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Ngma: songs of the uncaged bird

National Gallery of Modern Art’s stellar tribute to the women artists of our country showcased the remarkable synergy of rich heritage and distinctive imagination, writes Uma Nair.

"I wanted a show that would trace not just the contribution of women in contemporary Indian art but I wanted a tribute to the women artists in the nation," said Adwaita Gadanayak, Director General NGMA Delhi.
Into the magnificent maze like rooms of the old building at Jaipur House in Delhi, are a mélange of 66 works that celebrate the women artists in the nation — Songs of the Uncaged Bird hold within infinite stories. One has to begin with the avant garde artist who pioneered modernism in the early 20th century.
Celebrating Amrita Sher-Gil's achievements and contribution to Modern Indian art, the Indian Government recognised her as a National Treasure artist in 1976. The majority of her works are in the collection of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, and these are among the 172 documented works from the artist's oeuvre. It is, therefore, a true privilege to look at three works here in this majestic collection.
Sculptural richness
The next artist worthy of scrutiny and admiration is Meera Mukherjee. The two sculptures here which are inversely proportional in height and dimensions affirm the brilliance and intellectual superiority that she enjoyed in the language of her creations. The large sculpture Spirit of Work and the small sculpture both exemplify resonance personified. Both these works bring back the words of critic Maitrayi Chatterjee when she wrote: "Passion goaded her creativity and expressed itself in her work, which for her was worship. She exemplified the Keatsian concept, 'the poetry of the earth is never dead'."
Among the many sculptures on view are the brilliance of Latika Katt, Rita Dutta, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Leela Mukherjee, Pilloo Pochkhanwala, Shirin Jalvirjee and Uma Siddhanta.
Pochkhanwale's Teeming Millions is a delightful creation in lead. Shirin Javirjee's portrait of Win Min Than, the Burmese actress, is an expression of calm serenity. Leela Mukherjee's Dancer is a minimalist rendition of rough hewn grace and beauty while Rita Dutta's Ganesh Jamai is a statement that extolls the richness and strength of India's religious and mythic traditions. The essence of expression in organic sensibilities comes to the fore in Uma Siddhanta's leafed car called Of Mortality an Eternity. Siddhanta was the pupil of Prodosh Dasgupta and this work exudes a love for nature as well as the gravitas of conception when you see that an object such as a car can be translated into the leaves and textures of the botanical kingdom.
Canvasses and Caur
Canvasses and paper works too regale the art aficionado. Anjolie Ela Menon's Mata Ji 1983 is an ochre toned splendor. It is Arpana Caur's Dharti that seeks to grab eyeballs. Dharti is a part of a series that Caur has done over the years. What attracts is the treatment of the figurative and the strength of the contours. Caur creates surreal counterpoints when she creates the woman's figure with the many juxtaposed symbols speaking of both existence and exploitation.While created against a black as ebony backdrop it is the inventive realism and contemporary characterisation that sets Caur in her own path.
Among other works are Shanta Gokhale's mixed media work entitled Snake Charmer. Arpita Singh's abstract toned Heavy Moments is an enlightening statement on the truth that she dallied in abstraction before signifying her figurative ingenuity. Madhavi Parekh's folk symbol work is an absolute charmer while Anju Dodiya's works speak about her penchant for metaphoric literal allusions in the density and depth of composition.
Nalini Malani triptych
The piece de resistance of the show is Nalani Malani's triptych that straddles multiple narratives and images in a mosaic of memories. Malani, at present, is the most celebrated Indian woman artist in the world. She has just had a historic retrospective in Paris and is widely considered the pioneer of video art in India; Nalini Malani explores drawing, painting, and the extension of those forms into projected animation, video and film. Her works in new media often take the form of monumental and immersive shadow play pieces that create mesmerising layers of imagery and sound. In this work, we see the summary of myth, metaphor and women.
Etchings and woodcut
Three works that stand out in the etchings genre are that of the celebrated yesteryear Documenta pioneer Gogi Saroj Pal and the College of Art Delhi professor Anupam Sud. Gogi's image is that of a woman with winged like contraptions in shades of charcoal, it is an etching that has the essence of an elusive aura even as it is suggestive of prisoned patterns. Devyani Krishna's etching is one that traverses the spiritual sojourn of deepened meditative intensity. Krishna, who was the greatest Arts teacher Modern School Barakhambha ever had, was an authority who should have been given more importance in the art world. A rare 1970 woodcut is by New York dweller and mentor Zarina Hashmi.
Zarina is among the foremost among printmakers in the world today. She received a BS in Mathematics from Aligarh Muslim University (1958) before studying printmaking, a passion awakened by her encounters with local papermakers during a visit to Rajasthan in the late 1960s. Zarina went on to study intaglio with Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17, Paris (1964–67), and studied woodblock printing at Toshi Yoshida Studio, Tokyo, on a Japan Foundation Fellowship (1974). Her early interest in math and architecture are revealed in her practice through her formal sensibility and emphasis on structure. Primarily working in intaglio, woodblock, lithography, and silkscreen, her work explores themes of home, displacement, borders, and memory.

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