A joyous façade on the Tate Gallery

HERE IS SOMETHING WORTH seeing if you can. It is on display at the Tate Britain until the 31st of January 2021 and you need not enter the gallery building to see it. Originally created to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, in late 2020, this is a wonderfully joyous celebration of both Indian and British culture in light and colour.

The artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman was born in Bootle, near Liverpool, daughter of Punjabi Hindu parents. She graduated at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982 after having also studied at Southport College of Art and Leeds Polytechnic.

Burman has temporarily transformed the main (Thames facing) entrance of the Tate Britain, its staircase and pillared portico into a pleasing and often humorous riot of colour that makes many references to her upbringing and India’s culture and mythology. To do this, she has made use of coloured lights, neon tubing lights, coloured photographs, and decorative printed coloured paper. The Tate’s website (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman) describes Burman’s installation, “Remembering a Brave New World” as follows:

“This magnificent installation, remembering a brave new world, combines Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history and personal memories. Inspired by the artist’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van, Burman covers the façade of Tate Britain with vinyl, bling and lights. She changes the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. The many illuminated deities, shapes and words are joined by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi. Lakshmibai was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.”

This description provides a fair summary of what is to be seen. It does not mention the entertainingly decorated autorickshaw (three-wheeler) that was on display in the vestibule of the gallery when we visited. The doorways are also worth examining because they are lined with images taken from the Amar Chitra Katha’s comic books that are published in India to teach Indian children about both Hindu mythology and Indian history. Our daughter, whose background, is both Indian and European, used to enjoy reading these.  Despite what the Tate has written, the artwork does not come across as polemical or anti-British, at least not to me. On the contrary, the artist appears to be enjoying her joint cultural heritage: both British and Indian. My wife said of the installation:

“If this is multi-culturalism, let’s have more and more of it!”

However, words are quite insufficient to describe the visual impact of this wonderful spectacle. It has to be seen to be believed and enjoyed. We saw it during daylight when it can be enjoyed in fine detail, but I imagine that seeing it after dark would also be quite magical.

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