Less than halfway through a two-hour-long interview at the India Art Fair venue, Priyanka Choudhary has said yes more often than she has said no. When pointed out, the 37-year-old artist is reluctant to answer, but settles for a more politically correct “maybe”. This is in contrast to the ethos of her work in which she has attempted to ask that very basic yet ambiguous question — why is it difficult to say no.
It is this quest that has also led her to travel to conflict zones across the world and understand why saying yes is an act of submission that endorses violence. But what is most striking about her body of work is the use of charkha (spinning wheel). Although the charkha is widely seen as a symbol of non-violence in India, Choudhary’s reasons for choosing it as a medium of artistic expression have been “purely meditative”. “When you spin, your thoughts spin and they are guided by the energy of the space you occupy.” Throughout 2013, Choudhary performed at Mexico City, Soweto in South Africa , Ground Zero in New York, Ypres in Belgium and Jallianwala Bagh, all historical sites of conflict. She recounts a particular performance at the Zocalo Square in Mexico City, where she tied the thread she spun around her body and invited people to write “Si” (Yes) on her. The results, she says, were “astonishing”. Not one member of the audience questioned her or, for that matter, refused to comply. “After the performance, I shared this experience with a stranger who said this inability to say no stemmed from a colonial past.” Choudhary, though, feels that the reasons are subjective and it is up to the individual to explore. A set of three photographs each from her performances at Zocalo Square in Mexico City and Ypres in Belgium had been on display at India Art Fair.
The energy of the space she performs in, explains Choudhary, translates into the shape, consistency and uniformity of the thread being spun. To qualify that claim, she narrates her experience of performing at the Jallianwala Bagh. The ambience of that place was so disturbing that it affected the spinning. “The area was full of trash and there was nothing of the past left there. Not even names of the people who were killed in the massacre.” Finally, Choudhary chose to perform under a banyan tree that had names of tourists written all over its trunk.
Since the very beginning, Choudhary’s work has been more about experience than projection. “It is a reflection of her own responses to situations,” says curator Abhay Maskara. He adds that her willingness to experiment is her biggest strength as well as her weakness. “In the eyes of someone else, her diversity can be confused for a lack of direction. However, it has also lent a strong, independent voice to her work.” The artist Gopi Gajwani, though, feels her work is arresting. “Every artist is searching for a space that she can call her own but that space is no longer limited to just the canvas. Her medium is unique and although her work is quite subliminal, it has the power to shock you, even disturb you in ways.”
Though Choudhary has worked extensively with the charkha, she also works with mixed media to create installations. One of her more intriguing works is titled Shroud Reader, where she has pinned up a sheet with nails pierced through it across a ceiling and invited people to lie down next to her while facing the sharp edges of the nails. This work, says Choudhary, is her response to the act of shaving a widow’s hair as part of a Hindu religious custom. “When I went to Haridwar, I saw widows whose heads were being shaven. However, by doing so, we are pulling a heavier shroud onto them. It is a constant reminder,” she says.
For an artist working with a medium as unique as a charkha, isn’t making installations a departure from the idea of experience preceding projection? Choudhary is honest to admit that at the end of the day these artworks, priced between Rs 2 and 8 lakh, help her earn her “bread and butter”. But where does that leave her performance art? “You can’t sell an experience, can you?”
A large figurative portrait of a frail, distraught-looking lady set against the backdrop of Pattachitra paintings from Raghurajpur in Odisha adorns the wall at artist Vinita Dasgupta’s first solo show titled Storytellers. Although all her works on display were sold out, this is one piece that Dasgupta says she will never sell. “This is a portrait of my dida (grandmother) and she is my storyteller,” says the 30-year-old artist.
The series of paintings depicts a new pictorial style and artistic practice that she developed three years ago after visiting Raghurajpur. Although the village is known for its heritage of Pattachitra paintings that date back to 5 BC, to the artist, it is a cradle of early childhood memories and stories that her grandmother used to tell her. Much like the Pattachitra paintings that depict tales from Hindu mythology in a pictorial form, her grandmother too would narrate mythological stories and folk tales. As Dasgupta grew up and graduated from Delhi College of Arts, the memories of Raghurajpur faded, but not the influence of her grandmother, who continues to be an inspiration for her work.
