On the move...

On the move...

Contemporary art

Manipuris have an intrinsic heritage in art. For them, art has to have a deeper connect with life. No wonder, their works stand technically sound, not just inspirationally effective, observes Hema Vijay.

Spellbinding : Paintings by (from left) G Gandumpu, Y Ibochaoba and Ch Lalit Singh. Photos by author

To the average Indian, an inevitable set of images take stage on the mind when you say ‘Manipur’: amazing Irom Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for 12 years now; the mesmerising, swirling movements of Manipuri dance and the cult of Ras Lila; verdant hills shimmering with streams and rivers; exquisite cane craft, shawls and quilts; and of course, Manipur’s charming bamboo folk dance, wherein nimble footed girls dance gaily over bamboo reeds moved in rhythm.

Contemporary visual art doesn’t usually enter this collage of images. Well, though not apparent to the view of cash rich art markets, Manipur does have a vibrant contemporary art scenario, though it happens to be one that is kicking to stay alive, struggling in a sensitive state that is hostage to blockades, armed extremism and assorted economic woes, not to mention the lack of a proper art education system.

Life is tough here, especially for an artist. “You can’t make money here as an artist, unless you take your work to Mumbai or other cities. There is an arts college here, but anyone who seriously wishes to learn art heads to Delhi, Kolkata or Mumbai. We need more art-supporting infrastructure,” mentions the articulate Manipuri artist L Ishworchandra, who is travelling with a collection of 41 contemporary paintings by Manipuri artists, which was recently on display at the Lalit Kala Academy, Chennai, as part of its countrywide tour. Ishworchandra himself studied art at Shantiniketan. Face it: After waiting in queue for hours to fill up your car’s fuel tank or shelling out a couple of thousand rupees for an LPG cylinder, it is tough to find energy reserves to explore deeper meanings in life on a canvass. But Manipuri artists manage to do it, as a way of life.

A legacy of intertwined art

The fact that the people of this state have an intrinsic heritage in art helps. Here, carving and painting are integral to both the exalted facets of life such as religion and rituals, as also to objects fashioned for everyday use. The Manipuri ritual painting of Tarang-kai, the celestial home with motifs of sun, moon and stars, which you would notice on many house walls, is as much about art as about worship and connecting to the universe; the vongi or the ‘ear rings’ fashioned from animal horns and hung in the house frontage, that makes music whenever the wind blows through it; animal heads and human head carvings, hung to signal as well as attract strength and success. Though many Manipuri houses, especially those in far-flung areas, still sport this discomforting bit of art, it happens to be a throwback to the times when tribal warfare reigned at large. This bit of Manipuri art always shocks the unprepared visitor to the state.

The hills of Manipur are replete with numerous tribal clusters, each with their own separate art forms. “This is because the tribes had long been isolated by the hilly borders, and each of their art forms have evolved in isolation, like the Darwinian evolution of life,” says Anupama Mishra, who has been researching on the cultural heritage of the north-east. This is what makes the 30-odd ethnic groups in the state possess a distinct style element.

But Manipur has moved on. Art is no longer just something splashed directly on walls. A host of young and some older artists are slowly making their presence felt. Their works stand technically sound, not just inspirationally effective. Take for instance Lalit Singh’s vivid imagery of women at work and at dance, such as the one that narrates the bamboo folk dance in acrylic. This canvas is swathed in white, with two dancers clothed in traditional white fabric and feathered adornments subtly emerging from the backdrop.

Sereo Phanitphang’s semi abstract representation of umbrellas on an overcast day is simply ingenious. It makes use of few dashes of colours to create a fabulous effect that makes you feel the rain and the impact of dark skies. Ibochaoba Yendremba’s imagery is pleasing, with its distinct outlines and flat application of colour. He has also done away with foreground and background variations, which make it a tribal throwback in oils, though of course, traditional Manipuri tribal art used herbal and mineral based pigments — and mostly white, black, green and red at that.

L Ishworchandra’s ‘Hunger for Peace’ series is indicative of the state of mind of the people there, who are still grappling with unrest, while the rest of India has moved on to struggle for development. Meanwhile, works like Th. Tambi Singh’s geometrical leanings, L Shamu Singh’s dark hued tribal narratives, Koolchnadra M’them’s social outpourings, and Pranam Singh’s women are more honestly reflective of Manipuri reality than any you would get to read in the national media. Calcutta-based M Thomas Singh’s works reflect on man and the nature continuum.

Take time also to gloss on L Jiten Singh’s ruminations on women; A Hemanta’s reflections on relationships, G Gandumpu’s paintings, which reveal the underlying colour and brush movement that went on to create the painting; works of Ch. Premananda Roy’s Buddhist introspection, or Th. Debendra Singh’s splendid abstracts, which are so reminiscent of the late Adimoolam’s striking abstracts. These works reveal the timeless vitality in Manipuri art and foretell an exciting future for contemporary Manipuri art. “We hope that the success of this exhibition will depend on the sincere and appreciative response of well-educated viewers,” mentions S Vedeshwar Sharma, secretary, Manipur State Lalit Kala Academy.

The road ahead

“Contemporary Manipuri art is set to catch the attention of the world, and this is not just because the world is looking to explore new ground and fresh perspectives. And the fact that artists there have so much to mull over because Manipur is torn by strife is only an additional facet. Manipuri art is innately exciting. May be because art here has a deeper connect with life,” surmises Anjali Sircar, veteran art historian.

So, while the world is aware of Manipur’s Khwairamband Bazar, the largest women’s market in the country, where every tourist stepping into the state stands in queue to stock up souvenirs, not many know of Manipuri artists who are genuinely talented and as good as the best in the country. “We need more galleries, a better environment for artists to work in, and we need to exhibit our work around the country and outside it more often, if contemporary Manipuri art is to find its way,” Ishworchandra mentions. And then of course, just being allowed to work in peace can sometimes be a blessing.