ENTER THE ART Alive Gallery and one of the first things a visitor sees are terracotta sculptures that “relook at history and the stories woven around it”, in the words of founder Sunaina Anand. A brainchild of the young Baroda-based artist Chandrashekar Koteshwar, the sculptures are a part of the gallery’s new group show Patterns of Intensity. It is now clichéd to say that nature is staging a comeback, especially in the post-lockdown age, but what makes Patterns of Intensity refreshing are the 11 participating artists’ committed focus on natural elements. Koteshwar’s assemblages, for example, are carved from terracotta and marble. Curator Ranjit Hoskote points out that they evoke “the lives of ritual, labour, quest, delight and play, transmitting the inspirations of temple sculptures, fables, and poetry into a robustly contemporary medium”. The 11 artists have not much else in common except their shared connection with organic impulses. In one way or another, their art serves as a cautionary tale for the 21st century’s most pressing issues. These include climate change, architecture, urban spaces, history, home and belonging. Nowhere is the idea of ‘means to an end’ more explicit than in Suman Chandra’s work. Browsing through his collection of largescale paintings you are quickly enveloped in a dark haze. One, in particular, titled Rat-Hole Miner describes the notorious mining activity common among workers who dig small tunnels to extract coal. Considered unsafe, rat-hole mining has resulted in many tragedies, like the one in Meghalaya’s Jaintia Hills district in 2018. Due to a growing number of such mishaps, several states have banned it. Born in a family of small-time coal suppliers in Purba Medinipur in West Bengal, Chandra has travelled to at least 12 coal mining epicentres in his home states of West Bengal and Jharkhand so far. One is not surprised to learn that the 27-year-old artist uses mostly charcoal, even sprinkling the surface of his canvas with coal dust. He also sculpts from coal blocks, which have symbolic value for him. He recalls growing up on fascinating tales of the ‘black landscapes’ that his father would regale him with. “He romanticised it so much for me that I decided when I become old enough I will find out what these landscapes are all about,” he says.
Instead, what he saw was not the black beauty of his childhood dreams but ugly land politics, coal mafia, human tragedies, mining disasters and displacement. Having studied science before enrolling for a master’s degree in art from Kala Bhavana in Santiniketan, Chandra’s focus on coal is more than just totemic. He is interested in the material’s scientific transformation. One of his first coal-related paintings was inspired by a life-altering personal event. In 2014, he was in his final year at Kala Bhavana when a huge piece of coal fell on his father’s leg. This accident got Chandra thinking about coal’s transformative powers. “I realised how a material that we have worshipped could change a person’s body structure and his entire lifestyle. Imagine what it would do to the landscape to which it belongs,” says Chandra, who has created a large coal dust and graphite on paper painting juxtaposing an X-rayed version of his father’s injured leg with the coal landscape placed next to it as a reminder of personal pain. Since then, his works have deftly highlighted the perils of coal mining. Experts have cited coal as one of the leading culprits for global warming. When burnt, it emits harmful toxins and pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Environmentalists have for long lobbied for a coal-free world. For Chandra, coal’s human cost far outstrips its political or ecological impact. Yet, he argues, “It’s a much bigger problem than we care to admit. Environment is not the only thing at stake here. The issue is one of humanities, cultural distortions, archaeological, housing and migration.”
In one way or another, the exhibition serves as a cautionary tale for the 21st century’s most pressing issues. These include climate change, architecture, urban spaces and history
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If Chandra’s work is powered by coal, jute animates Purvai Rai’s art. Like Chandra, Rai’s engagement with jute is also defined by personal reasons. The 26-year-old is interested in how textile can conjure up long-lost memories and its associations with the twin ideas of home and identity. Her series Magnetic Fabrics is a testament to her undying passion for organic fabrics. She says her fixation with jute began with her father Raghu Rai’s favourite piece of garment. “The idea for jute as a potential material came to me when I first started thinking about notions of who I am and why I create. Finally, the answers took me back to the world that I had been exposed to as a child,” she says. One day, her father brought home a labada from one of his trips to Himachal Pradesh. A kimono-like coat made of unprocessed wool usually worn by shepherds to keep warm, the labada had a rough texture.
