A creative collaboration

Print edition : February 07, 1998

By collaborating with folk expression, Arpana Caur reforges links with the traditional base of India's artistic expression, the folk art of the peasantry, who formed the backbone of the resistance to the colonial rule.

'Between Dualities'. Collaborative work on paper.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

ARPANA CAUR'S art has evolved along the path that emerged out of the nationalist movement: a blend of modern and folk art. We have, as examples, the Haripura panels of Nandalal Bose, the folk-inspired works of Jamini Roy, and works of M. F. Husain that take up the strong narrative tradition of our folk-scrolls and compress it into a single image or a series. And now, here is a collaboration between a folk artist, Lakshmi Narayan Pandey, and the modern painter, Arpana Caur, both of whose signatures appear on works they have jointly created.

Arpana Caur's art has always had a radical content. Starting with images of the loneliness of the creative person in characteristically Camus-like images of a performer playing to empty chairs, she really came into her own with works portraying the indifference of a consumerist society to what goes on around it, with kite-flying figures watching others drown. These were done after the Delhi riots of 1984. After that we get the 'Threat' series, of trigger-happy policemen aiming guns at innocent women. Women again are the subject of the series on the 'Widows of Vrindavan', in which we get serial images influenced by Pahari miniatures. These develop an optical character in later works of the 'Body is Just a Garment' series, often evolving into graffiti in works with industrial and street imagery.

'Tree of Desire' (6ft X 4ft). Exhibited in Oslo in November 1997.-

It is this evolution that has allowed Caur to collaborate with the repetitive and graffiti-like images of the traditional tattooists of Bihar, Godna art, naturally. It is something that was emerging in her expression anyway. So the collaboration between the folk artist and the modern is something that has been evolved by the modern that integrates the traditional. But the traditional is not just appropriated. Pandey actually began to evolve images, like the tree-woman, from Caur's imagery. Also, the need to keep certain spaces empty allows the traditional artist to evolve an understanding of negative space as part of a whole composition, something folk art does not apply itself to today, when it is mostly design-oriented.

'Tears for Hiroshima' incorporating canvas, acrylic, charcoal drawing, pots of water. This installation is similar to one Arpana Caur exhibited at the alternative DOKUMENTA show in Germany in 1997.-

It also reintroduces into our traditional art a concept of narration which commercialisation had completely divested it of. At the same time, like the Worli tribal people Godavari Parulekar writes of, the folk artists in the exhibition are integrated not only with historical figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, but also with global events like the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima by the United States. At the same time, they confront their own humanity as the subject of artistic expression, which was essentially reduced to reproducing motifs of gods, plants and animals.

'Stop' (4ft X 4ft). Collaborative work on paper.-

For Arpana Caur, the collaboration represents reforging links with the traditional base of our artistic expression, the folk art of the peasantry, who formed the backbone of the resistance to colonial rule. This base has become increasingly tenuous with a consumerist society emerging in India's urban areas, looking increasingly towards Western Europe and the U.S. This would have created a serious break with the existing artistic tradition and would have resulted in totally isolating those benefiting from economic and social progress from those who only pay for it. With even this tenuous link gone, India of the nationalist movement, of Five-Year Plans, of concern for mass education and rural development would effectively be overtaken by two Indias unconcerned with each other. So, contemporary Indian art, particularly the art of Arpana Caur, reminds us that "two Indias" are a dangerous mental construct in a situation where a small minority siphons off the wealth of the vast majority and squanders it on conspicuous consumption, something the "two Indias" model hides effectively.

There is only one India, where the industrial and the agrarian coexist, where both Bhagat Singh and Mahatma Gandhi have their relevance, where women are worshipped as devis but are put to the hardest labour in a male-dominated society. The artist brings these dualities together to remind us that they are part of one reality. And it is that reality that requires mending.

'Between Dualities', oil on canvas (5ft X 7ft).-

ARTISTICALLY too, this process creates an environment with many possibilities. The narrative, motif and intelligibility enter our contemporary artistic expression, while the easy-to-carry scroll or fold-up folio forms also become part of it. As for folk art, it relearns its capacity to narrate historical events and express an opinion on them, a capacity it has lost by becoming airport art. More than that, with the emergence of installation art with a folk element in it, its visual expression is expanded considerably, being freed of the ritual significance of shrine assemblages, like those at the foot of banyan trees. It has entered a new world in which art is art and gets aesthetic appreciation that is quite different from the reverence attached to ritual constructions. Art is to be felt, not revered.

This is very important to note as various forms of post-modernism have pushed back the origins of modernism deeper and deeper into our past. A similarity of forms does not indicate that their content and function are the same. Very often, their evolution is from diametrically opposed poles. If modern art appropriates a folk motif or elements of design from our rural artistic expression, it retains its significance as an original way of putting across an artist's view of life, the world and events. For folk art, on the other hand, the same process represents a radical break from a past of ritual standardisation of imagery and its present relegation to the decorative. If modern art gains motifs, folk art gains much more in terms of breaking the traditional and commercial boundaries that have held it down so long.

'The Great Divide', oil on canvas (6ft X 4ft). It reflects contrary trends in the national movement, highlighted by the lion and peacock motifs of folk art.-

Arpana Caur, in her recent exhibition, Between Dualities which has been mounted at Delhi's Academy of Literature and Fine Art and the Cymroza Gallery in Mumbai, serves as a link between the growth figures anXd actual poverty, progress and backwardness, innovation and stagnation, that characterise two faces of the same reality. Her art highlights their inter-connectedness and forces one to assess them as two sides of the same coin and to question them. That, indeed, is one function of art in the contemporary context that is bound to grow in importance in the next century.

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