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Art stops at nothing

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As the weeks of India’s coronavirus lockdown dragged into months, many of those privileged enough to isolate started to chafe at the bit. But not artists. Almost all those involved in Art Alive Gallery’s #ArtForHope initiative, confess that their working lives are less disrupted than most people’s. Virus or no virus, visual artists are so…

As the weeks of India’s coronavirus lockdown dragged into months, many of those privileged enough to isolate started to chafe at the bit. But not artists. Almost all those involved in Art Alive Gallery’s #ArtForHope initiative, confess that their working lives are less disrupted than most people’s. Virus or no virus, visual artists are so used to days spent in splendid isolation that they exhibit few signs of cabin fever.

Many of the senior names, Krishen Khanna (b. 1925), Maite Delteil (b. 1933), Sakti Burman (b. 1935), Gopi Gajwani (b. 1938) and Jogen Chowdhury (b.1939), had already retreated from the hubbub of gallery openings and art fairs. They are devoting themselves to work with enviable focus and often childlike enthusiasm. Gajwani, for instance, has been drawing after many years, describing these solitary times with impish humour. In one of his drawings, a man at his window ignores a curious crow and an expectant dog. In another, a man has tied himself into a knot: a large ball of thread that rolls on even as he tries to unravel it. In a third, a painter baulks at the sight of his own easel, like it is a mirror.

Others, too, speak of the lockdown as a time of greater reflection. “As artists, we like our solitude,” painter Jaysri Burman says on the phone. “Yes, first I was confused, I was crying. What is this coronavirus? What will happen? Artistically, I responded as I had during the tsunami and 9/11. I started making abstract drawings. They’re like my private diary. I might show that work some day, but not now.” Burman, who draws on the Indian epics and myths for her jewel-like canvases filled with dreamy women, says she settled down when the Navaratras began. “I painted Durga, who is important to me. Then I came back to my Dharitri, the universe,” she says. Like her goddesses who often shelter other creatures even as they are themselves sheltered, by the multi-headed Shesh Nag, trees filled with birds, cornucopias of lotuses, her current work is a world map on a sea of blue, protected by mandala-like rings of ducks and fish. “Nature is now protesting. And she decides how she will clean up,” Burman says. “All we can do is maintain harmony and try to improve. Humans need to learn that you cannot take any panga with nature.”

Several artists have responded to the unseeable threat by envisioning the virus. Kolkata-based Chandra Bhattacharya, who speaks of a constant “uneasy feeling” during these months, offers up the image of a man emerging from a tunnel, a flaming blue torch in his hand, the virus blooming, or being conquered? Debasish Mukherjee’s series of inky blobs with ragged edges seem to suggest the virus is embodied in other human beings: now faceless, now utterly real. Jogen Chowdhury extends his distinctive visual vocabulary of men and beasts to create drawings in which the human figure cowers in the face of a demonic presence that is all claws and tongues. But in ‘Corona Vs Man-Man Vs Corona I’, the creature who holds up the virus for examination has turned into a beast himself, ridges running down his back. US-based Tara Sabharwal, who is recovering from (untested) pneumonia, has been doing ink drawings of “menacingly beautiful cellular creatures in armour, with jelly-like frightened interiors”. “The way to keep hope alive is to actually feel this moment… It is so heavy, it gets one down. But to run away from it would be to not be able to go to the next step,” says Sabharwal.

—Trisha GuptaArt Alive Gallery’s #ArtForHope initiative can be viewed on Artalivegallery.com

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