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To Remember, Amar Kanwar, Asian Art Newspaper, London

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Given the current climate of political upheaval and ideological changes that are sweeping across the Middle East and experienced by us all through the culture of twenty-four hour television and the internet, Amar Kanwar’s work hits the zeitgeist. These political circumstances have heightened our awareness to the grievances of vast numbers of people under the dictatorial rule of beleaguered regimes. Such altercations between the people and oppressive authorities are fuel for artists like Amar Kanwar. An Indian film-maker, born in New Delhi in 1964, Kanwar has courted notoriety by engaging in the constantly changing circumstances that are prevalent across the Middle East, with works that explore political violence and conditions of injustice across Asia. Kanwar’s work is thoughtful and balanced by a will to think much more than he speaks. Perhaps it is this that differentiates Kanwar from the visual school of his contemporaries and defies comparison with his contemporaries such as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat and Bharti Kher. In film, Kanwar has created a palette that is illuminated by the facts of reality.

Amar Kanwar’s multi-layered film essays are visually arresting works – set in darkness in the pockets of gallery spaces. Either as independent works, as shown at Marion Goodman Gallery, in Paris in early 2010, or as part of a survey show of contemporary Indian art (in London, the Serpentine Gallery’s ‘Indian Highway’ exhibition in 2009). A prolific film-maker, Kanwar has managed very eloquently by documentary, travelogue and visual essay, to become the conscience for so much political and social injustices in the Indian sub-continent that appear to date back to the beginning of India’s independence. Aside from his numerous single-screen films, Kanwar has developed very sophisticated multi-screen installations that read like constellations in time and space. Rather than simple documentary, Kanwar’s input is his visual dissemination of the collected images and the introduction of scripted narrative over these monumental events.  Significantly, Kanwar is as impassioned about these situations as his lead characters are about vying for justice. Within the setting of an installation, the artist plays with our imagination and the viewer becomes integral to the re-telling of the event, experiencing the images and ideas as a witness – at a distance. Kanwar, as commentator, allows past and historic events to resonate with the same reverence as when they originally occurred. Kanwar read history in the early 1980s in a country which was animated by civil disobedience and the militant-styled government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. In 1984, upon her assassination, the nation drifted into a state of political unrest and for the young Kanwar such circumstances were to become the material, firstly for his studies, then for research, and ultimately for his film-making.

Drawn to the misfortune of others, Kanwar tried to absorb the scale and circumstance of incidents such as Indira Gandhi’s shooting and then the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal that happened in the same year. Such investigative research sowed the seeds for Kanwar’s role as a human rights activist and documentary film-maker. His first serious work, Earth as Witness (1994), launched his career.

There are also short stories in Amar Kanwar’s anthology, which are as highly regarded as his longer films. For instance, the 1997-8 film A Season Outside is a strikingly visual medley of political and social differences at the geographical cusp between India and Pakistan, in which Kanwar records the ritualistic ceremony that is conducted daily along the thin white line between the Indian and Pakistan border. For Kanwar the town of Wagah appears in his film as a political hot-point, with an air of an amusement park. Kanwar wants to see through the pomp and ceremony and seeks to go beyond these moving images of men parading between boarders and discover the huge differences that separate these two political foes. The poetry of protest appears to come in many guises. Sometime in the early 1970s, a belligerent baggage handler scribbled down a poem that was later given to, and read, by Kanwar. Under Dadar Bridge is a bleak rendition of a fatherless boy remembering his prostitute mother. A sad memorial to the filthy underbelly of Mumbai’s illegal industries, the boy recalls asking his mother if he is ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, she answers his question with a flow of words that make little sense to him.

