Published by Gallery Espace on the occasion of the comprehensive exhibition 'Lo Real Maravilloso: Marvelous Reality' curated by Sunil Mehra, and Marvelous Reality Cultural Festival, New Delhi

Gayatri Shina

An epilogue can be an efficient point of entry.

As an “anti avante – garde idea,” magic realism has usually come at fortuitous moments in literary and artistic history; at the same time it is a genre that has not been adequately theorized. Timed at the syncline of shifts in art production and aesthetic values, this exhibition carries within it a welter of possibilities. Magic realism as an oxymoron teeters between extremes. In a world where fiction continually collides with the mundane, empty lots can morph into elaborate mansions, and the humble pathway can crawl with strange beasts. Here childhood fear colldes with mature desire, phantasms engage with the political and experiential.

For a critic to write as an insider to another curator’s processessets in motion a chain of reaction, of a possible inside/outside view. How do you locate yourself; as critic or sympathetic interlocutor? Are your investigation into the formal nature and range of materials? Or more persistently, is plots and lays out a schemata, of the alleys and bylanes of the imagination?

In a looped relationship, artists ‘speak’ through their work, and their work becomes reflective of the visions and vulnerabilities of the curator. As a self – reflexive discipline, curation produces a collection of ideas and artistic princples, but it exposes the curator as an embedded voice, a “cultureprenneur” who also produces cultural capital. The dialogue between the curator and the works is inflected through interpretive tools like catalogue essays and gallery talks. The interjection of multiple critical voices expands the range of issues, representation and debates and a movement beyond the Unitarian curatorial view. In my essay I hope to create a dialogic space, one that seeks to engage not only with the art works on view, but with the curatorial voice that moves between the wores; annotating, emphasizing, realizing.

I thank Sunil Mehra, curator of the exhibition and Renu Modi, for this engaging opportunity.

In the mid 1920’s Germany, the art critic Franz Roh invented a term, magical realism, that would describe European post expressionism. He wrote “for the new art it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure of the exterior world”.

Working with and through magic realism in the domain of art throws up multiple propositions. Magic and realism as a binary both engage and contradict each other, making the domain of magic realism perpetually unstable. At the same time, magical realism has come to occupy a territory: “a development out of surrealism that expresses a genuinely Third World consciousness”. The long line of magical realist literature from within a third world, post colonial base engaging writers in the Americas, Africa and Asia ties magical realist art to a similar set of propositions: of the strength of the logos and of narrative, as the site of political and social critique.


“To begin with the phenomenon of the marvelous presupposes faith”. A deliberate engagement with myth—to erupt its hierophanies and interject a palpable present—has informed a boby of Indian art. The artist stands at the intersection of a received iconography of images and a morphology of meanings, a structure of narratives that play out in the public domain. Waswo, pushpamala, Ebenezer Sunder Singh and in a deflected way, Bharti Kher and Nikhil Chopra dismantle and rearrange the structures of constructed meaning. They suggest herein a displacement of accepted order and a counter – cultural expeansion of the hegemony of mainstream beliefs. The artist as he enacts and appropriates, for play and self aggrandizement as the ‘Narshimha Avatar’ (Ebenezer Sunder Singh) or Waswo’s dalliance of Krishna the cowherd in mimicry of the performative site of the photo studio, bring a slew of representations into play. Like a Rorscharch’s test, Waswo’s image splits into its identical double, like a mockery of the art of reproduction. Does it not displace the notion of the heroic and give myth the vitality of our times?

Pushpamala’s performative photography places her/self at the centre of the narrative fragment, in this case, Sita’s abduction, a climactic episode in the Ramayana. Pushpamala’s reference points are Parsi theatre and academic painting, sweeping gestures, faux theatrical effects, and the stereotyping of the northern Aryan queen and the Dravida asura king. Gandhi in his assessment that has endured and been contested in the public domain. In appropriating the myth, and restaging it for the performative performative photograph Pushpamala.

Enters a historical aesthetic space in which the leading cultural signifiers are beauty, separation and sacrifice.

