At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi, a sense of the fantastical permeates the works on display. Take, for instance, ‘Go Back to Roots’ by Bangladesh-based artist Joydeb Roaja. Human figures can be seen perched on the very branches that have sprouted from their heads. The imagery seems straight out of a folktale. Roaja draws you in with this visual to create a conversation about the affinity of the Tripura community—which he hails from—with the forests all around. In a region fraught with conflict, the displaced people, perhaps, carry these memories of the trees and foliage, which seem to become a part of their bodies.
42 such works and projects—spanning new commissions, historical works, performances, video, books, archival material, installations, and more—form a part of the new exhibition, ‘Very Small Feelings’. A collaboration between the KNMA and the Samdani Art Foundation, the show has been co-curated by Akansha Rastogi and Diana Campbell, chief curator, Dhaka Art Summit. This is the the fourth exhibition in KNMA’s ‘Young Artists of Our Times’ series. As you walk around, it feels as if the works are in constant dialogue with one another. Laitïam, a video loop by Shillong-based theatre-maker Lapdiang Syiem, takes on folk imagery as well, albeit with a difference. She responds to Khasi folktales in a contemporary manner, addressing questions of gender and identity. In another part of the show, author Amitav Ghosh’sJungle Nama—an adaptation of a legend from the Sundarbans—comes to life through an audio-visual presentation and collaboration with Salman Toor and Ali Sethi.
Whatever the project be, it is backed by strong storytelling. “At its core, the show is conceived as a captivating 'spread' that serves as a platform for intergenerational conversations and entanglements. By exploring stories, rituals, characters, memories, and actions, the exhibition invites visitors to immerse themselves in a conceptual space where youth is not confined by age, but rather viewed as a realm of boundless possibilities,” states the curatorial note. In a rare juxtaposition, children’s art is also placed alongside work by artists from India, Bangladesh, and 10 other countries across Asia, Europe and the Americas. The exhibition includes many works produced on site specially for the exhibition.
Known and forgotten tales, popular characters, cartoons, and narratives deeply embedded in one's consciousness come to life, providing a rich tapestry for contemplation and dialogue.“The show offers a very expansive way of thinking about the inner child. The underlying idea is that we meet several versions of ourselves over time in different stories,” elaborates Rastogi, senior curator, programming and exhibitions, KNMA. While thinking of the theme of the new show in the series, she wanted to showcase content that would address children and adults alike, without dumbing down any part of it.
The first iteration of the exhibition was organised at the Dhaka Art Summit, held in February this year. “Diana’s invitation to guest curate and collaborate on an exhibition at the Dhaka Art Summit came around the same time that I was developing the concept for a much smaller show for KNMA. This turned into a collaboration between two institutions, and we co-developed different layers of it, and the exhibition scaled up in such beautiful ways,” says Rastogi.
‘Very Small Feelings’ features a new commissioned work by Mumbai-based architects Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, a sculptural installation by Murari Jha from Delhi, site-specific murals by Finnish artist Jani Ruscica, a participatory performance by Bangladeshi artist Yasmin Jahan Nupur, an elaborate collaboration between Indonesian brother and sister duo Aditya Novali and Ade Dianita, among others. “Some of the artists in the exhibition have already been working on certain characters in their practice. For example, textile-based work by Dutch artist Afra Eisma welcomes the visitors with her otherworldly beings, and Guadeloupe artist Kelly Sinnapah Mary has been developing the character of Sanbras for a while now,” explains Rastogi.
Similarly, Vietnamese artist Thao Nguyễn Phan’s has spent considerable time on her installation ‘Tropical Siesta’, in which she creates a rural village inhabited only by children. They have only one book between them, that they keep enacting the stories from. The ongoing work speaks of certain traumatic events that certain generations from the country have had to go through.
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Afrah Shafiq’s work, ‘Nobody Knows for Certain’, looks at folktales and books from the Soviet Union, which made their way into India in the 1980s-90s, and were translated into many regional languages. “She does a fantastic job of taking an entire generation’s nostalgia and turning it into an interactive fiction and archival game with its own narrative,” says Rastogi. “We have commissioned more than 50 per cent of the show. Ideas were developed and revised with artists as the exhibition evolved.”
One part of ‘Very Small Feelings’ also looks at new research on artists such as Leela Mukherjee and Devi Prasad, highlighting their role in art education. A newly-commissioned project by artist Nidhi Khurana responds to Prasad’s writing and curriculum making as an artist-educator. “He was one of the first persons to be asked by Mahatma Gandhi to join Nai Talim—new education for new India— at Sevagram in 1944. After 14 years of teaching there, he wrote an important book ‘Art: The Basis of Education’ which was published by the National Book Trust,” she adds. One can see not just his drawings but annotations as well. KNMA has also received on loan a set of six books made by his students between 1944 and 1958. “In his own book Devi Prasad writes about his experience of facilitating a 15-day workshop, in which six children-authors worked day and night on creating their own books and illustrations,” says Rastogi.
Art education and a focus on books and artist-educators working with young learners runs as a background thread to the show. Ganesh Pyne for instance, is known for tempera, but there is another aspect of his life that not many know of—-that he worked for many decades as an illustrator at an animation studio, and also illustrated books. “The exhibition brings together illustrators, comic book artists, muralists and more. We are illuminating understudied practices and aspects of many well-known artists, such as Chittaprosad,” she adds.
Very Small Feelings can be viewed at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Saket, New Delhi, till 23 September, 2023