Archive for Indian art

A Meditation on Boundaries

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

I-Screen by Dhruvi Acharya

I-Screen by Dhruvi Acharya

“Breaking Boundaries” is an expression that is usually meant to show freedom—crashing through a fence that prohibits expression. But there’s another side to boundaries.

And that’s “Holding Boundaries.”

The first boundary I recall is a low brick wall that marked the edge of the front garden of my first home in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. At age four, I played close to the wall, and this was how I visited other children in the neighborhood: playing on the sides of the garden walls.

Once, my younger sister breached the wall to toddle after a fire engine. She was safely retrieved, yet my mother’s panicked reaction to my sister’s boundary violation is the second part of the memory.

This week, a huge fence is going up in Washington D.C., supposed protection for those participating in President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. This physical barrier can deter some behaviors, but it cannot do anything to erase the danger we face.

I started feeling this way last winter, when doctors around the world pleaded for people to wear face masks. Across the country, mask adherence is spotty, and a number of people say that not wearing a mask is a defense of their personal freedom. Last week, when seditionists stormed the US Capitol, members of Congress escaped and huddled together for hours in a small, undisclosed location. Six Republican House members refused to wear masks. Three members who wore masks caught COVID-19, quite possibly from one of these people. Because the boundary wasn’t observed by everyone, it didn’t work.

“Holding boundaries” is an expression used in counseling practice and self-help books and sometimes causes an eye roll. For me, it means following my gut, rather than giving in to pressure. Holding a boundary might mean saying “Sorry, I can’t come to that party,” or “I don’t want to get involved in that argument,” or as simple “no.”

The U.S. Constitution is packed with laws, and garnished with amendments, that are meant to protect the country from corrupt government and ensure its stability and articulate the rights of citizens. However, none of it works if people don’t pay attention to it. Vice President Michael Pence knows that President Trump did all but throw him to a mob, yet he won’t exercise the Constitution’s 25th amendment, which could remove a president unfit for duty. And what of the 147 Republican lawmakers who won’t accept the certified results of the 2020 election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris? Who won’t accept… the law?

The challenge with boundaries is that you can’t yoke people into them. We hold them because of the people we are.

About nineteen years ago, I bought a painting called “I-Screen” by an Indian woman painter, Dhruvi Acharya, who had a one-woman show in Baltimore. I remember settling down on a bench and staring at the vast amount of huge paintings, looking for the one that spoke to me most.

It was a big red painting, 50 inches square, that called to me. In “I-Screen,” a mature woman with a peaceful expression appears to be defending herself against a stream of angry words coming from a younger woman. The screen in her hand is a simple vegetable grater.

As years passed and life tested me, I began to understand the story within the picture. The loving elder lets the words come at her, but she protects herself. She reminds me to stay true to myself.

When the Muse is Named Corona

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

“Love in the Age of Covid,” Bhaskar Chitrakar, 2020

Once the pandemic is a memory, what image will you remember? The tired mask on a hook by the door, or it a dear friend’s face trapped behind an oxygen mask—a sight you’re only privy to because the shot was beamed into Facebook?

Coronavirus pictures have been dismal until the last week or so, when media published proof of health care workers in England getting vaccinations, and now Americans as well. As gratifying as these pictures of jubilant workers are, they are digital images with limited visibility. The next day, something else fills up the center spot on the newspaper’s home page.

And we must never forget.

The museums that recently re-opened have closed because the virus is surging. But art never sleeps; I suspect many of its makers are contemplating the coronavirus. And I’m certain that  what these artists can eventually show us is different from mass perceptions.

Bhaskar Chitrakar with one of his creations

Bhaskar Chitrakar is a Kolkata artist in his early 40s who works in the Kalighat painting tradition that’s been identified with his city since the early 1800s.  The painter’s surname, Chitrakar, literally means “illustrator,” and he’s the last descendent in a clan of painters who have trained father to son and grandson for generations.

The type of painting that this family and others made is an endangered art called Kalighat Patachitra. These small paintings, bought as souvenirs, were created inside a Kolkata neighborhood called Kalighat in honor of its temple celebrating the goddess Kali. The art form started with small-scale religious paintings were sold at low cost to ordinary people. As British dominance in Bengal increased, people chafed at the foreigners’ oppression and the pretentiousness of the expanding Bengali upper class who eagerly took jobs as English-speaking clerks and officials. Babu, the honorific suffix these gentlemen favored for themselves, became slang meaning a silly gentleman. Babus were mocked for wearing western men’s pumps in conjunction with the Indian dhoti, and for smoking hookahs, and making a nuisance of themselves. Babus, artists, and wealthy women became recurring protagonists in Kalighat Pachitra work.

19th century Kalighat art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

More of the V&A’s historic Kalighat Patachitra

Bhaskar Chitrakar was six when his father started to teach him painting. By thirteen, he was working full-time. While remaining respectful of the exquisitely detailed painting form, Bhaskar experimented with his own social commentary: strong women, jazz-loving cats, cell phones and taxis. To suit his his own sensibility, he continued to clothe his men and women in traditional 19th century garb—the sherwani jackets, draped dhotis, and flowing saris that light up up his paintings.

“Dance of the Coronavirus,” Bhaskar Chitrakar

Bhaskar Chitrakar’s art entered my life in the most quotidian way: a marketing email. The Khazana Gallery, a Minneapolis, Minnesota venue representing South Asian artists, created an online event called Tree of Life last July. This was an art sale designed to offer extra support to Khazana’s artists living isolated and unable to sell their work because of India’s long and strict national quarantine. The gallery decided not to charge its usual commission in order to give all the money raised from the art sale to the folk artists.

