Artist uses grains to tell the story of farmers' plight

Updated: Mar 04, 2018, 11:17 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre | Mumbai

London-based Indian artist, who spent her childhood in Mumbai, returns with an exhibition of food grains, discussing struggles from Vidarbha to Syria

Artist Revati Sharma Singh's oversized stainless seed wheat seed; a Maharashtra map is carved at the center. The artifact is at the heart of her Grains of Antiquity show in Mumbai. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Artist Revati Sharma Singh's oversized stainless seed wheat seed; a Maharashtra map is carved at the center. The artifact is at the heart of her Grains of Antiquity show in Mumbai. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreIf a country's food growers are dying or contemplating suicide as a debt relief option, where is the hope? London-based Indian artist-ceramist Revati Sharma Singh, who grew up in Mumbai, sees the answer in seven food grains - wheat, rice, oat, corn, barley, millet and rye - which are resilient sources of life amid drought and global warming on one hand; food aid politics, genetic modification tryouts and territorial wars on the other.

Grains of Antiquity, her show currently on display at Mumbai's Art & Soul gallery, takes us on a picturesque tour of regions where food grains have been the cynosure of political controversies. In the artist's consciousness, however, grains are precious connectors which have the potential to unite people beyond narrow boundaries.

Mehenga Chaddar constitutes thousands of grains hand rolled in pure silver and embroidered to create a map of glitzy Maharashtra where Mumbai coexists with the drought-stricken farmers
Mehenga Chaddar constitutes thousands of grains hand rolled in pure silver and embroidered to create a map of glitzy Maharashtra where Mumbai coexists with the drought-stricken farmers

An oversized three-foot long stainless steel wheat seed, with a Maharashtra map carved out at its center, speaks of her take on the state's crisis-ridden farmer. Her Mehenga Chaddar - three kilos of tiny silver handmade grains sown into the fabric - again references Maharashtra where the glitzy financial hub named Mumbai prospers amid the not-so-far-off agricultural tracts reeling under seasonal drought.

The artifact is Mehenga, not just in terms of the expense of the silver, but in the urban context of the pricey behaviour and apathy faced by farmers. Singh's Mumbai schooling at Avabai Petit, and subsequent commercial art education in Mumbai and Delhi preceding her shift to London, shows in the political dimension she grants to her critique of the food grain crisis back home.

The script of a universal language, in which the artist drives home the language of food or that of hunger
The script of a universal language, in which the artist drives home the language of food or that of hunger

Singh's heart doesn't just beat for her home state; she also identifies with farmers worldwide. In the Wall (which is deliberately crumbled and laid on the ground) she focuses on Mexico's indigenous people who were the first to cultivate-domesticate maize as a cereal grain 10,000 years ago. Her prototype corn, 1,000 protrusions placed on plates of clay, embody today's Mexican farmers who are struggling, more so as their border seethes with racial violence. Similarly, her collage of 196 flags, (wheat shaped silver seeds sown into the cloth to represent diverse wheat-consuming countries) questions the deadly conflict in Syria. Instead of being celebrated as the country that gave wheat to the world, Syria is a no-fly zone, Singh laments.

Singh's show is high-maintenance, and not just because of the silver seeds. The 40 works - 25 paintings along with 15 mixed-media installations in ceramic, silver, metal and cloth - call for a steep, logistics cost. The artist has not used real grains. As food is subject to wastage in such a project, she wanted hand-made replica of seeds, which she could sew, embroider and integrate in her work, aided by craftsmen from Crawford Market and Khar Danda who cut, rolled and stitched the sheets of silver into the desired sizes. The coming together of several hands was intentional - somewhere going close to the cultivation pattern and displaying the seamless 'grain' connection between humans of all castes, class, countries and race.

The Terracota Work - five feet by two feet and was recently sold at the India Art Fair in Delhi - embeds different grains, which Singh calls "language of the Earth which needs no translation." The Terra Firma is another borderless food map.

Grains entered Revati Sharma Singh's consciousness around 2011 for personal reasons; at a juncture when she had temporarily shifted base to Mumbai. Painting the minute grains on canvas was a form of meditation when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. In one immersive moment, she chanced upon two adjacent newspaper articles - one was about 30,000 tons of grain thrown because of poor storage facilities and the other, a report on 25 suicides by poverty-stricken farmers. The juxtaposition set her off on a pictorial exploration of the texture of grains for the next five years. The earliest frames served a cathartic purpose and remained in her personal collection.

Art & Soul gallery director and owner Tarana Khubchandani who has curated Singh's works, recalls exchanges with the artist about the 'grain' shift. "Very rarely do thematic patterns grow on artists' minds with the intensity and consistency that is seen in Revati's case. She shapeshifted and moved from the archetypal reds-blues-and-greens to the more basic colours of Earth." The motif splashed off the conventional canvas and found an extension in an assemblage of media, and a projection in London, Delhi and Mumbai.

Apart from Khubchandani, another person has been privy to the 'grain' journey. The artist's mother Benita Sharma, 68, and now a retired teacher settled in Yol, Himachal Pradesh. She not just won her battle against cancer, but was present for the Mumbai show opening, providing the backstories and sub-text behind each frame. "The show has roots in our collective time spent in Mumbai when we were looking for nature's cure," says the mother. Befittingly, Himachal's paddy fields feature prominently in the Grains of Antiquity, evocative of Singh's summer vacations spent with grandparents in the Kangra valley.

Every year she comes to Mumbai and then heads to "recharge her connection." At this point, Singh is back to life in London at her warehouse workspace. Grains - particularly the unexplored oats, barley, millet and rye - will soon be centerfield, sprouting with homegrown stories and global chronicles.

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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