PROFILE: Nayana Melinamani / The Comfort in Culture / Sushma Sabnis
Artist Nayana Melinamani digs deeper at the roots of culture and finds comfort in the simple activity of quilt making. She paints the social, political, and economical essence of this unifying craft which becomes the main vocabulary of her works.. observes Sushma Sabnis.
There is a world far removed from the one we live in. In that world, there is beauty in everything, a quiet subtle beauty, where aggression is met with compassion, where simplicity exists in quiet confidence, breathing courageously, potent with possibilities. It is not a romantic realm conjured up in the fertile imagination of some poet, it exists as the world young artist Nayana Melinamani inhabits in her paintings.
Nayana, has a BVA degree from the MMK College of Fine Art, Gulbarga, Karnataka. The place that Nayana hails from has a significance on Indian art historical timeline as it was influenced by the politico-cultural, social and religious confluence to create the unique aesthetic of this art milieu as it stands today. Gulbarga or Kalaburagi as it has been renamed in recent times, was ruled by many different dynasties as it is situated in the north of Karnataka and subject to many invasions of the Deccan plateau. The Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Bahmani Sultanate, the Mughals among others have left their mark on this place. There is a rich confluence of religion and culture hence the festivals, celebrations, continue to vividly tint the landscape be it in the urban zones or the rural areas. Each invasion by a different dynasty sharply influenced the indigenous art in the place and this is evident in the changes in visual and performing art and the architecture of the place. Nayana’s works blend this historical lineage with the ‘now’ in a perfect visual vocabulary which reminisces and at the same time creates a departure from these anchoring elements of history of a place into different directions of her imaginative vision.
Her work takes from the comfort and purity of traditional and folk art practices, and intends to move towards the unpredictability of the contemporary. But one must be aware that this ‘intent’ is one of silent exploration, no loud vociferous addressal, no direct polemics, just a firm movement of line, form, colour and a genuine exploration of her surrounding narratives and their versatility. The artist uses a vibrant palette which gives the work a suggestion of folk art, and she deftly introduces the contemporary element in the way the pictorial space is demarcated in to multiple spaces and perspectives. This is a faint reminder of Mughal miniature paintings, where an entire event is narrated pictorially in the same space, by merely realigning perspective of the protagonist and the surrounding architecture. Hence even though, the land and its art could have influenced this artist, she moves away from it’s in-depth almost documentary style of depiction. Her work becomes a narrative of a specific event, yet the details of time, space, even the protagonist are erased to leave the work suspended in time and at times even in context.
For example, in her acrylic on canvas work titled ‘Sambrahama’,(Event) she tries to bring in the festivities from a rural scenario where she slices the pictorial plane into three distinct zones. The rich, well-to-do family home in a village, complete with the small enclosure outside with the blooming holy basil (Tulasi) plant, a must for every prospering home in villages is shown in the fore ground. In the background is a hut like dwelling, far from the town, devoid of any markers of affluence and richness. A rainbow like quilt emerges from the hut and traverses over the mountain and comes to rest on the fence of the affluent home. From beneath this quilt, emerges a young sapling with its face towards the sun.
Here the artist binds these two disparate socio-economical hierarchies with the singular thread of Culture. Nayana believes that in the state of Karnataka, the Kaudhi (quilt making) culture is one activity which decimates all notions of caste, class and social status, bringing womenfolk from all over the villages and towns under one roof to create a work of beauty and elegance. These quilts are made from pieces of cloth cut out from old clothes, hence the concept of recycling comes into picture. The unity and strength of the social structure hence built, could endure any storm conjured up by disruptive economical/ political/ religious devices. Irrespective of the road one has taken in life, the childhood memory of grandma’s quilt is triggered in these works of Nayana. The artist succeeds in addressing the caste system hierarchies prevalent in the rural and urban areas, also the distinct environmental and feministic dialogues subtly woven in the Kaudhi culture.
