Review by Georgina Maddox
March 15, 2018


Three solo projects by Pratul Dash, Malavika Rajnarayan and Poushali Das
Anant Art
March 5-16, 2018
IGNCA, New Delhi

Anant Art, present three solo exhibitions featuring the works of Pratul Dash, Poushali Das and Malavika Rajnarayan. It underscores their ponderings about the universe, the environment and socio-political concerns, through a repository of poetic imagery and artistic lexicon. From the hyper-real to the rich tradition of the miniatures, these three solos transport the viewer to an imagined land that is full of a bitter-sweet wonderment.

As we enter the exhibition we are first greeted by a canvas by Pratul Dash. It is a touching portrait of a little boy, wearing a mask and a pair of shorts with its drawstring dangling. He stands out in high relief against a sky full of stars, surrounded by exotic flowers and two little ducklings that cling to his heels. If we were to go by Roobina Karode’s catalogue text, then this image is redolent with nostalgia for the artist’s boyhood. When quizzed about this, Dash laughs and indicates that this is possible, “Roobina ji has known me since my days as a student at the Delhi College of Art, when she used to teach there. Hence it is a valid reading. However, I am also making a bigger statement here. The boy is more emblematic, he represents all the children who will soon be deprived of certain species of flowers, birds and animals, since many are on the brink of extinction,” says the artist whose keen sense of eco-feminism underlines the pageantry of flowers and attractive wild animals that parade across his canvas.

In another large work, that took him months to complete, is a thinly veiled self-portrait of the artist holding a giant bouquet of flowers. Here is another attempt to make a universal statement, since he conceals his identity by wearing his signature mask. It appears that the protagonist is trying to gather up all the flowers and present them in an everlasting bouquet for his audience. In another canvas we see him, with his back to the canvas, followed by his faithful companion, a big shaggy dog. Both man and dog are contemplating the night sky filed with stars, set against a field of wild flowers. Interestingly the flowers have been arranged in a manner resembling a bouquet, as if it is designed by nature itself. 

Dash’s canvases are seductive in their hyperrealist, glossy appeal, but they have a certain melancholy buried beneath this seductive surface. He has a serious message that examines the impact of urbanization on our towns and villages. The man-versus-nature conflict is a recurring concern for Dash. Born in the small town of Burla, in Odisha, Dash is often concerned with issues of migration and displacement. Living in the city for decades he often yearns for the simplicity of rural life.  “Over the years, I look at the painted surface as a window through which one can slowly rupture and fragment the viewer’s ideal of realism,” says the artist.  Change is always accompanied by the duality of desire and anxiety and it is this aspect that Dash underlines in his works. The rural and the urban are in constant dialogue, if not opposition with each other.   

Another aspect that Dash explores in his work is the duality of the self. At some instances he paints himself as a little boy playing with a spider-man mask in a field of flowers and in another, he is a man contemplating the universe. These two selves appear as constant reminders of his journey from innocence to adulthood. In the painting titled ‘Sometimes we eat ourselves’, the artist plays with the idea of consuming several selves, the wooden armatures of puppet-like dolls that symbolize this, enter the mouth of the artist and his younger self. It is a disturbing image that moves you to think about what we are doing to our environment has a direct impact upon the self and that mankind’s endless quest for consumption can only lead to his own annihilation.  

Malavika Rajnarayan's paintings use the human figure to explore notions of the self and its relation to a larger collective consciousness. Her visual language is informed by the miniature painting tradition, though she has pushed her stylistic approach beyond that and incorporated a kind of meeting ground between realism and stylization. Within the purview of this stylization she explores the poignancy of ideas is conveyed through beauty, grace, strength and fragility. This body of works continue her exploration of contextual multitudes focusing on her interpretation of non-urban, intimate interactions and deeper human relations. The artist explains the title of her exhibition, ‘When Dragonflies Cross the Highway Bridge’, in the catalogue essay by indicating that she used to travel across this bridge in her home town and it would be filled with Dragonflies as it was their mating season at the time. This beautiful show put on by the insects also happened to coincide with the leaving of migrant workers for the city to find work and it was this exchange that struck her as oddly poetic and poignant at the same time.  

Having grown up in a progressive environment free from stereotypical notions of womanhood, Malavika is deeply intrigued by the socially embedded virtues of femininity and the counterintuitive strength it carries; this comes across in her works through a sense of feminine softness, which is a trope that may be seen as cliched, yet it goes beyond that into a kind of humanist trope. The art is further enhanced by deep reflections on the aesthetics and politics of different communities, landscapes, and cultural factions. The methodology of painting from introspective knowledge which forms the backbone of Miniature painting has become an integral part of Malavika’s work, giving the appearance of being part of a conversation rather than viewing a work of art.

Poushali Das’s works are a reflection of her narrative style of painting that incorporates the ‘Pata’ painting tradition with Japanese wash techniques, which is reflected in her quaint color palette and delicate figures. Having lived and worked in Japan for a major part of last year, her recent works reflect a wonderful amalgamation of the oriental miniaturist style with ‘magic realism’. The narratives are a contemplation of characters from various myths and legends borrowed from the Puranas, Ramayana and various ancient Indian texts. Das gentle and subtly weaves in a personal narrative into these sacred texts in a manner that is nether polemical or loud. One must pay close attention to the artists’ choice of figures and situations to get the personal undertone of her work.

Naturally her paintings draw one’s attention because they operate from a register that many have come to take for granted, that of the Miniatures, to which she lends a contemporary spin. She has executed the works with prodigious skill that she has mastered through intense study of traditional methods of painting in the medieval and early modern period - be it the “miniature” paintings of Persian and Mughal courts or the watercolors of the Bengal School. Having studied under Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and imbibed the narrative school of painting, she has mastered the lexicon of the miniatures. However, while Sheikh’s large format works that openly take a political stance, Das uses a subtler narrative style and adheres to the miniature format.

In several works, she follows the format of traditional storytelling, with long horizontal scrolls that the viewers ‘read’ as they walk. The figures are detached from their original context acting as symbols, gesturing to mythological or sacred texts but not illustrating them. To answer the question of how one is to make sense of contemporary times where proscriptions on behavior and freedoms abound, she turns to beauty rather than expressions of violence to resolve this dilemma.