Meera Menezes climbs up to Madhavendra Palace in Jaipur’s Nahargarh to take a leisurely stroll in the Sculpture Park.
It was a chance remark that led to the setting up of a sculpture park at Nahargarh Fort in Jaipur. At a party, gallerist and curator Peter Nagy casually mentioned to author and publisher Malvika Singh that it had always been a dream of his to display large-scale sculptures within the precincts of Jaipur’s historic Amber Fort. Singh, part of the Rajasthan Chief Minister’s advisory council, was evidently taken with the idea of marrying contemporary artworks with traditional forms of art and architecture. In the end, Nagy decided against Amber because it was too sprawling and zeroed in on the 18th century Nahargarh fort instead. On December 10th, 2017, the fort’s heavy doors swung open to welcome guests to a public-private partnership between the Government of Rajasthan, Saat Saath Arts and a number of corporate sponsors.
Resting at the edge of the Aravalli hills, overlooking the city of Jaipur, Nahargarh houses the relatively compact Madhavendra Palace built by the king Sawai Madho Singh II as a sort of pleasure palace. Nagy decided to use the rooms of the Maharaja’s apartment along with the six identical duplex suites meant for his wives, to display the works of art.
While the set of apartments on the top floor are connected to each other by narrow corridors, the suites on the ground floor open out into a large open-air courtyard, also the site of several artworks. Despite the maze-like quality of the palace, with its similar rooms and labyrinthine passageways, Nagy deliberately decided against offering a map to negotiate the exhibition. Eschewing a linear way of viewing the show he wanted to play with the possibilities that the space and architecture conjured up, opining, “I want it to be a bit of a treasure hunt, I want it to be confusing. If people miss things, it is fine.”
For the inaugural exhibition of the Sculpture Park, Nagy chose 15 Indian and 9 international artists, many of them from his gallery’s roster. This was not entirely his doing. Though he approached several Indian galleries, he succeeded in eliciting a response from only two of them. Since there were neither the funds nor the time to invite the artists for a recce, only three of the artworks – those by Reena Saini Kallat, Vikram Goyal and Benitha Perciyal – were made specifically for the space. Nagy hopes to change this in future iterations and will invite more artists to create site-specific works.
Many of the artworks had a ring of domesticity to them and this was very much part of the curator’s larger design. He wanted to bring in domestic objects, albeit with a twist, to emphasize that this was first and foremost a palace and a home before it was deemed a monument. Jitish Kallat’s Annexation, a larger-than-life kerosene stove with its ornamentation reminiscent of the friezes on the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Railway Terminus building in Mumbai, seemed to sit perfectly within Nagy’s curatorial scheme of things. As did Subodh Gupta’s Stove made of compacted aluminium pots and pans atop a found cast iron stove. The maharaja’s apartment housed The Day After, a conglomeration of seven pieces of furniture fashioned in the classical French style, by the France-born American artist Arman. The artist, who was part of the Nouveau Realism movement, had burnt the furniture in a manner that rendered it unusable before casting it in bronze, giving the work melancholic and sombre overtones. Similarly, Bharti Kher cast a found Rajasthani chair in cement in Impossible Triangle while spare, geometrical pieces of furniture featured in Thukral & Tagra’s Reliqua 3227 Furniture, and American artist James Brown’s works Phillips and James (The House Crystal) and Vow of Poverty I resembled vases and other household ornamental objects.
Another curatorial device that Nagy employed was to select works that meshed with the delicate floral motifs painted on the sunny-yellow palace walls. These formed a perfect foil for Manish Nai’s multi-hued cloth and wooden poles, Saini Kallat’s colourful canopy of rubber stamps and Mrinalini Mukherjee’s erotic plant-like Shivling, Bird and Forest Flame IV. Elsewhere, contributing to the sensorial experience were Vibha Galhotra’s ghunghroos, which ‘trickled’ down the corner of a wall before spilling into a pool on the floor, while the scent of the materials used by Benitha Perciyal in her figures wafted through the chamber, gently heralding their presence, even before they were actually sighted. However, other works stood out precisely because their sheer minimalism and starkness offered a welcome contra point to the decorative flourishes of the royal residence. Among them, the luminous marble blast stone disc by Prashant Pandey, Anita Dube’s spiky, velvet-covered Void Coitus and Goyal’s gleaming brass pyramidal structures – part of his Hundred Petal Lotus installation – were interspersed among the more ornate domes on the roof. A lively conversation was set up between Stephen Cox’s heavy, multi-faceted basalt Rishi I and Asim Waqif’s quirky assemblage of natural and man-made found materials, including an uprooted tree trunk, in Municipal Demolition 1.
Squatting at one end of the large sunny courtyard was Subodh Gupta’s iconic Doot, an Ambassador car cast in aluminium. At one time, the preferred vehicle for bureaucrats and politicians, it is symbolic of the Licence Permit Raj and the opaque machinations of the official and political classes. Towering nearby was Huma Bhabha’s dark, totemic bronze God of Some Things. Placed diametrically opposite it in the courtyard was the equally imposing sculpture choleric, phlegmatic, melancholy, sanguine by Bharti Kher. It was “a Warrior, Goddess, Witch and Angel” all rolled into one with its flailing, rubber-like limbs belying the hardness of the bronze it was fashioned from. This was the first time the sculpture was out on view in India, having spent almost a decade within the artist’s studio, no doubt patiently awaiting an appropriate occasion to unleash its pent-up forces.
One of the aims of the Sculpture Park is undoubtedly to take contemporary art out of its normal modes of circulation and bring it to the attention of a larger audience. A fact the participating artists are enthused about. Attempts such as these at situating contemporary art within heritage spaces are not new the world over – think Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog in the palace of Versailles or for that matter, Shilpa Gupta and Rashid Rana’s artworks in a palazzo in Venice. But how are local visitors and tourists, who trek up to the fort, likely to react to the contemporary works on offer? While all the works might not resonate immediately with the public, some are bound to instantly strike a chord. Apart from Gupta’s car, these possibly include the bright blue plump-cheeked Migrant by Ravinder Reddy, L.N. Tallur’s interactive work Obituary – a wooden log into which visitors can hammer coins – as well as Thukral & Tagra’s deceptively solid looking faux-stone wings, which offer viewers a unique selfie spot and no doubt instagrammable pictures.
Despite its picturesque setting, creating the Sculpture Park in a former palace has not been a proverbial walk in the park. The heritage nature of the building dictates that nails cannot be hammered into the walls, which in turn explains why sculpture has been the natural medium of choice. Transporting heavy works of art up the narrow staircases to the upper floors has been another constraint apart from the unique challenge of keeping the fragile pieces safe from inquisitive monkeys! Securing the funding for such a public-private initiative was another Herculean task. Undeterred, Aparajita Jain, founder and director of Saat Saath Arts, roped in members of her own family and tapped into funding from corporates such as JSW, Piramal Enterprises Ltd., and Godrej Properties Ltd. to pull off the inaugural show. Nagy, meanwhile, is already plotting the next edition, which will open a week before the inauguration of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2018.