New colours of the northeast


Art from the northeast does not make headlines in mainstream India because of its disconnect with the rest of the country. But an essay, ‘A Metaphor and Some Young Turks: Art of the Northeast’ by Moushumi Kandali, has for the first time turned the spotlight on artistic genres in the region.

For nearly 500 years, art in northeastern India was confined to religious and traditional domains. “The emergence of modern art in the early decades of 20th century Assam had been a complete departure from traditional art forms like the miniature, manuscripts, painting, mural, traditional sculpture and crafts,” Kandali says.

The changing trends in northeastern art reflect the existential conflicts of the region like terrorism, alienation, backwardness and a subtle clash between modernity and tradition.
Modernism in Assamese art coincided with the publication of the state’s first literary magazine Arunodoi by the American Baptist Mission in which illustrators used British style wood-block reliefs for the first time.

“But four Kolkata-trained Assamese artists, Muktanath Bordoloi, Jagat Singh Kachari, Suren Bordoloi and Pratap Baruah, really contributed to the growth of modern northeastern art in the second and the third decade of the 20th century,” Kandali says.
The early influences were romantic, but the 1950s and 60s, says Kandali, brought in expressionistic, surrealistic and post-impressionistic idioms.

Mrinmoy Debbarma, a young artist from Tripura, uses photorealism and comic strip techniques and characters from the popular cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’ to talk of terror and violence in the region and mechanisation of life.

“His recurrent motifs of masked terrorists raise questions about the making and unmaking of terror,” Kandali says.

Young Assamsese artist Prandeep Kalita also speaks of the “dehumanisation of terrorism and life at gun point” in his works.

Punyo Chobin, a budding contemporary artist from Arunachal Pradesh, falls back on tradition to tell his contemporary tales. “He weaves a definitive narrative where myth, ideas, images, signs, beliefs and folklorist visions derived from the traditional tribal subconscious are transported into modernist realms,” she says.

Most of the northeastern states, barring Assam, woke up to modern art in the 1970s and 80s. Tripura experimented in the 1970s when traditional art gave way to modern art with the setting up of the Government Art College in Agartala in 1975 while Meghalaya artists dabbled in modernism in the 80s.

The essay has been published in the inaugural issue of art magazine Artetc.

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