Rural culture and religiosity
Just concluded at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is YG Srimati's retrospective of 25 watercolour paintings done over 4 decades. Curated by John Guy, it was a show that spoke of the inherent understanding and deep love for the term nationalism as well as a reverence for tales that sprang from the reverence accorded to religious fervour.
This was the first retrospective exhibition devoted to the Indian artist YG Srimati (1926–2007), who was born in Mysore and died in New York. Raised in a cultured Tamil Brahmin family in Chennai, as a teenager in the 1940s Srimati was swept up in the nationalist movement for an independent India. Already an accomplished artist and classically trained musician, Srimati was invited in 1946 to sing devotional songs (bhajans) at a number of independence rallies addressed by Mahatma Gandhi in Chennai. She was deeply moved by the time she spent with Gandhi and his assassination in 1948.
These momentous events, and her personal encounter with Gandhi shaped much of the orientation and agenda of Srimati the painter. The show was a testimony to her Indianesque leanings and love for tradition. Curator Guy affirms: "The career of Srimati who came to New York in 1961 — as a classical singer, musician, dancer and painter —represents a continuum in which each of these skills and experiences merged, influencing and pollinating each other."
At the Met Museum on display were works inspired by the Buddhist murals of the Ajanta caves in Western India — for example, her Mithuna Couple, after Ajanta (1950-52) styled on the 6th-century sketches of loving couples on these rock-cut caves. Most famous is Srimati's large work devoted to Goddess Kali called Mahakali (1980). "The degree of the artist's emotional immersion in the imagery of Kali is evident in the finished work, a painting of great authority that conveys an almost subliminal understanding of the power of the goddess," states the curator. This lush work that celebrates the black goddess has been used in a historic exhibition at Smithsonian called 'Devi' curated by Vidya Dahejia in 1998 and later at the Met in 'The Goddess in Indian Painting' in 2011.
Whenever exhibited it has been the cynosure of all eyes - a delicate composition of Kali created against an earth and gravel-toned backdrop. The slender figure in black is clothed in a skirt that falls like lace from a jewelled waistline. The skirt is made of a series of little skulls that hang like embellished beads. Each of the 10 hands carries elements and weapons of ritual import - the 10 hands radiating around her hold the shield, trident, kapala, damaru, sword and the head of the demon. Curatorial texts at the Met state that Mahakali was part of 15 works done for a Bhagvad Gita - she wrote in her diary that she was awakened at night by the crushing sounds of the skulls in Kali's skirt and kept hearing them until she finished the painting.
The curator discusses further and adds: "Srimati's painting displayed a consistent commitment to her vision of an Indian style. She explored themes from Indian religious epic literature and scenes of rural culture, asserting traditional subject matter as part of a conscious expression of nationalist sentiments; her choice was personal and idiosyncratic… Through her highly controlled and softly modulated use of watercolour washes, Srimati built on the poetic and lyrical styles developed a generation earlier in India by Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose."
Apsara with Harp is another classic that celebrates the bronze tonality of Dravidian persona. Srimati had a keen eye for details and she embellished her compositions with a zeal that referenced social culture of those times. She obviously was trained in the schematics of the Neo-Bengal school, which developed at the beginning of the 20th century, which became an internationally known and admired school. It owed its origins to Abanindranath Tagore. He mixed the Japanese wash method with British watercolour technique to come up with a new wash method.We can discover all these nuances in her works - whether they reflect religiosity or mundane imagery. The Goddess Saraswati is an impassioned beautiful alluring being created from the haunts of human and religious history.
In this work, we can espie the linear technique of pala illustration that marked all paintings of Bengal till the 18th century as well as the Kalighat school, that emerged as a result of increasing socio-religious demand. In her Vishwarupa we can see tenets of 'traditional Bengal School', recognised widely as a display of perfect technique and decorative forms depicting myths and legends. Srimati used the delicacy and depth of this blend of ancient styles to interpret the modern world and it is in these compositions that we notice a continuity of the tradition. Srimati's paintings display a consistent commitment to her vision of an Indian style. She explored themes from Indian religious epic literature and scenes of rural culture, asserting her love for the Indianesque idiom suggesting a rare richness in the fine detailing that she used as embellishments but never overdoing it to create density.
Through her highly controlled and softly modulated use of watercolour washes she created a series of works that echo her love for her motherland and all its many deities and mythic and spiritual stories. Indeed an iconoclast with multiple talents, the Met Museum gave present day Indians something to savour in this epic retrospective.