Art need not necessarily be serious or obscure. A work of art can be entertaining and engaging, a conversation starter. Imagine Sita’s swayamvar depicted in an artistic style that borrows from traditional folklore and incorporates elements of pop culture and comics.
The kings who could not lift and string the Shiva Dhanush go into a chorus of ‘Hey Ram’ in resignation, while King Janaka and Sita exchange a thumbs up. Katha Kathan, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Mumbai-based artist, Visakha Hardikar, displayed at the State Gallery of Art, Hyderabad, has a hint of playfulness that makes the 100-plus artworks a joy to view.
Curated by Annapurna M, this is the first solo exhibition of the artist who has been practicing for over two decades. From the retelling of Ramayana and Radha-Krishna romance to giving her own spin to Marvel superheroes and Money Heist, Vishakha’s art changed subtly as her son, now 13, grew up.
The idea of storytelling is the crux of Vishakha’s work. In the first section titled Nani, the art emerges from her memories of summer vacations spent at her grandmother’s house in Ujjain, surrounded by aunts and cousins. “I was familiar with Madhubani and miniature art while growing up,” she says. “While pursuing fine arts in Indore, I began working on a style that incorporates the traditional and the contemporary.”
The Nani series portrays women and children of different age groups sharing stories on the terrace, groups of women gossiping (a painting is titled Sasural Genda Phool) and the grandmother busy sewing, chopping vegetables or making pickles. Some of the colours and patterns are influenced by handlooms and crafts of the region such as the bagh prints and hand block prints. Vishakha uses both acrylic and textured oil painting techniques to create vibrant artworks.
In the Ramayana series, she reimages Ram as a superhero. “Children are fascinated by Marvel and DC superheroes. This was my way of getting my son interested in Indian stories by narrating them as superhero tales.”
When she depicts the battle between Ram and Ravana, the battleground scene gives an idea of what the different characters are up to. There are no winners or losers yet; the fight is raging. Among the different weapons, the viewer can spot prickly round structures that we now associate with the Coronavirus! “My son calls them prickly bombs and it was his idea to use them for the battle.”
Hanuman’s Lanka dahanam is titled Tail Tales and the comic-inspired figure of Hanuman has a childlike quality to it. When he is up in the air flying with the Sanjeevani mountain, he is simultaneously helping himself to a banana. The relaxed manner in which he does his work, says Vishakha, comes from his understanding that everything has been pre-written.
In the Radha-Krishna series, the romance has a contemporary touch when Radha and Krishna are shown to meet while sharing a slice of watermelon or corn on cob, because the artist believes, “there cannot be romance without food”.
Elsewhere, in the series that depicts Gods and their vahanas, Vishakha reimagines the vahana as a friend and companion of the God or Goddess. A painting of Durga has the Goddess cradling a lion cub.
Moving away from mythology, Vishaka also portrays Marvel superheroes such as Captain America and Thor and a collection of small posters inspired by Money Heist.
Her signature style that blends the old and the new took 20 years to evolve, says Vishakha. The intent to narrate stories has been the core of her art. As the curator Annapurna sums up, “Some of the paintings, like the Nani series, could have come from her personal memories but it is instantly relatable to anyone who sees them. Sab ki nani hai (everyone has a grandmother)…”
(Katha Kathan by Vishakha Hardikar is on view at State Gallery of Art, Hyderabad, till January 29)