Colours, only

 

A new exhibition in Delhi introduces the rare genre of ‘colour field’ painting to art lovers

Ankush Arora

How does an artist’s canvas reflect natural landscapes, without using any kind of recognisable shapes, images, forms or human figures? A good example of this style of art-making is the work of Pandit Bhila Khairnar, who is known as a ‘colour field’ artist. Delhi-based Gallery Threshold recently inaugurated a solo show of the artist, who hails from Nashik city in Maharashtra.

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Nashik. Courtesy: Flickr

 

As a young man, Khairnar found himself drawn towards abstract painting, and began his training in art at Yashwant Kala Mahavidyalaya, Aurangabad, and L. S. Raheja School of Art, Mumbai. His early interest in abstract painting deeply influenced his artistic vocabulary that we see today, so much so that he is now considered one of the lesser known, but foremost, colour field painters of India.

 

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Pandit Bhila Khairnar. Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

How Colour Field Painting Started

Before we discuss his paintings and other sources of creative inspiration that shaped his art, let us look at the genre of colour field painting, which is a very uncommon form of art seen in Indian galleries or museums. Colour field painting is understood to be an offshoot of Abstract Art, which was one of the most defining characteristics of the Modern Art movement that emerged during the 20th century in the West.

The term ‘colour field’ began to be associated with artists during the 1950s and 1960s in the US. These artists were in pursuit of an abstraction far beyond familiar realities. Their canvases largely depicted (deceptively) simple compositions using one or more flat colours, without adding a specific shape, form or any obvious focus of attention. Often, their art acquired mysterious, spiritual, and sometimes other-worldly proportions. One of the earliest pioneers of colour field art is 20th century American painter Mark Rothko, who is known for “significant open space and expressive use of colour” in his paintings. The result is a ‘meditative’ effect on the viewer, who is exposed to a large expanse of colour on the canvas.

The Non-Physical Art of Pandit Khairnar

When I walked into Delhi’s Gallery Threshold, Pandit Khairnar’s oil paintings had the same contemplative effect on me. His paintings are colourful explorations of his inner thoughts, without figurations, decorations or complicated patterns that we often see in art. Mounted on bare walls, these large canvases not only imbued a sense of stillness in the gallery, but the whole experience of looking at his works was no less than taking a solitary walk in the countryside. And this is exactly what the artist is seeking to convey through his paintings.

 

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Gallery view of the exhibition. Courtesy: Ankush Arora

 

Khairnar’s upbringing in the historically rich and verdant terrain around Nashik, which is known for antiquated monuments and (now) sprawling vineyards, shaped his artistic sensibilities. As a school boy, he showed a lot of interest in drawing and painting, which caught everyone’s attention. Soon, he befriended the potter community in his village, and began painting their statues for local festivals.

As a young man, he moved to Mumbai, where he stayed for 25 years. He then returned to the serene beauty of Nashik, which inspired him to paint. His Nashik memories are full of regular jaunts to agriculture fields, often helping his father cultivate fruits and vegetables on the farm. Being in regular touch with the soil made him dabble in statuette-making too. He was also taken in by the mysterious colours of twilight and dusk, which he explored in his art.

From Colour Drawings to Abstractions

Through shades of greens, oranges, blacks, reds and yellows, the artist splashes his memories on the canvas, creating an ‘infinite’ or ‘limitless’ field. In other words, he is trying to portray his experience of observing a vast natural landscape, instead of actually painting a tree, sky or river. His canvas could be showing the pigment of a leaf or the mixing of colours in the sky when night begins to fall. To such representations, he gives an ‘intangible’ or a non-physical form.

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Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

Explaining his trajectory as an artist, Khairnar said he initially started with colour drawings on paper. Several of them were abstract in nature that made way for what he is doing now. “In these drawings, I was in a sense opening and discovering the substance out of the frame, to find what I am left with, which is pure and sublime,” the artist said. Interestingly, he rejects the label of being referred to as a colour field artist, calling it a “comfortable categorization” that may lead to “superficial” understanding of his art.

“How would you explain your work to the young learners of art?” I asked him in an email interview.

“Colour is something that gives character. We can’t imagine a monochromatic world. What we see on the canvas essentially arrives from the subtle observations of inner and outer world,” he wrote back, somewhat summing up his style of painting.

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Courtesy: Gallery Threshold

 

It is because of the nature of colour field paintings, which are devoid of a form, the genre is not only not popular in India; there is also little awareness about it. They could be difficult to interpret too. And that is true of many other forms of abstract art. Little wonder, in India, Khairnar belongs to a small group of colour field painters, which include V. S. Gaitonde,Natvar Bhavsar, Sohan Qadri and Rajendra Dhawan. Gaitonde, Rothko and Dhawan—who are known for their powerful abstractions—inspired Khairnar to explore and question different interpretations of the ‘real’ and the ‘illusory’.

As I spent some time in the gallery, quietly sipping some tulsi chai, I noticed a few subtle forms in Khairnar’s paintings. The sudden discovery seemed very odd as I didn’t remember noticing anything like that when I walked in. Some looked like dots, seen together they could be somebody’s eyes. In other paintings, for example, the forms were far less obvious, resembling vague silhouettes of a human face. Perhaps these lingering forms pointed towards the galaxy, a theme aptly conveyed in the show’s title – ‘Cosmic Balance’.

