BHUBANESWAR, India — In Bhubaneswar, India, a new public art trail has opened its inaugural edition. The Bhubaneswar Art Trail cuts a winding three-quarter-mile path through the city’s Old Town district, a region known for its many distinctive ancient Hindu temples. The trail leads visitors through unexpected exhibition locales, including schoolrooms, temple complexes, gardens, and private residences of some willing local inhabitants. A 150-year-old monastery hosts “Reflection of Time and Nature,”a quiet work by textile artist Pankaja Sethi, comprised of a large metal armature loosely woven with hand-spun jute and cotton.
Co-curated by Jagannath Panda and Premjish Achari and featuring 24 artists from India and abroad, the Trail is ambitious in scope yet local in spirit. Bhubaneswar is one of 99 cities selected for India’s Smart Cities initiative to integrate technology, sustainability, and intentional planning into growing cities. Last year, Bhubaneswar’s art community held workshops to actively discuss the role of art in their future Smart City. Spearheaded by Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art, the Trail is the first project to materialize from those visionary discussions.
The Trail’s curatorial statement, titled “Navigation is Offline,” cites the increasing role of mediating technology in human environments. Its authors propose exploring alternative means that privilege sensory and analogue modes of navigation. Among the varied artistic responses to this proposal, materiality emerges as an effective strategy. Several artists have found surprising ways to transform local materials bearing connections to the surrounding temple culture, such as sandstone, terracotta, bamboo, and, in Satyabhama Majhi’s “Temple City”, the red cotton salu kanna fabric used in ritual.
In Cécile Beau’s “The Vaporous Region,” hundreds of tiny terracotta diyas or lamps envelop a large wire armature to become the delicate scales of a giant celestial fish. Arunkumar H.G.’s “Wheel of Tradition and Faith” repurposes two massive wooden chariot wheels employed in the annual Ashokasthami Rath festival of Lingaraj Temple. Artist M. Pravat has chosen to work with laterite, a porous stone ubiquitous in Old Town temple architecture. In Pravat’s “The Malleability of All Things Solid 4,” blocks of the coarse laterite are transformed into a massive russet-colored sphere. The grid-like seams of its construction evoke the parallels and meridians of an atlas, transforming the sphere into a towering, pock-marked globe.
The Trail’s strongest works drop anchor into the Old Town’s history and build up from there, forming new positions from which to survey its physical and cultural features. Offering a literal re-framing of the city is Sibanand Bhol’s “Liminal View,” a large lingam-shaped sandstone column positioned on the bank of Bindu Sagar Lake. Piercing the column is a circular aperture through which the distant silhouette of iconic Lingaraj Temple is perfectly framed. Embodying a literal eye to the past, “Liminal View” offers a vantage point for visitors to contemplate an inherited past from the station point of the present.
With its emphasis on local identity, community engagement, and what can only be described as a ground-up approach, the Bhubaneswar Art Trail avoids many pitfalls common to biennials, triennials, and international art projects these days. Heavy-handed curatorial agendas, excessive branding, and spectacle-scale works are refreshingly absent from this project, nor have the trail’s curators pushed overly hard to position Bhubaneswar in an imagined global art context. Instead, this project illustrates how the local can be a microcosm for the global; we see how contemporary art can serve as a mirror for evolving collective identities and as an engine of unification, empowerment, and resistance in the development of our future cities.
Bhubaneswar Art Trail continues through December 18.