The Face of the Sun, the ongoing exhibition at Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery, displays conventional and unconventional art created by Arpita Singh and Manjit Bawa, as well as a series of oil and watercolour paintings by Jagdish Swaminathan, writes Bhumika Popli.


A new exhibition at Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery, entitled The Face of the Sun, brings to our attention a certain trend in Indian art history which involved leading artists breaking the conventions by turning away from their trademark genres—like painting or sculpture—and focusing instead on creating art objects.

The exhibits here include, alongside the usual paintings, a carpet made by Arpita Singh, and a brooch made by Manjit Bawa. Both Singh and Bawa are renowned Indian painters, who have made significant contributions to the form.

At one point in her career, Singh worked as a designer at Weaver’s Service Centre in Kolkata and Delhi, where she picked up the craft of carpet-making. The carpet at the Mumbai show was made by Singh in the early ’90s, and it suggests the theme one often encounters in her paintings—the bodies of ageing women.

The golden brooch by Bawa is another highlight of the exhibition. This jewellery piece, made with real gold and gemstones, is moulded in the figure of Hanuman. Here again, one can see the distinct vibrant painting style of Bawa.

Geometry of Colour, 1965, by Jagdish Swaminathan.

“Between the ’80s and ’90s, a lot of Indian artists were commissioned by Abhishek Poddar, a prominent art collector, to experiment with new materials,” says Puneet Shah, founder-director, Akara Art Gallery. “At one time Bawa had produced art jewellery, brooches and silver boxes, and illustrated them with figures from his paintings. His piece in the exhibition was part of another show in Delhi, where it was displayed alongside some of his other jewellery designs. Even the carpet work by Singh was commissioned by Poddar.”

Singh and Bawa were not the only ones open to this experimental approach. Renowned painter Ram Kumar, at one point of his career, made tapestries. Similarly, Jogen Chowdhury, again an eminent painter, made etchings on sheets of glass and mirror.

This will to experiment was motivated by these artists’ resolve to create art that is accessible to lay people. “An artist, more than anything else, wants his expression to survive beyond his lifetime,” says Amrita Varma, an independent art advisor and critic. “A common man hardly understood an artist’s creativity, and artists wanted to make something more accessible for the general public. When an artist created something apart from his regular work, the objects ceased to become merely a thing of interior decoration but turned into art pieces.”

But such works—for which artists turned away from their core talents in order to create art objects—were a secondary concern for most major painters and sculptors, who remained devoted to their signature forms.

Brooch, gold and gemstones, by Manjit Bawa.

At the Mumbai exhibition, there are several paintings and drawings by both Singh and Bawa, as well as by Jagdish Swaminathan. Regarded as one of the prominent artists of India, Swaminathan was the founder of Bharat Bhawan, an art complex in Bihar, and he also put together “Group 1890”, a short-lived but influential collective of artists.

In Swaminathan’s oil and watercolour paintings exhibited at the show, one can see various signs and symbols. The canvases carry earthy tones and are marked by the sense of simplicity that was characteristic of Swaminathan’s work.

Bawa, too, was a contemporary of Swaminathan. Art critic Gayatri Sinha, in her catalogue essay for this particular show, writes, “Creating a shadowless world of figures inhabiting a pure colour field, Bawa adopted figuration and Puranic narratives at a time when abstraction ruled; further he sidestepped the debates and concerns around indigenious identity to create a complete world of divinity and nature.” The oil paintings and sketches by Bawa, along with his gold brooch displayed here, are themed on Hindu mythology.

There are around a dozen watercolours by Arpita Singh at the Mumbai show. One of her paintings depicts a female figure standing on a pedestal. A man is blowing a horn towards her. A crowd of human hands surrounds the woman. It appears that she is being reduced to a status of a street performer. And the numbers written on the canvas prove that the woman is being directed to dance to the tune composed by a patriarchal society.

‘The Face of the Sun’, is on view at Mumbai’s Akara Art Gallery till 31 August

For a photo feature on the exhibition, turn to pages 28-29

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