IN RUCHIRA GUPTA’S series of magical watercolours —In the Garden at Forbesganj— we are invited to share in a very personal garden at a very unsettled time. Caught in the displacement and withdrawal of the first year of Covid, Gupta left New York to return to her childhood home in a small agricultural town in Bihar. There, in the comfort of her family and village community, she overcame her grief for the suffering of the pandemic-stricken world.
Created during an unimagined time, a time of enforced barriers and social isolation, the 35 paintings of In the Garden at Forbesganj transport us to a world of open gates and community. As a lifelong activist, Gupta suggests that if we are able to make gardens that are open, maybe we can do that for human beings too. Her garden paintings call us to see beyond our fears and follow the freedom of flowers, trees—the creations of nature—including the immutable community life of her remote childhood home in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Gupta’s paintings show us each a personal garden that is only our own. Her Forbesganj garden reminds me of my first and deepest image of a garden. I saw that everything grew toward the sun, flowers, trees—and people. I understood without knowing it then that our natural world is bottom up, not top down.
Gupta gathers flowers, insects, animals and people—indoors as well as outdoors—in her paintings. All these living beings love each other’s company—without any sense of hierarchy. I see mango trees, frogs, water, sun, little girls with skinned knees, fairies and the white ghost-like spirits of ancestors camouflaged between the green leaves, birds, flowers and humans.
In these mystical paintings, villagers follow unstoppable routines—a man takes his daughter home on his cycle, a storyteller sings a song from his scroll, a woman opens a small shop on a bamboo platform, worshippers come and leave offerings to a tree, street musicians and fruit-sellers stand outside a barber’s shop, open for business.
Inside the house, the family of kin and community also follows an unchanging schedule set by sunrise and sunset. The day begins in the garden—gathering fruits, sweeping leaves, making a sacred tulsi leaf tisane and hanging clothes to dry. It continues with work— reading, writing, cooking, gardening and pruning. And ends with conversations, food and sleep.
Memory too plays its part. The paintings capture the slow and languid rhythm of a family as seen from the eyes of a child both in the past and present. Old bits of embroidery, photographs, books, furniture, utensils, merge with plants and trees that still stand tall and were part of a forgotten childhood.
In a remarkable and delightful way, Gupta merges the familiar and reassuring pattern of the garden and the childhood house. In her paintings, the life of plants and the life of human beings intertwine. Flowers blossom as do humans. Both mingle against backdrops of grass and trees, along with snails, lizards, mongoose, dragonflies, ants, butterflies and birds.
Prabhakar Kamble, the curator, puts it aptly, “Artists paint gardens from the home. Ruchira paints the home from the garden.”
Gupta’s garden is planted by her mother, on land that her ancestors have inhabited for over a century. I have visited her home and garden often over two decades and sat with her family, drinking tea, surrounded by these plants, flowers and trees.
I can see the influence of the socialist writers, poets and politicians, who lived in this very house, in her work and paintings. She has a way of seeing that makes visible the work and life of the village community and the people who work in her home. Her paintings reflect her deep love of the land and its humans, showing the inter-dependence and inter-connectedness of every living being.
As I sit in my New York apartment, Gupta’s paintings remind me of an India that I love because of its Gandhian simplicity, equality in community and ecological traditions. Her paintings have a universal appeal transcending oceans and time.
This is a natural world that invites us to enter, from the chair to the big red flower that looks like a sheltering umbrella. Childhood homes are seldom revisited. Not only does Gupta revisit her childhood home, but she takes us with her to our own childhood.
We are reminded that even what is perishable is never lost through the gifts of memory. Memory’s gift in Gupta’s garden overcomes loss through the power of resilience. We see rebirth in every dynamic swirl of leaf and grass captured by her brushstrokes as she paints the lush monsoon.
AS WE WALK in the bounty of her garden, we stumble upon a blue-sky garden made of tears. The garden—open to all—now creates a place for Gupta’s lamentation on the starvation and deaths from Covid times. Paradise is ruptured by the grief of personal loss, and the sharp pain of remembering a young girl raped and killed in the chaos of the lockdown.
She grieves for the little girl, for the loss of friends from Covid and for the hunger among the victims of sex-trafficking, whom she serves. We learn that the tragedy comes not from the natural cycle of life and death and rebirth, but from the unnatural shortening of life by the loss of sun, water, care and empathy.
The garden offers a refuge to experience tragedy. The harmony of the garden lulls us to seed both the endurance and hope that activism in our complex world asks from us. In the Garden at Forbesganj invites us to a quieter world moderated by daily customs, pieties, mementos, and histories. It embeds, without shouting, just like Gupta’s daily activism to provide food and housing to the most vulnerable women during Covid.
In a life celebrating wonder, the artist takes us to the deeply intimate healing gardens of our minds. These extraordinary paintings connected to beauty and memory, can give us strength.
Her garden has open gates and no fences. They remind me that there are no nature-made fences on planet Earth, there are no flags or national boundaries, only migratory patterns. They give me hope that if we humans can make gardens that are open, maybe we can do that for planet Earth too.
Her garden paintings are like a call to action saying we as people have to go beyond fences to find the freedom of nature. Gupta reminds us that there is a garden still on earth. She calls on us not to dismantle our beautiful garden on earth for a promised garden in the future or in outer space. She paints hope. Hope that is based in the reality of nature.
Her paintings evoke the words of my mother. When as a very young child, I asked her why people came in different colours, she said, “Because people are like flowers.” This has stayed with me. We are all natural and beautiful in our garden on Earth. From Buddha to the Bible, a garden has been the image of Paradise.
Gupta’s paintings have taken me to the secret garden in my mind. She hints that what is perishable will be reincarnated again.
(In the Garden at Forbesganj by Ruchira Gupta, curated by Prabhakar Kamble, runs at Gandhi Sangrahalaya, Patna, from March 25 to April 5)