From ceramic cows to Kaavad-inspired art, these designers are keeping Indian traditions alive at the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial
The focus of the exhibition being held in Australia's Perth is to examine the role of craft in everyday life and look at intergenerational and intercultural craft traditions
How is craft being approached in the contemporary world? Has technology altered the engagement with various craft techniques? In this altered landscape, as we begin to value the handmade, what is the nature of this re-engagement?
These are some of the questions posed at the ongoing Indian Ocean Craft Triennial (IOTA 21) in Perth, Australia. The three curators Jude van der Merwe, Maggie Baxter and Carola Akindele-Obe have brought together around 50 artists from the countries that lie on the rim of the Indian Ocean to meditate on these explorations.
The exhibition features seminal Indian artists and designers like Desmond Lazaro, Kirit Dave, Ishan Khosla, Uday Singh, Kaaru Design Studio and Singapore-based Indian artist Madhvi Subrahmanian.
Shailaja Tripathi spoke to a few to find out about their work on show at IOTA 21.
Uday Singh - Ceramic cows
Cows are integral to Uday Singh’s agricultural practice and even on his artistic journey, cows have become a tool for his expression. At IOTA 21, Singh is exhibiting 60 handcrafted ceramic cows.
The realistic form of the animal has been abstracted with elements to create sublime sculptures bearing stunning glazes. Singh’s sculptures were part of the patron package and according to Maggie Baxter, one of the curators of IOTA 21, there was a rush to buy Singh’s cows.
Baxter states, “I think Uday’s cows are so universal — everyone can relate — and he makes them with such fine detail, bringing out each and every personality and the viewers can see that and feel it as well.”
Singh is a farmer from Maihar in Madhya Pradesh. The 47-year-old is a class 12 drop out and didn’t train in art formally. At Art Ichol — artists’ retreat in Ichol village in Maihar — he was encouraged by Ambica Beri to learn the art. He focused on cows — a means of livelihood — in his art practice and also learnt glazing techniques.
He grows wheat, rice, sesame and a few lentils on his land and also practices art. Though with the assistance of Art Ichol, Singh has been exhibiting and selling his cows for a few years now, IOTA 21 is a turning point in his artistic career.
“I have to do something big in this field. It gives me immense happiness and satisfaction just like my agricultural practice. Both are very dear to me. Now even my children are learning art,” Singh says over a call from Maihar.
Ishan Khosla - Work inspired by Kaavad
The visitors to the exhibition in Australia are being introduced to an art work that derives its inspiration from the ancient storytelling tradition of Kaavad, practised in Rajasthan.
Designer Ishan Khosla has designed a quirky work teeming with painted imagery that portrays the intersection between humans and nature. In essence, it remains that portable wooden shrine hand painted with tales from the Hindu mythology but there is no Kavadiya Bhat to narrate it. The form and style has been modified to resonate with the current milieu. The traditional kaavads have 12-16 panels but here they range from 3-13.
“The starting point is Kaavad. The shape of kaavad is very interesting to me. It has a book like form, how it can control the narration, by controlling the sequence of opening it. We can’t call it a Kaavad. It is inspired by it. Kaavads are crafted by Suthars (carpenter community in Rajasthan) but I have got it made by a local carpenter and introduced technical modifications,” says Khosla.
The designer has collaborated with contemporary folk artists Pradyumna Kumar, Bhajju Shyam, Pushpa Kumari, Vijay Joshi, Akhlaq Ahmad, Kiritbhai Jayantibhai Chittara, Tasleem Ahmad and Anoop Sharma for the works.
A gamut of art styles — Miniature, Madhubani, Gond, Mata ni Pachedi meet pop culture — Hindi cinema. Amar Chitra Katha and typography to express a fraught relationship between humans and animals. An image of a snake charmer hypnotising a snake is accompanied by text Zehreela Insaan. The kaavad which has several other scenes playing out on other panels is titled Saanp bhi na mare aur laathi bhi na toote.
There are other works titled Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad, The only thing fishy is the lack of fish: who will save you from the impending flood. “It's ironic that in a country like India where we worship animals, they are treated so cruelly. I wanted to highlight this,” says the young designer.
Kaaru - The Tree Light
Delhi-based design studio Kaaru has also sought inspiration from nature for its work ‘The Tree Light’. The designers Sanjib Chatterjee and Anjali Wakankar, designed a wall light which evokes the elements of a Kadamb tree. The tree known for its deep association with Lord Krishna and several medicinal properties is found in large numbers in North India.
Designed in the form of a disc, the light passes through a fabric that is brimming with leaves patterns embroidered by hand or crafted through applique.
When installed on a wall, it generates the effect of a canopy of a Kadamb tree. Light passes through the fabrics to cast a soothing glow on the surface. “Three to five or even up to ten lights, put together in varying diameters, from five to twelve feet and at different heights, would form a grove of Trees which could transform any interior space,” says Mukherjee.
Kaaru had planned to send several pieces from The Tree Light but could only send one due to the pandemic.
Shakuntala Kulkarni - Juloos (a site specific film)
On four projections, an army of female warriors walk in a synchronous manner. Modelled on the terracotta warriors found in the tomb of the China’s first emperor, the warriors march on against the background of a soundtrack with multiple sounds — like thump of boots and some metallic sounds.
But what exactly is a film by a contemporary artist doing at a craft triennale? Well, the female warriors are partly adorned in cane accessories, something Kulkarni worked with for the first time in her artistic career. The work shows engagement with the craft of cane weaving.
Kulkarni designed the cane armour, she collaborated with late Dinesh Pardesi to structure them in her studio in Mumbai and Tonkeshwar Barik, to weave them. Barik makes cane jewellery out of fine cane threads. Three of us knew nothing, we had never done such large works with cane. We didn’t know how we were going to achieve this but we kept experimenting,” explains Kulkarni.
She says the piece is experiential and the viewers are likely to feel overwhelmed with images of marching warriors. She adds. “They are walking towards a vision that they have for women which is self respect and freedom.”
This film was created many years ago and Kulkarni continues to exhibit it in different shows.