2,500km Ganges trek in new exhibition at BMAG

New show to depict epic journey.
An extraordinary 2,500km journey along India’s sacred Ganges river will be depicted in a significant new exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery this November.

In its only UK presentation, Ganga 21 is a series of oil paintings by acclaimed Australian artist Kevin Pearsh, capturing his experiences in travelling the Ganges from its source, deep in the Himalayas, to its end at the Bay of Bengal. Together, the 21 canvases capture both the diversity of this great landscape but also the profound religious significance of the river, considered to be the mother of Hinduism.

The artist conceived of the idea to travel the entire length of the Ganges in 2006, beginning in the spring of that year in a remote ice cave at Gaumukh, high in the snow-capped mountains where the river trickles to life. From there he hiked to Gangotri, resuming the journey in October by boat and road to reach Varanasi. A third mission in 2007 saw him reach the Ganges Delta, where the vast river pours into the Indian Ocean.

Pearsh made daily watercolour sketches – using water from the Ganges – and photographed over 2000 scenes before choosing the final 21 from which to develop his canvases. Of his work, Pearsh has said, “these paintings were not undertaken as a commission of any kind but came from an inner conviction based on my deep love of India and fascination with water, and my wish to combine the two.”

The works point to the vibrant colors of India, its people and landscape. Strikingly, it is nature herself rather than the seething mass of humanity living along the Ganges that forms the main focus for Ganga 21, human figures tending to edge only quietly into the compositions. In Steps at Gangotri (2007), a lone priest contemplates the trickle of water in front of him with a sense of solitude that is repeated in the vast landscape Lone Fisherman (2007). Light and its interaction with water is a recurring theme, with a vast 3.2 metre canvas showing the myraid colours reflected in the swirling river forming the central work of the series.

The intense religious significance of the Ganges cannot be escaped. From the single person at prayer in Ganga Ma (2007) to the crowds in Dashawmedh Ghat (2009) at Varanasi, plus the giant statue of Lord Shiva looming across the waters at Haridwar, the existence of the river at the very heart of spiritual life is a recurring theme. Occasional details of a single petal or candle – once a religious offering – remind us of the deeper and long-lasting impact of human activity on the waters. The industrial life of modern India is hinted at, with plastic litter in the most remote of areas and the vast Howrah Bridge in Calcutta.

Kevin Pearsh was born in Melbourne in 1951. His early career was spent in London and then Burgundy, France, where he continues to live and work. His paintings can be found in the collections of Tate Britain (London, UK) , Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge, UK) and the Santa Barbara Museum (California, USA) as well as many private collections worldwide.

The exhibition opens on  Tuesday 5th November, in the Waterhall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.