There is something reassuringly traditional in the works of Anindita Bhattacharya. Beauty is not a word that one readily associates with contemporary art yet it is likely to crop up at the first glance at her works. Anindita has always been interested in using a template that recalls a language forged in the imperial Mughal courts of Delhi, Agra or Lahore and to a lesser extent the provincial courts of Rajasthan and the Punjab hills. A small but significant group of artists for the last half a century have been engaged in the project of re-investing in a language that evolved over the centuries, primarily reflecting the courtly powers, to hold a mirror to contemporary realities. This has emerged as a significant strand in contemporary post-colonial art practice of the sub-continent and Anindita emerges as a young voice, who positions herself to claim and further that heritage.
The cosmopolitan universe of Anindita privileges a period in Indian history known for it is syncretism but It does not shy away from referencing myriad sources with wicked fun, ranging from medieval Gothic gargoyles to Turkish monsters of Siyeh Qalam or skeletal chamundi figures from the Punjab hills. Magical animals, figures from hellish torture scenes of being flayed or disembowelled or headless figures engaged in mortal combats with animals, both real and fantastic, Sinbad-esque sequences of an elephant being carried by a giant bird, all are painted with loving dexterity in the seventy two tooth images in the “Future Relics of a Carrion Culture”. They feel like a veritable source book of ideas and imagery where, Hamza-nama to Harry Potter all are fair game.
A chance finding of a medieval Turkish medical treatise might have triggered the set but that soon gets layered with an unfolding of interconnected ideas. The said text, in the typical pre-modern fashion of finding a monster behind every disease, surmises that tooth decay is a result of sins committed by the patient! We are also acutely aware that teeth, an intrinsic part of our bodily mechanism for ingesting food, can easily be a battleground of sectarian politics in this part of the world. It can get you killed! On one hand the tooth as a relic is worshipped and on the other, in most Indic languages, tooth decay is defined as bug infestation.
Anindita wields the familiar markers available in tradition such as the fine brush drawing, thewasli paper, the decorative passages, the hashia or the border etc. but to a large extent these are tropes that camouflage the underlying disquiet. The fact that the artist takes a great deal of pleasure in these tropes cannot be overstated but it is also masterfully used as a diversionary tactic. Massive political mobilisation to undermine a certain unique characteristics of our very being is underway. The idea of our nation as a syncretic culture is under attack. The manifestations of these tectonic shifts, even in our quotidian lives; our identity, our food habits or self-expression are hard to ignore.
The Large triptych titled “The War Rugs” that explores a monochromatic range of earthly browns and greys punctuated with translucent collaged patterns has the informality of drawings. The splattered ink marks that double up as crawling insects from a distance reveal intricate foliage patterns on closer look. The grey patches that recall plastering on damaged walls give way to passages of drawn imagery; a multi-armed deity here, a monkey there, a headless Yogi in an impossibly contorted posture, an owl with razor-sharp talons, a creature straight out of Bosch’s hell walks by, a ribcage that unravels like a turban. Patience and minute scrutiny is rewarded with these surprises at every turn.
The centre does not hold but the margins do in “The Opera that Came Our Way”. The central rectangle of an inviting golden yellow paint is bereft of any imagery. The otherwise busy surface teeming with figures and passages of large arabesques, floral and geometric patterns are all absent in this lyrical delight in pure radiant colour. All the activity is pushed to the grisailles margin, a hashia that is peopled with grimacing skeletons pointing hither thither. They are pointing at birds of different feathers as if in a children’s game where you point at something and say, “look at the birdie there!” to distract the onlooker to pull a trick. The cloud forms are complicit in this bizarre play of hide and seek with the skeletons engaged in pulling the wool over our eyes. Even the accidental crackle in the thickly painted areas demands a closer look. They add to the visual delight by mimicking fine line drawings.
The small group of ten works deal (the tentative title at the time of writing is The Small War Rugs)exclusively with patterns and floral motifs. The romantic conceit of the pattern is however, moth eaten, partly defaced by what looks like termite trails. The slightly raised white ant infested passages are a formal device that holds the pieces together visually and works as a foil to the pristine decorative element. At the metaphorical level they are indicative of the insidious rot.
The ploy to induce a pace slower than what we are accustomed to in this era of instant gratification is one of the leitmotifs in Anindita’s oeuvre: the more you look the more you are rewarded is the motto. The so-called “historical baggage” sits easily on her shoulders while she playfully weaves the inter-connectivity amongst the layers, revealing and hiding at the same time.
The seductive power of the craftsmanship is in full display in the large overflowing paper cuts of “(Re)writing on the wall” that recalls the intricate jaalis or latticework of Mughal architecture. They grow over an entire wall in a formation that indicate a movement akin to spreading cracks or organisms. One is left wondering at the scale of this labour intensive work and its overwhelming presence.
The unmistakable political undertone of the work is evident in multiple registers. The entire cutting is done by hand, a reaffirmation of the presence of the artist’s hand in this labour of love. Anindita is emphatically underlining her pleasure in the making by deliberately choosing the more painstaking old methods over new technological shortcuts. Given our touching faith in the myth of technology driven development as a panacea of all ills this is an act of resistance.
