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London Diaries

Casting an artistic eye on London

Curator and author Ina Puri writes about her post-pandemic London visit, where much has changed – even though the spirit remains the same

Ina Puri | Published 11.07.23, 06:52 PM
Ina Puri at Wallace Collection, with the portrait of David Hockney

Ina Puri at Wallace Collection, with the portrait of David Hockney

Photos courtesy: Priya Singh

Over the last three and a half decades, I have been a frequent visitor to London, and each time it felt as if the city had reinvented itself. In the early years, it had been exciting to discover the city’s famous landmarks and we followed our guidebook as if it were The Bible, making sure we missed nothing! Over the years, with trips becoming more frequent, London revealed itself gradually, the many museums, theatres, cinemas and second-hand bookshops now familiar stops. A fond memory from one such visit was taking my son Arjun (then a boy of 10) to watch a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream, at Regent’s Park.

Roles reversed when he was based in London as a young professional and took it upon himself to escort me to Old Vic Theatre to watch a brilliant performance of Richard III, with Kevin Spacey. Whether it was for work or leisure I always enjoyed my trips to the city and was disappointed not to be able to make that trip in the last few years when so much changed around our lives with the pandemic.

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A phantasmagoria of diverse mediums, styles and politics

The recent visit was, therefore, all the more wonderful as I made up for lost time by packing my days with all that I so loved and had missed deeply – art exhibitions, theatre, music, films and catching up with friends I hadn’t met. It was exhilarating and exhausting! The grand Royal Academy was having its Summer Show and offered the viewer a glimpse of not only some major artists but several new practitioners, in short a phantasmagoria of diverse mediums, styles and politics. Such was the impact of taking it all in, that I stepped into the peaceful environs of Hatchards Bookstore (across the road) to catch my breath and explore the shelves for new acquisitions!

Ai Weiwei’s work from ‘Making Sense’

Ai Weiwei’s work from ‘Making Sense’

It was the summer season and some fabulous art shows had just opened. I had been excited when I heard of Ai Weiwei’s show at The Design Museum and it was just as stunning as I had expected. Titled ‘Making Sense’ the exhibition is a statement on his on-going philosophy and invites you to engage with values of humanity, art and activism. Powerful and provocative Weiwei explores the tension between present and past, hand and machine, precious and worthless, construction and destruction. ‘The exhibition draws on Ai’s fascination with historical Chinese artefacts, placing their traditional craftsmanship in dialogue with the more recent history of demolition and urban development in China.’

Exhibitions that reinforced India’s present global importance

The strong presence of Indian artists is difficult to miss or ignore and there were many instances of exhibitions that reinforced the country’s present global importance. There was a show at the Design Museum celebrating the contemporary sari, displaying the traditional and trendy, with pre-draped saris in diverse mediums, from designers to craftspeople curated by Priya Khanchandani. The show however that really impressed was Gauri Gill’s ‘The Village on the Highway’ that was being shown at V & A’s new Photography Centre, as Gill puts it: ‘Many of the farmers were elderly men who ‘brought their bodies’ to the year long struggle. …. One man said to me, ‘If you want to see Guru Nanak come and see the old men over here.’

‘DIVA’ at V & A. Images of Lata Mangeshkar and Madhubala

‘DIVA’ at V & A. Images of Lata Mangeshkar and Madhubala

The poignant images brought searingly alive the farmers’ protest that we had witnessed in the capital not so long ago. On another occasion, I was invited for a walkthrough with the curator at ‘DIVA’ an exhibition that paid a tribute to the galaxy of women icons who made a mark for themselves across time on the silver screens and stages as singers and actors. In the large salons were pictures, posters, memorabilia of some legendary stars who created magic with their performances but what caught my attention especially were the portraits of Madhubala (on a poster of Mahal) and Lata Mangeshkar. Her unmistakable voice sang ‘Ayegaa aneywala..’ in our headsets as we stood riveted before their images.

Crowded as my schedule was, I decided to take a day off with Shreela Ghosh to see Hammad Nasar’s ‘Divided Selves’ where artists were endeavouring to ‘make peace with difficult histories and traumatic pasts without being paralysed by them’ in Coventry, at the Cathedral and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. After seeing the intensely evocative artworks of Zarina Hashmi, Mona Hatoum, Hetain Patel, Larry Achiampong, Aziz Hazara, Michael Peel, Sophie Ernst and Sofia Karim, we walked to the cathedral that stood a little distance away to experience Bani Abidi’s immersive sound installation.

