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Durga Kainthola: My Visual Theatre

Durga Kainthola is a renowned Indian artist. Born in Kolkata in 1962, she completed her BFA from Sir JJ School of Art, Bombay (now Mumbai), in 1987 and MFA from MS University, Baroda, in 1989. She has exhibited her works in many prestigious galleries across the country and abroad. Showcasing her first solo show at Gallery Romain Rolland, Alliance Française, New Delhi, in 1995, she has put up 12 solo shows till date. Her most recent solo show “Documenting Art Through the Ages” was at the Pune Art Festival in 2019. Her works have been featured at many international exhibitions, festivals and biennale in India, Poland, Jerusalem, Florence, Hong Kong and Russia. Her works are in many private collections in India and abroad. She is the recipient of many awards and international nominations.

She works in multiple mediums to create mixed media paintings, installations, and sculptures. She has been the subject of artistic film projects and has been behind the lens and in the production team of many such art films. World Within Me is a documentary of her art practice over the years.

1. When did you decide and what prompted you to become an artist? Please give a brief account of your challenges and struggles in your journey as an artist. Any role models?

DK: I decided on pursuing an art career very early in life – I’d say in my childhood itself. No one in my family was into art of any kind. The entire credit goes to my most liberal parents and extraordinarily supportive siblings. No one understood art or talked about it, but they’d all say, “Aacha hai! Very good,” for anything I attempted. My school teachers were most discouraging and regarded art as a meaningless subject. Fortunately, when I was in class 8 or so, the Principal of my school employed a good art teacher, Mr Ramesh Panchpande. He liked my work and advised me to appear for the Elementary and Secondary Drawing Grade examination that was a prerequisite to gain admission to Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay (Mumbai). Thus I began my art education in 1982. I had excellent teachers for my BFA course there, and later, when I joined the School of Art for my MFA in M.S. University, Baroda, I was fortunate to get the guidance of Nasreen Mohammedi, who became my role model. Like my mother, she too would let me fly and would say “paint the way you want”. Most of my evenings from 1987-89 onward were spent with her at her house which I called Shwetamber – white sari, white walls, white cupboard; her simplicity as a human inspired me to be myself.

Because of the tutelage I received, I didn’t really have to undergo struggles or face challenges – there were none actually. I just moved on, learning something from all I met on my creative journey.

Durga Kainthola with her school art teacher, Mr Ramesh Panchpande

2. What art project(s) are you working on currently? What is your inspiration or motivation for this?

DK: I’m presently working on a “Mother Goddess” series of sculpture in terracotta, referencing related ancient works. I’m also working on a series of still-life works based on imagery from a fort in Agra, where the walls have several murals of the same subject. My inspiration is history and contemporary subjects, documenting anything that catches my attention.

Mother/Fertility Goddess, a series of works in terracotta

Restructuring Life, 2020, during the lockdown

Neel Gagan, 8 inches diameter, natural pigments, watercolor on handmade paper, November 2020

(The painting depicts the beauty of the earth and illustrates its crux through the beautiful cloudy sky, mountain, water, trees and birds, symbolizing peace and freedom, using the essence of various styles of miniature painting such as schools of Persian, Mughal, Rajasthan, Pahari, etc.)

3. Contemporary art has become very diverse and multidisciplinary in the last few decades. Do you welcome this trend? Is this trend part of your art practice?

DK. I've always welcomed the changes that come with each decade. Technology always inspires me and I often add to or modify my work with technological advancements. My progress goes hand in hand with advancements of time. My work over the last two decades has always seen a reflection of technology (digital printing). I do believe that our work is a reflection of our personality and surroundings, enhanced with our experiences as we grow up.

Pages from My Sketchbook, 11 inches × 11 inches each, mixed media on handmade rice paper, 2017

Warhol and the History of Art, 4 inches × 6 inches each, serigraph and gouache on paper, 2008

Clockwise from top left: Procreation, sculpture/installation; Tales of Battered Soul and Wounded Womb, sculpture; Glory Of The Past, found objects and collaborated textile technique with weavers, 2015-2018; Emperor Babur , tapestry, 2015, 8 feet x 5 feet (textile techniques in collaboration with weavers)

4. Does art have a social purpose or is it more about self-expression?

DK: Art has played a significant role in human progress - both at the social and individual levels - through the ages. When artists are young, they look around for ideas for self-expression, and with time social concerns do find their way into their work. It is impossible to keep one’s eyes shut with what is happening around the world, especially when there are events of all kinds occurring within one's surroundings.

"Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? – Paul Gauguin", 2017

Triptych 47 inches × 90 inches, acrylic, embroidery, sequins, gold threads and charcoal on canvas

Showcased at Jerusalem Biennale 2017

Absence of War, 48 inches × 67 inches, barbed wire, wooden stick, aluminum cast pistol, aluminum hanger, cotton shirt with sequins and wooden dial

Showcased at Jerusalem Biennale 2017

5. Where do you create your art (workplace / studio)? What is your process?

DK: I do not create art but I ‘re-create’. I am constantly brimming with ideas, wanting to experiment and learn. I have no fixed time or place; I work in my studio and at home. I do miniature painting at home and the rest of the work I do in my studio. I work with various media and the final outcome takes the form of a painting, an installation or a piece of sculpture, but what is common to all of them is that they are all referenced from history.

Tapestry process on 2015-08-16 at 4.26.42 pm

Working on miniatures

In studio with Chastity Belt Bikini sculpture

Catharsis – Tales of battered soul and wounded womb, Performance, 2013

A scroll where public could sign and draw to express views, India Gate, 2012

6. To what extent will the world of art change in the post-Covid period – both in terms of what is created as also the business of art?

DK: Covid -19 followed by the lockdown was an unusually surreal experience – the roads felt haunted without humans, the dogs were quiet as they did not feel threatened by humans.

The pandemic gave me the opportunity to start working once again on what I’d ended in 1998: the abstract “Earth series”. Another work I took up was a painting for Mojarto’s ORA of Amrita Sher-Gill with found objects that had been lying around the house, forgotten and unfinished since 2004. I travelled all the way to Chamba (Himachal Pradesh) to re-learn the technique of traditional miniature painting under the tutelage of Kangra miniature artist Padmashri Vijay Sharma. Hence my recent works have been more of an accomplishment of re-learning and re-creating and the pandemic was in fact for me a boon in disguise.

Earth series

Portrait of an Artist, Amrita Sher-Gill, 2020

I don’t think much has really changed. Artists who were serious about art are still working but, yes, the pandemic, accompanied by the lockdown, has given artists time to reflect retrospectively regarding their art practice. The business of art is for galleries, art dealers and auction houses, but for the past decade or so, artists too have begun talking the language of business to sell their products. And if you are successful in selling, galleries chase them. Nowadays, a beautifully and intelligently displayed object, in an aesthetic enclosure, philosophically explained and expressed with reference to western philosophy, is seen as a great work of art.

As a student of art, I grew up looking at exhibitions in Mumbai – the works of Shri Palsikar, Rao Bhadur Dhurandhar, Sudhir Patwardhan, Tyeb Mehta, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee among many other senior artists. They talk about their work with carefully measured words and not like salespersons. Since 1992, I grew up as an artist listening to V.S. Gaitonde and Ram Kumar and other artists, who spoke about art in general and there was a lot to learn from them. I’m much calmer now since I’ve seen art and studied artists very closely and I’m not interested in the rat-race. I often recite to myself the poem I learned in school titled “Leisure” by W.H. Davies when I see artists running around chasing illusory dreams and missing out on so many beautiful things that life gives us: “What is this life if, full of care / We have no time to stand and stare. . . .”

7. Tell us about any other interest you may have besides your art practice . Does it get reflected

in your art?

DK: I absolutely love travelling, to places of all kinds. The enriching experience and learning that travel provides is unparalleled. I also love gardening and my mornings are spent in admiration of my terrace garden, which has transformed into a small jungle, and preparing drinks out of the flowers I grow. My interest in history reflects in my art practice since my work is reference based. I have also done Travelogue Diaries, as a reflection of my journey, documenting anything that catches my attention.

Travelogue Diaries, 9 inches × 10 inches, gouache, silver and gold foil, readymade Kite paper cutouts

(travelling is not about just sight-seeing but visiting the local market/night market and

collecting local folk art to learn and re-create)

Home-grown flowers transformed to a cool drink

(All images are courtesy of the artist, Durga Kainthola.)


The artamour questionnaire is a regular series of interviews with visual artists across disciplines, who share their views about art, their practice and their worldview on a common questionnaire template. Like, comment, share and subscribe to stay updated.

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