It calls for active engagement of the viewer, an invitation to scrutinise the surface bit by bit. If you overcome the initial illegibility of the text you might notice words like ‘Hindu’, ‘India’ popping up. Further persistence is rewarded by whole sentences and if you are still insistent you might notice that these are quotes from passages from Savarkar’s treatises and Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World’s Religions at Chicago. Two diametrically opposite interpretations at two historic junctures that deliberately gets obfuscated in these anxious times when sectarian thoughts are threatening to occupy the centre from the margins of our national discourse.
In the imaginative recasting of the historical Anindita critiques the messy present but at the same time opens up possibilities of an affirmative praxis that allows for re-imagining the future. The tug of war between the beguilingly inviting surface and the coded messages embedded in them adds to the allure of this ambitious project of an artist of mettle.
The experience of my immediate environment, both tangible and intangible – the cities I have lived in and the act of negotiating these spaces, weaves itself in to my work. The lines between what is personal and political blur. Personal space has been subverted by the political; my art cannot but embody it. While the aesthetic trope of the vocabulary allures and encourages the viewers to travel through thousands of year of art history across various cultures and traditions; the content is often paradoxical.
These narratives are expressed in multiple layers in my paintings allowing me to juxtapose various experiences from different time frames, working on many levels of partial revelation and knowledge often trying to capture something about the history that brings the past to mind but in a way that isn’t attempting to reproduce it.
Creating patterns and ornamentation remain an integral part of my work, serving to camouflage the images. Ornamentation is universal across cultures while patterns can create bridges between time, tradition and cultures, therefore forming a universal, global language. Transcending their traditional purpose, Ornamentation is no longer benign but conflicting in more than one respect, though they appear to create harmony, on a closer glance one might observe that they are layered and infused with imagery of subtle violence and chaos.
Over the years my engagement with detailed motifs and patterns coalesced with the search for an identity that was syncretic as a response to the political mobilization and monolithic culture constructs about the idea of a nation.
In my works, the margin, an integral part of the many illuminated manuscript art traditions, moved away from the periphery and becomes the central image. The use of texts adds to the subversion.
Anindita Bhattacharya (b 1985), has been living and exhibiting in New Delhi since she obtained her MFA from the famed Faculty of Fine Arts, MSU Baroda, in 2009. She is a Gold medallist of the Nasreen Mohammedi Award from Prestigious Maharaja Sayaji Rao University in Baroda.
She has been a recipient of awards like “Lt Milind Madhukar Bhade” Gold Medal 2009, “Narendra Gajanan Bhatt” Gold Medal awarded by Maharaja Sayajirao University Baroda 2009, Nasreen Mohamad Award for the Best Display, for the year 2006 and 2009 respectively, Rajasthan Lalit kala Akademi Award for the year 2005 & 2009. She has attended a workshop in Mughal and Persian Miniature painting in London, 2017.
Her important exhibitions include Her solo show Carrion Culture and Other Stories, ‘19, premiered at Threshold Art Gallery, New Delhi & her works was displayed at the India Art Fair ’19. Group exhibitions include Verdant Memory, 2017 Threshold Art Gallery, Revisiting Beauty Threshold Art Gallery 2016 New Delhi, Restart & The Unbearable Closeness of Being at Vis-à-vis, New Delhi (2015), Back To College: Vadfest, Vadodara (2015), Integrated Inception: Art Konsult ,New Delhi (2013), Articulate 2012: Saffron art and Pratham UK, London, Future of The Museum Collection III: India Habitat Centre, New Delhi (2011), Contemporary Shahnamah Millennium Painting Exhibition: National College of Arts, Lahore
Contemporary Shahnamah Millennium Painting Exhibition: The Prince’s Foundation Gallery, London (2010), Whole: Gallery Indigo Blue: Singapore (2010), Drifters: Gallery Beyond, Mumbai (2010). She has attended a workshop in Mughal and Persian Miniature painting in London, 2017
The aesthetic trope of Anindita’s vocabulary allures and encourages the viewers to travel through thousands of year of art history across various cultures and traditions; the content is paradoxical.
Anindita had shown an early interest in the linguistic tropes of Mughal and by extension Persian miniatures even in her formative years as an artist. Over the years her fascination with ornamentation and patterns were conflated with a deep sense of search for identity that was syncretic as a response to the right-wing political mobilization and monolithic cultural constructs about the idea of India. In her recent works, Anindita employs a delicate tracery of patterns and references to iconic images from the history of miniature tradition which she overlays with metaphors of subtle violence to create seemingly pretty looking imagery that are loaded with foreboding. Using text as a form of subversion, Anindita strives to explore ways to stretch and pull apart the vocabulary of a seemingly insular style, creating a hybrid imagery that is both veiled and provocative, that blurs polarities as traditional and contemporary, East – West, representation and abstraction.