Phase Two: Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art


I'm thrilled to be hosted by Utsha Foundation for Contemporary Art for the month of November. This incredible organization is based in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, where they are doing amazing work with local and contemporary artists of all kinds. Their dedicated staff and awesome volunteers have been so enthusiastic and supportive. Thanks, Utsha, for making me feel welcome and supported from day one! 


In Search of Mandana

Mandana in a village home, Bundi

I had a chance to visit a small village outside of Bundi, Rajasthan on October 5, which happened to be Sharad Purnima, the day of the Ashvin full moon. I learned that this is a date of great spiritual significance, particularly among farmers and villagers, as it marks the end of the monsoon season and an auspicious harvest time. The occasion is observed by fasting and devotion to the goddess Lakshmi; at night in some places, a bowl of kheer (milk with rice and dried fruit) is placed outside with a cloth cover so that it can absorb the moon’s healing light rays. The milk is later consumed while looking at the moon. We arrived at the village shortly after moonrise; we walked through basmati rice fields under the full moon, were served chai, introduced to a baby buffalo just born the day before, shown beautiful shrines and fruit trees.

Village shrine, Bundi
Village home with concrete construction, Bundi

 Villagers with papaya tree and garlic harvest, Bundi

Early October is the wrong time to look for Mandana drawings in the villages outside of Bundi. This is because Diwali celebrations occur on October 19 this year, and the days and weeks leading up to Diwali are when villagers spend time cleaning, repairing, and beautifying their traditional homes. Traditionally villagers construct their abodes and outbuildings from natural materials – a mixture of mud, straw, and cow dung, with woven straw or clay tile roofing. The structures are quite resilient and strong but must be rebuilt each year. Walls and roofs are rebuilt or repaired; floors are resurfaced with mud and dung.

Once structures have been repaired and finished, village women traditionally complete the final stages by beautifying their homes by creating Mandana. With a mixture of rice flour or chalk and water, a paste is created and used to paint elaborate patterns on the outer walls, floors, and thresholds. These patterns are said to purify, ward off evil, and invite gods and goddesses into the domestic space. In Rajasthan the drawings are called Mandana; other regions use different terms for the practice, such as Aripan or Alpana (Mithila region), Kolam (Tamil Nadu), or Rangoli/Rangavali (Karnataka, Maharashtra). In some regions the drawings are created only on auspicious occasions such as festivals and weddings; in others, women create fresh drawings on their thresholds every morning. The Mandana in south Rajasthan corresponds to the seasonal cycle of renewal and the Diwali festival.

When I visited the Bundi village, floors and walls were being repaired and freshly coated with mud and dung; most traces of Mandana had been cleared away in preparation for new work. I found an exception inside one village home – a set of lovely circular and triangle floor paintings that had not yet completely worn away. As concrete materials increasingly replace the traditional mud and dung floors and walls of homes, women have had to use new materials such as oil enamels to create Mandana; some have given up the practice altogether, as concrete surfaces no longer require the annual refurbishing and repainting that Mandana accompanies.

Mandana in a village home, Bundi
Mandana in a village home, Bundi

 Mandana in a village home, Bundi
Mandana in a village home, Bundi

I love the ephemerality of these paintings – as they age and wear away, old patterns are crossed and layered with the patterns of daily human and animal activity. They are executed with mastery and are exceedingly beautiful, yet there is no attachment or attitude of preciousness surrounding them.

Even in the few samples I observed there was great variety of form and pattern. While in some forms of Kolam different shapes have different meanings, I was told that Mandana patterns, at least in this village, were made purely for their beauty and as expressions of devotion. I asked some women about how they learned to create them. Is there a book of patterns? Do you practice them as children? Study them in school? I was told that for these women, the patterns are not taught; they are ‘already in them when they are born’.

Block Printing 101

Sanskriti Kendra hosted an excellent Block Printing workshop with master artist Shaduram from Bagru, Rajasthan. I tried my hand at a three-color print and was humbled.

Fabrics for ink screens
Setting up ink screen
Blocks for printing
Test print

Otherworldly Jantar Mantar

Maharaj Sawai Jai Singh II became a Rajput ruler in 1699, at the tender age of 11. He proceeded to become a rock star of a ruler; in addition to numerous wars and conquests, he also designed and constructed architectural marvels such as the beautiful city of Jaipur and Amber Fort. He also had a unique lifelong interest in the science of astronomical observation and calculation, and in 1724 he began the design and construction of large-scale astronomical observation instruments known as the Jantar Mantar. The observatories were constructed at five different sites: Jaipur, Delhi, Varanasi, Ujjain, and Mathura. These sites are still standing, and in recent weeks I visited the Jantar Mantar of Jaipur and Delhi.

