As you take in Shrimanti Saha’s work, it might be natural to get overwhelmed by the multiplicity of layers and narratives. There is a conscious overlapping of time in her intricately detailed artwork. It demands of the viewer to stop focusing on everything else and just concentrate on reading the clues that Saha has scattered for her viewers in a non-linear narrative. The artist references various sources for inspiration, ranging from news reports and Indian miniatures to science fiction, literary criticism, cinema, European art history, comic books, architecture and almanacs, among others. Her multi-narrative works explore “esoteric themes surrounding the Anthropocentric human condition,” states the artist in a statement about her solo show, Reveries in the Atelier, which is being held at the Vadehra Art Gallery, New Delhi, till 14 April. Saha is the winner of the FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art)-Amol Vadehra Grant (2019) Award. The collection of works on display comprises a series of large format oil on linen canvases, mixed media works, and a video installation.
In most of the work, one notices women with long hair, which covers their midriff down to their knees. Though they have been conceptualised as nude, their hair acts as a cover, only leaving the hands and legs visible. According to Saha, the women and their hair are referenced from certain miniature paintings. She has drawn inspiration is a group of Bhakti women poets like Akka Mahadevi, Kamala Das and others, who were essentially sky clad poets and mystics. “I did not want to present the women as nude because that would be read differently and perhaps introduce other gender-politics into the work, which was not my intention,” says Saha.
In the painting titled, The Dance Party, which is a mixed media on paper artwork, one sees women dancing, swimming on a crocodile, playing with eels in the pool and even holding each other down underwater. While their expression does not convey that they are having a party their activity certainly does. Meanwhile, the surrealist forest, surrounding the centerpiece of the women partying (in the same work Dance Party), is peopled by men engaged in the process of collecting large mushrooms, purple berries, and split-open erotic-looking fruit, while bears, monkeys and other animals roam the landscape. Women can be seen engaged in a flight fantasy with paper wings. The surreal nature of the composition is left with neither a point of culmination nor an ending but the narrative ‘continues’.
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Other Paintings like, The Bear Hunt, Fire in the Museum, Monument Formation and City of Djinns present stirred characters implementing haphazard gestures surrounding issues of identity, control, gender, representation and ecology in a kind of theatrical diorama.
“I like to leave things open-ended and there isn’t one particular reading that I prescribe to my work,” says the 36-year-old Saha, who was born in West Bengal, and completed both her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in visual arts and painting from the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Vadodara, in 2009 and 2011 respectively.
While Saha’s engagement with oil painting on linen considers traditions of Euro-centric painting alongside the relevant materiality of oil as a medium, she adopts a more ‘personal voice’.
In one part of the show, Saha presents viewers with a series of analogue, hand-drawn animations. The three short pieces are titled The Secret Matriarchy, Bulldozer Babu and Clash of Perspectives. The first narrative recreates an alternative origin story where the female dinosaurs lay the eggs and women are the last survivors of the rain of fire.
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The other piece features the Bengali Babu, blown up by the British as he floats over the landscape, only to be popped by a tribal man with a spear. It addresses inequalities in feudal systems. The animation pieces are a play of comedy and irrationality through sound and moving images on subjects that she otherwise deals with more ‘clinically’ in her painting. Saha’s exhibition is engaging and it does throw light on her process that was honed during the FICA grant. She took the lockdown period for intensive studio work, self-reflection and growth.