Of herbariums, hortoriums and home

It’s an unabashed and delightful celebration of the mediums at Gallery Espace’s latest exhibition ‘Of herbariums, hortoriums and home’. Conceptualised by Renu Modi, the exhibition brings forth a new series of works by veteran artists Paula Sengupta and Nandini Bagla Chirimar. Heavyweights in the traditional medium of printmaking, these artists have come together showcasing contrasting subjects connected by similar mediums. “Both the artists have very strongly retained the textures of printmaking, the discipline they belong to. Moreover, drawing, which is particularly my point of interest, constitutes the major portion of the body of works being exhibited here.” (an excerpt from the conversations between Nandini Chirimar and Paula Sengupta with fellow artist Adip Dutta).

On reading the title of the exhibition, one might expect an oeuvre of foliaged landscapes, the subjects commonly known to be taken up by many artists. But in the hands of artists like Nandini and Paula, these themes have found a novel language, one that would encourage a profound viewing. At one instance, these are group portraits of sporadically coloured vegetal forms by Paula, and at others, one is greeted with the sentimental blueprints of some architectural establishments, figments of Nandini’s memory. It is interesting to see how immensely thematically disparate and intriguingly similar these works are. Both the series have a historical connotation. While Nandini’s practice exudes personal citations, Paula’s work explores a lesser-known history shared by all.

Nandini’s work inspects the constitution of our psychology, a customised configuration of the memory and the present. As part of her indagation ‘Unwritten Wills’, she stipulates on the veracity of legacy. She draws from the spaces we all have lived in, our home and the many conscious and subconscious elements we often seem to carry along, shaping our identity. Situated in Jaipur, the house Nandini grew up in plays the protagonist in this series of work. Its floor plans, the architectural elements including walls, staircases, rooms and bookshelves; objects like birth charts, calendars, letters, doilies, city maps and album covers; plants and the people who have been part of this home including herself- hold a deeper meaning and memory, simultaneously constructing the work. These tangible things aren’t just objects, but powerful characters in the series.

The execution of the work also enhances its nostalgic content. Apart from the Chine-collé, drawing and painting, the inherent qualities of the Japanese Kozo paper and its varied translucency levels bestow a complex layering. Different elements peep from behind the other as if signifying the structure of our memory- a few dormant, others latent. Various grades of pencil, pen, watercolour, etching and Japanese woodblock printing techniques are used to make detailed drawings and areas of colour throughout the work. Gold leaf, thread and small objects are constructively employed; at some instances, the paper is cut, rolled or stacked to make relief work. Majority of the works are on paper, including drawing and print-based works, created using pencil and experimental printing techniques which stretch the boundaries of printmaking during the printing process.

Paula, on the other hand, has always displayed a healthy diet for cultural references, most of the times easily accessible. In this instance though, it unveils itself after a deeper dive. The artist informs that this body of work called ‘Reclaiming Chintz’ are working drawings towards “The Garden of Unreason” that is likely to include overwhelmingly large textile works like canopies, flags, etc. with hybrid vegetal, floral and animal patterns – “a Rousseauesque jungle of illogic and disorder that defies the garden as a space of order.” She references an untold story of India’s loss of its indigenous fabric ‘Chintz’ to the colonial rule. The artist has reimagined the fantastical motifs of the traditional fabric that were largely derived from India’s ‘exotic & wild’ flora & fauna dubbed ‘Dragon Lady, White Queen, Macho Fern etc.’, as per the colonial perspective. The botanical and generic names of the plants make for interesting titles of the works.

The working drawings, almost like portraits, are records in line, tone and colour that the artist has maintained for her own reference, quite similar to colonial botanical drawings, which were executed within a single picture plate also employing similar lines, tones and colours and used for purposes of documentation in an era that preceded photography. ‘The Garden of Aubergines’ in etching and aquatint are the most enthralling. The curves of the reptiles- potentially poisonous or menacing, and birds and bees- instrumental in proliferation follow the rhythm of the flora, essentially sourcing the concept of camouflage, an inherent characteristic of chintz. A lurking, imminent or latent sense of danger persists here. These are the gardens of beauty, but also of danger and unreason.

While Nandini’s work is emotionally visceral exploring memory, Paula’s refers to cultural constricts. The exhibition concurrently traverses on the sense of order and disorder, playing on the dynamic forces placed in conversation with one another.

Cover artwork: Nandini Bagla Chirimar, Blueprint of My Mind.

All images used with permission.