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Spotlight on: Nandini Valli

October 19th, 2011

In this series of blog posts we’ll be looking at each of the artists shortlisted for The Grange Prize 2011: Gauri Gill, Nandini Valli, Althea Thauberger and Elaine Stocki. The Prize is Canada’s only major art prize where the winner is chosen by the public. Vote now. Each year four fine art photographers, two from Canada and two from a partner country, are nominated by an international jury of experts. This year, the partner country is India. The Grange Prize is a partnership between the AGO and Aeroplan.

“The first roll I ever shot… I saw the contact sheet and I was quite amazed. That got me hooked on photography; I wanted to shoot more and more pictures.”  Nandini Valli, artist statement (video), The Grange Prize 2011

Nandini Valli (Indian), Spaceman, 2010, from the series Remembering to Forget, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.

Nandini Valli (Indian), Spaceman, 2010, from the series Remembering to Forget, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.

Nandini Valli Muthiah has rapidly emerged as a key figure in Indian photography, and in particular in the realm of the performative photograph. She draws upon a long, established tradition in Indian popular art, the hyperrealist painted calendar poster of the gods, infecting it with a modern twist and executing the shot with the thoroughness of a cinema auteur. She shows heroic figures in ‘normal’ or ‘modern’ environments – blue-bodied god in a hotel room, or young girls masquerading as Indira Gandhi at a fancy dress show, are comments on India’s perception of the heroic as much as on middle-class aspirations

Born in 1976, Nandini Valli was raised in Chennai, India, where she continues to live. She completed several degrees before entering the field of photography. After an 18-month apprenticeship with a leading commercial photographer in Chennai, Nandini decided to pursue a B.A. Honours in Photography from the Arts Institute at Bournemouth, UK (now known as The Arts University College at Bournemouth). This is where she realized she was more suited to producing art photography as opposed to commercial photography.

Nandini Valli (Indian), Shiva, 2008, from the series Remembering to Forget, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.
Nandini Valli (Indian), Shiva, 2008, from the series Remembering to Forget, inkjet print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.

Nandini Valli: At A Glance

  • Her location in Chennai influences her choice of equipment – as there is nowhere to get film professionally developed in Chennai, her focus is on digital photography.
  • She influenced by a diverse range of photographers including Gregory Crewdson, Tina Barney, Jonathan Torgovnik, Raja Deen Dayal, and Bourne & Shepard.
  • Her photographs are a subversive commentary on established traditions in Indian art, placing heroic figures from Indian mythology in wholly modern environments like hotel rooms, cars or school plays.
  • Valli has been showing her work publicly since 2007 and is currently represented by Sakshi Gallery in Mumbai, India.
  • Read some reviews and interviews with Nandini

 

“Fantasy or reality, the trained eye of this artist capture the nuances of life in breathtaking detail. The juxtaposition of the pinks against the blues, and the vivid imagery, all work in conformity to provide a fascinating insight into Nandini Valli Muthiah’s world where traditional concepts are constantly tweaked and twisted in a contemporary perspective.”

Nandini Valli (Indian), Disillusioned 1, 2003, from the series Definitive Reincarnate, inkjet print on archival paper, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.

Nandini Valli (Indian), Disillusioned 1, 2003, from the series Definitive Reincarnate, inkjet print on archival paper, 36 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai. © 2011 Nandini Valli.

To see more works from Nandini Valli and to vote for her please visit http://www.thegrangeprize.com
Join The Grange Prize on Facebook

Spotlight on: Gauri Gill

September 22nd, 2011

In this series of blog posts we’ll be looking at each of the artists shortlisted for The Grange Prize 2011: Gauri Gill, Nandini Valli, Althea Thauberger and Elaine Stocki. The Prize is Canada’s only major art prize where the winner is chosen by the public. Vote now. Each year four fine art photographers, two from Canada and two from a partner country, are nominated by an international jury of experts. This year, the partner country is India. The Grange Prize is a partnership between the AGO and Aeroplan.

“Voices from the margins should continually enter the mainstream” Gauri Gill, artist statement (video), The Grange Prize 2011

Gauri Gill has recently emerged as one of India’s most significant young photographers. Born in Chandigarh in 1970, she currently lives and works in New Delhi. She has studied in India and America, receiving BFAs at the Delhi College of Art and at the Parsons School of Design as well as an MFA at Stanford University. Gill’s practice is complex because it contains several seemingly discrete lines of pursuit. These include her more than a decade long study of marginalized communities in Rajasthan, of women from different generations and their often tentative encounter with modernity.

