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Saphale gets a paint-job

JJ alumni and couple Ashutosh and Rajshree Apte coax urban artists to step outside Mumbai and acquaint themselves with the rural landscape

SumedhaGirale, Nagave, Pargaon, Lalthane, Tandulwadi and Saphale are six small dots on the Palghar district map. They all came to life last week when 75 artists from Mumbai (most of them students of Sir JJ School of Art) got together for a landscape and installation workshop in the wilderness. Camping in the midst of the Sahyadris, the artists followed a simple brief — “Lock the green” — which came from their senior and JJ alumnus, Ashutosh Apte, who is currently archiving rural landscape paintings by urban artists. Apte is working on a database of artists’ frames that capture river streams, plateaus, forts, dams, salt mounds, beaches, people, hamlets and animal life in villages — scenes labelled ‘remote’ by the city’s art world. The next event is planned for February.

Renowned painter Vasudev Kamat conducts a water-colour demonstration for city-based art students at Girale village. He painted a scene of bullocks being put to work to draw water, for which he drew inspiration from his surroundings
Renowned painter Vasudev Kamat conducts a water-colour demonstration for city-based art students at Girale village. He painted a scene of bullocks being put to work to draw water, for which he drew inspiration from his surroundings (below)

Around 200 landscape paintings have emerged from the latest workshop, held with art students and established artists. In fact, the Saphale gram panchayat is getting ready to display select vignettes on railway platforms, municipal schools and public squares. Educational institutions in the region have also shown interest in buying some water and poster colour works which immortalise their region. One primary school will be the venue for the next landscape painting camp in which students from Saphale will be taught by faculty from arts schools in Mumbai, Nasik and Thane.

Apte (54) and wife Rajshree Karkera-Apte (53), who relocated to Saphale four years ago — have been waiting for such a community response to their visual literacy experiments. In their mission to interlink Mumbai-based artists with the surrounding villages of Thane, Palghar and Nasik districts within a radius of 90 kilometres (which they term “just a small commute”), Saphale is the latest junction.

They have done similar landscape painting camps in Thane, Devrukh, Savarde and Kolhapur where the main intent was to associate urban artists with rural life. “Saphale is one junction in our journey of building rural-urban connections. We want villagers to see painters in action and we want artists to spend time with the village ecosystem while they work with their colours,” says Apte, who is happy to get support from local sponsors (NGOs like Pragati Pratishthan), the sarpanch office and civil society representatives in Saphale, a town that sits 98 kms from Mumbai. It was for the first time that artists from six of the state’s art schools were present in Saphale at the same time.

A painting by well-known  artist Manoj Sakale
A painting by well-known artist Manoj Sakale

“A visual arts culture grows when art school students get an audience outside a limited circuit. Our latest workshops were attended by village residents who had never visited an art gallery or seen oil and poster colours. This could happen only because the painters became their neighbours for four days,” he adds. The camp enjoyed patronage from a wide cross-section — right from the art school teacher at Girale, to the general medical practitioner at Saphale and the grocery store owner in Varai, not to mention Tandulwadi’s neera seller whose beverage added another dimension to the art appreciation demos. Apte intends to integrate food stalls in future painting camps so that local culinary skills can also be showcased.

Ashutosh and Rajshree Apte moved to Saphale four years ago with the aim of introducing Mumbai-based artists to the countryside
Ashutosh and Rajshree Apte moved to Saphale four years ago with the aim of introducing Mumbai-based artists to the countryside

The highlight of the landscape painting camp, however, lies in another level of integration. Just as the camp involves lecture demonstrations of known artists from the world of fine arts — Vasudev Kamat, Anil Naik, Surendra Jagtap, Manoj Sakale, Gajanan Kabade — it also ropes in voices from the world of music, dance, architecture, films, contemporary philosophy, mass media and poetry. A seemingly distinct perspective was presented at the latest workshop by Lieutenant Colonel Kedar Bapat (also a painter). As he compared artistic precision and military exactitude, common villagers asked probing questions about the place of fine arts in the current terror-struck environment. What followed was a multi-disciplinary exchange, the kind that the Aptes were seeking. As guest speaker poet-philopsopher Sridhar Tilve, said, “Exposure defines a landscape painter. Unless the painter has an ear for music and an eye for other visual arts and a mind for the philosophical streams, his or her work will lack the life-like quality.” Tilve, who specialises in personality growth modules, has been a stable faculty member at many painting workshops conducted by Apte. His favourite existential theory — “an artist is not an artist if he or she doesn’t have two native elements: a village and a language” — got several takers in Saphale.

Prof Vishwanath Sable, the dean of Sir JJ School of Art, who is also involved in Apte’s landscape painting camp initiative, echoed similar sentiments. He said Apte does not promise “just another rural outreach” where the artist uses the village green as a transit stop.

“He offers an experience in which the artists and the villagers together explore the life around them. From climate change to suburban trains, from chikoo plantations to language skills — the workshop embraces fresh aspects in a sequential order.”

The Aptes feel that landscape paintings are an underrated source of documentation, which need to be given their due. “The wilderness of the six villages that we selected is usually not recorded in popular art form. It is factored into a revenue department file of 7/12 notifications. But we want these sylvan scenes to be a part of our everyday aesthetic experience, more so since the water and forest assets in Thane and Palghar are draining. You never know when we will lose it,” adds Rajshree, who feels that environment conservation takes off only when there is an audit and a stocktaking of what exists.

While the Aptes currently differ on the format of the ‘thank you’ letters posted on social media, they are united in one immediate goal — training their dog Janhavi to double up as a resource tool. Since she is a family member, she can offer herself as a subject for a painting, or pose with her 10 siblings (the Aptes have 11 dogs, two cats and one tortoise) at the next workshop. To start with, they have started a Facebook account for her.

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