On the second floor of the iconic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, the works of artists like Nibha Sikander, Vasudha Thozhur, Jayashree Chakravarty, Mrinalini Mukherjee and several others are on display as part of an exhibition titled Mycelial Legacies II (June 9-September 3). Drawn from the collection of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), the works make for a compelling if familiar sight. But the intent of the curation is radical: it is designed to showcase the creations of 22 women artists from across six decades. Apart from gender, there is something else that ties the artists together: pedagogy. All of them have been part of the illustrious Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda.
The history of the institution—like the discourse of art itself—continues to be tied to men. Artists like K.G. Subramanyan, Jyoti Bhatt, Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh are often credited with shaping its legacy. But they were not alone. Mycelial LegaciesII is a reminder and reiteration of the role women played in the establishment. “It is a feminist project, I am not going to lie,” Deeksha Nath, an alumni of Baroda and the exhibition’s curator, told Frontline over the phone from Geneva, where she spends most of her time. “There is not enough work done on women artists.” In order to dismantle the dominant narrative, Nath has envisioned a space that brings together women artists whose works are very different from one another. For instance, one wall has the works of the iconoclastic Pushpamala N, the multifaceted Nilima Sheikh, and the adroit Manisha Parekh. The three belong to different timelines and have distinctive styles.
Pushpamala’s “On the Ethnographers” brings out her preoccupation with history, nostalgia and social commentary through a revisionist approach. On display is her recent revisiting of an image clicked in 1985, showing her and some faculty members of Baroda posing with people from a village in West Bengal. Thirty years after the trip, Pushpamala chanced upon a set of negatives and was struck by her complicated feelings towards it. In her retrospective rendering of the photograph, she added black bands to the eyes of the villagers. The visual alterations inadvertently draw focus to the faces of the visitors, raising questions of power, identity, and the replication of colonial behavioural patterns.
The works by Sheikh have a very different flavour. One of them, “Hilltown Recollections”(1998), was birthed by personal loss. “It was painted some months after the death of my mother” Sheikh said.
Parekh’s “30 Vessels”harks back to the time when she was interested in working in series. “That is an old work,” Parekh said. “I worked on it 20 years ago when I was on a fellowship in Germany. Colour photocopy had just arrived. The one at JNAF is the photocopy of my original work and it is the only surviving copy. It was acquired by Jehangir Nicholson.”
This dissonance in age and technique held together by the overlap of artistry and lineage is what the exhibition brings out. “I have been curating since 2007 and writing on art. While working with younger artists I see a lot of influences and crossover conversations that can happen between generations,” Nath said. As one of the instances of this intergenerational crossover, there are the works of Nasreen Mohamedi and Manisha Parekh, who was taught by Mohamedi at Baroda, on display.
“I was her last batch” said Parekh, who started studying art at Baroda in 1983 and completed her course around 1988-89. Mohamedi passed away in 1990. “When I was young, I did not understand the abstract themes in her work. It was only when I was trying to find my own language that her creative process opened up before me.”
- The exhibition, “Mycelial Legacies II” (June 9-September 3), showcases the creations of 22 women artists from across six decades.
- All of them have been part of the illustrious Faculty of Fine Arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University (MSU) of Baroda.
- What adds another dimension to the feminist project is the inclusion of Fine Arts Fair pictures from the Asia Art Archive in the exhibition space.
By bringing these artists together, Nath sought to underline the core themes distinct to the school. “Baroda has a strong lineage of abstraction. It goes all the way back to Kishori Kaul, who was an abstractionist but not in the same style as Nasreen,” she said. One of Mohamedi’s displayed creations is an untitled drawing from the 1960s that shows her experimentation with fine lines and penchant for minimalism. When this is placed next to the works of Anita Dube, Parekh and Gargi Raina, a shared sense of abstraction comes into focus.
For young art practitioner Rakhi Peswani, whose standalone sculpture is on display, being part of this endeavour was “humbling and enriching”. “It is good to be part of a project where the project itself helps you conceptualise your own learnings, your present through a past, and thus a place in the world,” she said. Her work placed next to those of senior artists like Ayisha Abraham and Latika Katt encapsulates the intergenerational legacy in one visual swerve.
Mycelial LegaciesII, as the name suggests, is a second iteration. The first edition was held at Bikaner House in New Delhi from January 30 to February 12 earlier this year, with Nath as the curator and featured 30 artists. Certain names like Peswani, Madhurima Patni, Jyotsna Bhatt are common. “No one project can cover the entire gamut of women artists who have graduated from Baroda,” said Nath. “The absence of proper alumni catalogues made the task as taxing and thrilling as detective work,” she added.
The geography of the space, JNAF’s collection and the social undertones of Mumbai played a part in the curation. “There is Anjana Mehra in Mumbai, who was not there in Delhi. Her work examines the demolition of space and its aftermath,” Nath said. Mehra is known for exploring themes like displacement, oppression and religious turmoil through her art. Her painting titled “Id Mubarak”, on display at the exhibition,echoes her social concerns.
Having seen Mycelial Legacies at Bikaner House, Puja Vaish, the director of JNAF and alumni of Baroda, asked Nath if she could bring it to Mumbai. “An exhibition like this is quietly powerful,” Vaish said. “On one hand it is so simple, but it took this long for something like this to take shape.”
Sheikh admitted that seeing her work in conjunction with that of other artists in Delhi made her notice connections which otherwise would have passed her by. “I have told Deeksha that the exhibition needs to be followed by a book where the central idea will be more fleshed out.”
Photos from the archive
What adds another dimension to the narrative is the inclusion of Fine Arts Fair pictures from the Asia Art Archive at the other entrance to the space. The Fine Arts Fair was initiated in Baroda back in 1961 by sculptor Sankho Chaudhari and his colleagues. It served as a festival of sorts which allowed students and faculty members to revel in the joy of creation. Although it is not as regular now as it used to be (it resumed in 2020 after a gap of nine years), the displayed black-and-white candid images of women artists from the Fair (like of Sheikh and Pushpamala) are a touching reminder of the way things used to be.
Curated by Samira Bose, this section includes photos by Baroda-based artists Jyoti Bhatt and Ghulam Mohammad Sheikh, along with some bearing anonymous credits. For Nath, it enlivens the possibility of multiple readings. “There is multiplicity in history, and in what we have, and what we can do with it,” she said.
Mycelial Legacies II evokes the same feeling. Apart from celebrating a group of professionals and their diverse artistry, it also achieves something personal: an overdue gathering of women artists who might or might not have known each other but certainly uplifted one another.
Ishita Sengupta is an independent film critic and culture writer. Her work is situated at the juncture of gender and pop culture.