Sita’s victimology is wonderfully upturned in Bharti Kher’s transgressive work, ‘warrior with Cloak and Shield’. Kher tends to embolden and empower her women even as she curiously reduces them. The combination of visual elements is so bizarre and unexpected that the power allusions that she makes have asimultaneously aggrandizing and reductive effect. In earlier works her dark, bare breasted amazon ‘ Arione” (2004) the bearer of cup cakes, or ‘ Arione’s Sister’ (2006) whose animalism is tamed by an uncontrolled accretion of shopping bags, anticipate ‘Woman Warrior with Shield’; her pertly shod feet and banana leaf shield are completely at variance with her impressive corpuscular horns, Greek chignon and Amazonian intent. Bharti’s figures have a necessary heroism; yet the impress of domestic engagement is never very far. By location her figures of center, ad lending them a willfully subversive role, she creates a possibility of the pleasures of the irrational.


“The principle thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances”. Desmond Lazaro takes the ordinary working figure perhaps a fisherman, a daily jobber, neither heroic nor identifiable figures. They are isolated in the landscape that is bare, taut, suggestive of sun, sand sea and sky that works like a template of abstract painting, recalling the pure colour fields of Morris Louis, Rothko and Jules Olitski. Lazaro invokes infinitude, but our immersion into the sea of colour is halted by the presence of his singular working class figure, taut in movement or relaxed in contemplation, but never quite free from the quotidian tasks of daily renewal and work. Here the passage becomes a fragment of the human condition.

Women painters in the show, notabl Dhruvi Acharya and Louise Gardiner investigate gender through the states that a woman occupies. Acharya’s single expressive form is wry and empathetic. The many handed domestic worker, the load bearer or object of sexual gratification and nourishment is rendered abstract through sheer exaggeration. A suggestion of Botero’s proportional exaggeration and of Ukiyo - e- prints lend her images a universal quality.

Like other artists in the show notably Amit Ambalal, Manjunath Kamath uses animals as allegory in a critique of the human condition. Rabbits rushing in curiosity towards a polluting smoky exhaust pipe in the work ‘Second Hand Car Goes to Heaven ‘ mimic the populist zeitgeist of trying everything new at least once.


Magic realism in its movement from the object world to the fantastical continually shifts in the registers of scale and materiality. In Anila Rubiku’s world objects of daily life are laid out with neatness and precision. They loom and rise above the human, which shrinks into tiny, aspiring and unfulfilled forms. The investigation of the magicalor the hyper real as shadow or negative space also informs the work of Anila Rubiku, Shilpa Gupta and Baptist Coelho. The play in size and materiality, industrial and hand crafted work echoes the hiatus. Magic in Jungian terms is described as ‘synchronicity’ in which a material and psychic event such as a dream, fantasy or thought coincide. There is also the aspect of alchemy as transformative state. Shilpa Gupta’s assemblage of interactive shadows, Baptist Coelho;s playful paper planes, Anila Rubiku’s illuminated spiraling ‘Houses of the rising sun’, as much as her shrinking humans deliver both a philosophy and a practice. In such exercises, newer worlds are contained.

Bandeep Singh’s conjunctions, such as they are between breathing palpable and in organic forms, between warmth and the collness of touch, between body and receptacle, play with our expectations of form. They tease and seduce within the penumbra of shadows. Through the simplest of juxtapositions Bandeep evokes awe for primeval forms, recalling Harappan seals through the magic of accretions.

Magical realism opens up possibilities that are normally closed. Of sexual or political expressivity that challenge the normative, of the inversions and cross cultural accommodations in a dominant cultural. Toni Morrison speaks of magical realism as “another way of knowing things”. As an oxymoron, the term works like a loop, moving from the realm of the real to the unreal to the real again; it is this intertwining which removes magical realism a step away from fiction. Gigi Scaria uses such elements of displacement in his video ‘Political Realism’. Using the technique of photographic animation in his flat in Rohini, Delhi he expands the illusionary space to suggest regimes of political change. As viewed through two closely adjoining doors in his apartment the icons of Soviet or American authority , Stalin, Lenin and the twin towers—images grabbled from the internet—appear to topple and collapse. The work also comments on how historic global power equations are received, when viewed from the domestic. The notion of worlds within worlds, inhabited by the creatures of the mind is played out in the phantasms of Tara Sabharwai. Women artists have traditionally tended to paint in small format. The immediacy of an idea, and its execution, an intimacy in viewing small works and their episodic characters are some of the conventional explanations. Tara Sabharwal’s works with their sense of delicate and fleeting vision nevertheless are loaded with inversions. The fabulous supersedes the real, the child becomes the definer of the adult world.

