Monday, August 31, 2020

The Importance of Being Avinash Karn, the Contemporary Madhubani Artist

(Avinash Karn, artist)

An earthquake in Bihar in 1934 did cause a great damage. But it brought something unexpected to the fore. Hidden inside the homes where the public couldn’t get any access, but now lay opened in devastation before the prying eyes of the rehabilitators were some beautiful paintings done in a peculiar style on the walls hitherto unknown to the world. Those were done by the Brahmin ladies as a part of their religious and daily rituals. As its origin was religious and caste oriented and heavily ridden by gender restrictions none knew about the existence of such exquisite paintings. The scholars among the rehabilitators called it ‘Madhubani’ style of painting. Madhubani, a district in Bihar in Mithila region which is famed to be the birth place of Sita, the epic heroine, lent its name to the painting style not only because of the location of its origin but also because of the honey like sweetness of its rendition. It took a few socio-cultural and caste meanderings before it became a world renowned folk painting style, bringing several nuanced expressions and styles within that umbrella term. Avinash Karn, a young contemporary artist comes from this region and his fame is heavily depended on the ‘Madhubani’ style.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

Graduated from the Department of Sculpture, Banaras Hindu University, Uttar Pradesh, Avinash Karn, towards the end of his education had recognized the mission of his life; to become an artist who did all what he could towards propagating the homegrown Madhubani style all over the world, but with a difference. Madhubani paintings have been a staple in most of the India International Festivals, folk and tribal expos and emporium based markets. Traditional Madhubani paintings have found their way to rich home across the world and in some international museums that catered to the global folk and tribal aesthetics. This was a sort of sampling that reduced a vibrant art form into a souvenir product if not a museum piece. Madhubani style, over the years also has become a painting mode of the ‘self-taught’ women artists in urban India who often painted in various styles as they thought art was a safety valve and it could be done in any style they fancied good and practical.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

Avinash Karn left his sculptural ambitions for taking up the Madhubani style, which in fact is still seen as a feminine mode of making art due to its homely ritualistic origins. Before him another artist, Santhosh Kumar Das, a veteran from the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda, again a native of Mithila region had taken up this mission. Das maintained a track of Madhubani style purely in black and white, infusing it with contemporary narratives, giving an edge to the graphic quality thereby making it a story telling interface while keeping the painterly form intact. He has been successful in doing and is now recognized for his very personal(ized) Madhubani style of paintings. The refinement that the contemporary artists bring to the traditional style of painting is what makes it more dynamic and saves them from becoming a stagnant pool of traditional patterns and repeatable stories and formats. Even the illiterate women artists from the same region, who have picked up the art through apprenticeship under master women artists and transcended both economic and caste barriers, are now capable of expanding the traditional repertoire of images and making way to more contemporary imageries and familial narratives. Perhaps, an artist like Avinash Karn stands as a link between these illiterate women artists from the region and the more refined and sophisticated versions of Madhubani style as practiced by artists like him, facilitating the journey of the art form in a more dignified course that now ekes out not only aesthetic attention but also academic interests at various levels of its reception.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

The glossy super-flat surfaces that once beckoned the young artists to create more contemporary art in a homogenized visual cultural approach in order to gain quick traction among the buying class and recognition in the international art market manipulated by the local cartels of galleries somehow did not appeal to Avinash Karn who had experienced the aesthetic finesse of Madhubani art and its inherent ability to move people visually. What he wanted to do was to make himself a sophisticated medium so that he could not only paint in the chosen style but also could articulate his concerns regarding the style before an interested public and aestheticians. He did achieve that feat and could take his art to various national and international platforms, all this while incorporating the new locales that he found himself in in the process. This enriched the visual ensemble of his paintings and the scope of manipulating the images which were traditionally not there in the ‘original’ Madhubani paintings. For example, the traditional women painters knew how to portray godheads and village life in tiered narratives, using adequate distortions and abstractions through spatial arrangements whereas they were not sure how a television set or a gas cylinder was brought into the painting. The major achievement that Avinash Karn made in his works and also contributed to the stylistic repertoire of Madhubani paintings is this that he could bring in anything that he saw around him, be it Qutub Minar, metro trains, Victoria Terminus, Writer’s Building, Gateway of India and so on.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

So long as a traditional artistic style remains within the confines of its origin in terms of geographical territory or variable aesthetical grammar maintaining a visual cohesiveness, contemporary urban (read modern) art does not feel any threat from it. It could always be treated as a country cousin of the mainstream art however it tries to be a coat-tie wearing urban lad. The comic interludes may be expected out of such art but not a regular lead. Avinash Karn brought his style and pivoted it right in the middle of the urban contemporary art almost shaking up the claims of modernism upheld by the urban art (especially the ones that came out of the famed art colleges). Here was a new and curious body of works that almost looked folkish but a closer look thwarted such comforts for it was showing all what an urban narrative could do in its modern painterly style. It was both awe-inspiring and moving, and perhaps evoked a discourse more vigorous than the former one could have done. Writing in past tense does not make Avinash Karn’s works a thing of past but my intention is to say that this was what he did to the art world, in the meanwhile smiling all the way to the bank.

