Each inch of N.S. Harsha’s canvas tells a story. A viewer needs to look closely to see narratives, imbued with both humour and pathos, unfurl in the paintings.
In Emission Test, for instance, you initially feel you are looking at rows upon rows of people sitting for RT-PCR tests. Yet each person is a story—in the objects they carry, their dress and demeanour markers of their personalities. There is a sense of vulnerability about some, with their hunched-up bodies, clenched hands and faraway looks. But Harsha brings in a comical touch as well, with one of the sample collectors painting clouds around an empty chair, another feeding parrots, and so on. As you see an elderly man carrying a turtle on a leash share the canvas with a person dressed as a king, you also realise that Harsha is trying to show how covid-19 has been a social equaliser of sorts.
It is paintings such as this, set in the present moment, that form part of his new show, Stomach Studio, at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi. “Drawing on resemblances across time to the painted panoramas of the East, temple architectural ornamentation of lesser beings, schoolroom charts, quotidian acts of a rural economy or the schemata of the Indian miniature, Harsha creates a polyphony of portraits. Seemingly repeated in endless fashion, these nevertheless bear the consistency of music notes, all similar but different,” writes art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha in an essay, The Worlding Of The Portrait, about the show.
Harsha’s works have always drawn on deeply personal moments and placed them within a wider sociopolitical framework. His keen observation of the minute is evident in Back Home, which captures a night in the life of migrant workers—a boy and a dog huddled around a fire, a baby attempting to play in the most dismal of surroundings, a girl studying... “Most of my works evolve out of an everyday moment. It could be a visual or an experience from life. For me, ‘art’ is paying attention to these moments. In this process, art amplifies these private images and makes them part of a much larger collective human experience,” he says.
It’s an interesting choice of title, one that is rooted in a personal memory. Once, he took a friend from Australia to his studio and then to his house for lunch. His mother, standing in the kitchen, asked Harsha where they had been. “I said we were coming back from my studio. She immediately turned to my friend and said, ‘Welcome to my stomach studio.’ We all burst out laughing. She hardly speaks English. But sometimes she makes two words come together beautifully,” he says. The phrase “stomach studio” stayed with him.
One of the paintings, made during the early days of the pandemic-induced isolation, also gets its title from this play of words and revolves around surreal culinary events—a cooking class gone wild.
Elements of folklore are palpable in some of the works—reflections of the stories of mice and the rope, the falling sky, and others we had heard as children. “Many of the folk traditions are rooted in the fundamental aspects of life. They offer a quality of awareness which is neither bound by ‘time’ nor ‘space’. These eternal qualities in folk traditions inspire me,” he says, going on to emphasise that there is no direct reference to any particular story in his works.
He picks up cues from the books he reads, the places he visits. For instance, a 2018 visit to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum in Sydney, Australia, which highlights the life of convicts, led to Secular Bites. There, he found burrows and nests of rats preserved to show the actual misery of life in the barracks. “These visuals inspired me to paint Secular Bites—how nature takes back all the social, political or religious values created by humans. For example, the rats could hardly ever recognise the difference between the uniform of a convict or an officer,” he says. “Informed by this experience, I became a rat in front of my canvas and started chewing all the patterns which I had earlier thought of as of ‘value’.”
Stomach Studio is on view till 2 May at Vadehra Art Gallery, D-53, Defence Colony, Delhi.