A group of German and Swedish artists visiting Kerala for the first time didn’t know what to make of the local auto-rickshaws. They couldn’t get themselves to sit in a vehicle with no doors. “It didn’t take too long to convince them,” recalls Seema Moghe, a Mumbai-based artist. Another artist from Germany, Heinz-Jürgen Meyer, will never forget how lungi-clad men didn’t seem concerned about their airy garment flying around every time a rickshaw passed by. These are some of the anecdotes from an art residency held in Kumarakom, Kerala, in December 2013, attended by nine artists from Germany, Hungary, Sweden and India, to mark legendary artist Amrita Shergill’s birth centenary.
The 13-day residency included trips to villages, bird sanctuaries, Kathakali performances in temples,and rickety rickshaw rides. “Some of them were aware of Shergill’s sensibilities and works, some weren’t, but staying together, visiting the local villages and temples and interacting with one another helped us open our minds,” says Moghe.
The result is an exhibition titled “Artistic Recalls – The Hungarian Connection: Amrita”, which brings together each artist’s perception of Shergill’s works and their experience of the local surroundings and culture. A collateral event of the India Art Fair, the exhibition is being held at the Hungarian Centre in Delhi to commemorate Shergill’s Hungarian roots (her mother was Jewish-Hungarian), and will be on display till February 28.
“The first two-three days were kept exclusively for acquainting ourselves with our environment. Monika (Siebmanns, from Germany) has an industrial palate, whereas Tibor (Brada, from Hungary) uses fantasy elements, and I like to use paper in my work. We all picked up the vibrant natural materials available to us, such as local palm leaf decorations, earthy mud, banana stock and rice powder,” says Archana Shastri, a Delhi-based artist.
Shastri’s artwork Beyond Maya is made of a browning, moulded paper, and depicts a two-headed woman on an elephant, with
strong south-Indian Kalamkari motifs. “I was fascinated to see how international artists reacted to elephants. That is perhaps what connects my work with Shergill’s vision. The element of fantasy merges with its enchanting environment,” adds Shastri. On the other hand, Moghe’s Rain, Sunshine, Coconut trees and Prazanta is a serene representation of rural living, using the organic colours of coffee and rice powder, vermillion, and turmeric.
Strictly sticking to the theme wasn’t a part of their agenda. Visiting a Shiva temple at night and being part of a Hindu wedding was enough to form a basic outline in Swedish artist Karin Schuff’s head. “Normally, I have no narrative intentions with my work; I almost never give my works a title. In India, things started to change. The colours became deeper, and the works had titles — Red Indian Cow and Kumarakom. I see this change as my personal tribute to Kerala, to India and to Amrita Shergill,” says Schuff.
Hungarian artists Ilona Deak and Tibor Brada use the motif of an Indian woman in a sari to express their experience. While Brada’s work is more fantastical, with tigers and peacocks in his landscape, Deak uses earthy colours and wide, open spaces in her artwork.
Deak’s Garden of Amrita captures a sari-clad woman from the back, next to a bed of flowers. Brada’s In Memorium, Amrita Shergill is a deliberate, blurry and fantastical expression, with a woman, a fierce tiger and a pensive peacock in one frame. “I feel these authentic, poetic and lyrical colours also evoke the memory of the work of great Indian artists such as Rabindranath Tagore,” says Brada.
“Artistic Recalls – The Hungarian Connection: Amrita” will be on display till February 28. A collateral event of the India Art Fair, the exhibition also has a special viewing on February 1 & 2.