Gauri Gill (Indian), Alok and Sumati Patel – Parekh Silicon Valley, California, 2001, from the series The Americans, 2002–2007, archival pigment print, 69 x 102 cm. Courtesy of the artist. © 2011 Gauri Gill.

Gauri Gill (Indian), Alok and Sumati Patel – Parekh Silicon Valley, California, 2001, from the series The Americans, 2002–2007, archival pigment print, 69 x 102 cm.

She has also investigated and recorded issues around migrancy, and the decrepitude and change generated by an expanding city. Working in both black and white as well as colour, she seeks out the narratives of ordinary heroism within challenging environments. Gill’s work also addresses the twinned Indian identity markers of class and community as determinants of mobility and social behaviour. In these works there is irony, a rugged documentary spirit and a human concern over issues of survival.

Gauri Gill: At A Glance

  • Gill was born in Chandigarh in 1970. The city, situated in Northern India, is the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana and is India’s first planned city.
  • She currently lives in New Delhi, where she a co-editor at Camerawork Delhi, a free newsletter about independent photography.
  • Her work has been shown widely both in India and internationally.
  • She has run photo-workshops with rural girls in Lunkaransar, Tibetan students from Tibetan Children’s Village, Dharamsala and Afghan photographers in Kabul.
  • Themes present in her work include marginalized communities, Indian identity, migrancy, cities, challenging environments. She shoots in both black and white and in colour.
  • You can find out more about the artist at http://gaurigill.com/

 

Since she first started exhibiting in 2007 her work has been exhibited widely in India and across the world. Solo exhibitions include: What Remains, Green Cardamom Gallery, London (2011); Notes from the Desert, Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi; Matthieu Foss Gallery, Mumbai; Focus Gallery, Chennai, and Urmul Setu, Lunkaransar (2010–2011) and The Americans, Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi; Thomas Welton Art Gallery, Stanford University; Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago; Bose Pacia Gallery, Kolkata and New York, and Mississauga Central Library, Mississauga (2008–2011).

 

 

Guari Gill (Indian), Kundan Singh. Yuba City 2001, from the series The Americans, 2001, archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist. © 2011 Gauri Gill.

Guari Gill (Indian), Kundan Singh. Yuba City 2001, from the series The Americans, 2001, archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches.

To see more works from Gauri Gill and to vote for her please visit http://www.thegrangeprize.com
Join The Grange Prize on Facebook

India at the AGO – is this one way to gain an audience for Maharaja?

October 21st, 2010

What is the best way to market the Maharaja exhibition to the South Asian community in the GTA? That was the major question posed to advisory committee last week by the the marketing, public relations, and programming departments at the AGO.

So how many people can fit around the table?

The committee was peppered with questions, from where the billboards targeting the South Asian community should go, to what languages should be used for advertising. That question led to a rather energetic debate between some who proposed Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi as the key languages to others who felt it would be unfair to ignore Tamil or Bengali. We definitely proved that the South Asian community is also a group of communities!

Also asked: What would be a great tag-line to go with the exhibition? Something with a call-to-action. What’s an example? The one that got everyone in the room aha-ing was the AGO’s own ad campaign, the catchy “Gotta Go to the AGO” that ran during the opening of the Frank Gehry redesign.

After some silence – it was a tough question – the discussion revolved around the issue about how to excite folks within these groups to come to Maharaja if they are not regular gallery visitors.  The AGO voices around the table recognize that minorities still don’t feel like the AGO is theirs.  It’s one reason the advisory committee was convened.

So the question shifted – how important is it to a minority community to see themselves in a mainstream space? Pretty darned important is a paraphrase of the answer.

One suggestion was tapping into cultural pride. Would something like “India at the AGO” on a billboard in Brampton draw 905-ers downtown? Or would that alienate people with a Pakistani background? (Check out an earlier blog post: What makes Maharaja a Risky Business.)

What do you think? Tell us your ideas about attracting new audiences to the AGO’s upcoming Maharaja exhibition.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

Take a peek at the Maharaja Model

September 16th, 2010

Summer is over. The Toronto International Film Festival is on, and a new crop of shows is opening at the AGO. It is also only two months until the Maharaja exhibition opens on November 20, 2010. So what has the the AGO team been working on all summer?

A model.

To paraphrase the classic film This is Spinal Tap, as the band’s manager looks at the model-sized Stonehenge that is to appear on stage: “This is it?”

Rex Rajendran, Camilla Singh, Rina Singh, Devyani Saltzman and Shiralee Hudson

Okay, okay, all kidding aside, during last week’s Community Advisory Board meeting, we had the opportunity to take a look at the almost finished plan for the show. What was interesting to hear was that the team had taken suggestions from the group when it came to ideas regarding the look of the show, such as using archways and jali-style, lattice-work windows throughout the space. Sound will be used to add to the ambiance of the various rooms.

