Sheher, Prakriti, Devi: Experiments in World Making


Emily Avery Yoshiko Crow, Tree Deity (2023). Image Courtesy of the artist.

In 2020, I was due to create an exhibition around my work about Indian cities, called Rememory (after Toni Morrison), for Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai. All of that long and still summer of Covid, I sat in my home studio on the top floor of my parents’ residence, editing furiously in the days, and meeting my parents every evening—on our rooftop terrace, or downstairs in their apartment.

Gauri Gill, Kolkata 2009 (a), from the series Rememory (2003-ongoing). Copyright Gauri Gill.

Sometimes I would find my mother, Vinnie Gill, in her study, working on drawings of parrots and owls in flowering trees, rivers through remote mountains, or Mughal tombs in ruin. She has had a practice for roughly sixty years now, but had never exhibited her work professionally, or shown it outside of the family where we grew up surrounded by her distinctive art. In the day I would look at my psychological portraits of dystopian and dynamic urban India, and then I would go downstairs and see India conveyed through another register, deeply felt and somehow enchanted. Where my own work felt critical and conceptual, my mother’s felt compassionate and ardent. In the heightened sensibility of that slow summer, as a lot of confused murkiness began to clarify, I started to wonder: Why was it that one of us was perceived by the world as a so-called ‘artist’, but the other not? Was it because I had devoted my life primarily to my practice, over the all-subsuming demands of domesticity? Or, because I had studied at professional art schools and was therefore tutored in the prevalent critical discourse? Once again, I was drawn to reconsider the sacrosanct insularity and caste like hierarchies of the art world. I decided to invite my mother into the exhibition, to light up my work.

Vinnie Gill, Gulmohar (Flame) tree (2023). Image courtesy of the artist.

Speaking about this with Rajesh Vangad—the foremost Warli artist with whom I have collaborated for a decade now—I enquired whether his mother, Ladhki Devi, whom I have always admired whenever I have visited their home, for her upright stance and natural elegance whether she is painting or cooking or farming, had exhibited outside of their village, or indeed, in any professional context. He said that she had not. I found this remarkable, given that he had learned Warli drawing from her, and that it is in fact a matriarchal art form. I learned that while many women do paint as the Dhavleri or Suvasini while conducting rituals in the village, hardly any are able to inhabit professional spheres outside of the community. This is because of the demands on their time from the household, farming and other chores, as well as constraints around physical travel. I decided to invite Ladhki Devi to join our exhibition too.

Ladhki Devi, (R-L) Dhartari Devi, Dasha Devi, Mata (2020-21). From the series Forms of the Devi, set of 14. Image courtesy of the artist. From the Ishara Art Foundation and the Prabhakar Collection.

The exhibition in Mumbai that was held in November of 2021 was constructed around the nucleus of the contemporary built landscape of urban India that I have traversed and inhabited since 2003. This was expressed through photographic fragments and typologies encompassing both public and private worlds. Among these pictorial imprints breathed life-forms from observed nature assiduously expressed as a kind of visual diary by Vinnie Gill, through a vocabulary of trees, flowers, animals and mountains, a warm embrace of the natural world. Ladhki Devi entered the space with her creations of the infinite forms of the Devi (the Great Goddess), who appears to engage in, while simultaneously transcending, a wide range of everyday activities usually performed by women, as well as the fundamental duties of Mother Nature. The exhibition was titled Sheher (City), Prakriti (Nature), Devi (Deity).

In 2022, Ishara Art Foundation proposed traveling the exhibition to Dubai. I asked if I could expand it further by inviting a few more friends to join us. Each of these artists is someone whose work looks at aspects of the city, of nature, and of the sacred—and the many overlaps between these categories—and whom I have been drawn to for one reason or another. In my view, many of the artists have also received inadequate, if any, attention. Ishara was so kind as to agree, and over the next year we went on to invite nine additional artists and a collective, to eventually present twelve different practices, flowing apart and through one another. The final group includes Chamba Rumal, Chiara Camoni, myself, Ladhki Devi, Mariam Suhail, Meera Mukherjee, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Rashmi Kaleka, Shefalee Jain, Sukanya Ghosh, Vinnie Gill and Yoshiko Crow.

Chamba Rumal, Das Mahavidya (Ten Great Wisdoms). Image courtesy of the artists. From the Collection of Anant Art.

The Chamba Rumal—or ‘paintings in embroidery’ (a phrase coined by Indologist Stella Kramrisch), are also known as sahodara or ‘born of the same womb’ (as described by Dr. B. N. Goswamy), and reflect the close relationship between Pahari embroidery as practiced mainly by the local women, and guided by miniature artists of the Chamba region and style. These particular works reflect a long collaboration between the embroidery expert Swati Kalsi, miniature artists Mohan Prajapat and Shilpaguru Babulai Marotia, and the embroiderers Masto Devi, Tulsi Devi, Uma Devi, Jyoti Bala, Pammi Devi, Bindu Devi, Pushpa Devi, Pooja, Nagina and Garima at CHARU, Delhi Craft Council’s centre in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh. They portray ten different wisdom aspects—or Das Mahavidya—of the One Truth, as expressed through the Divine Mother in Hinduism, and using the dorukha (a double satin stitch) adapted to the motifs and details.

