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Vernacular spectacular

Folk art in the city

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NEW SHORES: Oriya artist Bibhu Maharana paints patachitra motifs on a boat.

Pichvais and patachitras, Madhubanis and miniatures are the last thing one expects to see in the stunning warehouse-like space that houses the Devi Art Foundation in Gurgaon. If the modern, minimalist setting seems strange, stranger still is the fact that it has taken a private museum to give tribal art its first big outing.

Tribal, folk, naive or native art - all labels that art historian Annapurna Garimella vehemently opposes - is usually to be found in craft museums, trade fairs or Dilli Haat. "Don't call it tribal art, " says Garimella who curated the show along with her team at Jackfruit Research and Design. "The term vernacular is more apt as it signifies a traditional art language without the limitations that terms like folk, tribal or native have. " That's how the title Vernacular, in the Contemporary emerged.

Craft and contemporary are not "two different worlds", says Garimella. "Though the artists showing at Devi have a committed engagement to traditional knowledge, they are also influenced by the world around them. " For example, Anwar Chitrakar's graphic novel-style patachitra deals with the Maoist movement in Lalgarh. A tailor in Kolkata before he turned to patachitra (a Bengal tradition of storytelling through painted scrolls), he begins his narrative with a question: Lalgarh-er Maobadi na Maobaddider Lalgarh? (Are Maoists from Lalgarh or does Lalgarh now belong to the Maoists?) The 20 painted folios depicting the plight of the Santhal tribals and critiquing politicians are a search for answers. Anwar's familiarity with popular culture is evident in details such as the number 420 written on the pocket of a prisoner.

The show has allowed many artists to go beyond their usual repertoires. K Siva Prasad Reddy extends the technique of kalamkari to a landscape while Chittara artist Radha Sollur replicates the snakes that undulate on her wall paintings in her village in Karnataka with plaster of Paris moulds. Ghanshyam Nimbark, a well-known contemporary miniature painter in Jaipur, decided to try his hand at shaping calligraphy into images. Although Islamic calligraphers have been doing so for centuries, it was a challenge for him to bend Devanagari's stems and bars. The result is a stunning rendition of verse - one his own (Bada Ped), and the rest by noted poets like Mahadevi Varma - on canvas.

Sixth-generation artist Kapil Sharma, whose ancestors have been pichvai painters in the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, has produced a video work. His digital pichvai accompanied by a composition in raga Malhar gives the viewer a more intense and sensuous encounter with Krishna's world than the traditional format allows. "I want to revive and renew my traditional art but in a language that is my own, " says Sharma, who went to the National Institute of Design.

Three years in the making, the Devi show represents the work of 60 artists. "Anupam and I started discussing the possibility of doing something like this some years ago but it took time to work out, " says Garimella, referring to Anupam Poddar of the Lekha and Anupam Poddar Foundation. The mother-son duo who set up Devi have an eclectic collection of Indian contemporary art including what Garimella calls "classical forms of folk and tribal art". It started when Lekha Poddar picked up a work by Gond artist Jangarh Shyam in the '80s. The collection now has nearly 1, 000 works, from Kalighat paintings and Patua scrolls to Madhubani, Gond, Warli and Saora paintings, miniatures and Chola bronzes.

The Vernacular show includes some of these works and those commissioned by Jackfruit Research. Identifying artists was the first and most difficult step since the curators wanted diversity. Nine research scholars helped scout for new talent, guided by a database of artists acquired through non-governmental and private organisations. More than 300 artists were approached, of whom 80 responded. Finally, 30 works were commissioned. "This emphasis on field research, documentation, archival work and written contracts with the artists is all very new, " points out Garimella.

One of those commissioned was Rathnakara Gudikar, who has been making bhuta murtis (shrine idols) since the age of ten. He says the project made him look at his work in a different light. "We know our bhutas (as they are called in Kannada) have ritual power but we never thought they would ever be in a museum, " says Gudikar who lives in a village outside Udupi. His brothers and sons are all sculptors too. Did they change their sculptures in any way for the Devi show? "We haven't painted the eyes so the murtis are still lifeless, " he says. "The murti can get drishti only after it is consecrated in a temple. "

(Vernacular in the Contemporary is on at the Devi Art Foundation till February 28)

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