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Folklore for the Future

Art historian Annapurna Garimella helps artists experiment with traditional art forms. The results are varied,striking and in keeping with the contemporary.

Art historian Annapurna Garimella helps artists experiment with traditional art forms. The results are varied,striking and in keeping with the contemporary.

It was over a series of discussions that art historian Annapurna Garimella,44,convinced Chittara artist Radha Sollur to replicate wall paintings from her village Sullur in Sagar taluk,Karnataka,on plaster of Paris moulds. This produced the lumpy texture and raw finish of the mural’s original ritual,domestic context — on mud walls,layered with cow dung and straw.

That is how the strikingly patterned serpents undulating in Sollur’s Snakes series made the trip from Shimoga district,to be displayed among other experimental works in the ongoing exhibition Vernacular,In the Contemporary at the Devi Art Foundation,Gurgaon. “The aim was to encourage artists to push themselves and think beyond the usual,” says Garimella,the founder of Jackfruit Research and Design,that has curated the exhibition. For it,she added to Lekha and Anupam Poddar’s existing collection by commissioning art from across India.

Nine research scholars helped scout for new talent,guided by a database of artists acquired through non-governmental and private organisations. More than 300 artists were approached during the course of five years. Of them,180 responded,and 30 feature in the two-part exhibition. “We wanted to refrain from clichés,” says Garimella,who ensured this by communicating with the artists innumerable times over phone,e-mail,and through researchers. The outcome is a display of astonishing variety,ranging from Pichwai in digital format in Kapil Sharma’s Varsha,and Chitrakar graphic novel panels painted by Anwar Chitrakar,to 108 karnas or dance postures from the Natyashastra cast in bronze by L Rathakrishnan.

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Her inputs weren’t restricted to artistic innovation. “The artists seek suggestions,” says Garimella. “Survival of the art form is a driving factor. Several of them don’t even relate with the gallery dictates of escalating prices and limiting supply in accordance with the market.” Through her organisation Jackfruit Research and Design,she hopes to shine the spotlight on lesser-known artists by putting their work up in exhibitions,and on traditional art forms,by designing maps and tours around them. “We want to make critical thinking and public discourse commercially viable,” she says.

Garimella first began working under the banner of the NGO Art,Resources and Teaching,which this postgraduate from Columbia University,New York,established in 2001,after she struggled to collect archival data for her PhD on Vijayanagara: Public Space,Kingship,Gender and Devotion. “It was very bureaucratic,” Garimella recalls. “Recommendation letters were required to sift through data.”

Jackfruit,which Garimella founded in 2004,has a tiny staff of four,since she hires independent researchers for projects. The nondescript office where they work,located in the bustling Shanti Nagar area of Bangalore,has a library of over 4,000 books and journals,apart from city maps,theses on art,and the annual reports of organisations like the Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) and California-based J Paul Getty Trust. “The aim is to make information accessible,” says Garimella,who also delivers lectures on art history at the SN School of Arts,University of Hyderabad.

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In 2008,she published an essay,Miniature Societies and Grihani Aesthetics,on tasveerghar.net,which investigated the gendered aesthetics of displays of Navarati dolls. This might culminate in an exhibition of the dolls next year. “The details are still to be finalised,” says Garimella,who is an arts graduate from California State University. During her first semester there,she recalls,she got a D in art history. “It was due to lack of concentration. The fascination for the rich heritage made me work harder,” she says,with a smile.

Moving base to India,from the US,where her parents migrated when she was eight,was destined,according to her. “I had a choice between focussing on art history of Japan,India,and Africa. Knowing Hindi,apart from being familiar with the country,led me to India.” So Bangalore became her home in 1996,when she began work on her PhD. Years later,the aims of organising the unstructured art circuit and disseminating historical knowledge has led her to work on several commissioned projects. In 2005-06,Jackfruit designed antique postcards presenting colonial Bangalore,featuring sepia images of the St Joseph’s College,the St Mark’s Cathedral and the West End Hotel,acquired by Taj. They also designed brochures and maps for monuments in Bangalore under the Archaeological Survey of India,including the Chitradurga Circle,Srirangapattana,Tipu Palace and Fort and Somnathapura.

Apart from providing details on the monuments’ patrons and architectural history,these maps indicate the location of monuments,water bodies,highways,local bus stops and railway stations. “Plans of specific monuments were also included to enable visitors to navigate the site,” says Garimella. She has also worked with The Embroiderer’s Guild to chalk a 10-day textile tour across Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2002-03. Four years later,students from the Archaeological Institute of America were taken through the Deccan,including Hampi,Belur,Mysore and Somnathpur,on customised itineraries. She also conducted lectures for the Council on International Student Exchange,revolving around Mahayana Buddhism in central India,the history of south Karnataka’s landscape,and temple cultures of Tamil Nadu. “Chalking the itinerary takes months. It involves on-site research,looking at off-beat locations and arranging for meetings with artists and local inhabitants,” says Garimella. With their backgrounds in architectural heritage,the members of the firm have worked on the restoration and renovation of several significant sites. In 2002-04,she shifted to Delhi for the restoration of the 200-year old,10-acre char bagh in Bharatpur,and the construction of a new 24-room boutique resort. Three years later,the team headed over to the folk museum,Janapada Loka,on the Bangalore-Mysore highway,where they designed the Lokamatha Mandira gallery,working on the display,planning,cataloguing and writing of interpretive material in Kannada and English. “The projects are getting more interesting but there is a long way to go. People still don’t want to invest a lot in such projects,” says Garimella,whose next assignment is designing toys for Ferrero Rocher’s Kinder Joy chocolate — a collaboration she prefers not to discuss.

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Meanwhile,the sequel to the current exhibition at Devi Art is keeping Garimella occupied. “The subsequent show will have artists working consciously outside their art practice,looking at issues in the larger world,” she says. In the adjoining room in the brick-red private museum in Gurgaon,Chitrakar artists from West Bengal await her feedback on their work. Garimella plans to encourage them to experiment with animation.

First published on: 26-12-2010 at 03:31:33 pm
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