Chiara Camoni’s extraordinary anthropomorphic figures arise spontaneously through her close communion with nature in the remote rural area in Italy where she lives, and where she walks through the forest each day. The sister in her new video called Burning Sister emerges from the Earth, to which she returns, even as she goes through fire.

Emily Avery Yoshiko Crow, Burning Sister (2023). Image Courtesy of the artist.

Mariam Suhail distills ubiquitous, personally known and contextually specific motifs of urban living, from pigeons trapped in building chutes to the migration of chhaths (rooftops) as they are labeled in the North Indian subcontinent—a term that throws up a whole series of evocative associations—into abstract and poetic gestures.

Mariam Suhail, Ghar Ghar ki Mashq (2020). Image courtesy of the artist and Grey Noise.

Meera Mukherjee is someone I have been drawn to from my first days in art school, as a unique outlying woman artist who grew up in metropolitan and upper-middle class India, but ventured out to live among and learn from the great traditions of Bastar, and Adivasi artists in general. Her subject matter includes women, workers, fishermen, weavers, and Vaishnavi and Baul singers, that easily traverses the terrain from quotidian to spiritual dimensions.

Meera Mukherjee, The Wave. Image courtesy of the artist. From the Pundole Family Collection.

The installation manuals for Mrinalini Mukherjee’s mythic hemp sculptures read like codes to enter a secret world—one in which hemp and jute transform magically into Devi, Naag, Pakshi, Adi Pushpa and women on peacocks; form rising from material through the artist’s oracular commandments in the guise of meticulous written instructions.

Mrinalini Mukherjee, Devi – Installation Instruction (c. 1982). Image courtesy of the artist. From the collection of the Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation.

Rashmi Kaleka, (R-L) Colony #4 and Colony #5 (2023). Image courtesy of the artist.

Rashmi Kaleka has created from scratch a deeply inspiring permaculture farm on the outskirts of Delhi, where she regularly hosts and feeds friends and strangers. This is the home base and rich source of her close engagement with nature and care, in this case reflected through empathetic and imaginative drawings of termites and their colonies.

Shefalee Jain creates works that are grounded in community, and are ever responsive—and responsible—towards social upheaval. For this exhibition, she has created a new trilogy about the Rekhan (locusts) regularly seen in Rajasthan and across North India these days due to the impacts of climate change. In this work, the locusts bear witness to the sadness and terrors of the times we live in.

Shefalee Jain, Detail of Mhāre gulguliye gālān ri rekhaņ, Pari uḍe ni e ! (My locust with round cheeks, Why don’t you fly away now?) (2023). Image courtesy of the artist.

Sukanya Ghosh uses experimental forms to explore the cities that she—and I—inhabit, since we have Delhi in common. In her new video Konkal, on view for the first time, she excavates the skeleton or carcass underlying the city, even as she returns to ephemeral sites of construction to highlight unfinished and ever ongoing projects of post-colonial modernity.

Sukanya Ghosh, Lokkho Lokkho (2023). Image courtesy of the artist.

Yoshiko Crow’s sublime renditions of the Goddess Tara in her twenty one avatars and the strange hybrid human-animal figures arise from fertile dreams and a many lifetimes-long spiritual practice rooted in Mahayana Buddhism. Her work is as luminous in its delicate materiality as it is other-worldly.

Emily Avery Yoshiko Crow, Green Tara in Sandalwood Forest (2023). Image courtesy of the artist.

Apart from the sheer beauty and multiple truths expressed by the different artists – from the mundane to the transcendental, the gross to the subtle, and the manmade to the sacred – through this palimpsestic and idiosyncratic exhibition, I wish to acknowledge those who have found ways to stubbornly persist in their practice, often sharing their work only within their families and local communities, completely outside the circuits and networks of professional artists, contemporary art discourse, galleries and markets. They may be lifelong homemakers, who have contributed in other capacities unrecognized as ‘work’, and so, are familiar with forms of exclusion, but whose artistic labour has provided them with profoundly vitalising spaces of refuge and solace. Through this gathering of insistent voices we hope to consider the dualistic worlds of the depleted and regenerative, manmade and natural, colonial and Indigenous, young and old, English and non-English, mundane and magical, absent and present. And finally, through addressing current categories of inclusion and exclusion, we attempt to enlarge the circle in terms of who ‘we’ might define as an ‘artist’, what constitutes art practice, and perhaps thereby reflect upon the underlying structures that enable or undermine such practices, to expand the spectrum both of making and making seen.

– Gauri Gill
New Delhi, December 14, 2023