12 Indian artists (8 from Baroda, India) are participating in an exhibition, Chai and the City, that opened at Pickford’s House Museum in Derby city in the UK on Friday, September 29. Organised by Zahir and Ruchita Shaikh of Artcore, a fine arts charity based in Derby in the East Midlands, the show dovetails into Britain’s celebration of 70th anniversary of India’s Independence this year. It comprises two exhibitions linked together organically, showcasing artworks made by 16 artists from UK and India, on themes that closely link the two countries. While the Chai part of the exhibition focuses on the popular culture and history of drinking tea/chai in both countries, but in completely different ways, the City part of the show celebrates the rich heritage of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India, specifically of Baroda city, designed by British architects, with an evocative exhibition of photographs by Baroda-based photographer, Rahul Gajjar. Indo-Saracenic architecture was popular all over the sub-continent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, and remnants of these imposing built structures can be found scattered in towns and cities all over, especially those that were the major and minor royal states, darbargadhs and thikanas, ruled over by Maharajas and Nawabs.
“Chai” is the popular name for Pakistani and Indian tea, a strong, milky, sweet, boiled beverage often spiced with grated fresh ginger root, sometimes with basil and mint leaves and almost always with the ubiquitous chai masala powder, easily available at roadside tea-stalls that dot the urban Indian landscape. The Exhibition examines how artists, in the present day, look at tea and its associations, the narratives built around it, its harvesting, global commerce, colonial overtones, and so on.
Works of the 16 artists (5 from the East Midlands, 11 from India) offer a comprehensive exploration of the subject. While the Indian artists have created Artist’s Books, a medium that brings together narration, illustration, painting and book-making, the artists from the East Midlands have worked with the sculptural form related to Tea – tea services, tea cups, kettles, teapots … exploring the humongous heritage of the clay pottery/porcelain industry that developed along the Trent and Derwent Rivers in the East Midlands in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The Indian artists are Debraj Goswami, Kruti Thaker, Prantik Chattopadhyay, Roshan Chhabria, Soumen Das, Kanika Shah, Prithwiraj Mali (all based in Vadodara), Dharitri Boro (Santiniketan), Neha Lavingia (Ahmedabad), Akshata Naik (Toronto), and Urmila Shastry (Bangalore). While some artists (Akshata, Urmila and Dharitri) have created accordion books – those that can be folded out and both sides of the paper can be filled with images, others have used the regular book format, using both or one side of the page to create a single striking image (Soumen, Debraj, Neha, Roshan). Yet some, like Prantik and Kanika, have explored the playful and interactive format – the pop-up book and the flip book – to express their ideas on chai. Kruti, on the other hand, made a modest installation which was a cut-out of a large kettle, made with textile and decorated with embroidery, with a little pocket in the front to put in painted rectangles (a sign towards the now popular tea bags) for the different kinds of tea sipped at breakfast, towards midday, at tea time and so on! Mali’s six cups, a late entry into the show, was a tongue-in-cheek statement on ‘tea equals gossip-time’ with the imprint of the ear at the bottom of the cup. Since the ‘books’ needed the visitors to touch them, flip them, turn the pages over to see the different visuals and read the text wherever necessary, the curator had got all the artists to make digital facsimiles of the books that the viewers could easily handle.
