It took five years for the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) to put together a variety of artworks from different indigenous groups of India. The ambitious project titled Transforming Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India, which was stalled due to COVID-19, finally sees the light of day.
Currently on at the NGV, the exhibition celebrates the unique artistic traditions developed by diverse indigenous and regional communities across India.
The opening panoramic view to the exhibition is a Warli painting by third generation and self-taught artist Rajesh Chaitya Vangad. The Warlis are the Adivasis of western India, one of the largest indigenous tribes. Warli art has a vivid presentation of the daily events of tribal life as presented in the work by Vangad.
Vangad’s painting Natural World of Warlis on display, like his other works, expands “the Warli pictorial language through the depiction of a wide range of contemporary subjects including environmental degradation and urbanisation”.
Wayne Crothers, senior curator, Asian Art, says the Warli style of painting received broader recognition after the 1947 earthquake with the discovery of ceremonial paintings on interior walls in some of the destroyed houses in the villages. These paintings were hitherto unknown or were not visible to outsiders.
The other uniqueness of Warli art is the use of mud and cow dung as the base, which is then coated with the reddish-brown terracotta paste. For the illustrative elements, the artists use white rice flour paste with the help of a bamboo or tree twig brush. However, says Crothers, in recent times the paintings have moved on to paper in small scale.
While still being traditional and historical, Crothers wanted the project to also be an expression of the artists’ current experience in India. So, the exhibition explores the ways in which artists and creatives are using these visual languages to respond to India’s rapidly changing social environment, including changing gender dynamics.
Importantly, the theme of COVID-19 and the community response to it also informs the project.
“Emerging patachitra artist Sonia Chitrakar uses the scroll format to document the introduction and spread of COVID-19 throughout India in COVID scroll 2020. In another response to the pandemic, artist Apindra Swain’s paintings Wash hands 2020 and Stay home 2020 use traditional iconography and visual messaging to create community education tools promoting COVID-safe practices.
“Other highlights include large-scale contemporary examples of patachitra (picture cloth), storytelling scrolls up to five metres in length that were traditionally used by travelling performers in Odisha and West Bengal who sang accompanying stories as they were unrolled. Customarily depicting narratives of mythological epics and local folklore, artists are increasingly using the vibrantly coloured scrolls to depict contemporary events.”
One of the most fascination stories on display is that of the works of Sonabai and her son Daroga Ram. Married at the young age of 15, Sonabai was forced to live in isolation for 15 years by her husband during which time she created structures born out of her own imagination and with a unique style of her own. It was only time before the world discovered her creations. Ram carries on the legacy of his mother’s works. The jaali or decorative lattice (on display) screens from clay covered bamboos and filled with birds and animals is unique.
Another interesting family story is that of the Jogi family from Rajasthan. They were minstrels who sang songs and move around the village to wake people up. This was until the 1970s-80s when people started to have other forms of alarm bells and the role of minstrels became redundant, explains Crothers.
The family left their rural space following crop failure and moved to Ahmedabad becoming day labourers. They were encouraged by an art curator to record their visual stories on paper and invented their own style of drawing with a refined pen mark ink. “Of course, the current generation of the Jogi family are diversifying from that and drawing from their current urban experiences, sometimes, still historical themes as well,” says Crothers.
Madhubani (from Bihar and West Bengal) paintings too feature in this project.
Crothers says this project has been five years in the making and is the first and largest ever held in Australia. NGV collaborated with Minhazz Majumdar, a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop.
“Some of these artists are not international high-flying artists, they are village and community level artists who are preserving their traditions and handing them on, they are communicating their own experiences. It is giving them a voice they never head and could not hear,” Crothers.
The exhibition is on till August.
If the exhibition is one way of bringing the community together, the NGV Indian Utsav Community Day on May 22 also saw an array of activities to celebrate culture. Held for the first time, the day was marked by Bollywood dancing, children’s painting activities, and other performances.
Himanshi Munshaw of Culture Kite, a multicultural marketing agency, says, “We work closely with the NGV. This time we wanted to show that the national gallery is extremely interactive and they are doing an amazing job in bringing people together.”
It took 5 years for the @NGVMelbourne to put together a variety of artworks from different #indigenous groups of #India; titled 'Transforming Worlds: Change & Tradition in Contemporary India' was stalled due to the pandemic. #TheIndianSun @indira_laisram https://t.co/RZfTH7ifQP
— The Indian Sun (@The_Indian_Sun) May 26, 2022