Five years ago, Baroda-based artist Balaji Ponna found inspiration for a canvas in the most unlikeliest of places — an ATM near his house in Bhimavaram, Andhra Pradesh. The watchman would often tell him about his experiences, of how residents would ask him if he saw robbers and how the sounds of knocking doors and barking dogs are a constant in his life. It made Ponna re-think the lives of people whose nights are in contrast to ours. Like the border security forces stationed at night, the watchman observes the world in a completely different manner. Both leave their families behind at home and sacrifice their personal life for the sake of the country. This backdrop becomes the story for his canvas, The night watchman wife is virgin. Alert men in uniform, armed with torch lights, are seen searching for a possible threat at the border, even as the Indian flag flies high in a distance and a watchman sleeps on his chair.
The exhibition “Mirrored Questions” is showing Ponna’s 16 canvases that are riddled with metaphors and suggestions of human-inflicted calamities. His painting Most suitable pole to tie shows a man tied to a pole, with an Asiatic lion on top, like the pillars of Ashoka. It echoes the horrors of the Pehlu Khan lynching case and the 2015 Dadri mob lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq. He says, “Mob lynching and public humiliation have become a part of our society.”
Having studied graphics from Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, 39-year-old Ponna says, “My works speak of existing problems in our world and are a comment on the society at large.” The exhibition catalogue aptly sums up Ponna’s canvases, which bear a dark gloomy character: “Like the shadow that follows even an optically impaired person however oblivious he is of that fact, the effects of our inhuman and unconcerned deeds would follow us everywhere to remind us of our impending doom.”
For Kumari, migration and displacement are predominant themes. She reels her experiences of living in different states of India, from being born in Patna, raised in Jamshedpur, to migrating to Delhi for higher studies at College of Art when pursuing her BFA and MFA in painting and then setting up a studio in Rishikesh. In her acrylic on canvas At some point NOTHING matters, she has painted an entire blank canvas in black, leaving behind innumerable dots on the canvas made from white space, which she says refers to the space left out in our lives. “When I migrate, I leave behind a lot many things since I can’t carry them all. I often feel that vacuum within me after moving to a new space,” she says.
Kumari renders a way of looking at landscapes through her series Peep I, II and III, by providing aerial views of Jamshedpur through its industries, Delhi through the night light of its grid-like buildings and Rishikesh through its cloudy atmosphere. As an art educator at College of Art and Ashoka University, Kumari gets her students to sit around her in a circle. Whenever new students come, space is made to accommodate them. Checked-In after Class, a watercolour on graphite paper, has classroom chairs and tables to convey this idea. “It was like an intrusion, one that you are not prepared for and which comes as a surprise,” she says, as she comments on the complexity of a city and how changes in cityscapes keep happening.
Migration is vital to that change as people move cities. Kumari says, “Humans are forcing others to leave due to a heightened sense of violence and insecurity. Even the Partition could have been avoided and shouldn’t have happened. Earlier migration was due to natural forces, but now they are because of political and social reasons.”
The exhibition is at F-213C, Old M B Road, Lado Sarai, Delhi, till August 30
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