“The biggest strength of a woman is her power to love,” says the artist. “And it starts with the ability to love oneself.” That’s one of the lessons that her mother and her grandmother taught her. No wonder Dasgupta’s early works have a deeply autobiographical touch. She used self-portraits to create metaphors of herself and her realisation of womanhood. These early works are characterised by broad, free-flowing brush strokes. “Here was a woman who painted like a man and that is what drew me to her work,” says curator Rahul Bhattacharya. “But that style comes naturally to her.” And she never changes her style until she gets bored of it.
Although a personal connect with Raghurajpur drew her to the village at first, the craftsmanship, detailing and precision of the folk painters inspired her to incorporate elements of their work into hers. “It was these artists who helped me realise that something ‘popular’ could also be deeply rooted in discipline and have a strong cultural dialogue,” she says. Since then, Dasgupta has adopted a more controlled technique and introduced new compositional elements in her work.
Although initially she transposed motifs from the village onto the borders of paintings depicting popular personalities, they are now deeply entrenched in her artwork. For her latest series, the artist has painted Pattachitrakathas on small pieces of canvas, rolled them to create small scrolls and used them to create an intricate detailing in her latest series of portraits. “I have seen Vinita sitting in the corner making canvas rolls for hours together,” says Bhattacharya, who feels that Dasgupta’s drive to create art combined with her fidgetiness converts her art into a meditative practice. “What makes her work unique is that it is contemporary, yet embodies our heritage in the form of scrolls,” says artist Niladri Paul.
Although Dasgupta has never had trouble selling her work, the detailing in her work is time-consuming; a single piece of work can take her up to three months to complete. Her works can be bought for Rs 1-5 lakh. Though there are times when she has to struggle to make ends meet, that is about to change with her first solo show being a runaway hit. Perhaps she can now put her energies into refining her work.
For one of the installations Valay Shende exhibited at the sixth edition of the India Art Fair, he painstakingly took photos of around 200 dabbawalas in Mumbai and used them as motifs in an installation of a tiffin carrier. Another striking work of his on display was an old-fashioned iron with motifs of istriwalahs carved all over it. “Although the contribution of these men to our day-to-day lives is industrious, it often goes unacknowledged.” Colourful and hard-hitting, the works are Shende’s personal tribute to Mumbai’s aam aadmi.
The artist’s empathy for the less privileged is rooted in his own struggle to make a mark as an artist. After pursuing a diploma in art teaching in Nagpur, his native city, Shende moved to Mumbai in 2000 to study sculpture from JJ School of Arts. In 2004, while Shende was still in college, he got his first break in a show titled Spam at Mumbai’s Sakshi Art Gallery, in which he exhibited his works alongside renowned artists like Jitish Kallat. His installation, which has a burqa made of barbed wire and a screen inserted on the eye slit depicting the agnipareeksha episode from the Ramayana, drew attention as a sharp comment on women’s subjugation in Indian society.
“The best part about Valay’s sensibility is that his concerns are immediate, those within his reach. He isn’t taking on the old world,” says curator Geeta Mehra.
Having been applauded for this work, one would imagine Shende having a relatively smooth going. But the following year posed a new set of challenges. Once he moved out of his college hostel, Shende found himself unable to afford a place in Andheri where he worked as a freelancer. He settled for a match-box apartment in Virar and would spend four hours in transit every day. There were times when he had no money to travel. “I’d survive on a meal of zhunka-bhakar, which cost Rs 3 at Canon Canteen,” says Shende. In 2006, Sakshi Art Gallery lent him a small studio and he worked day and night to come up with his first solo show in 2007. There has been no looking back since.
One of his more thought-provoking works is on the plight of farmers in Vidarbha. After one of his many visits, Shende returned deeply disturbed by the loss of life and livelihood due to the drought and the lack of infrastructure to tackle the problem. As a comment on the indifference of the State, he crafted an elaborate dining table whose centrepiece is filled with the ashes of farmers.
Though this artwork earned him critical appreciation, Shende, whose works now fetch anything between Rs 6 lakh to Rs 5 crore, felt he needed to do more. And so he supported 15 aspiring artists from Vidarbha and got them to work with him. “In rural India, even if you have the inclination to become an artist, it is very difficult to pursue it as a profession due to the lack of opportunity.” His engagement with social issues continues with his recent work, a life-size installation of a truck that has men, women and children crammed on its back, reflecting the plight of migrant workers.
As we wind up our conversation, Shende’s disappointment with the State is palpable. “What is the culture that we are leaving behind for this new generation? The State has enough funds to allot land to build temples, but there’s no room for cultural development.”