Amrit: A Poetic Meta-Exhibition
by Sunanda K Sanyal
Four white horses stand atop tall columns, surveilled by a series of watchful painted eyes; two bowl-like objects rest on a padded bench; a two-part slab with its own ocular sits on a tall wooden stool; seven white horses, standing in a row on a horizontal metal beam, confront a dark painted surface; dense, vertical rows of manufactured ceramic electrical accessories hang on the wall in a picture frame, flanked overhead by two painted panels… This is a glimpse of Partha Dasgupta’s ceramic installation Amrit. What are we looking at here? Are these replicas of archaeological remnants of a civilization that we have yet to understand? Or perhaps they are imagined metonyms from our own forgotten past, waiting for us to decode them in our current crisis as a culture and reconstruct memories of our histories and legacies? If some practicing ceramists are puzzled, or even disappointed by the exhibition, by that same token, some sculptors are likely to be energized by it. Either way, the response would stem from the fact that the ceramic objects, albeit central to the display, are but components of a broader intermedia conversation between ceramics, sculpture, and painting.
Those who know about my persistent critique of the rhetoric of high modernism might wonder why I support the work of this mid-career ceramist-painter, who not only has always maintained a careful distance from the postmodernist experiments that have dominated contemporary Indian art in the recent years, but who is also deeply invested in form, process, and authorship, among other things. A fair question indeed; and the purpose of this essay, in a way, is to respond to it. But in order to cover certain broader implications of my response, I want to cast my net wider, around a discussion of the contemporary relevance of the notion of medium in the visual arts, before turning to Dasgupta’s work.