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Picturing the frame

I am tempted to shift the lens to the recent exhibition ‘Jagannatha’ by 13 artists of Raghurajpur at Vinnyasa Art Gallery to explore patachitra’s structural devices. Encountering these traditional artworks of Odisha, one is overwhelmed by a sense of order, detail and meticulousness. Pata meaning cloth and chitra meaning picture, almost always embodies the multiplicity of expression. The 13th Century form consists of many pictures within the canvas, as if all moods, feelings, emotions and consecutive scenes from a story are put out on the same page. We are made to dwell on details and concentrate on line-work. The significance of the bigger picture, therefore, may be lost to the eye influenced by the Western looking glass. We have to travel in and out, going closer and moving away further to see two kinds of patterns emerging. Up close, we see the picture story, frame by frame. Moving further, all of the pictures side by side, incredibly, become frames within frames.

This jewel-boxing comes from the tradition of Indian mythology where one tale holds another and another consecutively. Take, for instance, the Navagunjara legend peculiar to the Oriya Mahabharata by 15th Century poet-historian Sarala Das. Arjuna gets tricked into entering the chamber where Yudhisthira is with Draupadi. For breaking the code of conduct, Arjuna leaves in exile to the forest. The artist Gopal Maharana has painted Navagunjara, a mythical creature, a composite of nine different animals with the head of a rooster, a form Vishnu takes to show his true nature to Arjuna in penance. From a mishap to exile to awakening, the tale is constantly reframed to reveal. Further, the body becomes the physical framework. We see a similar idea of containment in Shrungar Tilak by Sasmita Maharana , where the act of adornment is constantly reflected within the body. Many images of a woman beautifying herself are drawn within the main image of the woman holding the mirror. And of course, the mirror too holds her image! Conceptually, this is extraordinarily bold. The detailing of the artwork follows the traditional line; otherwise, this could very well be a fantastic surrealist portrait of and by a woman. Then there is Sundara-kandam by Gangadhar Maharana, where the artist makes spiralling divisions within the painting, most originally, with Hanuman’s colossal tail.

Curator Suguna Swamy says, “The artists know their Puranas so well. It is all done freehand, without instruments. At a time when handwriting has deteriorated, they paint every inch and millimetre of border patiently. There is no short-changing.” Where then, does the artist find his niche for personal expression? Six Seasons is interpreted with many variations, one theme being romance and courtship. In the summer, Grishma, the couple is bathing in a pond. During Varsha, the rainy season, the pair shelter under an umbrella. In Sharad, after rain, he decorates her hand with mehndi. At Hemant, Deepavali, he offers her a paan. During Shishu, deep winter, they huddle together under a blanket. For Basant, spring, they play holi. Picture boxes sit side-by-side circling the canvas or travelling in a linear fashion. My eye follows, trying to find the right direction in the recurring cycles. Unless we know where to begin, the beginning could be anywhere. A highly organised practice, patachitra makes us question creative freedom. Who feels more anxiety: the modern artist who makes her own rules or the craftsman-artist who sets out to paint according to precepts?

Suguna reveals certain curious aspects of painting. In the artist’s home, the canvas occupies most of the space on the floor. Thus constrained, he has to work, crawling all around it. Often, he works by lamplight in the night, so the family can use the home at daytime. The process is excruciating but magical. The artists sing, dance and say prayers as they paint. This close encounter with the painting, a transaction with the body, must have something to do with the result. It is a complete surrender to art with movement, grace, restraint and liberty, endlessly picturing the frame.

(Chennai Canvas links art to design and culture through an inside look at the city).

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 5:30:33 PM |

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