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N.Pushpamala in Bangalore interviews curator Suman Gopinath

Suman Suman Gopinath [born1962, in Bangalore] did her masters in English Literature from Bangalore University and worked in Macmillan India for four years. In 1991 she joined Sakshi Gallery as manager and in her 9 years there organized a wide variety of art shows, slide talks, poetry readings and film screenings. In 1999, she went to London on a Charles Wallace of India Grant to do a course in Creative Curating from Goldsmith's College. She now works as an Independent Curator and Art Consultant in Bangalore.

'Drawing Space', an exhibition jointly curated by Suman Gopinath and Grant Watson, showing the works of Sheela Gowda, Nasreen Mohammadi and NS Harsha , along with the Victoria and Albert Museum collection of Indian Company paintings, opened to critical acclaim at the Beaconsfield Gallery in London, UK, in October 2000. The show will travel to different venues in the next year.

PN:  Suman, can you say something about how ' Drawing Space' was curated? Nasreen Mohammadi, Sheela Gowda and Harsha are quite different artists with different concerns.

SG:   When Grant Watson and I were studying in Goldsmith's together, this was our college project... Grant had come to India three times earlier and we both felt there was a need to take contemporary Indian art to England so we decided to collaborate. We decided on a drawing exhibition in a way because Grant publishes a magazine called 'Victorya', which is a magazine of prints of drawings- he actually curates this magazine.

When we were looking at catalogues and slides of Indian art to make a selection, we both liked Nasreen's work instinctively. Then we looked at Sheela Gowda's recent rope works which are really like sculptural drawings in space. We felt that on a formal level both seemed to work together, maybe because of the visual contrast between them- though the use of line is completely different. Nasreen is very meditative while Sheela is organic and visceral. Both deal with space but in a completely different kind of way. On the one hand these very musical notations of Nasreen's- and then the raw feel of Sheela's work...

PN:   When I first heard of the list of artists, I was surprised because I couldn't see any link between them or with Company painting, except for Harsha's work. One would think immediately of Bhupen Khakkar, Jogen Choudhury, Nalini Malani or Atul Dodiya because they directly use images from Company painting.

SG:   Company paintings came into the picture only as a form of entry to talk about the exchanges between visual languages. This wasn't meant to be an exhibition where we set up one model of Company paintings and then we set up another model where contemporary artists use it in obvious ways in their work! This was primarily meant to be an exhibition of drawing and Company paintings which were very much based on a fine, linear drawing tradition , were used as a link or a point of departure.

PN:   Don't you think framing this work in the context of Company paintings emphasizes a colonial relationship. Because it was not an equal exchange between Indian painters and British art- the traditional miniature painters were forced to change their aesthetic to the needs of the British colonizers. Indian art was looked upon as craft.

SG:   Let me talk about the way the Company paintings were themselves framed in the show. The exhibition took place in the Beaconsfield art Gallery which is a 19th century school building in Vauxhall in SE London. It's an old brick building close to the railway arches- which have also been converted to gallery spaces.
As soon as you entered the lower part of the gallery, you saw Nasreen Mohammadi's square pencil and ink drawings in this low roofed intimate kind of space with a grey slate floor. When you go upstairs it comes as a bit of a shock when you see this huge, high- ceilinged expanse of gallery space with a sloping wooden floor. The gallery is an artists run space for experimental and performative work. Sheela's work worked beautifully in this space- I think because of its theatrical, unstable quality.

PN:   In fact, when you showed me the video of the exhibition, the work looked spectacular. I particularly liked the way Sheela had installed her work next to Nasreen's framed drawings- she used the blood coloured rope to draw squarish forms on the wall, echoing the forms of the drawings. It was quite different from the way she had put up the work in Tokyo in the Japan Foundation show, where she used huge dramatic curving loops and swirls, going from ceiling to floor.

SG:   Harsha's work was also in the same space. He used one of the long 20ft windows, blocked it and made a botanical drawing like a sunburst of plants inside the space of the window. Below the drawing, he coated the space with gold leaf and used flourescent lights on either side, which gave an ethereal glow. He had the shutters of the window kept closed to create a secret space which people had to open to see the work. It seemed like a beautiful treasure house of botanical plants, almost like his experience of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
There were two exits from the galleries, which led you to the arches on which about 160 slides of company paintings from the V&A collections were projected. The use of projections and not the real works somehow made the Company paintings not so precious. They had a kind of transient quality which didn't force links. They were in a different physical space altogether. Many people who came sat for two hours just looking at these beautiful paintings.

PN:   You had organized a 5 week residency for Harsha in London to work with the V&A collection of Company paintings.

SG:
  Harsha had already seen Company paintings in reproductions here, obviously but it was the first time he saw the originals at the V&A. It's a huge collection! He worked in the Beaconsfield gallery but went often to the V&A where he would select the works that he wanted to see from their catalogues. Some of the subjects he was interested in were botanical drawings, professions like healers and doctors, iconic images of gods. His work is very witty and playful- he made a series of paintings based on them.
The work Harsha did in the window at Beaconsfield is a site-specific work, which cannot travel. So he has been commissioned to make a new wall drawing in the Nottingham Gallery 'Angel Row'. This time, he won't refer to the V& A but will go to Srirangapatna near Mysore [where he lives] to study the murals there and work from them.

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