For an artist who did not believe in exhibiting his work, the show at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), that opens on September 17, is a spectacular. It surpasses what was done in 1996, when Upendra Maharathi’s work, donated from his personal collection, was first exhibited at NGMA. His daughter, Mahashweta, bequeathed whatever was left of his collection to the gallery. Sculptor and NGMA director general Adwaita Gadanayak has curated a grand collection exhibition in the newly refurbished galleries of the Jaipur House, using an assortment of artwork from the artist’s personal collection and from the formidable vaults of the Patna Museum.
Born in a small village of Odisha in 1908, Maharathi joined the Government College of Art and Craft in 1925. The school helped him imbibe Western and indigenous techniques of art, craft and architecture. His creativity was embedded in the aesthetics of the new, unapologetically nationalist movement in Bengal that supported swadeshi values and recognised the resistive, anti-colonial potential of art. It was led by EB Havell and Abanindranath Tagore, who encouraged their students to revive traditional forms of Indian art. Maharathi’s artistic praxis was also aligned with the constructive aspects of Gandhi’s non-violent politics. Inspired by the panels drawn by Nandalal Bose for the Congress session at Haripura (1938), he volunteered to decorate the temporary township which was set up for the 1940 Congress session at Ramgarh. The thatched mud pavilions, and gates and arches designed by him were accessorised with locally sourced, biodegradable handcrafted art objects and his own artwork.
Appointed as a special designer in the Department of Industries in the government of Bihar, Maharathi established a visceral connection with artisans and worked for the creative intersection of art, craft and design. His advocacy of erased histories of folk designs and crafts on the verge of extinction led to the foundation of the Institute of Industrial Research in Patna in 1956, which was later named after him. It became a haven for hundreds of rural artisans who had fallen off the crafts map.
The artist’s own astonishing oeuvre of about a thousand paintings, part of NGMA’s vast collection, intimately fuses his life story with that of his art, blending modernity with a sense of community. The artist’s studio has been recreated for the occasion, with his furniture, brushes, paints, pigments, his reading glasses, a medical prescription, a woven red-and-white tribal rug and a half-finished painting of Gandhi resting on the easel. Maharathi used his studio as a laboratory for his ideas: to create, meditate, spin on his charkha, read, write and practise yoga. One can only imagine the creativity that went on there. It was a mecca for artists, political activists, poets and writers: a place of creative dissidence and rattling of hegemonic ideological cages.
The artist, who died in 1981, straddled every genre and medium. His interest in Japanese aesthetics and Buddhist art is evident from the washed colours of paintings depicting the torment of Yashodhara, Sujata’s tender offering of a bowl of rice pudding, Buddha’s sermon in Sarnath and his silent communion with nature, his maha parinirvana. The contemplative echo of his work resonates in dozens of loose-leaf sumi-ink drawings on rice paper, pencil sketches and watercolours, reminiscent of Nandalal Bose and Kshitindranath Majumdar. The skeins of delicate ochre and sepia in his watercolours add an evocative touch to his study of rural life as do his Godna paintings. Breaching the overall serenity of his art are the paintings depicting the agony of Partition and the Bengal famine (1943).
Maharathi’s admiration for Gandhi is consummately expressed in his quick-fire sketches and classic portraiture, one of which found a place in Martin Luther King’s study. An entire gallery space, devoted to the Mahatma, includes illustrations made for a book on Gandhi, and one of the many books illustrated by him from the time his long association with Pustak Bhandar began in 1932. The portrait gallery boasts of Maharathi’s oil works of politicians, including Sardar Patel, Lala Lajpat Rai, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jayaprakash Narayan, and poet Rabindranath Tagore — each rooted in his characteristic naturalism.
The meditative spaces of traditional Buddhist architecture found echoes in his architectural practice, driven both by his intellect and emotions. A major showstopper at the retrospective is a scaffold-style installation at the central spine of the gallery spaces, displaying a model of the iconic World Peace Pagoda — a reflection on the artist’s spiritual journey. On view are also furniture designed by the artist: artisanal wooden chairs with Mauryan arches and quirky human-shaped backrests, put together without nails and a bevy of beautifully crafted tables and chaise lounge.
In the textile galleries, Gadanayak creates a stunning visual vocabulary with long strands of colourful yarns, looms (evocative of the ’60s-’70s), and a rainbow palette of Maharathi’s handwoven Bawanbuti designs. The ancient spinning and weaving techniques revived by him in Uparamwa, Baswanbigha and other Nalanda villages that spawned an unprecedented economic and cultural revitalisation are up for viewing, too.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘An artist extraordinaire’