A section of the gallery space at Bikaner House in New Delhi is covered with images of characters from a village production of Ramleela, a dramatic enactment of the life of the Hindu god Ram. The photographs by Mumbai-based photographer Sandeep Dhopate showcase the colourful, kitschy costumes sported by residents of the Maihar town of Madhya Pradesh during the show. Dhopate, who was visiting Maihar in 2016 during the days of Navratra festival to research for another project, said he just chanced upon the performance and decided to photograph it.
The photographs are a part of Disappearing Dialogues, a multimedia art exhibition, featuring paintings, videos, book art and photography, created by 14 artists from India and abroad in collaboration with the people of Maihar and its surrounding areas. Curated by Nobina Gupta, the exhibition has been put together in collaboration with Art Ichol, a Maihar-based art residency.
“I was standing in a corner watching the Ramleela performance and thinking about the inherent lack of grace in the show – the ill-fitting outfits coupled with tacky accessories, the medley of contrasting colours and haphazard styling,” said Dhopate. “It was far from the notion of a god, but the visuals were still striking to me and I decided to just document that without thinking how I would use it later in my project.”
Dhopate set up a little studio of sorts near the stage and spent the next six nights shooting the performers in costume.
Maihar is most famous as the place of residence of Baba Allauddin Khan, the Hindustani classical maestro who founded the Maihar Gharana. It was Khan and his musical legacy that brought Dhopate to Maihar in the first place. A part of his exhibition is dedicated to Khan’s home, Medina Bhavan. “I did extensive reading on the philosophy behind Hindustani classical music and tried to understand its nuances,” said Dhopate.
“The walls of Medina Bhavan have heard music literally being played 18 hours a day every single day for several decades,” added Dhopate. “In my view, the walls of this place still have his energy. I have attempted to convey that feeling by splashing the walls of Medina Bhavan with colours that celebrate life. What appears to the naked eye might be a silent dead space, but what one can hear is anything but silence. Walking through the abandoned walls of Medina Bhavan, it’s hard to miss being part of the taleem (teachings) that the torchbearers of Hindustani classical music went through.”
The focus of Disappearing Dialogues, according to Gupta, is on reacquainting Indians with indigenous traditions either lost or dying. “Madhya Pradesh is a place of rich histories and cultural and musical legacies and traditions that are hidden deep in the area,” said Gupta. “This heritage should be valued and preserved before it disappears. For this project, the artists have used their creativity and research abilities to study disappearing practices and develop thought-provoking artwork and material in response to their findings.”
Along with the photographs, there are 3D models on display of small residential mud buildings created by Australian architect Clare Elizabeth Kennedy in the tradition of building techniques from Madhya Pradesh, along with textile artist Nidhi Khurana’s vibrant cloth creations demonstrating the techniques of natural dyeing, like bandhani and shibori.
Gupta’s own project, titled Dharohar, involved interacting with children studying in the schools in Maihar and encouraging them to use art to explore and express what they wish to achieve in life.
“It was interesting how their choices depended so much on the kind of experiences they had seen their parents have,” said Gupta. “Most girls wanted to be doctors because they noticed how far their parents had to travel for basic medical care. Some children wanted to be police officers and one even had aspirations to become a designer.”
The children doodled illustrations on paper plates or on handmade local khaprel tiles.
Many artists have also engaged with Bagheli language spoken in the Baghelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh. Classical Odissi dancer Shashwati Garai worked with local folk singer Shashi Kumar Pandey to fuse Bagheli music with contemporary idioms and has created an interactive performance installation at the show venue that will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Bagheli.
Disappearing Dialogues is on display at Bikaner House, New Delhi, till November 29.