The ongoing exhibition at Devi Art Foundation probes what it means to be a vernacular artist in this country.

Encompassing a diverse range of art practices that exist within the exhaustive cluster of traditional arts, ‘Vernacular in the Contemporary' an ongoing exhibition at Anupam and Lekha Poddar's Devi Art Foundation (DAF), presents some extraordinary works from the genres of popular, folk, tribal and native art of the country.

One hundred and eighty works by 32 artists that spread across four spacious galleries at DAF include Chittara art of Sangam district in the Western Ghats to Pichwai style of Rajasthan to Chola Bronzes of Tamilnadu to works by tribal women artists cooperative in Hazari Bagh.

It also give space to Usman Tirandaz's naturalistic studies of flora and fauna done in Moghul miniature style, stalwart Baua Devi's Madhubani paintings and Ghanshyam Nimbark's rendition of Hindi poetry in calligraphy moulded in the shape of an image. But the list doesn't end here. The exhibition put together by DAF and Annapurna Garimella's Bangalore-based Jackfruit Research and Design, probably qualifies to be the biggest outing ever for our traditional arts on such a scale in the city.

Even bigger was the exercise undertaken to select the artists whose works are mounted in the show. Quantity factor is one but quality of the works and a gamut of traditional art practices included in the affair explain why it took Annapurna more than three years to put together this show.

First a public notice was put out in newspapers, announcing a programme in art, then a number of NGOs were consulted, newspapers, internet were referred to, and finally letters to 300 artists were sent out of which 175 artists responded with portfolios. Further filtering led to the commissioning of a total number of 32 artists to create works for the show. The artists were also called for a year-long residency at Bangalore and once they began working, glamour photographer Fawzan Hussain was commissioned to take pictures of the artists at work documenting the process.

Annapurna, curator of the show, calls it a pedagogic experience for everyone involved in the show from researchers to curators, photographers and artists themselves. The process of commissioning an artist, supporting him/her in doing his art, facilitating his/her research is described as an unusual experience by Annapurna.

And this is only the first part of the show titled ‘Working'. The second part of the show ‘Working Consciously, Working Reflectively' will open in March 2011. According to Annapurna, ‘Working' is about “artists who are really interested in the idea of working within the boundaries of an inherited or acquired art history”.

‘Working' is in turn divided into three sections — keeping the flame, nature and making a change. The presence of religious component in the displayed paintings is the connecting factor in ‘Keeping the Flame' section. Sanjaybhai Manubhai Chittara's Mataji ni Pacchedis, which is natural dye on cloth, are ritual textiles that are displayed behind the icon of a goddess during Navaratri.

While leather puppeteer S. Anjaneyulu has created characters based on the famous story of Bhakta Prahlada in the traditional style of tholu bommalata, L. Rathakrishnan, a bronze sculptor showcases 108 karanas of Natyashastra. Annapurna says that 108 karanas have been often depicted on the temple walls and gateways.

The idea of exploring possibilities with a god's icon outside a temple makes Rathakrishnan's effort a novel one. But it is in the Bhuta sculptures of Rathnakar Gudikar that she finds the deepest involvement and engagement with the culture taking place.

Myriad colours of nature find themselves in the pieces mounted in the ‘Nature' section. Baua Devi — who was one of the first artists to shift to paper and canvas after Pupul Jayakar sent Bhaskar Kulkarni with paper to Mithila to encourage womenfolk to paint on it — Japani Shyam, Mayank Shyam and Prabhudas Mistry reflect on their immediate surroundings in their respective styles of Madhubani, Gond and paper craft traditions.

Nature for these artists works as a source of livelihood, myths and legends. It's interesting to note the monochromatic palette of Mayank and Japani Shyam, the children of legendary artist late Jangarh Singh Shyam who had committed suicide in Japan. While he had actually initiated the change, the younger generation of Gond artists like Mayank and Japani are only walking on that path.

The third section concentrates on the bunch which is engaging with the world in a more contemporary manner. Patachitra artist Anwar Chitrakar's graphic novel on the subject of Maoism, Kapil Sharma's digital pichwai and a collaborative work between Tarshito and Puspa Rao ‘Rathyatra' and few other works feature here.