An artist’s attempt at bringing out Indianness on Aussie landscape

By Indira Laisram
Gauri Torgalkar

This Diwali, Sydney-based urban designer and artist Gauri Torgalkar is bringing something unique for Sydney siders and the broader community with her Diwali Bloom project beginning next week.

Like many of her ideas, this one too comes from Torgalkar’s inherent vision and aim to introduce Indian aesthetic in the contemporary Australian art scene. She feels there are so many Indians in Australia in different fields, say, doctors, who have made their presence felt. “But Indian visual art does not have a presence at all in the Australian landscape unlike East Asian art.”

So, Diwali Bloom is all about “bringing out the Indian-ness”. It is a first of its kind project for Torgalkar, who seizes every opportunity to bring Indian aesthetics to the fore.

The Diwali Bloom project, by her own telling, is bringing light into the Australian landscape and it comes at the right time when people are coming out of the long spell of a lockdown. In many ways, the project resonates with the meaning of Diwali, the triumph of light over darkness.

A contemporary art and community participation project, Diwali Bloom reimagines Australian native flora from the local Cumberland Plain Woodlands in a format inspired by Indian miniature painting and textiles. It fuses known imagery of Australian natives with Indian modes of representation to create a hybrid vision, building cultural associations for hyphenated immigrant identities.

Gauri creating art

It incorporates horizontal and vertical weave of paint (like Indian handloom textiles), margins in the artwork (inspired by Indian miniature painting) and decorative motifs using block-printing technique (an ancient Indian fabric printing technique).

The installation includes three key Diwali components; paper lanterns that signify the victory of light over darkness, rangoli artwork on the floor to invite good vibrations, and flower offerings of miniature cards for salutation and light.

As part of this exhibition, free rangoli kits will be made available for people to create rangoli at home. A community rangoli will also be created when the exhibition opens to the public from 10-12 December. Diwali Bloom is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW Small Projects Grant and by Cumberland City Council through additional funding and in-kind support.

Gauri Torgalkar lamp art

Torgalkar got into architecture inspired by an uncle who was one. She completed her Bachelor of Architecture at Sir J. J. College of Architecture, Mumbai, and then went on to do her Master of Architecture from Kent State University, USA. After her marriage she moved to Australia. Having been relocated three times—India, US, Australia—her practice explores the intrinsic need of immigrants to make cultural associations in new communities.

Specialising in urban design, Torgalkar was always drawn to the arts and worked on them in the periphery when she was in the US where she lived for 10 years. “I was a hobby artist because I was very interested in arts. During weekends I would be painting and drawing and when an opportunity came up, I would do either an art or a sculpture project for that event.”

But it was arriving in Australia that made her want to give art a fair shot. And when her husband told her to “take time off and focus on just art”, she took his advice. “When you have studied architecture, and I was teaching as well in the US, you can create your own little curriculum. That’s what I did, I read up on history of art, modern movements, etc., and then tried to understand how my art can be a personal expression.”

Gauri hard at work

She further says, “When you do design, you are always responding to a brief, which is always a universal response to the brief, my personal experiences would not inform that design. So then when I started doing art, I thought it needs to be a cultural representation of me and my background.”

Coming from a build environment, Torgalkar wanted to focus more on the natural environment. Her work looks at Australian landscape through an Indian lens or what she calls an “Indianised version of Australian landscape”. She uses the sari narrative with the pallu at the end which ties the story to a particular place and tradition. For instance, Maharashtrian saris have parrots in the pallu, she explains. “So it is almost like I am creating sari pallus out of landscapes so to speak.”

It is this inspiration from paintings and fabrics that led to her first collection titled Strange Familiar during 2014-15, depicting Indian rituals in the Australian landscape. “That was my immediate response to coming to Australia. You have the Indian communities doing different events and then you adapt to the Australian landscape such as diyas (oil lamp usually made from clay) in the Paramatta river, flowers in the Hawkesbury river as opposed to the Ganga, or different pujas around the Banyan tree here. Those are the rituals I had in the Strange Familiar collection.”

Gauri Torgalkar artwork

Torgalka’s works are held in public and private collections in Australia, India and the United States. She has been shortlisted for many prestigious awards and more recently for the Blacktown Art Prize. But her highlights among many, she says, is receiving the Greenway Art Prize, Art Est., Leichhardt and Blake Art Prize Director’s Cut Online Exhibition.

For Torgalka, who still continues to work as an urban design, while maintaining art as her passion on the side, the ubiquitous presence of Indians and Indian culture in Australia is not monotonous. Rather, they are the themes she returns to most in her work. And they have paid off!

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