Commonwealth art: Diverse style, similar sensibilities

By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : A Gandhi topi, a traditional Nigerian riga robe, a Baluchi turban, Inuit (Eskimo) stone sculptures from northern Canada, Bengal’s “pata chitra” and rare snapshots of historic Delhi are some of the highlights of the collective soft power of Commonwealth arts and culture on display in the capital.

Support TwoCircles

Experts and artists from Commonwealth countries, now in the capital to take part in the exchanges, said while points of similarities driving artistic expressions in these countries still remain rooted in the family, community, spirituality and traditional literary forms, the alien legacies bequeathed by the erstwhile colonial masters have made each genre distinct from the other.

“It is also soft power at its best. Art and culture are the easiest way to reach out to the soul and mind because one discovers universality of emotions behind artistic movements across nations,” Anupa Pandey, head of the department of history of art at the National Museum, told IANS.

“Motifs uniting the art of Commonwealth stem from respective traditions, family, religions, innovations and reactions to colonial rule,” Pandey said.

An indigenous Eskimo art expose, “Sanaugavut: Inuit Art from Canadian Arctic”, at the National Musuem has brought rare figurative sculptures from the Canadian Arctic.

The art thrives on its animistic myths of sea spirits, animals, shamans, folklores and grind of everyday existence.

“The Inuits or Eskimos who have inhabited the tundra and taiga regions for 4,000 years were ivory and bone carvers. But beginning 1940, a generation of Inuits who spent their lives in the wild moved to permanent government settlements,” Christine Lalonde, associate curator of Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada, said.

“Fearing that their traditions would die, they took to stone sculpting to capture elements of a changing lifestyle and identity,” she said.

“Their art finds resonance in Indian art through the value system,” said Lalonde, curator of the Inuit art show.

The Inuit sensibilities are shared by tribal Gond artists from Madhya Pradesh whose art reflects totemism, village life, nature-inspired myths and post-colonial influence.

Tribal artists Shubhas Vyam and his wife Durgabai from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, who shared space with artists from the Commonwealth nations and students in the capital, said they “switched to paper and acrylic after relocating to Bhopal from Dindori district of the state 20 years ago”.

“Earlier, I crafted solid figures in mud in my village while Durga painted on walls,” Vyam said.

The duo was introduced to modern western techniques by eminent tribal artist, late Jangarh Singh Shyam.

Traditional ‘pata chitra’ artists Montu and Jaba Chitrakar from West Bengal’s Midnapore district are now “glocal” – sporting a mix of global and local issues – in content. Their art is on display at the Crafts Musuem.

“Only 10 percent of our art portrays Vedic myths and scenes from the epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’. The rest speaks of contemporary issues,” Montu Chitrakar said.

The panel art of colourful ‘pata chitra’ dates back to 7th century Bengal.

Indigenous Canadian artist William White from British Columbia weaves “raven motifs, sea creatures and starfish crests” with cedar bark, mountain goat and marino sheep wool on his traditional dancing aprons and woollen ceremonial robes.

His works are on display at an exhibition, “Power Cloths of Commonwealth” at the Crafts Museum.

The exhibition has brought apparel worn by Commonwealth leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Jawaharlal Nehru and Queen Victoria to the capital – as well as ethnic and heritage crafts from member nations.

“I think the Commonwealth cultural exposes are finally giving traditional arts proper respect by taking them out of the ‘crafty and curiosity section’ to the forefront of mainstream art,” White said.

Australian aboriginal artists Vicki Couzens and Marie Clarke of the Koorie Heritage in Melbourne felt “new Commonwealth art addresses similar issues like government protection, dis-possession of people and breaking down of cultures and families”.