(Paintings by Avinash Karn)

By now Avinash Karn has achieved such felicity and skill that he could handle paper, canvas and walls alike. He has also forayed into digital production of his works, not as a copying methodology but the digital technology as a method to enhance the possibilities of the style that he has been instrumental in making and propagating. Interested in local histories, his research has taken him to the history of production of images through crude photographic methods and he has even experimented with a body of works that made use of the paraphernalia of the older traditions of local photography. He travels a lot these days and each sojourn adds to the visual coffer that he gleefully flaunts in his works. Looking carefully at his works, one could see that the traditional hues of Madhubani are no longer there in his works but an aesthetical recalling of them through synthetic colors that allows the artist to go for bigger formats and surfaces. The intimate scale of traditional Madhubani style has been bartered for experimentations, which in fact has become a habit even of the traditional artists from various parts of India as they have started attending national and international art symposiums and camps where they are expected to use modern canvases and synthetic colors. Avinash Karn’s works are a bold intervention in the contemporary scenario of art where the artist’s modern education becomes a tool for him to further his regional art style while taking a great care not to fall into the trap of becoming an internal colonizer of tastes.


Friday, August 14, 2020

When Janaky and Bhuvan Start to Paint: Art Sprouts in Captivity

(Janaky Sunil)

Captivity triggers creativity. Picasso once said, if they put him behind bars and prevented him from painting by depriving all kinds of mediums, he would lick the walls of the jail and make drawings out of his saliva. Some people know that they are gifted with the ability to sing, draw, paint, write poetry and even dance only when they find themselves in forced confinement. Best pieces of literature and history have taken birth in custody. On the one hand it gives enough space, time and tranquility to the writer to indulge in the art of writing and on the other hand, creativity of any kind takes material shape as a part of the effort to transcend the forced boundaries. Then it becomes a realization and rebellion at once. Realization it is but the rebellious side of it is noticed perhaps by the others only if the works created in captivity get a chance to see the light of the day.

(Works by Janaky Sunil)

Janaky Sunil, a PhD scholar in Physics in an eminent institute in Bangaluru was at her home during the first phase of Covid lockdown in March, April and May 2020. Like everyone else, she too thought the days of confinement would be over sooner than later. She kept her educational routine unaffected and was secretly happy to have an extended holiday with her parents and brother who too had come back from Delhi where he pursued his graduate studies in History. Initial enthusiasm for holidays gave way to boredom and Janaki felt like doing something else than watching television, reading, experimenting with exotic recipes and chatting up with friends and parents in virtual and real space. It was when Janaky found a hidden talent in her; painting. Then it was an unexpected affair with lines, colors, ink, papers and whatnot.

(Works by Janaky Sunil)

The paintings were growing in number and it was difficult to contain them inside the files and Janaky’s secret affair was about to be found out by her parents. It was a great surprise for her mother, Meena, who writes poems occasionally and sees them printed in magazines too. For her father, Sunil, whose identity I withhold for the time being, it came as a pleasant shock because in his busy schedule he had never noticed her artistic inclinations though he knew that she liked photography. For him the children getting attracted to academic pursuits in different areas of knowledge was a thing of pride though he did not particularly want them to follow his footsteps as a public intellectual, unparalleled orator and unrivalled Marxian scholar in Kerala, and an eminent professor of Malayalam literature. Well, now you have guessed his identity. Yes, Janaky’s dad is none other than Sunil P Ilayidom.

(Janaky Sunil, Meena, Sunil P Ilayidom and Madhavan Sunil and Janaky's works)

It wasn’t surprising for Janaki when her dotting parents, upon the relaxation of lockdown, went in search of drawing and painting materials and brought home all she wanted; papers, colors and brushes. Janaky’s paintings show a naïve style which is not deliberate. Considering her mature approach in the other academic field, the paintings are definitely naïve and childlike for it is the ‘withheld language’ of expression that she employs in her works and without the honing of it through formal fine art studies and practice. Sitting in confinement, all what she recollects are the images that had gone into her mind and heart during her growing up years. She has also painted images from her immediate past and present; in one of them she is seen sitting at a library and in another work, one could see a skyline that she has gathered in her memory during her travels in the metro cities.

