A walkthrough of Madan Meena’s exhibition “Wandering Connections” at the India International Centre Annexe offers a glimpse into Rajasthan’s landscape, a different imagery from the grainy desert browns. Instead, what one sees is silhouettes of lush vegetation, mango trees, Ashoka, khair, banyan and kadam, shy nayikas, lurking tigers, monkeys and monsoon clouds.
A visual artist and researcher, who has been working with the rural, nomadic and tribal communities of Rajasthan, Madan’s work comes from years of travelling across his home state, documenting ballads, craft, folklore, block printing and painting traditions. Besides being part of numerous group shows, Madan has in the recent past brought exhibitionsto the Capital, including the Kalbelia Craft Revival Project, since he has been working with this nomadic community for several years.
Born in a village near the Ranthambore Wildlife Sanctuary, Madan grew up watching women from his Meena community paint their walls, and it became the theme of his doctoral studies. Many of the motifs from wall paintings were carried into printing blocks that would then be stamped on textiles. “Over a century ago, Rajasthan had about 200 block printing centres, now barely five remain. Many prints from Barmer, for instance, are extinct. In this exhibition, I have drawn inspiration from the Kota Bundi style of miniature painting, for which I have collaborated with two very skilled artists, Lukman and Waseem. I create compositions on the computer and leave spaces where the artists can hand paint the key element,” says Madan, 48. So one sees in the “Nayika” series, the frame populated with trees of the land, with a central figure of the nayika, sometimes among peacocks, sometimes fleeing the rain or with her nayak.
More than a decade ago, Madan worked in Kota doria textiles, weavingcircles in the abstract. Some of these are exhibited at the show. While it received critical acclaim, he has been deliberate in recent times to localise his motifs. There are references to his childhood in the pink rose, which Madan calls the “gulab chap machis”, a drawing popularly found on matchboxes. From his college days at Rajasthan University, he brings to the canvaspatterns on textiles, the Kota map, even the location of his house, as an abstract dot on paper.
With mathematical precision, Madan lays out his compositions for each artwork. The measured distances recall his memories of wall paintings, when animals and objects were painted, sometimes in symmetry but never identical. The math and arts graduate takes these equations into his work as well, placing motifs of trees, circles or pots in a rather balanced yet organic fashion.
His political art, too, has a story in it. There’s one called “Banana Eater” which has ripe yellow peeled and unpeeled bananasrecurring all across the frame, with a langur in the centre. “As a member of the Kota Heritage Centre, we have an art gallery that sits in a garden. The gallery is under a minister, who is a patron. The garden is home to many monkeys who are fed by people, for religious reasons, of course. In one such news, the minister made headlines when he said: “Yeha tho artists se jyada bandar aate hai (more than artists, we have monkeys who visit)”. His love for birdwatchingtoo enters his work, with miniatures of the drongo and kingfisher hand-painted amidst his screen-printed trees.
Madan’s fascination and revivalist curiosity for the ajrakh technique of printing appear in the “Mapping Memories” series. While in some, the ajrakh print sits alongside an abstracted map of his travels in Barmer, in one he has poetically described the stages of the technique. “I laid out the google map in three parts and gave the land textures a watercolour finish and then overlaid it in screen printing and got the miniatureartists to work on them. The ajrakh tradition actually came with Partition. Until then, it was Barmer printing that was common in the region. As demand grew, many families gave up traditional prints and took on ajrakh. During my documentation, I have collected samples from Kutch and Sind, many of which are nearly 100-year-old blocks from Barmer,” he says.
The exhibition also has cultural mappings from Jaipur, which includes the walled city and the city palace. Not one to tire of travelling and currently the honorary director of the Adivasi Academy in Gujarat, his project of documenting folk songs of the Kalbeliyas keep him Madan busy, among several other projects.
The exhibition at the Indian International Centre Annexe closes on November 4
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