The Covid induced lockdown was a period of prolific creativity for many. If they weren’t creating something, they were speaking about their creative process to an appreciative audience online. Tunty Chauhan, curator and founder-director of Threshold Gallery was lapping up these experiences being shared by members of the art fraternity. “It gave a deep insight into their psyche which you normally don’t receive, a revelation into something deeper,” she recalls. Hence, when it came time for her to celebrate the silver jubilee of her Delhi-based gallery, she wanted to shine a light on the personalities of the artists that she felt most keenly connected to, through her work. Reflecting the Self, a show exhibiting the work of 35 artists through 70 mixed media art works, is the delightful result.
She says, “I wanted to show artists whose artistic practice was so diverse that I would have had a tough time trying to contextualise or thread them together into one single exhibition. I felt that by staying within the theme of self-portraits, I would be able to show the work of a number of artists—those who have had a long association with the gallery over the years, as well as those whom I personally admire.”
Hence, though the gallery has never represented Krishen Khanna, his work is included in the exhibition, owing to their long friendship. Chauhan prompted the 98-year-old artist to create for the first time, an introspective self-portrait where the only figures giving him company are two black birds. “Previously, whenever he painted himself, he would be one of many people in the work, but this was the first time he made a picture of himself alone. He was so happy with it that he now plans to create more of these,” she says.
Threshold Gallery’s journey is replete with rich stories. Initially begun as a rare artistic bastion in the beautiful seaside town of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh in 1997 (where Chauhan lived with her family at the time) as a platform for local Pattachitra artists, it attracted the attention of robust artistic talent over time. In 2001, Chauhan moved to Delhi and Threshold began anew, growing by leaps and bounds amidst the art boom of the early 21st century.
Chauhan remembers those early halcyon days with much fondness. “The press wrote about my Pattachitra exhibition and V Ramesh walked in with some of his students. This led to us doing a show together. Soon, I began inviting artists I knew through my network to be part of a 10-day artist residency in Vizag, where everyone would demonstrate their skills to local students. At the end of the residency, the work they created during that time would be put on display,” she says. Over a handful of years, 40 renowned artists including Ravinder Reddy, Laxma Goud, Paramjit Singh, Arpita Singh, Anjolie Ela Menon and more had been part of these “camps”.
Some of these relationships have stayed strong through the years. V Ramesh, who became a long-standing artist of the gallery’s, has embraced the self-portraiture theme for the exhibition with an arresting work titled Self Portrait with Single Malt. Spanning an entire wall, this large piece expresses many sentiments in layers. At its core, it’s a painting of the artist captured mid-movement as he adjusts into a resting position in a comfortable chair in his studio. “I wanted to create a work that was the complete opposite of the famous miniature painting called The Dying Inayat Khan. It had to be decadent and a reflection of my comfort zone,” says the artist. Other poignant elements in the work include glimpses of his studio filled with workday paraphernalia and favourite furniture, a kalamkari block printed free-flowing fabric that decorates the floor and a brown hue that envelops the work to invoke nostalgia.
Similarly, Paramjit Singh is an artist with whom Chauhan shares a special relationship, which she recounts in a story from her first solo show in Delhi. When she fell ill, it was Singh who took over every aspect of organisation, including inviting guests, printing catalogues, and hanging the artwork. “Paramjit is such a close friend that I had to include him in this exhibition, but he doesn’t do self-portraits. So, I requested him to give me his black and white drawings as a representation. In every negative situation he sees light. That’s his personality and I wanted to show that,” she says.
Representational art that would stand in place of obvious self-portraits became an important theme once Deeksha Nath was brought on board as co-curator for the show. It was her idea to broaden the curatorial premise to include artists who don’t make personal portraits. The understanding of self-portraiture had to be reimagined so it could include figurative and abstract works. After all, every work of art is a reflection of the artist.
Examples of this include Achia Anzi from Israel’s highly conceptual mixed-media work. He candidly says, “There are three stages of drawing a self-portrait: observation, drawing and comparison with oneself. The last one is tough because you really have to step back and take a moment to look at yourself.” Amit Ambalal’s diptych At 79 is a strong, if comic, commentary on the perils of ageing. In it, he portrays a figure lying prostrate on a dentist’s chair, his teeth being scavenged by a bird of prey, as an ophthalmologist’s eye chart foregrounds the work ominously.
Anindita Bhattacharya’s series Wandering the Night Sky through Moonlit Aches is highly personal despite having no sign of her physical presence. An ardent lover and rescuer of ill and needy animals, she uses the X-rays of her adoptees, and following a miniature style of art, exquisitely paints over them. A second layer of white paper with more drawings and a third layer of intricate cut-outs act as a metaphorical veil.
