Updated: Oct 2, 2021
by Ranjan Kaul
I have been a regular visitor to the Art Heritage Gallery housed in the Triveni Kala Sangam complex in New Delhi – it provides a much-needed escape from the hustle-bustle of daily life. With few good physical art exhibitions being held in the city, the recent well-curated shows in the basement gallery have been a veritable treat for the eyes longing to see good art.
The ongoing show titled “Liminal Worlds” showcases the works of two emerging women artists, Sunanda Khajuria and Gouri Vemula. The exhibition has been thoughtfully curated by Mrs Amal Allana and appropriately lit by Tariq Allana. At first glance, the exhibits of the two artists appear starkly different – Gouri’s sombre and free pen-and-ink delineations and muted coloured works contrast with Sunanda's neatly rendered, vibrantly coloured paintings. However, we quickly realize that this is only at the surface – as we explore the works more closely, we soon discover that there is a close thematic connectivity between the works of the two accomplished women artists. As the curatorial note says, “a common thread that allows us to view the works of Sunanda and Gouri alongside one another is that they both create liminal spaces – transient dream-like worlds, wherein their protagonists reside.”
An enlarged print of Gouri’s captivating work, So Sorry, with the actual work sitting over it, immediately arrests your attention, even as you turn your head to see a glistening recent work by Sunanda in green and red and blue titled, Still I Rise (2021), beckoning you in. For the show, the gallery has been partially partitioned into two halves dedicated to the works of the two artists and yet allowing easy flow from one part to the other.
Left photo courtesy Art Heritage and Right photo courtesy Ranjan Kaul
Gallery view of “Liminal Worlds”
Drawing inspiration from the forest nearby her home and indigenous traditions of Indian traditional iconography, Gouri creates a magical, fantasy world where real and imagined chimeric creatures sit around or roam uninhibitedly, sometimes peeking through, sometimes camouflaged within the foliage, and at other times, asserting distinctive identities. The artist’s initial training and practice as a printmaker – she completed her MFA from Sarojini Naidu School of Art, Hyderabad, along with a Drawing Master’s course – becomes clearly evident in her skilled compositions. While she borrows from nature, rural and urban settings, and iconography, what makes her work compelling and unique is that in each of her works there is a close and harmonious intermingling and interconnectedness of the creatures and human figures with the landscape settings.
Gouri Vemula, Untitled, 2010, Mixed media
The human figures are more prominent in her earlier figures, as for example in the untitled work above completed in 2010. But the intermingling had already begun in the work, set amidst the rural landscape habitat with flowering cherry blossoms representing the cycle of life. The figures in the background inside and outside the dwellings merge seamlessly with the walls and the interiors, while the figure in the foreground on the motorcycle becomes an intrinsic, contiguous part of the motorcycle – the colour palette used for the setting is carried onto the machine. We see a similar interconnectedness in her larger coloured work done later in 2017 (see below), where she depicts an illusory world where humans, animals and other creatures happily in peace and tranquillity.
In both her mutely coloured, mixed media works and black-and-white and sepia-toned art, Vemula makes effective use of negative spaces to bring in an element of drama to these serene surroundings, thereby allowing relief to viewers from the overpowering detailing. Her earlier monochromatic works of 2010 mostly portrayed humans, but even then the horse heads suddenly started making an inconspicuous appearance (see the bottom figure below). The motorcycle again makes an appearance in the work shown on the top; whether it is urbanization or machines, in her liminal world, Vemula seems to be uncomplainingly accepting of modern development.
Gouri Vemula, Untitled, 2017, Mixed media
Gouri Vemula, Untitled, 2017, Mixed media
(Photo credit: Ranjan Kaul)
Gouri Vemula, Untitled, 2018, Pen, pencil & ink on paper
In a later work (2018) seen above the chimeric creatures more or less take over the canvas living in harmony with the pond and foliage of a rural world; the urban habitat rendered in more muted tones is seen in the distance between the gap in the foliage. I asked Gouri what prompted her in the first place to create these chimeric beings; she replied: “I started to merge the elements of human and animal when I started observing the similarities between them . . . the elements of nature merge with the elements of humanity.”
