in awe of numbers. Some, by the quality of work installed. Some, by the themes and perspectives the works cover. Some by diversity and representation. At Jaya He, you can't just pick one reason.
Some aspects arise from the display strongly. The museum has broken the debate on high and low art. It has faded lines that divide tangible and intangible. This is one of the reasons I was left wondering if Jaya He would use the passion and imagination of artists like Manjunath Kamath, G R Iranna (more from him at Jaya He), Jagannath Panda, Waswo X Waswo, Paula Sengupta and several others artistes, to delve deeper into grassroots, texts, textures. These artists have time and again been successful in using the most delicate threads of tradition and styles with sensitivity and nerves of steel in space, theme and site specific work. Who would not crave for a wall of reverie from Anju Dodiya?
This is wishful thinking. The core of the matter is that Jaya He, the space, demands works that give an identity of its own. Though the museum is open to the idea of collaborations with galleries, the galleries (it goes to or galleries that come to it) should take the narrative, theme and site specific work nothing below four notches for Jaya He. The museum definitely has raised the bar for contemporary art owing to how it has extracted, sort of the best, out of traditional.
It has silently revolutionalised the way art is thought, displayed, installed, viewed and maintained. To its advantage, Jaya He has a flowing viewing - of travellers, mostly. Unless you are really willing to miss flights (which I am most likely to), exploring the complete display at leisure is slightly impossible. It is a narrative that rebuilds with every viewing. Faces and Facias, an installation conceptualised by Rajeev Sethi, is a heartwarming and welcoming segment. It invokes nostalgia, memory, longing, of home. Home distanced, home found or the home of dreams. It's all right to miss a flight for Jaya He.
Who is the audience at Jaya He? Well, everyone who is at the airport and looks at the works - aware, unaware, chancing upon, rushing, resting, with luggage, with or without baggage, with children, with joy-anxiety-dreams-tiredness-thrill, with a sense of discovery, awe, pride. "Special delegations, children, invited NGO groups, all make the museum community."
Jaya He's success in displaying India's traditional and folk arts doesn't lie in giving these forms and styles a public space. Its real triumph belongs elsewhere: in opening up of a space for ideas that have allowed artisans to explore and display contemporary in traditional like never before.
The trans-disciplinary approach does not just exist in words at Jaya He. Sculpture and painting run through the space to meet each other, in shadow and light. The motif you see on an earthen pot in display would be found transformed in bigger dimension in lines on glass. Motifs that have hurtled towards the "regular" in our day to day lives have been given the eyes, view and polish, to get a fresh lease of revival in the viewer's mind and memory.
Art from India's tribes is not ‘shown' or merely ‘displayed’ at Jaya He. It has been represented - to say, to draw, to narrate. Some artefacts on display date back to the 11th century. Works by Anjolie Ela Menon and Australian artist Robyn Beeche stand at the same venue. Gond, Kalighat, Warli, and so many other styles, too. It's a blend of legacies, contemporary and history.
How did it all begin? A senior member of the Jaya He GVK team says, "In 2009, Sanjay Reddy articulated his vision for T2: an airport that can compete with any global equivalent but retains a sense of place and identity, an airport that celebrates India."
The idea was to provide a "necessary" pause in people's journey. "According to Rajiv Sethi, the art programme seeks to convert the airport into a spectacular doorway into India, integrated into the fabric of the city, it is located in and initiating the visitor into the experiences that lie beyond its doors," the team member adds.
Part of the collective titled, ‘India Greets’ has to be accepted as a tableau in, viewing and perspective. Its positioning is perfect. It gives a welcoming and heartwarming glimpse of traditional facades, doorways and porches from across the country.
There are moments when you feel that subtleties in these works get overshadowed in the runway of an imposing display, for showing too much in some parts. But that would be a conclusion drawn in selfishness. Jaya He is meant for the larger public, which includes people who view with a sketchy idea of contemporary art and trends, limited or no awareness of traditional Indian art and sometimes, no exposure to viewing.
Jaya He has led Indian viewers to the roots of Indian creative activity and concepts. Rabindra Bahera's Wellness Pond is a milestone work made and installed in India in the recent years. For me, this work of Pattachitra could itself become an object of worship for its lines, dimensions, discipline, illusions, use of surface and its treatment to a traditional art. The palm leaf holds Bahera's creative penance in the energetic depiction of dancing figures glowing in yellow. The inner chakra in blue merges with the outer yellow and yellow with the colour of palm leaf. The lotus petals become thinner. The dancing figure on every petal smaller. The core is a bindu. World renowned master S H Raza would have valued this work more than anyone else in the wide audience it has received. Wellness Pond places the 'bindu' as the beginning. The core of life and of the eternal lotus.
