India's artists on what they are making during the lockdown

Updated: 12 April, 2020 10:03 IST | Ela Das | Mumbai

India's established and young artists find themselves turning to their art to make sense of the sorrow around them and renew their promise to co-exist with nature

Dhruvi Acharya

The lockdown has been stressful for me as it must be for most people—besides the constant vigilance against contracting the virus, on the personal front, there have been disrupted routines, kids at home, little or no domestic help, isolation, worrying about lonely and ageing parents, and the daily news of lost jobs, hunger, the plight of migrants and wage labourers, the battle our healthcare workers are facing, and stories of death and illness.

So, on the day of the Janata Curfew, I went to my studio and decided to paint whatever was on my mind, which, for the privileged among us, is the Coronavirus (versus hunger, poverty, illness and death for many). Since then, I have been painting every day as it helps me not worry excessively about things I cannot control. The paintings are about the psychological, social and physical impact of the pandemic—fear of touching anyone or anything, social distancing, loneliness, the fear of the disease and its effects on the human body.

Dhruvi Acharya works on Painting in the Time of Corona
Dhruvi Acharya works on Painting in the Time of Corona

We do not know when we will see the light at the end of the long tunnel, which, in India, we are just entering. But I think we are realising how connected we all are, and that we all will have to work together to combat this virus—else it can become a very long war.

My hope, when we come out on the other side, is that we, as humans, change our ways. I hope we all understand we need to reset our priorities and put health, family, science and education above weapons, war, religious fanaticism, and mindless destruction. And, I hope we will pay heed to the warnings by scientists about the impending and extreme impact of climate change, and learn to respect and value our environment and all living things on earth. If not, I fear humans will live and die, caught in a constant cycle of disasters.

Sheetal Mallar

 An untitled sketch depicting Sheetal Mallar’s recent dreams
An untitled sketch depicting Sheetal Mallar’s recent dreams

This is a sketch of a very visual dream I had last week. I feel dreams have a powerful way of communicating what’s happening in our subconscious internal world. Their irrational quality gives us a unfiltered version of our truth. It’s a melange of feelings and the many inputs the brain is processing, mixed with discomfort and fear.

In my dream, the feeling was of having a heavy heart… almost like sitting on a collection of heavy hearts. I felt vulnerable, naked and fragile. This intangible way of communication with people and being able to feel close through machines made me sad; though it seemed like the only way to be in touch with everyone I loved. I felt controlled, and, yet, because all of us were being collectively controlled, I didn’t feel alone. Inside these little computers at the end of every tentacle, were the people I wanted to reach out to or they were the devices which had the answers I was looking for. For city folk, it’s like we switched the radio channel to an uncomfortably slow track. Being a city girl, I have always craved a slower pace—but, now, I wish we had got it in different circumstances.

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My quality of sleep has improved, and I rest more peacefully since it’s so quiet outside. I don’t wake up to the frenetic energy of Mumbai anymore. There are more birds chirping, and the occasional bike that passes by is a novelty.

I spend my days doing some household chores, cooking, cleaning and much-needed decluttering. Online yoga classes are my stress buster, along with listening to audio books of authors I haven’t managed to read. Reconnecting with many old friends and having longer, deeper conversations reminds me of what really matters and all the blessings in my life.

Jitish Kallat

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This particular drawing is a coming together of several image-notations and materials—water colour along with pencil, plaster, paper and pastels began to forge new relationships while I was drawing. This is by no means a complete work; in fact, I may never aim to complete it. At best, I may revisit and re-arrange it. Since this is not my primary studio, I don’t have all the art materials here. I also haven’t felt a strong urge to make new work (in a regular sense), having had solo exhibitions in Mumbai, Delhi and Nashville in the last three months. I’ve been drawing, perhaps, as a way to process and reflect upon some of the images and enquiries in my recent work. On another level, it is also giving me a degree of creative nonconformity and free-association, which may be small steps in the realisation of a body of photo-works in the future.

A recent drawing by Jitish Kallat created in his alternate studio close to his residence
A recent drawing by Jitish Kallat created in his alternate studio close to his residence

The inaugural 10 weeks of the new decade have thrown several unexpected curveballs at us. As social distancing, travel bans and event cancellations have become the new norm, we witness how a tiny microscopic entity has invaded the very life-pattern of the most dominant species on the planet. Perhaps this is a test to see if we can co-operate and recalibrate our relationship with our surroundings and the planet.

Bhagyashree Suthar

Untitled; pen and ink on paper

The idea of my work reflects my fascination with futuristic architecture, sacred geometry and the use of beeswax as a medium, focusing on intricate and detailed structures. Usually, I illustrate utopian, fantastical worlds, and my practice is heavily influenced by architecture and the geometric patterns in nature. While making this particular drawing, I focused on creating a visual excitement of lines and patterns to engage the viewer.

I am keeping busy spending time with family, completing household chores, watching movies and documentaries, and reading and reflecting on my practice. I am utilising this time to focus on ideas and concepts that I may include in future works and also experiment with materiality.

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I am trying to stay away from the market movements and trends; although, in a pandemic such as this, I can’t help but think about the adverse impact it will have on the art market. However, humans have the ability to constantly adapt—we are seeing this every day with how people are taking to social media to keep themselves engaged. A lot of galleries and art fairs around the world have started creating and focusing on online viewing rooms. As a young artist, I can only learn from such experiences.

Sameer Kulavoor

A series of sketches made in solid marker, inspired by the goings-on during lockdown
A series of sketches made in solid marker, inspired by the goings-on during lockdown

Ever since the lockdown was enforced, I haven’t been able to go to my studio. Since I have very limited art supplies, I have been trying to make the most of what I have, making representational drawings based on some experiences and observations around me.

