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THE COLLECTOR OF MEMORIES

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Somak Ghoshal   |     |   Published 25.10.08, 12:00 AM

Using paintings, photographs and installations, Josh P.S. turned the Bose Pacia gallery into an archive of India’s imperial past at his latest exhibition, Alone in the crowd (Sept 6-Oct 4). Josh is a special kind of archivist, a collector of memories rather than memorabilia. He invokes real people, objects and places to unfurl layers of memory accumulated over them, showing how memories congeal into myths, and myths give rise to meaning.

The strikingly large image of a baroque palace towers over a viewer stepping inside the gallery. A photograph at first glance, the leaden grey tint of the picture slowly reveals itself to be paint on closer inspection. Apart from the intriguing title — Below the dark side of the moving white clouds — there is nothing to signpost the identity of this colossal edifice. Some might be able to identify it as the La Martiniere Boys’ School in Lucknow, although they may not know that it was called Constantia in the 18th century, and belonged to Claude Martin, a French aristocrat. Even without knowing that M. Martin lies entombed in the basement, there is still an aura of death in the painting, framed by the black clouds crawling along the sky and a pool of even darker shadows covering the ground. The title refers to this sinister contrast of darkness and light, alluding to native and foreign complexions as well.

Instead of simply making photographs, Josh often chooses to make montages of painted historical images. He paints Gandhi and Nehru together, adding the deliberately bland title, Nothing special about it (picture), a series on Dutch palaces, panoramic vistas of gold mines, and a blown-up front page of The Hindustan Times reporting the 1946 riots. Each of these images is painted with photographic fidelity, yet charged with an ingenious optical illusion. The farther we go away from them, the clearer these images become; while the moment we start advancing towards them, they get increasingly blurred — reversing the work of memory, which turns indistinct as it moves away from the past and into the present.

The installation, Colonial Chessboard, using various natural extracts (wood, wax and soil), is based on one of Josh’s own paintings. It has a row of sickly red columns (the colour of dried blood) interspersed with deep, empty spaces. Blood, spit, semen and sweat have silently trickled into the earlier works of Josh P.S., as if making up for the stark absence of human beings in them. In Who owns the Peacock Throne?, an ornate wooden bed lies empty, every trace and smell of bodies wiped out of it. This object exists merely as a token, a memento mori, with that unanswerable question in the title lingering over it. Josh’s colour photographs of a line of serrated mountain ranges and the gold mines of Karnataka, influenced by Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of miners, generate another set of paintings and wax installations.

There is an arresting intertextuality in such a working method, where the eye of the camera is allowed to interact with the human eye. The former shows the real for what it is, from a coldly faithful and mechanized point of view, while the mind’s eye has a vision of its own — less perfect perhaps, but more humane than that of the machine.

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