From the beginning, the team led by curator Stephen Inglis knew they wanted to rework the layout of the original V&A show. It was considered too dark and confusing. For Toronto, some of the changes are dramatically different, such as switching the very first item visitors will see, the colours on the walls, and even the lighting on information panels.

Now if only they could find some space in the exhibition for the model.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

A woman flying a kite

September 8th, 2010

A few weeks ago, the city of Toronto chose to ban competitive kite-flying at a city park. South Asian in origin, the aim of the game is to cut the string of your opponent’s kite so that it flies away into the ether. The strings are coated in glass, making the debris rather dangerous. Kite fighting is already banned in Lahore, Pakistan.  In honour of that decision, I present the appropriate painting from the upcoming Maharaja exhibition, A woman flying a kite.

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800, opaque watercolour on paper, 573 x 421 mm, © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Now this miniature painting (opaque watercolour on paper) is far from being a danger to the public. It is from the 18th century and is from the kingdom of either Bikaner or Jodhpur (in present-day Rajasthan, India).  This style is known as a nazar painting, meaning it was a present to the maharaja on a special occasion. Rosemary Crill, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes in the Maharaja catalogue that many nazars were like this – “depicting a woman alone pursuing some activity, which in the romantic poetry of the time had symbolic connotations of yearning for an absent lover.”  The Hindu god Krishna was also the subject of many nazars.

Key to the look of a nazar painting, which is usually the size of a postcard, is the background. According to art historian Naval Krishna, they are set against a plain landscape, and just like A woman flying a kite, they have “tufts of grasses at the bottom, while a curtain-like band of clouds hangs against a plain gray or blue sky.”

Naval Krishna has a neat description of how these particular paintings would be presented to the Maharaja:

When the artist’s turn was announced, he would present his painting on top of a neatly folded, plain or embellished hand- kerchief-sized cloth carried on his right palm. With a ceremonial bow he would offer his work to the Maharaja, on whose right stood the chief minister and court scribe. The Maharaja would lift the painting from the artist’s palm and, in a gesture of appreciation, would offer the artist a token payment.

What I find particularly enchanting about this painting is the subject’s stylized face. While reading up on this style of painting, I learned that the women depicted often looked similarly depending on the kingdom where the painting was made. Each kingdom had their own concept of  the ‘ideal woman’.

But what intrigued me more was recent research by Molly Emma Aitken which shows the queens of these courts also as patrons and collectors of paintings.  It turns out that the ladies were not the silent by-standers we often assume them to be.

** You can access the actual articles by Naval Krishna and Molly Emma Aitken if you have a Toronto Public Library Card and use their online research database.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

Your Stories: Hamilton Artist P. Mansaram Remembers the Royals of Rajasthan

August 23rd, 2010

In Rajasthan, where I grew up, I had the opportunity of interacting with the descendents of the maharajas. Their palaces are still an integral part of Indian heritage. Their aesthetics, and the grace of the architecture, truly reflect the glory of that period. Even today, the subtle influence of the maharajas and their involvement with their ‘people’ has created a bond one can perceive and feel.

I was born in a small but beautiful hill resort, Mount Abu, where many maharajas had their summer palaces. As a child I was attracted to their architectural beauty and would sketch their façades. Each year, before the maharajas arrived for the summer, the palaces are made over. In the interim, the palaces would be open to the public to have a tour. As a child, I was given the responsibility to take our house guests to tour palaces like the ones belonging to the states of Bikaner and Alwar.

Mount Abu had thick forests. During the summer months, forest fires were a common phenomenon and cheetahs would sometimes come to the border of the town and attack its residents. Then, one of the maharajas would hunt the animal down. Later the dead cheetah would be displayed in front of the palace for public view, something I witnessed as a child.

After high school, I went to Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay to pursue art as a career. There I met my future wife Tarunika; her younger sister later married the Prince of Chhota Udaipur in Gujarat. We became good friends and he used to talk about their seven-story wooden palace. He was also related to the Maharana of Udaipur.

I was fortunate to have been invited several times to Udaipur and its many palaces. The maharanas of Mewar (Udaipur) have always been trustees of the state and not rulers. Even now the current Maharana is playing that role extremely well.  In 1999, I was invited to the Maharana Mewar Charitable Foundation’s annual award ceremony.  It was an extraordinary three day event, full of great pomp and show with hospitality of the highest order. There were about a thousand people in attendance and the venues for the receptions were a different palace each day. The whole event was more like sequence from the fairy land. I have never experienced anything like it.

