The Wellesley has seen better days. Its haunting silences lie scattered across a façade that must’ve known glory at some point in time, within the echoes that dot its forsaken Art Deco accents, and along the frail symmetry of its broken bricks and decaying cement. The property’s character lies foraged from a 90-year past, which is why the presence of a contemporary art initiative and its annual art residency/ showcase within these same walls comes as a bit of an anomaly.
Variance isn’t much of an issue though for a city that goes officially by Pune but then lives in the hearts and minds of many as Poona, snug in the shadows of ever-chaotic elder brother Bombay. The Wellesley itself has a storied history littered with incongruity, including earlier incarnations as the Connaught Hotel and a forced proximity with the newer Shalimar. All of which brings me to the matters of art at hand.
The Wellesley and its haunting silences | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
The TIFA (Talera Institute for Fine and Applied Arts) Working Studios, an alternative education and performance platform for the arts, was born out of Creative Director Trishla Talera’s desire to foster art, nourish young talent, and spark artistic collaboration in the city. Since its inception, TIFA has evolved into a beacon for cultural experimentation and exploration in the city. The fact that Talera’s family owns the Shalimar/ Wellesley property certainly helps.
“This is a wonderful space,” she tells me. “There is an old-world character to these nooks and, well, it wasn’t being used.” Fair enough, but what about any artistic instigators? “Poona was a dry-bed when I returned after a few years spent in the States. I mean the little art there was existed within frames inside galleries. The galleries and spaces have grown, but there wasn’t anything like the TIFA studios – a space to create, collaborate, a space where art could flourish.”
Arresting fragments from the Artel Residency Showcase | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
On the collaborative platter right now is the Artel Residency and its project – Identity of Space – the address’ homage to environment, nourishment, evolution, and other (intentionally) artistically vague concepts. Over the past few weeks, ten artists – neatly portioned into five foreign and five Indian – have conceptualised, discussed, manufactured, and executed their pieces ranging from paintings, installation art and performance art to site-specific video installations. I decide to get lost within the Studios’ twelve individual studio rooms, a fluid cosmos of light, secrets and dimensions.
I’m accosted immediately by Iranian-American Nooshin Rostami and her video installation – I fell for a building – a paper cube documentation of her live performance using the building as a backdrop. “I haven’t slept for three days,” she grins. Rostami’s creative energies have been given a thorough workout, since she has other artworks and concepts scattered all through the building. This project is birthed from being born in a distant geography and grappling with the shards of immigration, fed via personal narratives of an illusionary, morphing home, an arresting experience whose potency and congestion is heightened when viewed by entering her large paper cube construction.
Nooshin Rostami flits through her creative spaces| Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
I walk on. The works have a multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic flavour to them, with architects, filmmakers and sculptors mixing it up with artists. I still haven’t been able to put my finger on what exactly constitutes ‘organic’, but this feels a lot like it. The KHOJ International Artists’ Workshop and the Refracting Rooms exhibit – organised and held by the homegrown Good Artists of Pune in collaboration with the KHOJ International Artists’ Association, an artist led alternative space for experimentation and international exchange – took place in this same space exactly a year ago, and lingering remnants of that experience continue to echo through the corridors.
Remnants of last year's Refracting Rooms Showcase | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
I come across a convergence of four abandoned door frames next, a playful, interactive piece whose impact is enhanced by being dappled in sunshine. “The act of participation here is key,” Bombay-born artist Madhu Das offers as he flits in and out of the age-old frames. “These frames are your tools to construct and deconstruct space.” Das’ works are quickly turning out to be my pick of the offerings here at TIFA. His next creation is even more striking. An old, non-descript motel room doused in muted light and dust, a few choice pieces of décor, and the inescapable whiff of nostalgia. “This hotel’s address and its layered identity over time,” he explains, ‘is something I wanted to explore. This interplay of shared space this parallel universe of people and memories…”
Madhu Das and his apocryphal doors | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
An engaging study in time, dimension and the inevitability of textures | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
Sheersha Mukherjee, a Calcutta-based artist, has more juxtaposition is store. In Pune: The Double-edged City, her take on the multiple layers of human existence and the composite nature of contemporary cities, the classic, the modern and the postmodern shove into each other through textures of old photographic prints, choice objects of identification from the city, and the imaginations of her sketchbook. It’s a wonderfully layered piece of work, both literally and artistically. “It’s my way of revisiting the past in the now,” Mukherjee avers. “A city within a city, this space for dialogue and friction, everything in its own place.”
Pune: The Double-Edged City and its pastiche of impressions | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
As with any collaborative showcase, the offerings are hit and miss. Some work, some don’t, some immerse themselves in strikingly fluid originality, some flirt with the outer fringes of mediocrity. But just the fact that this is here and that this exists in Poona seems vital enough, for now. Taiwanese filmmaker Chiu Chih Hua, for instance, flatters to deceive with his visual narrative of the daily grind of the Shalimar’s staff – a piece that has its moments of movement, melody and identity, but ultimately dissolves into a near Chaplin-esque farce of simpleton-like efficacy. A few of the other video art and installation pieces leave me equally noncommittal, yearning for a bit of frenzied relevance. Estonian/Hungarian duo Lilli Tolp & Eva Bubla answers the call.
Their three creations come rooted to the earth. It’s Breathing that lingers the longest though. This mixed-media installation is a haunting, arresting reflection on the state of Maharashtra’s raging droughts, exploitative chemical farming, and the ensuing farmer suicides, a compelling confluence of soil, flesh, movement, and stillness.
Liili Tolp/Eva Bubla take to the earth for their narratives | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
As I make my way through the building’s three levels, circumnavigating often, I’m struck by how the Wellesley, with its unforced collage of age, depth, intrigue, and beauty, has brought everything together in its own quiet way. I find myself reflecting on this city too, and art’s space within it. Through grassroots initiatives such as the Shraddha Borawake-birthed Good Artists of Pune (GAP), Art Today, Pune Biennale, and naturally, TIFA, it would appear that Poona’s artistic horizons are undergoing a slow but cathartic change.
The Wellesley's haunting spaces persist | Image Copyright Siddharth Dasgupta
I stop to contemplate the Wellesley as I leave, convinced that its haunting inner desolation has made for more riveting viewing than some of the art I’ve witnessed today, and a worthy confidante to a few of the stronger pieces. Beyond me lies Poona, with its fragmented cultural affairs, its small town vibe coexisting with rapid urbanisation, and its artistic sphere divided by two rivers. Just the right ingredients, one might say, for a bit of revolution.
Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian poet & novelist. For food and shelter, he also articulates travel and culture for a gamut of global publications - Travel + Leisure, JustLuxe, The Luxe Cafe, Conde Nast Traveller, and the Dharamshala International Film Festival included. Amongst other things, he is particularly drawn to the intimacy of black & white, the potency of pure emotion, the thrill of new horizons, and the rush of fragile hearts. He is currently working on a collection of raw, haphazard poetry.