A key theme of my Fulbright research is the role of geometrical pattern in Indian ritual and divinatory drawing/painting. Upon discovering the strange, otherworldly Jantar Mantar, I was captivated by not only the science behind their construction, but also the extreme beauty of their precise geometrical symmetry and abstract minimal form. In their scale and design, the forms feel weirdly modern - but also timeless. I was reminded at once of Stonehenge and of Richard Serra’s large scale steel arcs and planes. The strangeness of the forms comes in part from their combination of architecture and mathematical functionality. Human-scaled steps and arched windows create points of access for the body, but the forms are otherwise functional in design, and feel a bit like alien structures or great crystalline geological accretions. Circular arcs, triangles, cylinders, and precise graduated markings echo the mathematical precision of their purpose on a just-beyond-human scale. The instruments are notably devoid of aesthetic adornment so characteristic of the time, and it’s especially strange to encounter them at the Jaipur site, where in every direction heavily ornamented structures dominate the cityscape.

Often the most compelling artistic objects arise from an urgent desire to make visible the invisible. The strange forms of the Jantar Mantar were born of Jai Singh’s profound curiosity about the workings of phenomena just beyond his visual reach. Their design reflects a human wish to draw the celestial realm closer, to somehow trap it within range of our sensory apprehension. Today scientists navigate this realm with the confidence and certainty of satellite imaging and far-reaching technology; Jai Singh’s creations live much closer to the realm of human sensory perception, and express more openly a navigation of the unknown. Therefore, though constructed as instruments of science, they also invite contemplation as art.

You can learn more about Jantar Mantar at this fantastic site. They even have downloads for building your own paper models!





Sonabai Rajwar

Installation at Sanskriti Kendra / All images courtesy Sanskriti

I first learned about artist Sonabai Rajwar through the work of scholar Stephen Huyler, who has documented and shared her work through publications and exhibitions. I was very happy to discover a room devoted to her legacy in Sanskriti’s Terra Cotta museum.

Sonabai Rajwar’s story is unique - she lived in a remote village in the region of Sarguja, Chattisgarh. At an early age she was married to a man who, perhaps due to possessiveness (Sonabai apparently never openly discussed the conditions), chose to imprison Sonabai in her own home. For fifteen years Sonabai was not permitted to leave her home or see anyone other than her husband and son. During this time, she coped with her isolation by making things. With the modest materials available to her – bamboo, clay, and locally sourced vegetable pigments, Sonabai began to sculpt and paint what started as small simple toys for her young son. Over time these evolved into large, intricate sculpted and painted forms that covered her home’s interior.  She used bamboo as an armature for clay in order to create elaborate lace-like lattices and screens. Birds, animals, people, flowers, and patterns adorned her sculptures as playful narrative vignettes.

Upon discovery, Sonabai’s unusual work earned her widespread notoriety, causing an abrupt and transformation in her life. She became the recipient of attention from museums and governmental organizations; she was given awards, as well as salary and stipends to teach her craft; artists from her village began to also practice and teach her work, enabling a stream of income to support the construction of village infrastructure such as schools.

As a painter, my response to Sonabai’s work is one of immense visual pleasure. Her work is imbued with lyricism and a sophisticated design sense. Dense, colorful patterns are balanced by passages of clean white over quietly textured surfaces; formal repetitions of circle, lattice, and arch are rhythmically punctuated by small colorful animals and figures. On every surface there is loving attention to detail. The overall effect of her work is one of an outpouring of joy, generosity, and harmony – quite a feat considering the conditions that produced her work.

Terra Cotta Guardians

Images courtesy Sanskriti Foundation

Among the spectacular features of Sanskriti’s folk art museums are its Terra Cotta collections. Dutifully overseeing the museum grounds is a bastion of fierce terra cotta animal sculptures from Tamil Nadu in South India. These giant equestrian figures are made by potters from the rural Ayyanar sect. Traditionally these forms are sculpted and consecrated as votive offerings to Ayyanar, the sect’s principal guardian deity. Brightly painted and often installed in rows flanking pathways, they stand guard like dutiful watchmen over villages and at the entrances of rural shrines and temples.

I believe the specimens at Sanskriti are the largest ceramic sculptures I have ever seen. Potters create the life-sized creatures by hand-forming or wheel-throwing individual sections, which are then seamed together. Most are horses, but occasionally an elephant or cow sneaks in. Like a lot of rural crafts in India, the terra cotta tradition has been handed down through generations of villagers, and with the swift modernizing of contemporary village life, the craft is being embraced less and less frequently by younger generations.

My favorite time to see the sculptures at Sanskriti is at night, when their clustered silhouettes seem particularly animated and magical.