Another time, I conducted a three-day drawing workshop for the students of the palace school.  That privilege gave me an opportunity to visualise and see the glory and grandeur of the bygone era and which resulted in a series of paintings on Udaipur and were shown at a gallery in the city.

P. Mansaram is an artist living in Hamilton. You can see more of his work at the Colour and Form Society.

Do you have a Maharaja story? We’re on the prowl for your connections and we’ll be highlighting various anecdotes and memories that come our way. Share your story here. Or contact us at yourvoice@ago.net.

Translating a travelling exhibition: a curatorial perspective

August 11th, 2010

These days, exhibitions hopscotch around the world. Everyone loves a good blockbuster, but how easy or difficult is it to pull off?

Who better to give some insight into the process than Dr. Stephen Inglis, the adjunct curator of the AGO’s version of the exhibition? We touched on this issue during an in-depth conversation about his work on the Maharaja exhibit.

In case you didn’t know, Stephen is the curator emeritus from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (where he once held the position of Director-General, Research and Collections) and is the new executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, which is to open in northwestern Quebec in 2011. He is also an art historian with specialties in both Indian and Canadian folk art traditions.

So how did he get involved with the AGO? It turns out that two years ago he was in London sussing out the option of creating an exhibition on maharajas, when he heard about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s plans for their own show. When the V&A became interested in sending the exhibit to the AGO, he got the call asking if he would be interested in working on the project, by helping “transition” it to Canada. The rest is…well, you know…history.

One of the issues of bringing the V & A show here is that you have to translate it to a Canadian audience, tell me about some of the issues involved in doing that.

There is a section of the exhibit called The Raj and British rule in India of what is often referred to as The Raj. But I think that many people – this is never explained in the exhibition – many people would not know that the word Raj used to describe the British Rule comes from the same word as maharaja [maha means great, raja means king]. It’s the word for king that has been transitioned into the British sense of authority during their colonial rule in India. Those kinds of things are maybe taken for granted in London, but for the Canadian audience, it’s an interesting little detail that they need to absorb and think about and have explained.

It seems like a simple thing but in a sense, it tells a whole story in itself – how the British, in many ways, adopted some of the traditions and the positions formerly held by kings of India because they were the new kings of India. Many of the processions – of audiences meeting kings- were even kind of modified (sometimes expanded and sometimes contracted) to suit the needs of a new form of imperialism which was the British rule.

What are some of the trickier aspects of working on this project since you are also in Ottawa, this is happening in Toronto and there are other partner museums involved?

[Laughter] I think it is very tricky. One of the things about this experience is that it exemplifies the challenges that are faced by all large travelling exhibitions today, which usually combine a whole set of different professionals, often from different countries and from different traditions. It relies a lot on good cooperation and goodwill, but it also relies on a set of skills that people in museums develop for really working together, cooperating, relying on each other, and learning to fulfill certain functions.

The idea that a single person works on the curatorial vision, on the interpretation, on the layout – especially something of this scale and complexity – doesn’t work anymore. In a sense, it is both a challenge and also a very great pleasure to find yourself in a position where you are relying on your colleagues and on people that you have recently met, to deliver a product that is coherent, that takes into account the public, and that delivers messages that are both explicit and implicit in what is happening [in the exhibition].

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

Maharajas protest too

July 7th, 2010

I have to admit that the idea of working on another Maharaja post was the farthest thing on my mind after the G20 and its accompanying protests blew through downtown Toronto. Like many of us, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what protest means to me.

Maharaja of Baroda

Maharaja of Baroda, V&A

This also got me thinking of the maharajas before India’s independence (don’t worry, I’m adding how their subjects perceived them to my growing list of follow-up posts!).  There were many instances of rulers butting against the limits of their power due to their subservient position to the British.

Sometimes rebellion was overt such as the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857 (aka The First Indian War of Independence aka The Great Rebellion aka The Sepoy Mutiny) which included only a few rajas (and one rani). They rallied with Indian soldiers of the British army who had started the uprising. There was even an ill-fated march to Delhi to join up with the reigning Mughal Emperor whose once illustrious family had built the Taj Mahal. The final result was that legislation was passed in Britain to end the East India Company who had first gained control and transfer power to the crown. The era of The Raj had begun.

Others were more discreet like the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda who during the 1911 Delhi Durbar upset the colonial masters by not providing King George V the proper ‘obeisance’. He did not wear his full honours and after presenting himself to his King-Emperor, he chose to do the unconscionable, by turning his back to the British monarch.