The artist uses this simple activity of quilt making as the basis of most of her works. While the idea sounds demure and dismissible in a world ridden with raucous art expressions, one has to look more closely to fathom the depth in its thought. We live in the world of superficiality in visual expression, where a work of art fails to convey its inherent message to its full potential. For example, while most artists believe in using plastic as a medium to address its damaging assault on the environment, it becomes a self defeating critique on the subject. Art ought to link the problem to the solution in an aesthetic way, or address it in a way that the medium causing the issue does not get glorified. Nayana chooses to paint her concern about the environment, not by depicting the negative of it, but by hinting at what could be done to save it. The Kaudhi culture is not limited to an economic or social reform, it addresses the environmental damage of a realm, by celebrating the festivals which believe in reforestation, and other such activities. Nayana depicts this in her work titled, ‘On the way’ (water colour). In a naive visual vocabulary, she paints a vehicle carrying a potted plant, covered with a rainbow coloured blanket. Two women ride this vehicle to its destination, a pandal, exquisitely decorated to celebrate the harvest festival and the planting of new saplings.
In another work also titled ‘Sambrahama’ a woman’s silhouette is shown on a bell like structure in the foreground, while the int background a ‘Nandi’ bull statue is placed before the decorated tent where the harvest festival is to take place. Nayana places the cut crops lying on one side, while the blossoming crops swoon in the breeze on the other side as a depiction of a good harvest that year. The woman’s silhouette on the bell could be seen as a resonating message of nature, while the crops have fared well that year heralding better times for the farmer and society. In all these symbolic elements, Nayana never forgets to add the markers of the intrusive urban element, by depicting two cars passing by the festival premises.
In a self portrait like work, Nayana paints herself completely wrapped up in a rainbow quilt, a little lapel of which extends forward and holds a little sapling tenderly in the most sensitive and affectionate of ways. Here the artist celebrates her won affinity to nature and her strong views about preservation of the environment while she also takes the message to a wider audience by saying that it is up to us to save the environment.
One wonders about the choice and significance of the quilt/ blanket in Nayana’s works. A blanket is a comforter, a covering like an embrace of a parent or a loved one, one that would hold and comfort, rest tired bones and rejuvenate. Nayana takes the example of the Kaudhi not just to address the cultural aspect of it but also as the simplicity and indispensability of it. A new born baby is wrapped in soft quilts made from old fabric pieces, a dead body is laid to rest in a protective shroud which is the only thing it takes on its final journey. The comforting cloth is what becomes a stand in for the warmth of a mother’s womb, and hence it is an integral part of all human existence. Nayana suggests that in her works, the maternal womb is that of Mother Nature and her multicoloured quilt is the warm blanket of a mother’s enduring embrace.
It is often seen that the art of regional/ folk / tribal artists gets sidelined in the din of mainstream art world. It probably has happened from colonial times where Indian art was grouped under the canopy of ‘artisans’ craft’ not ‘artists’ art works’ because it was visually different from western art works. In the recent times the art markets world over have shown a sudden interest in folk, tribal and other traditional Indian art forms, however this attempt appears to be merely a half-hearted appropriation into the mainstream art of Indian/ global art world, and probably only because of the shift in market value as endorsed by some important auction houses of the world.
As this silent battle of artist versus artisan, and art work versus craft continues, Nayana’s work comes as a refreshing missing link between the art of the mainstream while being the art of an indigenous milieu. It is important to note that the indigenous art is the original art of that land, and the influences thereon are the ones which mutated the original art form to breathe in contemporaneity in the styles and depictions, also to innovate techniques and realign the visual culture. However, it is important to note that artists like Nayana continue to adhere to the flavour of their milieu. Even as she culls imageries and the essence of their culture, in her works, she employs techniques and mediums which seem to be breezed in by westerly winds.
Nayana Melinamani in her unique way addresses the very same issues that plague the artists of the world at large today, environment, gender issues, stability in life and society, caste and religious hierarchies. What she refuses to be influenced by is the negative side of these issues, in turn creating a positive, silent, non-aggressive visual language which is exclusively her own and a reflection of her land.
Nayana Melinamani lives and works in Gulbarga, Karnataka.