Feeling curious, I clicked into the gallery of available images. Not all of Chitrakar’s watercolors had a coronavirus theme, but I smiled the most at ones that did.  “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” shows an elegant couple toasting each other from a six-foot distance, and “Have No Fear, I am Here” shows a smug, rounded corona molecule awaiting a syringe held by a flamboyant babu.

“Have No Fear, I am Here,” Bhaskar Chitrakar

I drew my husband Tony into the digital window shopping. When we choose a painting to admire or even buy, we usually see eye-to-eye.

“Leave Me Alone!” Bhaskar Chitrakar

This time was harder than usual, but we eventually chose the painting pictured above. A musician is wielding a musical instrument called a tanbura, all the while deftly balancing a cat on top of it and defiantly regarding the burning corona sun. He’s like all of us, balancing everything despite the difficulty of the situation. The man’s handsome coat is patterned with tiny corona images, and the coat’s tassel trim repeats the corona motif. I loved the grace of the musician’s movement, and the irony of his modern surgical mask against his fine clothing. Those masks made all of us look ridiculous. The picture is rounded out by a dog howling at the sun and a tiny crow. The three animals make me think of working parents with children underfoot.

After I’d placed my online order, the gallery emailed to alert me the picture we’d selected had already sold; yet Bhaskar was willing to recreate the same picture (he paints about eight works a month). I agreed, feeling glad that artists painting in a historic tradition are generous enough to recreate their visions by hand.

“Leave Me Alone!” departed India in early August and arrived in my home before that month’s end. I took it out straight away and admired it—along with six other works by different Indian artists. Art fever had infected me.

Yet despite my excitement over these purchases, I dragged my feet when it came to getting them framed. I didn’t feel especially safe going into the big box store where I usually got framing done. Working with a consultant to select the right frames and mats would take ages, and how many customers would be waiting ahead of me or breathing on the back of my neck?

In November, Covid-19 rates were rising, so I knew I had to get a move on before stores might close. I decided to try a small, socially distanced artist supply store in Towson, MD. I was the only customer at the framing desk, where a massive plexiglass shield protected staff and customers from each other. The process took about an hour, and I was glad that for three things: the framing consultant also liked the pictures, nobody got in line behind me, and I was putting some money into the pocket of a small business.

I collected my framed paintings today—just 24 hours after the first Pfizer vaccinations went into the arms of health care workers in my country. I had a place in mind on the living room wall, and when I hung the painting, it looked like it was home.

From where I sit, I can keep one eye on a blazing fire and the other on a mythical battle with an unnerving disease. In the distant future, I imagine a world that is healthier in some ways, and sicker in others.

In my imagination, a cute young child is running roughshod through my living room and clambers to stand up on an upholstered chair to better inspect “Leave Me Alone!” And then it’s time for me to answer:

Why is that funny guy’s mouth and nose covered up?

Khazana has revived its Tree of Life fundraising sale for the month of December, 2020. You can shop for available work from Bhaskar Chitrakar and four other folk artists working in India.

Badri Narayan, the Story Artist

This post originally appeared on Murder Is Everywhere.

Theme of Public Health V, 2008 Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

A couple of years ago, I spent a thrilling day shopping for art in galleries the Kala Ghoda district of Mumbai. The upshot is I came home with a gorgeous modern abstract painting found in a an old British Raj building on Rampart Row in Mumbai, very close to the Bombay Dock that I’ve written about in my Perveen Mistry series. Gallery 7 is owned by a sophisticated yet friendly mother-son team, Chandra and Nicholai Sachdev.

They showed me their full canon of famous paintings and offered me tea and a savory Pad Bhaji sandwich during the hours we spent together. Newton, their manager, oversaw the wrapping of the Amrish Malvankar abstract oil painting and added my email to the Gallery 7 Art Catalog list.

The occasional emailed catalog is haunting reminder for me that I am no longer walking through the sunshine of Mumbai with art on my mind.

How can possibly I gaze at art when I have bills to pay for serious things such as my children’s summer classes in Baltimore and plumbing repairs?

Untitled, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

But I’ll admit it—I open up these emails and look at every picture and sculpture. It can be utterly distracting to spend an hour looking at dozens of paintings by artists who are tops in India but not well known in my part of the world. I can pretend I have a budget to buy art. I can divide all those lakhs by 60 to try to figure out what the cost is in dollars, always hoping that it will be more reasonable than it turns out to be.

Art is the kind of thing that you don’t really need…but when you see something interesting, it might become an obsession.

Theme of Public Health II, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

My attention is now focused on Badri Narayan, a painter born in Secunderabad in 1929, when it was part of a princely kingdom under control of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Badri, who died in 2013 of frail health, taught himself to paint, and worked in watercolors, ink and pastels. When I think of Secunderabad—where I spent one marvelous winter as a little girl—I see the city in the same soft earth tones as Badri’s work.

The Theme of Public Health III, 2008, Badri Narayan, at Gallery 7

As an adult, he moved to Bombay, and some critics have said that his paintings, which celebrate mythology from ancient India, are a counter to the hustle-bustle overcrowded world that developed after independence. Badri Narayan was a renaissance man; he worked as an author-illustrator, storyteller and painter, just like Rabindranath Tagore did a century earlier.

Some of the activities and stylized tableaus in the Narayan watercolors remind me of the miniature paintings that were popular in both Muslim and Hindu courts. There are winged visitors in many of his paintings who may be angels; monks, doctors, and husbands and wives. I was particularly moved by the many images of a sick man being comforted by various people in his life, with the winged angel standing nearby. The Public Health series was painted about seven years before his death at the age of 84. Badri Narayan was clearly at the top of his game and taking a look at what he had in his life and what lay ahead of him.

Gallery 7 has the works featured above in its “New Year Sale” that runs until June 1. No, it’s not a 6 month sale! The Hindu lunar calendar starts on different days each year, and this time it began March 18.