Last month, one of the most striking works on display at Threshold Art Gallery, situated in the leafy neighbourhood of New Delhi’s Sarvodaya Enclave, was ‘The Opera that Came Our Way’. This 2018 work, created with coffee, natural pigments and gouache on paper, featured swathes of bright yellow at the centre, with ornate embellishments on the margins. On closer look, one realised that the ornamentation was a deception — a camouflage of sorts — for layers of imagery of subtle violence and chaos. One could see swirls of clouds, interspersed with skeletal figures and captive birds. The visuals seemed otherworldly, steeped in Mughal and Persian miniature traditions, and yet the narrative was very contemporary — firmly enmeshed in the reality of our times.
Titled ‘Carrion Culture and Other Stories’, the solo show by artist Anindita Bhattacharya featured such small and large works, divided into eight sections. “The aesthetic trope of her vocabulary allures and encourages the viewer to travel through centuries of history, cultures and traditions but they are all marshalled to hold a mirror to contemporary realities; the fraying of our syncretic tradition, the disquiet of a world torn asunder with rhetoric laden with violence…,” wrote Indrapramit Roy, professor, Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda, and one of Bhattacharya’s mentors.
One could find a range of references — from Gothic gargoyles to the Turkish monsters of Siyeh Qalam, and even Harry Potter — drawn from the artist’s personal experiences. “The lines between the personal and political blur,” said Bhattacharya.
The artist likes to work in layers. For instance, in ‘The Opera’, one can find at least 50 layers of yellow. This allows her to juxtapose various experiences across time frames, “working on many levels of partial revelation and knowledge, often trying to capture something about the history that brings the past to mind but in a way, that isn’t attempting to reproduce it,” said Bhattacharya in her artist’s note. The multiple layers vie for attention, taking you away from all that is happening around, until they became the focal point. “I like inviting viewers very close so that they can be intimate with my work,” said Bhattacharya. “On the border, you will see skeletal figures, which have been stripped of identity, gender and race, and are not restricted to a particular time.”
She has been working with miniatures since 2005. However, her interest lies more in the hashiya, or margins, than the centre. Instead of the traditional floral motifs as ornamentation, Bhattacharya uses images, often violent and disturbing, and repeats them for effect. By doing this, she subverts the beauty of the ornamentation. “The embellishment is deceptive. What you see is sometimes not palatable, but it has been put across in such an exquisite way. It is a bit like poetry, which has the ability to convey deep anguish, but beautifully,” said Tunty Chauhan, director, Threshold Art Gallery. In ‘War Rugs’, a suite of 15 works made with natural pigments, gouache on paper and clay, and named after the rugs created in Afghanistan during the 1979 Soviet occupation, Bhattacharya has created a termite trail with clay to reveal the rot in society. ‘(Re)writing on the Wall’ features intricate jaalis, and reinterprets quotes from Vir Savarkar’s treatises on who is a Hindu, and Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions in Chicago.
Besides Mughal and Persian miniatures, Bhattacharya also makes references to European medicinal manuscripts in her work. ‘Future Relics of a Carrion Culture’, a set of 70 works, refers to an old Turkish medical treatise that states that tooth decay is a result of sins committed by the patient. Bhattacharya played on this by placing hybrid monsters and skeletons within each tooth. “These illustrations by drawn by monks, who followed some very strict parameters. But I would like to believe that they often expressed their views on the socio-political situation by doodling on the margins. Hence, you will find images that are often hilarious and risque,” she said.
Bhattacharya is a big believer in slow art — she grinds her own pigments and cuts paper in jaalis. “Lots of things change during the process. I think many decisions take place in a split-second, so it is important that I do everything myself,” she said. The artist brought up the word, runanubandha, several times during the conversation, which refers to the physical memory accumulated by the body over time. “The same thing happens during painting. When we paint, we transfer energy to the work. I keep working on the same paper from beginning to end, so the material also acquires that memory. Each work is done and washed at least 10 times,” she said. “It is only in this way that you can trace the journey of an artist.”
When not scouring for ideas, the Delhi-based journalist can be found curled up with a book or daydreaming.