In this particular work, the interconnectedness gets further accentuated with the playful reflection of the urban dwellings in the fading distance in the pond in the forest. There is only a human being we see, looking back at the town he left behind but now seemingly comfortable in the lap of nature, perhaps indicative of a call to go back to the natural order of things.
Gouri Vemula, So Sorry, 2019
Gouri Vemula’s "So Sorry " is perhaps her most compelling work wherein the chimeric creatures are clearly at unease, unlike those in other works; at the same time, she injects an amusing touch with an annoying insect buzzing around the ears of the third figure from the left. The artist explains that her work, “ 'So Sorry' is a visual form of an inner voice saying sorry in various ways – some loud, some subtly. All the figures are disturbed because they are sorry about something.” She doesn’t say what they are sorry about, but all the figures are seemingly distraught and holding onto the ears. When I asked what urged her to create the work, Gouri harked back to her childhood when holding the ears was the way to apologize; the choice of the horse heads for the chimeric characters, she clarified, was because “during my school days, when I was in sports, I was often compared to a horse.” Unlike most of her works which are “Untitled', it is helpful for the viewer that this work is given one – it makes it so much easier to comprehend the work (and I would encourage the artist to take this as a suggestion for the future).
Sunanda Khajuria’s works too are inspired by her connectivity with nature, especially the mountains, but she depicts a more urbanized environment with small dwellings and influences from her travels to foreign lands. Unlike the feel of perspective and distancing we sense in Gouri’s art, Sunanda uses flat, contrasting colours to bring alive her seemingly subjects and other mysterious and seemingly unconnected symbolic elements. Born in Panthal, about 50 km from Jammu, after completing her master’s from the College of Art, Delhi, she participated in an advance research program at the China Academy of Fine Art, Hangzhoum, where she also learned Chinese traditional art. She also later travelled widely, engaged in art residencies and other projects in different parts of the globe – Australia, Italy, Russia, Tanzania, besides China – and she draws inspiration from her experiences and travels in these diverse cultures. However, it is Chinese art and culture that has been a major influence, especially in her earlier works executed in soft muted colours, as seen in The Silent One. The slipper and shoes, birds, feathers, fish would become recurring motifs in her later works to represent flight and movement.
Sunanda Khajuria, The Silent One, 2015, Natural pigment and Chinese ink on silk
Sunanda Khajuria, 2019, Search for the Truth, Diptych, Acrylic on canvas
As we can see in Search of Truth above, in her later works as well, she continues to include visual elements to represent travel. While the women wear headdresses imbued with symbols (in this case a sheep head with long horns), the large shoes under the table include elements such as the horse with the rider and fish that reflect movement. An inconspicuous rocking toy horse on the top of the chair drew my attention.
This is what Sunanda had to say about its significance: “The toy horse again represents my childhood memories, and the symbolic representation of the real horse is about a never-ending, wonderful journey. We go through the path of happiness and sorrow throughout our life, searching for the invisible truth. The search for truth is not the purpose of life, but it is like a never-ending wonderful journey for me.” Hillocks and village homes are also recurring motifs in her work, which she saw from her trips to Wuhan in China and from impressions she carries with her from her home near Jammu.
The colours suddenly become contrastingly bold and vibrant in Search of the Truth when compared with her earlier soft, muted works executed on silk screen. Personally, I find the colours a bit too loud for my aesthetic sensibilities and in my view conflict with the underlying deeper meanings embedded in her work. Sunanda says her choice of colour is instinctual and spontaneous and that the vibrancy came about after her visit to Tanzania where she interacted with the local community; she adds that Indian miniatures have also played a role in her developing the brighter palette. Interweaving Indian iconography, she paints clouds (and aeroplanes) to represent desire. To quote her, “In the same way that clouds can make a sky beautiful, our desires add to the substance of our lives; both are unstoppable and intangible; they can overcome barriers without difficulty and travel continuously.”
