Nature’s palette

14 Jul

Vriksha is an timely exhibition that combines traditional and modern expressions as a tribute to the tree   

Georgina Maddox

Once there was a tree, and she loved a little boy…and she loved a boy very, very much– even more than she loved herself.

Shel Silverstein

This children’s book titled The Giving Tree, encapsulates the sentiment of the relationship that trees have with humans. They give and we as a species take, without putting so much as a seed back into the earth. Instead there are headlines telling us of how trees are constantly being felled every day. Last year it was reported that 65,000 trees were felled in the capital city of New Delhi. Sometimes however these numbers become a cold statistic evoking very little response. Then an art exhibition comes along, that provokes one to think beyond these numbers and see the loving relationship that mankind can have with one of the most important members of our society—the tree. Vriksha is one such exhibition.  

Jyoti Bhatt Lost Pundit, digital reincarnation, mixed intaglio, 1966

“Art is man’s way of relating to nature,” says critic-curator Uma Nair who brings the multifarious threads of Vriksha together. The sheer variety of the exhibition is worth contemplating, since it features paintings that are both contemporary and indigenous, prints, photography, sculptures and ceramics. At the entrance of the exhibit one is greeted by artist Vipul Kumar’s Shalavanjika, a feminine tree-spirit, that is said to reside upon trees and shares a semi erotic relationship with nature as a kind of Mother Goddess figure. Kumar is a sculptor who fuses his knowledge of ceramics, gleaned from his brother Kesrinandan, (also featured in the exhibition) to bring us a unique blend of the two styles. He has essayed the full-bodied goddess in such a manner that her form fuses with the tree. At the height of 58 inches it sets the tone for the show.

Vipul Kumar, Shalavanjika, Stoneware, 58 inches, 2018

As one enters the exhibition hall, it becomes apparent that Nair has endeavored to bring about a dialogue between indigenous artists and those seen as modern-contemporaries, by juxtaposing one against the other—rather than allocating them a ghettoized space, as one often sees in many exhibitions. One can almost contrast very contemporary view of photographers like Sanjay Das, Soham Gupta, (who is currently being celebrated as the youngest photographer to be featured at the Venice Biennial), Rupin Thomas, S Paul set against the works of Padma Shri Bajju Shyam, Venkat Singh Shyam, and Japani Shyam the daughter of the late Jangarh Shyam.

S Paul Photographic print on archival paper

Das and Gupta speak of mortality death and renewal— Das evoking his metaphor through a tree that sprouts out of a gravestone while Gupta captures the astral form of a tree in the night-time. One can almost imagine these works having a conversation with Venkat Singh Shyam’s Van Devi which is about the stories that unravel when the trees come alive at night or the antlered deer whose form fuses with the branches of a tree.  Bajju Shyam evokes a happy landscape of trees, cows and a delightful elephant all harmonious with nature.

Soham Gupta Dying City, Photographic print on archival paper

“It was a natural melding together of the indigenous and the modern for me. This is because the doyen of printing, Jyoti Bhatt brings forward the indigenous to the compositions he creates. If you look closely at his intaglios he used the traditional art he was exposed to creating works like the owl, the Vriksha and the Devi of the forest and many elements from life. His Kalpavriksha blends man and nature-the womb of creation is universal,” says Nair of the Padma Shri artist.

(Left to Right) works by Himmat Shah, Kesarinandan and Vishal Joshi

An interesting Modernist, Himmat Shah creates abstraction from natural forms. “Shah says his greatest master is Picasso-he follows his maxim -learn all the rules then break it all only then can you become an artist,” says Nair. Arpana Caur uses the leitmotif of human bones with that of the prone nayika and a tree. “Many of my works have expressed concern about the environment,” says Caur “Whether it is my murals or my paintings. In this particular work titled Bone’s Prayer…, (oil on canvas, 2007) I have juxtaposed the human form with that of the Vrisksha, also evoking the bones of our mortality to signify our limited resources that are fast depleting,” she says.  

Arpana Caur with her work, Bones Prayer- Prayer for Trees- 48 X 72 – Oil on Canvas – 2008

Working with a contemporary approach Mukesh Sharma also combines his love for the traditional miniatures with a modern kitschy-pop-art approach in his two paper works that pay homage to the tree. Using pigment painting, gold foil, collage, pencil on Sanganer Vasali and handmade paper Sharma unites the two worlds. “I essentially lived in a village in Rajasthan, as a child and trees have always played an important part of my life. While my work is rooted in the traditional textile patterns and architectural motifs, I am aware of the distinctly post-modern vision and bring that to these works,” says the artist.

(Left to right) Jyoti Bhatt, Kalp Vriksha, intaglio print 1978, Mukesh Sharma, Pigment painting, gold foil, collage, pencil on Sanganeri Vasali paper, 2019, Untitled porcelain by Saraswati Renata

Shampa Sircar Das is known to combine her knowledge of traditional Tibetan mural paintings and her approach of layering her canvas with acrylic and intaglio surface marks. She creates a pennon to nature capturing a beautiful stag wading through the lotus pond as two Apsaras float in the clouds surveying this idyllic landscape. The stag’s antlers merge into a tree which then merges into the landscape and horizon. “The lotus pond is the perfect example of biodiversity which is why it often appears in my work. It is all about balancing the five elements of nature with mankind and other sentient beings,” says Das.

Shampa Sircar Das, Untitled, Acrylic on Canvas, 2019

Three artists from Kerala whose works are infused with a kind of magic realism, reflects the lush landscape of the tropical, coastal region. Aji VN is based in Netherlands but has a vivid memory of his native land. His work is a kind of internal mind-map, manifesting as a surreal tree. Nimesh Pillai depicts a bore-well overgrown with vegetation with a solitary moon hanging over this surreal landscape and Neeraj Goswami’s floating island of trees brings a contemporary flavor to an age old theme of the Miniatures.

(Left to right) Works by Nimesh Pillai, Neeraj Goswami and VN Aji

Shampa Shah has been deeply interested in botanies from the day she began working with ceramics she creates two works in porcelain. “How different she is from Saraswati (Renata) who is more modern in interpretation?” says Nair.  Another delightful work is the Tree of Life by Arpitha Reddy that fuses the traditional decorative style with the Modern technique of acrylic on canvas.

Kalpavriksha by Arpitha Reddy, acrylic on canvas (detail)

If one were to be critical of the exhibition at all, it would be of the stamp of the Sarkari survey show, though one would argue that it comes with the terrain. Furthermore a tighter edit may have given the show a bit more of a focused impact. Sometimes less is more. On the other hand, one can just continue to admire the variety of expressions.

The exhibition was on at the Kamala Devi Art Gallery at the India International Center till the 15th of July.

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