At the Rittenhouse Square Fine Arts Show held September last year in Philadelphia, one of the oldest outdoor art exhibits in the US, there was a particular art piece that caught several visitors' attention. It was a huge black-and-white canvas titled 'Dawn' that depicted an idyllic river scene with a droopy tree on its bank, flying birds, fishes, water lilies and idling cranes. The work stood out there mainly because it was in Warli style, an art form practiced by tribal people from the North Sahyadri range in Maharashtra.
The artist, Rinal Parikh, the sole Indian-origin participant in the show, says the folk art has always drawn her audience to look closer and appreciate the stories within it. "I often get the question if the work is done with pen and ink or embroidery on cloth," she says. The stories on her canvas are of her life in New Jersey, with picnics and camping scenes with her family, and birds from her backyard filling up the canvases.
Not only Warli, but Parikh has also included Madhubani and Kalamkari traditions in her oeuvre. "After years of practising, I have now developed my signature style which is a blend of mainly Warli, Madhubani and Kalamkari in a contemporary approach. I enjoy articulating subjects of birds and animals, stories of childhood or anything that evokes joy within me." Parikh, who hails from Ahmedabad, is part of a growing legion of new Indian artists who are using Indian traditions to tell stories of their lives in the US.
Take, for instance, Michigan-based Madhurima Ganguly who brings the tradition of henna and alta (red dye applied on hands and feet of women) to her canvas. She has female figures central to her art. The women have hairy limbs and crimson red coating on their hands and feet. “I am a Bengali. We use alta on hands and feet as an auspicious symbol. So, I put alta and red bindi on my figures and get plenty of questions on why I do so.” Even though she completed her Master’s in Fine Arts from Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata, ironically, Ganguly never “loved or connected with” Indian art back then. Her influences were Dada (the European art movement that was started as a result of the World War) and surrealism. It was after she moved to the US, a decade back, along with her husband that she tried finding her roots through her art. “In a foreign country, my art was the only known thing I had, so I started to invent myself through it.” She counts Mughal miniatures, Bundi, Kangra, Bhasoli paintings as her inspirations for the way they use composition, colours and depict mythology. “I can relate to them—they are my roots.”
The bond with their roots becomes stronger for an artist in a foreign setting. Aditi Hazra, based in Washington DC, is the daughter of famous Indian artist Paresh Hazra. She pursued art through Kala Bhavana, Santiniketan, and later at Maryland Institute College of Art. “Having a part of me steeped in traditional Indian art has been a blessing. But I keep myself open-minded and adaptable to the flow of knowledge and ideas, and it helps me to experiment.”
What eventually happens, as with all the ‘desis’ living outside India, is the blending of both the worlds. Nirali Thakkar, who got her MFA from the University of South California and teaches at Santa Ana College, initially found it difficult to transition, primarily because she loved to paint people. “My life here was so isolated that I understand why Edward Hopper’s paintings show so much loneliness. Mumbai is so full of life, if you look outside the window, you will witness so many interesting characters.”
Ganguly believes the uncertainty of life during the pandemic has entered her works. Hazra thanks the plethora of assets in the US to explore animation and conceptual art that has assisted her in communicating with the audience, especially during the pestilence. She incorporates traditional motifs like the lotus which are executed in a contemporary style often as a paper cutting or she paints it.
But what makes these artists’ works so appealing? Fifty-year-old Dorothy Holden, an art collector from Philadelphia and a regular at the Rittenhouse Square Fine Art, who visits art fairs across the US, says, “I like art through which I learn about other cultures, techniques and practices and yet, I can relate to the stories in there.” And that is exactly the path these artists seem to be traversing.