Change and Tradition in contemporary India explores how artists and creatives use visual languages to respond to India’s rapidly changing social, environment, gender dynamics and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, thus transforming worlds.
MELBOURNE: The word ‘Utsav’ says it all, and Sunday 22 May at the NGV was a day of celebration. Celebrating the unique artistic traditions developed by diverse indigenous and regional communities across India, drawn entirely from the NGV Collection, the exhibition showcases a crucial new collecting focus resulting in more than sixty recent acquisitions that have never before been on display.
At G’day India and the Indian Weekly, we couldn’t say no to Himanshi Munshaw Luhar’s invitation to NGV’s Utsav, who closely works with the gallery. “The Indian Utsav Community Day is a day of art, dance, food and music plus free activities for kids. I am so excited!”, says Himanshi.
Indeed, as Himanshi described, it was like taking a walk to India’s art with NGV’s two art curators and a touch of festivities.
We sit to interview senior art curator Wayne Crothers, who’s been with the gallery since 2012 looking after Asian art and Sunita Lewis, Curatorial Project Officer Asian Art. She joined in November 2021 and came in the tail end of the curation of Transforming Worlds.
Wayne tells us how lovely the Asian Gallery is, and as having three permanent galleries or galleries where NGV have permanent displays of Asian art, and that’s across Asia from Japan. China, India, Southeast Asia, etc. The Gallery always has work that represents Asia’s culture and diversity. “People of Asia on display so people can come and visit and enjoy the major as a cultural sort of entity.” says Wayne.
A lot of work goes behind an exhibition: Wayne, Sunita, and the teams look after the collection and the displays, write the labels and write essays and publish online or in the gallery magazine a plan for future special exhibitions.
“I came into this by way of conservation. So that’s my background. But as I was doing my Masters before, I became increasingly interested in the curatorial side of things as well as my cultural background, which drew me to apply for this role”, says Sunita.
The special exhibitions have been curated in two types, one is the collection, which is mainly a collection of presentations accessible to the public, and the other is transforming worlds.
A project like this was to bring together a new collection of work. They acquired all the pieces of art from India over five years for the exhibition, and that was working out the themes that we wanted to work with the artists and how best to represent this new style of an old and unique style of artwork on the free exhibitions.
Then also we work on the large presentations which are pay exhibitions. As initially scheduled for late 2020 or early 2021, the curators had the flexibility to be adaptable to those days. Their scheduling dates of exhibitions are often changing. Around five years ago, Wayne and his team started to contact advisors in India.
They began the work to bring the world together and then work out what themes would be best to represent. The Gallery closed for probably about half of the COVID two-year COVID period. But in a sense, this allowed them to have the exhibition to be very up to date.
The presentation features dynamic and thought-provoking works by established and emerging artists from distinct communities across India, including the Gond and Warli painters of central India; the Suthar, Jogi, Santal and Madhubani artists of northern India; and the Kalighat and Chitrakar painters of eastern India.
Many featured artists share long intergenerational lineages with artist families and communities central to developing Indian vernacular movements and styles that have gained international recognition in recent years.
Glittering a range of recent experiences from local perspectives – including urbanisation, environmental degradation, shifting gender dynamics, and public health issues, including the current COVID-19 pandemic – the exhibition divulges the emergence of increasingly socially and politically engaged art practices within regional communities. The show also highlights how artistic traditions have been strengthened and retained by engaging with contemporary themes.
Highlights include large-scale contemporary examples of patachitra (picture cloth), and storytelling scrolls up to five metres in length traditionally used by travelling performers in Odisha and West Bengal. They sang accompanying stories as they unrolled. Customarily depicting narratives of mythological epics and local folklore, artists increasingly use the vibrantly coloured scrolls to illustrate contemporary events.
Emerging patachitra artist Sonia Chitrakar uses the scroll format to document the introduction and spread of COVID-19 throughout India in COVID scroll 2020. In another response to the pandemic, artist Apindra Swain’s paintings Wash hands 2020 and stay home 2020 use traditional iconography and visual messaging to create community education tools promoting COVID-safe practices.
Tony Ellwood AM, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, said: ‘India is home to many distinct indigenous and regional communities renowned for developing unique artistic styles that incorporate specialised materials and techniques. With many of the works on display being created in the last three years and in response to pressing local and international events, some of which are still ongoing, this exhibition is a timely celebration of the continuing relevance of centuries-old artistic traditions.’
From the displays of “The quintessential Bengali Babu” by the Kalighat Chitrakar to the intricate drawings of the Jogi family in Ahmedabad, Gujrat. The exhibition features illustrations of the Jogi family in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. The show features recent pictures by family members, including three generations of Jogi women, representing subjects of worship and natural history, scenes of urban development, and contemporary social and gender dynamics. Their ink drawing style on paper is renowned for its extremely fine, detailed line-work.
The exhibition also features a major recent painting by Rajesh Chaitya Vangad, a third-generation painter of the Warli tribe, one of western India’s largest indigenous groups. Based on artistic traditions traced back to the 10th century CE, Warli paintings depict daily life and rituals, traditionally rendered as rice paste murals on the internal walls of homes. Vangad’s work represents the art form’s transition to canvas and painting in recent decades: The natural world of Warlis 2017 uses the distinctive Warli pictorial language to illustrate the traditional lifestyle of his community. Including the robust and harmonious connection to the land increasingly challenged by urbanisation and environmental degradation.
An attendance of 4,760 marked the special event at NGV on Sunday, and it was surreal to be sipping chai and munching on the samosas; young kids took the stage to bhangra at the Great Hall and dancers taught some Bollywood dance moves to the excited patrons. It’s been a long time since seeing an’ UTSAV’ dedicated to Indian artists. At G’day and the Indian Weekly, we wish the NGV and the team a successful exhibition.
Transforming Worlds: Change and Tradition in Contemporary India will be displayed from 9 April to 28 August 2022 at NGV International, St Kilda Road, Melbourne. Entry is FREE.
By Nandita Chakraborty