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Drawing inspiration from the mountains and the power of the crowd

In a world of social media promotion, art residencies help artists slow down, connect with one another and focus on their work

Uttarakhand’s high Himalayas provide the perfect backdrop for an art residency and a calm vacation spent painting and creating.
Uttarakhand’s high Himalayas provide the perfect backdrop for an art residency and a calm vacation spent painting and creating. (iStock)

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Artists often create in solitude, in personal studios or a dedicated space where there is little distraction and disturbance. It’s only when they exhibit that they usually connect with an audience and with peers. Another space for interaction, networking, collaboration and the creation of a sense of community is the art residency. Here, artists understand each other’s successes and challenges, both big and small, inspire one another and share knowledge, resources and skills. An example of this was the fifth edition of Chitrashaala, a week-long international art residency held in February at Justa Mukteshwar Retreat and Spa in Uttarakhand. This year, the annual residency had 49 participants, 29 from India and 20 from across the globe. 

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From a career perspective, in a world driven by online networking, I wondered how an art residency could make a difference. I got a part of my answer with what I saw early in the morning. Sunrise in Mukteshwar is around 6.15a.m. and the property overlooks the majestic Nanda Devi Mountain of the Himalayan range. Despite the bone-chilling cold, several artists were already setting up to paint—in the patch of sun overlooking the mountains, under the staircase of a block of rooms surrounded by flowers, in the cosy glass-walled meeting hall strewn with cushions—alongside artists whose work they found interesting. It facilitated conversations and learning, even if they needed a friend to interpret at times. 

“Barriers come down and artists can talk about their work far more comfortably than if they were to make an appointment to meet a peer or a critic in their formal workspace,” said Anirudh Chari, the curator of Chitrashaala, since its first edition in 2015. “A week-long residency offers artists access to people and their expertise for a sustained period, allowing for deeper conversations, over meals, a drink and in between work.”

Oslo-based professional ceramic artist Hanne Haukom had set up next to the accomplished Poland-based painter Joanna Trzcińska. Haukom’s experience with patterns, compositions and colours encouraged her to try her hand at painting. “Painting is a new form of expression for me. I have gotten braver with it but I am slow. I have to watch, think and then work,” said Haukom, who has participated in almost all editions of Chitrashaala. “Everywhere, people have this need to express themselves, but the way they do it is so varied. It comes from their culture and their unique sense of aesthetics. Interacting with people at such residencies leaves a mark on your subconscious mind and it has helped me express myself better,” she said.

“Every Chitrashaala is unique because it entails fresh insights, dialogues and initiatives. Artists from various parts of the world come together and provide different perspectives. It helps us understand different cultures, styles, techniques, mindsets,” said Ashish Vohra, founder and CEO of Justa Hotels and Resorts. He and Deepika Govind, a fashion designer and co-founder and head of design at Justa, began these residencies in 2015 with the idea to bring together artists and let them take a break, be inspired by their surroundings and produce great art.

Artists had to present their body of work to the residency community each evening to understand the work and techniques of the others. “It is also an opportunity for younger artists to present their works before an audience (accomplished and of varied skill sets) that they would not normally get,” said Chari. “Unfortunately, galleries tend to follow market trends and over the last 30 years or so, conceptual art has gained prominence over the traditional forms,” said Chari, explaining that residencies were a means for artists to gain exposure to different forms of art.

As Dhananjay Ghosh, a hyper-real artist from Kolkata, made his presentation, which included a painting of a plastic bag of red onions on a table, his fellow artists had many questions about the detailing, the play of light and visual accuracy of viewing onions through the crumpled layers of a plastic bag.

The applause continued when Sharmin Akter Lina from Bangladesh presented her watercolours depicting scenes from the old city of Dhaka. At the end of Jordanian Othman Ahmad’s documentary, which encapsulated the evolution of his art through the making of a puppet, the fact that Ahmed barely spoke the common language of English became immaterial. And when Weaam Ahmed Elmasry, a Cairo-based lecturer at the Modern Sciences and Arts University, told everyone that the only time she draws faces is when she doesn’t like a person, it made for a good laugh. Every form of expression had the support of a like-minded community. 

Younger artists like 24-year-old Lobzang Zangpo, from Bhutan, a degree-holder in visual arts from Beacon House in Lahore, have embraced diversification. He has worked as a mixed media artist, a production designer for a short film on women’s empowerment, in photography and art-based projects for interior-designing. In Bhutan, he has made a living through his painting and art. “I didn’t expect to see so many artists here at the residency but I am glad. Most others here are into abstract art and I enjoy speaking with them. I am learning from them and hope they learn something from me too,” he said.

And while experimenting and diversifying are paths artists are exploring, Chari has also observed possible collaborations in the making. “This time Elmasry, Dina Ahmed Anwar Hussein and Dina Mohamed Ali El Said Madkour, all from Egypt had a strong feminist element to their work. They were quite taken up by the art of Rutika Deshpande, a visual artist from Nagpur and Pooja Shah, a Masters student from Vadodara, who were part of the residency. I would not be surprised if Deshpande and Shah are invited to Egypt later in the year to collaborate on a women-centric project,” he said. “It’s all about linkages being built.” 

Ruth Dsouza Prabhu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. She attended Chitrashaala on invitation from Justa Hotels & Resorts.

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