Under Dadar Bridge is considered to have motivated Kanwar to make his 2002 film A Night of Prophecy. This is a heart-wrenching film of protest poetry that moves swiftly from Kashmir to Andrea Pradesh, in which the audience is witness to the social ills of a nation are made homogeneous by inequality. It is the unexpected poetry in the film and the journey we undertake that appears to intensify the dreadful situation of people suffering for their social misfortune. Complex situations are commemorated in song, as Kanwar takes the character of Indian film and punctuates his narrative with verse. The actions then returns to the broken journey from the parched landscape of Andrea Pradesh to Bombay, on to the Nagaland Hills and finally into the vast open landscape of Kashmir.

Kanwar’s 2003 film, To Remember, appears to be guided by his acknowledgment of Mahatma Gandhi in A Season Outside. It is a film that goes over Gandhi’s final steps at his former retreat in central Delhi. In a memorial to Gandhi’s final hours, Kanwar re-enters the garden where Gandhi was shot and maps the architecture of another political hot-spot immortalised by a flash-point in history. Silence cements these images together and it appears, intentionally, that Kanwar has driven the crowds away for a precious moment in order to give history space. The resonance of such a film lies in the testimonies of younger generations of Indians, who seem to have little time or interest for Gandhi’s original blueprint for the sub-continent. Kanwar’s film suggests India is at odds with its past as it feverishly adapts to the economics of internationalism.

A history of conflict is compounded in the artist’s 2007 installation The Lighting Testimonies, where eight video screens face one another in a rectangular room in which the initial darkness is interrupted by voices and visuals narratives that are testament to the lives of women terrorised by acts of violence. The Lighting Testimonies is a difficult work in which the artist appears to have drawn on all of his past achievements in trying to chronicle multiple stories from history that have littered India’s anthology of injustices against so many castes and creeds. Each of Kanwar’s detailed films (within this larger installation) resonates with a deliberate urgency. Surrounding his audience, the intense silence is punctured by an inaudible shrieking – and then to the right the space – is illuminated a group of elderly women cluttered around government gates, hysterically demonstrating against the grave injustices done to them. As the footage fades, a new scene emerges that shows a woman re-enacting a scene from a play that appears to reference the previous film and,  in turn, this fades to scenes of lush landscapes, inanimate objects, interviews and a documentary film that gain momentum and feverishly criss-cross between screens with the work becomes more and more absorbing.

Of greater complexity, is Kanwar’s 2004-2008 film, The Torn First Pages that pays homage to the demonstrations of Ko Than Htay, a Burmese bookshop owner residing in Mandalay, who was imprisoned for tearing out the first page of all of his publications, journals, books and printed literature, in an attempt to discard the ideological slogan of the ruling Burmese military junta in an attempt to promote the ideals of democracy. Between a dictatorial regime and democratic sentiment, Kanwar interviews individuals in Burma, India, across Europe and the US, as the installation resembles a commercial for Amnesty International. The Torn Pages: Part I, Part II, Part III is a 19 channel video work with multiple projections onto paper of old and new archival footage that again resonates to the resilience and will of so many people asking for democratic change for Burma. For Kanwar the work is meant to draw an unsuspecting audience to the front line of the Burmese cause and in so doing to take some responsibility for the ills of another country.

In persisting so resiliently with a critique of his nations past (in the 2002 film A Night of Prophecy and 2007’s The Lighting Testimonies) Kanwar is critical of India’s democratic integrity and that becomes the basis of a blueprint for his work. Disseminated across the world, Kanwar’s works have become advertisements for social grievances and the ills of dictatorial and democratic institutions alike. In these visually arresting installation works the artist argues that people are susceptible to crave injustices and discrimination whatever their circumstances. In spite of the gallery settings for his works, the dynamism of Kanwar’s film works has taken his message away from the realm of art object and into the greater sphere of film, documentary and public notices of social and political adversity. Specifically unlike his contemporaries, Kanwar demonstrates a personal will to change his subject’s circumstances by empowering these people to speak their minds.


Rajesh Punj, April 2011


Written by Breathe Arts

August 16, 2011 at 11:38 am

Posted in General

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