Old tales retouched

Old tales retouched

Old tales retouched

As you enter the large hall at the famous and iconic Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, what strikes you is the size, the vibrant colours, and the images in the traditional Kerala temple mural arts hanging on the pristine white walls. As you pass from one work of art to the other, you can see many important chapters and figures from the stories of Indian puranas.

There is the famous Kamadhenu, Parijatham, Garuda, Amrita Kalasha, Samudra Manthana and many other stories that one has heard as a child while growing up in India.

It's rare to see traditional works of art at Jehangir's, which has been known over the years as a place where modern, contemporary, abstract arts are on display.

"They told me that this is probably the first time that the traditional temple-style mural art is displayed here," says the soft-spoken artist Arpitha Reddy.

So, on the wall along with the large canvas measuring 144" by 60" depicting the story of Samudra Manthana, she also has 18 X 18 painting of different celestial animals like Airavata, Uchchaihshravas, Nandi and Hamsa.

Art & places of worship

Except for the silk sari she is clad in, there is nothing traditional or conservative about the tall artist.

So the first question one is tempted to ask is why she has opted for temple art, and that too, Kerala temple murals, which by any novice in the world of art are easily confused with another traditional and more-popular style: the Tanjore or the Thanjavur style of paintings.

"We don't use any gold foils; the main difference with Thanjavur style. And of course, the body structures of our figures are certainly different," explains Arpitha. "And my interest in temple art stems from the fact that I am a South Indian, born and brought up in Hyderabad, and from a young age was exposed to traditional art forms on our visits to temples and places of worship in South India."

What started as a hobby has become her passion and full-time creative pursuit, but presently, Arpitha, based in Delhi, has a little free-time from her duties as a mother.

So, for more than a decade now, she has been creating work of art, some of which belong in the homes of the likes of Indra Nooyi and other private collectors in and out of India.

Though a first-generation artist from her family, it was her interest in the field of arts that led her to graduate from the JNTU College of Fine Arts, Hyderabad. After marriage to a bureaucrat, and travelling with him on his transferable job, the artist made it a point to attend every art workshop that was being held at any of those places.

Hence, she is trained in other traditional art forms like miniature, thangka, kalamkari, pattachitra, phad, Tanjore and of course, the murals of Kerala.

It was at one such workshop on Kerala-style mural paintings by K U Krishnakumar, the present principal at the Institute of Mural Painting Guruvayur, Kerala that her interest in that art form manifested into a passion. "At the end of the workshop, he invited us to their institute saying that if we wanted to seriously pursue the art form, we should train at the institute. I took up his invitation," recalls the artist.

And then, as they say, there was no looking back. She trained, practised her art and kept in touch with her teachers to get their opinions on her works, and sought their help if she encountered any problem. She also did a lot of research, read books on our mythology, went through their depiction in different art forms, and then came up with her own interpretation of this art form.

Though adhering to the tradition, Arpitha has brought in small changes in her work. For instance, at the institute, the wall murals are painted in natural colours, but she has replaced these with acrylic paints.

"While transporting, the folding on the canvases spoil the work and leave crack marks if I use the traditional paints used on wall murals. With acrylic, I can avoid this," explains Arpitha.

Changing hues

And, whenever she feels the need, she contemporises her work. Keeping to the puranic subjects, she gives them a touch of modernity, like she did while depicting Goddess Ganga when 'Save the environment and clean River Ganga' project was announced.

Her painting doesn't show the usual River Ganga descending from the hair of Lord Shiva. Instead, she has Devi Ganga riding her vahana, the crocodile, with the background of the Kalpavriksha tree, and one hand holding the kalasha with water pouring out.

"River Ganga is revered in India. So through this, I wanted to tell people that there is enough water and greenery in the form of River Ganga and Kalpavriksha tree. All we have to do is take care of our natural resources," explains the artist.

The uniqueness of Arpitha's work is that though there is a slight modernity, she doesn't take a detour from showcasing the traditional celestial atmosphere prevalent in our traditional culture.

Take her work of Samudra Manthana, where the story goes that both the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) churn the ocean to get the nectar of immortality.

On her canvas, she has painted every emotion of human beings in different forms of gods/goddesses, representing separate passion. And the backdrop is her favourite tree, the Kalpavriksha.

She says, "Even today in our society, every individual is churning life and competing to get the better of the other. And I want to tell people that their desire will be fulfilled by the Holy Tree if they approach life with positivity."

While listening to her, one starts wondering if the youth of today will like or understand her obsession with mythology and tradition.

She reveals that her works of Lord Ganesha are always in demand. The corporate world and youngsters setting up their new homes prefer her works. Even the small panels of celestial animals are liked by many.

"Previously, both my children, who are now in their early 20s, would ask me, 'Mamma, why only images of God? Paint something else." But now they understand and have selected two of my works, and have requested me to keep them aside as part of their inheritance. If our tradition and culture are presented properly, even youth will be interested," says Arpitha.

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