Easels dot a vast, lush lawn as Udaipur’s Aravalli hills look over protectively. Canvases strewn with colour, personality and culture are on these easels, signaling various stages of completion.
The hills easily make for a muse. So does the moon that rises every night between them. Both have managed to make their way into most canvases here as artists from India and ASEAN countries collaborated over a nine-day camp.
Take 26-year-old Vietnamese artist Flinh’s work: calming shades of blue wash over a canvas textured with crumpled paper, its protagonists being the moon and the ocean. The former seeps into the latter, leaving what can only be called as a “gentle, reflective” quality to mark their connection. “A lot of my work is the dialogue between the past and the present, the old and the new,” says Flinh.
Flinh is one of the 20 artists that participated in the camp titled Oceans of Connectivity at Taj Aravali Resort and Spa, Udaipur, organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and creative arts company Seher, that culminated in an exhibition on Tuesday in the presence of the Minister of State, Ministry of External Affairs, Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh.
“Oceans connect these countries. Oceans also give them livelihood, with maritime trade. Interestingly enough, these very oceans are the borders that separate them too. So, it’s interesting to see the artists’ interpretation of this theme,” says the founder of Seher, Sanjeev Bhargava. The enmeshing of cultures which could pave the way to public diplomacy is the objective of the camp, he adds. And the arts prove as the ideal tool to implement this. While the ASEAN artists are recommended by their respective culture ministries, the repository of Indian artists at the camp lacked representation from Southern parts of India.
Community in making
Over nine days, several hours of conversations, few workshops and a day out in the city, a mostly abstract display came to fruition. While some experimented, others stuck to their preferred styles.
Melissa Abug-a’s large canvas is quintessentially Rajasthani. The artist from the Philippines gives life to a twirling folk dancer, her skirt revealing a world of exuberance that is so characteristic of the eastern State. A bright yellow piece of fabric picked up from a nearby market and mirror work that pays homage to the State’s craftsmanship complete the canvas.
The flare of the skirt leads one to the ocean, as the artist tries to draw parallels between the dancer’s feeling of liberation to that of the motion underwater. “The water, you see, is from home [the Philippines]. When anybody is dancing, it feels like they are underwater and when you are underwater, it’s like moving around with a skirt on. Heavy, but once you get the flow, you are good,” says Melissa.
She adds that she discussed her work with fellow Indian artists almost on a daily basis. “When they share their opinions, and what I can do better, I start again,” she says with a chuckle. “The camp made me realise that I can work with other people after all.”
Japani Shyam’s Gond work is the only canvas on display with tribal influences: a colourful contemporary retelling of a Gond legend. “I am trying to tell the story of how the earth came to be; how different forms of life came to exist, from water. The folk legend goes that Lord Shiva had asked a crow to bring mithi to create life — the crow was not able to find any, and a crab with a palace underwater, with one of its claws up in the sky, and one underwater offered to help.”
With impressive detailing, the crab, accompanied by a shoal of fish take most of the canvas that is lorded over by a gond tree. “I am trying to take the traditional artform forward, by lending it a contemporary touch. I try to make the detailing more minute,” says Japani from Bhopal, whose father Jangarh Singh Shyam, was one of the pioneers who brought Gond art global attention.
After finishing his canvas, Phattaraporn Leanpanit from Thailand is busy doing quick, freehand, watercolour portraits. His artwork made at the camp derives a lot from Indian patterns; a vase that bursts into a cloud of flora in bright colours, held together by a sea of soothing blue. Chhattisgarh-based Yogendra Tripathi’s abstract canvas on the other hand invites one to interpret and reinterpret: an earthy brown tone, with patches of lighter shade, an amorphous shape that perhaps could be the sun, with the hills outlined in black. The landscape of the host city is in focus here. “Local elements always make their way into my canvases. If I start with a line, it shows me the way forward,” says the Chhattisgarh-based artist.
The artists unanimously agree to how enriching the camp was. But some of them return to the bleak reality of surviving as a commercial artist in their respective countries. Sone Khounphasert from Laos, shows me her stall at the night market back home over a video call. (An art teacher at a fine arts college with 15 students, the night market is a source of income from tourists.) “But after COVID, it has not been so easy,” she says. Beside, stands her canvas: Buddha’s hand painted in bright gold from which the lotus flower blooms, against a black canvas: “It makes me hopeful,” she says.
After nine days of working together, they are now more aware of the similarities in cultures that their countries share. “New learnings emerge when you share your music, dance and art with artists from other countries,” says Yogendra. “That is precisely what has happened here. One got to learn, even when we ate together or went on walks.”