Postcards From Home

Manisha Baswani. Studio Shot, 2018. Courtesy of India Art Fair

May 1, 2018

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Upon her return from the Lahore Biennale, we talk to the painter-photographer Manisha Gera Baswani who effortlessly turns into a fly on the wall to capture the behind-the-scenes of contemporary art in South Asia

What made you choose photography as a medium?

I completed my Masters in Fine Arts at Jamia Millia Islamia in 1992 under A. Ramachandran, who I consider to be my guru to this day. He is a mecca of knowledge and I have been photographing, video graphing and recording him for as long as I can remember. Given his reclusive nature, I felt the need to document his talks, his conversations, his views and ideas to make it available to the wider public. Soon enough, the camera became an intrinsic part of my visit to his house, giving me the freedom to capture moments midway through my painterly journey.

Eventually, I started photographing my artist friends and some even used these images  for their show catalogues. It was all very organic and I just found myself enjoying the process so much. Invariably I used to be in their studios photographing them from under the table or from behind the chair, discovering fresh angles while at it. I believe that I was given such access and liberty mainly because I was a fellow artist although I remember that I became quite an irritant to some friends who would mutter ‘Gera phir se aa gayi’ (‘here comes Gera again’) every time they saw me!

    

 L – R: Artists Imran Qureshi, Bharti Kher, Aisha Khalid, Moeen Faruqi, Saba Iqbal, Krishen Khanna in their studios © Manisha Gera Baswani

You and Amar Kanwar were amongst the few Indian artists to have participated in the inaugural edition of the Lahore Biennale this March. Can you tell us about your time in Pakistan?

My parents were born in pre-partition Pakistan and my childhood was embellished with stories of their ‘home away from home’. Seeing them age, I have somehow taken it upon myself to preserve the history that they lived and contribute to the stories that I grew up listening to. Every time I have crossed the border, something triggers in my heart. What that is, I cannot describe. To be honest, I feel that the people will forget about the war if the borders are opened. 

My first visit to Lahore was nearly two decades ago when I was expecting my older child. However, the main turning point was when I had a solo show of my paintings at Karachi’s Sanat Gallery in 2015. That’s also when I decided to carry my camera. I just knew that I wanted to study and engage with artists from the other side of the border. With the help of my dear friends Imran Qureshi, Roohi Ahmed and Zeeshan Muhammad, I was able to do so. I am also extremely thankful to Salima Hashmiji for introducing me to artists in Lahore and Karachi.

You presented ‘Postcards From Home’ at the Biennale for which you had photographed 47 artists from both sides of the India-Pakistan border. How did the idea for this project come to you? 

As I mentioned earlier, I have created a substantial repository of images featuring Indian artists over the last sixteen years and started the Pakistan leg of the same in 2015. ’Postcards from Home’ was thus born out these two parallel projects of photographing Indian and Pakistani artists in their studios. It was an honest attempt at exploring the shared memories of artists and their families  who have a common connect with the times before the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I wanted to commemorate the year and therefore, chose to work closely with 47 artists. There are a few more on my wish list but I’ll work on that later!

During my interactions with artists from Pakistan, I noticed that India was referenced many times — it was a very important part of the personal lives of many artists and would come up in stories of their parents or the odd Hindu grandma! This made me want to reach out to all Indian artists with Punjabi or Sindhi surnames. I wrote to Bharti Kher, Krishen Khanna, Monica Narula, Zarina Hashmi, Nilima Sheikh amongst others, all of whom admitted to having a connect and history with Pakistan. 

Back of a postcard by Krishen Khanna © Manisha Gera Baswani

How did the viewers react to it?

‘Postcards From Home’ was an interactive project and I intended for it to be so. It was lovely to see visitors from different age groups and sections of society picking up and browsing through the cards on display, each carrying an anecdote or memory narrated by an artist. I had these young kids pulling me aside to ask questions and locals who spent a long hours observing the details of the work. I must admit that it was emotionally overwhelming for me to see the project evoke such love and curiosity. I guess it tugged at people’s hearts!

What are you especially excited about in regard to art in 2018?

I want to author a book this year, probably as a continuation of this project and build on the existing archive of the 47 artists.

Manisha Gera Baswani was born in New Delhi in 1967, and lives and works Gurugram. She is represented by Gallery Espace and has shown at India Art Fair 2018. 

 

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