(Janaky's works)

When the floodgates of memories are opened, the cascading images need a capturing medium which is the artistic language of Janaky. Though she had made some pictures and drawings during her early school days just like any other children of her age at that time, she had lost track of such visual language. So what one sees in her painterly expressions are the ‘recovering’ of an ancient language which once had currency in the private world of her childhood and perhaps does not have a transactional value in the present aesthetic economy. However, such a point of view does not discard or displace the relevance and the intrinsic value of her aesthetics which is absolutely truthful and deep, mainly because it comes out from a ‘lived’ and ‘living’ autobiographical narrative put into a ‘restored’ language. Janaky’s finding of her creative self as a visual artist in that sense has more complex layers than we expected to find in the apparent naïve style. For unravelling such complexities we need a body of work from Janaki done without the sense of confinement or lockdown in her. The evolution of language in both the phases, however minute it may be, could reveal the nuances of her works and the source of their origin than treating them as a hobby or distraction picked up during the days of lockdown. Let’s wait and see whether Janaky would go into making more paintings or not.

(Bhuvan Abraham Modayil)

Vinu Abraham, the famous writer of novels, short stories and film scripts stands at par with Sunil P Ilayidom when it comes to the chance finding of visual creativity in his progeny during the days of lockdown. An outgoing type of person who spends a lot of time in listening to western contemporary music and thinks of becoming a music producer and arranger, Bhuvan Abraham Modayil suddenly found himself with brush and paint, confronting a wall. He kept aside his favorite sports such as football and badminton for a few days and kept working on the wall. A Commerce Graduate by education, by expectation Bhuvan must be painting some super flat image of a pop singer of his choice with bursting energy and inaudible sound. Instead he went into the making of an image that brought out a tender symbolic side in him, which again is filled with a primitive symbolism as we see in the Australian Aboriginal painters and the Gond Painters in India.

(Mural by Bbuvan Abraham Modayil)

Bhuvan also used to paint as a child. When he grew up, he left it along the way and picked up all the other traits that would define him as a young man, definitely unlike his father, who spends many hours in a restaurant in Trivandrum, either reading or imagining scenarios for his forthcoming film or short story or novel, over many cups of tea. Vinu Abraham likes paintings but never tried his hand at one. Nor has he goaded his son to pick up brush to become a painter though his son becoming a painter would have definitely made him proud. But like a modern father, Vinu let Bhuvan have his way and was surprised to see the artist in him manifesting as a mural painter rather than a painter in a notepad or canvas. Bhuvan's mother Suja, an award winning documentary film maker made his life much easier as she created a conducive environment for the artist to flourish. The painting has some meaning for the young man. And obviously the onlooker also should see it.

(Details of Bhuvan's work)

Through the aboriginal design and patterns, a cat masquerading as tiger or a tiger masquerading as a cat comes out with red eyes extending out of the contours of the face and a pair of ears jutting out of the top of the head. The curvy repetitive and colorful patterns give identifiable shapes to the frontal body of the beast whose head has an ornamental pattern that resembles a neo-tantric painting of Biren De. Also it has a pink pattern coming out of the head like a protruding crown. The tribal primitivism (that had come out of the erasure drawings of Rabindranath Tagore too) in a visual art sense has made the artist subconsciously turn the body of the tiger into a field (one could see that in Gond and Worli paintings) where a fantasy landscape is carefully painted. Bhuvan places the whole visual scenario against a black backdrop that generally in the primitive art practices manifest the unfathomable universe.

(Vinu Abraham)

Forced confinement takes people to their origins. They travel through their genetic ladders and reach to the places that otherwise they never thought existed. The Covid lockdown has made people creative and imaginative. The lack of sociality and the unresolved predicament of lockdown have made people innovate mediums and modes to reach out to the people not only in their vicinity but also them around the world. Some act, some sing, some write poems and a need for books in that sense has also increased. This is the new normal in creativity. One does not need a formal training to be an artist. Nor does one need a gallery to exhibit. He/she may be painting secretly, but it would definitely reach other places through new modes of communication. Like Janaki and Bhuvan there must be so many young people painting while in confinement, expressing their hitherto unknown fears, passions, desires, anxieties and hopes.


