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MANY IDEAS, ONE IDENTITY

A bronze dancing girl from Cambodia. An intricately-done mermaid in batik from Indonesia. An amazing cloth thangka from Bhutan, every millimetre of its surface densely covered in masterly embroidery. Ceramic rhinos from China. Paintings from different countries and regions of south, southeast, and northeast Asia, including Russian Siberia. It was indeed an art show with a difference. Although, curiously enough, art per se wasn’t the focus. Or commerce, either, because nothing was for sale. The focus seemed to be on the declaration of an expansive Asian identity above petty geopolitical tensions.

And so, the venue wasn’t a city gallery, but the grounds of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, which hosted the show along with Asia Centre, founded by K.P.V. Nair. Obviously, the institute’s Asia emphasis matched the show’s theme. But Nair’s centre was also paying tribute to Azad, the remarkable nationalist, on his 125th birth anniversary, a man who has had no champion calling for the consecration of his legacy in public memory. Neither his family, nor some squabbling political group.

The art and artefacts were picked up by Nair on his travels from 1970, but the 46 items on view form only a small part of his massive private collection. The sampling available confirmed certain general observations about Asian art and culture. One: that the influence of Buddhism endures. Two: that though Indian cultural dominance over southeast Asia ended long ago, its continuity still flickers, glimpsed in the odd painting. And three: even as traditional manners have largely been supplanted by Western influences in art, handicraft seems to retain its regional signature.

The traditional Japanese landscape possibly enjoys the attention of tourists as affordable art. An example was Two Cranes, a vertical watercolour done on silk by an anonymous artist who reworked a favourite subject. Far more impressive — and indeed, intriguing — was a Muslim artist’s acrylic, dated 1998. Because Md. Rawin of Indonesia had painted Krishna Teasing Gopis (picture), reassuring liberals that the pluralism the country was known for hadn’t been choked to death. Its Miniaturist stylization, muted palette and impish humour made it something of a cynosure. Another fascinating composition came from Bali’s N. Darmana.

Not surprisingly, cityscapes and village scenes were repeated by different artists. Quite a number of paintings came from Vietnam, including one that revisited the critical phase when brave little David was battling Goliath. A work of spare grace in wash and ink from China, an oil from Mongolia that presented a cameo of life there, a meditative head from the Baikal region in Russia: the variety was captivating enough to whet your appetite for more.

What is now needed, therefore, is a permanent display of the entire collection, backed by proper research.