Among the stoppers is Palaka by Rani Rekha. Ashtadipalakas find a tribute in this work. Glass, wood, gold leaf bring the figures to life, making movement the language and metaphor, like in many other works in the collective.
Hooks, chains, hinges hold the most courageous works of installation art at the top in T2. Sunlight falls on them from the skylight - source of daylight that turns around the effect and cause of display at the vast venue. It creates a theatre of static objects, consisting of works inspired by birds worshipped and loved in Indian mythology and storytelling. The metaphor of travel and flight has been depicted in great depth. In spite of a natural source of light unhindered, during the day, meeting the light needs was not easy. "The installation of lights within the artwork and on the channels opposite the artwork is a difficult task due to the space constraints. It needs to be maintained periodically once a month," says a member of the museum team.
The journey of installation works to Terminal T2 was full of challenges. The process of installation had to, naturally, precede the installing of work. "The artefacts and artworks, which were commissioned had come in bits and pieces. They had to be stored in appropriate atmospheric conditions with all the necessary care required. They had to be taken care of like a new born baby. They went through conservation, restoration, reassembling, refurbishing and so many other processes, only after which they were made ready for installation." According to the museum team, "constant checks have to be made to maintain the temperature, humidity, pressure which would keep the artefacts safe for a longer time." Bringing the "ready" artefacts to the site wasn't easy either. "The slot wall – 3 kilometres long and approximately 54,000 sq m. It was to hold 700 tonnes of artwork,” the team adds. The wall hosting artefacts in the departures area is "60 feet high". The access is made easier by opening it on levels with passenger flow.
Several works probe human emotions, life and the cycle of life. Karl Antao's Time as River is in thematic and spiritual consonance with the concept of the cycle of life, looked through the concept of time. The infinite motifs strewn across objects of use in day to day life, jewellery, floral and decorative floor patterns and their wide variety, step wells, jharokhas (overhanging balcony), windows, doors and door knobs, roof styles in wood, earthen pots, traditional clothes and traditional vehicles used in agriculture and ceremonies have been given the most comprehensive tribute at the collective and its various objects.
Layers of narratives on narratives are thickening. Talks on art have been delivered here by some well-known artists, like Akshay Rajpurkar, Sheetal Gattani, Meera Devidayal, Papri Bose, Andrew Logan and others.
Conversations have been extended to other disciplines of art. Short concerts are held, the space is left open for interpretation and appreciation of newly installed work. The museum's social networking handles give previews to installations and works under progress.
Visiting this museum has revealed a set of problems. My own interest in visiting art fairs, where success is measured by the high footfall they receive, has plummeted more swiftly (the joy of seeing new work remains). Jaya He offers a spectacularly calm and patient viewing in a public space, igniting, alongside the urge to travel and travel more - in two directions. One, towards the airport (even if that meant crazy detours and holes in the pocket) and second, towards the state capitals, from where a true lover of India's traditional arts and crafts can wander to the hubs and villages where the forms thrive.
Jaye He is a paradise for new possibilities and partnerships in art, curating, display, viewing and appreciation.
The museum collective explores the concept of diversity. In the process, it also ends up revealing the beautiful and stronger element of exclusivity. Aspects about Indian traditional art, which had remained largely unexplored, have been successfully used to say bold human stories woven around India, travel, cities, regions, people, lives and tradition. It tells Indian and non-Indian viewers of the duality of creative genius and wide possibilities that exist in Indian art and artists.
At Jaya He, Logan's mirror technique and Gandhi's portrait remind me of another artist. Known for his work in polished surfaces, dimensions, reflections, mirrors and colours, he had brought his mammoth body of work to India. While his works have grown taller around the globe over the years, his idea and wish, of putting his art in Indian public space, unfortunately has remained an idea and a wish.
Jaya He has conquered more than just space and challenges associated with putting out such a massive display. There could be several opinions on the curating that has powered this spectacular display. The bottom line is that Jaya He, currently, is unique, fervent, bravest and the most enriching glimpse of India's arts - a vital element of our soft power.
Take a flight and miss one.
(Pictures: Sumati Mehrishi)
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