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A global art project inspired by an old Sufi poem

A new exhibition at Ojas Art is part of an international project, ‘The Conference of the Birds’,  that combines ancient wisdom with cutting- edge participatory art

‘Simorgh’ (2021) by Venkat Shyam. Courtesy: Ojas Art
‘Simorgh’ (2021) by Venkat Shyam. Courtesy: Ojas Art

One of the most striking works at the Ojas Art gallery, Delhi, is by Ranbir Kaleka. It shows a host of birds and beasts descending upon cities to reclaim habitats lost to rampant construction. The scene almost seems post-apocalyptic, marked as it is by the absence of humans. In stark contrast is a painting by Venkat Shyam, which has a hoopoe in the same hues as the soil around her. The stark landscape is livened up by looming clouds and a lone sapling growing in one corner.

These works are part of a new exhibition, The Conference Of The Birds, inspired by an old epic poem by Sufi poet Farid-ud-Din Attar that speaks of an assembly of birds during a time of existential crisis. The wisest bird leads them through seven valleys to find the mythical majestic bird, the Simorgh, a metaphor for enlightenment.

Organised in association with the Delhi-based Yuva Ekta Foundation, the show uses the poem to assess the dreadful impact of the pandemic, especially on the most disadvantaged, while trying to envisage a post-covid world. It presents new works by 16 traditional and contemporary artists such as Shyam, G.R. Iranna, Jagannath Panda, Madhvi Parekh, Manjunath Kamath and Santosh Kumar Das. Each artist has responded to the text in unique ways. “And even though the works are visually very different, they are complementary to each other in a rather sublime way,” says Anubhav Nath, director, Ojas Art.

Also read: How an artist is responding to climate change

The exhibition is part of a larger international initiative, also called The Conference of the Birds—a participatory project led by Simon Sharkey, director of Necessary Space, a participatory theatre organisation, and artist-educator Erica May Wood from Canada. “This project is a direct response to the challenges we face when dealing with the impact of covid-19 and the climate crisis on a personal, economic, environmental, political, local, national and international scale,” says the project note. “Ancient wisdom, cutting-edge participatory art and the urgent need for creative direction collide in this global participatory project.”

Detail from ‘Conference of Birds and Beasts’ by Ranbir Kaleka. Courtesy: Ojas Art
Detail from ‘Conference of Birds and Beasts’ by Ranbir Kaleka. Courtesy: Ojas Art

Besides India, artists from Scotland, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Bangladesh and Ghana have echoed the journey of the birds through the valleys of “quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, wonderment and enlightenment”. Over 50 works of art will be created as part of the project and showcased in Glasgow during the COP 26 meeting on climate change to be held from 31 October-12 November. In 2022, the co-curators of the project will create one work out of the 50-plus pieces.

Also read: How artist Shilpa Gupta is giving the word back its freedom

In India, the project is being led by Puneeta Roy, managing trustee, Yuva Ekta Foundation. It was just before the second covid-19 wave that she first discussed the project with Nath, seeking references to indigenous painters. Several discussions later, Nath decided to work on the project’s visual arts aspect. This involved numerous studio visits and conversations with artists. “This happened after a long time and felt very rejuvenating,” says Nath.

The show juxtaposes the work of traditional and contemporary artists. Nath, however, insists we look at each work as art, without categorising it as “traditional” or “contemporary”. “I find such distinctions problematic. There are numerous contemporary urban artists who draw inspiration from indigenous traditions. Take Manjunath Kamath, for instance. His work, Laughing Behind The Clouds, is a satirical take on the valley of knowledge itself and has been inspired by numerous traditional art forms from around the world,” he says.

Roy says it has been truly revelatory to explore the lives of the disadvantaged and marginalised through the lens of covid-19 and the climate change crises. “The strength and fortitude with which they have tapped into hidden resources within themselves and built a network of support in their communities, is truly inspiring,” she says.

Also read: Reframing the Ramayana to tell Sita's story

Besides the visual arts exhibition, the Yuva Ekta Foundation responded to each of the seven valleys to create youth leaders at the grassroot level as well as tap into the wisdom of our indigenous people. For instance, for the valley of the quest, she worked with a Rajasthan-based NGO, Doosra Dashak. They looked at youth in Bassi village, who had the potential to become community thought leaders. “We chose a young theatre director to do a workshop with them for ten days and create a short play, which was then digitally documented and sent to Simon Sharkey, Project Lead in Glasgow. “We have focused majorly on rural India, as there is a lot we have to relearn about community bonding and sharing, as a way forward post the pandemic” she says.

The Conference Of The Birds can be viewed at Ojas Art, Delhi, from 23 October-7 November, 11am-7pm (closed on Mondays and Diwali).

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