Saturday, 10 March 2018

Searching for the red India

Many decades ago, I was visiting a friend's home in Italy. Her young son asked me, "You are not red, why do they call you red Indians?" He had been told that I was from India and the only Indians he had heard about were the red Indians from America.

This post is not about those red Indians. It is about pictures from India where red colour plays a special or dominating role.

I love photography and have thousands of images in my picture archives. Writing this kind of blog-post is an opportunity for me to dig into those archives and in the process, relive my past journeys and the people I had met - a very pleasurable past time!

Among the Indic religions, red is the colour of sacred and of happy occasions like marriages. Let me start this post with a very striking image from a religious ceremony.

Bhagwati Theyyam, Kannur, Kerala, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

1. Theyyam, Kannur, Kerala: The first image of this post (above) is from Kannur in Kerala at the southern tip of India and it is from a Bhagwati theyyam ceremony. "Theyyam" is a Hindu traditional religious rite in which the God comes down to the earth and manifests in the body of a human being. Persons playing Theyyam or the living gods, often belong to the so called "low castes" and while they are the living god, everyone from the community bows to them. Theyyam takes place in the temple and the surrounding courtyards. Most theyyams are dressed in red.

Theyyam is unique for the elaborate makeup and rituals linked with this tradition.

2. Dollu Kanitha, Bangalore, Karnataka: The Dollu Kanitha folk dance from Karntaka. It has persons carrying the god statues on their heads as they come out of their temples and go out in a procession in the community. In this occasion, some of the persons dress up as different gods. The next image has a Dollu Kanitha dancer dressed as one of the gods.

Dallu Kunitha god, Bangalore, Karnataka, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Thus, the idea of God coming down to speak to humans through the medium of a person is not unique to Kannur, rather it is seen in different forms in different parts of India.

3. Person dressed as Goddess Kali, Guwahati, Assam: West Bengal and Assam in the north-east of India have a strong tradition of mother-goddess (Shakti) worship through Saraswati puja, Durga puja and Kali puja. There is also a tradition of persons dressing up as mother Kali, the angry manifestation of the goddess. The next image has a boy dressed as Goddess Kali at the Kamakhaya temple during the Ambubashi festival.

Almost always, the persons taking up the role of gods are men, while women get to play such roles only rarely.

Kali ma, Ambubashi, Kamakhaya temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

4. Dashhera prayers in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh: Dashhera festival is linked to the story of Ramayana in the north and to the story of goddess Durga in the north-east.

The Dashhera celebrations in Kullu valley surrounded by mountains are different from the rest of India. During this festival, the patron gods and goddesses of mountain villages are brought out of the temples in processions and they travel down to the Kullu valley for their Dushhera holidays. Mountain communities come to live in Kullu with their gods and the whole period is full of religious ceremonies.

The image below shows the chief priest officiating at the Dashhera celebrations in Kullu, praying in front of the deity for the initiation of the festival. As in the above images, the red colour predominates.

Dushhera prayers, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

5. Hanta Koi statues, Nicobar island: Tribal groups in Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal have a tradition of making wooden statues called Hanta Koi to represent the spirits of dead family members. This reminded me of a similar tradition among the Toraja people in South Sulwezi island of Indonesia, where they call them Moi Moi.

This image comes from the Manas Sanghrahalaya museum in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), one of the finest museums about the lives, myths and culture of tribal communities in India. I find the red in the caps of the Hanta Koi very striking.

Hanta Koi statues, Nicobar island, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

6. Rajasthani puppets, Delhi: While the above five images were linked to religious and spiritual spheres, the remaining five images of this post are non-religious.

The next image is of a puppet from Rajasthan at the Dilli Haat market of Delhi. Rajasthan with its Thar desert, craggy forts and proud people, is also a land of colourful costumes, as seen in the dresses of the puppets, among which red dominates.

Puppet from Rajasthan, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

7. Monsoon, Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh: Monsoons are usually not associated with the red colour, instead they are seen as dark clouds and verdant foliage washed clean of the dust by the rains.

The next image is about the monsoon but it has a man dressed in red, walking in a field. It has a lot of green and very little red, yet I think that the red colour plays a key role in this image.