(Sunil P Ilayidom and Vinu Abraham are two eminent personalities in the contemporary cultural scenario. They are my personal friends, a fact that gives me added pleasure to write about the creativity of their children. There must be so many young children in the world who have found out their artistic self while in confinement. I wish them all the best and hope to see those works at some point of time though that is too ambitious a thing to ask for.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Megha Joshi: A Lonely Goddess within a Familial Pantheon

(Artist, Megha Joshi)

September 2012. Pragati Maidan, New Delhi. United Art Fair was on at Hall number 12, which has become defunct now. I was the chief curator of the project which had gained a popular acronym, UAF. Artists from all over India came to Delhi; some artists came because they were participating in the mega project. Many other artists made it a point to visit the UAF because they thought that it was their Fair which would grow into one of the historical art fairs in the world. Things did not work out the way I had wanted despite my claim that I could help ‘cross the desert without a camel’ (that was the title of one of the articles that appeared in a mainstream daily); obviously, the desert in question was the art market and camel was the art galleries and middle(wo)men.

(Object by Megha Joshi)

Just outside the magnificent hall of exhibition (where world expos were held annually) there was a conspicuous structure made out of discarded rubber slippers painted in gold; a shrine that we often see in the small towns in North India, but here without an idol inside it. Artists and visitors were paying a serious visit to the small shrine and were returning with a hesitant smile for they could not make out whether the humble structure was a spoof or a serious work of art. It was many years before two young guys spoofed the fashionable conceptual installations by placing a pair of specs on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2016) and seriously photographing it. Here in Delhi, however the Shrine of Slippers meant some serious business for the artist behind that impermanent piece of art was Megha Joshi, a then little known artist based in Delhi. She would go on to become one of the vocal feminist artists in India in the coming years.

(Works by Megha Joshi)

Megha Joshi studied art at the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University, Baroda. The art market of mid 1990s did not have much to offer a young practicing artist. So after education Megha (I prefer to use her first name in this article) went to Delhi where she was born and brought up and decided to join the television/entertainment industry as an art director. Many artists who took up jobs in other fields than art teaching went into oblivion only to resurface during the art boom that threw palpable money around by 2005. Megha had not left art altogether but was hesitant to make a reentry till she met Mukesh Panika of the Religare Art, who had come back from the US and taken up the top job in the cash rich establishment. For Panika, with the famous Eicher Building at the outer circle of the historical Connaught Place at the heart New Delhi at his disposal, sky was the limit. He initiated a project called ‘Connaught Place/Why not Place’ exploring the urban histories and contemporary stories.

(Torso QED by Megha Joshi)

Considering it as a launch-pad Megha came back to the art scene and the Shrine of Chappal was a defiant art/act emanated from her rebellious self which she unapologetically presented at the UAF, even giving some surprise to me, the chief curator. Megha surprised the art scene of Delhi once again, perhaps capturing the attention of the media and the connoisseurs alike in 2013. I was curating a show titled ‘R.A.P.E’ (pronounced ‘rape’) at the Art Bull gallery in Delhi and the idea of the curatorial venture came as a response to the horrendous rape and murder of Jyoti Singh on 16th December 2012. Hailed as Nirbhaya, Singh was put through nerve wrecking cruelty by four men in a moving bus and after much uproar and protest raised by the public she was sent to Singapore for treatment where she succumbed to her injuries.

(Attractor and Sensor/Censor by Megha Joshi)

‘Nirbhaya’ had consolidated the middleclass angst, anger and protest. The incident also established beyond doubt that India still lived in middle ages with its chauvinistic attitude towards women in the society. I was the first one to respond to the incident through an exhibition and the abbreviation, R.A.P.E was a stand in for ‘Rare Acts of Political Engagement’. Megha was one of the participating artists and the work that she presented was titled ‘Object.’ A pair of prosthetic areolas pasted on a pair of rubber bulbs of the blow hones used in the motor vehicles, was erected on a pedestal using plated iron rods. The work gave an initial shock to the viewers and someone who couldn’t resist the itch to squeeze it did it and then it was history. Everyone rushed to blow it and the gallery space reverberated with the honking. Megha achieved not only what she wanted as the audience response but also a fair amount of fame for the coming days Delhi could see this work featured in almost all the newspapers and television channels. Megha Joshi happened on that day and it was in April 2013.

(Red Drawing Series by Megha Joshi)

Since then there has been no looking back for Megha. Hailing from a socialist family Megha has rebellion in her blood and the flamboyance in her personality somehow hides her communist leanings and socialist upbringing. As I mentioned elsewhere, Megha is unapologetic in her works and life. Most of the ‘feminist’ artists in India refuse to qualify themselves as ‘feminists’ because of the bad associations that the conventional society in India has been successful in attaching to the word. Megha comes out in a different color; she is often vocal about her feminism and never hides behind the word feminine. The same verve is seen in the choice of her themes and materials. Whenever Megha has a disturbing childhood memory to recollect and say it aloud in public, she does it with force and pathos; and she is never ashamed of shedding tears in public. The cathartic act of recounting and retelling personal tragedies absorbed as a part of historical understanding (therefore not necessarily personal in the strictest sense) is something makes Megha different from the lot of her contemporaries for many have the tendency to hoodwink the substantiating etymologies of their ‘works’ in artificial sophistication.

