Born in Orissa in 1908, Upendra Maharathi spent his lifetime seeking various ways and mediums to contribute to the creative arena, thus becoming one of India’s most prolific artists.
Till he passed away in 1981, the artist straddled almost every genre and medium — sketching, carving, sculpting, painting, weaving, even architecture. Since Maharathi didn’t believe in exhibiting his work, it took almost four decades after his death to put together the first-ever retrospective of his works in the heart of India’s Capital.
An exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), aptly titled ‘Shashwat | Maharathi- The Eternal Seeker’, comprises an assortment of artwork from his personal collection, from NGMA’s collection, and from the vaults of Patna Museum. The exhibition seeks to offer a panoramic view of his complete oeuvre. Here are the highlights:
The artist’s studio has been recreated for the occasion in one big room of the renovated Jaipur House wing of the NGMA. It comprises Maharathi’s furniture, brushes, paints, pigments, reading glasses, a medical prescription, a woven red-and-white tribal rug and a half-finished painting of Mahatma 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.
On view is furniture designed by the artist: artisanal wooden chairs with Mauryan arches and quirky human-shaped backrests, put together without nails. More than 20 Mauryan chairs that are on display were designed by Maharathi and created by the expert carpenters of the Upendra Maharathi Institute of Industrial Designs at Patna.
These chairs are fashioned after the Mauryan architectural designs. The honeycomb jaali of the backrest arch is another motif borrowed from Mauryan architecture.
Ever since the dawn of Southeast Asian civilisation, bamboo has been used as a building material and in craft form. The Ramgarh Congress of 1940 was Maharathi’s first foray into experimenting with bamboo craft as a medium to decorate the entire pandal complex.
While bamboo was prevalent as a building material at the time, its aesthetic potential was not as prominently explored. Around 15 bamboo craft samples on display show the diverse ways in which Maharathi used bamboo — sculpting on its roots and turning it into utility articles among others.
For centuries, the handloom weavers of Biharshariff in Nalanda district of Bihar have been known for weaving intricate patterns and motifs inspired by Buddhist iconography. This tradition, known as ‘Baavanbuti Tradition’, found its name from the 52 motifs on six yards of a sari. But the advent of technology and mill-made yarn sounded the death knell for the tradition.
In such a dismal scenario in the early ’40s, Maharathi worked with the weavers to weave the Baavanbuti motifs on thick fabric, which could be used as curtain and furnishing material. A textile installation called Tana Bana has colourful long yarns stretching across the length and breadth of the space, a symbolic representation of the centuries-old journey of this tradition and the salvaging efforts of its saviour.
Maharathi was deeply moved by Buddhism and this inspired his architectural interest. Sambodhi, a 22-part panel on Buddha’s life, from birth to enlightenment, drawn by Maharthi, formed the basis of the 250-feet-long stone panel at Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya, a World Heritage Site. The panels at the temple are considered an architectural wonder, so are the peace pagodas in Rajgir and Japan, at the Patna College of Art and Nalanda railway station.
The exhibition is on till January 31