Bringing alive the loneliness of separation

Coventry Cathedral, and the Cross encircled by a crown of thorns

Coventry Cathedral, and the Cross encircled by a crown of thorns

It must have been ages before we could leave, because we sat in front of the Cross encircled with a crown of thorns, listening to the songs of the male and female playback singers, their words bringing alive the loneliness of separation. As Bani Abidi says of her project ‘Memorial to Lost Words’: ‘This memorial draws from letters that were written home by Indian soldiers and folk songs by their wives, mothers and sisters at the time but were censored or forgotten because of their candid condemnation of war.’ While I had seen her work at Experimenter earlier, this immersive experience will remain memorable.

The billboard for ‘Patriots’

The billboard for ‘Patriots’

Juggling with meetings and visits to art shows, I had saved two evenings for the theatre which was what I always did when planning a trip to London. I remember how mesmerised I had been at that first encounter with a musical, Phantom of the Opera decades ago — I still remain a passionate theatre addict. This time, Shekhar Mukherjee, a dear friend from Kolkata, who loves plays as much, had got tickets for Tom Hollander’s Patriots that (needless to say) we enjoyed immensely. Another evening, after a leisurely saunter on South Bank, I watched the brilliant play ‘The Motive and The Cue’ directed by Sam Mendes. The play revisits the time Sir John Gielgud was directing Richard Burton in Hamlet and their tempestuous relationship that evolves over the days.

Works by (left) Pete Mondrian and (right) Hilma Klint at Tate Modern

Works by (left) Pete Mondrian and (right) Hilma Klint at Tate Modern

My cousin T has been based in London over the last year and we had the loveliest day ever at the Tate Modern which was showing the works of two outstanding artists Pete Mondrian and Hilma Klint from their earliest phases to later times when their iconography transformed so radically, especially as in the case of Mondrian. Paired together even when they were strangers to each other the immense show ‘Forms of Life’ was skilfully curated on ‘with the counterintuitive aim of discovering their commonality’ Equally enjoyable was another day with another favourite cousin and his wife and daughter, people I hadn’t met in the years of the pandemic.

Apart from these exceptions of time spent in the company of family, the rest of the fortnight was taken up with work and walks! Looking back another evening that stretched to the summer night was a walk in Brick Lane with Radhika Howarth (food blogger/chat show host) who walked me through the graffiti-painted walls and Bangladeshi restaurants preparing ‘Chitol Maachher Muitha’ to the pub where Jack the Ripper was seen engaging with the two women whose bodies were found in the area later. She showed me the house of textile merchants and a musician named Lionel Tetris whose son had designed a manhole cover in front of their home with a viola in his memory.

With graffiti paying tribute to Tina Turner, on Brick Lane

With graffiti paying tribute to Tina Turner, on Brick Lane

Radhika walked to an alley that was covered with images dedicated to Freddie Mercury and Tina Turner, till we finally reached the highlight of the day – a wall painted by the elusive artist Banksy. Much later, we had a leisurely supper at a bistro where she told me about how she had first discovered Brick Lane before it had become such a trendy district of the city. And so the days flew by and I was able to even spend the weekend in the country visiting the amazing white cliffs with friends who had become Londoners after their decades there.

The most outstanding Chinese food outside of China

Of course we had a delicious lunch at a pub well known in the area, The Sussex Ox, before heading homewards. London has always had the best restaurants apart from China Town itself, which offers (in my opinion) the most outstanding Chinese food outside of China. This visit I was invited by Somak Mitra, a young gallerist based in Kolkata, to try his favourite place called Meimei Meifair famous for its Peking Duck. Priya Singh, my young friend from Bonham’s, not only took me to a wonderful place for lunch (Royal China) which boasted of Michelin stars but also to see the Portraits of Dogs show at Wallace Collection, which I dearly loved. Especially the section with David Hockney posing with his pooches under either arm!

As I was preparing to conclude my fabulous fortnight in London, another surprise awaited me. At Heathrow Airport, standing next to me was one of my favourite actors of all time. Tall, sans any makeup with her hair tied in a ponytail was Cate Blanchett, a LV purse in one hand and a UNHCR tote in the other which effectively summed up her own life/choices. She was travelling on UN work that evening and was most gracious when I told her that I had admired her on screen and stage. And on that note it was time to bid adieu to the much-loved city.

Last updated on 15.07.23, 11:37 AM
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