(Works by Megha Joshi)

Areola or the simulated appearance of it through various mediums is one the major modes of artistic expression that Megha has chosen to explore in her works. There is a series of areola works made of paper pulp in which a simple and upfront representation of it at once focuses and displaces the discourse to and away from the body part that is characterized by an areola in a female body, in other words, a breast. Megha does not attach any sentimental connection to breasts and the mammalian divinity attached to it. Rather Megha looks at them as a pair of abused, misrepresented and misinterpreted human/female organs from which natural functionality is eliminated by the cultural associations of eroticism. Hence, in her works areolas appear as stark representations as if they have gained their own personality and are liable to be portrayed as beings, or as broken ‘subjects’ perhaps due to violation or a deteriorating interface that discards all concepts of beauty, comfort and pleasure. Megha makes one of the biggest subversions of the areola by bringing them on the butt cheeks of a classical Venus like torso, in a quirky displacement of erotic zone. This work is titled ‘Torso QED’. Mutilated by history, the torso of an ideal female nude has lost the subjectivity and has become a mere torso for male appreciation and Megha’s intervention makes that torso lose its historical ‘objectivity’ of appreciation and gain the status of an erotic object.

(Wounds by Megha Joshi)

The displacement of a human organ should generate revulsion and embarrassment in the normal circumstances; or else it should create a sense of bizarre. That’s what happened when the westerners saw the representations of the Indian gods and goddesses in sculpture for the first time. But in the case of a female body, the displacement of an organ however does not make it bizarre but accentuates the male gaze to derive more perverted pleasure. And it is in the eyes of the (male) onlooker that perversion lies, says the artist by creating a series of photographs titled ‘Sensor/Censor’. In this series, Megha sticks the prosthetic areolas on various parts of her body that are generally seen as ‘decent’ upon public exposure. The presence of the areola turns these ‘dignified’ body portions suddenly into erotic zones. This magic of the society and also the framing of her body with a clear intention to catch the male gaze and its perversions add to the simplicity as well as the enigmatic nature of the work.

(Site Specific Installations by Megha Joshi)

Other major mediums that Megha has explored extensively are wicks, incense sticks, clothes and blinds. ‘Red Drawing’ is a series in which Megha skillfully uses red colored wicks that are used along with the drawings of a female torso, a surrogate self-representation in a way, exposing the simulated eroticized body parts in an attempt to demystify the female body and its physical effluences. Without exposing the body, Megha keeps her body on a table of pictorial format for virtually dissecting it in order to understand clinically about the corporeality that does not often ooze the juices of erotica, instead produces tears, sweat, pee and menstrual blood. The incense sticks have a direct connotation regarding the subjection of women within the domestic sphere strictly bound by religious dictums. They are used for expressing female genitalia, physical and mental wounds inflicted by such boundaries. Also red kumkum and hair, the symbols that visibilize the married status of a woman and the atrocities that she has to face by becoming a pawn in the family feuds, become Megha’s artistic mediums. Using the blinds made out of incense sticks and similar materials, she brings out the hanging torsos of women, an entity caught in the liminal spaces of existence; neither outside nor inside but in between the threshold, in a precarious hanging.

(Latest Drawings by Megha Joshi)

Megha has also ventured into ceramics, bronze sculptures and installations in public spaces. Irrespective of the mediums and spaces available for displaying her works, Megha explores the existence of the females within an apparently liberal but horribly restrictive society. There is no self-righteousness attitude in her works nor does one see a sloganeering feminism in her visual expressions. She positions herself as a witness and a medium. She works through memories and moments that could have the capacity to generate histories. The latest series of drawings, which she calls ‘unresolved’ both in terms of working and positioning catches her precarious existence within the home itself where the relationships between herself, her husband, children, pet, books, furniture, fridge, gas stove, vegetables, water in the pipe and so on are brought into focus. She identifies the brittle nature of relationships, the temporality of churning emotions, practicalities involved in wading through the cascading ordinariness, negotiating the emotional landscapes made askew by the intensifying tragedies around and so on and the present series of drawings comes to us an effort to see them in humanistic ways rather than something colored by ideologies. Still there is an effort to denude herself and incarnate as a lonely goddess within a familial pantheon.