Artist NS Harsha is known for dedicatedly making large-scale works. At his first major exhibition in 2019 in Hong Kong, he showed Nations (2007), which makes use of nearly 200 old-school sewing machines. At the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale in 2014, his panoramic painting, titled Punarapi Jananam Punarapi Maranam, was stretched across 80 feet. It showed a serpentine cosmic thread, looped like an infinity symbol to indicate an endless cycle of rebirth and death. It is fitting that the universe be treated in such astronomical proportions, which is why his latest solo exhibition — his first in India after a decade — may come as a small surprise. The cosmos has shrunk, the canvas is smaller, for Harsha has zoomed in.
The exhibition ‘recent life’ opened at gallery Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, on January 9. The cosmos and the community come together in this show, as they always have in Harsha’s works. His familiar tropes — the monkey-man who points at something in the sky, and the traditional south Indian banana leaf meal — are here as well. But Harsha is showing us that he can still handle large, cosmic spaces even if the canvas is relatively smaller.
Harsha, 51, says that ‘recent life’ marks a pause in his peripatetic life and a return to the studio. Born and based out of Mysuru, Harsha has had solo shows across the world, including a mid-career retrospective at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. He says, “I was making many site-specific works. I have worked in gardens and museums and galleries, and even a mountain (reference to his 2005 work, Ambitions and Dreams). But this urge to be in a room and start thinking of more intimate works has been there. I wanted to go back to painting in a studio. In a studio, you don’t respond to anything, you just start from the core.”
Harsha, by his own admission, is a slow painter. Most of the works in the show were made in the last two years, but, given the detailing, it would have been a busy two years. One of Harsha’s artistic hallmarks lies in the multitude of people — historical, mythical, mutant, alien — that he brings to his works. In one painting, A4ian time drifts, four clerks are stationed along what seems like a cosmic river that cuts across the canvas. Queues extend in front of these clerks and it’s a delight to conjure one’s own theories about the citizens of Harsha’s canvas — has the bikini-clad woman come straight from a pool or a trial room? Is that a Japanese soldier? Who is the man with a green mohawk? Some of these people are evidently mutants, recalling the immigration policies of the Hollywood sci-fi comedy, Men in Black.
Harsha, who trained in fine arts at Vadodara’s MS University, is not one to take offense to pop culture references. In his personal collection of 700 comics and graphic novels are some important first editions. “I see even art history books as comic books,” he adds. A4ian time drifts also has some bearing in his own experiences with the paperwork needed for an Aadhar card in India. The typical A4 sheets needed for documentation gave rise to these people, A4ians. “I made this painting before the National Register of Citizens happened and I saw visuals of people in Assam standing in queues. I am so interested in how society forms this communal singularity though we are multidimensional,” he says. The river of time that flows past the A4ians is by no means placid, but one that threatens to swallow them, A4 sheets and all. Harsha says, “If I want to look at seventh century documents, then where will I find them? Surely most have been swept away by some sea. Four centuries from now, what’s going to happen to Aadhar?”
Harsha says that these are spontaneous “automatic figures”. He doesn’t sketch figures or caricatures but he does observe crowds. Before this interview, Harsha spent an hour around the Bombay Stock Exchange, observing people holding files and looking up, presumably at the stock ticker running around the building. “Any crowd, whether religious or political, I am there,” says Harsha. The crowd that Harsha cherishes most is the one by a tea stall. A touch of the autobiographical is evident here, for Harsha’s father was once the owner of a tea stall. “Tea stalls have an amazing capacity to digest any social crisis. They discuss everything and the next morning, the conversation has shifted,” he says. In a painting titled At the landing site of Voyager One, Harsha imagines the end of the NASA space probe — it has crashed into a tree, under which a chaiwalla runs his business.
Harsha’s works are part of collections at the National Museum Cardiff, Wales, and the Kiran Nadar Museum, Delhi. While collectors flocked to the show on the opening day itself, one came across two small square works not on sale. One of them shows an ebullient sow diving into a pool; on her snout, she holds our planet as a seal would a ball. The other is titled Ripples for and from Greta Thunberg, a reference to the young Swedish environment activist. Here, a woman combs her daughter’s hair while seated on a cloud. Harsha also manages to create a sense of infinite space, an endless blue of the sky and sea, even while focusing on these particular figures. Harsha’s young niece and nephew have claimed these works, parting with them briefly for ‘recent life’.