And of course, they were many who did nothing at all.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

Your Stories: Remembering a friendship, a Maharaja and his doctor

June 22nd, 2010

To kick off our call for your maharajas stories, we are delighted to share with you this story from Barbara Stephen. Just last week Barbara wrote to us with her very own memory, not of a particular Maharaja, but how a family friend brought a little bit of royalty into her family’s life through a silver cup and saucer. Dr. George Martos was once the personal physician to Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore and he gave her mother this gift after a trip to India to hunt tigers with the Maharaja.

silver demi-tasse and saucer

Here’s her story:

During the 1950s and early 1960s, my mother worked with Dr. George Martos, a Hungarian doctor who had gone from teaching at the University of Berlin to Indore where he was Medical Officer of Health during WWII, and was closely connected with the Maharaja. He built a hospital for him there, and retained his connection with Indore after immigrating to Canada after the war, requalifying, and opening an obstetrical practice in Toronto.

From time to time the Maharaja would extend an invitation to join him in India for the tiger hunt, and in due course a ticket would arrive from the maharaja desk at a London travel agency. My mother heard lots of details about life in Indore, and as Dr. Martos was also my doctor and a family friend until his untimely death, I too learned about raising lion cubs, managing elephants, hunting tigers, etc.

I suspect the current Maharani may remember Dr. Martos from her childhood. I believe it was my mother, Charlotte Burry, who wrote to inform the family of his death in the 1960s, not too long after the death of the Maharaja. Dr. Martos always spoke of the Maharaja with great affection and respect.

My mother was given a silver demi-tasse cup and saucer from Indore after one of his last trips, very plain and moderne in style, with an angular handle. It was locally made and he indicated to her that it was quite special.

– Barbara Stephen is a Curator Emerita and Early Chinese Specialist with the Royal Ontario Museum.

I will post more about the Maharaja of Indore (now part of the state of Madhya Pradesh) later. Not only was he a fascinating individual – he was photographed by Man Ray, commissioned a sculpture by Brancusi, built hospitals and loved cars – we expect to have his life-sized portrait in the exhibit!

Do you have a Maharaja story? We’re on the prowl for your connections and we’ll be highlighting various anecdotes and memories that come our way. Share your story here.

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.

What makes a Maharaja a Risky Business

June 7th, 2010

I was so excited to sit in on the weekly meeting of all the folks involved with making this exhibit a success.  There were a lot of cool updates such as the search for a royal Rolls Royce (now say that five times fast!) for the show and upcoming AGO appearances at local summer festivals.

Weekly meeting of “Team Maharaja”

What I didn’t realize was that my role as the blogger was also on the agenda! After the initial chitchat about why it would be great for team members to write for the blog and possible topics that they could cover – did someone say Rolls Royce? – a more serious question came up.

How would staff deal with any potential fallout from the community blog? In other words, what about issues management?

Ah, the elephant in the room (yes, I know…I can’t help myself).  History, let alone Indian history, is messy and potentially controversial. It’s a subject that makes even the good folks at Wikipedia wince.

In fact, a variation of the same question arose the next day at the community advisory board’s meeting. What might be some of the objections coming from within the South Asian communities to Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts?

I wasn’t surprised; I, too, was slightly apprehensive when I first heard about the exhibit, especially regarding its title. So here’s a few potential complaints:

An exhibit about royalty, what a cliché! Yup, but don’t we love our royals and celebrities? And yet, like the Europeans courts, the Maharajas were patrons of fine art. If you want to learn about the history of fine art and its changing role, you have to look at the courts and what happened to them.

The Nizam of Hyderabad; Image Credit: TIME magazine

Maharajas are Hindu, right? Although Maharajas are usually Hindu or Sikh, Maharaja is used because it is easily recognizable. In reality, the richest Indian royal was actually the Nizam of Hyderabad whose background was Muslim. Maharaja is merely a short hand for Indian royalty.

Is this only about India? No. The majority of the show’s objects date before the independence of Pakistan and India in 1947 when the area was generally known as India.

What about contemporary art? Local artists? Well, in 2007, the AGO’s Hungry God show displayed the work of contemporary Indian artists including Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta. For this exhibit, the team are hoping it will be possible to involve contemporary artists in some way, either through artworks or performances and events. It helps that two veterans of Toronto’s art scene are part of this process – Haema Sivanesan of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) is Project Assistant for Maharaja and Camilla Singh, recently of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), is part of the advisory committee.

It’s interesting how some of these issues seem to be about language, but really, it’s about information and the lack thereof.  That’s why it helps to have this blog, eh?

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at yourvoice@ago.net.