Magic realism essentially plays not only a certain theatre of difference but also with a notion of space. Thus the art work can inhabit an ‘external’ sense of space, such as a social, anthropologic, economic or political site, and an ‘internal’agency such as the space of memory, psychological expressivity, fantasy. It is in the projection of an internalized world on to the external that a work moves between thebinaries of the magical and the real. In Bhupen Khakhar, the psychosexual identity of a gay man spills out into every day locations. The tree growing from a man’s head watered by a penis or a half naked man tossing about kitchen utensils in rage not only domesticate deviance, but reveal Khakhar’s own intentionality, of how space occupied by his male subjects.

Becomes a sexualized domain. Identity and transference is reflected in the curatorial choices. In Nikhil Chopra’s projection of himself onto the body of his grand father Yog Raj, or the imaginary body of the Indian feudal Sir Raja, British imperial views of Indian feudatories as historical residue are invoked. In Nikhil Chopra’s viedo Yog Raj Chitrakar, performativity, sculpture, drawing and theatre extends and destabilizes our notion of the artist/ self and the space that he occupies. Chopra’s foregrounding of hs own mail, aspiring body is a theme that runs through the show. Jagannath Panda’s primitive man with the accretions of civilization in a globalised world reflects the inherent conflicts of notions of progress. Sohrab Hura’s lady boys shot on a street in Cambodia speak of the sexual colonization of South East Asia, and the unequal power relations implicit in hebephilia and cross gender experience. Hura’s preferred term is “lady boy” for transsexuals, often those who travel from Cambodia to Thailand for a sex change. These photo images of Siem Reap Signal the changing of space: from the outskirts of Angkor to a touristic hub with a busy life in the shades. Hura’s photographs hinge on the notion of promise; on the allure of the lady body soliciting sex, the anticipation of the vacant street awaiting the next morning, the butcher’s empty meat hooks in tantalizing display.

Inc. 1786, Peter Pindar, a wag wrote “ Tis said that naught so much the temper ribs/ Of that ingenious artist Mr. Stubbs/As calling him a horse – painter”. Sutapa Biswas uses Stubbs immaculate and orderly renderings of the horse to domesticate the image to realize the wonder of a child’s imagination. Sutapa’s Bunuelesque inversion has a triumphal aspect; it creates a poetic and textual space as much as one of a psychological reverie and free association. The conflation of worlds that allow the discreet boundaries of human experience to melt and flow into each other also characterizes the work of Ranbir Kaleka, Sonia Mehra Chawla, Rina Banerjee and Iranna G.R. Iranna’s figures and animals in a suspended make belief space speak laterally of cultural divergence, and a loss of moorings. Ranbir Kaleka’s ‘Ouroboros’ draws on an ancient symbol, of the dragon that consumes its own tail; one interpreted by jung as an archetype, a universal prototype, usually heroic but also flawed. Kaleka’s flaccid middle aged horse rider who fails to illuminate his own way ahead is also the trope of the anti-hero. Divested of armour, holding ahead a torch instead of a weapon, a quisotic philosopher or a vigilante rather than a hero, he continually tries to illuminate his own path in circular, even tragic gesture. In a recent study on ‘lucid dreaming’ a state in which a subject can observe herself dreaming, the subject is described as the conscious observer in a world of unrealities. The artist engaging with magical realism is a kind of lucid dreamer, one who suspends the absolutes of everyday life to gain a freedom from familiar structures, logic and identity.

Gayatri Sinha is an independent curator and art critic based in Delhi.


© sonia mehra chawla