Sumakshi Singh, best known for her delicate embroidered tapestries that work on the concept of shadows and threads, shows a work from her series titled 33 Link Road. She draws on a dissolvable material upon which her weaves are superimposed to create an ethereal effect that mimics the intangibility of memory. The artist explains the work, “This is modelled on the gate of my grandparents’ Delhi home, which they built just after Partition. It has been our family home for 72 years, and all my life, as I’ve travelled around India and the world, it has been the only address to which my sense of home was tied.”
Perhaps the most metaphorical of all is Rahul Inamdar’s a blank canvas painted in slate colour. As he writes in his artist statement, “Before the work begins, I spend days emptying my mind in the presence of a blank canvas. Lying on the floor, saying nothing. I wait, absorb the stillness, the space it contains. That emptiness, on the right day, appears as a painting. After the work, I am back at another blank canvas, and wait. It is the only constant in my practice, closest to how I perceive myself.” Similarly, Rajendra Dhawan’s poignant dark canvases painted in the early 2000s, play on the idea of self-expression through atmosphere, paint and colour.
The curators draw attention to this self-abstraction particularly in the context of the Covid period, as in the work of Jayashree Chakravarty whose single sapling stays alive and vibrant despite the attempt of its overgrown surroundings to smother it. Atul Dodiya’s solitary figures seem similarly weighed down by untold problems.
GR Iranna’s portrait titled Hidden Stories Under the Shadow uses his signature ash and acrylic on tarpaulin technique to share a glimpse into his personality, the ups and downs of his life and the stories of his childhood. Rajendra Tiku’s painting Boy and his Background seeks to assert his identity as a Kashmiri through the cursive Urdu script that adorns a canvas of muted golds and turquoises. Also on display are his elegant sculptures.
hauhan explains that self-portraiture can be a daunting prospect for artists and many expressed reservations when she initially asked them to work on this theme. She faced a general hesitation linked to the idea that this genre comes off as being “too self-indulgent” and in some cases, a firm aversion to portraying themselves with all their blemishes and faults intact. Through gentle prodding and allowing artistic leeway, however, she was able to bring most people that she was keen to show on board. Many even adopted a literal interpretation of the theme.
Anupam Sud, no stranger to self-portraits, created a series of busts decorating her own likeness with a variety of accessories. Though refusing to accord any philosophical importance to this work, her assemblage of fiberglass and found objects seems an astute reflection of the ageing body, and the varied aspects of her personality.
Manisha Gera Baswani presents two works. The first is a photograph of herself painted over in rich hues of red and framed within a filigreed bronze setting, while the second belongs to her series of art created using pin pricks—a cathartic process she adopted in the wake of the acupuncture she underwent to heal from the emotional turmoil of her husband’s heart surgery.
Shanthi Swaroopini’s tiny yet impactful sculptures titled Beneath calm waters include figures wrapped in tightly knit webs of their own creation. Sudhir Patwardhan shares three enigmatic self-portraits painted at different phases of his life. He starts with one from 1973, when he had just entered the field, moves on to one made in 2010 where he captures himself through a digital lens, and culminates in a recent one of himself in hospital titled Reflecting Shadows, which dwells on the impermanence of life.
“The focus of this show was to highlight the relationship that the gallery has with the artists, but also to return to the way that art used to be. It was not solely a commercially driven enterprise but offered a way to connect the artist with the audience on an interpersonal level,” says Tunty Chauhan, founder-director of Threshold Gallery
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A compelling photograph by Jyoti Bhatt presents his figure interspersed with that of his wife Jyotsna Bhatt, as they saw themselves reflected in a room of mirrors during a visit to the Venice Biennale in 1966. The artist says, “Unlike what people think, this is not a collage or a digitally fabricated image. This is a straight photograph shot on 35mm negative in which multiple reflections of Jyotsna and myself are seen from several unaligned mirrors of various sizes.” Chauhan accords this work special importance owing to her close relationship with both husband and wife.
Another deeply personal exhibit is the one by artist Todo Paintal, who is Chauhan’s mother. Chauhan says, “I asked her to try a self-portrait on a lark, she didn’t know it was for the exhibition. It was lovely to see her reaction captured by the videographer, when she saw her work on display. She has been friends with these artists for many years but never saw herself placed with them, and it’s perhaps to my discredit that I never did place her with them earlier. I feel after her training in art, which she pursued after retirement, she has evolved as an artist and become really good. In fact, it was her artistic leanings that led me down this path.”
All these intimate relationships, as well as a glimpse into the journey of Threshold Gallery over 25 years is captured in a presentation playing on loop at the exhibition. Chauhan asserts that she has always stayed true to the initial mandate of the gallery, which was to represent artists at the threshold of their careers. She says, “The focus of this show was to highlight the relationship that the gallery has with the artists, but also to return to the way that art used to be. It was not solely a commercially driven enterprise but offered a way to connect the artist with the audience on an interpersonal level. We hope this exhibition achieves that.”
(Reflecting the Self will be on display at Threshold Gallery, Delhi, till September 15)