I hadn’t made too many self-portraits in the past, so this time was a good excuse to get to it. With the lockdown, I discovered that the only way to actually get to know what’s happening outside is by looking into the windows of your phones and other devices. I was also inspired by the TV, when it was on screensaver mode, projecting these gorgeous scenic landscape photographs. It almost felt like the idiot box was teasing me, saying, “Look what’s out there on planet earth. Ever wanted to travel so badly? You only appreciate this beauty when you cannot access it!” There was one particularly stark black and white image of snowcapped mountains with some great textural quality. The next day I tried to draw that image from my memory of it.

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Reading about and watching the news of the migrant workers from North India, who were forced to walk back home hundreds of kilometres away from New Delhi deeply pained me. Later that day, I met the society’s watchman when I took the lift. I could only see his eyes due to the mask and they looked twice as expressive.

It’s too soon to talk about the effects and repercussions of the lockdown. For now, I am taking one day at a time, focusing on immediate tasks, being in contact with my sister, making sure we are all working in whatever capacity we can. Through all this, one experiences moments of introspection and reviews everything one has done in the past.

Nibha Sikander

Untitled (work in progress)
Untitled (work in progress)

Picking up from where I left off in December, after my first solo exhibition, Wandering Violin Mantis, at Tarq, I am using this time to figure out where I would like my work to go from here. For a while now, I’ve been wanting to experiment with increasing the scale of my moths, using the same paper-cut technique. I have been studying moths and birds quite closely for many years and I see myself discovering new details about them, especially when I try to increase their scale. I was able to get more into the intricacies of the colours as well as the textures of these species.

Coloured paper, paper-cut, watercolour
Coloured paper, paper-cut, watercolour

I am also attempting to integrate paper-cut and painting into my work, which I am getting back to after a two-year break. I am excited to see how that comes along, while I continue to explore the possibility of breaking up the different parts of the moths and insects, to create a completely new abstract form.

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This time has not affected my life much, as I live in Murud-Janjira, where I am used to and appreciate this kind of isolation. However, the repercussions of our current situation will affect not only artists, but everyone.

Brinda Miller

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Since most artists need time and space to work, the last two weeks of isolation have allowed me time for introspection. As a person who multitasks heavily, I enjoy a hectic life. Besides painting in my studio, which takes up most of my time, I also travel around Mumbai indulging in things that are creative and satisfying.

My studio is about half an hour away from home. I did not realise that I would not be able to visit it in the weeks to follow.

Brinda Miller has created a four-page book of small works inspired by nature and her surroundings
Brinda Miller has created a four-page book of small works inspired by nature and her surroundings

I have been spending time reading, dabbling in creative cooking, stringing together my huge collection of beads, and tinkering with jewellery. I have also returned to drawing and painting on my iPad and on paper, using mixed media and collaging with whatever I can find at home. I am used to travelling a lot and getting inspired by what I see. These days, however, I am seeing my old surroundings in a new light, and transferring that onto paper. Soon, I will have many little back-to-nature artworks. At the end of it, I hope to bind them together and make a small book.

The upside of this lockdown is that the pressing need to save our environment has finally hit home. The skies are clear, and we are able to see the stars at night. This is the time for each of us to think about what is best for our city.

Jayasri Burman

Shakti; water colour pen and ink on paper
Shakti; water colour pen and ink on paper

This painting, Shakti, draws inspiration from the current pandemic. We are left with no choice but to believe in the power of nature and worship the values it renders.

As I painted Shakti, through prayer, I could hear myself searching for the blessings of Mother Nature to give us strength. I was in the constant hope for us all to collectively do our best to uphold and safeguard nature and honour it.

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I have been spending most of my time with my husband. Technology is a boon, which has been keeping us connected at the touch of a button. We are all facing a common threat of universal suffering. While our main concern should be to ensure that the overall economy revives, we must consider the collective safety and health of the people as our first priority. Till then, I will find solace in devoting myself to prayer and painting.

I am certain that nature has sent us a harsh message to look at how we were abusing her. We should allow ourselves to take a step back, stay healthy and lead a selfless existence.

Vishwa Shroff

Letters of home; created on a typewriter
Letters of home; created on a typewriter

My daily routine hasn’t changed; on the contrary, the lockdown has given me the time that I needed—time to think and play within a sketchbook, time to read and listen to podcasts and lectures, a time that is free of social commitments and banal conversations. In a way, it has given me a concentrated yet restful time. It has given me the time to reflect on the homes that I have lived in so far, making notations of memories attached to them, and to re-visit communicating these through letters, postcards or the written word in some way. I find that this is a much slower and editable format. For now, I am exploring ways to write these narratives and to draw plans from memory.

This postal project with [Pakistani artist] Muzzumil Ruheel came about due to numerous factors. While Ruheel recalled reading letters between his grandmother and relatives in India, sharing and discussing their interactions with spaces daily, I drew on my long relationship with postcards and bewilderment with the Partition. In a letter to him, I recalled: I never had an ancestral home. They said my family came to Bombay from Mandvi, and we speak a dialect that is a mix of Sindhi and Gujarati. In the ’80s, my parents moved to Baroda, but my grandfather lived in a pagdi flat in Matunga.

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On a more personal note, for me, this is an informative learning experience and an exchange of cultures through the notion of homes, including recipes and indoor games. In a broader context, by working with an artist from across the border, [the audience] is offered a great opportunity to experience both sides and challenge perceptions that have been created over the years.

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First Published: 12 April, 2020 09:28 IST

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