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A brush with Egypt in India

india Updated: May 29, 2009 23:30 IST
Renuka Narayan
Renuka Narayan
Hindustan Times
Renuka Narayan

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA) is India’s largest and most expensive underutilised barn. It has great potential to become a rocking arts center but who seems to care? But today, if you’re in Delhi, sail past the scummy ‘lotus ponds’ in the forecourt, up a shallow flight of steps, past the surly guards and into a small gallery to the right of the main hall. It is a long space ending in two loos. In there and fairly well-lit (credit where credit is due!), hang 36 works of contemporary Egyptian art, a rare and welcome sight in India.

It’s wonderful that this is happening. We hunger to know more of Egypt, our millennia-old friend in the ancient
universe of discourse. We’d love to know how they live their lives today and what they think — independently of Western media reports, which is all we get of them, even though we’re the ones with our own old name for Egypt, ‘Mishr’.

I ran into a Kahirene (resident of Cairo) at Maaloula in Syria last July, that famous village where they speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The tour guide happened to refer to ‘pagan’ religions. I found myself saying politely, “I’m sorry, as a Hindu I feel obliged to protest. I’m non-Abrahamic but it’s rude in today’s world to say ‘pagan’.”

Of course it wasn’t the guide’s fault, it’s the whole vocabulary. The other visitors, some European and some Arab, murmured assent and it was the Kahirene who came up and said, “I completely understand what you’re saying. We Egyptians see India familiarly, as someone we’ve known forever.”

Which is why it’s especially frustrating to see the 36 artworks by nine Egyptian contemporary artists at IGNCA mostly hanging askew and only a tacky flier with no artist bios, nothing to help a visitor to the gallery except a few images and a message from the Egyptian ambassador. And it coolly says, “For further details please contact Cultural Bureau, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt.” Don’t mean to sound rude, but why would anybody?

The artists include Ahmed Abdel Karim, Rafky al Razaz, Khaled Aboul Magd, Yasser Mongi, Reem Hassan, Walid Kanosh, Hawada al Sebaay, Ahmed Refaat and Salah el Meligi. Talk of all those beautiful names, sites that don’t open on Google and bureaucratic bafflement!

The works range across styles and media, with wonderful texturing. The effects seem instantly evocative of ‘Egypt’: bleached sand, palm coir, Pharaonic bronze, stone; strong lines, bold colours, 3-D effects. These are paintings an Indian could live with. The sensibility is tantalisingly familiar and intriguingly different.

The leading name is Ahmed Abdel Karim, who is inspired by ‘Islamic’ geometric patterns (I found that out myself). Khaled Aboul Magd’s bronze-effect 3-D works could give our veteran Satish Gujral a run for his money, they are so bold and beautiful in that genre of textured

figurative work. Walid Kanosh may remind you of American painter Georgia O’Keefe and the reds, blues and acquas of Rafky al Razaz look as if they’ve come from Dhoomimal’s nearby!

Something interesting is happening out there in Egypt but alas, this is a governmental cultural exchange. And we all know what that means. I sincerely urge Indian private gallery owners to go take a look before the show closes at 6 pm on May 30 today. Those young Egyptians are on to something, it’s clearly a transitional and experimental phase in their lives. If only we knew more!