Strong southern accents

The clash of ancient and modern that is southern India's distinctive culture is about to be celebrated in London.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I spent a lot of last winter in South India. Each morning I would go out looking for kolams. Not that they're hard to find - you stumble upon one outside almost every house. Sinuous, symmetrical designs - of unending, snake-like knots, or iconographical lamps and flowers, worked in a mixture of lime and rice flour paste - they're etched on the street each morning by the women of the house as an auspicious act, a protection against the evil eye, or a way of marking a religious festival. They're also a useful indicator of the state of the family's health: you'll think twice about entering any house without its kolam outside - a sure token of sickness or death.

Here, in this comfortable Bangalorean suburb, its houses inhabited - as name-plates make all too pompously clear - by retired branch directors of life-insurance offices or small industrialists, the kolams always struck me with a jolt. Surrounded by scooters and saloon cars, by dishevelled servants walking madame's dog, they seemed like signs from another age. Elegant in their simplicity, teasing in their significance and speaking of an unchanging adherence to ritual and its central place in family life, kolams are characteristic of the peculiarly unforced mixture of the ancient and the modern that gives the art of the South - celebrated in an extended festival beginning this week - its particular flavour.

The South - says Kapil Jariwala, owner of the eponymous London gallery, and one of the curators of the festival's exhibitions - has tended to be given a back seat. The festival has therefore taken a broad-brush approach to the complexities of India's southern tip. Contrast is all: the ancient ritual of Theyam set alongside innovative music for mandolin; folk dances juxtaposed with the martial-arts-based Kathakali; films that underline the implications of religious bigotry set against crafts, like the kolams, that spell out the continuity of religious faith.

But the range of work and sensibilities is probably at its fullest and most diverse in the case of the visual arts. There are five main exhibitions in the festival, including two mounted by the British Museum and the Horniman from their own collections. The other three function almost as curtain- raisers for Kapil Jariwala's next task, in 1997 - the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence - when he is due to curate two large-scale shows for the Edinburgh Festival.

The current ones are broad-ranging: in his own gallery, in New Burlington Street, you will find an exhibition of Tanjore paintings. Dating back to the 17th century, and first produced by travelling artists from the more northerly state of Maharashtra, these opulent and glittering votive images of gods and goddesses - initially painted on canvas, later on glass - exude something of the air of Russian icons. Meanwhile, at the Delfina Studios, "The New South" hosts a dozen contemporary painters and sculptors, each contributing four new works. Finally, at the South Bank Centre, you can dive directly into popular art, and watch film-poster painters touching up their hand-painted advertisements for the plump stars of a Southern movie industry that outranks the North's more famous Bollywood in terms of annual output.

The 20 or so painters who live and work in Chandra Arts' palm-fronded sheds in Madras have come up in the business. As little boys, they will have washed their elders' brushes and kept their paint topped up. Then, in time, they will have graduated to preparing the canvases, doing the outlines and filling in broad slabs of colour, before eventually being let loose on more complicated things like draperies, highlights or hands. The few that attain mastery rest on their laurels: they stroll along at the end and add a few distinctive touches before sending the work off to the streets. A similar process goes for the huge cut-outs of politicians that can be seen bisecting the South Indian skyline.

The contemporary show inevitably gave Jariwala more headaches. "At first I had the idea that it was going to be - and I hate the word - a 'survey'. But gradually I became convinced that was cowardly. In the end, everything is a critical choice of who I think is vital." The choice was made harder by the fact that "the South" is in fact a collection of different states, languages and traditions - encompassing the gutsy expressionism of Madras as well as the "much cooler temperament" evinced by the artists of the west-coast state of Kerala.

Uniting it all, however, is a state of mind that tends to reject abstractionism, and favour narrative. The fact that the South is home to a glorious tradition of stone and bronze sculpturing, rather than painting, is clearly significant. Unlike the North, where miniature painters historically engaged with ideas of scale and space, Southern artists have always responded more to bulk and ornamentation. The massive qualities of the area's rock-carved temples, their sense of an esoteric message, can perhaps be discerned in the Delfina Studio show in the work of NN Rimzon.

Ritual cannot be avoided. It's easy to see its impact, for instance, on Jagdish's large, vividly coloured masks, while Pushpamala's evocative circle of burnt wooden sandals carries added resonance when you know that such sandals are traditionally worn by temple priests. Jariwala is not too worried that ritual can be a difficult thing to export: the West, he believes, is becoming increasingly sympathetic towards its presence in art. Beuys, Richard Long and Anish Kapoor, he points out, have all built elements of ritual into their work. They demand a kind of meditative reflection, as you consider the significance of a pile of white dust or a line of stones: "You wonder, 'Are we in an art gallery or in a temple?' " When viewers do that, he claims, they are in touch with a basic Indian aesthetic sense. It is the imperative that leads the paan-seller to build delicate spirals of his sharp green leaves or the spice-merchant to pile up bold clashes of vivid, powdered colour - or, of course, the Bangalorean housewife to bend over her daily kolam.

Festival of India's South, 23 May-28 June: information hotline on 0171- 354 4141