In looking for landscape— Eyes by the windowsill wait for the brain to light up the slope of the hill. Thought cuts a strobe to the farthest reaches of the horizon. Beds of flowers appear at the edge of a dry river bed. Great green grasses shiver on scorched plains otherwise racked by so much wind the stones have gone blank. Slowly, filling with crags and scars and pretty fossils, the stones begin to tell how old a land is. Landscapes get plucked out of land that may not exist as one would like. Art beguiles by such landscapes. Even when they are ravaged, there is hope they will be beautiful, because landscapes are not so much fact as inventions of artistic material. This is the conviction that secures them a place in imagination. The same, one might hazard, reveals an economy of the blind—a system of entitled visionaries who power weak suns with their desires.
Calcutta Group (1943-53) artist Gobardhan Ash was one such visionary. For most of his life he painted some of the dreamiest landscapes of nature and poverty from rural Bengal to emerge out of the group, whose precedents lie earlier within the Bengal tradition of painting and the long shadow cast by philosophical manifestos emerging from Santiniketan (1910s-1930s). Titled by two Ash paintings, Wooden Horse and Boggy Land, the show offers select propositions about colonial land acquisition, middle class imagination, death, and landscapes of hysteria to revisit the implied revolutionary spirit of the Calcutta Group via Ash’s prospects of contained wilderness. Select artworks by Prajakta Potnis, Gieve Patel, and Tejal Shah are staged in the mode of a Trojan horse to question the power of the wilderness myth evident in Ash’s scenes of Bengal’s natural and dispossessed milieu.
In India, the wilderness myth has been a founding principle in shaping the diagnosis of landscape as fact, jurisdiction, and philosophical grist before Indian independence and in subsequent histories including art. By this myth, landscape is an island of contemplation and escape—untouched and endangered. Yet for such a construct to exist, land must be construed as desolate, deserted, a waste of a kind unless properly conserved and managed by the state. Before conservation, wilderness has first to be manufactured through the “civilising” project of unlearning its unnaturalness and obscuring human occupation. This show navigates some of these ideas.