Monsoon in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

8. Village woman, Kesla, Madhya Pradesh: The next image is also from the monsoon period in central India and has a village woman surrounded by lush green fields.

The colourful saris of the women in rural areas are the most common source of bright colours in the Indian landscapes.

Village woman, Kesla, Madhya Pradesh, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

9. Police women, Guwahati, Assam: Even the khaki uniforms of the Assamese police women can have a nice touch of bright red colour.

Police women, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

10. Lenin statue, Kannur, Kerala: I am concluding this post with another picture from Kerala where red colour is strongly associated with communism and where the communist icons like Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Chairman Mao, forgotten in most of the world, still continue to have some relevance.

Orderly processions of people walking with red flags and shouting slogans to protest against something are ubiquitous in Kerala. This image has the red communist flag along with a paper-mache sculpture of Lenin.

Lenin statue, Kannur, Kerala, India - Images by Sunil Deepak


Think of the above ten images about the red colour as part of an Indian thali. They represent the amazing variety, colours and traditions of India.

All over the world, globalisation is helping in spreading a culture where people wear similar clothes, watch similar films and eat similar food. Even in India, the globalisation mono-culture is making in-roads. However, fortunately our diverse and distinctive cultures and traditions continue to be alive, especially in smaller towns and villages. Our challenge over the next decades will be to safeguard these while we embrace other aspects of modernity.

I hope that you will like my selection of images from India where red colour plays a special role. Do tell me which of these red images you liked most!


Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Hassan Sharif's art of the useless objects

Before looking at Hassan Sharif's art installations in the Venice Biennale (Italy) last year, I did not know the name of any modern artist from the Arab world. In my mind, Arabic artists were associated with things like calligraphy, flowers and geometric designs, thus I was surprised by his works. This post is about some of the art installations of Hassan Sharif at the Venice Biennale.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

Hassan Sharif

Sharif was born in UAE in 1951 and he died in 2016 at the age of 65 years.

He did his art school training in the UK in the 1980s. There, he came in contact with Tam Giles and his ideas of abstract and experimental art, which influenced him. He lived in Dubai where he helped to set up different spaces to promote and support young and upcoming artists of UAE.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

Hassan Sharif's art of assemblage

Sharif is known for taking ordinary objects of daily living and assembling them together in big heaps to create his art installations.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

His art is seen as a criticism of the prevalent shopping culture, where we need to continuously buy more things, which are then quickly discarded to contribute to the ever-increasing mountains of garbage in our cities.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

I think that his art can also be seen as a commentary on the human relationships in today's world, which follow a similar and parallel trajectory to those of the consumer products, where we look for quick emotional highs. Yet we quickly tire of them and discard them, finding it easier to hide behind our smart phones and head-phones.

Sharif's art at Venice Biennale

At the 2017 Biennale, different works of Sharif from different time periods starting from mid-1980s, were brought together to give an overview of his main artistic ideas. This exhibition was called "Supermarket" and included mixed materials such as textiles, papers, iron hardware, books and boxes.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak
Some of Sharif's installations like the one below with iron hinges and pieces of clothes, look like scraps that you may find in an old dusty store room in your house, yet they express emotions. I felt that they were a reminder to open our eyes and really look at our surroundings instead of sleep-walking through our daily lives - to see the juxtapositions of materials, shapes and colours.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak


Today, it is not always easy to define art and to understand its boundaries. It is not about artistic skills and mastery, rather it is a way of looking at the world and rediscovering emotions and feelings. Sharif's art is such. For example, look at the assemblage of old files tied together in the image below, which can be a common sight in old Government offices. Sharif makes you look at them in a new way by appreciating their textures and forms.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

I want to conclude this post with my personal favourites among all the "assemblages" of Hassan Sharif presented at the Venice Biennale - it has a heap of steel spoons, forks and black plastic tubes. I am not sure if it was because of the bent and misshapen spoons and forks, but it was the installation which evoked the strongest feelings in me.

Art of Emirates artist Hassan Sharif at Venice Biennale - Images by Sunil Deepak

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