“In Insurgent Empire, Priyamvada Gopal argues against the narrativisation of ‘rise and fall’ that is often used to evoke imperial rule and its collapse. Such a narrative asserts, she argues, a false picture of stability that precedes some subsequent crisis. Instead, imperial rule requires constant, vigilant, anxious maintenance against resistance that always, inevitably, and consistently accompanies it. Seen in this way, imperial force can be seen as a response to its refusal, and not the other way around. Vedika Rampal’s work proposes a resonant historical intervention, asking not how we might restore or elegise lost histories of art destroyed by attempts to capture, contain, enclose, and ‘preserve’ them during the occupation of India; instead, she asks how we might look to the materials themselves as refusing to be captured, contained, enclosed, and ‘preserved’ as property. Can we read in the story of loss a shadow-story of continued culture, insurgent art, fugitive materials? Vedika poses this question through a process of experimental inscription, whereby images of the lost paintings in Ajanta Caves are hand-transferred to copper plates: both the images themselves (triply mediated from cave to copper via digital photograph) and the copper’s stubbornly reddy orange hue and smudge-hungry surface collaborate to unsettle the process of transferral. The result is a body of work that pays homage, above all, to insurgency as that which animates history and provides instructions for the future.”
– Dr Astrid Lorange, July 2023
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“This work commences with an encounter.
Although I had always been aware of the Ajanta Caves, my childhood replete with the stories about the celestial sculptures encapsulated within them, it was only this year that I had visited the site. In the early morning hours it took some three hour journey by bus from Aurangabad station to their entrance. When I had arrived, the gates were closed. I stood around a frail fire with some tea stall owners who had yet to begin their day. They told me that I didn’t need a guide inside, everything was self-evident. I had believed them.
By the time the sun had finally awakened, a long queue had formed and I began my steep ascent up numerous stairs with a crowd of local people to arrive at the mouth of the first cave. The force of the undulation gently pushed me in and I was in complete darkness. As my eyes adjusted I began to see figures, a canopy of them, left to right, right to left. The cave walls were illustrated with vivid and complex paintings of kings, queens, courtiers, travellers, monkeys, elephants, portraying everything from pathos to mirth, poverty to luxury, renunciation to war. Before I knew it, I was pushed out again and into the next. This ebbing and flow continued for the remaining twenty-eight caves. But my mind remained with the first two which contained the most refined murals. Up until that very moment, I had not known that Indian painting existed.
I had left with a series of poor images, unfocused, hazy, underexposed, that I had taken with a handheld camera. I had left not having understood what I had seen, having encountered the limits of my knowledge.”
– January, 2023
What happens when the pre-colonial artefact is encountered within the post-colonial moment? Vedika Rampal’s practice uses excavation as a dual-methodology to both form and unearth narratives from the past, within the present. Within her work linearity loses its precarious foothold and slides inwards, coalescing, rendering all temporalities as simultaneous. Forms of a Fermenting Fantasy is an exhibition that displays images taken by Rampal at a site visit to the Ajanta Caves (2 BCE—6th CE) located in Maharashtra, India. It is here that she began her process of unlearning imperialism by re-learning her own history. Through archival research she discovered that the colonial impulse to preserve the ancient paintings, by misguided European artists and conservationists, was the central cause behind their damage. The historical accounts of the 19th-century had observed the renderings to have been in ‘tolerably perfect’ condition, which then disintegrated with immediate effect at the application of varnishes and shellac. A dual allegory for colonial violence and resistance emerges. Everything and nothing is lost. Within the midst of a tragedy, the surface of Ajanta reminds us of its own agency. The poor digital images in transferring to the copper take on their own life force. Rampal cannot control where the print emerges and where it resists against being captured. Her attempts at preservation only result in further fragmentation. The copper’s lustre at first creates an illusion. A closer look reveals its impressionable surface to bear all marks, all inscriptions. As a material that oxidises, the copper too is subject to change. But while its surface colour changes over time, with age, it also hardens.
1) The Ajanta Caves illustrate Jātaka narratives, an ancient Pali work that contains 537 stories of Buddha’s previous lives, emphasising the values of compassion and benevolence. Within the caves, the paintings have no spatio-temporal order. They can be read right to left, left to right. As art historian Benoy K. Behl notes, ‘the past, present and future are enacted simultaneously and eternally in the present drama of the world.’
2) The title refers to a quote by philosopher G.W.F Hegel from his Lectures on Fine Arts (1818-1829) where he critiqued the sculpture of India for possessing a ‘confused intermingling of the Finite and the Absolute.’ Historians have subsequently noted that in all likelihood Hegel never saw this art in the flesh.
*An indebted thanks to my dear friend Liam Macann and the technicians Tom Whelan and Alex Veddovi-McCaughan without whom this work could not have been completed.
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