The participating British artists are Holly Kemp, Jane Smith, Myria Bandi, Carla Lavin and Ranjena Gohil. These artists too created large amounts of glazed clay and porcelain works that corresponded to the exhibition theme of a relationship between Britain and India but also England’s own historical traditions. Carla’s work defines the tea kettle as a vessel that holds culture and history, and is capable of being broken and collapsed yet has the ability to be reformed and remoulded. Her tea kettles, of large and ambiguous shapes, are glazed on the inside but retain their clay outer bodies, sometimes decorated by henna patterns. Trained ceramist Holly Kemp’s work is inspired by the clay kullads, popular as use-and-throw tea cups all over small town northern India. She then took references from traditional floral and leaf patterns of tea cups from the Derby Museum and screen-printed them on the cups, creating a vast body of more than 70 cups that she presented in a layered semi-circle topped by a metal kettle cut-out! “Tea has the power of creating a sense of home no matter where you are in the world”, she says. Silversmith and artist Jane Smith explored the Japanese technique of ‘Kintsukuroi’ (golden joinery where cracks or fissures in the clay body are filled in with gold or other metal and celebrated as a whole piece not a ‘repaired’ one). In her works, a pair of hands gently held a cup that was either painted or held together, almost as a spiritual offering. Myria Bandi was the surprise of the show – not a trained artist but a student of art therapy – she flowered working with the four other artists at Artcore’s pottery studio and kiln, learning and progressing in small but steady steps. Like her own identity as a Goth person, Myria’s numerous works reflected ‘what it is like to be different in an identical world’. So she did not aim to create the perfect kettle or cup, but ones that went this way and that, with beaks for spouts, uneven mouths, crooked handles, and deep and dark glaze-work. With this kind of work, her aim is to challenge people to try and see with a different eye and point of view, and to prove that art is not about being accurate and ideal, and that something imperfect can be viewed as beautiful and meaningful. Ranjena Gohil, the fifth artist did a huge amount of research that led her to the story of an unknown Indian prince who ordered an elaborate tea service from the Royal Crown Derby company in 1941 for a special party he had planned for his 21st birthday. The service was prepared, packed and dispatched but the ship carrying it was probably torpedoed and sunk and the consignment never reached its delivery address. What happened, nobody knows, neither is the identity of the prince revealed any where. Taking off from this point, Ranjena created a dozen tea cups of porcelain, of which eleven were decorated with transfers of local and exotic English flowers, while the twelfth one was painted with a lotus on a background of glistening gold.
The “City” exhibition celebrates the Indo-Saracenic Revival, an architectural style movement by British architects in the late 19th-early 20th century in British India. It drew elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture, and combined it with the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles favoured in Victorian Britain. Such buildings were often rendered on an intentionally grand scale, reflecting and promoting a notion of an unassailable and invincible British Empire, as well as of the Indian royalty who often commissioned these architects for their own palaces and public buildings. Chief proponents of this style of architecture in India were Robert Fellowes Chisholm, Charles Mant, A H Coyle, Henry Irwin, Sir William Emerson, George Wittet and Frederick and Charles Stevens, along with numerous other skilled professionals and artisans throughout Europe and the Americas. Of these, Chisholm and Mant created several public buildings and palaces in Baroda, though architects such as Coyle, Emerson and Charles Stevens also built in Baroda. These architects designed major and minor palaces, University/college buildings, hospitals, museums, libraries, markets, government office buildings, clock towers. Together, these constitute the architectural ‘face’ of Baroda city, and constitute one of the best examples of Indo-Saracenic buildings in India.
Rahul Gajjar’s photographs capture the grandeur of the architecture and the fine understanding that the English architect brought to selection of materials and design which corresponded to Indian weather conditions that were totally contrary to that of Britain. The exhibition is also a sensitive documentation of the British legacy in India that precariously survives the ravages of the elements and the tumultuous nature of socio-economic changes that can often be disastrous to the survival of built heritage.
Pickford’s House Museum in Derby is part of the Derby Museum and is an ideal location for this show. Joseph Pickford (1734-1782) was himself an architect and builder who built most of the houses in mid-17th century Derbyshire, which was the crucible for the Industrial Revolution that started in England and led to rapid urbanization – the development of towns and cities. The Pickford’s House is conserved as a heritage property and an example of urban life in Georgian England. Most of the rooms are re-created to stress this aspect, while there are about 5-6 rooms available to host curated and travelling shows that generally reflect the theme of the Museum. For the Chai and the City show, this was the most appropriate and ideal venue. The Museum also dipped into its own significant reserve collection of tea-pots, metal tea boxes, designs on tea services (kettles, teacups and saucers, sugar and milk pots, tea-cake plates) that were created and used by ceramic industries, and advertisements for tea, that it also displayed as adjunct to this exhibition. Chai and the City will continue at the Pickford’s House Museum till November 18, 2017.