The Dark Horse at MoMA


Museum of Modern Art’s newest find, artist Shambhavi Singh is charting a quiet and spectacular journey across the contemporary Indian art scene, finds Sahar Zaman

Canonisation Shambhavi
Canonisation: Shambhavi, Photo: Garima Jain

SHE STANDS in her east Delhi kitchen stirring a pot of mutton korma, a dish that is as much her own creation as it is a north Indian staple. There is also tomato chutney on the menu, something she’s now become famous for among her friends. “It’ll take time,” she warns them. The star of the evening is the meal. Not the host. Shambhavi Singh, the artist, likes to stay in the background. But the fate of her latest work is such that she can’t help but celebrate. After all, it has been acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art
(MOMA). Started in the 1920s by John D Rockefeller Junior’s wife Abby, MOMA is today a veritable hive of artworks where Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Dali, Warhol and Pollock breathe the same air as Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei and Takashi Murakami.

Born in Patna, Shambhavi’s journey may not have been as meteoric as her contemporary Subodh Gupta’s, but it has been rich and rewarding. She came to Delhi in the ’90s to do her Master’s in art and then decided to stay on as the Capital provided a more fertile ground for her ideas. And now with the ultimate seal of approval, she only has good memories of a career spanning almost two decades. “I was surprised when I got the confirmation in February,” she says about her MOMA entry, “It’s a dream come true. But I’m pretty sure that I’m not going to change my style. I will still work in the same space, without bothering much about being in frequent circulation,” says the 46-year-old artist.

Unlike many of her fellow artists, Shambhavi prefers a near-anachronistic commitment to those who recognised her worth in her days of struggle. She has only been associated with two galleries so far, a rare feat in contemporary art. At present, however, there is only one gallery that represents her both in Delhi and New York. And though she has mostly done solo shows, Shambhavi has not really bothered about being in a group show with other artists. And while her contemporaries, artist power couple Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher have made headlines as being India’s highest-selling artists, who sometimes command prices that are way out of the reach of Indian buyers, Shambhavi has always been shy of the price-fuelled numbers race. Her artworks are believed to fetch anything between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 60 lakh. She has instead concentrated on cementing a place in what can truly be referred to as contemporary art’s Hall of Fame. Other Indian artists who have been bought by MOMA for its permanent collection are modern masters like Krishen Khanna and Satish Gujral. In fact, Shambhavi is the only contemporary artist from India to be given that honour. “She will go a long way since she has chosen the right path. I love the energy in her works which is very unlike her quiet personality,” observes Subodh Gupta. While art critic Rajeev Sethi concurs, “There is no obsessive desire to be different for the sake of it. She’s not stuck with a set image that she has to pump herself up to. Most artists have got fixated with their images but she is wide eyed, wondering and extremely open to the world of new craft skill, new material and new contexts.”

Beej Brahmaand Ek, the work acquired by MoMA
Beej Brahmaand Ek, the work acquired by MoMA

The work acquired by MOMA is called ‘Beej Brahmaand Ek’ (Cosmic Seeds Light). It’s an installation of a set of 10 circular prints made by the process of etching. It is an arduous process that uses copper plates pressed onto handmade paper. While the medium of the work maybe organic, its scale makes all the difference. Hung up on a wall, its various parts take up a space of 30 feet x 40 feet. The work was made during an artist’s residency-workshop at the prestigious Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) last year. “The line drawing inside each paper disc has objects used in the villages for taking out water and separating husk from grain. But in the larger picture, these discs become seeds. Seeds in the universe as quantum of energy that never dies, it only changes form,” explains the artist.

AS A practitioner, Shambhavi finds herself drawn to nature. What she does find more fascinating, though, is not just nature, but man’s labours upon it, how he struggles to find meaning in his livelihood. Therefore, the colours and forms associated with cultivation — the tilling of land, irrigation, harvest — appeal to her. Recently, earthy shades have begun to dominate her palette. She says it reminds her of her growing up years in Patna when she went to her maternal village, Tunning Ganj, during holidays. “After sunset, the darkness without any electricity had its own beauty. I could see the real colours of dawn and dusk without any artificial light around. So a lot of my early canvases had huge splashes of black because I was trying to show the beauty in that darkness. [Also] I come from a rural background, so my village and the fields have been my visual inspirations. Something as simple as the play of light inside the dark water well has fascinated me as a young girl.”

This transition has often surprised her only gallerist, Deepak Talwar of Talwar Gallery, who represents her in Delhi and New York. “She has been our artist since 2006. I have noticed the expansion of her oeuvre in an unexpected new direction. From experimenting with sculptural objects to new media, she has done it all,” he says. The form is important to Shambhavi’s works, as is the emphasis she gives on colours. Art writer Meera Menezes argues, “Shambhavi Singh’s works are subtle, delicate and imbued with a great sensitivity. By choosing a non-narrative mode of expression, she relies instead on the play of colour to convey both emotions and sensations.”

Reaper’s Melody is one such work that takes an unexpected turn. It’s an installation of about 5,000 sickles in iron and copper placed on the ground. In this work, Shambhavi tries to make a statement about farmers in her home state Bihar who’ve surrendered their tools. “They [the farmers] cannot articulate their problems to us but the lack of education and electricity is still a major problem in their lives,” she says.

Shambhavi has been shy of the price-fuelled numbers race. Her works fetch anything between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 60 lakh

Despite the issues she aims to address through her work, the works themselves do not betray a sense of hopelessness. In fact, her palette has achieved the exact opposite. Her husband and writer Sanjog Sharan perhaps gets it right when he describes her work as a celebration. “The shift in Shambhavi’s palette means that she has allowed celebration to enter her ruminations on farmers through rich, vibrant hues,” he writes in her STPI catalogue, “The farmer has opportunities in life for celebration. He nourishes us all. Similarly, Shambhavi has come out of her solitude as well, finding illumination through her contemplations on the essence of light that she has discovered in her recent works.” Her latest feat is a further celebration of that self- discovery.

Zaman is an independent arts journalist, curator and news caster.


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