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Playing with miniature painting traditions

An ongoing show at Kaash creates a new visual language within the miniature painting traditions, and blurs the line between art and design

Riyazuddin shows gods at play, such,as Ganesha enjoying the rain. Photos: courtesy Kaash
Riyazuddin shows gods at play, such,as Ganesha enjoying the rain. Photos: courtesy Kaash

When you think of miniature paintings, vibrance and luminosity come to mind. You find yourself transported to royal courts of Rajasthan or Kangra, with processions, festivities and hunting scenes rendered beautifully by the artists during the 17th-18th centuries. However, Kaash, a cultural institution in Bengaluru, is offering a departure from the idea of ‘vintage’ when it comes to miniatures by showcasing some rather unique contemporary interpretations of visual traditions from the Surpur and Rajput school of Pahari paintings. Titled Play: Experiments with Indian Miniatures, the show features works by artists like Riyazuddin, Vijay Siddramappa Hagargundgi, and Gargi Chandola. The idea is not just to create a new visual language within the miniature painting traditions but also to blur the lines between art and design by creating ‘collectible craft’.

Design intervention in craft

Play turns the concept of illumination in miniatures on the head in Riyazuddin’s painted leather works. Traditionally, miniatures, especially the Mughal ones, have had a legacy of exquisitely illuminated margins or hashiyas. Kaash offers a design intervention by placing the Jaipur-based artist’s works in lit-up boxes, offering a different kind of luminosity to the miniatures. Placed against a black background, these intricate works painted directly on untreated leather become gleaming storyboards, showcasing gods and deities at play. So, you have Radha-Krishna lighting up phuljhadis and Ganesha enjoying the rain.

The show is an extension of Kaash’s ethos of working with artists and craftspersons, who are hands-on with indigenous material. “Craftspersons are fantastic at carrying forth centuries-old legacies. The gap lies in bringing in a certain design intervention within their practice,” says Manju Sara Rajan, founding team member, Kaash. Having done a show on leather puppetry in the past, Kaash wanted to further its engagement with the material. “And that’s how the idea of illuminating leather came about. You turn on the lights in the box, and it is a piece of design and a functional object. You turn them off, and you have a lovely miniature—a work of art. We see ourselves as catalysts for craftspersons, who are willing to experiment,” she adds.

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The show—the most challenging yet at Kaash—also hopes to change the colonial perception of craft, which is ascribed a lower value than art and design. “When it comes to craft, thanks to the colonial gaze and lack of patronage, there has been a break in the progression of innovation, which could have taken place otherwise. Hence, through Play, we want to assure artists like Riyazuddin to express freely, while we figure out the design technology. This has led to a great partnership,” elaborates Rajan.

Play offers a series of revelations as well, such as through Vijay Siddramappa Hagargundgi’s work. The 66-year-old artist and scholar, based in Gulbarga, Karnataka, trained in techniques of miniature painting in Jaipur and later researched the Surpur murals, done in the style of Vijayanagar murals. In his practice, he has brought elements from the two together, thus creating a visual language of his own. His work is now part of museum and private collections across the world.

Sridhar Poddar, founder, Kaash, was visiting a friend when he came across Hagargundgi’s work and urged him to visit Kaash in Bengaluru. “Vijay ji had stopped doing colour work some years ago. We asked him to come to Kaash to see if he could relate to the space,” says Rajan. He ended up staying for a two-month-long residency and creating some rather significant works of art. “When you see the work, you don’t need anyone to tell you why it is so important. In a video, which plays in the gallery, you can see him applying tiny squares of gold leaf on gesso. It takes four weeks, and more, to produce a single work. The characters, facial expressions and hand gestures are just so unique,” she adds.

To me, the most significant of Hagargundgi’s creations are his line drawings. They don’t just offer keen insights into his process but are significant works of art in their own right. Lyrical and poetic, they demonstrate an unparalleled and steady rhythm of the hand. The highlight is his ink on paper drawing, titled Bhagirathaprayatnam, which shows the penance of Bhagiratha and his endeavours to bring the Ganges to Earth.

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An immersive experience

Hagargundgi’s colour works are juxtaposed with large-scale projections of 28 rarely seen south Indian miniatures from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. The intention was to create a connection between tradition and modernity. “The V&A presentation is one aspect of the custom-designed world that’s been created around the works of each artist in the PLAY show. It is part of KAASH’s continued effort to create immersive experiences around its exhibitions, so there is a multi-sensorial quality that allows viewers to understand and appreciate works more wholesomely,” states the exhibition note. One of the highlights is the painting of Ardhanarishvara from 1850, which stands out for the use of colour. The exhibition has been designed by architect David Joe Thomas. According to Rajan, for each exhibition, the team works with guest designers to create an environment around the artworks.

Large-scale projections of 28 rarely seen south Indian miniatures from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Large-scale projections of 28 rarely seen south Indian miniatures from the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The exhibition ends with Gargi Chandola’s works. A self-taught artist, who lives in New Delhi, and works on paper, zines and murals, she is currently training under the masters of the Pahari school of painting to combine those elements with the flights of her imagination. In one of the works on display, Peeps and Peels, you can see a woman lying in a bed of peels in the middle of a forest, with monkeys peeping out from behind the trees. “She has used metaphors from traditional miniature paintings and made them contemporary in a fun, sensual way. The narrative is so fresh and modern. This is where the possibilities lie—you don’t have to tell old tales but today’s stories that connect with feminism, man versus nature, power of sensuality, sexual energy using age-old techniques that have so much provenance,” says Rajan.

Play: Experiments with Indian Miniatures is on view at Kaash, Shanti Nagar, Bengaluru, till 15 November

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