Story of the soil

The idyllic rural landscape in Haren Thakur’s works doesn’t just delight our visual senses but also quietly urges us to think about our way of living. His medium of rice paper drives the point home even more effectively

When complexities of life leave you jaded and befuddled, simple encounters can uplift your spirits. That is what happens when you are going around the spacious galleries of National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru (NGMA) watching Haren Thakur’s works spanning four decades. The title, Serene Saga, is just so apt for Thakur’s retrospective because the dominant imagery of tribal life and nature manages to soothe the frayed nerves of city slickers. This is the life the artist knows best. He first experienced it while studying in Shantiniketan and later in Jharkhand where he continues to reside to date. “This way of life is going away but I have seen it all my life. In Shantiniketan, we would go out, observe, draw and paint and this is what we saw all around us. Gauri di, Nandlal Bose’s daughter who used to teach us, told us to go to nature,” says Haren, who studied under the likes of Ramkinkar Baij, Benode Bihari Mukherjee, Somnath Hore, Selim Munshi, and Dinkar Kaushik.

Story of the soil

The show begins with several human studies done during his art college days. “We were the first batch, which got the opportunity to draw/sketch a live model. Prior to our batch, it wasn’t allowed simply because the teachers thought that a model sitting still without any life isn’t the ideal thing for students to see and learn from. However, it was important to learn human anatomy.”

Perhaps this solid foundation in human anatomy gave Haren the confidence to interpret it his own way — elongated, without any facial features and hinting at Egyptian influences. If you have seen the cave paintings in the pre-historic rock shelters of Bhimbhetka in Madhya Pradesh, then you see them again flash in front of your eyes.

Hanuman recurred in his art during the late 90s but not in the usual way. Gone is the bulky figure of the monkey-god, we are so used to seeing and in comes the lean Hanuman with a dark complexion with no facial features and a highly stylised tail that at times even transforms into a boundary. As Hanuman flies away carrying the mountain Dronagiri, he witnesses a landscape below that is equally geometrical and angular. The fields, mountains, trees, rivers are all well-defined by his powerful strong lines.

The dexterity isn’t limited to the imagery but extends to the medium too, that becomes his art.

Haren is in love with rice paper which he first used in 1974. Haren cuts it, molds it, pastes it, paints on it, the way he wants. It also fits perfectly into the narrative of the soil, Haren meditates on. And in the light of the agrarian crisis and looming ecological concerns, his subject resonates with the viewer. In a work where he shows a hill weeping directly refers to indiscriminate cutting of hills for mining and urban projects. Another work with 13 panels shows a river in full flow when running through villages but it vanishes as it reaches the concrete jungles. Haren subtly takes a dig at today’s politics too when he shows a cat with a fish in his stomach, one captured in its mouth and another one stored safely.

Come one, come all

Nazneen Banu, who was appointed as Director of NGMA Bengaluru, in November 2018, promises to bring many more quality exhibitions to art lovers in the city. Ever since she has taken over, Banu has been focusing on getting new visitors to the iconic cultural site. “I was disheartened to note that not many people know about NGMA. They don’t know what NGMA stands for, what NGMA does. It is a pity because it is a beautiful space which showcases quality art. You can buy just a ₹ 20 ticket and see the permanent collection on view, see the ongoing exhibition, attend talks, film screenings and eat good food at the cafeteria. I want more people to come here and particularly those who don’t know about NGMA’s existence,” states Banu. It is after a considerable gap that someone has been given a full-fledged charge of NGMA Bengaluru.

Story of the soil

For that Banu is contemplating putting a prominent board at the entrance inviting more visitors. Also, the ticket counter has been shifted to the entrance. “That is where it should be. It is also for security concerns that we had to shift it here because otherwise, the visitor would go inside and buy a ticket,” says Banu adding that in any case there is a citizen PIL concerning the security of the museums in the country.

Responding to the recent protests by the artists’ community for the fee to enter NGMA Bengaluru premises, Banu says, “It is a government rule that anybody entering NGMA has to buy a ticket.”

Committees to be reconstituted

Following the unfortunate incident in which Amol Palekar was interrupted while making a speech regarding dissolving of the Advisory Committees of NGMA Mumbai and Bengaluru, Ministry of Culture has come up with a clarification that these committees have not been dissolved. According to their statement, their terms have ended recently and are in the process of being reconstituted.

It also said that the recommendations of previous Advisory Committees (which are up to December 2019 for NGMA, Mumbai) will be honored and exhibitions of artists will happen as proposed. The new advisory committee will take a decision relating to future exhibitions.

Regarding permanent collections, NGMA also clarified that it proposes to display its own collections (including artworks by great masters) initially over a two year period. Some artists have expressed their apprehensions about availability of less space for temporary exhibitions and retrospectives. NGMA is deliberating on suggestions received from artists, and a final decision will be taken shortly in consultation with all stakeholders.

(The exhibition is on at National Gallery of Modern Art, Manikyavelu Mansion 49, Palace Road, till March 3)

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