The idea of A Tale Of Two Cities has stayed with Renu Modi for more than a decade now. It took germ in 2001 when she invited a clutch of friends such as Bhupen Khakhar, Amit Ambalal, Anju and Atul Dodiya, and Navtej Johar to her home-by-the-river in Haridwar. The Ganga served as a perfect backdrop to passionate debates about the natures of secularism and nationalism. These conversations finally resulted in a show, Leela, in 2002 at Gallery Espace, New Delhi—an art space established by Modi in 1989. “I love the Ganges. I wanted to do another show like Leela, which was born out of pure interaction with the river," she says. Immediately, Varanasi came to mind as it held countless cues for artists to respond to. “As the idea kept evolving, I realized that South-East Asia had changed a lot in the global art context. So, why not go beyond the boundaries of India?" Modi says.

The idea of looking at another ancient city, Anuradhapura, was suggested by Jagath Weerasinghe, a Sri Lankan contemporary artist and archaeologist. So, nearly a year ago, the conversation expanded to include both Varanasi and Anuradhapura, which have long served as sites of heritage, myth and memory. These are also “living" cities, with a pulsating contemporary sociopolitical fabric. Modi joined hands with Theertha International Artists’ Collective, Colombo, to create an artistic community, which would be driven by discourse, learning and sharing. Through a year-long exchange, 12 artists from Sri Lanka and India, such as Riyas Komu, Ram Rahman, Paula Sengupta, Manisha Parekh, Anoli Perera, Bandu Manamperi, Pradeep Chandrasiri and Weerasinghe, revisited the two sites and tried to interpret the histories—both ancient and contemporary—through their art.

A detail from ‘Geographies of Deliverance’;
A detail from ‘Geographies of Deliverance’;

Discussions, moderated by curatorial adviser Ruhanie Perera, centred around architecture, the infinity of monasteries, vibrancy of the ghats, music, politics and religion. “Artists responded to these in many ways—through photos, video, textiles, installations. For instance, Paula has done these pankha installations, on which she has thrown fabrics, that she has embroidered herself," Modi says.

Religion, especially the journey of Buddhism across the subcontinent, plays a vital role in the works of a lot of artists. Perera, who is also one of the founders of Theertha, has worked with fabric, paintings and prints in her installations. “I have looked at the idea of pilgrimage and how people appropriate sacred spaces. For instance, Sri Lankans don’t refer to the Buddhist trail through Bodh Gaya and Kusinara as going to India. Those, to them, are an intrinsic part of their consciousness. So, in some ways, parallel geographies are created," she says. While Anuradhapura and Varanasi are connected by their historicities, the two are very different in essence. “The former is a very quiet, intimate space created by pilgrims. It is aloof from the outer reality. But at the same time it can’t exist without that reality either. Varanasi, on the other hand, is always pulsating with the energy of sansarik journey," says Perera, who shuttles between Colombo and Delhi.

Ruhanie Perera’s ‘Voyages of Intuition and Adobes of Promises’.
Ruhanie Perera’s ‘Voyages of Intuition and Adobes of Promises’.

While a lot of artists have looked back in time, others like Komu have spent the residency getting exposed to contemporary Sri Lanka. “I am looking at how a state is very cleverly manipulating the public consciousness around a particular kind of religious system. At the same time, Sinhalese nationalism is on a rise. It is very similar to the Indian context," says Komu, who besides being a multimedia artist-activist is also the director of programmes for the Kochi Biennale Foundation. His work revolves around juxtapositions: India’s post-colonial history and the visual depiction of post-war, modern-day Sri Lanka. “My work is not just about today, it also offers an idea of future conflicts," Komu says.

A Tale of Two Cities will be on at the Adil Shah Palace, Goa, as part of the Serendipity Arts Festival, from 16- 23 December. It will travel to IGNCA, New Delhi, in March and to Colombo in July.

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