Sunanda explains that all her work is influenced by the philosophy of Taoism where she strives to balance the positive and negative energies while entering into a dialogue with space and time. The contrasting colours, according to her, reflect the positive and negative, the latter being illusory and thus elusive. Perhaps, it is for this reason, though she was deeply affected by the pandemic (evacuated from Wuhan and forced into isolation), her art still retained its vibrancy.
Sunanda Khajuria, The End and the Beginning, 2021, Acrylic on canvas
Sunanda Khajuria, I Ask My Mother to Sing, 2021, Acrylic on canvas
In the above two recent works painted during the pandemic, Sunanda adopts a relatively a more harmonious and maturer palette, eschewing the deep pink of In Search of the Truth; green – the symbol of fertility and maternity – becomes pronounced. Explaining the significance of the sheep in The End and the Beginning, she said: “Sheep have a long history of being used in the interpretation of ancient characters. Here in this painting, I used ‘sheep’ as a symbol of sacrifice, benevolence, justice, fairness, kindness, and harmony. Sheep are innocent and sacred animals that like to live in groups, but when I came to Delhi from Wuhan during the pandemic, I had to live in isolation. This experience was new and strange . . . I have taken the help of sheep to express my mood, which I am myself in.”
Both Sunanda and Gouri Vemula use the motif of cherry blossoms, which work well as a connecting thread among other commonalities in the overarching thematic of the show. Sunanda clarified what they represented for her: “Cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower of the spring, a time of renewal, and the fleeting nature of life. Their lives are very short. After their beauty peaks for around two weeks, the blossoms start to fall. The cherry blossoms represent the enthusiasm and hope that came to me after looking at the clouds from the window during my isolation period after returning from Wuhan.”
Childhood toys keeps reappearing in Sunanda’s works - we encountered the rocking horse toy In Search for the Truth, we see a rocker here again in The End and the Beginning. “During isolation, it was very difficult to spend time alone. I found myself between hope and despair. Then I started remembering my childhood memories,” Sunanda said. “I started thinking about my childhood toys. Here in this painting, the rocking toy symbolizes a very special meaning to me . . . It reminds me of the best times of my life that I spent with my family.”
Mountains too are recurring motifs – in I Ask My Mother to Sing her mother is weaving a cloth that resemble a mountain, “but it is actually her old memories,” the artist explained, “and the bridge symbolizes the link between the past and the future.” For her – because there were small mountains in her hometown near Jammu and she also studied Chinese mountain painting – mountains are symbolic of time and motion. The long-necked swan, on the other hand, acts as a messenger, opening a dialogue between the artist and her mother.
G. Reghu, 2017, Mother and Child 4, Ceramic sculpture
A welcome inclusion in the show are the ceramic sculptures of G. Reghu, peeping through from the corners, like Vemula’s chimeric characters from the foliage, or at times more prominently displayed. Besides providing a refreshing change from the works on the wall, the sculptures harmonize equally well – in fact, I found the stylized shape of the heads of the sculptures uncannily reminiscent of Gouri’s chimeric forms. The placement of the sculptures and lighting is deliberate to allow for an enchanting shadow-play. However, in the excitement to add the sculptures, the curator may have perhaps got carried away in one instance – to find place for a Reghu head, Gouri’s dozen zodiac works included in the show I felt have been somewhat crowded in. Otherwise, the flow of the gallery design and the mix of white and yellow lighting are excellently executed and do full justice to the works of the two artists.
If you are looking for a haven that can give you peace, solace and healing to overcome the trauma of the pandemic, Liminal Worlds is the place to go. I am amazed how the two artists have been able to completely cocoon themselves to create their marvellous worlds. This is wishful thinking but it would be interesting to see the two talented artists venturing out into the big bad real world in the future to depict in their own idiom, issues such as climate change, the suffering and disruption caused by the pandemic, or the strife and toxicity we witness daily.
The show remains open till 23 October 2021, from Mondays through Saturdays, 11 am to 7 pm.
Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.
His art can be viewed on www.ranjankaul.com