Epigraphica Indica: Showcasing the power of the written word

‘Epigraphica Indica’, a solo exhibition by Pushpamala N, is currently underway at Gallery Sumukha in Bengaluru

‘Epigraphica Indica’, a solo exhibition by Pushpamala N, is currently underway at Gallery Sumukha in Bengaluru

In ‘Epigraphica Indica’ Bengaluru-based artist Pushpamala N shows how the written word exerts its power in everyday life. Two sets of exhibits are part of the show: ‘Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets’ and ‘Nara’ (slogans).

“Epigraphy is the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions on metal or stone. That’s why the show is called Epigraphica Indica. I’ve always been interested in documents and different aspects of history have been rooted in my work from the start,” says Pushpamala, who has frequently used 19th-century concepts of ethnography, anthropology and archiving in her earlier works.

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N .'s solo show 'Epigraphica Indica'

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N | .’s solo show ‘Epigraphica Indica’ Photo credit: special arrangement

The ‘Atlas of Rare and Lost Alphabets’ is a set of one hundred copperplate sculptures inspired by the artist’s visit to an archaeological museum in Bengaluru. Pushpamala says that ‘Atlas’, like many of her other works, was inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project, one of her favorite books. “He saw the present as a ruin and explored it like an archaeologist.”

In ancient India, important documents such as land deeds and official edicts were etched on copper plates and tamra shasanas (copper edicts). Pushpamala decided to recreate them using the etching technique and for three years, from 2015 to 18, engraved copper plates with various scripts from the Indian subcontinent by hand. She worked with different chemicals to create a patina and as a result, each plate looks like it was excavated from a historic site.

“Although the process of writing and drawing was tedious, I enjoyed it because it was very different from my usual rhythm of working with photos, videos and live performances,” she says.

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N .'s solo show 'Epigraphica Indica'

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N | .’s solo show ‘Epigraphica Indica’ Photo credit: special arrangement

While researching for this project, Pushpamala discovered that there was a worldwide movement dedicated to preserving and documenting scripts that were disappearing. “There were older forms of Kannada and Tamil; Tulu – always thought to be a spoken language – once had a written script that fell into disuse during colonial times. Assamese also had a script, but now uses Bengali. At the same time, people are also working on creating scripts like Kodava. The Phags-pa alphabet, created by a Chinese monk during the Yuan dynasty, was written from top to bottom. It looked like Indian letters, but never really took off and only a few examples of the script remain,” she says.

Pushpamala explains that the subcontinent – India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Tibet, Afghanistan – is home to hundreds of scripts. “I doubt there is such diversity elsewhere,” she says, adding: “There is also a political side to this issue, as communities that only have an oral language feel like they have been deprived of identity, prestige and a recorded history of their existence.Although their literature may use a different script, they need a specific script of their own.”

Artist Pushpamala N and exhibits of her solo show 'Epigraphica Indica'

Artist Pushpamala N and exhibitions of her solo show ‘Epigraphica Indica’ | Photo credit: special arrangement

As usual, some exhibits contain different scripts, much like circulars of yore, which would contain the same message in both official and regional languages, for the benefit of all residents.

Nara, the second part of the exhibition, is about ‘hidden transcripts’ – texts that emerge in social spaces defined by domination and oppression. “Hidden transcription is an anthropological term for how people resist authority or power through their own way of communicating. As an artist, I wanted to draw attention to recent protests in my own way.”

Pushpamala says she came across catchy slogans during a poster-making workshop she hosted in 2020. “I wanted to commemorate them and give them a lasting shape. Just as metal was used in ancient times to record important documents, the Nara exhibits are also records of the present day. I used the same technique to carve words and drawings. Protest posters are usually not well designed, while protest poetry and slogans are ephemeral; they are often forgotten.”

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N .'s solo show 'Epigraphica Indica'

An exhibition of artist Pushpamala N | .’s solo show ‘Epigraphica Indica’ Photo credit: special arrangement

The 50 exhibits in this section look like chalk and slate displays, but are actually copper plates treated with patina. Their content ranges from sketches and poetry to compact, hard-hitting words in English, Hindi and other regional languages.

According to Pushpamala, both sets of works have similarities. “Both are like tamara shasanas in their own way. One is a historical record – history is uncovered by looking at and deciphering archaeological domains, while the Nara works are a record of contemporary history, of what is going on at the moment.

‘Epigraphica Indica’ will be on display at Gallery Sumukha, Bengaluru until April 16, 2022

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