“My elder sister Avani and I used to float in it. But what I remember most is its raw tactile feeling. Years later, when I started my practice as an artist, the closest texture of that kind I could find was in jute. That’s how jute became a base of my practice. It’s not just any material. It acts as a metaphor for a sense of belonging for me.”
On show are Purvai Rai’s latest works, created last year while she bode her time between bursts of unfettered creativity and doing nothing. Luckily, she spent her lockdown ensconced in her farmhouse on the outskirts of New Delhi. “Our farm is basically a forest. There are plants and trees going anywhere and everywhere. Dad comes over the weekend to cut, prune and water them. The garden is more like a mini India, which my father has grown himself over the years. He would get saplings from every part of the country.” Since Rai’s work revolves around abstraction, she says, “My dad keeps telling me, ‘Abstraction karti hai toh nature mein baitha kar [observe nature for abstraction].’” Abstraction comes naturally to her. “I don’t want to make a universal statement but personally speaking, abstraction doesn’t feel forced. For example, in nature, if you let the tree bloom without interfering in its growth then what you get is the truest self of that tree, no matter how wild it is. Similarly, if you don’t place conditions on identity and give the child complete freedom then it’s possible that the child will find his/her true destiny.” Contrastingly, while Raghu Rai’s photographs are energised by human presence and empathy, his daughter prefers to inhabit a world free of figuration. “Whenever I have to take a picture I literally stand there and wait for humans to leave the frame. I think the empty space is a springboard for many possibilities. It’s my voice,” says Rai.
For Meghna Patpatia, nature has always been an inspiration. Her surreal works portray allegorical elements in the shape of fishes, bursting eggs, snails and other ocean creatures. At Patterns of Intensity, the Mumbai-based Patpatia is showing a polyptych of eight sumptuous ink drawings. Titled Where To Now My Beloved II, it depicts a dystopian dream with nods to Noah’s ark. Is the world grinding to an end? Patpatia isn’t telling but you can deduce from her work both hope and despair. In the main drawing, a viewer is confronted by a massive mollusc-like shell from which springs forth a river of life. There are sailboats, denoting human progress. And a hot-air balloon is shown whisking away a cabbage. “It’s like humanity is moving towards a more barren life that awaits us because all our natural resources are burning out now,” explains Patpatia, who started out as an art restorer at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai. Observing the paintings of old masters closely and working with ancient sculptures, manuscripts and artefacts spurred her on to experiment with traditional art practices. She says she believes in the ‘process’ guiding the idea to the boundary line. Through the use of ink, layered paper, adhesive and sometimes linen, she creates an uneven surface which gives her drawings a depth reminiscent of masters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hieronymus Bosch.
Some of what you see in Where To Now My Beloved II emerged out of the Covid-induced isolation throughout 2020 —“a much-needed moment of reflection”. Patpatia adds, “I started looking at how shelter plays a very important role in our lives. Humans have different kinds of settlements that are very similar to how creatures in the sea or animals live and retreat to in time of danger. It resonated with me because home signified safety for us during the pandemic. Earlier, I used to love working out in natural light but for the first time I was forced to work entirely indoors.”
Born in Kasaragod, Kerala and now based in Vadodara, Gujarat, Anil Thambai follows a somewhat similar line of enquiry. Exploring architecture as a repository of untold stories and lost history, Thambai says, “My ancestors were masons. And my own process for art closely resembles a labourer’s. I like to study architecture to revisit and reconstruct the past through my personal prism.” Describing Thambai’s wood panels, Hoskote says, “He brings an architectural precision to his elegant, delicate graphite investigations of built form, which evoke both the ornamental edifices of the past and the austere structures of modernity.” In the end, what unifies the 11 artists — including Barkha Gupta, Ghanshyam Latua, Vipul Badva, Kaushik Saha, Savia Mahajan and Teja Gavankar—is their highly personal spin on the idea of ‘home’ and the larger abode, Planet Earth. As Hoskote says, summing up, “Their deep preoccupation is with the possibility of an equitable relationship between the human-made and the natural; their concern for a sustainable future for the planet, they express through various anxieties and hopes.”
(Patterns of Intensity runs online and at the Art Alive Gallery, Delhi, till May 15th, 2021)
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