Artlines, Bloodlines

An exhibition at Delhi’s AIFACS gallery shows how art flows through generations of an artist’s family. Catch the last day of the exhibition of national awardee and folk painter Mahendra Kumar Saxena, whose artworks are being displayed along with those of seven of his grandchildren’s.
Self portrait by Kumar Aryan Saxena
Self portrait by Kumar Aryan Saxena

Ever since Mahendra Kumar Saxena, now 80, was a child, he was fascinated by art.

During festivals like Diwali, his mother would paint the walls of the puja room with scenes from the Ramayana. If it was Janmashtami, she illustrated Krishna being carried by his father Vasudeva through the Yamuna river amid a storm, with Sheshnaga sheltering Krishna from the rain with his immense hood.

These paintings from epics and local folklore were a common sight in Saxena’s house, inspiring him to become an artist and pursue a PhD in folk art. Saxena went on to receive the National Award from President Shankar Dayal Sharma in 1995 for his contributions to art education.

His and his grandchildren’s artworks are now on display at the ‘Kala Varisa’ (journey of art) exhibition, a testament to the endurance and influence of art across generations, at the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) art gallery; it is curated by his son, 50-year-old artist Kumar Vikas Saxena.

An artistic fusion

“Art was everywhere around me because of my mother. I used to observe her, and sometimes help her, so it was quite natural for me to be interested in it. As I deeply studied folk art, I realised that with the newer generation, folk art is losing its importance. Which is why I thought of making something that fuses both folk art and contemporary elements,” he says.

Saxena has lived in Bareilly all his life and draws inspiration from it for his art. In 2020, Saxena started the ‘Rohilkhand ki Basanti Lok Kala,’ a project named after a 1739 migration, when a large settlement of Rohilla Afghans led to the northwestern part of Uttar Pradesh becoming known as Rohilkhand, with Bareilly as its capital. The region experienced warfare and various battles for succession between the Nawab of Awadh against the Rohillas in 1773 and in 1794, and between other local rulers.

Mahendra Kumar Saxena, artist
Mahendra Kumar Saxena, artist

Inspired by this history, Saxena’s ‘Ran Bhumi Ki Or’ artworks depict war stories from the region, infused with contemporary techniques, where he washes the colours in the background over and over again to create different layers. “This way, I can create several dimensions within one painting,” he says.

His ‘Ram Darbar’, too, is an attempt to present the paintings he grew up with, with a modern twist. “I thought, what more could I do? How could I experiment with tradition and contemporary elements?” he recalls. This led him to blend different mediums of expression—painting and printing. “For example, I found a 2012 newspaper featuring a Nano car advertisement, and I drew one of the scenes from the Ramayana on top of it, giving it the feel of a jhanki (tableau) on a car,” he says.

Generations of creativity

The exhibition also features artworks from the third generation of the Saxena family—that of Mahendra Saxena’s grandchildren. While the difference between the generations is apparent—for instance, the use of three-dimensional models, or digital tools like Photoshop or Illustrator for creating artworks—what is evidently common is the love for art in his family across all generations.

Siddhartha Saxena, 26, Mahendra Saxena’s grandson, who is a product designer and is showcasing his 10 wooden installations at the exhibition, says that growing up in an artistic family, art naturally became his medium of expression. “Though I use 3-D models as a contrast to the canvas and paintbrush that my grandfather uses, the inspiration for my art always comes from what is happening around me,” he says, a practice his grandfather also follows.

His ‘Molai Plate Service Plate’, made on African blackwood ingrained with stonework, draws inspiration from its namesake, Jadav Molai Payeng, the activist and forest scientist who turned a sandbar of the Brahmaputra River into a forest reserve called Molai in Assam’s Majuli district. “It took me 22 days to complete this work,” he adds.

The exhibition features artworks by seven of Saxena’s grandchildren. “Though not everyone in our family is an artist by profession, art remains a safe place for all of us, where we feel comfortable. No matter how busy we get, we always take time out for art. We appreciate it deeply and infuse everything we’ve learned into our artwork,” says Saxena’s son, the exhibition’s curator.

‘Kala Varisa’ ends today at AIFACS art gallery, Sansad Marg area, 11am-7pm

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The New Indian Express