The exhibition will be on view at Delhi’s Gallery Threshold until September 15, 2018. You can share your thoughts on Pandit Khairnar’s works below.


 

276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.

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Interwoven narratives of Indian and Thai textiles   

 

The revival of Thai’s ‘mudmee’ silk industry is the subject of a new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum

Ankush Arora

Between the 14th and 18thcentury, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (present-day Thailand) began importing various kinds of Indian textiles for the local market and royal court. These included block-printed or painted cotton from Masulipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), silk brocades from Banaras, and Gujarat’s patolaor double ikat silk—the latter was believed to have been commissioned for the Ayutthaya king during the 1660s.

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Painting of Ayutthaya c.1665, painted by Johannes Vingboons, ordered by the Dutch East India Company, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

While the origin of silkworm breeding and silk weaving in Thailand remains unknown, the early hybridization of Indian-made textiles with Siamese (dated term for Thai people) royal court patterns began to take place sometime during the Ayutthaya kingdom, according to a new art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum. Adorned with flame motifs, which is a quintessential form of Thai visual art seen in local paintings and architecture, the textiles began to be commissioned exclusively for the royal court.

For the general Siamese public, textiles with simplified patterns (perhaps keeping in mind the cost), including Indian influences, were also produced. These Indian-Thai patterns and motifs can still be seen in mudmee silk of contemporary Thailand, which is the subject of the exhibition, titled ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’.

“The diamond lattice structure filled with lotus-bud-shaped motif…[was] favoured by the Siamese (Thai) court in the past. The structure…is often referred to as Mughal Indian inspiration upon the Siamese court taste,” reads a note in the exhibition catalogue, on an early 21st century natural silk dye from Surin Province. The exhibition, unfortunately, does not highlight the artistic and historic influence of other neighbouring countries, such as China, on Thailand’s textiles.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Thai Embassy and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the exhibits document the history and monarchy-led revitalization of the Southeast country’s mudmee silk, that involves tying off silk yarns, to create patterns, before setting off the process of weaving.

Intricately woven, with complex patterns and vivid textures, around 50 mudmee silk items have been mounted at the gallery, offering a glimpse into the local and royal culture of Thailand, which has been shaped by constitutional monarchy, military rule and Buddhist religion.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

The artefacts on display, roughly covering a period of three most recent centuries, are traditional costumes for both Thai men and women; the collection comprises of tube skirts, hip-wrappers, regular skirts, and shoulder sashes. The artistic precision and detail of these textiles are accentuated by the portrayal of local themes that are related to—mythology, religion, spirituality, architecture, nature and fertility.

Since the early 20th century, however, the western style of dressmaking led to the decline of locally handwoven textiles in Thailand. With the expansion and rapid urbanization of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, and other big cities, mudmee silk was relegated for use by the rural and poor people only. The onslaught of cheaper and machine-made silk sidelined indigenous silk as well. One of the other reasons that may have also contributed to mudmee silk’s decline is the difficulty of wearing Thai garments on a daily basis.

With the support of royal patronage since the 1950s, led by Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, mudmee silk not only made it to annual silk festivals and international fashion runways, the quality of weaving and sericulture significantly improved. Focusing on the rural and backward parts of Thailand, she launched a livelihood campaign by initiating market reforms, introduced training in textile weaving, encouraged people to increase mudmee production, and eventually made large-scale purchases from the local market.

A fashion icon herself, the queen—who turned 86 this year—has made innumerable public appearances, both at home and abroad, wearing exquisite gowns made from Thai mudmee silk. She even hired French couturiers and Thai designers to design fashionable dresses out of mudmee, opening new doors for traditional silk.

Some of the artefacts at the exhibition, such as a collection of chic mudmee silk dresses, have been loaned by Bangkok-based Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, that houses the queen’s personal collection of dresses tailored from Thai textiles.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

However, the National Museum show does not acknowledge the contribution of Jim Thompson, the American intelligence official-turned-businessman who is credited for “singlehandedly saving Thailand’s vital silk industry from extinction (Time Magazine, 2016).”

Thompson, famously called ‘Thai Silk King’, was sent to Thailand on an intelligence assignment, just as the World War II was coming to an end. Duties over, he decided to stay back in Bangkok and build a life there. Charmed by its local silk weaving industry, but equally disturbed by its near-extinct status, Thompson began investing in the market, engaged hundreds of silk weavers, and created a market for Thai silk at home and abroad.

As his silk business achieved fame and the industry witnessed a revival, he built a sprawling property of villas in Bangkok, “along the pulse of Thompson’s new world: on the banks of the khlong (canal) across which Bangkok’s silk weavers lived and worked (Time, 2016).” But it was an accusation—of having stolen five Buddha heads—that probably put his reputation at stake. Ultimately, his story ended with a mysterious disappearance, during a walk in a jungle at the Malaysian highlands. His legacy survives still survives in Bangkok, as The Jim Thompson Museum, originally his canal-side residence that is also a repository of his personal collection of local art and antiques.

The exhibition, ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’, was inaugurated on Aug. 10, 2018, and will be on view until Sept. 25, 2018, at National Museum, Delhi.

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Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.